What We Learn About Time When We Listen to The Heart of a Dog

By  · Published on October 27th, 2015

“Heart of a Dog”

To a dog owner ‐ or, dog parent, as many of us prefer to call ourselves ‐ a dog’s life is a ticking alarm clock, set to fade away as soon as the alarm goes off. To love anyone really, but especially to love a dog ‐ whose accelerated life span of 10 to 13 years practically guarantees a premature and out of turn departure ‐ is to disregard and rebel against the constraints of time. And Laurie Anderson’s tenderly poetic documentary Heart of a Dog wholly understands and transmits this.

The first time I saw Anderson’s compassionate and loving artistic experiment was at the Telluride Film Festival in September. Following that first experience, I dwelled in thoughts of love and loss, as mortality is a substantial part of Anderson’s cinematic elegy. But seeing it again recently, I found myself wrestling more with the transient nature of time and the period we must live through prior to earning the perception of grief, and recognizing our own march to mortality. Yes, Anderson titled this film Heart of a Dog and dedicated it to her deceased, adorable rat terrier Lolabelle. And yes, her mother, her late husband Lou Reed and even the ghosts of 9/11 in the streets of Manhattan linger over Anderson’s somber and immensely fragile film. But all of it, in the end, adds up to the passage of time, through which lives are lived, thoughts are mulled over and sometimes even shared bravely.

Recently present at Film Forum in NYC during select showings of her film, she said on Sunday evening that the various short stories in the film “are meant to talk to the part of you that never talks. The part of you that’s analyzing often what you’re saying.” And she indeed accomplished that. Not only that, but she also made that part of my brain finally make sense of and admit to some abstract fears: that every time I look at my own dog Audrey, I am overwhelmed by an instant rush of love, followed by an urgent reminder that I will ‐ under normal, natural circumstances ‐ lose her one day, simply because she’s been defaulted to less time than me, a human. It’s a constant grim reminder that translates into a numbing melancholy, about time that’s slipping away from all facets of life; changing, evolving, renewing and sometimes, destroying things.

“Life could only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,” said Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once; a quote that prominently sits at the core Heart of a Dog, even though the film ‐ sometimes humorously ‐ maintains an in the moment attitude towards life. Anderson said she thinks about the forward instead of backward nature of life a lot. “It’s not always looking backwards, because you’re using expectation to shape the story too,” she explained. “So you’re always moving back and forth in this timeline. Also, I was just reading about some Brazilian tribes who live quite deep in the jungle, and they don’t have this idea of future in front of them or the past in the back. I think it has something to do with roads and vanishing points and being able to see into the distance but for them, the past they know is right in front of them. But the future, they can’t see so it’s in the back. But of course it’s always about using expectation, regret, desire…”

Then she added she wanted Lou Reed to have the last word on time in Heart of a Dog, with the song “Turning Time Around” (which plays during the end credits). “It’s really about, in certain ways, the beauty of being in the present,” said Anderson. “[Lou] is a person who was very much totally in the present. [He never thought] ‘Oh it can’t really be like that again.’ or ‘If I can get that, everything’s going to be great.’ He didn’t really do that. I really like the concept of time being like this.”

And who could challenge her on that? As Reed sang, “If I had to, I’d call love time” …. “There’s never enough time to hold love in your grasp”, my thoughts somehow wandered off to the 90+ year-old experimental documentary Kino-Eye, in which Dziga Vertov corrects errors by using reverse motion; in a way, turning time around, and erasing any after effects. I wondered, what if that could really be done with life? With Lolabelle, the towers, Lou Reed, and one day maybe even with Audrey? Perhaps a ridiculous, and borderline outrageous curiosity; but this is the kind of mindset Heart of a Dog nurtures and harvests, during its economical 75 minutes that gently tiptoes around a lifetime.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.