The Most Beautiful Fraud: Heart of a Dog

Laurie Anderson has had a lot to deal with over the last few years.

Since 2013, she was faced with, in rapid succession, the death of her mother Mary Louise, her husband Lou Reed, and her beloved dog, Lolabelle.  Never one to let such matters overwhelm her, though, she dealt with these potentially crippling losses with the help of her instructors in the Tibetan Buddhist community, and, having been approached by a French television network about doing a short video project, through art.  The resulting film is Heart of a Dog, which screened in the presence of its creator this week at the Chicago International Film Festival.

Lolabelle, who Anderson taught to paint, sculpt, and play the piano, is a constant presence in Heart of a Dog, but it’s light-years beyond the easy tagline of “Laurie Anderson’s dead dog movie”.  Not unlike the career of the astonishing woman who made it, it surprises at every turn:  it is about the loss of her dog, true, and about how she dealt with it, but it is also about the death of her mother, and how she dealt with that.  Anderson clearly loved her dog, which is not a shocking revelation for a filmmaker to make; what is shocking is that she didn’t really love her mother, and the movie is about that too.  It’s about how Anderson learned to come to terms with emotions she felt when she didn’t want to feel them, and with emotions she didn’t feel when she felt that she should.  And always present, glimpsed here and there but never mentioned by name until his unmistakable voice begins to sing over the end credits, is her other great love, Lou Reed.

And yet, it is about much more.  It is about 9/11 and how it changed things, not only for her and for her adopted city of New York (originally from the Chicago suburbs, she talked about how she still considers herself a Midwesterner, with a Midwesterner’s approach to narrative), but for the country as well.  It’s about surveillance and the security state, and about storytelling, and about how these two things bleed into one another — how in the unmediated world of the data cloud, our stories can become mixed up with those of other people to deadly effect, and how in the highly mediated world of our own memories, the stories we tell can only ever be ours, and we cannot be sure even of our memories.  This is told through Anderson’s home movies from childhood, warped and made eerie by her digital manipulation; through a speedily composed soundtrack (it was originally a silent film) that has an Eno-esque ambient feel; through documentary footage and Anderson’s own unforgettable voice, a sweet sing-song that turns its every statement into a blend of simple fact and childlike wonder; and through animation created by Anderson herself.  If you have no other takeaway from Heart of a Dog, it’s that Anderson has so much talent it’s almost unfair.

If all of this makes Heart of a Dog sound unbearably heavy, it’s really not.  In her Q&A, she seemed to shy away from the more gloomy elements of the film (it was a companion piece to a much more fraught performance piece about the youngest detainee at Guantánamo Bay).  She’s gone to great lengths to point out that a lot of the movie is supposed to be funny, and it is. Some of the humor is pointed (an extremely ironic comparison of the NSA to the ancient pharaohs), and some of it is broad (a shrugging account of what she was going to do with all the ‘sculptures’ Lolabelle made, eventually deciding on Japanese sandals for dogs), but it’s all funny, and all delivered in her unique delivery that makes everything sound like a punchline.

But it does have some moments that are both perilous and fraught, and not in the way you might expect from a movie about the death of a piano-playing terrier.  A segment comprised of both surreal animation and treated film stock depicts Lolabelle’s imagined journey through the bardo, or transitional state between death and the next life, and is hypnotic and revealing of the strange mysticism of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, while never coming across as the new-age dabbling of a celebrity spiritual seeker; and towards the end of the film, Anderson tells a few disturbing memories of her childhood, including shattering her back while diving into the water and rescuing her two younger brothers from drowning in a nearly frozen lake.  These stories combine every mood of Heart of a Dog:  they’re funny (especially when illuminated by Anderson’s post-screening comments about her brothers’ recollection of the event:  “I asked them, ‘Remember that time I almost killed you?’  And they’re twins, so they responded in unison:  ‘Yes!’.”), they’re terrifying, they’re redemptive — they lead directly into to the one memory of her mother that is suffused with nothing but love — and they’re laced with ambiguity.  No other figure looms over the film’s strangeness and charm like Moses, a figure from her Illinois childhood who posed as a phone company lineman to mask his obsession with climbing utility poles; he is never seen, but his presence, and its meaning, is everywhere.

No stranger to filmmaking (Anderson has done outstandingly at just about everything she’s tried her hand at, from visual and plastic art to art history to music to electronics design — she holds a number of patents, including the Talking Stick, the tape-bow violin, and an early version of the Vocoder — to film and poetry and performance and animation), she has managed in Heart of a Dog to create her most compelling work since 1985’s sprawling United States Live.   A deeply personal reminiscence, a documentary about a fascinating subject and by a fascinating subject, a narrative about one woman’s life and an experimental film about nearly everything, Heart of a Dog is an amazing accomplishment.  Nearing 70, Laurie Anderson stands almost completely alone in her ability to not only excel in every art form she sets her mind to, but to move it forward and lend it her special genius.  Having the year she had in 2013 would have broken most people; instead, she let it push her to new heights.

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