All posts by Helen Highly

I am Helen Kaplow, writing as Helen Highly: I'm a little bit high. ...highly suspect ...highly sensitive ...highly enthusiastic ...highly educated ...highly intoxicated? ...highly likely. When not writing about movies here, I am being a culture vulture in my adopted home of New York City and posting on my blog

Bad Santa 2 Coming for 2016 Holidays

Bad Santa 2 will arrive just in time to sour America’s 2016 Christmas eggnog.

The sequel to the 2003 cult comedy will hit theaters on Nov. 23, 2016. That will put the film in the midst of the Thanksgiving season, one of the busiest times of year for movie-going. Bad Santa 2 will compete for ticket sales against the second weekend of the Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as well as the debuts of an untitled thriller with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, and action film The Great Wall.

Broad Green Pictures is handling U.S. theatrical distribution for Bad Santa 2 and will co-produce and co-finance the film with Miramax.

The picture brings back Billy Bob Thornton as the washed-up department store Santa/safe cracker.


When she is not writing about film and art on her blog,, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

Carol Movie Awards: Is Carol Best Film of the Year?

Is it a Sure Thing? Is Carol Best Film of the Year?

The film Carol has received dozens of industry and critics awards. The film was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Queer Palm and Mara tied for the Best Actress award with Emmanuelle Bercot. The American Film Institute selected Carol as one of the Top Ten Films of the year. The film garnered five Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actress for Blanchett and Mara, Best Director for Haynes and Best Original Score for Carter Burwell. It received five Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Feature, Best Director, Best Screenplay for Phyllis Nagy, Best Female Lead for Blanchett and Mara, and Best Cinematography for Edward Lachman. Blanchett and Mara received Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role and Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively.

Carol has been included in many critics’ Top Ten Films of 2015 lists. The New York Times called it Best Film of the Year.  The New York Film Critics Circle awarded the film Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. The film won Best Music from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and was runner-up for Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Production Design. The Frankfurt Book Fair named Carol as the Best International Literary Adaptation. Film Comment magazine ranked Carol as the best film of 2015 based on its year-end poll of over 100 film critics.

But Film Box critic Helen Highly is not convinced. In her review of Carol, Helen Highly compares it to the movie Brooklyn and makes an argument that Carol has won its accolades for the wrong reasons, in a giant band-wagon effort at political correctness.


When she is not writing about film and art on her blog,, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

Best Film of the Year Review: Carol vs Brooklyn

HelenHighly Critiques the Film “Carol” and Compares it to the film “Brooklyn”

Cate Blanchett in "Carol"
Cate Blanchett in “Carol”

The movie “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett, is a lesbian romantic drama that is based on the book “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, and it’s getting named Best Film of the Year by just about everyone, it seems, and making all the award short-lists. And Helen is Highly disappointed. I’m going to compare it to the movie “Brooklyn,” to explain why. But let me add up front that the film was costumed by Sandy Powell, art directed by Jesse Rosenthal, and filmed by Edward Lachman, who will all likely (and deservingly) receive awards for their work here. But I have issues with director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy.

Mundane, overly precious, pointlessly detailed movie.

I saw “Carol” at the 53rd New York Film Festival, where just about every film was more interesting than this gigantic slice of Boring. After watching the film, I assumed most people would dislike it as much as I did, so I was shocked when I did a quick Google search and saw the Variety review pop up saying “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for the startling impact of Carol, exquisitely drawn, deeply felt…” No way! (I usually like Justin Chang, but I disagree with him and nearly everyone else about this film.) My first order of business is to change Variety’s intro line: “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for”: the slow emptiness of this mundane, overly precious, pointlessly detailed movie.

Listen, I adore Cate Blanchett as much as anyone. And no one can say she is not gorgeous. At one point in the film – at a party, her estranged husband concedes to her that she is the most beautiful woman in the room. Well, that never changes. She is the most beautiful and the best dressed and best accessorized and best groomed person in every scene. So, let’s all agree to put Cate Blanchett’s face in the dictionary under the word Perfection, and then we can all go home and save ourselves two hours of lifeless artifice. And if Cate were selling lipstick, or stockings, or fur coats, I would buy them all. But I would not recommend this movie to anyone.

I’m happy for Blanchett that she got such a glamorous star vehicle in which to show off. But why is no one else stating the obvious – that this is essentially a vanity project for Cate Blanchett? Unfortunately however, in this movie, we cannot see Cate’s rich inner life through the heavy cover of makeup and fur.

Cate Blanchett bathed in fur, as Carol.
Cate Blanchett bathed in fur, as Carol.

Remember the final season’s opening episode on “Mad Men,” where Don Draper is trying desperately to find the ideal,  alluring model to put in his fur coat ad? Todd Haynes’ Cate Blanchett should get that job! She is precisely what Don was looking for – an impossibly beautiful fantasy of aspirational glamour and exquisite opulence. Women want to be her and men want to have her, exactly because she is so flawless and empty; you feel nothing for her or from her as a character – no complicated emotions to ruin the high-gloss facade. And honestly, Cate, you are better than this; you don’t need to advertise your quintessential (surface) beauty. That Don Draper gig, and this movie, are beneath you; you can act.

The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal.

This brings me to the lesbian theme of the story. Helen Highly objects to the portrayal of Carol and her younger lover (played by Rooney Mara) as a Hollywood male fantasy of woman-on-woman sexuality. Due to Haynes’ decision to maintain the look-and-feel of a 1950s flick, the movie refrains from overtly explicit sex scenes, but still it has the tone of cheesy pin-up porn – made for men, and not about real-life women who have ambiguous thoughts and difficult feelings. Highsmith’s 1953 book, “The Price of Salt,” became a lesbian-romance cult-novel, due largely to its being the first authentic expression of lesbian love that did not have the punishing ending that was prescribed by 1950s morality. Highsmith was a lesbian herself (a fact she denied throughout most of her career), and this story is semi-autobiographical, telling the tale of when she was a shop girl who fell into a romantic obsession over an older married woman who was a customer at the store. But let’s stop there for a moment. (Well, there’s not much else to tell; the movie mostly repeats variations of the first scene.)

Cate Blanchett gazes as "Carol"
Cate Blanchett gazes as “Carol”

Part of Helen being Highly annoyed is that so many people are eager to say how this film is “important for women” – as if it were still the act of sexual bravery and social revelation it was in the 1950s. And that is simply not the case. Today, the storyline reads as old news and naively obvious. The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal. And this is the fault of the screenplay and the direction, which do not capture the emotional intensity or poetic eroticism of the book. (Watch Dec. 19th’s “Saturday Night Live” and see their skit about how a male director is ruining an otherwise good 1950’s movie about two lesbians. Ha.)

The book meticulously detailed the inner lives of these two, passionate yet confused women; the film, instead, meticulously (and ploddingly) details a story that was only loosely referenced in the book (because Highsmith was interested in tortuous desire and fearful loneliness, not a who-gets-the-kid divorce case). In the movie that Nagy and Haynes made, the tale becomes a simplistic, self-righteous, politically-correct after-school-special. Haynes attempts, it seems, to depict the women’s emotions with an endless series of long, silent gazes. The film becomes tedious quickly, as we see the same posed, passive expressions played over and over – against a range of sumptuous backgrounds. And so it seems that Haynes cares more about his visual style than he does the psychology of his characters.

Todd Haynes is no Hitchcock.

Now, because of all the unwarranted hoopla about this movie, it becomes important to discuss Highsmith’s other books, several of which were made into highly successful movies, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train” among them. Highsmith published “The Price of Salt” under another name and disowned the book for many years, not wanting to derail her career as a successful mystery writer. Other than this one-off erotic lesbian tale,  Highsmith wrote thrillers. Margaret Talbot, at the “New Yorker,” recently wrote a fascinating article about the background of the movie, in which she explained: “In 1952, Coward-McCann published ‘The Price of Salt.’ Harpers & Bros., which had released ‘Strangers on a Train’ two years earlier, turned it down, perhaps because it wasn’t another thriller.” So, all you devoted Highsmith fans, just be aware: this one is not like the others — not the book and definitely not the film. By the way, The “New Yorker” article is very worth reading and includes many quotes from the book, which are strikingly different from the minimal, stilted language of the film.

 And to my smart-yet-in-this-case-incorrect friend, and others, who like to say that “Carol” is comparable to the brilliant and classic “Strangers on a Train,” I say two things:

1) Haynes is no Hitchcock. Yes, Hitchcock and Highsmith shared an affection for frosty blondes (and perhaps Todd Haynes does as well). But Hitchcock was a master. He knew how to make an ice-queen come alive on the screen.

2) “Carol” is no thriller. Hitchcock also understood plot; he knew what was a compelling story and what was not. “Carol” is not.

So, Cate Blanchett and Todd Haynes can wish she were Grace Kelly or Kim Novak all day long, but she’s not going to touch a hair of their blonde locks with this script and this director.

It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie!

The other night, taking a break from writing this review, I went to Joes’ Pub at the Public Theater to see a wacky Christmas cabaret by Justin Vivian Bond, called “Angels We Have Heard When High” (HelenHighly was highly intrigued.)

Justin Vivian Bond
Justin Vivian Bond

To my surprise and delight, much of the comic element of the show was based on the movie “Carol.” It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie! Bond smartly comments at one point, “’The Price of Salt’ was at least based on something real.” Bond scoffs at the notion that there is anything true or sexy in the film and hilariously explains that despite the director’s meticulous efforts to create 1950s verisimilitude, he neglects the important detail of Cate Blanchett’s fingernails.

Bond says that it’s clearly apparent that Carol has a gel manicure – something only recently invented and very different from the nail polish the character would have worn in her day. Ha! That is so true! (Gel “no-chip” polish and processing essentially bake the color onto the nails and have been a game-changer in the world of manicures. The color lasts for weeks instead of days and is a major 21st-century advancement, which would have been nothing but a sci-fi fantasy to any 1950s woman.) Bond goes on to insist that at least during the several-day-long road trip, where Carol is living out of a suitcase, she would have had a couple chips in her perfect nail color. But Haynes did not allow that, keeping Carol a phony character instead.

Bond also bemoans the film’s false portrayal of the “May-December romance” (which is important in the book). She says she is all for older men or women getting it on with young, hot things, but alas she was once the May and is now the December part of that equation. And she knows what that feels like and looks like (and so does HelenHighly), and there is no way that “December” looks like Cate Blanchett’s perfection. Bond resents now having to live up to Todd Haynes’ unrealistic depiction of a December lover. Once again: Helen Highly agrees!

In “Brooklyn,” the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them.

While watching the screening of “Carol” at the New York Film Festival, I made very few notes in my book, because there was nothing interesting to write down (IMHO). But soon after, there was a screening of the film “Brooklyn,” another historically-accurate, sentimental love story that was adapted from an acclaimed book (screenplay by Nick Hornby). I made quite a few notes about that movie. Remarkably, the two films take place in the same year and in the same city (New York and its environs) and both generally deal with the problems of pulled-in-two-directions love and related family pressure. The big difference: I care about the characters in “Brooklyn”!

"Brooklyn" movie poster.
“Brooklyn” movie poster.

 In the movie “Brooklyn,” the main character is Ellis Lacey (played with heart by Saoirse Ronan), and like Carol, she struggles with a love dilemma and is nearly torn apart by it. Both stories also include a theme about secrets and spies who reveal those secrets, plus the themes of betrayal and nasty gossip. Watching Ellis, I ached for her. Carol’s plight left me cold.

Both films have been critically applauded for their lush cinematography and vivid, vintage design. But in “Brooklyn,” the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them. Interestingly, in an interview after the screening, director John Crowley explained that he wanted the film to seem “artless,” and he did not cast the roles “for looks,” but rather for “inner truth.” And that inner truth is indeed expressed in the film, which rises above its sentimentality by letting the characters earn their emotions. Crowley brings the audience close and lets us follow the inner workings of the characters. Haynes maintains a cool distance throughout.

"Brooklyn" feels real.
“Brooklyn” feels real.

There is a scene in “Brooklyn” where Ellis takes her first trip to the beach at Coney Island, and when she comes out from behind her towel and reveals her “swim costume,” it is a glorious moment. I felt myself beaming for her. I wrote in my notes, “rapture!” And the feeling of rapture is exactly what was needed and missing from “Carol.” When Ellis’ sister dies, I was devastated. I felt her pain. For Carol, I could only yawn (and sneer at suffering that seemed so fake).

Todd Haynes, I know you are a skilled and well-regarded filmmaker (and thank you for the movie “I’m Not There,” where Cate Blanchett is put to much better use, btw), but Helen Highly suggests that you watch the movie “Brooklyn” and take a few notes.

NEWS: See exactly what awards and accolades Carol has received.

Vote: What do you think? Is Carol Best Film of the Year is Brooklyn better? Carol vs BrooklynClick here to cast your vote.

Or: Didn’t love Brooklyn (or haven’t seen it) but would like to stop the craziness over Carol? Click here to vote for Carol vs ANY OTHER MOVIE as Best Film of the Year.


When she is not writing about film and art on her blog,, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

Movie Gift Guide: Holiday Shopping in the Movies

Movie Gift Guide: Where to get the goods to make your classic Christmas-movie memories come alive.

“The stuff that dreams are made of.”

toy train
What is better than a toy train running around your Christmas tree?

The unforgettable hat, the shining toy train, the pair of ice skates, as depicted by cinematic magic – these items have come to represent Christmas Joy itself. Don’t just watch them on television, bring them home for the holidays (or get them online and have them delivered while you stay home and watch old movies on TV). This guide points you to the websites that sell the items that our cherished old-movies made symbolic of Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men.

A Miracle on 34th Street
This film has been a perennial holiday favorite since its debut in 1947. No one has ever played Santa Claus more convincingly than Edmund Gwenn. And it’s a movie filled with the exciting clamor of Christmas shopping and our yearning for just the right gifts.

Kris Kringle: What do you want for Christmas, Peter?
Peter: A fire engine, just like the big ones only smaller, that has a real hose that squirts real water. I won’t do it in the house, only in the backyard. I promise.
Harried Mother: Psst! Psst! Macy’s ain’t got any. Nobody’s got any.
Kris Kringle: Well, Peter, I can tell you’re a good boy. You’ll get your fire engine.
Peter: Oh, thank you very much! You see? I told you he’d get me one.
Harried Mother: That’s fine. That’s just dandy. Listen, what’s the matter with you? Don’t you understand English? I tell you nobody’s got any. I’ve been all over. My feet are killing me. A fine thing, promising the kid.
Kris: You don’t think I would’ve said that unless I’m sure? You can get those fire engines at…

Bruder Toy Fire Engine
Peter’s dream fire engine.
  • New York or Chicago Fire-and-Cop Shop websites: ChicagoFireAndCopShop and NYFireAndPolice. These stores sell a big line of fire-and-police-related gifts, including T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, Christmas ornaments, and toy police cars and fire trucks. It’s good to buy local and authentic, so these websites are worth a visit, but they don’t actually sell the exact fire truck that Peter wanted.
  • To get a fire engine with a working pump, as Peter specified, you must find the Bruder brand, which is sold at Target and Amazon. The Bruder water-spraying truck comes in a range of sizes. Do a Google search for: “Bruder MAN Fire Engine with Water Pump.” If you want the biggest and best – with a 3-stage telescoping ladder that extends to over 4 feet tall and swivels 360⁰, plus a realistic driver’s cabin with doors that open, you’ll find it online when you search for “Bruder MACK Granite Fire Engine with Water Pump.”
  • If you want a true, detailed replica of a fire truck from your city – from New York to Chicago to L.A., plus many more, go to theCode3FireTrucks website. These metal, die-cast trucks are more than just toys; they are limited-edition, historic collectibles – for the little boy in our hero-loving grown men.

The other item that a child requested from Santa in Miracle on 34th St. was a pair of ice skates. These skates are what set the story of the movie into action, as Kris, the store Santa working for Macy’s, dares to tell the mother of this little girl that she’ll find a better pair of skates at the competition, Gimbel’s. That puts Santa in trouble with his bosses, but it ultimately proves ingenious, because customers like this one wind up loving Macy’s all the more.

Shopping Mother: Imagine a big outfit like Macy’s putting the spirit of Christmas ahead of the commercial. It’s wonderful. I never done much shopping here before, but from now on, I’m going to be a regular Macy customer.

Get your daughter high-quality skates, because as Kris says, “their little ankles want protecting.”

  • For a traditional figure skate with a classic look (rather than the latest styles that look more like ski boots), look for DBX Traditional Figure Skates, which are sold at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
  • For a full selection of traditional skates made from real leather, such as the top-notch Riedell brand, along with detailed information on choosing just the right skate, go to FigureSkatingStore.

The Bishop’s Wife
Maybe you can’t have Cary Grant and his angelic charm, but you can get a charming hat like the one he bought for Loretta Young in the 1948 film, The Bishop’s Wife. In this timeless Christmas tale, a bishop, played by David Niven, is trying to get a new cathedral built, which depends on the financial support of a domineering and selfish old woman. The bishop prays for divine guidance. An angel (Cary Grant) arrives, but his guidance isn’t about fundraising. It’s more about paying attention to the bishop’s lonely wife and tending to her happiness, which includes the purchase of a hat that she admired in a store window but was too meek to buy for herself. The hat is purchased and the strained marriage is re-ignited. We are all mere mortals after all, and mortal flesh likes a pretty hat. To get a life-changing hat for your loved one, visit:

  • America’s oldest hat maker, Bollman Hat Company, which is now celebrating its 145th year and offering an exclusive vintage collection of women’s headwear. They have chosen one hat for each decade since their inception in 1868 in Adamstown, PA, USA, beginning with an 1860s bonnet, and including a 1920s flapper hat, a 1930s aviator hat, and even a 1960s Jackie hat. Their 1940s hat, however, is based on “Rosie the Riveter” and not exactly the type to make a woman’s heart melt.
  • To find a fancy hat that might have been worn by a beautiful woman like Loretta Young in 1948, go to Village Hat Shop. The site also includes a History of Hats section that is fascinating and fun.

Holiday Affair
This 1949 romantic comedy stars Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum. Leigh plays a war-widow with a wistful devotion to her child, an adorable tousled tot who covets an expensive, electric train. Set during the Christmas shopping season, both main characters are working in department store jobs and struggling financially while they fall into a love triangle that involves the buying and returning of the train set – twice. Finally, it is little Timmy who takes his train back to Crowley’s department store and tearfully asks for a refund so that Steve (Mitchum) will not be penniless. The story ends with the child not getting the gift he originally wanted, but instead getting a new father who he loves. If your child already has a father he loves, maybe he could use an electric train set:

  • Lionel has a Christmas Dream Kit train set, complete with all the train cars, tracks, and accessories you will need, including Christmas Wreath Clock Tower, plus train-themed stockings and ornaments for your home.
  • For a more year-round and high-end electric train set, go with the Bachmann brand. The Rail Chief Ready To Run Electric Train Sethas 130 pieces that include a diesel locomotive with operating headlight, open quad hopper car, gondola car, plug-door box car, and off-center caboose. It features a 47” x 38” inch oval of snap-fit E-Z Track, signal bridge, 36 miniature figures, 24 telephone poles, 48 railroad and street signs, power pack, and speed controller. Sold at the Bachmann Trains website and also at Toys R Us.

An Affair to Remember
This 1957 film, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, is universally considered to be one of the most romantic movies of all time. In the final, tear-jerking scene, on Christmas Eve, Cary Grant brings his dead grandmother’s shawl as a gift to Deborah Kerr, who has been hiding herself (and her paralysis) from Grant for six months. Grant plays a painter, and he has painted a portrait of Kerr wearing the shawl that his grandmother wanted her to have. The entire impossible love story turns on this beloved shawl; due to the gift, the painting is revealed, the wheelchair is revealed, and the couple’s true love is confirmed. To wrap someone you love in a magical shawl this year:

  • Try Etsy and search for “lace shawl” and then refine your search by selecting “Handmade” on the left sidebar. There are lots of people selling handmade shawls that you’d never find in a mainstream retail store. Some will even make custom shawls to order. On Etsy, you get to see who makes the item, so you can select a sweet old lady like Cary Grant’s mother, if you want.

Shop Around the Corner
This classic holiday tale has been so loved that even Tom Hanks took a chance at a re-make, updating the role that Jimmy Stewart originated. But the initial version took place in a Budapest gift shop, where Stewart worked as the head salesman, Alfred Kralik. The shop owner and Kralik get into an argument over the owner’s idea to sell a cigarette box that plays music when opened. Kralik thinks it’s a bad idea. Then, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) enters the gift shop looking for a job. Kralik tells her there are no openings, but when she is able to sell one of the musical cigarette boxes, the owner hires her. This sets the two romantic leads at odds and begins the adversarial love affair that ends, of course, with Christmas joy and unity. To get a musical cigarette box for your strong-willed love:

  • Go to MusicBoxAttic, where they sell all sorts of music-playing boxes, even those with twirling ballerinas, like so many of us adored as children.
  • Or search on Etsy or eBay to find a vintage music box that was actually designed for cigarettes, some with nifty, carousel dispensers. I bet you can even find one made in Hungary or Austria, similar to the one in the movie.

There is a way that only cinema can engrave on our hearts and make magic of mere objects. It’s more than just another gift; “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”

When she is not writing about film and art on her blog,, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

“Heart of a Dog” Short-Listed for Best Documentary Oscar Plus More Awards

Laurie Anderson’s critically acclaimed film, “Heart of a Dog,” has been short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that 15 films in the Documentary Feature category will advance in the voting process for the 88th Academy Awards®.  One hundred twenty-four films were originally submitted in the category. Final nominations will be announced on January 14.  The Oscar ceremony will be held Feb. 28.

In addition, the film has been nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. “This year’s nominees are a testament to the strength, vitality and diversity of independent, artist-driven filmmaking,” said Film Independent President Josh Welsh. “It’s an astonishingly strong group of films and performances this year and we look forward to celebrating them all at the Spirit Awards.” Winners will be announced on February 27. The awards ceremony will be broadcast live on IFC.

Another accomplishment: “Heart of a Dog” has been named one of the Best Movies of 2015 by the New York Times, landing at No. 4 on the list. A.O. Scott, Chief Film Critic, writes, “Anyone who ever had a heart is likely to succumb to Ms. Anderson’s ethereal wisdom and her fierce formal wit.”

“Heart of a Dog” is a meditation on life and death, centered around Laurie Anderson’s dog Lolabelle. It is reviewed on The Film Box by Helen Highly

When she is not writing about film and art on her blog,, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

“Heart of a Dog” by Laurie Anderson

anderson and dog

In her poetic film collage essay, “Heart of a Dog,” Laurie Anderson is more beautifully and thoughtfully herself than ever.

“It seems the movie is often shedding its own tears… as if life itself is crying.”

Anderson has had a long career, but was most well-known in the 80’s as an experimental performance artist, composer, and musician who especially explored the mix of spoken word and music. Those who know her albums such as “Big Science” and “Home of the Brave” will appreciate the return of the fragmented rhythm and quizzical tone of Anderson’s speech, opening with voice-over sentences such as “This is my dream body – the one I use to walk around in my dreams,” and “It’s like one of those old movies…” It’s like one of Anderson’s old albums, only … Much, Much, Better (to quote Anderson in “Language is a Virus”).

Despite the film’s seemingly stream-of-conscious, no-plot, hodge-podge approach, Anderson has meaningful ideas to express, and she’s woven together an elegant and smartly structured tone-and-picture poem. The movie combines her personal stories and musings with quotations from renowned philosophers, ink drawings on paper, printed words, animation, scratchy old 8mm home-movie clips, new footage of landscapes, surveillance camera footage with time codes, graphic images such as computer icons, and her ingenious use of music.

As always, Anderson excels at language, and here she combines various types of on-screen text with her own lyrical voice-over. I often leave a movie wanting to run home and download the soundtrack, but in this case I am yearning for a transcript. These are words worthy of reading and contemplating. “Try to learn how to feel sad without being sad,” is just one of the many sentences that could use more time to resonate than one viewing allows.

But one of the surprises of this project may be Anderson’s sophisticated and inventive cinematography. As the film explores a variety of deaths – the death of Anderson’s dog, the death of her mother, the death of her husband (Lou Reed), and the mass deaths of 9/11 in New York, it seems the movie is often shedding its own tears. Many sequences are shot through a pane of glass that is dripping with water, like life itself is crying. And then she turns footage of an ocean upside down, with the foreground still raining, so the sea that has become the sky is weeping too. In front of everything, Anderson seems to be saying, is a gentle, pervasive sadness.

And yet, the movie is not even remotely maudlin. It discusses 9/11 in way that actually adds fresh insight, which seems impossible after so many anniversaries full of remembrance ceremonies, and so many other films that have also integrated that tragic event. In fact, this movie would have made a much better selection for the Opening Film of this year’s New York Film Festival than “The Walk,” which is ostensibly about the man who walked a tightrope between the world’s tallest pair of buildings, but is mostly a sentimental homage to the Twin Towers, complete with golden reflected sunset footage of the Towers and seemingly endless talk about their dramatic importance. For all the “The Walk’s” telling us how we should feel, and trying so desperately to rouse emotion, it fails in that regard. Laurie Anderson is a long-time New York resident and artist, and this film speaks so sincerely to New Yorkers in particular, that it would have made an intensely appropriate opening for the New York Film Festival, which took place so close to 9/11. (Of course, the film is also relevant to all Americans, and all human beings, at any time of year.)

Perhaps the strongest moment in Anderson’s film is when she takes her dog outdoors in a big field and enjoys watching her run and play in tall grass and aromatic dirt, as dogs do. And the camera pans up to the bright blue sky; it is such a beautiful day. And then we see pretty white trails in the sky, moving in circles. Anderson tells us they are birds. And then she sees that they are hawks. And she describes the look in the eyes of her dog, Lolabelle, as the dog peers up and realizes that she… is prey. The dog understands that these birds have come for the purpose of killing her. And Anderson bemoans the new reality that now the dog must not only be aware of the ground and the grass and the other earthbound creatures, but also that huge, untouchable expanse of sky. The sky is now a danger. And the dog will never view the sky the same again.

Cut to footage of 9/11 as Anderson compares her dog’s feeling to hers, and ours, when we suddenly understood that “something was wrong with the air”; the sky brought danger and those flying planes were there for the purpose of killing us. And “it would be that way from now on.”

Anderson goes on to talk about the strangeness of living in a post-9/11 surveillance state, where we are always being recorded. But she does not take the obvious path of complaining about the social injustice. Instead, she takes a clever twist and points out that all your actions are now data. And that data is always being collected, but it will not be watched until after you commit a crime. Then your story is pieced together, in reverse – footage of where you went and what you did, being viewed backwards from the most recent moment. And then she throws in a quote from Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward.”

And intermixed with philosophy, Anderson keeps her wry sense of humor. At one point, she talks about a dream in which she gives birth to her dog. She illustrates the tale with bizarre comic drawings, and then she tells us that the dog looks up at her and says, “Thank you so much for having me,” as if it has just been invited to a tea party. Ha.

“This film has heart.”

Later she talks about her own childhood memory of a trauma and reveals how our minds naturally clean up memories, leaving out certain details, and in that way you are holding onto a story and every time you tell the story, you forget it more. Cut to the computer icon of Missing File. The associations keep piling up, and they do indeed add up.

The unfortunate irony is that “Heart of a Dog” will be classified as conceptual filmmaking, and dismissed by those who won’t see it as too cerebral, while it actually uses a complex and intellectual style, very astutely, to access emotional and intimate realities that are difficult to reach through overt methods.

This film does tell a story, in its own subtly layered way. It is sometimes a meditation on how to go on living despite despair – “the purpose of death is the release of love,” but it is also clearly Laurie Anderson’s own personal tale. This is a tender memoir.  It’s Anderson’s love story, about her dog, her mother, her husband, and her city. In the most uncommon and evocative way, this film has heart.


The complete soundtrack recording of “Heart of a Dog” is available from Nonesuch Records. The Nonesuch album is the full audio recording of the film, including all music and spoken text.

News: “Heart of a Dog” short-listed for Oscar


When she is not writing about film and art on her blog,, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City.