Providence

Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog

Artist Laurie Anderson opens Heart of a Dog by recounting a rather bizarre dream. Illustrated on the screen through sketchy black-and-white drawings and narrated in Anderson’s calm, comely voice, the artist gives birth to her dog, Lolabelle, the spectral rat terrier who becomes in some ways (though in others not) the star of the film. After being presented with her bundle, Anderson’s dream self feels very happy, though she admits to a glimmer of guilt for hatching the whole grotesque plan: to have a struggling Lolabelle sewn into her stomach so that she could give birth to her beloved pet.

Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog, 2015 (still). Courtesy the artist and Abramorama Entertainment.

Laurie Anderson. Heart of a Dog, 2015 (still). Courtesy of the Artist and Abramorama Entertainment.

The 75-minute film moves ethereally through the artist’s dreams, memories, and, perhaps most poignantly, her failures. The soundtrack is lean but emotive, comprising sparse string instrumentation, layers of synthetic beats and scratches, intermittent sound effects, and Anderson’s ever-present narration. Those familiar with Anderson’s work will recognize her distinctive voice: one full of air, released with great intention, one syllable at a time, her esses melting into a sibilant hiss. The accompanying footage maintains a similar airiness, many of the frames blurred by a heavy peripheral vignetting, or filtered through rain or haze. The images appearing onscreen are pulled from a variety of places. Anderson’s drawings, her own footage capturing her New York neighborhood along with West Side Highway, and the modest adventures of Lolabelle provide visual material for some of the film, while other scenes are borrowed from 8mm family movies from the artist’s youth and footage borrowed from Anderson’s other video works. The images remain indeterminate, abstracted—in the very way that memories and dreams are visually recalled.

Anderson’s voice serves as the tether for the wandering narratives and segmented philosophies woven together in Heart of a Dog. She speaks poetically about the shifting consciousness that she and other New Yorkers felt in the days after 9/11, when they realized that danger could come from the sky. She recounts the delirium of her dying mother, who in her final moments spoke tenderly to animals she saw hovering near the ceiling of her hospital room. She talks about her friend, sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark, his monumental artworks, and the tragedies and schisms in his own life that she sees as roots for his “anarchitectural” interventions. She folds in wisdom and witticisms from Søren Kierkegaard, David Foster Wallace, and her personal meditation coach, among others. “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,” she says, quoting Kierkegaard; “Every love story is a ghost story,” channeling Foster Wallace. The words of Anderson’s partner, Lou Reed, close the film with humor lilting through the emotion of his song “Turning Time Around.”

Laurie Anderson. Heart of a Dog, 2015 (still). Courtesy of the Artist and Abramorama Entertainment.

Laurie Anderson. Heart of a Dog, 2015 (still). Courtesy of the Artist and Abramorama Entertainment.

If we rely on the title for cues, we may be tempted to focus too much on Lolabelle—the supposed “dog” of the title. But the central figure in Heart of a Dog is indeed not Lolabelle, but Anderson herself, and the heart in question is definitely human. Anderson displays effusive affection for Lolabelle. When the beloved rat terrier goes blind in her old age, Anderson and the dog’s trainer teach her to make paintings and sculpture, and to play piano. When Anderson travels to the West Coast to escape the freneticism of New York City after 9/11, it is Lolabelle who accompanies her on meandering romps to the Pacific Coast. And when Lolabelle is dying, Anderson stays by her side for her final three days, waiting with her for death. Summarizing her relationship with Lolabelle, she remarks, “We had learned to love Lola as she loved us, with a tenderness we didn’t know we had.”

Laurie Anderson. Heart of a Dog, 2015 (still). Courtesy of the Artist and Abramorama Entertainment.

Laurie Anderson. Heart of a Dog, 2015 (still). Courtesy of the Artist and Abramorama Entertainment.

Lolabelle acts as a foil for another central figure in the film: the artist’s mother. While Anderson is filled with affection for the dog, she confesses that she never was able to love the woman who raised her. She is not able to stir affection for her mother in the same way; she cannot easily identify a moment when her mother had loved her without hesitation. While Lolabelle’s death is described with calm and patience, Anderson’s mother’s death is recalled with a frantic rush of doctors and little time to share words. Tracing these two parallel relationships and their drastically opposing arcs over the space of the film, Anderson explores the “heart of a dog”—prodding the strangeness of her own heart, its limitations, its idiosyncrasies, its pleasures, and its regrets.

Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog was screened at the Avon Cinema in Providence, Rhode Island, on December 12, 2015.

Share