A Commentary & Review of HEART OF A DOG
By John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Volunteer Director

A Film by Laurie Anderson
Documentary  - Non-Rated - 75 min. 
This film was Mountain Shadow’s selection for December, 2015

“Life can only be understood backwards.  But it must be lived forwards.”
From The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, 1840

The 19th century philosopher’s quote expresses the conundrum that lies at the heart of Anderson’s film, HEART OF A DOG. The film is a meditative compilation of recollections, reflections and ruminations to be experienced by the viewer as a cinematic retrospective on love, life and death; all of which might enable one to move forward.

The prologue to the film, begins with a “dream story” (or nightmare, depending upon your point of view!), in which the filmmaker imagines giving birth to her dog. As bizarre as the dream is, she relates matter-of-factly, “Anyway, I kissed her on the head and said, hello little bonehead, I will love you forever.’”

It is a sweet, idle promise, of course; which, once made, is impossible to keep. It is a deliberate lie, a vain and idle hope; like something one just tries on like an overcoat to see if it fits for a while. And that might be the best way for the viewer to access this inventive piece of filmmaking. As the various scenes roll along, just try them on for size and see what might just suit you.

Meanwhile, there will be all the “mean whiles” of a very personal pilgrimage this filmmaker would just simply call life. It’s a meandering sojourn in many different directions, exploring those things that bind us, and loose us.  They are the one-way passages, the ways we hold love, express love, lose love, let go of love, are released from love.

There are days and nights, the waking hours and then those other times to fall into another world of dreams. Waking hours are full of sounds, like post 9/11 Manhattan. But even in the quietude of nature where one can retreat to get away from it all, there are birds of prey that can hover in the thin, expansive skies.

Everywhere there seems to be a teetering balance; and the hours and days hang suspended for us to pause and consider. This is the world into which this filmmaker invites us for as long as she thinks she might be able to hold our attention with a collage of images, sounds, words, snippets of stories, phrases and ideas.

While canines are used as periodic reference points, this is not a dog story, per se; though the life and death of the filmmaker’s rat terrier may have been the catalyst to reflect on all the various experiences of love and loss in her life. This includes some close friends and her late husband, Lou Reed. As such, Lollabelle becomes the four-legged metaphor, as a blind dog first adapting, then eventually running into total darkness.

 How exactly the logic of philosophy and power of language can shape our world is also something we’re asked to consider. As an example, she suggests, consider the Homeland Security slogan, “If you see something, say something.” She then notes the tagline that was later added to the New York subway: “Hopefully it’s nothing.” 

Now consider removing the second half of the original slogan, and you’ve entered a whole other way of viewing the real, fleeting world (i.e.., “If you see something ... hopefully it’s nothing.”).  The filmmaker seems to suggest it’s something not unlike the pervasive surveillance and massive metadata storage that would include every piece of information possible, but tell us nothing of lasting value or significance. 

Throughout, there is the sense of an observer’s detachment conveying lessons learned, as seen through the lens of the filmmaker. “Empathy is learning how to feel sad,” her Zen master teaches, “without actually being sad.” Things like that. 

The musings are occasionally interspersed with some staccato rapid-fire phrases that flash by so fast on the screen you can hardly catch them. One of them asks, “Where is all the brilliant philosophy? Where was this heart of mine?”

“Recognize this” is also a repeated phrase like a mantra calling the viewer to greater, conscious awareness; with little shared lessons, like “To live in the gap, between the moment that is expiring and the one that is arising, luminous and empty. … And when you close your eyes, what do you see? Nothing.”

Or, “Death is so often about regrets, or guilt. Finally I saw the connection between love and death. And that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

 The original title of the film was a David Foster Wallace quote: “Every love story is a ghost story.” To illustrate, the viewer is asked to patiently sit and watch the winter snow fall in scattering swirls before a final, terrifying and touching tale from a personal past begins.  It is the search for a moment in time. A moment that might, in fact, “turn time around.”

HEART OF A DOG may be unlike any other film, except in one respect; and one for which I, as a filmgoer, appreciate. It is like other filmmaker’s works that leave the viewer with more open-ended questions than simple answers.

That seems to be the one clear message about a life that is simultaneously understood backwards, while moving forward. As she asks in her closing line, “Is it a pilgrimage? Towards what?”  jb