Typically, documentaries explore the hot-button issues of the day — political repression, social injustice. But the focus is sometimes much more internal. Two of this season’s Oscar short-listed documentaries — “Heart of a Dog” and “Best of Enemies” — project the extremes of love and hate, respectively, so viscerally that each becomes fascinating in its own way.
“Heart of a Dog,” directed by performance artist-musician Laurie Anderson, evokes a dreamy landscape filled with poetic musings about love, memory, 9/11, death and the intense love she had for her late rat terrier, Lolabelle. The more traditional “Best of Enemies,” directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, explores the heated debates between left-lunging writer Gore Vidal and preeminent arch conservative William F. Buckley Jr. during the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions.
‘Best of Enemies’
It was a frenetic, confusing period in the U.S. in 1968, and networks back then televised political conventions via wall-to-wall coverage. (It was also an era when political conventions were exciting to watch wall-to-wall).
Last-place network ABC needed a trump card to up its viewing numbers (as opposed to this year’s ratings Trump card), so the network paired Buckley and Vidal in 10 debates; sparring first during the more relaxed Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and then again during the infamous crazy days of the Democratic convention in Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago.
The action here is laced with each man’s life story (both attended prep schools, both ran for political office, both had high-wheeling, connected friends, etc.). There’s also the requisite — but in this film, clever — talking-head interviews and some cool narration by actors John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer.
What pops loudly in this perfectly titled documentary is the exquisite repartee between these two very public intellectuals, who hotly hated each other. It’s the velvety acidic jostle and throw. What a dreary, empty landscape televised political debate has become in the ensuing years. Viewers can take a bit of ugliness, we see here, if there’s some intelligence and humor and smarts involved. Where are our five-star general debaters today? Surely, not on Fox News or MSNBC.
When properly goaded, the hate flies. Vidal thought Buckley “a sort of right-wing Liberace"; Buckley considered Vidal a “feline,” “diseased,” “pornographer.” In their penultimate debate, on a bad day in Chicago after police have thrashed protesters and nerves are tighter than usual, Vidal accuses Buckley of being a “crypto-proto-Nazi.” Buckley explodes, “Now, listen, you queer,” he said, contemptuously, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” We’re told it was a moment that rattled both men for the rest of their lives. It was brilliant television then, and still is.
‘Heart of a Dog’
A love story between a middle-aged woman and her piano-playing rat terrier dog (YouTube’s iconic keyboard cat has nothing on Lolabelle), the dog’s death, the memory of her own mother’s death and the years spent pondering the strange, paranoid feelings that arose in her as a hardcore New Yorker post-9/11 all might sound a bit twee, but it’s nothing but beauty in the hands of the artistic Anderson.
The filmmaker (who also scored and played its music) opens “Heart” with a dream sequence of her giving birth to Lolabelle, sewn-up fully grown in her stomach, and it is animated by Anderson’s clever drawings and breathy narration that lasts throughout the film. We know upfront that this is no rudimentary human and pet relationship.
Throughout the film, we move along an evocative escalator of seemingly random thoughts, ideas and memories: the extent of the U.S. government’s surveillance data center; Anderson’s young twin brothers falling through the ice outside her childhood home and her diving in to rescue them, creating the apex of her bond with her mother; soldiers swarming New York City after Sept. 11; the memory of childhood illness in the hospital after breaking her back diving where she self-edited out all the deaths of the children around her.
Death and its relationship is always in the mix. Life’s end comes to the elderly, blind Lolabelle; a friend spends the last days of his life reading to the friends surrounding him while Buddhist monks shout instructions from the Book of the Dead into his ears; her mother dies, and Andersen is ponderous about the lack of real love she feels.
The other big death — that of her husband, musician Lou Reed, in 2013 — is left undiscussed but certainly strongly felt. (The documentary is dedicated to Reed, and his song “Turning Time Around” is the film’s coda, playing over the closing credits.)
It’s an alluring and sublime film on the big questions, and in its poetic way peppers us with some distinctly sweet answers.