LAURIE ANDERSON’S HEART OF A DOG
FILM HOMAGE BY LAURIE ANDERSON
Artist and performer Laurie Anderson’s new film, which channels her autobiographical reflections on her relationship with her dog Lolabelle, is at once heartfelt, moving, tender, and haunting. It’s an impressionistic film, much of which she shot on an iPhone, combining home movie footage with reenactments, animation, drawings, photographs, and her own original score. Though it is ostensibly about Lolabelle, a rat terrier, at times, Heart of a Dog seems more an allegory of life and death.
The film began as part of a series of short documentaries produced by the French-German company Arte for European television, and from there it evolved into a feature-length film. Arte approached Anderson about doing a personal essay film. “Personal essay film? What is that? I don’t even know what that is,” she told Pasatiempo. In the beginning, she wasn’t sure how to begin. “The producer was at a show I was doing in Paris where I was talking about Lolabelle, and he said, ‘Why don’t you just do some stories like your stories about your dog — you can put those in.’ I’m a short story writer, really, and that made a lot of sense to me. I thought, ‘What other stories can link to this one and where could it go?’ ”
The film is shortlisted for an Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category and screens at the Center for Contemporary Arts on Friday, Dec. 11, and Saturday, Dec. 12. Anderson will be present for Q& A sessions on both dates.
At the start of the film, Anderson recounts a dream in which she gives birth to a fully grown Lolabelle, after having placed the live dog inside her womb for just that purpose. This can be seen as an allusion to the artistic process, but it also works as a reference to creation itself. But it is also something far more personal, expressing the deep connection between
the artist and her dog, along with the desire to transcend barriers between species. “People who don’t spend a lot of time with animals, I think, are a little bit suspicious of that relationship,” she said. “But a relationship with a person and an animal can be very amazing and intense, and just to jump across that species line and try to communicate with them can be really profound. A lot of human interaction is, let’s face it, kind of on the superficial side. How many times do you look into someone else’s eyes?”
Heart of a Dog is an experimental film — a meditation on actual people, places, and events. But it is also a philosophical examination of the mores of contemporary society, and part of it deals with America’s compromising of its civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. She deftly moves the film’s focus from the personal sphere to the public, from the point of view of one who was horrified by the events of 9/11 but also disheartened by the government’s response. She’s brutally honest in her indictment of the Patriot Act and its exhortation to the American people to report on their neighbors.
The film’s narrative, recited by Anderson, segues freely from one topic to the next, and drifts easily, following a sort of dream logic. “Probably the hardest thing in the film was making it — it was unlike other things that I make,” she said. “For example, when you make a record you can make 12 songs, and they only have to be beautiful, have a personality, be hummable, dangerous, and gorgeous, but they don’t have to relate to each other. They don’t have to tell a story. The things I like in a film are when you feel like you’ve gone somewhere.”
The film’s vignettes are often based on memories from Anderson’s own past, such as her Midwestern childhood or her mother’s deathbed speech, providing a picture that contradicts the image of Anderson as an avantgarde urbanite. We catch glimpses here and there of other players in her New York circle, including musician Lou Reed (1942-2013), whom she married in 2008, and the artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, whom she humbly presents as her neighbor the painter.
But Anderson brings it back to Lolabelle throughout, moving from reflections on the absurdities of human existence to moments in a dog’s life, establishing a compelling, and at times riveting, contrast. “Dogs are very skilled in terms of empathy and that’s my goal, to try to figure out how to be empathetic. That’s why the dog-human thing keeps toggling back and forth.” Anderson draws on Tibetan Buddhist spirituality, describing the bardo, or transitional state, between death and rebirth, as detailed in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. She narrates what the journey to the afterlife might have been like when Lolabelle died, entering that in-between state for a period of 49 days before rebirth or a release from the cycles of existence. But Lolabelle’s life (and death) are also a metaphor for something more universal. Her bardo experience is not so different from a season of change in a human’s life. The 49 days in the bardo are a prologue to a new incarnation and a tale that’s yet to be written. “The real subject is stories and what happens when you tell them too often or forget them, or when somebody else tells your story, or when you are telling your story and you can’t use language. I tried all kinds of ways to tell stories in this: through other people’s mouths, through my own, through written things, through quoted things, through forgetfulness, almost like a song. It’s not really a film about me and my dog. That part I know.”
Heart of a Dog screening and Q& A with Laurie Anderson 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, and Saturday, Dec. 12 Center for Contemporary Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail $20 and $50; call 505-982-1338 for tickets and information
Dogs are very skilled in terms of empathy
and that’s my goal, to try to figure out how to be empathetic. — Laurie Anderson
A lot of human interaction is, let’s face it, kind of on the superficial side.
How many times do you look into someone else’s eyes?