One of the most moving concerts I ever attended was the one performed by Laurie Anderson in Philadelphia just days after the 9/11 attacks. (Yes, she did "O Superman," and yes, the part where she sings "Her come the planes" sent a chill down my spine.) In her idiosyncratic essay film Heart of a Dog, Anderson touches on what it was like to be in lower Manhattan in the days and weeks following that catastrophic event, and to observe the installation of the surveillance state we continue to live in -- and with -- to this day. Those memories are intertwined with the circumstances surrounding the death of her mother and her close relationship with her dog Lolabelle, a rat terrier that she treats like her own child. (She even opens the film by describing her dream of giving birth to Lolabelle and shows off the dog's artwork and includes excerpts from her musical recitals like any proud parent would.)
As whimsical as some of this sounds, Anderson never loses sight of the film's melancholic underpinnings, especially in the second half after Lolabelle's passing. "The purpose of death is the release of love," she narrates, but what goes unspoken is that two years after Lolabelle, Anderson also lost her husband, Lou Reed, who appears briefly and to whom the film is dedicated. Even if she never articulates them directly -- that's never been her style, really -- Anderson's feelings of grief and pain come through loud and clear. Heart of a Dog is a wonder, and I thank her for sharing it with us.
Another wonder was Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang's idea for the "Sky Ladder," which he envisioned reaching 500 meters into the sky suspended from a hot-air balloon so that it looks like a chain of fireworks stretching from the Earth into the stratosphere. It was such an enormous undertaking that it took four tries (the first all the way back in 1994) before the stars aligned for him, and director Kevin Macdonald was there for the final lap to observe and document the process. The result is Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, a Netflix original that does an admirable job of summing up the artist's career and his complicated relationship with his homeland, for which he devised the pyrotechnics for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. It also draws a line between his father's calligraphy and Guo-Qiang's art, and touches on the impact of China's Cultural Revolution (from which "nobody escaped unscathed") on his childhood. That may partially explain why he chose to move himself and his family to the U.S. in 1995, but in the end he had to go home to make Sky Ladder a reality.