Fueled by the loss of her rat terrier Lolabelle, her mother, friend, and most famously her partner Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is an open-hearted diary film of love and loss, and one of the most potent film experiences of the year. A mixed multimedia approach of photography, original home footage, and poetic text transcends the emotional limitations of such experimental efforts due to Anderson’s deft ability to cut deep with respect to the universal questions about death and enduring love that she is asking. Dog is about ruminations when faced with grief, but her questions are ours as well.
Anderson recalls in the film a Buddhist teacher professing the art of “feeling sad without being sad,” and the film itself is an exercise in just that. A film as attuned to the humanity of grief as this is certain to stir up some emotions in an audience open to Anderson’s meandering approach, but it is never a depressing enterprise. Dog is fascinated by the deep regrets and longings that invade us when we deal with death, but doesn’t allow room for wallowing in pain as it works steadily toward acceptance and inner peace.
Anderson has also crafted a film so uniquely of our post-9/11 mind: amid personal deaths, we are also suffering cultural deaths to our ease of living. Recalling one of Lolabelle’s brushes with mortality on a hike where hawks attempt to prey on the dog’s small body, Anderson parallels our own collective surprise at our own vulnerability in this new world of fear and the death of the innocence therein. Surveillance is another grim reaper in this landscape, neutralizing our individuality down to data and robbing us of our privacy. Death – literal and figurative – be not public.
But it is not just the actual death and loss that drives our grief – we face regret, numbness, fear of our own mortality, isolation, shame. How do we allow these emotions in without being consumed? Or how do we continue anew when the person is replaced with the pain? Where does the love go? The marvel of the film is that it is constructed almost entirely on such questions, only mildly answering many of them while leaving space for your own perspective and experience, and yet never feels thin or so specific to Anderson’s life as to become trite. We’re all just fumbling in the dark towards death, as Lolabelle does running on the beach in a moment of freedom from her age-induced blindness.
Rewarding in its uncheap observations and conclusions about the griefs that eventually touch us all, Heart of a Dog is an empathic study of sadness that is itself not overcome by creating that emotion. For all of the outlets that Laurie Anderson has to reach us with her artistic point of view, let’s hope that this isn’t a rare dip into filmmaking for her. Recently named among the 15 Oscar finalists for Best Documentry Feature, it is perhaps unlikely to be selected from the insular branch, but deserves recognition for its unassuming approach and effective thematic contextualization.