I want to tell you a story about a story,” writer/director/performance artist Laurie Anderson tells the audience. She recounts the time she spent in the hospital as a child after breaking her back. Anderson tells it in a rather typical manner: accident, negative prognosis, defiance, recovery period, emergence from the hospital, and, finally, her return to the world. But that’s not the real story. The real story is the one she edited out of her memory, the story of every other child in that hospital, the ones whose own stories may not have had such a happy ending.
Or maybe it’s not about that at all. The presumption that death is the ending is an incorrect perspective, and Anderson doubles back. Compiling evidence that is far from new yet constantly relevant, Anderson weaves ancient motifs through her own life story in Heart of a Dog, a 75-minute reconciliation of losing a loved one.
Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection, Heart of a Dog is a collage piece that fluidly moves back and forth between memory, reality, and dream. Melding experimental photography, animation, documentary footage, staged scenarios, and narration, Anderson recounts the life of her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, and her subsequent departure from this world. But Lolabelle’s story is merely a jumping-off point for Anderson, who incorporates musings about post-9/11 security and surveillance, alongside Buddhism, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and what Lolabelle, and other loved ones, might be doing now that they have passed on.
It is believed that the earliest forms of religion stemmed from the need for burial rituals. These primitive ceremonies were designed so the living could comprehend what had happened to those who were once walking and talking but now lay cold and still in the ground. Over the course of the following centuries and millenniums, these rituals were refined, sophisticated, and established en masse. They continue to this day, but while the rituals help us understand and reconcile death, society continues to play antagonist by constantly terrifying us with the potentiality of death and the threat of oblivion.
Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is the antidote to that threat. Much like the rituals, art calms us, prepares us, and guides us across that next great threshold. Anderson is only 68 years old and is not ready for that threshold just yet. But it was the recent loss of Lolabelle and her husband—singer/songwriter Lou Reed who died in 2013 and can be seen briefly in Heart of a Dog—that has Anderson thinking about what’s next.
And naturally, when one considers the future, the mind drifts toward the past. Like Anderson’s recollection of her time in the hospital, other memories have become clear and taken on new dimensions. They are on display here, faded and jagged, blurry and concrete, while Anderson’s voice soothingly recounts the lessons she has learned and the observations she has made.
Heart of a Dog is a triumph and not simply in its love and candor, but in its calming ease that gently reminds viewers: no matter what, everything will be OK.