“I watched language falling apart.”
Laurie Anderson’s wistful, elegiac film, Heart of a Dog, uses animation, video, home movie clips, and dream sequences to chronicle not just her life with Lolabelle, her rat terrier, but more generally how humans and animals communicate, their shared sense of companionship, and our processes of death, grief, and coping with trauma. That said, Anderson’s film is essentially about storytelling—a theme the artist/filmmaker/musician has been exploring since the start of her long and storied career. Here, her voice carries us into a kaleidoscope of images, textures, and music that evoke both human and canine experiences of the world.
We met at the Telluride Film Festival, where Heart of a Dog had its world premiere, to speak about life and death, memories and dreams, and, of course, dogs.
Gary M. Kramer Watching the film, I became really curious to know what you were like as a child. While you tell some vivid stories—such as being hospitalized after a bad accident, after which, you were told you might never walk again—I'm interested in knowing how you see your youth, and how you became who you are today.
Laurie Anderson I was looking at stories you use to represent childhood. I probably think of ten or so such stories when someone asks, “What was your childhood like?” I tried to make this film about getting attached to those stories and realizing that they weren’t necessarily true—particularly, in my case, that one about the hospital. Like most twelve-year-olds, I was a punk. I really thought adults were idiots. I’m sure you remember that feeling, too. You felt sorry for them. They were just so out of it, stumbling around. You were embarrassed for them. And that was how I was remembering feeling in the hospital, I guess, because I couldn’t deal with the actual memory of it.
GMK The memories you share in this film certainly evoke a feeling, an emotion, regardless of what they are about or if they are true. What I like is your distinctive voice—its cadence. You shape the film’s narrative and build suspense not only with what you say but how you say it. Can you talk about your approach to talking and narrating Heart of a Dog?
LA I tried to make my voice very flat. (laughter) As much as I could, I tried to make it like a reporter. I was working with Ken Burns on a project, and there is a tendency to go up on the end of sentences—so, I tried to just go down. I tried to do that and make little punctuations. It’s not that I wanted to speak conversationally, but I just didn’t want to feel like I was reading. It’s like the performances I do. I don’t write down and read them. I memorize and say them.
GMK It’s like theater. I remember seeing your show “Stories from the Nerve Bible,” where you had a live, fifteen-foot tornado on stage in a glass box.
LA Oooh, yeah… Did that tornado work?
GMK Yes, it did. It did!
LA It was unusual then. Often when it came to that tornado, we were always prepared for nothing to happen.
GMK It worked! It spiraled. I distinctly remember it.
LA Wow! It was Ned Kahn’s tornado, by the way. He was at the Exploratorium [in San Francisco] and gave us a tornado “recipe.” It was a very controlled environment, of course. On stage there are all sorts of temperature changes and winds going on. It’s “in-dependable.”
GMK It’s funny you mention control because one of my questions was about that idea in your work. You have, as a performer, been very conscious about using voice filters to depict authority, for instance. Here you are manipulating images, sound, and music to achieve emotion. You talk in the film about “feeing sad without being sad.” Can you unpack that concept, how the idea of control and loss of control might tie into your work, even down to how you control telling a story?
LA I try to leave things as open as I can, without telling people what to do. That works a lot better. Can you control how people feel? I think people know when they feel manipulated. You know when you are going to a very emotionally manipulative concert, or film, which is fine—sometimes I love to go along for that ride.
GMK You once described language as a virus from outer space. You get political in Heart of a Dog when you discuss the homeland security advisement, “If you see something, say something. Hopefully, it’s nothing.” You also talk about Lolabelle understanding 500 words and the speech a vet gives when he suggests putting an animal down. Then there’s mention of Wittgenstein’s notion that “language has the power to create the world.” What are your thoughts on the power of language, which has been such an important theme in your work and in this film?
LA The film is about language, stories, and how you tell stories more than anything else. Heart of a Dog is disguised as a story about love, death, and dogs. At the center of the film is a story about the hospital, and remembering a story the way you want to. For me, that’s the key, and the reason I put it in the film. There is a speech by my mother on her deathbed. She was a very proud person and waited until everyone was surrounding her, like a lot of dying people do. It [the speech] was almost like stepping up to a microphone and saying, “Thank you all for coming,” and she would then get quite formal, and be distracted by all the animals she saw on the ceiling, and she would talk about that for a while, then go back to the microphone. I watched language falling apart, as her brain was shutting down. I thought, Whoa! This is really something: to still be conscious and use words as a way to show that you are. I would come back to that more than any other theme. My work is based in stories—how they get made, why, and what their usefulness is.
GMK In addition to storytelling, I was also very moved by your thoughts on dreams. They express longing and desire, but they also express something about ourselves and what we know. How do you see dreams operating in your life and work, and world? Are they inspirations, or just amusements to pass the time or convey thoughts of love or fear?
LA Sometimes dreams are just the mind running rampant, entertaining itself with things that really only have meaning for you.
GMK But we share them—“I had this great dream! You won’t believe it!”
LA I think it’s never very satisfying to share your dreams with someone else. In fact, when somebody goes, “I had this dream…” I go, “Oh please, don’t tell me your dream, please!” No! It’s not a film you saw! It’s something like a hallucination that only you have a code for. Now that is a wonderful thing—stories only you appreciate, only you value, and only you understand. That is a really underrated thing in our culture. You have this wonderful dream world that’s only for you. Let’s keep it that way. Don’t try to tell other people what’s going on. It’s like when only you think something is funny. That’s really great. But why do we share stories? Because otherwise, life is too lonely, you know?
GMK I agree! Storytelling is a way to share an experience, or present the universality of life. But people can look at a film and see it in different ways, because of its rhythm or the wavelength they are on watching it. It’s how you tell the story that makes it so emotional. But what can you say about the structure of Heart of a Dog and how you compiled the stories?
LA That’s the thing about something that’s all voice-over, you’re not really seeing anyone. There are tree branches and a few reenactments. Mostly, it’s an act of your own imagination. You see very few people. Probably the person with the longest spoken line is the grandmother. There are no speaking roles, just flashes of faces. It’s not where you are looking at the behavior of characters, or the way they say things. Everything is told to you in a voice-over, which I’m hoping becomes almost your own way of perceiving things. You accept it the way the eye is the viewer, and you become the one who is identifying with this main character who just is a voice. I don’t know if it really works that way, or if it seems like you are on a train with someone who is talking a lot.
GMK I interpret it such that you are telling these things to me. It’s episodic, and therefore it doesn’t feel like a monologue. As a viewer, you get into some stories, and sometimes you just watch, but I made all these connections and took it all in. I could see the film again and have a totally different response.
LA It asks a lot of the viewer, because it leaves a lot to the imagination of that person. There’s a long story of this guy Gordon, and you see his photo, then there’s Moses, who is the lineman, and all you see is telephone poles. That means that everyone has a different picture of Moses, they bring their own memories to this—almost like a radio show, though with some imagery attached.
GMK When you talk about Moses, I picture him as heavyset. Some might think he’s a beanpole. If you asked me how he looked, I would describe his yellow shirt, his khakis, his rust-colored tool belt and hardhat, as if I saw him in the film. But he wasn’t there!
LA I think that’s really key. The tone of voice indicates things. You are filling in a million blanks.
GMK Yes! I came up with my own image of Moses, or what happened in a story involving your twin brothers, Craig and Phil, at a lake near your home.
LA What was really weird was that, in the middle of making this film, one of my other brothers sent me a box of films from our childhood, asking if I could transfer them. I said, “I’m really busy working on some things.” But I transferred them anyway, and there was this film of Craig and Phil with the island and the lake. I called them and said, “Do you remember that time…?” And they said, “Yes, why? Are you going to put that in your film?” It was these crusty old images on 8mm. It was so eerie. There was my mother pushing their stroller. I slowed it down a little bit, and it started looked so much like a Brueghel painting. I love the way it looks visually. It has that quality of trying to remember something.
GMK I wanted to ask what your thoughts are on ritual and Bardo—and belief? Can you talk about why you believe what you believe? I’m superstitious, like my mother, and live in fear that bad luck will happen if I put a hat on a bed, or shoes on a table, or walk under a ladder.
LA Really, in fear? I’m not sure about rituals, but I do think certain things about the Tibetan Book of the Dead are really fascinating. There’s a good explanation of energy. Meditation for me is a really valuable thing. I try to learn from various teachers. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is quite a complicated explanation of the shredding of individual stories, and the energy that makes up your personality and individualism. They describe the Bardo as a forty-nine-day period where that energy disintegrates and moves into another life. They have rituals that go those forty-nine days, and those are really interesting, so I kind of studied that through the eyes of a dog, or what would happen to a dog. Mosquitoes go through the Bardo. It’s very crowded, the crossing. [laughter]
GMK The idea and experience of coping with death and trauma—the way silence and loneliness are interlocked—I thought was a powerful and crucial idea. We experience grief in very personal ways. You mention that the Tibetan Book of the Dead encourages us to resist crying. Can you discuss this concept of coping?
LA I think I was exploring this idea: Does language help you in a situation like that? The Tibetans would say it does, because they wrote a whole book about it. They are expressions of grief. The no crying thing is about trying to understand what is going on not with your own emotions, but to pay attention to what’s going on with the drama of the person who is dying and dead. Their idea is to focus on their transition, which will also be used when you die. But it’s to focus on their death, not your reaction to it.
GMK How much emotion should you express for someone when you watch them die, and over how long a period? Given that you lost your husband and your dog, how did making the film help you cope with that grief?
LA I was making a film about that, but I don’t know that it’s really affected the way I personally did that.
GMK Some folks are inspired by survivor’s guilt…
LA Survivor’s guilt is often a realization that you get an opportunity to make something. You get a second chance—so don’t waste it.
GMK You mention in the film about your mother loving you unconditionally. When did you love Lolabelle unconditionally?
LA It’s different with a dog or an animal. They don’t have the same conditions that humans do. They have a default mode of unconditional love. I don’t know why they love us—we are sources of food, and we are alphas, and to some extent we protect them and give them rides in cars. Cats do not want rides in cars. That’s a really fundamental difference! I think that using an animal to talk about love is a different kind of relationship. For me, dogs represent a kind of purity that isn’t often found in human relationship, which are more complicated. Very few people will have the joy that dogs do when running to the door to say hello. They’re very openhearted.
GMK Did you have a lot of dogs growing up? Do you have one now?
LA I have a dog now. I had dogs as a kid, but we had everything: monkeys, parrots, donkeys, toucans, cats, dogs, gerbils, mice, rabbits, turtles, fish… What didn’t we have?
Heart of a Dog is currently playing at Film Forum in New York through November 3, 2015.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.