Heart of a Dog (2015), dir. Laurie Anderson


Screening at The Electric as part of the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham

Last December, on my first drive back home from uni, a song played on the radio. An insistent, repeating sound. Mum winced. She couldn’t handle the electronic beat, and promptly changed it over to something far less remarkable.

When I got back, I searched the song up on YouTube.

“This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Here come the planes.
They’re American planes. Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?”

Occasionally, the words “O Superman” pop up. Laurie Anderson’s song was clearly very personal: a memory of childhood, or an account of motherhood? There’s something remarkable, yet hard to describe.

Dedicated to her late husband Lou Reed, Heart of a Dog is similarly autobiographical. And there’s something very much not like it. It reminds me of works like Alison Bechdel’s graphic novels Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012): simultaneously meditative, hilarious and distressing, yet avoiding convention but also taking advantage of a visual medium.

On one level, it acts merely as a heart-wrenching account of the death of Laurie’s dog Lolabelle, and how it affected her. But this would be too reductive an analysis. I’ve never owned a pet, except a long dead hamster and guinea pig, who live on in memory as the answer to a security question. The sense of intimate connection is something I’ve never forged. As a child, the dog acted as a symbol of fear for me: barking, jumping up right in your face, not a loving companion. Lolabelle forms the crux of the film, but this is only a starting point for an exploration of Anderson’s personality. Lolabelle is a daughter to Anderson – as we see in the introduction of the film, depicting an abstract dream where she gives birth to Lolabelle.

She forges connections between the life of a dog and the life of a human – showing that we are not so apart as we may think. Fear of being prey (in the face of surveillance and aeroplanes); how we treat death; the complication of putting a dog “to sleep”; composing music and painting art. But she makes other connections, comparing data centers to the hieroglyphic data contained within the pyramids of ancient Egypt.

The film’s most powerful sequence, where Anderson accounts Lolabelle’s 49 days in the bardo of Tibetan theology, intercut with shots of rain, gave me probably my strongest existential crisis since Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).

“Here come the planes.
They’re American planes. Made in America.”

Anderson’s style is decidedly experimental, although one wouldn’t expect anything less from her. Photographs from childhood; recreations with actors; digital video footage of airport security; phone footage of Lolabelle shots of telephone wires superimposed with more abstract shots and the voice of her neighbor. But the film isn’t without narrative – Anderson merges these disparate parts together in a way that works.