Jake Gyllenhaal deals with grief indirectly in Demolition but Laurie Anderson, still best known for her unlikely 1981 hit O Superman, takes the most circulatory path available. In her first feature length film since 1986’s Home of the Brave, Heart of a Dog, which the writer-director has dedicated to her late husband Lou Reed, is a sometimes moving, sometimes pretentious exploration of grief but it's one which will reward repeated viewing.
In what is perhaps a classic case of transference (and purely guesswork on my part) Anderson attempts to deal with Reed's death by focusing on her feelings when their beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, who passed away in 2011 after a lengthy sickness. It inspires a host of memories, thinking back to the paranoia over the crackdown on civil liberties in post-9/11 Manhattan and her desire to flee the city. She tries to understand how a dog sees and understands the world around it, how it deals with fear and death. Along the way philosophers like Kierkegaard are quoted, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is explored, childhood memories are recalled, Buddhist meditation techniques are tried and all are funnelled through this freeform structure that Anderson playfully calls "a plotless avant garde movie."
The sombre strings and abstract visuals (dark animation; wobbly handheld work; home videos; snow and rain cascading down the lens like tears) threaten to detract from Anderson's random thoughts; keeping tabs on her thought process is indeed work as she can veer off on tangents before snapping back into focus. Anderson's narration is delivered with a soft, matter-of-fact delivery, as if she's telling a child a fairy tale, as she swings from thinly-veiled fear of the government's collection of our personal data to touching stories about the death of her mother and artist friend Gordon Matta-Clark. Sometimes the visuals, the music and the narration can pull in different directions. It's madness and clarity all at the same time, a peek into what must be going on in the mind of someone who has just lost someone dear.
While it's a film that asks you to come inside it and have a look around, Heart of a Dog actually works better if one is to stand back and observe from a place of distance and time: Anderson's feelings and the thoughts about any given subject only take hold when the film is semi-digested on the walk home and it will remains with you over the next few days.
Come with an open mind.