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26 April, 2016

IT IS POSSIBLE TO FEEL SAD WITHOUT ACTUALLY BEING SAD

I watched "Heart of a Dog" on TV last night, mainly because it was about a Rat Terrier like my girl Lucy. This unusual film was not what I expected and I got more than I bargained for.

"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. That statement really got my attention!

Laurie Anderson and 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 odd, animated prologue in which Anderson dreams she has sewn Lolabelle into her abdomen so that she can be born like a human child clued me 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 cameo understanding it backward.

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 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 (yes, Lolabelle actually painted and played with keys on the piano) and Anderson's thoughts on how and when life really ends, all guided by a matter-of-fact voice over 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 inter titles, 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 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 sad without being sad.


Trying to practice how to feel sad without being sad, is of course very hard to do. But the point is: not to push away painful things, but also not to have them drag you down. You don't have to be a suffering, fearful, sad person. "I don't want to suffer! I want to be happy. But I know that pushing suffering away from me, and not feeling it as much as I can, makes me feel rotten," explained Anderson in a recent interview.

If you started out watching Heart of a Dog but gave up on it half way through because you had trouble following the author's unusual script presentation, I hope that this helps fill you in on what you missed. Rosanne taped it so that I could later go over the parts that I initially did not fully understand. 

As I now think about it, I feel sad about my Lucy's blindness without actually feeling sad...She still has the unconditional Heart of a Dog that I love so much. And I know that she "sees" me when she "hears" my voice or footsteps. She has made a remarkable adjustment and is still my full-of-life dog.

I too have made an adjustment...I feel sad on one hand but happy on the other, if you know what I mean.

Oh, I almost forget -- Laurie's Lolabelle was blind too.

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