Musician, writer, and performance artist Laurie Anderson is a unique creative voice whose work is challenging, avant-garde, sometimes precious, and often difficult to define. Is she a poet who also makes experimental music or a musician who is interested in visual art or a visual artist who likes theatre? In fact, she is all of these things. Perhaps the only other contemporary American artist better known to the larger culture is David Lynch; like Lynch, she is interested in pushing the boundaries of whichever medium she chooses to work in, and like Lynch, Anderson is something of a love-her-or-hate-her artist.
Anderson’s highly personal documentary Heart of a Dog, then, is what you might expect from her, in that you need to pay attention to keep track of the seemingly random stream-of-consciousness approach she has taken to its subject: it combines stop-motion animation, hand drawings, 8mm footage, video, iPhone, goPro and drones,and a soundtrack that’s a combination of Anderson’s thoughtful narration (occasionally delivered at a pace and cadence that’s best described as Shatneresque, although softer), eerie techno, weird soundscapes, plangent Buddhist bells, and sombre strings.
But it is also surprisingly accessible, if you’re in the mood for it (my friend who I saw it with pointed out that a morning press screening is perhaps not the best circumstance in which to watch a poetic meditation on the meaning of childhood, companionship, and death). It is ostensibly about Anderson’s beloved dog, Lolabelle, who died in 2011, but it also about New York and American life after 9/11; the rise in surveillance culture and the increasing militarization of everyday life; illness; artistic expression; the Tibetan Book of the Dead; a philosophical essay on language and the world; time; and ultimately what it means to love and to express love (in all its forms).
Composed of a series of chapters exploring Anderson’s childhood, career, and personal life, it is both a visual treat and maddeningly difficult. At several moments the screen fades to black, or white, or grey, and the soundtrack will drop to long moments of silence (very long moments, which might throw viewers who are so used to the incessant noise of most narrative film) or else will split your ears when on occasion Anderson turns the amp up all the way to eleven. Words are bombarded rapidly at the screen – snatches of poetry, diary entries, observations, but so quickly you barely get a sense of them. But that’s the point, I suppose: that life is so fleeting it can be impossible to take it all in: our senses get overwhelmed.
The senses are very important to Anderson because she is acutely aware of how Lolabelle navigated the world. Dogs see mostly only blues and greens; their vision is blurry; and sight and smell work in tandem, a skill that humans lost when we started walking upright and our noses were no longer close to the ground. The dog eventually goes blind, but not before she accompanies Anderson into her studio and eventually begins making his own music. The dog also paints (I’ll let you watch the film and decide for yourself Lolabelle’s artistic talent).
On a long walk with Anderson, Lolabelle is swooped on by birds, and Anderson rather startlingly connects that moment both to the realization she made as a child just how big the world is and to the attack on the Twin Towers. This is just one of several connections that Anderson makes throughout the film, and although at times it seems haphazard in its construction, by the film’s end it’s clear there is a narrative point.
Lolabelle eventually dies – peacefully at home instead of at the vet’s – and Anderson’s approach to her pet’s death is not one of grief but of exploration, to find significance in the dog’s passing on to another realm. The Tibetan Book of the Dead forbids crying because it confuses the dead and draws them back to this world, so Anderson instead charts Lolabelle’s journey through the Bardo (the process that Buddhists believe all living beings go through after death – it takes 49 days).
Death and its aftermath haunts – that is perhaps the wrong word – most of Heart of a Dog. Anderson reflects/meditates on the moment her mother died. She died before Anderson could fully convey how she felt about her. “How do I tell her that I never loved her?” she asks her guru (there are a lot of gurus in Heart of a Dog, and much talk of meditation). An artist-friend makes his death a semi-public event, spending the last twenty-four hours of his life reading aloud to friends. And a long story about a childhood accident that Anderson has recounted several times reveals a sudden memory, long-forgotten, of the cries of children in the hospital’s burn-unit, the smell of burnt flesh, the smell of death.
Another death is never mentioned, but it is probably the most important aspect of the film: that of Anderson’s musical and life partner, Lou Reed (who died in 2013). Reed is conspicuous by his absence (although he does briefly appear in one of the film’s many reconstructions playing a dog trainer) until we hear his voice singing “Turning Time Around” over the film’s credits. The film is dedicated to Reed.
Heart of a Dog is both a poetic essay on life and death and a highly personal look at the intersection of Art, Politics, and Memory (the capital letters seem appropriate).
Verdict: Four Woofs out of Five
Photos courtesy of Dogwoof.
Heart of a Dog is in cinemas and On Demand on May 20th
I saw it in the magnificent Irish Film Institute in Dublin.