“Heart of a Dog” is a unique, exceptionally touching cinematic tone-poem on the subject of mourning and a movie that only Laurie Anderson could have made. It’s also a film in which the mourned object itself is nearly invisible. Only once before the last moments of this 75-minute art-documentary do we glimpse an image of Lou Reed, the late rock legend and the filmmaker’s husband. And that is a very Laurie Anderson tactic: fashioning a memorial on the subjects of life and death and the gray areas between them while maintaining a hole at the center of the work that’s too painful to look at directly.
As its title indicates, “Heart of a Dog” is also about Anderson’s faithful rat terrier, Lolabelle, who has also passed on to the great beyond and whose final days the artist confronts with love and dry humor. (After Lolabelle went blind in old age, Anderson taught her to play piano and paint, which is hard to believe until you watch the deadpan video evidence here.) The movie expands and contracts to take in the death of Anderson’s aged Midwestern mother as well — her last words were “Tell the animals. Tell all the animals.” — and the unthinkable existential grief occasioned by the attack on New York’s World Trade Center, which Anderson witnessed from a front row seat in her apartment downtown.
All of this only sounds depressing as hell if you’ve never experienced an Anderson performance. The elfin avant-gardist, now 68, narrates “Heart of a Dog” in the same calm, comic, karmic tone that animated her “United States” stage extravaganza back in the 1980s (and the single spun out of it,“O Superman,” which went all the way to No. 2 in England). She has the knack of making connections that are both funny and deeply foreboding. Here, she speaks of a hawk swooping down upon Lolabelle during a walk in the country and the dog’s reaction reminding her of New Yorkers after 9/11: the shocked realization that death “could come from the air, and that it would be that way from now on.” Or her thoughts on one of the mantras for our anxious new age, “If you see something, say something” — “It sounds like Wittgenstein.”
Visually, “Heart of a Dog” is an artful collage of animations, archival footage, canine re-enactments, and layered elements that seems to weave in and out of focus; the soundtrack mixes shards of recorded music and Anderson’s original, violin-based compositions, often paralyzingly beautiful. It’s a bit like a slide presentation from the Id. What holds it together is the artist’s lucidity and a sense of wonder that, for her, renders everything freshly seen. Which is maybe the definition of an artist right there.
The film loses its grip only once, and then intentionally, during a long section devoted to the “bardo,” the Buddhist concept of the waiting period between a person’s lives. (Anderson is a practitioner, as was her husband.) Even if you don’t buy into the notion of reincarnation — I’m not sure she does — the sequence feels like the slow dispersal of a person’s consciousness in the moments after death, a sort of great unwinding.
It helps to keep the unmentioned Reed, blunt and acerbic, in the back of your mind during such scenes, because it sharpens the fondness in every frame of his widow’s unorthodox elegy. “Every love story is a ghost story,” the filmmaker muses, quoting David Foster Wallace (who himself continues to haunt our culture). “Heart of a Dog” is a reconciliation with all the ghosts of Anderson’s life, and it works its way toward the revelation “that the purpose of death is the release of love.” In a very real way, this movie is that release, fashioned from words, sounds, images, and emotions.
★ ★ ★ ½
HEART OF A DOG
Written and directed by Laurie Anderson. Starring Anderson, Lolabelle. At Kendall Square. 75 minutes. Unrated (mature thoughts on loss and grief).