The politics of death are tricky in our Western society.
The politics of death are tricky in our Western society. What does one say to the dying to comfort them and what words can you offer to those reeling from grief? When is it appropriate to console and when should you leave a person alone? There is no easy answer, especially since death has become a nearly taboo topic in our society. We pretend as if it will never come. We pretend that this iteration of our existence will continue forever.
Death is both universal and personal. We all die, but how we die and the people we know who precede us in death varies from individual to individual. Our attitude towards death is formed by our parents and our friends. In my Jewish upbringing, death was always there, a thing to be feared and discussed. In my wife’s very WASPy rearing, she sometimes didn’t find out about deceased relatives until weeks after their demise.
If you watch Laurie Anderson’s beautiful poem of a film, Heart of a Dog, there is another way. More a meditation than an actual movie in many regards, Heart of a Dog serves as a Buddhist guide for contemplating death and loss. Anderson, a popular musician and visual artist, was also married to the iconic singer Lou Reed until his 2013 death. Rather than contemplate the loss of her husband here (though his absence from this piece brings us closer to his death in a way), Anderson explores loss through the demises of her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, and her mother.
Anderson, best known for her avant-garde compositions and her multi-media shows, serves not only as director and writer of Heart of a Dog but also wrote the film’s lovely score. For those unfamiliar with her recorded works, Anderson’s calm, almost flat narration may come as a surprise. Yet her even-headed intonation best serves a film that probes emotional depths. The movie begins with Anderson relating a dream where she gives birth to her dog, establishing from the get-go the deep relationship she shared with her canine companion.
Anderson experiments with image, as well as sound, in Heart of a Dog. A pastiche of 8 mm film, home videos, animation, dramatized scenes and even some purely textual moments, the film is a beautiful mélange of dreamy images and stark moments of brutality. At one point, Anderson contemplates the existence of phosphenes, the shapes and light trails we picture when our eyes are closed and in another she experiments with the blues and greens with which dogs see the world. There is some clarity as well. The bright blue sky of California is a beautiful respite from the horrors of post-9/11 New York, that is until a pair of hawks contemplate having Lolabelle for lunch. The dog learns, just as Anderson and her fellow New Yorkers had just learned, that death can also come from above.
From this description, Heart of a Dog may sound somewhat free flowing, yet Anderson has a definite intent behind the film. Anderson is fascinated, and repelled, by the post-9/11 surveillance society we live in and how pieces of our existence are being recorded by the National Security Agency, and only compiled into a single picture if we commit a crime. It’s like dead friends on our Facebook feeds. The computer doesn’t know, and still tells you to wish them a happy birthday.
There are lessons too. Anderson’s Buddhist teacher tells her that she “should try to learn how to feel sad without being sad.” But is that even possible when we are surrounded by so much loss? As Lolabelle reached the end of her life, the veterinarians consoled Anderson and recommended that she put the dog to sleep and end her suffering. However, animals are like people, Anderson argues. They creep up to the precipice of death and then shrink back. Instead of euthanasia, Anderson allowed Lolabelle to expire slowly at home, watching the life peacefully fade from her beloved dog.
Heart of a Dog is more about the aftermath of death than death itself. Anderson’s teacher told her “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.” Anderson contemplates what happens in the bardo, the place in her religious tradition where souls go for 49 days following death and before rebirth, the place where conscience fades away into nothingness. She also talks about the death of her friend Gordon Matta-Clark, an artist who invited his friends to his death bed and read to them as he expired. When he died, the two lamas there shouted instructions at him from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, since Buddhists believe that hearing is the final sense to leave us.
As the film ends, Anderson reaches back to her childhood, blurring the lines between the past and the future. Perhaps all of our moments exist at the same time. Or is it all a myth? “That’s what I think is the creepiest thing about stories,” Anderson opines. “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.” Yet, Anderson remembers so many details about her childhood, her mother and her dog. For all the Buddhist meditation and philosophy she espouses, Anderson hasn’t yet let go. She still misses her dog, but in many ways, Heart of a Dog isn’t about the loss of Lolabelle after all. A hole has been punched in Anderson’s life, one that we’ve been waiting to hear about the entire time, one that doesn’t need to be discussed, one that is remarkably clear by the time credits roll. It is the someone who Anderson allows to sing the final words we hear in Heart of a Dog.