Heart of a Dog – Film Review by David Turpin
Director: Laurie Anderson
Writer: Laurie Anderson
Stars: Archie, Jason Berg, Heung-Heung Chin
Laurie Anderson’s last largescale album/performance piece, Homeland (2007-2010) was a dryly humorous, often disturbing meditation on life in a nation, and a world, irrevocably altered since the events of September 11, 2001. Her new film, Heart of a Dog, touches on those same events – once in a thrilling extended anecdote on the subject of airborne attack – but while Homeland was imposing and cool to the touch, Heart of a Dog is the warmest, most generous piece of work Anderson has ever produced.
It’s a change not just in tone but in medium, because while Anderson is generally thought of as a recording- and performance-artist, Heart of a Dog presents itself as a film – albeit one in which the often fractured visual component is given coherence almost entirely by the soundtrack. Notionally a meditation on Anderson’s relationship with her late dog, a delightful terrier named Lolabelle, the film expands from that point into a kind of associative discourse on human and animal experiences of death – both of others, and ultimately of the individual. If that sounds grim, Heart of a Dog is anything but. In fact, one has to go back as far as Anderson’s 1989 album Strange Angels to find anything as undeniably charming in her practice.
After a brief appearance by Anderson herself, in the form of a pen-and-ink rotoscoped cartoon, the film’s visual component is given over mainly to a kind of rarefied visual flotsam, often composed of home movies and private photographs, some manipulated to the point of abstraction. Over this, Anderson’s inimitable voice simply talks to us – with the combination of wry detachment and otherworldly intimacy that it often seems only she can conjure. Along the way, as well as learning the biography of Lolabelle, we hear about the surveillance state, the phenomenon of phosphenes, and Anderson’s own childhood. Indeed, while the most memorable visuals of the film are doubtless those of Lolabelle – including priceless imagery of her playing the piano – the most haunting auditory material is probably Anderson’s recollection of a period in the children’s hospital after breaking her back in a juvenile diving accident.
Like many of Anderson’s best self-contained pieces, this section of the film has a way of appearing to meander, before suddenly revealing a grand design beneath the apparently anecdotal. The same could be said of Heart of a Dog as a whole – and for that reason, the film demands patience. Those willing to give it will be richly rewarded, as underlying shapes continue to reveal themselves days after the film has ended – one particularly intriguing instance being how Anderson’s humorously grotesque account of a dream in which she ‘gave birth’ to Lolabelle is eventually echoed in a later reflection on the Buddhist ‘Mother Meditation’.
Anderson’s preoccupation with Buddhist practise is something viewers may wish to take or leave. Similarly, the animating idea of the film – in which a route into the most profound mysteries of experience is found through the simple relationship of dog to human – is one that is probably best appreciated by those who have known and loved a dog in their lifetime. Others may find the film indulgent, if not wholly inexplicable. But what can be done for those people, anyway? Heart of a Dog is an exquisite statement from one of the most significant living artists in any medium. It tells us with humour and invention of how the darkest passages of experience – including its end – can be navigated, if we only allow our minds to travel for us. Ultimately, it tells us that, in the life of the mind, we have access to a way of being that truly transcends death. Meet it on its own terms and one might even find one’s worldview – and one’s opinion of piano-playing dogs – shifted, however slightly, for the better.