Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is an unconventional documentary. Known primarily for her performance art and avant-garde music (Criterion fans might know the score she wrote with John Cale for Something Wild [review]), Anderson’s feature-length directorial effort translates much of what she has been about into a fresh venue. Aesthetically satisfying while also thought provoking, Heart of a Dog is more than a meditation on the passing of the artist’s beloved pet, a rat terrier named Lolabelle, but a general exploration of how we deal with death and also the way a terrible event like September 11th changes us.
These might seem like quite disparate narrative pursuits, but Anderson weaves them together with little effort, and is arguably more successful at doing so by avoiding creating any clear connectors. Sure, Lolabelle’s examination of the sky on an outing might remind Anderson how her fellow New Yorkers also now look to the heavens for potential danger, but it’s more free association than causal metaphor. Heart of a Dog examines how our views of the afterlife might also affect our sense of security in the world (our paths, as tracked by CCTV and surveillance devices, create a kind of ghost image of who we are). Likewise, language determines how we communicate with one another, how we establish connections. When you consider these things together, a dog does seem to be the perfect vehicle for such concerns. We look to our canine friends for both security and companionship, and perhaps this simple relationship could serve as the seed to how we engage with the world at large.
In terms of style, Anderson composes Heart of a Dog with a variety of tools, ranging from animation to re-enactment, home videos to random security footage. This allows her to shift as necessary, to keep the essay flowing. Anderson narrates the whole thing with a calm tone, matched by the ambient score she also composed (some of which was performed with the Kronos Quartet; interestingly, you can also watch the film with the music turned off). There is a feeling with this movie, particularly in terms of this release, that Heart of a Dog is more than a film, but also a packaged experience, an object, with the extra booklet included in the Blu-ray creating a mini paper version of the movie’s look and feel. Once you remove the plastic wrap from the case, there is no element here that was not strongly considered to contribute to the whole.
Amidst all this heady construction, however, the most effective moments, at least for me, come when Anderson pauses to share an anecdote about Lolabelle, or even to show us a small piece of video starring the dog. Lolabelle was not just integral to Laurie Anderson’s creative process, joining her for long days in the studio, but also, adorably, a collaborator, learning to play music herself. As someone who lost his own pet earlier this year, a cat whom I had lived with for seventeen years, including a full decade of working at home every day, this has a particular emotional resonance with me. Such pets become essential to our day-to-day routine, a confidante, a constant presence. In making Heart of a Dog, Anderson is able to apply Buddhist philosophy to her grief: the Tibetan Book of the Dead instructs those left behind not to cry, as tears will only confuse the departing spirit. Thus, what the filmmaker shares are not mawkish remembrances, but joyous ones.
It’s hard not to wonder how much of the feeling here, though, is not just for Lolabelle, but for Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson’s long-term partner and husband, who passed away in 2013. Reed appears briefly in the background, and one of his songs graces the closing credits. Heart of a Dog is also dedicated to him. It seems impossible that much of what Lolabelle inspires in tribute here wouldn’t also be connected to the other loss. If so, then once again, this furry creature provides a smaller outlet to look toward something bigger.
This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.