You tend to lose people in waves. The vagary of statistics, an actuarial table fulfilling its dull prophecy, the phenomenon is disconcerting all the same. Someone close to you dies, and too often a few others follow in that death’s wake. In a scant two years, Laurie Anderson lost her mother, her husband musician Lou Reed, and her cherished rat terrier Lolabelle. Heart of a Dog is Anderson’s response to those losses, an eccentric, exceedingly beautiful cinematic essay about death and memory, the limits of language and stories, 9/11 and the quirks of surveillance in the bifurcated psyche that followed the event, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the passage of the soul. A laundry list like that is hard to tie together, but Anderson’s agile mind moves fluidly from one piece to another, giving the film a marvellous tangential flow. Throughout, it’s a love-letter to her fittingly oddball pooch, her affection for Lolabelle a humorous anchor as Anderson trawls the philosophical depths.
Heart of a Dog is Laurie Anderson’s first film since her 1986 concert film Home of the Brave. The acclaimed musician and performance artist began making waves in the New York art scene of the seventies, before soaring onto a wider stage with her surprise 1981 hit “O Superman”. That song established Anderson as an unlikely popular artist, with its hypnotic cadence and spare, evocative imagery. Even listening to it today, it’s a work that’s so outside as to sound utterly relevant and contemporary. The albums Big Science (1982) and Mister Heartbreak (1984) solidified her reputation, as well as the soundtrack work she did for Spalding Grey’s movies Swimming to Cambodia (1987) and Monster in a Box (1992). In 1992 she started dating Lou Reed, and they were together until his death in 2013. It’s impossible to imagine a more quintessentially New York couple, each a brilliant artist, their Andy Warhol connections, each one a master of affected totally disaffected cool. They collaborated on each other’s music and art projects throughout the 90s and 2000s, and clearly were very deeply in love.
The film opens with Anderson relating a dream, which she illustrates with simple charcoal sketches. In the dream, she’s in a hospital, giving birth to her dog Lolabelle. It’s funny and a little creepy and strange, but it just gets weirder. The birth was staged, it turns out, and Anderson conspired to have Lolabelle sown inside her beforehand, an artificial maternal connection she clearly enjoys. Dark humour and emotionally keen observation are her twin tools throughout the film. Over footage she shot of her and Lolabelle hiking in the Bay Area, she relates the story of a hawk that came swooping out of the sky, mistaking Lolabelle for an oversized rabbit. Consternation was mutual and the hawk flew away, but Lolabelle suddenly had an awareness of a dangerous new dimension: disaster could strike from above. The story segues into the events of 9/11, and people’s shock and horror that the sky above them had irrevocably changed. She doesn’t dwell on the grimly sensational day, focusing instead on the clamped down reaction afterward, the military in the streets, the ubiquitous cameras and the follies of the Department of Homeland Security’s Orwellian messages (“If you see something, say something” and the banal chill of the later addition “it’s probably nothing”). From there the film veers into a meditation on the limits of language, quoting Wittgenstein’s observation “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” It’s a fascinating progression that never feels scattered. Rather, you feel like you’re riding the spark of Anderson’s neurons firing, flitting from moment to moment on the lightning in her brain.
Lolabelle goes blind in her later years. Anderson embarks on a variety of projects to keep the dog active and fulfilled. The dog “makes” ceramic art, impressions of her paws reworked as tiny clogs, and learns to play the piano with a degree of sporadic aptitude that’s hilariously enjoyable. Reed and Anderson even arrange for Lolabelle to give a concert at an animal benefit, a sequence that runs a tad too long with the humour of a mother’s indulgence. Sadly, this quirky critter’s run is cut short with the onset of cancer, and the film takes a melancholy turn. Anderson delves into our fear of death, even in terms of our pets, as they opt to bring the canine home to die with her family. And after Lolabelle’s gone, Anderson orchestrates her elaborate imaginings of Lolabelle’s journey through the bardo, a 49-day sort of purgatory found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. There the soul learns to let go of its previous life, until it is unencumbered and free to take on a new form. She then turns to remember the difficult time of her mother’s dying, overlaid with footage of driving through snow outside Chicago. It’s a beautiful, moving sequence, Anderson touching on the strains in their relationship and her uncertain jumble of feelings. Her Buddhist teacher tells her to “feel sad without being sad”, and that notion is the crux of the film. Lou Reed’s absence in the film is palpable, as Anderson’s stories weave through place and time. The film is dedicated to his “magnificent spirit” and he so clearly inspires her, his loss an exquisite, ongoing ache. At one point, Anderson quotes David Foster Wallace, saying “Every love story is a ghost story.” With Heart of a Dog, we’re privileged to share Anderson’s wrestling with a succession of ghosts. It’s clear as it unfolds the one that’s unspoken she misses the most.
UPDATE: TIFF is over, but Heart of a Dog was picked up just before the Telluride Film Festival by Abramorama and HBO Documentary Films. The film won the Lina Mangiacapre Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the Golden Lion. It’s slated to play the New York Film Festival and the San Sebastian Film Festival. HBO will air the film in 2016.