“It’s really a collection of short stories, is what it is. There are stories about surveillance culture, some of them, and there are stories about my past: some about the things I observed around me, and some are made-up scenes. I ask a lot of the viewer in this.”
When she was dying, Laurie Anderson’s mother talked about animals. “Why are there so many animals on the ceiling now?” Anderson recalls her asking. Anderson also remembers that when her mother spoke tenderly to the animals she saw, her family, gathered around her bed, said, “Don’t forget, you’re in the hospital.” And her mother kept talking to the animals. “It’s been my privilege and my honor to be part of this experiment, this experience with you and your family,” Anderson’s mother said. “‘Tell the animals,’ she said, ‘Tell all the animals.”
Anderson’s memory of her mother talking to animals opens her new film, Heart of a Dog. In what follows, Anderson doesn’t talk to Lolabelle, her beloved rat terrier, but she talks a lot about her, as the center and also a movable point of reference in a series of reflections on life and death, love and art. Lolabelle “goofs around” with Anderson, she attends Anderson’s studio recordings (Anderson imagines her response: “Sure, let’s listen to that track for the 70th time! Great idea!”) and, when she’s diagnosed with cancer, she learns to play the piano. Here a bit of frantic-seeming footage shows the dog batting at keys, an image that might be startling if it weren’t so strange and cute.
As Anderson tells each of these stories, her voice beguiling as always, you see impressions of what she describes, animated and grainy video, sky and trees, Lolabelle and a hawk circling above, during a particular walk in Northern California just after 9/11. Here Anderson provides a gloss on what Lolabelle might have been thinking, which happens to correspond with what Anderson’s fellow New Yorkers might have been thinking at that moment. “She ha
d this brand new expression,” Anderson recalls, “First was the realization that she was prey, second was a whole new thought, the realization that they could come from the air.” For New Yorkers, Anderson, goes on, the thought process includes another step, the awareness that “It would be that way from now on, that we had passed through a door and we would never be going back.”
This awareness has to do with conceiving time, conceiving a then and now, related yet also different. As the door suggests a transition between then and now, it also provides a metaphor, a means to tell a story, a way to position the past and also what’s ahead. As this story, like so many stories, looks back, it conjures a distance between the moments on either side of the door. And yet, as much as Anderson is renowned and admired for being a compelling, even transfixing storyteller, she also makes clear her distrust of storytelling per se.
Looking back on her childhood, a time when she broke her back during a diving board accident, she remembers the hospital, her fellow child patients, the nurses and the doctors. It begins as a story about “when I discovered that most adults have no idea what they’re talking about,” here having to do with pronouncements that she wouldn’t be able to walk again. But the story transforms during the telling, turns into a meditation on how you tell stories. As Anderson remembers not only the story but also a time when she told the story, she pauses, “And then I remembered the rest of it,” she says, “the heavy smell of medicine the smell of burned skin,” as well as the nurses not telling kids what was in store or even what had happened to them.
Here she finds that she’s also leaving pieces out, focusing on her own experience. “I’d forgotten the rest of the story,” she says, “I’d cleaned it up just the way the nurses had.”
This time, she doesn’t. “And that’s the creepiest thing about stories, you try to get to the point you’re making usually about yourself, you get your story and you hold onto it and every time you tell it, you forget it a little more.”
In forgetting, another story might be found, and in remembering, yet another. This is the gorgeous and difficult and sometimes creepy thing about stories, that they mix truth and fiction, reveal and refract. Anderson goes on to tell more stories, about Lolabelle’s 49 days in the Bardo (a purgatorial realm described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead), about an artist friend, Gordon Matta-Clark, who made a piece called Splitting, that is, a house split in half, and about her own dreams, various and, of course, fascinating. Dreams, she says, allow you “to fall through time into another world”.
Dream or other worlds, the many stories offered in Heart of a Dog remain incomplete. You know, without hearing or thinking too much about it, that the lives and deaths circulating in these stories include those of her husband, Lou Reed, who died while Anderson was making the film. They also include those of people you know, and animals too. Because we’re all part of this experiment.