For Lola and Lou with love
Artist Laurie Anderson’s memoriam for her mutt is a charmer, while Lou Reed makes his presence felt, writes
HEART OF A DOG Directed by Laurie Anderson. Featuring Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Lolabelle Club, IFI, Dublin, 75 min Somewhere in the middle of Laurie Anderson’s irresistible memoriam for her pet terrier – it’s much more than that, but there we start – she tells the sad story of her time in hospital following a backbreaking fall as a child. It occurs to her that, when discussing the incident, she tends to leave out memories of the noises at night. The next morning a bed would be empty. Those were the sounds that dying children make.
Are you paying . . . attention?
Amid the home movies, animations, the staged reminiscences and the experimental flourishes, we catch a brief shot of Lou Reed, her late husband, looking uncharacteristically jolly at the beach. Like the dead children, he is the unmentioned presence that hangs over the project. It sounds as if addressing the subject directly would be as uncomfortable as staring straight into the sun.
Now 68, Anderson has, over the past 40 years, exerted a singular influence on the culture. In the 1970s, after graduating from Barnard College, she became a pioneer in New York’s austere performance art world. There was a great deal of obscure work in downtown basements. She developed a variation on the violin that had audiotape where the bowstrings should be. Odd records emerged on obscure labels.
Yet, unlike so many of her terrifying contemporaries, there was a warmth to her work that eventually found a place in the mainstream. One still has to pinch oneself at the knowledge that O Superman, her minimalist, intimate epic, became a number-two hit in the UK 25 years ago.
The voice is unchanged. It still pauses . . . at the most unexpected . . . moments. It still feels as comforting as the sound of crinkled wrapping paper or simmering coffee. Most of what it says here is very wise.
Like so many people tackling memories of New York in the early part of the century, she includes thoughts on the aftermath of 9/11. For month and months, she notes, hunks of the building were transported down the avenues of the city to some undisclosed location. As the weeks crept on, she and her friends became used to a casual militarisation of the nation. Sub-machine guns at airports were once a rare sight.
Anderson also manages to tell us about her difficult relationship with her mother. She recalls saving twin siblings from the ice and dragging them back home. “I never knew . . . you were so . . . strong,” mom said. (I think I have the pauses in the right place.)
How does all this fit in with the story of Lolabelle, her late rat terrier? Even while watching, one finds the connections hard to identify, but it is a measure of the film’s brilliance that the shifts rarely seem jarring.
The dog was rescued after being abandoned by a recently sundered couple (who get their story told). She lived with Anderson and, even after going blind, was gently co-opted into her projects. Only a heel would fail to smile at the footage of Lola being coaxed with treats into playing along with the Anderson band. She even released a Christmas record.
For all the wisdom and erudition on display here, Heart of a Dog ends up reminding us that even the brightest folk can be sweetly sentimental about their animals. Towards the end of Lola’s life, the vets began suggesting that Anderson have the animal “put to sleep”. She knew better. She was probably right.
Only one thing jars. Anderson seems to have turned to Buddhism in later years and keeps referring to “my teacher”. Does somebody so bright really need such a thing?
Never mind that. Heart of a Dog is a very nice thing. Once again, Anderson makes the experimental delicious.