Film and Los Angeles Music Review: HEART OF A DOG & CONCERT FOR DOGS (directed by Laurie Anderson)

Post image for Film and Los Angeles Music Review: HEART OF A DOG & CONCERT FOR DOGS (directed by Laurie Anderson)

by Jason Rohrer on December 21, 2015

in Film,Theater-Los Angeles


In the middle of two hundred people and sixty dogs in the Silent Movie Theatre, in that low, dark room, some of the heads silhouetted against the screen ahead are those of standard poodles. There’s a barky collie and a St Bernard. There’s a scattering of smaller dogs, like Tango the mellow black cocker-something in his mother’s lap next to you. It’s nice petting someone else’s dog in a theater. It’s a surprising communion, almost transgressive.

laurie anderson

You had to sign a waiver first. Some of the Cinefamily staff on a given night can be stand-offish, vaguely resentful, but today only the house manager seems dour. You can’t blame him. The responsibility for sixty dogs in a packed public space must be terrifying. The rest of the staff seems as charmed as the crowd, much of which stood on Fairfax for an hour while they got the dogs in first.

Hadrian Belove runs the Cinefamily collective as so eclectic and spontaneous an institution that on two weeks’ notice he can program a live Concert for Dogs as an opening act for the latest Laurie Anderson movie, Heart of a Dog. Musician and filmmaker Anderson played such a concert at least once before, in Sydney, on the steps of the opera house. Belove has brought the show indoors.


Anderson takes stage in a five-piece band, most of which she’s never played with before. They play four or five brief modern jazz songs that sound a lot more like John Lurie than you were expecting from this more-famously electronic composer. She tells of remarking to Yo-Yo Ma that she had a dream of looking out at an audience entirely of dogs, and he said he had the same wish. So here we are. Here are the dogs. We’re in.

It’s good. It’s cozy and more human than usual in here, more immediate, less pretentious. Theaters can be uptight spaces, churchy, with dogma in the upholstery. The only thing snootier than a jazz DJ is an art-movie patron. But today we all are grounded by the bullshit exploders among us. For a dog, this is this. Even in repose he doesn’t pretend or lay back; he’s all in. In this sense he is the ideal Laurie Anderson audience.


Some of these dogs have been waiting on the Cinefamily couches almost as long as the people have waited in line outside, but all are remarkably subdued. It’s the least noise you’ve ever heard from a roomful of even five or six dogs, and here are ten times that many. Anderson praises their comportment and she’s zen about it, but like you she wishes they were more participatory, more vocal. She says that those Australian dogs she played to, they were really ready to rock.

She’s on keyboards and a vocal synthesizer tonight. An electric violin hangs beside her, but she mentions that it died just before the show. Though this is disappointing, she’s zen about that too. These songs feature a lot of treble, a lot of high-end alto sax, and finally the dogs get into it and, at her encouragement, they start barking. The few minutes of barking transcend and uplift the experience, a broad intimate communication. It’s a very short set, maybe twenty minutes of underwhelming music that she clearly intended not for you anyway, but for the dog next to you. Tango rarely pays close attention to the stage and doesn’t get into the bark-and-response. But he’s present. He isn’t doing anything else. He doesn’t leave.


Anderson relates anecdotes as she plays. You can tell by this woman’s hair, her deportment, her just-loud-enough voice that she studies Buddhism long before she mentions it. She’s very good at the pithy setup, the vivid illustration. She absently reaches for her dead instrument at one point and repeats that it’s amazing how fast a violin can become a piece of wood. Her storytelling theme is thus vaguely defined: she then tells about an outdoor venue in Italy where she played a duet with an owl singing from a nearby tree, and the story floats among the tunes. Animals and music, music and wood, all a stream-of-consciousness exercise, the concert does not break any ground. It is comfortable to be what it is.

She stops playing at the right time. There’s a pause while the band breaks down and then the movie starts. The dogs are a little more awake now, but they stay mostly settled. They’re alert, they’re in, but they don’t know for what and they’re going to find out with you.


Heart of a Dog begins with another Anderson dream, delightfully animated by the writer-director, of having her beloved rat terrier sewn into her stomach so that she can give birth to it. It’s an awkward operation and her dog isn’t into it, not loving the confinement, but in dream-logic that’s just how it has to be. This juxtaposition of love and insanity is laugh-out-loud funny, a nice way to start the picture.

It’s the last such moment in the documentary, a sober, not entirely captivating tonal rumination on life’s transitions, primarily the big one of death. The terrier’s various identities as the pet of an eccentric artist (the dog has stints as a companion, a sculptor, a painter, a blind keyboardist) are jumbled among 9/11 memories, the rise of America’s NSA-CIA-FBI spy culture, and the deaths of the dog, an artist friend, and Anderson’s mother, with whom she was not close. The Tibetan Book of the Dead serves as a second-act chorus. The political material has no easy relation to the spiritual and relationship elements, but it clearly makes sense to the artist, and it’s not unwelcome to the viewer. It’s just what it is.


The visuals display a toyed-with fussiness, all blurs and angles and blown-out images, even the few clear, beautiful shots (photography by Anderson, Toshiaki Ozawa and Joshua Zucker-Pluda) overlayed with a scratchy patina of grooves and smears. Anderson’s music, new and old (“The Lake” from her album Homeland makes an appearance), ties all of it into a loose reverie on memory and loss. Her narration is mesmeric, focused, less concerned with coherence than with import, assured, a little willful, a few times unconvincing in its assurance of poignancy.

The screening’s most dramatic canine-related incident happens in the middle, when a patron elicits a yelp by stepping on a dog’s paw in the dark. This event benefits greatly from the dogs who burst into occasional bark-offs during the film. Seated beside you, Tango takes a brief but serious interest in your face and accepts an occasional fondling of his curly head, but he can’t keep the short movie from seeming 25% too long.


This, despite gems like Anderson’s realization that the creepiest thing about stories is that via the internal politics of relating them to other people, you forget what really happened. In that spirit, if you recommended this picture to a friend it would be with the admonishment to watch it with a dog – preferably someone else’s, for the pleasure of sharing the experience with a comfortable alien: one’s own remembrance of things past, or a dog who doesn’t know you. Then you could look over at each other occasionally and go, “Huh. Well. Here we are.”

Heart of a Dog
Abramorama | HBO Documentary Films
USA | 2015 | 75 minutes
Concert for Dogs played on December 20, 2015, at Cinefamily in Los Angeles
Heart of a Dog plays December 26-29, 2015, at Arena Cinema in Hollywood
soundtrack available on Nonesuch

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

dex December 29, 2015 at 10:25 pm

Bummer. I saw the sign in front of the Arena the other night and thought this was a film adaptation of Bulgakov’s work of Soviet satire. Imagine my dismay.


Jason Rohrer January 18, 2016 at 6:27 pm

Yes. One more instance of the artist as an old, out-of-touch lady.


Leave a Comment