“Heart of a Dog,” Laurie Anderson’s 2015 film, is similar to a traditional movie in that it has a narrative, moving images and sound, yet it is somehow different. To watch “Heart of a Dog” is a wholly distinct experience from watching “Star Wars,” yet we call them both movies.
Anderson weaves vignettes that don’t quite seem related to one another or even to the film as a whole, yet combines and transitions between in them in such a brilliant way that it’s impossible to notice the story moving forward. But perhaps it isn’t. The viewer isn’t progressing through time and through story but rather moving cyclically, experiencing one part of the story and then another part but then returning to the first. Repeating, returning, tumbling through time.
This isn’t to say that “Heart of a Dog” does not have a narrative. Its narrative is compelling. It is thought provoking. It is beautiful. It is everything a “movie” should be. However, it does so in a nontraditional way. The form of the movie mirrors the movie thematically.
“Heart of a Dog” is a story of death, of life, of dogs, of loved ones, of the modern world, of Buddhism. It is a story of human and spiritual experience. The film brings one through life and loss, through death and rebirth. Anderson uses her dog, Lolabelle, as a guiding thread through the movie, departing from and returning to the life of her dog. She ventures off to topics as distant as 9/11 and ranging as far as the Bardo (a purgatory state between two lives) of Buddhist philosophy, but is constantly exploring and understanding death, love and life. Anderson reads her poetic film to the audience like a storybook to children. By breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, she creates both a filmic reality and a meta-filmic reality. The audience is enveloped in the film, swallowed by the reality of the movie while simultaneously, at least at certain instances, aware of the experience of watching Anderson’s poem unfold on the silver screen. Conscious, and unconscious. Aware and unaware.
The imagery is as outstanding as the narrative of the movie is. Anderson chooses images which possess natural associations with the narration even if they are not strictly what she describes. She utilizes a variety of types of art. Anderson makes use of iPhone footage of her dog, sketches of her dog in the Bardo, footage of the West Village seen through the eyes of her dog, a painting by Goya, footage of Northern California and manipulations of still images. Through breathtaking transitions, these seemingly individual works of art are combined into a new, indivisible whole. Just as the narrative is cyclical, so is the imagery. The film repeats certain images while moving to and fro between others. Anderson creates interesting composition, whether it be through manipulation of what seems to be still photos or through upside-down camera angles putting the ocean at the top of the frame and the beach underneath. The compositions are atypical in that there is not a singular spot intended for the eyes to concentrate and observe. Rather, the compositions force the eyes to constantly move and study everything that lies within the frame and think about everything beyond the frame.
Gliding through life, death, and love and powered by the human experience, Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog” is a unique film, both beautiful and thought provoking, unlike anything else made in 2015.