The old saying goes that yesterday's avant-garde is tomorrow's mainstream. It hardly seems applicable to Laurie Anderson, whose progression from arty, left-field performance artist to elder stateswoman of art-pop and pop-art (via unexpected 1980s pop-chart stardom) has not quenched her idiosyncrasies one iota.
In fact, Heart of a Dog, Ms. Anderson's second feature after the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, could not be less of a sellout if it tried. This incisively touching essay-film deals openly with death, referring to a series of losses in the artist's recent life; her beloved dog Lolabelle is the conceptual center of the piece, but through her Ms. Anderson invokes as well the deaths of her mother, of her close friend and artist Gordon Matta-Clark and of her husband (legendary rocker Lou Reed, mostly absent from the footage but to whom the film is dedicated). Heart of a Dog trades in her customarily digressive, disarming mode of story-telling, looping and twisting in her uniquely enchanting, perfectly poised voice until circling back to make a potent, unexpected point with laugh-out-loud bluntness.
Yet, for all that, the unavoidable sense is that this slender film might get more mileage if it had been merely one of her spoken-word performances, rather than a picture. Too often, Heart of a Dog seems to take a leaf out of Jean-Luc Godard's post-1990 abstracts as well as from master film essayist Chris Marker's body of work (both are thanked in the end credits), and apply it to a stage presentation. The visuals - a mash-up of pre-existing and specially-shot footage and abstracted animations - are often purely illustrative of what is going on sound-wise, put center stage without necessarily justifying it.
Which is not to say that Heart of a Dog should be dismissed as minor Laurie Anderson. By no means: it retains the artist's unique sense of wonder and playfulness, and her common-sense wayward observations of a reality that often seems more absurd than the dreamworlds she creates, tinged with a weary wistfulness that helps humanize and make the work more affecting for the viewer. But it does not extend those characteristics into cinema with the same precision and clarity of her music or stage work; as if it was an earnest but under-achieving attempt. It's good, and good enough, but from Ms. Anderson we expected more than just good and good enough.
HEART OF A DOG
USA, France, 2015, 76 minutes
Directed, written, animated and scored by Laurie Anderson; camera, Ms. Anderson, Toshiaki Ozawa and Joshua Zucker-Pluda (colour); film editors, Melody London and Katherine Nolfi; produced by Dan Janvey and Ms. Anderson; a Canal Street Communications production in association with ARTE France-La Lucarne and Field Office
Screened December 9th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4