"You should learn how to feel sad without actually being sad," Laurie Anderson's Buddhist teacher told the performance artist after the loss of her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle.
Anderson's new film, Heart of a Dog, is in part a personal essay that tries to figure out what that injunction means, and how to live up to it in the wake of multiple losses. You don't have to be a Tibetan Buddhist or a pet lover, though, to spend 75 enthralling minutes with the endlessly associative contents of Anderson's head and heart.
And she's wise to the potential for sentimental self-indulgence in making a feature-length film about either her departed pooch or her guru, though the former has a starring role and the latter an advisory one. An animated prologue in which Anderson dreams she has sewn Lolabelle into her abdomen so that she can be born like a human child clues us in to how far she will go toward whimsy before backing up into something at once more rigorous and soulful in the artful stream of consciousness that is Heart of a Dog.
We learn that Anderson loved Lolabelle to distraction, as she did her husband, rocker Lou Reed, who died of liver disease in 2013 and to whom she dedicates the film. She loved her late mother no less intensely, though with a haunting ambivalence that's just one of the painful threads she follows, in this case to a new appreciation of her mother's backhanded way of loving her back. Perhaps, too, mortality is on Anderson's mind because she's 68 years old, an age when even the healthy must confront the urgency of living life forward and understanding it backward. In case you were wondering, Kierkegaard gets a cameo, along with Wittgenstein and Reed himself, who plays a doctor in a wacky hospital sequence.
If that makes Heart of a Dog sound abstract, it's anything but. Along with the common hurts and losses that accrue to all of us with time, a couple of vivid childhood traumas pop up in Anderson's film that will make you skip a breath, though not because she's out to ratchet up the drama. These formative events receive equal weight with Lolabelle's painting and piano lessons and Anderson's thoughts on how and when life really ends, all guided by a matter-of-fact voiceover in her Midwestern, musical alto.
Heart of a Dog is the kind of film that attracts labels like "experimental," and I suppose it is, in its mixed-media collage of home movies, newsreel and CCTV footage, re-enactments and intertitles, backed by a lyrical score Anderson composed herself. Her sense of time, space, theme and reality is non-linear and digressive. But she also knows how to connect the dots into stories that don't feel in the least inaccessible or choppy, except perhaps in repeated segues to reveries about the post-Sept. 11 surveillance society that feel jarringly inorganic and nowhere as fresh or lively as her musings on Lolabelle's death or her mother's, or on how to properly mourn someone you've lost. (Crying is not allowed; giving stuff away is encouraged.)
Radical or not, Heart of a Dog is the ultimate realist narrative. It flows along, mimicking the continuous, fleeting, fragmentary flow of consciousness, the haze that lies between sleeping and waking, even between death and whatever lies behind it. And you don't have to follow Anderson into Buddhism to admire the common touch of the questions she poses. "What are the last things you say in your life, before you turn into dirt?" she asks, and lets that bracing question hang in the air for a bit before taking it in a direction you don't expect. There's more than one answer, by way of her dog and her mother, and she's as funny as she is bereft by the loss of both. I was completely undone by a moment in which an otherwise withholding mother chose exactly the right moment to tell her small daughter what an excellent swimmer she was. In a movie that's often heartbreaking but never long-faced, you, too, might find yourself feeling, you know, sad without being sad.