As the credits roll in the final moments of Laurie Anderson’s meditative, wide-ranging essay-film-cum-zen-koan “Heart of a Dog,” we hear the creaking lilt of Lou Reed’s voice singing “Turning Time Around.” We have briefly glimpsed Reed once before in the film, sitting on the beach, watching Lolabelle, the titular canine, cheerfully hopping along the sand. Anderson—who provides a meditative voice-over narration in a cheerfully aloof deadpan that covers a vast range of topics—never speaks Reed’s name. Yet, despite his scant presence—barely even a cameo—Reed haunts the film like a ghost. As Anderson, quoting the late David Foster Wallace, tells us, “Every love story is a ghost story.”
Anderson and Reed were a couple for over twenty years until Reed died in 2013 at the age of 71. But, save for a dedication in the end credits, you wouldn’t know this from watching “Heart of a Dog.” She doesn’t talk about Reed’s death; she talks about the death of her spunky rat terrier Lolabelle instead. The entire film is, in a way, an act of displacement, an imaginative method of working through the death of her husband by making a film about her dog, as well as post-9/11 surveillance, Zen Buddhism, Wittgenstein, and Lolabelle’s blind keyboard-playing, among many other topics.
. What is life but a preparation for death? But few of us stare death in the face and tackle it directly. We displace the fear and knowledge of our own mortality onto a countless number of vain, ultimately meaningless, pursuits—careers, hobbies, relationships, art.
Anderson’s approach here is metaphorical, poetic, even mystical at times—as when she ruminates on the connection between past lives, dreaming, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome—yet it is also surprisingly accessible. That is due in large part to Lolabelle, who carries in her guileless, inquisitive face the air of a natural movie star. It is also thanks to Anderson’s essentially musical approach. “Heart of a Dog” is as much an aural experience as a visual one. The images, which are drawn from an array of different media, including home movies, animation, painting, still photography, surveillance footage, and text, have the feeling of memories. They are faded, occluded by time, always receding. The sound, however, primarily a mix of Anderson’s narration and her pulsing, modernist score, is sharply present. Anderson is concerned with storytelling and its capacity for making meaning out of the world, and this effect is reproduced by “Heart of a Dog”’s form. The visuals act as faded memories, while the music and narration form them into cognizable narratives.
This is how we make sense of the world, and this how we deal with death. We tell ourselves stories, we draw meaning out of our own memories. We keep the deceased alive in our thoughts and in our tales. Anderson at one point explains the Buddhist concept of bardo, the intermediate stage between one life and the next. The brilliance and beauty of Anderson’s film is to create a kind of poetic bardo in which life is remembered but not directly experienced, capturing the inexpressible liminal stage in one’s life after a loved one dies when life seems to pause, and memories seem more tangible than reality.