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Heart of a Dog

[…] One could speak of poetry, but it would be too simple a shortcut, risking the failure to acknowledge how imagination spawns directly from real life, as seen with the eyes wide open.

[…] The voice is intertwined with a wonderful soundtrack, but, what really captures our attention is the image layer, with volcanic, abundant and generous creativity.

[…] «Is it a pilgrimage? Towards what?». We don’t have a certain answer, but the certainty that dreaming is not just vanity, that imagination is not just an alternate reality, that every piece of sky offers the opportunity for a new experience.

«Tell the animals!» – said Laurie Anderson’s mother on her death bed; she was speaking about her life, looking back on it. Laurie did that, literally. Heart of a Dog entirely revolves around the world of her rat terrier Lolabelle. More than that, she tried to enter her dog’s world, to imagine its point of view, its perception, its being. One might ask why mature artists like Jean-Luc Godard (Adieu au langage) and Laurie Anderson would be more interested in dogs than human beings? After the very first minutes of Heart of a Dog this becomes clear: Lolabelle is a door, a bridge, to go forwards, and – she quotes Kierkegaard – if we can understand life only backwards, we live it only forwards. Anderson’s filmic work is not made to be understood, but to explore, to go further, beyond the habitual meanings, even beyond life itself. The empathy with Lolabelle is a way of opening up our perception; it opens up a realm of imagination that has nothing to do with the images as a re re reproduction of reality. One could speak of poetry, but it would be too simple a shortcut, risking the failure to acknowledge how imagination spawns directly from real life, as seen with the eyes wide open. It is incredibly captivating, then, to discover how we can read events in a new light through the dog’s senses, like the changes in society after 9/11, or the paranoia in the field of information storage and national security. We gain a deeper understanding of such contemporary phenomena by observing them from such a displaced point of view. We enter a sort of cosmic sensibility that appears quite vivid to us and is nourished by Tibetan Buddhist philosophical phrases. Thus, Anderson can raise real questions about life, death, love, without abandoning a light tone, full of humour, which resounds in her refreshing voice-over.

Heart of a Dog is entirely structured by her voice-over, alternating between little stories, poetic visions, sheer information, and philosophical questions. The voice is intertwined with a wonderful soundtrack, but, what really captures our attention is the image layer, with volcanic, abundant and generous creativity. Knowing the past works of hers, one could say that we are looking at a slowed-down, music-video-clip style film – one that is consciously reminiscent of Chris Marker’s lesson. But that would be a reductive statement. Independently of any question of style, it is more important to notice, with sincere astonishment, how precise the photography and editing is: each sequence of images seems necessary and helpful in building her world of imagination. We are at the heart of imagination – a doggy heart –, and imagination is intimately bound to the loved-one, the loss of the beloved, the death, and the afterlife.

Actually, with Heart of a Dog, Anderson mourns her dog, her mother, and her husband, Lou Reed, at the same time. She wants to avoid the risk of falling into the narcissism of tears, and she dares to stare right at the mystery of afterlife. Even if one does not wish to follow her into the bardo – the Tibetan version of Christian purgatory –, such an intermediate world deserves to be experienced, because, within it, we take a splendid trip with the senses and with the mind. «Is it a pilgrimage? Towards what?». We don’t have a certain answer, but the certainty that dreaming is not just vanity, that imagination is not just an alternate reality, that every piece of sky offers the opportunity for a new experience. Heart of a Dog gives us something that only movies can offer, thanks to the parallel discourses of texts, sounds and images – here, interwoven according to the rigour of imagination.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: May 18, 2016

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