“Hello Little Bonehead, I’ll Love You Forever”: Laurie Anderson On Buddhism, Lou Reed, And Her Piano-Playing Dog

Anderson's new film, 'Heart Of A Dog', is about the life and death of her rat terrier, Lolabelle. It's about a whole lot of other things, too.

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In a 2012 interview, Laurie Anderson advised artists to “call themselves multimedia artists. Then no one can criticise you when you do something else, when you make a film or a book.”

In another piece, she added, “Genres are for bins”. Taking her own advice, the legendary American musician, visual- and performance artist, writer and tech-head deftly snuck into the world of cinema this month with Heart of a Dog: a film about the death of her rat terrier Lolabelle.

Anderson’s love of dogs is well-documented. In 2010, she came to Australia for Vivid Sydney festival, which she curated with her husband Lou Reed. On the program was the debut of her original composition ‘Music For Dogs’: 20 minutes of bizarre, high-frequency noise art, played at the Sydney Opera House forecourt for an audience of a thousand dogs.

When I meet her, Anderson is sitting in a hotel conference room during this month’s Venice International Film Festival, a week after Heart of a Dog’s world premiere in Telluride. Glowing reviews have been pouring in since. “I’ve been having a really good time here,” she says. The 68-year-old smiles warmly at each of the six journalists crowded around her, dictaphones poised, before she slips into the trippy storytelling mode she has mastered over the past four decades. As in her musical and spoken-word performances, from her 1981 avant-pop hit ’O Superman’ through to recent shows born from her time as NASA’s first artist-in-residence, Anderson’s anecdotes oscillate from witty and razor sharp, to philosophical or dreamy. Each word is carefully weighed, paused, enunciated like a spell.

The film, too, lyrically rambles. Topics such as the death of Lolabelle, of Anderson’s mother, the near-death of her brothers, SIDS, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, 9/11, Wittgenstein and Homeland Security, all gracefully tumble into place in the strange and poetic personal cine-essay.

She Inherits Lou Reed’s Weapons

“Sometimes you’re going to be seeing through the eyes of a dog, sometimes through the lens of a surveillance camera, sometimes you’re going to be flying,” Anderson says, smiling like we’re all about to drop acid together. The journey through Heart of a Dog inhabits these multiple perspectives to examine its greater subjects: love, death and language.

“It wasn’t trying to be obscure,” she says, “I wanted it to be experiential.” The film opens with a dream in which she gives birth to Lolabelle, who has been sewn into her stomach; it ends with her late husband Lou Reed’s tender pop song ‘Turning Time Around‘. “I put that song at the end because it goes, ”Turning time around / That’s what love is”, but what does that mean? It’s not about nostalgia. It’s just going, the present, right now, that’s all we have.”

Many anticipated Heart of a Dog would explicitly pay tribute to Reed, who died of liver disease in 2011. “Here in Italy, someone incorrectly thought the film was about him. But it’s not the story of Lou, which is another amazing story.” For the most part, Reed remains off-screen. He appears only towards the end of the film sitting on a beach with Lolabelle, and in a disguised cameo playing a doctor in a re-creation of Anderson’s childhood memory. Despite this, his death haunts the entire project, loading it with pathos.

“The spirit of Lou is very much in the film,” Anderson says, choosing her words carefully. “I wanted to make something that had some of his fierceness in it … I inherited his weapons collection, giant tai chi swords and spears, things like this. They’re quite heavy. I’ve been working on getting strong enough to lift them up. This [film] was a way to make something that was inspired by his force.”

Lolabelle Goes Blind and Plays the Piano

Heart of a Dog is teeming with ghosts. While Reed lingers out of sight, his and Anderson’s rat terrier Lolabelle, who also passed in 2011, takes centre stage. A life-long companion and muse for Anderson, Lolabelle hung out in recording studios, appeared in interviews, and inspired live stories and performances like the aforementioned Music For Dogs. Anderson’s affection for the dog floods the film; the first words we hear are, “Hello little bonehead, I’ll love you forever.”


Lolabelle and Anderson, performing at a public benefit.

In the film, Lolabelle becomes an avatar for Anderson to speak about the experience of death. Through Lolabelle’s eyes, we tour their neighbourhood in downtown Manhattan with a GoPro strapped to her head, and share the pair’s long walks in the Californian hills. When a hawk swoops upon Lolabelle, mistaking her for a large rabbit, it allows Anderson to explore the awareness of mortality from the perspective of her beloved pooch and to draw parallels with the gaze of New Yorkers post-9/11, as the sky and skyline remains forever transformed from an image of freedom into one of fear.

In this manner, the film makes surprising and darkly comic twists, effortlessly recasting the ordinary as the profound. We learn that in her mature age, Lolabelle went blind and learnt to paw-paint, sculpt, and to play piano. One of the film’s most oddly moving scenes is of Lolabelle’s paws banging against the keys as she barks, rhythmically. Later, Lolabelle passes away and Anderson creates a series of charcoal drawings to chart her 49-day journey through the Bardo, the limbo-like space outlined in The Tibetan Book of the Dead where the mind dissolves before being re-born.

When the European TV Network Arte first invited Anderson to make a film on her “philosophy of life”, she replied, “Uh, I don’t think I have one.” In its place, Heart of a Dog considers an array of influential artists and thinkers, including Mingyur Rinpoche: Anderson and Reed’s Buddhist teacher, “a crazy, wonderful person who disappeared four years ago”. The film quotes his lessons on how to deal with suffering and loss, including not crying while you grieve.

“In the middle of the movie is one of my favourite of his teachings: you have to practice how to feel sad without being sad. This is quite a difficult thing to do and I can’t say I’ve always succeeded, but the idea is there are a lot of sad things in the world – genuinely sad, and genuine suffering. However, if you push them away, they will come and bite you, big time. So if you can, look at that and do something, but don’t become it. Because it’s a short life.

“Part of his teaching is also that we’re here to have a very, very, very good time. The best time you can imagine having. And not to suffer, not to push it away, but also not to become pulled down by it.”

Her Mother Sees The Animals On The Ceiling

Nourished by such ideas, the film is distinctly a product of Anderson’s imaginative, idiosyncratic take on the world. Credited as writer, director, producer and cinematographer, she also narrates and scores the film, and contributed drawings and animations. These are overlaid with iPhone videos and almost-destroyed Super 8 films that her brother fortuitously asked her to digitally transfer. “I found all these pictures of our childhood, skating next to the lake,” she says. “It was this magic world, a very fuzzy world of destroyed film.”

Guided by the film’s working title – “Every love story is a ghost story”, a line from the writer David Foster Wallace – Heart of a Dog wanders a number of memorial spaces, including Lolabelle’s final days at home, and the speech Anderson’s mother made on her deathbed. “She’s speaking to her eight children who have come around her to say goodbye. She was a very formal person, very proud, and so she’s dying and it’s like she’s stepping up to a microphone: ‘Thank you… all… for coming to this… evening.’ She’s trying to thank everybody for such a wonderful experience, but then she’s distracted because she sees animals on the ceiling, all these hallucinatory things. And then she’s back to the microphone, ‘Thank you…’, again. We watched this incredible scene of language just shredding, turning into little pieces, as her mind is shutting down.”

Anderson resists interpretation, arguing the film’s not really “about” Lolabelle, or Lou Reed, or Wittgenstein, or even herself. “I tried to approach this film more like a haiku. To say one thing and to keep it an intense thing without making it mean something. To make it so real and so emotional … It just goes right to your heart.”

Heart of a Dog will premiere in Australia at the Adelaide Film Festival in late October, and debuts on HBO Documentary Films in 2016.

Annabel Brady-Brown is a founding editor of Fireflies, a film magazine, and an online editor for The Lifted Brow.