by Ben Diamond
“This is me, but it’s not me. It’s my dream body.” So Heart of a Dog starts, with an animated Laurie Anderson in a dream sequence, narrated by the real Laurie Anderson. Ah, bloody hell, I think. It’s one of those. And whilst it was one of those, I got completely behind this film. Poor old Laurie Anderson. She’s had a sort of triple-whammy of death – her dog, her mother, and of course, the late, great, Lou Reed, her partner. So it’s a documentary, a very creative documentary, about death – how we deal with death, and what happens when we die. But it’s more than that. It’s about time, it’s about how we tell stories, and it’s about life in a world of surveillance, post-9/11.
Laurie Anderson appears to be a bit of an all-rounder. Clearly an accomplished filmmaker, we are also treated to musical compositions, her narrative, delivered in a captivating style (it actually reminded me of the slightly sinister voiceover in Desperate Housewives) reading like a long-form poem, and her elaborate paintings which imagine her dog in the various stages of the Bardo, the Tibetan equivalent of a sort of purgatory. There’s oodles of invention and daring concept in this film, including interludes of pure text on the screen, run out of order and flashing up very quickly, a see-what-sticks approach. What, in the hands of some, might have ended up as a whimsical mélange of ideas, in Anderson’s, becomes an enlightening and perceptive essay.
Some of the connections she draws might sound silly, but in the film become utterly thrilling and convincing. She takes you one way, and then steers you in completely the other direction, then draws things together that make you marvel at her skills of perception, her unique worldview. She talks about the moment her dog, Lolabelle, was attacked by hawks when they were out for a walk – they mistook her for a rabbit. The hawks realise their mistake and retreat – but the dog is left with a new fear – they can come from the air, too. A whole 180 degrees of extra threat for Lolabelle, who, although territorial before the incident, now looks up at the sky constantly as well as scouting on the ground. Anderson then swerves back to 9/11. We, too, realised that they can come from the sky.
Some bits of this film worked for me and some didn’t. I have to admit I got slightly lost during the extended Tibetan instructions for what to do when you die. I think the film succeeded best when it was simply Anderson telling a story – something which she clearly has a gift for. And she has important things to say, too, about how we tell stories, and the things we leave out. Heart of a Dog never feels didactic. It feels more like the musings of a wise elder, which you can take or leave. At one point Laurie tells us that she tries to feel sad, but not to be sad. I’m not even sure what that actually means, or how you could achieve it, but it sounds significant, and I’m going to give it a go.