New York polymath's meditation on death, storytelling and her four-legged friend
In Laurie Anderson’s new film, Heart Of A Dog, everyone dies. Her mother, her husband, Lou Reed, her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, her artist friend Gordon Matta-Clark. Anderson ruminates softly and sharply on each one, except Reed, who is not mentioned at all, though he makes a cameo towards the end, sitting on a beach in a home movie, and his song “Turning Time Around”, from 2000’s Ecstasy, plays over the final credits.
If Heart Of A Dog sounds like a stinker, be assured that it isn’t. Rather it’s warm, witty and thought-provoking, and strikes a chord with everyone who sees it because Anderson, who is 68, is such a compelling narrator and her subject is the very stuff of life: grief, love, joy, memory, loss.
It helps, of course, to have seen the film before listening to the Heart Of A Dog album, but it’s not essential. The album is the film’s full sound design and consists of 25 or so stories, thoughts and observations set to mostly new compositions by Anderson. This beatless music, broadly electronic and characterised by circling drones and violin, churns quite menacingly in places around Anderson’s dulcet voice but never impedes the narrative or artificially inflates the drama of a story.
Without the film’s visual accompaniment, the album is like listening to a series of short radio plays, or a podcast of Anderson’s anthropological musings, and it is no worse for that. In fact, Anderson admits that the music was the last element of the film to come together. She dashed it off quickly, even recycling material from her earlier albums Homeland (2010) and Bright Red (1994).
Heart Of A Dog came about a few years ago when the Franco-German arts channel Arte commissioned her to make a personal essay. She had made one film before, the 1986 concert film Home Of The Brave, but this would be quite different. Given carte blanche and no deadline, she decided to try to assemble a story about her dog, Lolabelle, who had recently died. But with limited footage of the dog, how best to go about this? How would she articulate and represent her thoughts on film? And how would she connect all these different stories on the screen in a coherent manner? So she drew illustrations, which were then animated, and paired these with home videos shot by her family on Super 8 in the 1950s and more recent iPhone footage and other, staged material. The result is an impressionistic montage that evokes, in its philosophical open-endedness and technical simplicity, Chris Marker’s La Jetée. (Marker, funnily enough, had Anderson’s “O Superman” on his answerphone for 20 years.)
Though Heart Of A Dog would become mawkish if Anderson dwelled solely on Lolabelle, the dog does provide moments of light relief. On “Lola Goes Blind”, Anderson talks about Lolabelle losing her sight and teaching her to paint and sculpt and play the keyboard, as best one can. Whether through training or by fluke, Lolabelle plays freestyle jazz on the piano fairly competently – the YouTube clips are well worth a look.
Through Lolabelle, Anderson digresses and reflects on her own life, mixing candid observation and childhood memories with thoughts on surveillance and data (a familiar topic) and the contrasting Western and Eastern approaches to death and grieving. “The purpose of death,” she realises, said in that mellifluous and comforting voice, “is to release love.” Ultimately, in whichever medium she uses, Anderson’s role as an artist is to tell stories and join the dots. On “Phosphenes” she muses, not unlike David Attenborough, on those stripes and squiggles you see when you close your eyes, describing them as “screen savers, holding patterns that just sit there so your brain won’t fall asleep”.
Later, in “Bring Her Some Flowers”, she recalls a harrowing visit to a hospital to see her dying mother. “Listen,” she tells a priest named Father Pierre, a converted Egyptian Jew, “I have a really big problem. I’m going to see my mother and she’s dying, but I don’t love her.” Prepared for a tranquil reconciliation, she arrives to a scene of chaos in the ward, her mother dead. Beneath this tale seethes the kind of queasy sound design David Lynch uses in his films to invoke impending dread.
Perhaps you could say she’s made the ideal album for this digital age: bitesize content packed with real depth and genuine emotion. Yet in many ways, removed from the context of the gallery or museum, Heart Of A Dog becomes Anderson’s most satisfying and human work. There’s something for everyone.
Heart Of A Dog is deeply personal but also totally universal.
It’s not really about me and my life and my childhood and getting to know me as such.
It’s really about what stories are, why you have them and what you do with them. I like it when people make their own story from this, and I try to leave it open.
How did you go about composing the music?
I cut the film and showed it to some people with just a voiceover, no music at all, and they all said: please don’t put music on it. And I thought, well, wait a second, I am a musician, I can always take it off if I don’t like it. I did the music super-fast. One thing I did was playing the violin along with the film and finding phrases that worked. I mostly used drone-like keyboard and violin phrases that were kind of twisty. Once in a while I would put in songs or fragments of songs. But I did slap that together really quickly.
It’s impossible to watch Lolabelle playing the keyboard without grinning.
She loved music and basically music saved her life. But it was the only world available to her; she did not do well when she went blind. I wished that the castanets and bells she played had been part of the videos, because it was really pretty rhythmic. She played with both paws.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m doing some work with Lou’s archive. I have all of his things and I want to do some exciting projects. I mean, Lou’s work doesn’t need me to do anything – it’s in the world, it’s in people’s heads, he’s already there – but I do have these things I wanna put out there.
INTERVIEW BY PIERS MARTIN
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