Film Review: Laurie Anderson’s ‘Heart of a Dog’

Laurie Anderson’s film is a formal hybrid. It takes the death of her dog Lolabelle as a starting point for an anecdotal meditation on death and memory, mashing together old and newer footage, mostly filmed on handheld cameras and of wildly varying fidelity.

There’s also prominent text – perhaps poems, song lyrics, prose – that flash word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, a little too quickly to completely follow. Anderson never speaks along with them. Some might find this frustrating, but it’s a technique I rather liked: instead of solemnly pondering a body of text suspended onscreen, insisting on its own gravitas and self-completion, we snatch at them as nuggets of thought, fleeting cut-up emotions. I think I’d prefer ‘live’ poetry recitals done this way; they would retain the pace of delivery, and stop the audience’s attention from drifting away from the words and toward the speaker’s cadences and gestures.

But there is plenty of spoken narration too, far more in fact than onscreen text, and the warm humour in her voice is comforting, even if some of her stories about the psychology of dying are profoundly troubling. I doubt that many dramatic fiction features could strike me in the gut quite so hard as her digression on the premature death of her friend, the American sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark, who invited his close friends and family to stand around his hospital bed while he read aloud to them, until he no longer could. Yet there are many moments of lightness, joy, and silliness: we see mobile phone footage of Lolabelle later in life, now blind but hammering happily on a cheap toy keyboard along with MIDI preset tunes. Laurie Anderson had even recorded her dog’s “Christmas album” and sent it to friends as a novelty gift. (It sounds like you’d expect.) That there is capacity for such drastic tonal changes in Heart of a Dog says more of Anderson’s power as a verbal storyteller than as a filmmaker, though this is no backhanded compliment. The film is equally thoughtful and thought-provoking, more successful as a vessel than it is as a form.

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I’m not an aficionado of documentaries, especially ones in this kind of expressive and free-associative mode, but I tend to prefer those that deal with the conflict between personal authorship and objectivism head on. Acknowledging that it’s impossible to remove themselves entirely from the scenes they are witness to, they can either minimise their moral presence in both the filming and the editing, as somebody like Frederick Wiseman does, or they can choose to embrace their own subjectivity and make it a guiding principle of their work, as in Agnes Varda’s wonderful later films. (Somehow Werner Herzog manages to fit neither bill and still be a wonderful documentarian.) And in the more mainstream televisual style, of newspaper headlines and talking-head interviews, certainly the most interesting self-reflexive turn I’ve seen is in The Armstrong Lie, as Alex Gibney narrates his own disillusionment at having been lured into his own subject’s unreliable mythmaking. In Heart of a Dog, Anderson makes a virtue of her own subjectivity, and indeed of human (and canine) subjectivity, turning on its head an anecdote about a serious childhood injury by acknowledging that she has always unconsciously omitted its most traumatic detail when telling it in conversation. Here in her film she attempts to correct it, though the nature of human memory means she can never offer the unfiltered truth of the experience.

I came into Heart of a Dog expecting the spectral presence of Lou Reed, Anderson’s late husband, to linger behind her ruminations, or perhaps even for Lolabelle to be a proxy for Reed himself. How wrong I was, and how human-centric. Aside from the chronological fact that she had already begun working on the film before his death in 2013 (he has a cameo as a doctor in one of her most vivid reconstructions), Heart of a Dog devotes a sizeable portion of its first half to her imaginative projections of their inter-species relationship, of how Lolabelle might have processed a sense of her own impending death. Anderson’s approach is an associative blend of science, humanism, and various spiritualities, but without any woolly fudging of such contrasting philosophies. The abiding impression is of her sensitive intelligence, and the open-ended artistry of her interpretations.

It struck me that the digital overlapping of images, textures and surfaces is now an established technique in this kind of personal-thinkpiece documentary. Heart of a Dog uses raindrops on glass layered with a kind of rough paper or canvas, and the tactility of this is as much a part of the film’s effect as the grainy and unfocused Super 8 footage shot by the various Anderson siblings as children. Though the film is essentially non-linear, it gradually reaches back further into the past, beginning with Lolabelle but situated more fully in the context of the human lifespan, in all its length and range and complexity. The film ends on a note of resolution, and we come to see Anderson as somebody who is still prepared to reason, strive, and intuit her way towards the ineffable.