Multimedia artist Laurie Anderson’s first full-length film in nearly thirty years, Heart of a Dog, is a deeply personal poetic meditation on death, yet it avoids being mournful and melancholy and is instead a wistful tribute to life. Anderson, who directed her concert film, Home of the Brave, in 1986, details the story of her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, as the “mall dog” ages, goes blind, and dies. Using clips from home movies, archival footage, animation, and re-creations, Anderson delves into the nature of time, memory, beauty, and the process of grieving, referencing Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and David Foster Wallace as she narrates the tale in her familiar dramatic voice. The film is also about communication and language, two of her favorite topics, which come to the fore when she describes going to the mountains in Northern California with Lolabelle. “The idea was to take a trip and spend some time with her and do a kind of experiment to see if I could learn to talk with her. Now, I’d heard that rat terriers could understand about five hundred words, and I wanted to see which ones they were.” The story takes a fascinating turn when Anderson recognizes that Lolabelle, who she identifies as a painter, a pianist, and a protector, understands that circling hawks are a threat to her, that the dog is prey to them, a direct reference to Americans’ fear in a post-9/11 world, where armed soldiers are everywhere to guard against terrorist attacks, especially from the sky. Anderson goes back to her past, talking about a horrific childhood accident that almost left her paralyzed and led her to realize “that most adults have no idea what they’re talking about.” She also discusses her awkward relationship with her mother, subversive software, her obsession with JFK, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, ghosts, dreams, and sadness, explaining that her Tibetan teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche, once told her that “you should try to learn how to feel sad without being sad,’” which, Anderson notes, “is actually really hard to do.”
Avoiding over-self-indulgence, Anderson tells this autobiographical “story about a story” with a diverse range of compelling imagery, from lovely scenes of snowy woods and birds in trees to scratched, distorted avante-garde footage and many scenes of rain, as if the camera is gently crying. The soundtrack, primarily Anderson on violin, is mostly elegiac, tinged with heartbreak as she philosophizes about life and death, though it is ultimately an uplifting experience. Anderson dedicates the film “to the magnificent spirit of my husband Lou Reed,” who makes a brief appearance as a doctor and is shown later on the beach, his bare feet in the sand; he also sings “Turning Time Around,” a song from his 2000 album, Ecstasy, over the closing credits, in which the punk godfather, who passed away in 2013 at the age of seventy-one, explains, “My time is your time when you’re in love / and time is what you never have enough of / You can’t see or hold it / It’s exactly like love.” Following its special screening at the New York Film Festival, Heart of a Dog is playing October 21 through November 3 at Film Forum, with Anderson, whose stunning immersive multimedia installation “Habeas Corpus” recently finished its short run at the Park Avenue Armory, present to talk about the film at select screenings on October 21, 23, 24, and 25.