Heart of a Dog (2015)

First published by VODzilla.co

“This is my dream body,” declares a cartoon sketch of performance artist Laurie Anderson, before launching into an animated account of a dream that she had: as she lies in a hospital bed, a doctor presents her with her newborn baby, which is in fact her pet dog Lolabelle swaddled in a blanket. In the dream, Laurie’s joy at her newfound maternity is tainted by her awareness that she has “engineered the whole thing”, having had the adult Lolabelle surgically sewn into her so that she could give birth to it. “Hello, Bonehead,” Laurie greets her baby, “I’ll love you forever.”

This dreamy narrative that opens Anderson’s film essay Heart of a Dog also serves as a sly introduction to many of its theme. A reverie on birth, or at least rebirth, and its converse death (“bonehead”), on motherhood and hospital stays, on an intensely, if perhaps artificially, close love between human and canine, and on the false, fabricated nature of stories themselves, Anderson’s dream offers many of the motifs that will recur in her film – a multimedia meditation built upon home videos, reenactments, altered images, anecdotes, paintings, musical compositions (by both Anderson and Lolabelle) and on-screen text. Yet for all its free-associative riffing on ideas, this is no shaggy dog story, but a carefully constructed cinematic poem on the subject of love and loss.

In the middle of Heart of a Dog, Anderson tells “a story about a story”, in which, aged 12, she broke her back in a diving accident and ended up in a hospital bed (again), immobilised and annoyed by volunteers who imagined she wanted them to read to her a story better suited to children half her age. She then admits that though she often tells this story of her childhood, she was disturbed by the sense that “something was missing” from it – until one day, in a traumatic flood of memory, she suddenly recalled what she had been repressing: the sounds and smells of other children on the ward dying around her. In her own film, Anderson tells many stories, but never allows us to forget death.

Most prominent is the death, following years of blindness and later illness, of her beloved Lolabelle – and the film’s longest, most abstract sequences involve Anderson, a committed Buddhist, imagining her dog’s 49 days of post-mortem bardo, as outlined in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. If this is Anderson’s way of processing her own grief, the object of that grief is more than just her Rat Terrier. For she also reflects upon the death of her own, rather less adored mother, the permanent change engendered by the destruction of 9/11, and – more obliquely – the passing in 2013 of Anderson’s husband and lifelove Lou Reed. Reed is the ghost that haunts Heart of a Dog. A notable absence in the film, even though he survived Lolabelle by two years, he is briefly glimpsed (without comment) just the once, in home video footage, sitting on a beach as Lollabelle runs about, with Anderson in voice-over describing the leaving behind of passion that comes with death. As the final credits roll, Reed will return, as singer, photographic subject, and dedicatee. There is the sense that the entire film has been Anderson’s tentative experiment with reconciling herself as much to his departure as to her dog’s – and that is the heart of the matter. The results are a thoughtful and affecting memento mori.

Summary: Laurie Anderson’s meditation on love and loss is Stories We Tell meets the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

© Anton Bitel