“Heart of a Dog”: Laurie Anderson’s 2015 cinematic tone poem ponders life and death

By on January 16, 2017

Night Flight fave Laurie Anderson‘s 2015 cinematic tone poem Heart of a Dog — produced, in part, by HBO, who occasionally air it now as part of their HBO Documentary Films series, usually in the wee hours of the morning — is a heartfelt and deeply touching film about death, memory, and the passage of time, initially inspired by the passing of Anderson’s beloved rat terrier Lolabelle.

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Heart of a Dog clocks in at 75-minutes long, and is compiled from a variety of media, including Anderson’s charcoal drawings, paintings and various art pieces, personal photos, 8mm home movies, GoPro and iPhone video clips, and various others bits of filmic and digital media.

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The idea for the film began first with a discussion Anderson had with someone from Art in America magazine, who suggested to her that she consider making an essay film about her philosophy of life, which then was expanded through contemplation about the idea into another tangentially-related topic, a film based on stories about her dog Lolabelle, who played the piano and gave concerts, as well as painting and sculpting abstract works, becoming something of a celebrity herself for a time in New York City.

Anderson’s Buddhist teacher had convinced her to let the dog live out her long, happy life on her own terms at home, rather than doing what vets had recommended, which was putting her down to end her suffering.

Anderson’s first art show about Lolabelle (prior to making this film) was a reverent montage of her charcoal drawings called Forty-Nine Days in the Bardo, during which Anderson imagined her dog’s brief experiences in the “bardo,” which is a Tibetan word for the post-mortem transitional state of limbo, as described in Tibetan Buddhism, that exists for all sentient beings after death, a kind of waiting room in which the dead await their rebirth before moving on to the next life.

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That particular show — at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, PA, in 2011 — opened Anderson up to the idea of pursuing these ideas further, in a longer film, with Lolabelle acting as a kind of guide through the process of grieving, which she then supplemented with ruminations on death.

These ruminations were expanded into the film — Anderson’s first feature in thirty years — which comes to represent not just her philosophy of life, and what matters to the living, but how we all deal with death and grief over our loss in our own way.

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Anderson’s film also dealt with the death of her friend, NYC artist Gordon Matta Clark (she recalls in detail his sad last hours), and the passing of her mother, who never quite seemed to understand her daughter, or her daughter’s art, while she was alive (“When my mother died, she was talking to the animals that had gathered on her ceiling,” Anderson explains, telling us her mother’s last words were: “Tell the animals… Tell all the animals…”).

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The ghost of Lou Reed is felt here too, of course, but he is rarely seen in the film; his song “Turning Time Around“(from his 2000 album Ecstasy), however, plays over the credits, which also list, in a “Special Thanks” section, shout outs to to the various philosophers, poets and painters that Anderson quotes from in the narrated text, among them: Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein; Danish existential philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard; American novelist, short story writer David Foster Wallace; and essayist and Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, whose painting “The Dog” shows the head of a small black dog gazing upwards.

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Throughout Heart of a Dog, Anderson ponders significant memories and painful remembered moments in her own life, which, in turn, allows the viewer to imagine their own feelings about life and death, and what it means to be alive and perhaps facing their own mortality.

There’s quite a bit about Buddhist thoughts and beliefs, including Anderson’s frequent references to her Buddhist teacher and comments he’s made to her (she also tells us what her therapist has said too, from time to time, allowing us an even more intimate look at her personal life).

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Laurie Anderson, photo by Tim Knox

There are frequent references to The Tibetan Book of the Dead here too, including a quote from Tibetan Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche, “You need to try to master the ability to feel sad without actually being sad,” which had also appeared in a tribute essay to Reed that Anderson wrote for Rolling Stone.

At times, this eccentric but quite lovely little film veers away from death to discuss other topics of interest which don’t at first feel connected to death, like the sections on Homeland Security and the NSA’s collection of data and a huge new facility built after September 11, 2001, in Utah (which she compares to the way Egyptian kings collected “data” which was then buried with them in the pyramids of Giza), but Anderson weaves them into the overall narrative skillfully.

The spectre of death that followed the events of 9/11 recurs throughout the film as well, with Anderson talking about what came afterwards for our nation’s citizens, including the U.S. government’s persistent surveillance techniques and the intrusion of technology into our daily lives.

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We learn that she broke her back during childhood, in Illinois, and what it was like to be in a sad hospital ward and what it sounded like to her, with all of the other sick and dying kids who were dealing with their own health issues in the hospital beds all around her.

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The documentary — sometimes somber, sometimes quirky — is truly a delight for Anderson’s fans. She narrates throughout in her instantly recognizable voice, a kind of euphonious tone of voice as pleasant to the ear as her images are to the eyes.

Her stream-of-consciousness style of storytelling is at times poetic and elegiac, and other times she’s quite funny, and there’s quite a lot to learn here too (while we see dog’s eye-view shots of Anderson’s West Village NYC neighborhood shaded in blue and green, we’re told this is how dog’s see the world, everything tinted in a blurry blue-green color).

It’s overall really more like a dreamy art installation that you might expect to see projected upon a large wall inside an art gallery or perhaps playing in a repeating video loop in a quite museum setting of some kind.

The documentary’s soundtrack score — a moody mix of classical violin and cello and percolating electronic sounds — also deserves mention.

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From the Criterion Collection synopsis:

Heart of a Dog marks the first feature film in thirty years by multimedia artist Laurie Anderson. A cinematic tone poem that flows from a sustained meditation on death and other forms of absence, the film seamlessly weaves together thoughts on Tibetan Buddhism, reincarnation, the modern surveillance state, and the artistic lives of dogs, with an elegy for the filmmaker’s beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, at its heart.”

“Narrated by Anderson with her characteristic wry wit, and featuring a plaintive, free-form score by the filmmaker, the tender and provocative Heart of a Dog continues Anderson’s four-and-a-half-decade career of imbuing the everyday with a sense of dreamlike wonder” (Criterion).

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.