The great film philosopher Stanley Cavell once said, in relation to Red Desert, that Michelangelo Antonioni had found a way to suggest “the world we inhabit is already the world of the future.” The Italian auteur did this, Cavell says, through the use of color as a “declared condition of [the] medium” in order to reach a deeper truth about the tangible world. Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog continues Antonioni’s pursuit of immediate futurity, but does so through the form of an experimental documentary that is as equally solipsistic as it is aesthetically profound.
Yet Anderson’s navel-gazing isn’t of the self-absorbed sort. Rather, she blends personal and public histories to create a palimpsest upon which the capturing of singular, immediate emotion exists beside reflective, historical assessments. Such passages are often staggering in their breadth of insight. Voiceover drives Heart of a Dog, but Anderson’s unsettling audio-visual design gives the film its primary identity as a cine-poem on love and loss.
Early on, Anderson recounts walking in California with Lolabell, her rat terrier, in an attempt to teach the pet a few new tricks. Suddenly, Lolabell is made aware of a hawk, which unsuccessfully swoops down to snatch her for food. The dog realizes, Anderson says, its status as prey and, even more disturbing, that predators can come from the air—a point she unites with the expressions of American faces right after 9/11, as they came to similar realizations. Anderson reconstructs their walk with distorted images from along the countryside, which function more as snapshots of her memory than a fully articulated account. As such, the film denies linear logic as a means to comprehending an existential state. Furthermore, Anderson pitches these explanations not as political talking points, but philosophical auto-critique, where arguments regarding socio-cultural anxieties are built within the film’s architecture instead of being products of it.
The strength of the film’s form lies in its capacity to shift affective registers without warning. When Anderson’s uses a quote from the philosopher Wittgenstein, it follows a discussion of Homeland Security’s slogans in the wake of 9/11 regarding airport procedure. These connections are unified by Anderson’s proclamation that the slogans “sound like something Wittgenstein might say,” solidifying the film’s primary interest in contingency as an aesthetic condition. Since Anderson forgoes the use of talking heads or experts of any sort, the film is free to rearrange into either a lighter of more foreboding version of its previous self.
Such an open range makes Heart of a Dog truly horrifying, since it’s not restricted by formal demands. Thus, when Anderson begins likening apocalyptic speculations made by various religious groups to dreams, the film unexpectedly turns to a discussion of sudden infant death syndrome and Anderson’s own childhood traumas, including a time when she broke her back and spent an extended period of time in a child care unit. But this is “a story about a story,” as Anderson terms it, which ultimately boils down to the nature of storytelling and a human need to narrativze everything. Anderson, at the film’s most chilling point, reaches the conclusion that the “creepiest thing about stories…[is that] you get your story, and you hold onto it, and every time you tell it, your forget it.”
And that—the fragile line between remembrance and forgetfulness—is something of the film’s cumulative effect. Instead of explaining life through the tale of a beloved animal, Anderson condenses contemporary, human experience to the point where exterior and interior are made indistinguishable from one another. Narrative, as a maker of meaning, is less structured and ordered than felt. Whether detailing the life of a friend whose ghost Anderson claims to have seen at a later date or explaining her need to reconcile with her dead mother, the film remains tightly wound by its interest in navigating responses to trauma and the ways rational knowledge must anchor spiritual belief—not the other way around. The great theorist Roland Barthes reminds us that “knowledge, like delight, dies with each body.” With Heart of a Dog, Anderson yearns for a physiological reality that would allow all beings to wear their hearts on their sleeve.