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.

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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.

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.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster