‘Heart of a Dog’: Laurie Anderson Brings Buddhist Calm to a Meditation on Death

Wittgenstein, the NSA, Buddhism, and a terrier called Lolabelle... and a profoundly beautiful meditation on death and transience.

“That’s the creepiest thing about stories,” says Laurie Anderson in the voice-over narration that propels her film Heart of a Dog. “You try to get to the point you’re making, usually about yourself… and every time you tell it, you forget it a little more.” Coming from an artist whose vast, diverse body of work is united by the practice of storytelling, it’s both a credible statement and a courageous one. There she is, approaching the end of a film that is really just a collection of loosely connected vignettes paired with images, warning you to be suspicious of not just what you are watching, but her entire career.

This is what distinguishes Anderson among storytellers, though: that she goes to such lengths to avoid sacrificing complexity for the sake of didacticism. In her albums, her performances, and this film (her first in three decades, which debuted in theaters last year and will premiere tonight on HBO), she combines words, sounds, and visual elements to make inquiries rather than teach lessons. Anderson is as wise and pleasant a guide as you could want — her voice is so soothing, it almost makes you suspicious — but her way of leading a conversation is to think with her audience instead of dictating to them. Even if the questions she poses are impossible to answer, and they usually are, every moment you spend considering them brings you that much closer to enlightenment.

The central questions of Heart of a Dog, as Anderson poses them, seem to be: “Is it a pilgrimage? Towards what?” Initially some context surrounds these words, but by the end of the 75-minute film, when the questions resurface, they seem to apply equally to life and death. Because while Heart of a Dog is indeed a love letter to a dog — Anderson’s rat terrier, Lolabelle — it is also an inquiry into mortality and all the concepts that surround it: illness, memory, the afterlife, religion. Anderson (who quotes her Buddhist teacher the way some people quote their therapist) tells us that after Lolabelle died in 2011, she imagined the dog’s 49-day journey through the bardo in a series of drawings. The specter of her husband Lou Reed’s death two years later feels present in every moment of the film, though she waits until the very end to explicitly invoke him, playing his song “Turning Time Around” over the credits, panning slowly over a photo of him with Lolabelle, and finally dedicating Heart of a Dog to Reed’s “magnificent spirit.”

The additional theme of post-9/11 surveillance is jarring at first. But then Anderson draws parallels between the information the US government collects about its citizens and the historical records stored in Ancient Egyptian pyramids; she connects Homeland Security’s “If you see something, say something” slogan to Wittgenstein’s ideas about how language creates the world. And suddenly, the way we as a society have responded to terrorism with policies that are even more terrifying seem entirely germane to the larger conversation about death. In Anderson’s work, there are always extra, unarticulated layers of resonance, too. She tints her dog’s-eye-view shots of Manhattan to simulate the animals’ blue- and green-tinged vision; somewhat later, there’s emerald-hued night-vision footage of the military operation that assassinated Osama bin Laden.

It’s not that she’s equating dogs to the Navy SEALs who carried out that mission (although you could argue the night-vision video elicits its own sort of animal response from the American civilian, who watches the TV news report and adjusts their sense of safety accordingly). What I think Anderson is doing at moments like this is reminding us that connections of some sort exist between even the most disparate things in our world — an idea that, itself, ties Buddhism together with contemporary life in the surveillance state and on the Internet, which increasingly feel like the same thing. In a broader sense, the images she pairs with her stories — grainy home videos, recreations of moments with Lolabelle, serene nature scenes, contrasting footage of places like Penn Station and the NSA headquarters, Anderson’s own artwork — add a layer of ambiguous dream logic to the more focused explorations of her voice-over.

In its style and tone, Heart of a Dog is entirely unique to Laurie Anderson. But its subject unites the film with a handful of other artworks that have appeared in the past year, from Patti Smith’s M Train and Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie to David Bowie’s Blackstar and Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression — all meditations on mortality by some of our most intellectually challenging artists, each in the second half of their 60s. (Akerman and Bowie, of course, barely outlived their final works.) The anxiety that suffuses these creations was probably inevitable, considering that they’re the products of the first generation convinced it could cheat death.

Its inherent virtues aside, Heart of a Dog is a welcome addition to the list because it restores a sense of calm to its subject without evading the most haunting questions. “Do not be afraid,” Anderson intones at one point in the film. And, for that moment, you aren’t.