Near the end of her dreamy, drifty and altogether lovely movie Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson does what she is so great at doing: She tells a story. This one is too powerful to ruin here, but the story and its placement speak to how she makes meaning. Speaking in voice-over, as she does throughout, with her perfect phrasing and warm, gently wry tone, she recounts a harrowing episode from her childhood. It’s one that she had described before, she says. But one day she realized that she had been omitting some horrifying details. She had “cleaned it up,” as she puts it, because that’s what we do: “You get your story and you hold onto it, and every time you tell it, you forget it more.”
Heart of a Dog is about telling and remembering and forgetting, and how we put together the fragments that make up our lives — their flotsam and jetsam, highs and lows, meaningful and slight details, shrieking and weeping headline news. This purposefully fissured quality extends to the movie itself, which is by turns narratively straightforward and playfully experimental, light and heavy (it’s a fast 75 minutes), accessible and opaque, concrete and abstract. And while it’s drizzled in sadness — one of its recurrent images is of rain splattered across glass — it joyfully embraces silliness, as when a blind dog named Lolabelle plays the piano. It’s a home movie of a type, if one that, like a stone skipped across a still lake, leaves expanding rings in its path.
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Anderson shot much of Heart of a Dog herself, which gives it a distinct personal quality that dovetails with her intimate, sometimes confessional narration. Like many filmmakers, she offers you a kind of interpretive key to the movie in its opening moments, starting with close-ups that move across an artwork washed in sepia and embellished with dark squiggles and words. The closeness of these shots makes it initially difficult to grasp the literal big picture, though there are readable words (“hot tin roofs” upside down) and then human figures. Suddenly, an illustration of Anderson’s face materializes and begins speaking. “This is my dream body,” she says, “the one I use to walk around in my dreams.” It’s her version, I think, of “Once upon a time.”
What follows is partly a meditation on loss and love that begins with the death of her mother and moves on to include the deaths of Anderson’s talented and tuneful rat terrier, Lolabelle; her friend, the brilliant artist Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978); and her husband, Lou Reed, who died in 2013. He hovers over Heart of a Dog, his face surfacing intermittently and fleetingly, wavering into visibility like an image that’s caught behind glass or reflected in a mirror, a distancing that suggests that he is present and not present at the same time. (One of his most moving appearances occurs during the final credits.) “Every love story is a ghost story,” Anderson says at one point, quoting David Foster Wallace, yet another lingering spirit.
Although Heart of a Dog can seem somewhat shapeless at first glance, as if Anderson were just aimlessly floating from topic to topic (from her mother to the surveillance state and how dogs see color), she is recurrently circling back rather than simply moving forward. Much like a philosopher, she advances, loops back, deepens the argument — with a tender image of Lolabelle, a reference to Tibetan Buddhism, a shot of trees, a nod to Wittgenstein — and then she advances again and circles back once more. At times, it feels as if she too were haunting her movie even as, with every image and word, she fills it with life.
Writer-director: Laurie Anderson.
An Abramorama release. Running time: 75 minutes. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale.