Sydney Film Festival: Heart of a Dog

Scott Wallace
13th Jun 2016

The free-flowing, impressionistic film Heart of a Dog has been billed as a documentary, but it doesn't slot in comfortably next to the kind of hard news that the word implies. The film, directed, written and scored by American artist and musician Laurie Anderson, takes in dreams, Buddhist teachings, philosophy of mind and language, and outright speculation to tell a disorienting but oddly comforting tale of the transition between life and death.

The film is named for Anderson's beloved rat terrier Lolabelle, who passed in 2011, and she uses Lolabelle as a jumping-off point to discuss her beliefs and memories about love and death and the nexus point at which the two meet. Abstract, often textural images sometimes crystallise into oddly framed reenactments, all of it soundtracked by Anderson's soothing, mellifluous voice and her mysterious, droning music. 

Anderson also discusses the loss of her mother, and circles around the loss of her partner Lou Reed (to whom the film is dedicated) in 2013, touching on other topics including the events of 9/11, which obviously effected her greatly. She discusses the way things have changed since that momentous time in history. Now that we're all being watched and recorded, leaving artefacts of ourselves behind in the cloud, what does death mean?

Heart of a Dog is structured in a stream-of-consciousness, like a dream. It's full of anecdotes and wry jokes, and observations that fall out of Anderson's mouth with the weight of bowling balls. Despite its unusual structure and artful presentation, it's a warm and funny film, even when the focus circles around to Lolabelle's eventual passing or the words melancholic Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. From the very beginning, Anderson is a comforting and welcoming presence, even at her most obtuse.

In a particularly striking sequence, Anderson lifts us from this plane of existence to the "bardo," where, according to her Tibetan Buddhist faith, Lolabelle's very being is in the process of being dissolved before re-entering the world. The film itself seems to dissolve into a series of non-sequiturs and haunting images before suddenly snapping back to reality: Lolabelle's Facebook page has a new friend request. 

This strange and delightful essay film is a brilliant addition to Anderson's impressive oeuvre, and further confirms her status as one of the most important artists of the 20th Century and beyond. Her understanding of modern life is unique, her viewpoint offering thought-provoking counterpoint to despair and misery that can provide much needed perspective in times of need. Heart of a Dog is the kind of film from which you can emerge having learned something useful and beautiful about existence.

Heart of a Dog is screening as part of the 2016 Sydney Film Festival. See below for screening times.