"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Los Angeles Times NOVEMBER 6, 2015 - by Steven Zeitchik
FROM THE QUIRKY BRAIN OF LAURIE ANDERSON COMES 'HEART OF A DOG'
Many of the party guests were practically out her door when Laurie Anderson remembered something. "Posters! I forgot to give you guys the posters," said the artist with the zeal of a mother who just realised she failed to pack the cookies.
Anderson and an assistant began scooping up armfuls of white cylinders containing artful promotional materials for her new movie, Heart of a Dog. Earlier in the evening, Anderson's apartment overlooking the Hudson had been speckled with downtown luminaries such as Richard Gere and the artist-director Julian Schnabel, but it was now mostly filled with a mix of indie-film types. They took the posters.
Anderson, who long before the modern media age was experimenting with visual and aural combinations, has been in an enthusiastic mood as she promotes Dog, her first movie since the concert film Home Of The Brave twenty-nine years ago. Her new documentary, which opened in Los Angeles this weekend, is quite different from that effort. Indeed, it's quite different from pretty much anything else out there. Few movies, after all, contemplate a holy trinity of death, dogs and post-9/11 surveillance.
With a wild if at times indulgent imagination, Heart of a Dog focuses on Anderson's thoughts for (and occasionally on behalf of) her late rat terrier, Lolabelle, over a number of years beginning in the early 2000s, thoughts shot through with Buddhist notions. Lolabelle also appears, painting and playing piano. The film - which Anderson scored, wrote and narrates over impressionistic images shot around the world - roams through its creator's free-associative mind, mixing the cosmic and the wry.
She contemplates how Lolabelle and other dogs think about predators, the wilderness and death ("like humans, they approach it and then back away") and compares the New York transit system's post-9/11 warning that if "If you see something, say something" to a line Wittgenstein might use. The philosophy is equal parts screwball and mystical. If there's a theme, it's that there is no theme, not in this life anyway, just insights born of one's experience and world view.
Narrating with what might be called a singsong staccato, she wonders if the recent burst of surveillance video can be viewed in new ways - perhaps backward, as Kierkegaard imagined life should be understood. She has a flair for the surreal, as when she imagines sewing up Lolabelle in her stomach so she can give birth to her, and the revelatory, as when she describes the trauma of a suppressed memory of her Midwestern childhood, which involved a complicated relationship with her mother.
Yet for all the ways one might view the film as a personal tale, Anderson says that what most interested her was the process of other people's narratives; her observations are primarily meant to stimulate a viewer's own reflections.
"Some people think this is me and my life," she said. "And it's really about how you describe your life."
HIPSTER AND HIRSUTE
On a balmy October afternoon before the party, Anderson, sixty-eight, is in her studio. She is serving a daily lunch to her team as they take a break from cutting a piece of the film for a Times Square installation (a few minutes long, to be screened outdoors at midnight in January), gabbing with them about the crop of fall films. She sits at the head of a table as young, mostly male colleagues of hipster vintage and hirsute bearing gather around.
Anderson makes a face at a certain Johnny Depp gangster movie. She is pleased with Son Of Saul, the rigorous art film about the Holocaust that has been playing the festival circuit. The Telluride Film Festival, where Heart of a Dog played, was where she caught some of these movies, and she steers the conversation to the story of a near-miss with a bear in the Colorado wilderness.
Anderson - she can resemble a spikier-haired Jane Lynch - creates a lot of her art at this two-story apartment workspace on Manhattan's far West Side. An edit room and sitting area are upstairs, while downstairs, at the bottom of a spiral staircase, is a large music studio. The space is distinct from her home, the apartment where she hosted the party, a mile uptown.
She shared that apartment for years with her late husband, the provocative rocker Lou Reed, who died two years ago. There are reminders of Reed everywhere, in both spaces. Artful photographs hang on the walls of both the work space and the apartment; a Grammy plaque rests atop a shelf in the former. Some of Anderson's team also previously worked for Reed. In Anderson's recording studio sit boxes filled with old equipment and recordings bearing Reed's name, largely unpacked; Anderson had been moving them from his own studio over the last year. ("It's been a slow process," she said.)
Production on Heart of a Dog overlaps with the period in which she grieved for Reed. And though he is in the film mostly in spirit, via cameo and a closing song, many commentators have interpreted the work as a way of coming to terms with her husband's death - a reading Anderson strenuously denies.
"People are going, 'This is a film all about Lou,' and I'm like, 'How much more clear can I be?'" she says, shifting from her generally good-natured vibe. "I didn't say one single thing about him as a person, and if you're making a movie about someone you probably want to say something about them, no?"
Anderson came to fame long before her association with the punk rocker, arriving on the scene in the 1970s with pieces that combined avant-garde music, often played on instruments she invented herself, with various manner of performance (e.g. Duets On Ice, in which she played the violin while wearing skates encased in ice). In the 1980s she achieved unlikely notice when her abstract vocal piece O, Superman became a chart hit.
Over her career she has become associated with a downtown music and arts scene - part of a group that included Andy Warhol and Reed - and, with her prolific work pace, serves as a kind of ongoing testament to that scene's durability. She had recently concluded a show at the Park Avenue Armory, Habeas Corpus, that sought to use abstract images to tell the story of a young Guantanamo Bay prisoner. The following week she would play a piece as part of an installation featuring the photos of Nan Goldin.
Anderson picks up a viola and begins fiddling with some iPad music software. The artist has a circuitous way of speaking, almost like an experimental musical composition, keeping dissonant notes all in the same framework and allowing the listener to untangle them as they choose.
She wasn't looking to create a statement work, let alone any kind of confessional, with Heart of a Dog. But she had made a deal with the French-German production company Arte, and they had some thoughts. She didn't necessarily agree with them.
"The thing driving this film was Arte's suggestion that this be my view of life as an artist. When they said that, I thought, 'Oh, that's awful,'" Anderson recalled.
"Oh, there's a Phillips," she said brightly as she rummaged through a drawer looking for a tool to adjust the viola. "I tried to think of [the film] as a nice painting. Death is a positive thing, you know.
"When I worked with Brian Eno, and I just saw him in London, he's one of the most positive people I've ever worked with - teeny Phillips, this is good. How's it looking?" she called to an assistant. "There are a couple of features, but we'll see," she said to a reporter about the instrument, explaining, "I just got this from the shop. So any time something would go wrong with Brian, he didn't it see it as a problem. He saw it as an opportunity. And I really try to see things that way."
She played a few notes on the viola. "Brian and I were working on something, and it wasn't going well. He said, 'Why don't you step out while I work on it?' And I'm a control freak, so it's not easy for me to do that. And there was a mirrorball-sized shaker in the background that he shifted to the centre where the voice would normally be. I would never think of it that way, but he did. Now this is a crazy thing," she said pointing to an appendage to the viola. "We invented it. You can use it as a chin rest. Because otherwise you can't walk and play."
'A LITTLE NIPPY'
Back upstairs, Anderson looks at her newish dog, Will. Also a terrier, he occupies the same bed as Lola but has a different, perhaps less artistically minded, manner.
"Will gets a little nippy around me," Anderson said. "You know, he sometimes bites other people... And he ate the cupcake," she exclaims, turning to the pooch shortly after he slunk across the table to snag a baked good. "Will, you're going to be sick later."
Mostly upbeat, Anderson allows herself a wistful moment as she imagines how Reed might have felt about the movie. "He would have loved it. He kind of loved everything I did. He would sit in the audience nudging everyone with a big smile on his face."
Anderson's manner can be direct but with a kind of warmly engaged quality that defies the stereotype of the intense artist. Dan Janvey, who produced Heart of a Dog, said this charisma helps her in creative collaborations, allowing her to "always [be] obsessive about the work without appearing to be obsessive about the work."
Anderson said she did have exacting standards for her latest effort. "Each time I see the film, and I've seen it thousands of times, I have a new way of thinking about it," she said as she pulled an orange Marty McFly vest tightly around her. "I think of how I cut out of the shot or how I lopped in the sound and how I can do it differently. With film you don't get to do that like you do with a piece of music you perform."
She continued with a more esoteric thought. "But it's all the same. Music and painting and film. It's the same gestures, and you ask the exact same questions. 'Is it crazy enough? Is it organised enough? Is it beautiful enough?'... The question is always, with all stories, whether it's a dream and who's writing it. Everybody's trying to tell the story all the time, whether it's Facebook or somewhere else, trying to come up with a coherent version of you. They want you to be pretty consistent. 'Don't do anything out of character.' But you don't have to do that. You can be completely quirky."