Heart of a Dog
Anthropomorphism is an interesting game – how can we ever truly know what goes on in the heart of an animal? Our cinema is continually fascinated by the attempt to explain the emotional reality of human beings, whereas animals are largely ignored, or commonly injected into films for merely symbolic or comedic purposes. That’s what makes this film so special: like all of the best works of art, it is overwhelmed with the desire to ascertain an understanding of its central character, but its central character just so happens to be a terrier named Lolabelle.
Lolabelle is the filmmaker Laurie Anderson’s dog, and this film is a non-fictional recounting of her life and death. She is one of the most fascinating protagonists in recent film history – four-legged or otherwise. Her life is characterised by great trauma confronted with defiant playfulness: she’s attacked by hawks, turns blind, suffers a long and protracted death, yet none of these things are able to shake her spirited sense of fun. Despite not being able to see, Lolabelle is trained to play the keyboard and releases several recordings throughout her lifetime, including a Christmas single which Anderson wittily describes as ‘pretty good’.
We are shown video recordings of these performances, which are very funny indeed; the rest of the film consists of animations and Super 8 footage of Lolabelle in various surroundings. We are even treated to first-person camerawork showing the world from her perspective, all in an attempt to comprehend the life experiences of this little thing. Anderson is aware that such an aim is not entirely possible – we cannot ever truly, fully empathise with another species because the way they experience the world is so different from our own. Dogs, for example, as we are told early on, rely on their sense of smell to create an image of the world, as their vision is blurry and essentially blind to colour.
But Lolabelle’s experience of life must cross over with our own in one particularly crucial way: she must face up to decaying and dying, as we all must in the end. These scenes of her death are some of the most graphic and distressing I’ve seen on film, with photographs detailing the pain associated with this lengthy process. But Anderson is more concerned with the spiritual aspect of Lolabelle’s passing, vividly describing what happens to us after expiring according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It might be offputting to some, but these Buddhist teachings are how Anderson copes with the grief that ensues from her overwhelming loss, and as such are essential as a part of the film’s structure. Besides, as with all great films about faith, this one is intriguingly plagued with doubt: a Buddhist teacher instructs her to give something away every time she thinks about Lolabelle, to which Anderson achingly replies: ‘but then I would be giving something away all the time!’
This unquestioning love for her pet is brought into sharp contrast at the end of the film with her recently deceased mother who, it is revealed, she never felt any love for at all. This leads to a quest, prompted by the aforementioned spiritual adviser, back in time to her childhood to try and find a moment when said mother displayed an unconditional love for her. What she finds there is one of the most moving moments in cinema history.
I first encountered Heart of a Dog in the form of its soundtrack, which was released in England last year, and which consisted only of Laurie Anderson’s narration and the hauntingly orchestrated background music. I knew immediately it was a great work: emotionally complex, vivid, memorable, dealing with issues of life and death in an entirely unpretentious manner. Seeing it in the cinema, with the beautiful, dreamlike and occasionally abstract visuals only serving to deepen its sense of purpose, my high opinion was reaffirmed. Laurie Anderson is one of the unsung heroes of contemporary culture; she is known to many as the wife of rock star Lou Reed, but her own performance art works have been consistently outstanding, both hilarious and profound and with a uniquely surrealistic voice.
This is her finest moment yet: a warm, rigorous guide on how to cope with death, which is dedicated to the memory of her late husband and finishes with one of his finest songs playing over the credits. It is a song about love and the reversal of time, two of the film’s defining themes. Superb.