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Dog-Seeing Eye

The Cinematic Work of Laurie Anderson

ISSUE:  Winter 2016

Heart of a Dog.  Directed by Laurie Anderson. Abramorama / HBO Documentary Films, 2015. 75 minutes. The first time I saw my dog dreaming I took it for some kind of fit. She had been napping, stretched out on her side at my feet—a small sign of comfort in those early, wary days. It began with a flick of one paw, then a second; soon all four tapped out an arrhythmic beat. Her tail brushed awake and thumped at the floor. Her little face drew in tight: her eyes squeezed shut, her muzzle rolled in spasm, the line of her mouth danced over pointed teeth. Her brows jerked and wriggled; her nose—the small, black apex of her being—appeared to yank apart from itself. The shuddering spread down her body, and this most silent of dogs began to puff, whinny, and occasionally let out a long, rolling woof

Newly under my domain, she was lost to a greater maestro. Whether she was playing a tune or being played upon, the music had her. I lowered to the floor with an odd sense of stealth. The dog rocked harder, whimpered louder. I called her name—the third she had been given in as many years.

No one warned me. No one tells you dogs dream, and no one can say what dogs dream about. Witnessing it ever since, I still get spooked, though of course I leave her be: What first appeared as haplessness is now powerful evidence of self-rule. I get spooked, I suppose, because, although I missed the part about their dreaming, I long ago absorbed the prevailing canine myths and metaphors, most of which amount to the idea that a dog is hardly a dog before it enters a human’s life, at which point it receives a history, an identity, an emotional life—all the makings of a moral and narrative arc. The dog becomes the basis of a sort of ultimate dream, more insistent than any squirrel-bound reverie—the very human fantasy of unconditional love.

Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson’s first feature-length film since 1986’s Home of the Brave, is at once skeptical of and subject to what Anderson describes as “the creepiest thing about stories”—the stories we tell about ourselves, about others, about the past, about death, about terrorism, about “homeland security,” and even about our dogs. At seventy-five minutes, Heart of a Dog is an example of what critic André Bazin, writing about Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia in 1957, identified as the essay film, or, as he put it, “an essay documented by film.” It is digressive, experimental, personal, associative; restless in tone, subject, and style, it is a rolling collage held together by Anderson’s plush (sometimes too plush), intimate, oddly syncopated narration. Watching it, I experienced a vitalized kind of indecision—about whether Heart of a Dog comprises a series of dreams connected by a larger story, or a series of stories bound inside a womb-like dream.

A painting by Laurie Anderson, from her 2011 "Lola in the Bardo" series, which appears in "Heart of a Dog."  (Image courtesy of Laurie Anderson.) The dog whose heart both eludes and belongs to Anderson is a rat terrier named Lolabelle. Small and white with black and tan markings, Lolabelle lived a very downtown-Manhattan life, filled with fancy treats, music lessons, art projects, West Village walks, and nuzzles from Julian Schnabel. Once Lolabelle cut a Christmas album, Anderson tells us, and it was “pretty good.” Lolabelle learned to play the piano after she went blind, and performed at the occasional charity event. As listeners, it is believed, dogs prefer strings. Acting on this belief, in 2010 Anderson and her husband, Lou Reed, decided to put on a short concert for dogs in Sydney, Australia, as part of their participation in a festival there. It was a mix of strings, beats, and high-frequency noise, brief numbers composed in dog-favored fifths. Anderson performed as well, reading from a dictionary of elaborately described smells. 

The impulse behind the Sydney concert—to commune with these enigmatic beings, to seek both an understanding of their nature and an acceptance of all that cannot be understood—animates Heart of a Dog, which manages to make comforting, frightening, familiar, and strange Anderson’s Buddhistic idea that “the purpose of death is the release of love.” Anderson’s contemplation of that purpose intensified in the period following her mother’s death in 2009; by the end of 2013, Lolabelle and Reed would also be gone. The film is dedicated to him, and Reed is an implicit presence in Heart of a Dog, one that girds Anderson’s stalwart reckoning, her voluptuous reimagining of the life and death of Lolabelle, whom she loved with great tenderness, and that of her mother, whom she fears she did not love at all.

Why can’t we crawl inside the ones we love? Why can’t we stuff them inside of us? In life we must work to organize such desires—a form of homemaking that accounts for the limits of expression, the barriers that separate all living and even all loving things. Instead of burrowing inside our loved ones we assign them meaning, seek to make sense of their presence in our lives. We tell stories.

In dreams no such pretense is necessary. Heart of a Dog opens with a story about a dream: Anderson, appearing in swirling animated form, describes a dream in which she gave birth to Lolabelle. “It’s a girl!” the doctors shout, just like they do in the kind of “movie you’ve seen a million times.” No one acts like anything strange has taken place; no one points out that Anderson’s dog is not in fact a human baby. No one lets on that the scene was orchestrated on rather gruesome terms, Anderson first having insisted that the doctors open her belly and sew the full-grown dog inside. Lolabelle is unhappy with being swallowed and spit out—being used—in this way. In her dream Anderson feels guilty, but not too guilty: “I felt bad about it, but it was just the way, you know, things had to be.”

Nonlinear and exploratory, Heart of a Dog is elusive by design. Anderson, experimental by trade, has no interest in a conventionally plotted narrative. Instead the film proceeds as though sung from behind a rich veil of fog, by a choir whose members step forward, one by one, to claim our attention. Each idea, each fragment and tangent, is of a piece with a whole that refuses to make itself wholly seen. 

Harmonies emerge between the sections: an evocation of how dogs experience the world—largely through smell; they see in a blurred spectrum of blue-greens—is picked up in Anderson’s vision of a militarized post-9/11 America, with its bomb-sniffing dogs, reality parsed in color-drained surveillance footage, and a citizenry reduced to its digital traces. Moving between animation, archival and personal footage, still photographs, and professionally shot performance (including reenactments of scenes involving Lolabelle, who has several doubles), Anderson seems to test and prod at her images: their edges may curl, their contents bleed, bulge, and stretch; some purl and open with wounds, or perhaps a portal. The effect is alternately soothing and disquieting, sometimes both at once. 

Reflecting on Lolabelle’s origins, Anderson gives us a rescue narrative: bred in a puppy mill and bought in a mall, Lolabelle’s first family gave her up when the parents divorced. We’re told the husband brought Lolabelle along for one last, melancholy kayak trip, and that it was on this trip, days from her abandonment, that she learned “the great skill of empathy.” But what might such an event look like? By way of illustration, Anderson shows us an inscrutable man paddling a kayak with an equally inscrutable dog in tow. The generic quality of the image cuts nicely into Anderson’s more sentimental version of events, as throughout Heart of a Dog her attraction to the uses and comforts of story confronts her instinct to challenge that attraction, and those uses and comforts. This is an artist, after all, who felt more joy than guilt, having stuffed her dog into a human form. (It’s just the way things have to be.)

Anderson also includes in the film a story she has told many times since 9/11, about Lolabelle. In early 2002, Anderson decided to leave New York City for a stay in California. Her plan included meditation, fresh air, and finally learning how to talk with Lolabelle. That dogs can understand up to 500 words is one of those “human interest” factoids consumed—alongside reports of which foodstuff is newly poisonous and which will save your life—with an appetite that will keep scientists cramming dogs into MRI machines until some better way of proving that they really do love and understand us comes to pass. 

But Anderson soon dropped the idea of talking with Lolabelle. The mountains were too beautiful for learning, and the two simply walked. When Lolabelle attracted the attention of some birds of prey, however, a different kind of education ensued. Having narrowly avoided death from above, Lolabelle acquired new and grave knowledge about the sky, according to Anderson, and the things that might emerge from it. The connection to post-9/11 New York is plain, and in making it, Anderson sinks her own talons deep.

The bird story stands out for its tidy metaphor, trimmed clean of the threads Anderson tugs at elsewhere. It bears too little in common with the Anderson who, late in the film, tells “a story about a story,” recounting a childhood injury that landed her in the hospital for weeks. For years she framed this particular event as a parable about her own distrust of adults, and her impatience with the stories they tell. In the midst of retelling it one more time, Anderson suddenly recalls all the parts she has left out—the smells, the fears, the cries of dying children, the clamor of ghosts surrounding the part about her. And that’s the creepiest thing about stories: “You try to get to the point you’re making, usually about yourself, or something you’ve learned—you get your story, and you hold onto it, and every time you tell it you forget it more.”

An embrace of that messiness can be central to the act of mourning. The purpose of death is the release of love, the release of energy—and in a sense a release from narrative. Anderson illustrates that release in the film’s bravura sequence, depicting Lolabelle’s time in the bardo, the spiritual limbo where, according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the dead must toil for forty-nine days; where energy prepares to take on a new form, and leaves the old one behind. This is of course yet another story, but within its confines Anderson finds her way into the genuine chaos of loss, and in representing that chaos imagines Lolabelle anew—a creature alone, with unknowable dreams and a death all her own. 

“Every love story is a ghost story,” Anderson tells us, quoting David Foster Wallace. A love story describes things that once were, or that never were; it tells of unknowns, of hauntings, of time vanished into time. In her final moments, Anderson’s mother saw animals on the ceiling, and spoke to them with love. Later, while performing a Buddhist “Mother Meditation,” Anderson struggles to recall a moment in which her mother truly loved her, “without a single reservation.” She comes up with one eventually, an extraordinary anecdote involving the near-death of her younger twin brothers. But love, as Reed sings over the film’s end credits, is not guaranteed by family, or by marriage, or at all, and searching for its proof is another kind of ghost story. “If I had to / I’d call love time,” Reed sings. The film’s closing image shows him with Lolabelle, suspended in a moment of private conference. 

The Mother Meditation asks, finally, that you imagine having been everyone’s mother, and imagine also that they have been yours. Much of Heart of a Dog feels stolen from deep within that cosmic venture. One phrase provides its refrain, a welcome and a promise simple enough to betray a universe of longing, seeking, and loss. I heard it for days: “Hello little bonehead,” Anderson greets her newborn daughter, the Lolabelle of her dreams. “I’ll love you forever.” 


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