Renowned artist Laurie Anderson delivers a lament for her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle, exploring themes of love, life, death and loss in an impressionistic, deeply personal journey through one woman’s life, mind and art.
More of an audiovisual essay than a traditional documentary, Heart of a Dog is musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson’s quirky and wide-ranging tribute to her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, who died in 2011. Using her relationship with the animal as a starting point, Anderson, in her first foray into film since her 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, playfully creates a philosophical collage exploring the nature of memory, mortality, love and grief.
The film combines archival footage, animations, home movies, photographs and recreations (a list of dog actor stand-ins for Lolabelle appears in the credits). These are held together with Anderson’s narration in her famously distinctively voice – a kind of soothing purr punctuated with crisp silences. A portrait emerges of a particularly indulged and beloved New York pet. Lolabelle is a nondescript little white dog, not particularly cute or fluffy, and by the end of her life quite blind and sick. But by virtue of her owner’s love and fascination, she’s the kind of dog who has a personal trainer, music lessons and art classes, and gives well-attended benefit concerts and exhibitions; the kind of dog whose owner dreams of giving birth to her, and makes experimental films surmising upon the animal’s journey into the afterlife.
"It’s arguable that the ghost in this story is not Lolabelle, but Anderson’s late partner and collaborator, musician Lou Reed, who died in 2013."
It would be easy to parody Anderson. But there’s a lightness and humour here – as if on one level she’d be the first to acknowledge how funny it all is. She’s so generous with personal stories, strange insights and picturesque flights of fancy, that the effect is profoundly moving rather than mock-worthy. She flits from a story about the dog’s first encounter with hawks – the horror and lost innocence when Lolabelle realised threats could descend from the sky – to New York’s 9/11 tragedy, and the paranoid surveillance and data collection that ensued. There are haunting tales of Anderson’s mother, her childhood illness, and the time she rescued her twin brothers from an icy pond, as well as extended sequences of winter-bare trees accompanied by her striking instrumental and vocal score. Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and the Tibetan Book of the Dead are mentioned, but what you’re really watching is Anderson’s own psyche trying ‘to live in the gap between the moment that is expiring and the one that is arising.’
The film began as a short essay-film commissioned by the Franco-German public television station, as part of a series where artists talked about the meaning of life and their work. Its original title was a quote from writer David Foster Wallace: ‘Every love story is a ghost story.’ It’s arguable that the ghost in this story is not Lolabelle, but Anderson’s late partner and collaborator, musician Lou Reed, who died in 2013. The film is dedicated to his memory and his song “Turning Time Around” appears on the soundtrack over the closing credits. But apart from a few brief moments (including a scene where Reed acts as Lolabelle’s vet in a recreation of her final days) he exists more as an absence than a presence, and it’s impossible not to read his loss onto all Anderson’s utterances on grief and death.
Viewers seeking a strong narrative, or even a coherent portrait of canine love, will be disappointed by the fragmentary and free-floating style of Heart of A Dog. But fans of Anderson’s work and those with an inquisitive spiritual hunger will find this a thoughtful and sincere gift.
Heart of a Dog screens at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne from 20 – 31 October, 2017.
Watch the trailer