Laurie Anderson narrates her autobiographical meditation Heart of a Dog as if it were Rod Serling’s Tibetan Book of the Dead, and her half-portentous, half-plangent tones make her mix of images seem even uncannier. Anderson’s springboard is her memories of her rat terrier Lolabelle, but the movie ripples outward into regions familiar from her musical and spoken works: the ever-encroaching surveillance state; predators natural and man-made; the plasticity of language; and, above all, the beautiful practice of walking, eyes open, into death and the (presumed) afterlife. Early on, she uses animation to simulate phosphenes, the floating specks that come when the eyes close. The film itself is speckled, often literally — scratches on the frame — but always metaphorically, its portraits seen through a glass snowily.
It’s a lucid dream of a movie, free-associative but studded with tough observations and philosophical nuggets that stave off the wooziness and woo-woo. “If you see something, say something” gets the Wittgensteinian scrutiny it deserves, pegged to the white ash that settles outside Anderson’s downtown apartment on 9/11 and the government cameras that suddenly pop up everywhere. A hawk that makes a dive for Lolabelle compels the dog to realize that she is now “responsible for [an additional] 180 degrees” — as we are, too. (But haven’t Anderson’s eyes always been on the sky? “Here come the planes. They’re American planes. Made in America …”)
She shows us the world through the eyes of a dog, trotting at sidewalk level through the West Village, swerving for sniffs at trash bags. Lolabelle goes blind but learns to smack the keyboard in time and howl. We are all like the dog in the Goya wall painting often called Head of a Dog, gazing into the immense dirty enveloping sky. Anderson won’t let her veterinarian euthanize the dying Lolabelle; she must move via her own power into the bardo, the Book of the Dead’s transitional state between life and death. Anderson keeps track of Lolabelle’s 49 days in the bardo. In drawings she depicts the dog dissolving, leaving this world behind.
Anderson’s description of Lolabelle’s last day recalls her account of the passing of her husband, Lou Reed, who’s glimpsed in a photo, heard on the soundtrack (“Turning Time Around”), and recognized in a final dedication. But his ghost hovers over Heart of a Dog. (Anderson quotes David Foster Wallace: “Every love story is a ghost story.”) It’s no stretch to imagine that this is a step toward memorializing him as well as them. But she ends by exhuming a memory from her childhood, from the time she spent in a hospital after a high-spirited high dive went back-breakingly wrong, hearing the screams of child burn victims as they turned on a kind of spit, bathed in cooling gel instead of flames. Then she meditates on the mother who didn’t show her love, except perhaps once.
Pity the fool who tries to diagram Heart of a Dog. Pity the fool who doesn’t respond to its lyricism and to the depth of emotion under those Rod Serling cadences. Anderson says that as a child she dreamed of making something that had never been made before, and, with the help of some gifted artists and editors and camera-people, she has done it again — with bells on. The only thing that would make it more pleasurable would be Anderson narrating it in person. (Dear BAM …)
*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.