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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At best, The Confession Tapes makes you feel unease. At worst, despair

Netflix billed the show as a true-crime binge-watch – but its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

Would you confess to a crime you hadn’t committed? For some days now, I’ve been asking myself this question. Furious and punchy, my gut tells me immediately that I wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then comes a quieter, less certain voice. Isn’t guilt, for some of us, a near-permanent state? Apt to apologise even when I’m not in the wrong, I cannot believe I’m the only woman alive who tortures herself in the small hours by thinking she has unknowingly done something very bad indeed.

All this was provoked by The Confession Tapes, billed on social media as “our” next Netflix true-crime binge-watch. In this instance, however, the breathless excitement is misplaced: binge-watching would seem to me to amount to a form of self-harm. Yes, it’s compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree. But like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, its prime concern is not with crimes committed so much as with the American justice system, for which reason its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

At best, it will leave you feeling uneasy. At worst, you may find yourself sinking down into something akin to despair.

Director Kelly Loudenberg tells six stories over the course of seven episodes. Each involves a brutal murder (or murders) for which a perpetrator (or perpetrators) has (have) since been safely (unsafely) convicted. All are linked by one factor: the conviction was secured primarily thanks to a confession extracted by the police under extreme circumstances. Lawyers were not present; mind games were played; interviewees were exhausted, unstable, traumatised. In one instance, the authorities took what’s known as the “Mr Big” approach: undercover officers, playing their roles with all the gusto of a local am-dram society, pretended to be gangsters whose criminal networks could save the accused from death row if only they (the accused) would provide them with all the facts.

Why did juries believe these confessions, unaccompanied as they were by forensic evidence? Here, we go back to where we began. “No,” they told themselves. “I would not admit to a crime I had not committed.” Either such citizens have no softer inner voice – or, more likely, the idea of listening to it is simply too terrifying.

Predictably, the majority of the accused are poor and ill-educated, and perhaps this is one reason why the case of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two articulate middle-class boys from Canada, stood out for me (the pair were found guilty of the 1994 murder in Bellevue, Washington, of Atif’s parents and sister; at the time, they were 19). Or perhaps it is just that I still can’t understand why an American court considered “Mr Big” evidence admissible when the technique is illegal in the US? (The “gangsters” who encouraged Burns and Rafay to indulge in the most pathetic teenage braggadocio I’ve ever witnessed belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)

The saddest part of this tale: hearing Burns’ father, David, describe his prison visits. (Burns, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, has exhausted all his appeals.) The strangest part: the way James Jude Konat, like all the prosecutors in this series, was so happy to perform for the camera, more game-show host than lawyer.

It feels obscene to move on, but move on I must. W1A (18 September, 10pm) is enjoying a bewilderingly long life (this is series three). Is the joke still funny? I think it’s wearing thin, though this may be born of my own recent encounter with the BBC’s bizarre machinery (humiliating, in a word).

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) and her team of media morons have been bought by a Dutch company, Fun, where good ideas are celebrated with silent discos. One idea is a YouTube-style platform, BBC Me. Meanwhile, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) is helming – nice BBC word – a group that will deliver the corporation’s “More of Less Initiative”, and a cross-dressing footballer has successfully plonked his bum on the Match of the Day sofa. Business as usual, in other words. 

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 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left