What do you do when confronted with loss? Many of us flip through old photographs, read letters, watch videos from years gone by. Or, to bring it up to date, scroll through saved files of various kinds. Maybe you talk it through with those close to you, who understand and get the context and import and strange resonances. Maybe your thoughts turn towards the spiritual, and you find yourself trying to arrange the fragments of pain into a coherent whole, in which the pieces fit and you find some solace. Or maybe you let memories skip across your mind, like stones over water.
Or maybe, like musician, poet, and performance artist Laurie Anderson, you make a movie.
Heart of a Dog is a documentary, I guess. But it is a world apart from most of the titles that would fit under that heading. It’s part eulogy, part diary entry, and part prayer. It’s an impressionistic whisper of a film that really only exists to trace the contours of one person’s sorrow, and, if you can get on its wavelength, it’s a staggering vision of grief and reconciliation … not just with oneself, but with the universe. It’s a film about god that is also a film about a particular dog. It’s that stone skipping over that water.
What is it about? Well. It’s about Lolabelle, Anderson’s beloved and adorable rat terrier. The two of them flee New York after the 9/11 attacks, when Manhattan suddenly became full of soldiers and the New Normal, to the California coast. Anderson has read that rat terriers understand 500 words and she wants to find out what they are. But California is too beautiful, so they spend most of their days exploring the hills and beaches instead. It’s about Lolabelle growing old, becoming blind, and learning how to play the piano (seriously … and she’s really great, actually). It’s about Lolabelle growing old and dying, as we all have a tendency to do, and the ways in which Anderson deals with this, including by illustrating her visions of Lolabelle’s travels through the tumultuous afterlife. (The Tibetan Book of the Dead plays a very large role here.)
It’s also about the death of Anderson’s mom, and implicitly about the death of her husband Lou Reed, to whom the film is dedicated (and who appears in key scenes). Certain scenes trigger memories, and we hear about childhood moments that have lingered on and which have particular subtext and echoes. The stone skips and skips.
Words appear on the screen from time to time – brief, elliptical poems and quotations, ranging from Wittgenstein to Kierkegaard. Super 8 footage shot a generation ago merges with hand-drawn illustration. Some images appear to come from a camera affixed to Lolabelle, or a stand-in, for a dogs-eye view of the world. Anderson’s narration and music is pervasive, invoking something trance-like in the audience. “Where is the beautiful philosophy?” she asks. It’s everywhere throughout her short film.
At one point, she quotes David Foster Wallace: “Every love story is a ghost story.” And there are ghosts aplenty here, in the corner of every frame. A Goya painting, atypical, all gold with a dog surfacing in the corner, plays a central role. But this is a dream landscape, so there’s little point in finding referential meaning. Heart of a Dog is a hymn to life and loss, and hymns don’t explain themselves as such.
Did this resonate with me so much because I live with a dog who looks and acts quite like Lolabelle (though he can’t play piano for shit)? Do you have to ask?
Will it resonate with others? As with much of Anderson’s body of work, it probably depends on how much patience you have at the moment and what you’re willing to allow. The images are frequently gorgeous, and her narration is often funny in that wry way we associate with people who have nothing left to lose. Your mileage may vary.
I think it’s one of the more heartfelt things I’ve seen all year, but I also think it’s steadfastly opposed to reductive analysis. If Heart of a Dog has a message, it’s, “Hold on to each other, now.” It’s a film focused on dying that is totally unafraid of death. It’s clear-eyed, pure, and counter-intuitively joyful.
And it might break your heart, in a good way.