Performance artist Laurie Anderson’s new film Heart of a Dog, opening Saturday the 23rd at the Lefont Theaters in Sandy Springs, is ostensibly about her relationship with her late dog, a whipsmart, adorable rat terrier named Lolabelle. But the movie’s dreamlike, episodic drift from topic to topic actually encompasses an incredibly broad range of subjects, everything from post-9/11 security-paranoia in a changing New York, Tibetan beliefs about the afterlife, early childhood memories, the act of storytelling itself, and Anderson’s complicated relationship with her late mother. These are all presented in Anderson’s own voiceover narration, a resonantly rich, and often icily ironic voice that will be familiar to followers of Anderson’s career. Performing since the 1970s, Anderson became one of the most well-known experimental performance artists in the 1980s, even scoring a seven-record deal with Warner Brothers and a pop hit with her song “O Superman” in 1981.
What seems new here is the affective pairing of Anderson’s spoken-word narration with her visuals, ranging from straightforward photography to rapid-cut, abstract editing to animation, in a feature-length film. Though the film gets off to a shaky start, it proves to be a powerful and often mysteriously affecting concoction.
The film falters a couple times: there is a long (intentionally) meandering middle section about the Tibetan belief in the “Bardo,” a placeless, timeless limbolike waiting period between a person’s reincarnations. Strangely, though much of the film’s material seems fresh and insightful, the opening, in which Anderson contemplates America and New York post-9/11, feels like old ground, both for her (she thoroughly covered the material in her 2010 album and performance Homeland) and for, well, everyone.
Anderson’s dog Lolabelle is deceased, so talk of life and death do become an inevitable central focus; curiously, Anderson’s famous husband, Lou Reed, who passed away in 2013, is never explicitly mentioned in the film, though he does appear briefly in a shot of a beach landscape, and he sings in the final song over the closing credits. One gets the sense, as has often been the case with Anderson’s work, that the true subject and her honest, unfiltered feelings have been pushed away from the center. Here, though, the effect is not amusingly ironic or hall-of-mirrors clever, as it has often been in her work, but touching, even haunting. In the film’s final scenes, when Anderson narrates a childhood memory relating to her recently deceased mother, that familiar, controlled voice begins to crack unselfconsciously; the artist has always maintained that speaking voice’s sense of calm, measured intimacy, but this is the first we’ve heard it so unfamiliarly immediate, honest, unfiltered and close for some of the most moving and personal work of her career.
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based critic who covers visual art, dance, and theater.