There’s a recurring motif of leafless trees in Laurie Anderson’s lyrical Heart of a Dog. In the context of their first appearance, they’re like neural pathways forming connections between past and present just as the filmmaker is doing. Stark against a spectacular star-filled sky they seem to stretch up to the heavens. Later they bristle in grief, like nerve-endings reaching into the great beyond. Resurfacing throughout, they live in a frozen state between the death of autumn and the rebirth of spring – in the liminal state that Buddhists refer to as bardo, and where Anderson’s pooch, Lolabelle, also finds herself.
Death, birth, and the intangible processes in between are the concerns that loosely govern Anderson’s meandering and bewitching new cinematic collage. The possibility of a journey of spiritual discovery may not sound like enormous appealing, but Anderson’s clear-eyed voiceover and alluring visuals combine in a moving and impressionistic exploration. It ranges from discussions of Tibetan philosophy to Kierkegaard, from JFK to post-9/11 anxiety, from Gordon Matta-Clark to Goya. The Goya painting referenced is spiritual kin to Heart of a Dog – it’s a broad canvas whose small but most important element is a dog looking up at the sky. “We learned to love Lola as she loved us,” intones Anderson in her entrancing narration, “with a tenderness we didn’t know we had.” Buddhist teachings mean that Anderson couldn’t cry when Lolabelle died, she was advised instead to – every time she thinks of her – give something away and bring joy instead. This poetic lament and endearing celebration acts as a more than worthy gift.
Lolabelle already acted as inspiration. Anderson recounts parallels she saw when the dog had a near-miss with a brazen eagle just week’s after the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre. “They can come from the air”, she interpreted as her companion’s revelation as she kept nervously glances upward from then on. As Lolabelle’s life neared its conclusion, and she lost her sight, she found joy in a late-blooming career as a canine pianist, cementing her reputation in the New York bohemian art scene. Anderson intersperses actual footage with variously created images, photographs and textured overlays. This becomes all the more prevalent as Lolabelle shuffles off this mortal coil and the film ventures into contemplations about her 49-day passage through in bardo.
Each new anecdote or aphorism that Anderson recites branches off from what has come before in some way – even if it feels tangential. The film roves from pyramids standing colossal in the Egyptian desert to the NSA’s data centre in Utah. From an upsetting childhood hospital stay, to the way in which she has re-framed her relationship with her terminally ill mother. Self-aware, the narration points out that discussions of death are often “more about you than the person who died.” Heart of Dog both presents and deconstructs the stories that Anderson tells the audience and herself about her life, death and Lolabelle.
Heart of a Dog is out now on DVD and on demand. For more info, visit dogwoof.com/heartofadog.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson