A review of Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog
A stream of consciousness documentary of fragmented memories, emotions and excerpts from the life of Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog is hardly a regular film. Do not expect a linear or well-rounded narrative. But if you love atmospheric imagery and being taken along into someone else’s inner world, it is worth to go and see this film if you get the chance.
I love art house film, but I do not regularly visit the cinema. So the response here is not the response of a “vetted” film critic, but rather a personal reflection of someone who is, on account of inexperience, very impressionable. The reason I felt compelled to write about it anyway was the fact that the film, perhaps inadvertently, posed a couple of vital questions to me.
The reason I went to see the film in the first place was shamefully mundane: I had read it was, at least partly, about her rat terrier Lolabelle. We have a Dutch rat terrier ourselves; any work of art featuring such a willful canine would have caught my attention. The film turned out to be not as much about Lolabelle herself, but more universally about love and loss, and danger too. To be honest, the friends and family who visited the film with me, were not as impressed as I was. The references to 9-11 elicited a “not again” response from our very European group. It did not bother me. If it had happened on my threshold, an event of that scale would trickle through in anything that came after.
Questions of hierarchy
The lovely thing about a film such as this one is that the free form and associative imagery enables every individual to take home something different to ponder upon. For me, the question of hierarchy in relationships arose. In this film, I felt, there is no inherent hierarchy in relationships; if there is, it is only a qualitative distinction the author makes. Her dog was, as it seemed at least, as important to her as her mother: their decline and death are given equal attention. We follow Lolabelle into the unknown; the Bardo; and we wonder what she experiences there. She is considered a spiritual being, on an equal plane of existence with us (which I believe to be true).
Yet this apparent lack of hierarchy is problematic when one considers that Lolabelle is, in the end, her pet. As their owners, pets rely solely on us, without any choice. I said: We “have” a rat terrier. Although we might look upon him as one of our own, a family member, in the reality of our society he is our property.
The film shows this poignantly when we hear how vets try to convince Laurie Anderson to end Lolabelle’s suffering at the end of her life. Yet, she decides, guided by a Buddhist teacher, Lolabelle should be allowed to live out her life in her own time (albeit with pain killers). This troubled me deeply. There are reasons to decide to end an animal’s suffering when death is near; there are perhaps also reasons to decide to let an animal live out its natural life and only ease their passing. I have buried quite a number of pets in my lifetime. I am frankly always very relieved when the decision is made for me.
On the leash
In essence, our relationship to our pets can be compared to the relationship with a young child. The film demonstrates this sentiment when Anderson tells us of her dream of giving birth to her dog. The difference is that our children grow up; eventually they are emancipated, and we are relieved of this power over life and death; which I feel can be oppressing to them as well as us. What is more: only in extraordinary circumstances would a person have to decide about the life and death of their living and breathing child. Yet, in the relationship towards our animals this is a regular occurrence. We decide the range, scope and duration of their lives, the existence and extent of their sexuality. Although many pet lovers, including myself, abhor the notion, pets are in effect commodities in the way children could never be.
We mold their behavior: Lolabelle’s piano playing is indisputably cute, but clearly not a way of expressing herself. It is a bargain: she gets snacks, and we get to see her play. It is hardly natural behavior, and can we even speak of such a thing in dogs like rat terriers; especially bred for many generations to suit human needs? We are their Gods and laugh at our own creatures’ folly.
Surrogacy and hypocrisy
However loving our relationship to our pets might be, it is not always a complementary or additional relationship. Social mobility and displacement lead many of us into isolation; pets are often utilized to fill the gaping holes in our heart. In relationships with other people we are held accountable; the attraction of a relationship with our pet is the absence of this. They love us anyway. They have no choice. Our lives are often stifled, and cramped in time and space; and this leads to even more cramped and stifled lives for our pets. And, when we are no longer able to care for them, they are sometimes discarded, even though we never set out to do so.
Our relationship with the animals is tainted by this surrogacy, and also by hypocrisy. This hypocrisy is clearly demonstrated in the miserable lives of millions of animals in the bio-industry. They suffer and die in the machine, so we and the class of so-called “lucky” pets get to eat, often in great excess. Only in their relationship with us, do the animals “earn” their worth. We do not, as our society’s actions show, endow all animals with this intrinsic value. Our pet’s relationship with us is the portal by which they are vindicated and elevated, sometimes only temporarily, from the horror of an industrial exploitation of our fellow beings.
There is great duplicity in our relationship with the prime representatives of the animal kingdom in our daily lives. I have no clear cut answer if and how this duplicity should be resolved. I do think, as someone who has lived with and loved pets all my life, it is good to be aware of these issues. I am not advocating the abolition of pets: I cannot imagine my life without them. But our understandable desire for communion with them, has numerous problematic side-effects. Even as I personally endeavor to do no harm (which for me is striving towards an entirely plant-based lifestyle), through my pets I am still a cog in this maelstrom.
I realize this review turned out to be less about the film itself, and more about the questions the film posed. If the object of art is to make you think, this film certainly succeeded in this respect for me.
Religious by nature, Linda lives in Dutch suburbia with her family and pets. She is an avid gardener and a budding writer. She blogs at theflailingdutchwoman.wordpress.com.