Laurie Anderson on the American way of dying: "I’ll just clonk you on the back of the head with a brick, put you out so you won’t be there"

The artist talks to Salon about hew new film on loss and empathy, "Heart of a Dog"

Published October 22, 2015 7:51PM (EDT)

  (AP/Joel Ryan/TIFF)
(AP/Joel Ryan/TIFF)

There is a lot of loss in Laurie Anderson’s new film, “Heart of a Dog.” As the title suggests, there’s the death of her beloved rat terrier and longtime companion, Lolabelle, who learned to play the piano and paint after she became blind in her old age. There’s the death of her mother, who Anderson worries she never truly loved, and who hallucinated animals on the ceiling as her children gathered around her death bed. And of course, overshadowing it all is the death of her husband, Lou Reed, whose name is not uttered in the film, although it concludes with the strains of his love song “Turning Time Around” and a dedication "to the magnificent spirit of my husband, Lou Reed (1942-2013)."

But like the majority of work throughout the 68-year-old performance artist's impressive career, the film eludes simple description. Rather, it's an elliptical, almost hallucinatory voyage, exploring the interconnected themes of love, death, motherhood, Tibetan Buddhism, Wittgenstein's theories of language, 9/11, the surveillance state, and, of course, dogs (so, yeah, if you hadn’t already figured it out, it's an art film).

While "Heart of a Dog" features anecdotes from Anderson’s youth, including a series of 8-millimeter old home videos and a few jarring stories of childhood tragedy, the autobiographical elements are Anderson's way in to a more universal story (although the film certainly shares elements with Joan Didion’s paean to personal loss “The Year of Magical Thinking.") But more than that, it’s a dreamlike portrait of the mind of an artist, an exploration of storytelling and how we tell stories to construct meaning out of life, and, above all, a reflection on the inextricable connection between love and death. In the film, Anderson quotes David Foster Wallace’s line: “Every love story is a ghost story.” In person, she has a more catchy way of putting it.

“If I was Woody Allen and had cojones I would just call [the film] 'Love and Death,'" she tells me, with a dreamy smile.

A bit of scene-setting, because it’s not often you get to conduct an interview in the home of a New York legend: When I arrive at the West Village loft owned by Anderson and formerly shared with Reed, I am greeted by Will the border terrier, Lolabelle’s successor, who initially yips at me, but warms up quickly and nestles in my feet in an oversized bean bag chair. We’re running late — Anderson, as I’ll find out, is prone to lengthy digressions — so I have time to observe the space, a spacious loft brightened by three vast windows overlooking the intersection between Canal Street and the West Side Highway. Reed’s presence is certainly felt in the apartment: A framed Grammy Hall of Fame certificate celebrating Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” is propped against the front door and a framed black-and-white photo of Reed hangs on the wall, but there’s lot of other stuff to feast the eyes on: a series of tiny arm-chairs, as if made for children; rich burgundy rugs; a wall-mounted stringed instrument; a framed photograph of the Dalai Lama draped in a white scarf; a painting of a yin and yang; books, many books, crammed in on shelves strewn with trinkets and sculptures hewn of ceramic and clay; cardboard packing boxes, and canine chew toys as far as the eye can see -- all the flotsam and ephemera of a life richly-lived.

Eventually I am taken to meet Anderson, who sports her recognizable spiked hairdo and a starched white-button up and sneakers. The artist greets me with a warm smile and, after offering me some sesame cookies from a tupperware container, we settle in to discuss the film. Sitting in a bright red room off the main space, with me perched in a bright yellow "Lou Reed" chair (designed by French designer Phillippe Stack in honor of the rocker) opposite a candle-lit shrine of the departed singer, I talked to the legendary performance artist about storytelling, dogs, and the art of dying and grieving gracefully; or, as she puts it in the film, "how to feel sad without being sad."

Understandably, Anderson seems reluctant to talk about her late husband, but she has lots of unexpected thoughts about Johnny Depp's "Black Mass" and Idris Elba's "Beasts Of No Nation," and how her own work stands in juxtaposition to the violent depictions of death in much American cinema. Suffice to say, much like her fascinating and singular career, talking to Anderson is anything but predictable.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

How did the film come about? I know that feature films are not traditionally a medium that you’ve worked in.

I started off with dogs, and then I realized, maybe it should be like collected short stories. And then I started mapping it out and seeing how they influenced each other, and then I realized that a film is not like a record. You can’t just have twelve songs. And so with this, it became a lot about questions and how stories work. It wasn’t really an autobiographical thing. It was really more like using my own life as examples: how you move through time, what happens when you repeat a story too many times, when you can’t remember it, when someone else tells your story and just pushes it on you. And surveillance culture kind of came in. And then the bridge between those worlds was Lolabelle, who was a perfectly typical, West Village see-and-be-seen dog.

There are a lot of different vantage points we move through in the film, from aerial views to dog's eye views. 

You’re asked to do a lot of things, there's a dog’s POV, and then next is a high angle of a security camera lens, and then the next is you’re floating through the Bardo [The plane of existence between death and reincarnation, according to Tibetan Buddhists]. It asks you to do a lot, and to imagine a lot because a lot of the stories that are told -- you don’t see pictures, [but there are] voice-overs. it’s all about your own imagination and you sort of drift, and your relationship to words.

Can you talk a little bit about your decision to center the film around Lolabelle?

Well, she’s a thread as there are many of these threads. It’s not about my dog, or me, or about my mother. It’s about how you move through time, and a lot of questions about who you think you are, and how your sense of identity can shred. So the Bardo is all about that, of how you tell a certain story about yourself. If somebody says, “what kind of kid were you?” you have one or two stories that you tell about how I was shy or a show-off, or whatever, and it’s a two-cent story. It’s not meant to really say who you were.

I know you began the film after Lolabelle’s death, and the filmmaking process was interrupted by obviously the death of your partner Lou Reed. What was involved in the decision to go back to the film after Lou’s death?

There was an editor who was continuing to work on it while I was away from it, and she was really great. I probably wouldn’t have finished without her. She was just like, I’ll do a little cutting, and you can look at it, and Lou said that you’d wanted to try something like that. But she was fantastic. She just kind of kept it going in that way. You know, just low key. And the whole thing actually was pretty low key.

And I was very happy about that, that it went through a few different stages and then when I came back to it it felt different, and generally I don’t have that kind of working arc. The other reason for having Lolabelle in the title or a dog in the title, is really empathy. It’s almost a film about that. It’s about empathy, not just for yourself, but for others as well.

One of the interesting parts of the film was about your decision not to euthanize Lolabelle when she gets sick, because Buddhist teachings say that dying is a process that involves approaching death and then withdrawing from it, and you didn't want to deny Lolabelle that cathartic experience. But could you also argue that it wasn't empathetic to keep her alive through her illness?

Of course you could. I try to be really light-handed with that because there are animals that get so sick that you kind of have to do that. The trouble is, the American way of death is really about that. There’s this fear of pain and fear of suffering. So I’ll just clonk you on the back of the head with a brick, put you out so you won’t be there. And I think being there is a really important thing now. Of course you might ask me that [question] when I’m on my deathbed, begging for morphine and you'll go, “Remember what you said! I just want to see it through. We’ll take you home. There’s no equipment at all. “ I’m not trying to tell people what to do. I’m just trying to say what we did.

Something that I didn’t put in the film was the doctor, the vet said: “You’re going to have to put her down because she’s going to have to live in an oxygen room for the rest of her life. That’s no way to live so you have to put her down.” And so Lou said, “Where do we get him an oxygen room?” And we got one and put it in later that day, and she slept there in the night and then in the morning she came out and went, “Mmm.” And then she would go in once in awhile a little bit during the day, but mostly she was out and they’re not expensive, and she lived for eight more months. She was really happy and graceful, and I thought, Oh, I’m learning how to get old from watching Lolabelle. Because she’s just slowing down and spending a little more time basking in the sun, and I figured it’s just wonderful to be with an old dog. It was just great.

Was it difficult continuing with the film after Lou’s death, and was there any thought or desire on your part to make it more pointedly about him?

No. Again, it’s not so much specifically about me. It’s as much about your death as my death as his death and her death. If I was Woody Allen and had cojones I would just call it “Love and Death.” That’s it. That’s what it’s about. Take it or leave it. Forget the metaphors. I mean, of course the more you experience different kinds of deaths, the more you know about it; the more you can see how varied it is, how personal it is, how you kind of die the way you live. It’s not something that’s suddenly really out of character. And also, what a weird taboo it is. And yet when I counted the number of deaths in "Black Mass" when I was looking at different films... I probably have them beat on the number of deaths, because I’ve got, you know, a baby dies... But I can’t take all those stranglings.


Yeah, in “Black Mass.” I’m really interested in energy and transformation and dreams and death. But strangling women? And men, in the goriest way. I don’t have the time for that. I know that we’re interested in that and in punishment... have you ever looked at MSNBC after midnight on Saturday? It’s like seven prison reality shows in a row. I mean, Americans are into violence and punishment.

You wanted to look at death in a more peaceful way?

It’s not necessarily more peaceful. Peaceful, I don’t think, is the opposite of violence. You know, I think maybe aware, or something like that. But I get just nauseated hearing myself talk about stuff like that. I’m just trying to say I guess that death is so much a part of American filmmaking, but it’s always violent death. And it’s death that absolutely ends at that cut -- nothing ever really goes on unless it’s a creepy vampire or ghost story, in which the afterlife is just creepy and Halloween-y.

Dying in an American film would be an interesting thing to think about, because, when there’s a death in a film there’s almost like a blackout -- there’s a thud and then there’s nothing. It’s just really deadly. I saw “Beasts of No Nation” last night, and there's lots of death in that. Did you see it?

No, I haven’t seen it yet. But I’ve heard it was intense.

It’s pretty hardcore, and all violent. And all the nothingness of death, and just the children who get their skulls cracked. But I suppose that film is about a child learning to kill. And so from that point of view, it’s not just about clonking people out over the head and sending them to some, just, to a blackout thing. It’s about watching him learn to do that. And then again, when is it that you’re supposed to develop a sense of conscience? It’s twelve or something. It's pretty late. Or nine? You don't really have one before that, you don't really understand the consequences. In a way it was a really odd film. It wasn’t an adult learning to be brutal and kill. It was a child who was trained, not taught. Just trained, like a monkey.

So you say that we have all these American films that we do that are obsessed with the idea of death and violence.

We’re obsessed with it.

And do you situate your film as a response to that?

I have never put it into words like that, but why not? "Great American response to death." Yeah, I mean I do think it’s very odd that it’s just one death after another in most films, and they’re mostly violent, and so without comment. It’s just highly stylized deaths and no sense of the actual impact of it or the way anybody feels about it. It’s just hysterical. It’s just a kind of hysterical response to death. And anytime you do it that many times, you might as well be re-enacting -- what’s the name of the film? -- the film about re-enacting the killings.

“The Act of Killing?”

Yeah. That it becomes an obsession and you see it’s a huge obsession, but one that’s never really worked out. It’s just stylized in different ways and happens over and over and over, like some weird loop without anybody going, “Why are so many people getting strangled in this movie?” It’s just a film about evil? Not really. There is no penetration of what evil really is. “Black Mass” is just one after the other: tchung, tchung, tchung. You see that one?

“Black Mass”? Yeah, it’s brutal.

So do you see the psychological aspect of it? I don’t really. What’s it about, in your opinion?

I mean, in part it it’s a portrait of a sociopath. But I don’t think we ever really get a sense of what makes him tick.

It’s supposed to be mysterious, right? He [Whitey Bulger] is supposed to be impenetrable. Big forehead.

Is anyone impenetrable?

Yeah, I think so, if they try to build this wall. But then you just see somebody trying to build a wall, you know? I don’t know. I didn’t like it. And I wasn’t attracted to him enough as a character to care one way or another who he was. It didn’t make me feel anything, except tired. It was a time-waster for me.

How do you feel watching your own film now?

I’m really sorry. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I enjoy watching it [laughs].

You should!

I don’t know. I don’t know if I should. But I want to see how flexible people are, and the best audiences so far have been in London, because they’ve got such a sharp sense of language. So they’re really into the nuance of stuff. And they love that. I love that. Also, they’re really goofy, so they get the goofy parts and they’re not afraid to just laugh at something that’s just stupid. And I sometimes think film festival audiences think that they shouldn’t, like: “I’m an artist, so I should probably be a little more serious, and shouldn’t be goofy.” ["Heart of a Dog"] kind of goes through a lot of ranges of things. It asks a lot of audiences, I think. It’s not a passive thing.

So this is a bit of a digression, but I have to ask; were you always going to get another dog?

Probably. We weren’t planning on it. We suddenly found ourselves out in western Connecticut at a breeder’s. I don’t know what we were doing. [It was like] “why are we here?” And this little dog -- he was three times the size of his father. All the other dogs were show dogs. They were small. He’s a lummox. So they were saying, “This one over here you might be interested in,” and [Will[ was really sad and sitting in a corner, and we said, “I don’t know.”

Because the other ones were like, “Take me! Hello! I’m a show dog!” And we were like, “Urgh.” They seemed kind of labor-intensive. But little Will -- he seemed too lumpy. So we said, ”Okay, we’ll take him out.” And as soon as he got out onto the grass, he started doing tumbles and pirouettes, and he was like, “Hello! Hello!” and he’s just a really sweet dog. He’s never going to play the piano or paint or anything, I don’t think.

Not all dogs can.

No, he’s not that kind of dog. But he likes eating a lot.

By Anna Silman

MORE FROM Anna Silman

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