ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING once extolled her pets as “love without speech.” At one point in Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, a film that starts out as a paean to her rat terrier Lolabelle but evolves into disquisitions on many other subjects, the polymath artist imagines what her treasured animal companion (and other hounds) might say if granted this faculty. Giving voice is a specialty of Anderson’s, and Heart of a Dog abounds with her talent for voluble free association.
Anderson’s narration is read over disparate imagery consisting primarily of her own animation and drawings, footage (sometimes distressed) shot with small digital cameras, and 8-mm home movies that were sourced from the filmmaker’s siblings. I must confess that at the outset, I found the trademark voice Anderson uses to deliver her text—a lilting deadpan made aggravatingly overblown by her pronounced pauses between words (“And we would never…be…going……back”)—close to intolerable; for as much sympathy as I, a superfan of the four-footed, had for her project, I struggled in the first fifteen minutes to enter it. But so absorbing, and apposite, are Anderson’s digressions in this wide-ranging documentary that I eventually accustomed myself to these vocal tics.
Anderson seems to have taken her cue from J. R. Ackerley, whose 1956 memoir about his recalcitrant German shepherd, My Dog Tulip, remains one of the finest chronicles about interspecies devotion and who wrote of this relationship, “[I]t is not she herself but her effect upon me that I find interesting.” A resident of one of the posher west-side neighborhoods south of Fourteenth Street, Lolabelle was a highly indulged little creature; after the dog goes blind, a trainer teaches her how to paint and play the piano. When the pooch becomes very ill, Anderson, who up to the film’s halfway mark had been using I in her voice-over, switches to the first-person-plural pronoun: “We took her to the hospital.” Never named, the other person ministering to the pet is, of course, Anderson’s husband, Lou Reed, whose death, in 2013, followed Lolabelle’s by two years.
“Every love story is a ghost story,” says Anderson, citing David Foster Wallace, and her decision to keep Reed a phantom presence—he is seen fleetingly just three times in the film, which ends with his “Turning Time Around” playing over the closing credits—only underscores how much Heart of a Dog is poignantly structured by absences. Nearly all the detours that Anderson pursues in the movie, touching on topics as varied as the post-9/11 surveillance state, the Buddhist concept of bardo, Gordon Matta-Clark, and phosphenes, yield a fresh, off-kilter observation. But what gives the film its strongest emotional resonance is the director’s recollection of two near-fatal childhood accidents (one that befell her, the other her twin younger brothers), traumas in which Anderson, when recapitulating them at earlier times in her life, elided certain events. In filling in those gaps here, she gently points to another, more complicated specter floating through the film: her mother. A testament to Anderson’s magnanimity, Heart of a Dog salutes not only those who gave her the greatest happiness but also those who long ago stopped bringing her joy.
Heart of a Dog is now playing at Film Forum through November 3.