Laurie Anderson’s voice, in its performance mode, is comfortable and comforting and curious. Her tone is cool, meticulously modulated, narrow in range within that modulation, but never not musical. It’s a voice that, despite having a quality that some might call radio-friendly, is apt for conveying irony—not sarcasm but genuine irony, albeit aural irony as opposed to literary irony. As when she intones, “Here come the planes” on her 1981 song “O Superman”; her tone is steady, confident, calm, but the listener knows exactly what the planes—“They’re American planes,” the voice in the song also notes—are bringing.
Anderson, whose melding of music and visuals and discursive, sometimes long-form storytelling has marked her as the best kind of unclassifiable artist for over four decades now, speaks about 9/11 and its surveillance-state aftermath not infrequently in the course of Heart of a Dog, her wonderful 2015 movie. (This is the multimedia artist’s second motion picture, and it’s a very different proposition from her 1986 Home of the Brave, a unique concert film.) It took me a little while to connect those observations back to the intimations of apocalypse that distinguish “O Superman,” and to shudder at my apprehension that the song (which had been a kind of art-world novelty hit in the year of its release) was in fact a prophetic work. “Here come the planes. / They’re American planes.” It took them twenty years to reach their targets, but they came. You can’t stop what’s coming, as a character in a movie has said.
“I live in downtown Manhattan,” Anderson herself says in Heart of a Dog, over ordinary-looking footage of the Hudson River as seen from a sidewalk across the West Side Highway, near Greenwich Village. After the attacks, she continues, “everything was covered in white ash . . . It was the beginning of the time when cameras began to appear everywhere.” Seeking relief from the trauma and detritus, she tells us, she traveled to California with her dog, a rat terrier named Lolabelle. Under a big blue sky, the agreeable-looking dog frolics, not frenetically but with a kind of animal wisdom. Anderson describes her experiment “to see if I could learn to talk with her.” We already know Anderson’s love for this dog was practically maternal, from the dream she relates at the film’s opening. But no sooner has she begun the experiment than the big blue California sky is dotted with a couple of hawks. Hawks that, from the height at which they’re flying, mistake Lolabelle for a rabbit. And then the hawks become planes. And we are back at/in 9/11. “We had passed through a door,” Anderson says.
The sentence is both definite and strangely mystifying, because it is said in that voice of hers. The voice that anchors this movie, the voice that arguably anchors all of her art, the voice that is able to navigate from calamity to whimsy and back again in mere moments, without ever breaking the spell it casts on the ears. The voice is why Heart of a Dog can exist as a stand-alone audio piece. The Nonesuch album that shares the title of this film runs for seventy-five minutes, the length of the movie. When he wrote about the aural experience of Heart of a Dog, the critic Robert Christgau, after admitting he’d missed the movie, praised the album to the skies, and concluded, “I know I should see the movie. But I bet it’d be an anticlimax.” As someone who saw the movie before listening to the recording—which is, as far as I can tell, an exact replication of the film’s audio track, albeit in stereo rather than multichannel cinema sound—I can’t speak to his experience. But I can aver that the imagery is essential: it is always compellingly and poignantly central to Anderson’s theme (which Christgau articulates nicely as “life and death and what comes in the middle when you do them right, which is love”), and always illuminates it (literally!) and amplifies its resonance.
While the imagery of the film was originally rendered in a number of different media, from digitally enhanced animation to 8 mm film, the whole of the work is a digital product, but on a good deal of the footage there are painted in, so to speak, simulated cracks, selective blurs. The picture is stretched sometimes, or infected by brief bursts of color, like light flaring up against your pupils when you walk out of a dark room into semiblinding sunshine. The manipulation of the images serves several purposes, one of them, I believe, constituting a metaphorical reproach to the idea of digital permanence, or any kind of permanence. But it also shows us things, specific things. Early in the movie, Anderson discusses phosphenes, the circles and flares we think we see in front of our field of vision when we close our eyes. Later, she talks about Lolabelle and the way a dog sees, in blues and greens. As this sequence progresses, the images take on the characteristics of security camera footage. And the notion of phosphenes is suggested in every visual elision the movie purposefully puts in front of our eyes, and, late in the movie, in a shot of a sky full of swirling snow.
There are few modes of thought or physical places that are out of Anderson’s artistic orbit. It has always been that way with her. One of the things that distinguished Anderson’s work early on was how wide her range of reference was. The New York avant-garde, particularly in music but in the other arts as well, was pretty great during the midseventies and beyond, but there was a nagging sense of the provincial about it. The “scene,” and the art that came out of it, was frequently very much about itself; it persistently advertised its New Yorkness. Whereas you’d read an interview with Anderson in New York Rocker (see what I mean?) during that era and she’d talk about the time she hitchhiked to Alaska to watch the northern lights, and if you were invested in the scene in a certain way, you’d maybe think, with both admiration and perplexity, What’s that about?
Because the voice and the music and the imagery work so beautifully together in Heart of a Dog, it’s easy to not quite appreciate how great—that is, capital-G Great—Anderson’s writing is. There are several features to its greatness: its plainspokenness; there’s no verbal obfuscation. But there is contrivance, of the best kind, in how she can seem to be going in a completely discursive direction and then she’ll make it sound as if she’s just hit upon an observation or metaphor that ties together everything she’s been speaking of in a phrase or trope that provides a big or little but always palpable kick of satori, the Zen Buddhist term for “awakening,” and all that awakening implies. There is a lot of Buddhism in this movie; from the sound of it here, Anderson is an avid student and practitioner of the religion’s philosophy, at the very least. At a key point in the movie—an opening node, so to speak—Anderson speaks of something “our meditation teacher” has been trying to put across: “You should try to learn how to feel sad without being sad.”
I saw Heart of a Dog for the first time in Venice, at that city’s film festival, in early September 2015. In March of that year, my mother had died, under harrowing circumstances: she had had brain surgery, which was successful, but, of course, she needed a period of physical rehabilitation, and that went well too, but on the day that I was to take her home from the hospital, some troubling symptoms were starting to appear, and while I was consulting with her caretakers, my mother took a fall, which may or may not have set in motion a pulmonary embolism, and she died as I held her hand and told her it would be all right. I was still in mourning in September, and as I watched Heart of a Dog, from its very first frames I knew that Laurie Anderson had something, had several things, had several crucial things, to impart to me. This was confirmed for me five minutes into the movie, when Anderson describes the death of her own mother, in meticulous but tender detail. I knew, too, as everyone else in the audience probably did, that in the fall of 2013, Anderson had lost her husband, the inspired and iconic musician Lou Reed. I learned that I had done some things right. Describing how she oversaw the death of Lolabelle, Anderson talks of that death’s aftermath: “The thing that’s forbidden by the Tibetan Book of the Dead is crying. Crying is not allowed. Because it’s supposedly confusing to the dead, and you don’t want to summon them back, because they actually can’t come back. So: no crying.” Good, I said to myself: When I knew my mother was dead, I did not cry, but I went out of her room and into the hallway; my restraint was more a form of shock than anything else, but now, seven months later, I could feel okay about that. Conversely, some of the things said in the film threw me into a mild panic. Talking about the 1978 death of her friend the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, Anderson describes the lamas who were with Matta-Clark shouting into his ears after he passed: “The Tibetans believe that hearing is the last sense to go. So after the heart stops, and your brain flatlines, and the eyes go dark, the hammers in the ears are still working. And so they shout instructions from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Why didn’t you do that? I said to myself. It was silly, I know.
But to go through those silly feelings was helpful to me. And the movie inspired, and drew out, more feelings that were not silly, and that have made me come to think of Heart of a Dog as one of the most healing works of art that I’ve ever experienced. It is a work whose intellectual dimension is wholly in consonance with its emotional dimension, which is wholly in consonance with its spiritual dimension. It is also a movie that does not just beguile but entertains. Anderson details some adventures with Lolabelle that might elicit some eye rolls, as when she tries to teach the dog to play piano. At the end of listing the dog’s musical accomplishments, she notes, “She also made a Christmas record, which was . . . pretty good,” and her comic timing is so impeccable that she both deflates the whole conceit and makes the viewer believe that maybe the record was/is pretty good.
I wrote “was/is” in part because Anderson’s work makes one think in such terms: the perhaps nonexistent distinction between was and is is another theme of this movie. At the end of the picture, Anderson tells some deeply upsetting stories of her childhood that may surprise those who thought themselves familiar with her life through her work. She also ties up the story of her mother’s death, and that tale too is not what one might have predicted. And then this artist whose body of work has rested on spellbinding storytelling says: “And that’s what I think is the creepiest thing about stories. You try to get to the point you’re making, usually about yourself or something you’ve learned. You get your story and you hold on to it, and every time you tell it, you forget it more.”
This is a work that is devoted to not forgetting. To holding on, even after the day that you, and I, and all of us, and this world and this work, perhaps, are “gone.” And it is a speculation as to how that eternal remembering might actually be able to happen. “Well, for me time has no meaning, no future, no past / And when you’re in love, you don’t have to ask / There’s never enough time to hold love in your grasp / Turning time around,” goes one verse of the final song, a song not written or sung by Anderson but by someone whose presence and absence have hovered over Heart of a Dog all along.
Glenn Kenny writes about films for RogerEbert.com, the New York Times, and other publications. Originally from Fort Lee, New Jersey, he now proclaims his New Yorkness.