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Film Review: ‘Heart of a Dog’ Is A Wondrous Meditation On Life & Death

“Is it a pilgrimage? Towards what?”

Laurie Anderson’s documentary, “Heart of a Dog,” is an intensely personal meditation on life, death, and the afterlife. Her social displeasure with the post-9/11 rise of the security state is also woven into her philosophical reflections, which center on the life and death of her rat terrier, Lola Belle.

The film opens with a dream. An animated sketch of the dream, along with an animated sketch of what Anderson calls her “dream body,” sets the mood as she reflects on the birth of her dog.

Moments later, Anderson describes living in downtown Manhattan when the September 11th attacks happened. Everything was covered with white ash for months, and trucks moved up the highway with the “twisted metal debris” of the towers. She frequently witnessed FBI boats docking at the end of a pier she could see from her window. Surveillance cameras became ubiquitous, and there was so much noise.

Lola's frightened face. (Heart of a Dog)

Lola’s frightened face. (Heart of a Dog)

Anderson transforms Lola’s experiences into allegories for understanding how humanity responded to the 9/11 attacks. In particular, when Anderson left New York and traveled to the mountains in California to escape the dreadful atmosphere after the attacks, a hawk swooped down and mistook Lola for prey. There was a look on Lola’s face, and she realized a predator could come after her from the air. This look on Lola’s face is strikingly similar to the look on New Yorkers’ faces after 9/11 when they realized they could be attacked from the air. Everyone knew “we had passed through a door, and we would never be going back.”

But the thought that “we would never be going back” is not limited to a fear of terrorism. It stems from seeing the presence of soldiers with machines and riot gear, who appeared in transit centers all over New York. Anderson connects this alarming development to the story of Lola by highlighting how Homeland Security bred dogs and had puppies trained in prisons which could be drafted to work in K-9 units on patrols and for bomb-sniffing squads.

This sequence leads into Anderson wryly pondering the phrase, “If you see something, say something,” and confronting the construction of the NSA data center in Bluffdale, Utah. She likens the data center, which has the capability to bug systems, engage in sabotage, and store an unprecedented amount of information on the citizens of the United States, to the pyramids built by pharaohs. These dystopian recollections of life after 9/11 serve the film by accentuating the importance of loving Lola and living in the moment while with her dog and other friends and family.

In dealing with Lola’s blindness and mortality, Anderson contends animals approach death a lot like humans. She also shares philosophy and explores ideas about what happens to animals and humans in the time after death.

Screen shot 2015-11-20 at 12.32.40 PM

Throughout, the cinematography often focuses on scenery that can evoke a certain kind of introspection desired by Anderson. Some of the sequences feature dark billowing clouds. She also takes multiple scenes of the world and overlays a filter that makes it seem like rain is dripping down a window pane. Other times, for example, old images from films of her childhood occupy the screen.

The soundtrack is a landscape of ambience that adds to the experimental nature of the film. The structure does not follow any kind of linear narrative. There are moments where a scene lingers, like when snow is shown falling in the woods. The ambience gives the audience an extra bit of focus and, to an extent, the sounds, along with other magnificent visual effects, encourage brief moments of rumination by viewers.

Anyone who has experienced death should find something profound in Anderson’s film. There is a moment when she is describing philosophy about the afterlife. Anderson notes the Tibetan Book of the Dead forbids crying. It is not allowed because it confuses the dead. The dead see crying as a summons, but the dead cannot be summoned back.

Anderson poignantly adds, as she reflects on the death of her mother, “Death is so often about regrets or guilt. Why didn’t I call her? Or why didn’t I say that? It’s more about you then the person who died. But, finally, I saw it, the connection between love and death, and that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

This idea of death as the release of love is such a powerful idea. To see death as the release of love is to unburden one’s soul and recognize that death is an intrinsic part of life. Human beings who play no direct part in ending a loved one’s life should not feel guilt or sorrow for that person, particularly for extended periods of time.

That loved one has entered a critical stage of life where his or her spirit will be released and a new cycle of life will begin. Not letting go soon after threatens to disrupt the cycle of life by making it more difficult for the spirit of the person they love to leave their body. And, though there is no way to prove whether this is true after life or not, it makes a lot of sense spiritually.

The film is a wondrous work of art that fills you up with emotion and leaves you immersed in your own emotions including: everything you feel about life but do not understand; everything you feel about death but do not understand; everything you feel about the afterlife but do not understand; and everything Anderson illuminates but cannot fully explain because there is no way to know.

The best we can hope is that we find something to be grateful for in this experiment or experience called life. We can hope that in the end, we can say, as Anderson’s mother said before dying, “Thank you for having me.”

We can also love until one day that love is released.

In this March 17, 2009 photograph, two men scale the border fence into Mexico a few hundred yards away from where Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalions are building a 1,500 foot-long concrete-ined drainage ditch and a 10 foot-high wall to increase security along the U.S. and Mexico border in Douglas, Ariz. (Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Navy / Steelworker 1st Class Matthew Tyson)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."