In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess that I've always loved Laurie Anderson. I loved 1982's Big Science the first time I heard it. I loved her voice. (Wouldn't she have made the perfect Siri?) I loved her futuristic funny bone, her unimaginable imagination.
Listen to the lyrics of that record's single, "O Superman." In the Reagan era, they sounded like an Orwellian lullaby. On 9/11 they sounded like a prophecy. Ditto when Edward Snowden happened. Now, with the rollout of this otherworldly film written and directed by the performance artist, they serve as the opening half of an Anderson double feature.
Heart of a Dog picks up on a number of Big Science's themes and deepens them with musings on love, language and loss. Following the 2013 death of Lou Reed — Anderson's companion for 21 years — the visionary who made "multimedia performance art" a thing in the 1970s appeared to have gone silent. Who would have guessed she was just preparing her second act? Or that it would take the form of a documentary short-listed for an Oscar?
Anderson's latest work offers allusions to the deaths not only of Reed but also of the director's beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, and her mother. It references 9/11, the NSA, phosphenes, Anderson's childhood, Wittgenstein, Goya, JFK, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the great pyramids and Facebook — while still making a kind of perfect, distinctly personal sense.
Dreamlike, droll, and by turns wistful, ruminative and laugh-out-loud funny, this is one of the most remarkable works of cinema you're ever likely to see. Anderson starts off with the story of Lolabelle, employing photos, video and even footage from a dog-cam she rigged so we can experience her West Village neighborhood from the pet's perspective. When the dog goes blind and begins to fail, Anderson's response is to teach her to play the piano ("She got reasonably good").
When Lolabelle dies, the aforementioned Book of the Dead reminds Anderson that crying is forbidden. Instead, she creates a series of large paintings depicting Lolabelle's passage through the 49 days of the bardo, during which "her energy prepares to take another life form." They're extraordinary. Afterward, Anderson's lovely, haunting score appropriates the tape loop and found-sound techniques of John Lennon's "Revolution 9." (In an interview, I once asked Anderson to name her favorite Beatle. Guess who.)
Suddenly we see a gold-tinted glimpse of Reed and Anderson smiling at the edge of the ocean. "The purpose of death is the release of love." From there, the film proceeds to meditations on the reason we dream and on the white ash that covered New York after the 9/11 attacks, ash that Anderson elegantly transforms into snowy fields.
She explores the way cameras were everywhere after the towers fell and the government's unprecedented collection of private information — which, Anderson observes, is organized into a story only when someone commits a crime. Next come a pair of harrowing childhood stories, thoughts on the editorial nature of memory and a visit to her mother's deathbed.
Trust me when I tell you it works. I want to call the artwork, narration and animation mesmerizing, and the music hypnotic, but I don't wish to suggest the film lulls the viewer to any degree. On the contrary, the eye is dazzled, the mind surprised and delighted, by each unexpected connection Anderson makes among seemingly disparate themes.
As a child, she tells us, she compulsively tried to imagine "things that have never happened in the history of the world." It's possible to see her career as an extension of that impulse. Older, wiser and never better, Laurie Anderson has imagined a movie that meets that challenge magnificently.
Heart of a Dog screens on Thursday, February 25, 8:30 p.m., at Main Street Landing Film House in Burlington, presented by the Burlington Film Society and Vermont International Film Foundation. $5-8. The film will be available on iTunes during March and on HBO later in the spring.