by Richard von Busack
In Heart of a Dog, performance artist Laurie Anderson addresses the subject of grief the way she addresses any subject—by sidling up to it. “I want to tell you a story about a story,” she says, describing what a tale-teller leaves out, just out of the habit of codifying memory. She narrates through clouds of on-screen images. It’s a blend of found footage, home movies slowed and manipulated, images taken from a small camera mounted on the head of a dog and white-on-black animation.
She talks of the tension of reconciling Buddhist practice with her own letting go. Her late terrier Lolabelle was no ordinary dog. Anderson recalls going on a solo trip with Lolabelle to the Northern California coast, in an effort to see if she could expand the animal’s reputed understanding of 500 words. The presence of circling red-tails above, hunting him, taught the territorial little animal that he had a new perimeter to observe. Thus Anderson broadens the subject to include September 11, a day reminding us that death could come from the sky. New York after the attack, white with ashes like the aftermath of a snowfall, leads to the account of the death of Anderson’s mother in snow country.
The comforting yet omniscient voice is more clipped now, more urgent. There’s a shorter interval in the significant pause before she pronounces the last word in one of her koans. But faith makes a person counterintuitive sometimes: Anderson took the advice of a Buddhist advisor instead of a veterinarian; the Buddhist argued that the dog didn’t need to be put to sleep on the grounds that Lolabelle needed more time to process her impending death. This, to me, was idiotic. Is it not more likely that the question of death is above a dog’s paygrade … and that this is what gives the dying of a pet its unique keenness: They don’t understand it, and we do?
Otherwise, Anderson builds her story like a good song—first gone dog, then gone mother, then gone city. And the last voice we hear in this film is Anderson’s late husband Lou Reed on the soundtrack. Heart of a Dog is like the Sufi proverb by Idries Shah: “The rose has gone from the garden; What shall we do with the thorns?”
‘Heart of a Dog’ plays through Thursday, November 26 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center; rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.