Heart of a Dog

Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is not just a movie but a guided meditation, drawing viewers into a state of peaceful contemplation from which they can consider such subjects as death, loss, and unconditional love. Over soothing music (which she composed herself), Anderson addresses these topics in tranquil, informal voice-over narration, as though engaging one in conversation. The film moves gracefully between the profound and the mundane, as Anderson digresses from her core concerns to consider such things as street life in her native Manhattan and the behavior of her dearly departed dog, Lolabelle. The visual style meshes beautifully with the narration; the film is a dense (but hardly overwhelming) montage of experimental animation, 8-millimeter home movies, printed text, and brief reenactments of the stories Anderson tells. One watches it as though drifting through a dream; not coincidentally, Anderson introduces herself in the animated form of her “dream body—the body I use to walk around in my dreams.”

Despite the free-flowing structure, Dog has a sharply intellectual orientation. Anderson has a lot on her mind, yet her observations sound off the cuff, even when she’s talking about such complicated topics as post-9/11 surveillance culture. Indeed, in much of the narration she considers the government’s current obsession with surveillance, reflecting on the proliferation of security cameras all over New York and the construction of the National Security Agency’s Utah Data Center. She considers these things much as she considers her more abstract concerns, asking viewers to think about how they affect our lives on a metaphysical level. At one point she quotes Kierkegaard—”Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”—to describe how surveillance experts piece together individuals’ lives after charging them with crimes. It’s a clever way of reframing contemporary political anxieties in timeless, spiritual terms.

Maintaining an intimate vibe, Anderson interweaves her cultural observations with personal memories. Some of these are funny, such as her story about trying to teach Lolabelle to play the piano. (“She made experimental music like I do,” Anderson deadpans.) Others are rather poignant, such as her recollections of watching her mother pass away. Stories about letting go lead to considerations of what bind us to life, as Anderson takes solace in her love of art and literature, her memories of close friendships, and the lessons of her Buddhist teacher. Such attachments ultimately serve to prepare us for death, since they teach us to love others more passionately, and death, she realizes, is all about “the release of love.”  v