Essay films rarely get as much attention as Laurie Anderson‘s Heart of a Dog as already attracted. The highly regarded performance artist and musician has long been involved in cinema, having directed the concert film Home of the Brave, acted as host in various PBS documentaries and even serving as a member of the jury at the Berlinale back in 1991, but she’s never produced anything quite like this uncannily Marker-esque open-hearted ode to mourning. In turns startlingly funny and heart-wrenchingly sad, her return to the silver screen is a remarkably personal, unapologetically experimental work that ruminates on the recent deaths of her beloved rat terrier Lollabell and her late husband Lou Reed.
Calling to mind the work of Left Bank artists like the aforementioned Chris Marker and fellow female filmmaker Agnès Varda, Heart of a Dog is a wash of overlaid impressionistic imagery and draped in a meandering, introspective voiceover that hears Anderson ruminating on the artistic endeavors of her dog, who was trained to paint, play experimental music and mold paw print sculptures before going blind and ultimately passing away.
Using her relationship with Lollabell as the point of departure, she meditates on her worries of surveillance by via the science of canine perception and moves with topical pliability through the golden glory of Francisco Goya’s ‘The Dog’ and the subtle necessity of always remaining a student of life. No matter the subject it hand, Anderson returns to references of teachers and trainers, whether they be artists, religious figures or what-have-you, relaying the notion to remain humble and open to the world around one’s self, no matter how dark it can be at times.
For Anderson, life is a series of stories and some happen to be quite bleak. She imparts stories, among others, of breaking her back as a child in a poolside diving accident, leaving her bedridden in hospital amongst the interns in the clinic’s burn unit where children suspended in rotisseries cried out in pain night after night, occasionally disappearing without word or mention of where or why from the eternally mute staff. The memories rush back in a flood of blurry horror, the story told so many times details no long retain their shape until current tragedies prompt a recall in pin-point focus.
Of the many direct quotations referenced throughout the film, its her citation of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King that embeds itself the deepest – “Every love story is a ghost story.” According to Anderson herself, the phrase was the working title of the film, summing up the entire work in a single sentence of bittersweet remembrance. And yet, Heart of a Dog is disarmingly light, with Anderson’s humor and genuine curiosity shining through her cinematic dreamscape. Above all, the film asks us to try to perceive the world with the same enthusiasm and heart as a dog, uncompromising in their empathy and inquisitiveness, and loyal to boot. Without question, the world would be a far better place for it.