View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
19 May 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:53pm

What a film about a dog has to teach us when it comes to love and death

Heart of a Dog is a part-documentary, part-film essay with a skew-whiff sense of humour.

By Ryan Gilbey

Laurie Anderson speaks in soothing tones of refrigerated evenness that never quite make you feel that everything will be all right. The world was introduced to the ­musician and performance artist through her 1981 hit “O Superman” – almost eight and a half minutes of breathy, electronic, funny-sinister futurism that resembled an answerphone message left by HAL from 2001: a Space Odyssey. Somehow it reached number two in the UK charts, possibly because the “ha-ha-ha-ha” of the backing vocals indicated it was a novelty record. It could pass for a joke, which is often the danger with high art.

There is skew-whiff humour in Heart of a Dog, a part-documentary, part-essay film that Anderson wrote, directed and narrated. Some of the joy of her work is not knowing how much to take seriously. (The end titles include a credit for “dog clog fabrication”.) She tells us that her rat terrier Lolabelle was taught by her trainer to play the piano and that the mutt even performed benefit concerts for other animals in the neighbourhood. I thought this was a joke until I saw that Anderson had recently staged a concert for dogs at the Brighton Festival.

Near the start of the film, she takes Lola­belle to the San Francisco Bay Area to get away from their home in the West Village, New York, after the 9/11 attacks. She had heard that terriers could understand roughly 500 words. “I wanted to find out which ones they were.” While there, Lolabelle is almost snatched by hawks, which swoop down, mistaking her for a rabbit before realising their mistake. Lolabelle understands suddenly, along with the rest of the world, that death can come from the air.

It is no coincidence that Anderson recorded a fine song called “From the Air” (it’s on her album Big Science, along with “O Super­man”). In it, she mimics an in-flight announcement. The captain asks us to put our heads on our knees, our heads in our hands, our hands on our hips. (“Heh-heh.”) Then she says calmly: “This is your captain. We are going down. We are all going down.” Heart of a Dog feels like a continuation of that idea. We are all going down. How are we going to talk about this?

Anderson does so initially by examining two specific deaths. When Lolabelle was dying, Anderson saved her from the vet’s needle on the advice of her Buddhist teacher, who told her that dogs approach death in the same way as human beings and that we have no right to deprive them of that ­experience. So she took her home to die. Anderson also lost her mother, who conversed in her final moments with the animals she could see gathered on the ceiling. The death of Anderson’s partner, the musician Lou Reed, is not referred to, though he is heard singing “Turning Time Around”. He is also glimpsed briefly enjoying himself on a beach, which could prove disastrous for the old chuckle bucket’s reputation.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Home movies, reconstructions and archive footage are combined in a distressed and dreamy visual collage reminiscent of Guy Maddin’s work (The Forbidden Room, My Winnipeg). Anderson free-associates over her atmospheric music. What stories, she wonders, are told by the fragments collected by the NSA? This is a tenuous and not especially persuasive link but it leads her to the real subject of the film: how the telling of a story can erode its truth. “Every time you tell it, you forget it more,” she says.

As a child, Anderson had a long stay in hospital after breaking her back in a misjudged poolside somersault. She was put with the children in the burns ward. Only gradually has the full horror of that time returned to her: she had blocked out the suffering of her fellow patients. The screaming. The terrible smells. The empty beds that the nurses would refuse to discuss.

We think all the time of what death means – how we feel when our loved ones, whether two- or four-legged, leave us. But death is not, she realises, about our regrets or sadness. It’s a mechanism for the release of love. It was here and during the quotations from The Tibetan Book of the Dead that it struck me that this playful, haunting film is not only suited to cinemas. Its natural home is a nightclub chill-out room at dawn.

Content from our partners
Individually rare, collectively common – how do we transform the lives of people with rare diseases?
Future proofing the NHS
Where do we get the money to fix the world's biggest problems? – with ONE

This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU