Film / Reviews

‘Heart of a Dog’: Living with the heartbreak of loss

by Giovanni Fazio

I wake up on a Sunday and my friend is gone. Cancer. I had known, but it was sudden. Memories of her come in a rush, accompanied by old photos re-shared, emails lingering deep in the inbox, a handwritten note. Her absence — the knowledge that I’d never get any more of her stream-of-consciousness texts about sunsets on the Keio Line, or see that beaming smile when I dropped some new tracks on her — was suffocating, that moment where a life stops being something evolving and intoxicating and turns into the fixed fragments of memory.

That evening, sleep does not come, so I throw on a DVD of a film that just came in the mail: “Heart of a Dog.” Suddenly, there is the calm, quizzical voice of Laurie Anderson, with that sing-songy tone, like your mom reading you a bedtime story, telling me how “death is so often about regret or guilt,” but that actually “the purpose of death is the release of love.” It is one of those all-too-rare moments when a film seems to reach out of the screen, grab you by the collar and shake you awake. “We should learn how to feel sad, without actually being sad,” muses Anderson, adding, “which is really hard to do.”

Laurie was talking to me, and to herself, and to everyone who would ever try to make some sense of the experience of loss.

Anderson, the NYC-based multimedia artist best known for her 1980s work, including the album “O Superman” and the concert film “Home of the Brave,” was commissioned by Arte France to make a “video essay.” That sounds quite dry and didactic, yet “Heart of a Dog” is anything but.

Half-installation art-video and half-diary, it’s technically about her dog Lolabelle, the rat terrier that she and her husband, musician Lou Reed, had adopted many years back, but it becomes a wide-ranging rumination on memory and loss, the likes of which I haven’t experienced since Derek Jarman’s “Blue.”

Anderson creates a dreamlike blur of images, incorporating home videos shot on an iPhone, long-lost Super-8 footage from her childhood, security camera videos, animation, snippets of typed text and repeated overlays of rain dripping down a windowpane like tears, and the hazy golden aura of Goya’s “Pero Semihundido” painting featuring a half-drowned dog. Everything is wrapped in Anderson’s own music, ranging from quirky electronic experiments to melancholy neoclassical strings.

At times “Heart of a Dog” is whimsical — the YouTube-worthy bits where Anderson teaches Lolabelle how to play a keyboard, or the dog’s-eye view of West Village streets and their enticing garbage bags and lampposts. After learning that terriers can understand about 500 different words, Anderson even tries to talk to her dog.

It becomes incredibly poignant, however, when Lolabelle’s hospitalization triggers memories of Anderson’s childhood, when she suffered a broken back, and how the story she has created about it over the years serves to shut out those early memories of fear and pain.

With Lolabelle’s death, Anderson digs into the Tibetan Buddhism which has shaped her thinking for a while now, and the sequence she creates of a soul passing through the Bardo, the plane between life and rebirth, is simply phenomenal, as the mind dissolves in a trance-like blur of on-rushing memories, flittering about like ghosts in a nebulous dream world.

Many reviewers have wondered, for all its talk of loss and remembrance, where is Lou Reed — who passed away in 2013 — in all of this?

These viewers fail to notice that certain lines in the film come straight out of the memorial that Laurie penned to Lou in Rolling Stone magazine immediately after his death, and the film closes with Reed’s song “Turning Time Around.” Clearly, Anderson is dealing with the loss that she has processed in order to also say something about the one that’s still too close, too painful to delve into.