If I say Heart of a Dog might send you to sleep, I mean that as a compliment. Performance artist Laurie Anderson’s new film – the first feature she’s directed in 30 years – is a dream caught on camera. Sometimes clumsy, often beautiful, it’s a trancelike meditation on the love we feel for living things, inspired by the death of her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle.
Dedicated to her late husband Lou Reed, the film is as much an exploration of mourning as an essay on canine companionship. “When my mother died, she was talking to the animals that had gathered on her ceiling,” Anderson explains. Her last words were, “Tell the animals. Tell all the animals…” Across 75 minutes, Anderson tries to do exactly that.
Lolabelle, she tells us, was an artist. The dog could paint and sculpt. When Lolabelle went blind, Anderson taught her to play the piano. “I’d heard that rat-terriers could understand about 500 words,” she says. “I wanted to find out which 500 words they were… but beauty got in the way of the experiment.”
The beauty continues to get in the way as the film moves hazily from one digression to another. A memory of hawks swooping down at Lolabelle prompts an essay on the fall of the Twin Towers, surveillance, and homeland security. Images of the NSA headquarters are cross-cut with the pyramids of Giza. On paper, it sounds insane, but Anderson’s intoxicating voice lends credibility to anything she might say. When she murmurs, “As a child, I was a sky-worshipper,” it’s impossible to raise an eyebrow.
Anderson has never courted the mainstream, but sometimes crossed paths with it – as happened in 1981, when her nine-minute minimalist chant O Superman made it to number two in the UK pop charts. Her music, blending violin, electronica, and spoken word, is what glues the film together. When she breaks into song over footage of her younger self-skating across a lake, the effect is spine-tingling.
The film’s sonic landscape is wonderful but too often let down by the visuals. When she says that our data is in “the cloud,” the camera dutifully cuts to a cloud. Endless shots of rain running down the lens begin to feel repetitive. Far better are the moments when she shares her own artwork and animations, including a remarkable painting of Lolabelle in the Bardo (Buddhism’s Limbo).
At one point, Anderson shares her thoughts on phosphenes, the colored shapes we see when we close our eyes, “like some kind of eternal, plotless, avant-garde animated movie.” A cynic might see parallels here, despite the film’s short running time.
Heart of a Dog is a magnificent album disguised as a decent movie. Anderson’s beguiling monolog works best on its own, living in that dark space between the ears. Listen to the film, but watch your phosphenes instead.
Heart of a Dog is out now in cinemas and available On Demand from Amazon Instant Video and Youtube. The DVD will be released on June 13
An uncut audio-only version is also available on CD and MP3 and can be streamed via Spotify