Heart of a Dog
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Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is a film about life and loss – and a particularly empathetic rat terrier

Heart of a Dog feels more than simply human: a consideration of the relationship between life, death and love, that focuses on the passing of Anderson’s dog Lolabelle.

I have long believed that dogs are not simply animals, but the purest expression of love on our grubby little planet. You don’t have to look far for proof of this. New evidence springs up daily: today, tabloids are covering a viral video of reunion between man and dog after two years of separation. It is a love that feels more elevated even than that between humans; I understand what Johnny Depp means when he says, “the only creatures that are evolved enough to convey pure love are dogs and infants”.

It is apt then, that Laurie Anderson’s dreamlike movie Heart of a Dog feels more than simply human: a consideration of the relationship between life, death and love, which focuses on the passing of her dog Lolabelle. In Lolabelle’s death, we feel echoes of the death of her mother, and her husband (Lou Reed), though Anderson herself is never so literal. Her attachment to Lolabelle is a powerful relationship in its own right, as well as a microcosm for Anderson’s human relationships, her relationship with herself, and a broader, spiritual relationship that is never truly pinned down; “dissolving, like moonlight, in a cloudless sky”.

She flits between subjects with ease and rhythm – connecting terrorism, parenting, loss, surveillance, language, philosophy, divorce and death with somehow coherent threads. Her voice is musical, the original score captivating: in many senses, this is more of a visual album than a movie. Anderson weaves illustration, photographs and speckled footage (entirely taken by herself) on screen, but her eerie spoken word stories and textured instrumentals are what allows it to feel unified yet disparate, and are the true strengths of the film.

Anderson constantly questions her own process: “I want to tell you a story about a story,” she begins, before recounting a horrific accident she had as a child, an anecdotal incident she often recites to new friends. But, during the act of one retelling, the horror of the incident for others around her hits home. She realised, “the thing about this story was that I had only told the part about myself. And I’d forgotten the rest of it. And that is the creepiest thing about stories”.

Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and Lolabelle (Getty)

There is something creepy about Anderson’s movie, which is filled with ghosts – of friends, parents, lovers, strangers, bystanders in 9/11, artists, and, yes, dogs. But the more ghostly it gets, the more hopeful it feels. “When Lolabelle died,” Anderson says, “finally, I saw it. The connection between love and death. And that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

Lolabelle herself is a mysterious figure in this piece. Anderson tells us she believes her rat terrier “learned the great skill of empathy” on a camping trip in Canada, with her previous owner, a divorcing man trying to figure out how to go on. Lolabelle paints, and sings, and plays piano. She’s adaptable, and social, and has her own tabs in West Village stores. The only thing she doesn’t seem to be able to do is talk.

Anderson tells us at the beginning of the film that when her mother died, she tried to communicate with animals on the ceiling. Confused, scattered phrases left her mouth as she passed. “It’s been my privilege and my – my honour, to be part of this experiment – this experience.” After 9/11, Anderson spends some time away from New York with Lolabelle, hiking in California, spending hours only in each other’s company. It was “an experiment to see if I could talk with her”, Anderson tells us in her wistful tone. But the gorgeous scenery of their trip proved distracting. “What happened was, more or less, beauty got in the way of the experiment.” If life is an experiment, Anderson’s film implies that it is one constantly put off by overwhelming moments of grief, love and beauty.

Heart of a Dog is showing at selected cinemas in London from 20th May.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue