I walked into Film Forum in something of a haze, trying to gather my wits before squeezing into a packed theater for the screening of Laurie Anderson’s new film, Heart of a Dog. As soon as I grabbed my ticket and walked into the atrium I saw her, standing there casually, arms folded, her ever-present spiked hair a perfect pewter grey. A wry, all-knowing smile pulled her small face into dignified, criss-crossing lines, completely vulnerable to my open-mouthed gaze. Did she smile at me? Give me an all-knowing nod? Impossible. Well, I remember at least that she looked sad. But how could I remember that? She wasn’t looking directly at me, right?
Eventually you become immune to feeling starstruck in New York City– I mean, I sat next to Bjork at a bar for close to an hour before I realized it was her– but I felt a strange superstition wash over me as I crossed Laurie’s path. People are always smaller in real life. Later on, I had words for this encounter. “Every love story is a ghost story,” Laurie whispers in the film, quoting David Foster Wallace. Stories, and the memories we tap to tell them, are notoriously unreliable, and whatever feelings or sensations we’re experiencing at the time will color our recollections– something Laurie conveys fully in Heart of a Dog.
Mike Maggiore, a programmer at Film Forum, introduced Laurie Anderson ahead of the screening: “Let’s face it, she’s a polymath–” an electronic music pioneer and performance artist, among other things as well as — “a filmmaker and, above all things, a raconteur.” It’s Laurie’s unique capacity for poetic storytelling that she’s chosen to foreground in Heart of a Dog, a film about death, memory, and the passage of time– all abstract things that Anderson manages to capture in their sensory complexity.
When the lights went out and the film began, it seemed like there should have been a collective sigh as Anderson’s rotoscoped face appeared in stark black and white. Were we entering an animated film? Not exactly, but it might as well have been– the removal from any kind of day-to-day reality we’re familiar with (or at least the narrative expectations that have been beaten into us by most documentary and realist films) is vast. The film proceeds like a long poem. Words evoke feelings and energy as opposed to action and explanation. It’s all very intuitive. People pass through the film as half-beings, shadows or specters– we can’t exactly see them. The humans are either given split seconds of camera time, are blurry visages from decaying film, or they’re seen from various bizarre angles. At the end of the film I was shocked to see that Lou Reed was cast as “Doctor”– how could I have missed that?
Ostensibly, Heart of a Dog is about, well, Laurie Anderson’s beloved dog Lolabelle who died in 2011 (the dog is portrayed by herself and other, more alive dogs). Laurie and Lou had rescued the long-snouted Rat Terrier from a broken home. Lolabelle’s previous owners were a couple in the midst of a divorce– nobody wanted the dog, she tells us, and nobody really wanted the boy, either. The film’s perspective shifts between Laurie and Lolabelle. The latter eventually becomes sick and loses her vision– hence the stark angles and the opaque, blurry visions of people.
But the choppy style of the film is also a nod to the nature of memory– actual memory, not recollection or storytelling, but the unreliable and ever changing neural pathway containing our perceptions of experiences and the smells, sights, and sounds that went along with them. Anderson is acutely aware of the myriad problems with memory: namely that things become hazy and especially that each time we recall something, it becomes a little bit different, a little bit less real and a lot more like a dream.
When Laurie Anderson was 12 years old, she broke her back and ended up in the hospital for months on end. Her doctor told her it was likely she would never be able to walk again, and whenever Laurie recounts the story to other people, she admits it had become about something else: “how I had learned not to trust people.” She realizes something, what she calls “the creepiest thing about stories” is that recollections become farther from reality and more about conveying a point. Each time you tell them, you forget the actual events even more.
Retellings in Heart of a Dog are fading, looping, repeating, and transfigured. Repetition is key– things become slightly clearer (or as clear as she’s willing to make them) as Anderson repeats words like a mantra or echoes images as if she’s conducting on eye exam, asking us to review the foggy evidence as a means of testing our powers of divination. Toward the start of the film, Anderson recounts last words her mother said on her death bed. Both women seem to have repeated these words in search of clarity and meaning. Anderson admits that she never really loved her mother, and when she was driving through the heavy snow to see her for what she knew was probably the very last time, she couldn’t figure out what to say.
Clearly, Laurie is still searching for some meaning in all this: “What are the last things you say before you turn into dirt? When my mother died, she was talking to the animals that had gathered on the ceiling. She spoke to them tenderly, ‘All you animals,’ she said– her last words, all scattered.”
Later on, Laurie returns to this same moment and applies her Buddhist teacher’s advice to the problem of at once feeling immense pain for the death of her mother and feeling nothing for the woman who gave birth to her. She consults a practice called the mother meditation: “You try to find a moment when your mother loved you without a single hesitation and you focus on that moment and then you imagine that you’ve been everyone else’s mother.”
Once again, she returns to her mothers words: “Tell the animals, tell all the animals.”
Mostly, we’re left without answers which in other instances might be frustrating. But in these kinds of instances, clarity and logic might end up outweighing feeling, which is what really matters here. Still, it requires some energy as the viewer to get your bearings. Who are we looking at? What, exactly, happened? Where is Lou? I found myself wondering.
Lou’s presence in this film about death, which was in the process of being completed when he died exactly two years ago today, is a shadowy one. I kept searching for him. At nearly ever darkening of the frame, I expected him to pop out, or for Anderson to at the very least acknowledge Lou. But that epiphany when everything is laid bare to the viewer never came. The wound must have been so fresh, so acute that like many other things in the film, she couldn’t look directly at his death. There’s a man sitting on the beach who appears to be Lou, a camera swirling around the figure who slides onto the edges of the frame, out of focus and out of comprehension.
Besides mentioning his name in the context of adopting Lolabelle, there is no explicit acknowledgement of Lou until the very end. If you were scuttling for your purse or patting the popcorn kernels off your lap, you probably missed it. There was just a simple scroll in and fade out at the end of the credits: “Dedicated to the magnificent spirit of my husband Lou Reed, 1942-2013.”
But Heart of a Dog still seems indirectly about Lou Reed’s death, though nothing about his life. It’s only directly about Laurie’s life and the experience of deaths happening around her. As she told the audience after the film, the impetus for the film came from a “French-German channel called Arte TV” that asked her, “‘You know, could you make a film about your philosophy of life?’ and this sounded like a very bad idea.” She laughed. “I said, ‘I’m not sure I could do that,’ and the producer said, ‘How about those stories about your dog?’ And that’s where I started.”
The loss of Lolabelle is immensely painful for Laurie. She consults the Tibetan Book of the Dead in hopes that it will offer her some way of working through it all, though it seems to make things even more challenging. The book warns that weeping could potentially confuse the dead, “So no crying […] Death is so often about regret or guilt,” it becomes more about the living than about the dead, she realizes. “The purpose of death is the release of love. ”
Throughout the film, Laurie is struggling to understand death– not in any rational way, but trying to learn the best ways to cope with it as she goes along. Heart of a Dog is far from a narrative feature, but there are a few major events that mark the passage of time: the death of her mother, the death of Lolabelle and, strangely enough, 9/11. “We had passed through a door and we would never be going back,” Anderson whispers.
She watches as the New York City she knew so well transforms into a center for fear, controlled by some invisible data-collecting, number crunching, all-seeing force. This feeling of being watched is captured in Homeland Security’s creepy mantra: “If you see something, say something.” Suddenly she finds herself in the midst of a paranoid, secretive security apparatus. This invisible presence feels very cold, as if it sucks the life out of the city and throws a wrench in the flow of the film (though in a very real way).
But there’s a shaky connection here between her dog Lolabelle and the powerful totalitarian security apparatus. It’s unlikely Anderson accidentally named the film after Ukrainian author Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 satirical novella, Heart of a Dog, which was critical of the newfound Soviet project to transform the entire population (mostly peasants) into ideal, proletarian citizens. In the book, a regular old dog is gravely injured and left for dead when a surgeon finds him and decides the dog is the perfect guinea pig. The doctor operates on the dog, implants human glands into his dog body and injects him with human hormones. For a brief time, the dog becomes a not very good, sloppy sort of half-brained human, causes some trouble, and shrinks back into his old dog self.
Anderson never mentions Bulgakov or his book in the film (although she does quote Kierkegaard and David Foster Wallace), so it seems like sort of a joke or a frustrating riddle. In a way, the filmmaker becomes the dog, and in some instances the dog becomes the all-seeing eye of the camera– which hints toward a connection with Homeland Security. Is Anderson pointing out the essential lack of humanity in this new data-obsessed surveillance state? Maybe.
It’s a complex, multi-faceted film that I feel like I could watch ten times in a row and still notice patterns that I hadn’t seen before. The cinematography is heavily indebted to early montage: you can really feel the artist’s hand in the wide range of tools Anderson utilizes: filters, Super 8 clips from her childhood in the Midwest (she told the audience the film had decayed naturally over time: “that’s what happens to it when it’s in a box”), animation, and handheld-camera footage. As found in collage, there’s the same disregard for consistency of texture.
Of course, Anderson composed the winding violin-heavy soundtrack that’s at once haunting and ghostly, and very earthy and wintery. But the music is incomplete without Laurie’s sing-song, delicate but unwavering monologue (which is why the soundtrack only seems to be available with the film’s narration), which guides you through what otherwise might be a series of loosely related to completely random images that fire across the frame like synapses in the brain.
Both style and content work together in Heart of a Dog to balance ever so carefully between revealing self-reference and closely-guarded secrets. You’re never sure which way Anderson the narrator is going to tip throughout the film– she’ll divulge deeply personal recollections but will suddenly pull back, leaving behind approximately one third of the whole story.
Eventually, you come to understand Anderson is only comfortable with showing you a very brief peek at her life, her thoughts, and her internal mathematics. This is deeply private stuff, and anyway a taxonomy of what happened where and why doesn’t exactly lend itself to poetry. “I’ve seen three ghosts in my lifetime,” she says. At the end of the screening, a young woman in the audience pressed Anderson during the Q&A: “You mentioned two other ghosts…” One of them was the sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark, Laurie’s friend (best known for his site-specific works where he cut houses and buildings in half). “Who were the other two?”
“I can’t tell you that,” Anderson whispers, cupping the microphone close to her mouth. She said this with a half-joking grumble. If all this sounds cryptic, Heart of a Dog definitely is to a certain degree– I mean, the film is about death. But at the surface level, it’s also a film about a dog. And there’s a lot of humor in that.
Laurie’s relationship with Lolabelle is endearing but at times totally out there. Often, she gave the dog as much credit as she would any human and included her in any activities Laurie and Lou pursued– Buddhism, painting, etc. “When Lola started to go blind, I decided it was time for her to learn piano,” Anderson says in the film. She hired a piano teacher and we see iPhone footage of the dog, staring blankly into space, tongue lolling out of her mouth, stiffly dropping her paws on a keyboard. “She was actually pretty good,” Laurie muses. She took the joke all the way, never breaking her dead-pan conviction that Lolabelle could actually play piano. “She even played a benefit concert,” Anderson recalls.
It was hard to explain the film to other people– “It’s about her dog,” I’d say, to quizzical stares. “Her dog?” people would look at me like I’d just really felt something for a movie about a dog.
“Well, this wasn’t just any dog, she loved her dog a lot,” I’d struggle to explain. “And this dog, it could play piano…” Why did I sound so stupid? It’s hard to convey how sad and how funny the life of a dog can be to people who have never met this dog. How could I make people understand how Laurie Anderson was able to pack so much about life and death and pain and numbness into this tiny, defective little animal? Heart of a Dog is a deeply painful movie, but if you dwell too much on the sadness you can easily forget how funny the film is. But if you can balance both memories, then you partially succeed in what the film manages to realize. As Laurie’s Buddhist teacher advises her: “You should learn how to feel sad without actually being sad.”