Laurie Anderson in "Heart of a Dog"

Interview: Laurie Anderson on the Meaning of Memories in “Heart of a Dog”

It is the morning after Laurie Anderson has watched her first feature film “Home of the Brave” for the first time in nearly 30 years at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles in early November.

“I was generally not as horrified as I thought,” says Anderson, with a slight smile creeping across her face, in that unshakeable, mellifluous voice of calm that’s been a signature of her work as a multimedia artist where it’s usually deployed to make sense of the frenzy she creates otherwise. “But it was a little bit painful. I couldn’t believe I was jumping around like that. I hadn’t remembered how incredibly enthusiastic I was.”

You want to argue with her, given how her mind races around during the course of a conversation, but of course you can’t since she’s too busy connecting dots, effortlessly transitioning from talk of sound design to Buddhist philosophy to growing up. Pondering the past, her analysis turns it into the present tense.

“When you work on a project, you remember very different things about it,” Anderson continues, her line of thought redirected after getting a text from “Home of the Brave” producer Paula Mazur, who joined her for the screening, as if on cue. “I remember that we lost all the money for the project right before we started to shoot, and for us, it was a gigantic amount — $1.6 million, and that’s like $10 million now. We did know how to find it and we just knocked on every single door and we were able to raise it. [Paula] hadn’t remembered that part, and that’s why it’s always good to have a few people trying to reconstruct the past. We had very different memories of it.”

In a way, Anderson’s followup film “Heart of a Dog,” which just happens to be back at Cinefamily this Sunday for a special screening and concert in which moviegoers are encouraged to bring their canines (with the sound cranked up at levels that only they can hear in places), is an exploration of just that. Having lost her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle in 2011, Anderson was nudged into turning the short stories she performed about her pet pooch into a personal essay film by the French company Arte.

But what began as a remembrance of her dog becomes a recalibration of her own personal narrative, pulling in 8 millimeter footage from her youth that brought back memories of her mother with whom she could never quite connect and her development as a creative person who made colonial newspapers as a child, recollections of 9/11 and how it plunged her adopted home of New York, if not the rest of the world, into a surveillance state, and the ephemeral nature of the stories she bases her work on, admitting at one point that the creepiest thing about stories is how “you try to get to the point you’re making and every time you tell it, you forget it.”

Mortality — involving both her loved ones and the stories she’s told about them and herself — may linger over “Heart of a Dog,” but it is balanced out with how thrillingly alive the film is in its presentation, embracing the fact that a great deal of the footage used was never intended for public consumption and is submitted to the viewer as if it is flowing directly from Anderson’s consciousness as she’s rediscovering and recontextualizing things for herself. Stylistic flourishes that come to include animation, dog’s eye footage, and visual wordplay complement a constant activation of synapses, deployed as if it were a 4th of July fireworks display for the mind, complete with the embers of small details that trail off after the explosion of a memory regained.

During an all-too-brief conversation, Anderson reflected on how “Heart of a Dog,” which has subsequently been shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar, came to be and how she figured out a way to communicate with audiences in a way that would match the speed of thought.

HeartofaDog2How was the “Home of the Brave” screening?

First of all, it sounded great. The cinephiles were like, “We know. It’s the first all-digital soundtrack.” I was like, “That’s true. I’d forgotten that.” There’s a lot of beats in that film, and a lot of really interesting rhythms. I was very, very happy to hear it because I’m not doing beats like that now. Then there was a lot of very, very chunky 80s synth sounds that I haven’t heard for decades. They were very 80s, let’s put it that way — Simmons drums, Linndrums… but it sounded good. Some of the humor just didn’t make it too well… and some of it did. It was such a different era — 30 years ago, from the 80’s would have been like looking back into the 1950s, so it’s a long time ago.

Was it interesting to return to film as a form?

We shoot a lot of films for performances that I do, but typically for a concert, they’d be on five different screens. One would be a closeup projected into a corner and another would be an abstract thing projected onto a really crumpled piece of paper, [appearing] almost like the film burst out of its seams. Probably “Home of the Brave” was the last time I did something in front of a very bright, big, rectangular screen, which is almost now a requirement for music, and I feel bad about having something to do with that because a lot of music really doesn’t need wallpaper behind it. So [“Heart of a Dog”] didn’t feel so much like getting back to things as much as just using imagery and sound to advance the story.

I’m a short story writer, so [this film was] all stories about what stories are. And [this film is] not really about me and my dog or “Get to know me.” It’s about how we make the world out of words, along with lots of other questions like, “What is love?” and so central to it is a teacher of mine, Mingyur Rinpoche, who would say, “We need to practice how to feel sad without being sad,” which is a really thing hard to do.

As you allude to, there are different cultural philosophies about death that you draw on here — was this actually something of interest to you before making this or did the film lead you to investigate?

I’ve always been interested in meditation, not [to find] answers, but because it’s no answers. That’s what attracts me. It’s the same as being an artist. If there’s only one thing that you do, there’s nothing to believe. The only thing you need to do is be aware. That’s it. Open your eyes. Make up your own mind. Use your own instincts. That’s all it is and I’ve always been attracted to that. And often there’s a big book in the middle of whatever project I do — a record, a theater piece — so in this case, the big book is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I found really interesting in terms of illusion and how you build up the idea of who you are and how you can create your own dreams because some people go, “I dreamed of this giant valley, with huge, thick purple clouds and lightning and I’m walking through there and I’m really lost and I’m this little person. And I’d think, “Wait a second, you were the one who designed the clouds, built the lightning — the whole scene — and cast yourself as a small person walking through there, very lost. You’re creating this whole thing.” So when we make our identities, I think people forget that you have a lot more power than you think.

In this case, it’s also about how all of that breaks down [in death] and how your consciousness falls apart very quickly, so I thought that’s a really interesting picture of what happens, potentially. At least that’s what [the Buddhists] believe, so I thought I would include that because it’s creation and destruction of yourself through language. That’s why I put the story of my mother’s deathbed speech in. She was a very formal person, and when she gave her deathbed speech, she waited for her eight children to appear, and then stand around her. She stood up to the microphone and said, “Thank you all for coming” — and we’re all like, “What’s going on here? It’s so formal.” Then she started talking, about how she really loved horses and dogs and I remember she hallucinated animals on the ceiling, and meanwhile, the words are just falling into pieces. They’re crumbling because she’s dying, so I thought, wow, there’s so many things that you can’t put into your words. Words are so fallible.

So [in making] a film about how you tell stories, what happens when you forget them? Or when you tell them too often? What happens when somebody else puts the story onto you, as if they’re framing you, saying, “You’re the person who does X”? And you’re like, “Wait a second.” That’s how surveillance culture became the subplot because the best example is getting a book on Amazon, and “Bing!” Two seconds later, [you get an e-mail] “Bill, you loved that book, you’re going to love this book.” And you think, “That first book I just bought — that was a gift. Don’t think you know me because of what I just bought. You don’t know me.” So it’s about trying to resist getting a coherent identity and to try to change your point of view a little bit more, [which is why] you’re asked to look through a dog’s eyes — and through a camera’s eyes — and then start to lose track of who you are in this film.

There’s narration in the film, which begs the question do you actually speak to the imagery you’re presenting or does the imagery lead you in terms of what you want to say?

It would go back and forth a lot of times. Also, it is a little bit like radio in some cases. For example, you’re hearing a story about a guy who liked to live in trees and pretended he worked for the phone company. You never see this guy, you just hear this long story about him, so you’ll see phone lines, and telephone poles going by and the sky, so It leaves a lot of room for the imagination. This is a film that’s full of questions. [laughs]

Since it works on a subconscious level, are there collisions of certain images or images and sound that would create epiphanies for you while making it?

Yeah. What I realized was there are words that are fast when you read them. I didn’t realize what they were for awhile because I had written [a project called “Landfall”] for Kronos Quartet after they said, “We want to tell stories.” I said “Why? You play so well [already]. Why do you want to tell stories?” Then I said, “How about if you tell stories through your instruments?” They were like, “Okay!” Then I realized I don’t know how to do that at all. So I worked with a software guy, and we made this program where [the musicians] can play really fast, and in a very improvised way, and it triggers phrases that are then projected, so it’s this one-on-one relationship of words to sound that was really exciting. You can read “A man walked down a road,” but that could be 25 bars in terms of sound, so the relationship [between] sound and voiced words and seeing words is different.

I like this difference of when you see a word, it comes into your mind and when you read something, it comes to you in a very different way than when somebody says it to you. Those words are taking a different path. They’re addressed to a part of you that never speaks, a part of you that just listens and watches and is actually quite critical sometimes of the identity that you’ve carefully created. I don’t know if you’ve had this feeling, but sometimes in the middle of a conversation, I go, “What is this inane conversation about?” and I realize, “I’m talking.” [laughs] And you can’t stop it. You’re like, “Oh, please, this is going so badly.” And it’s that person who’s watching and analyzing and listening who’s going, “You should really stop talking.” So when you read that stuff [in the film], it goes “boom” directly into your mind in a different way because eyes are quick.

That’s another reason I did the string score, as opposed to beats because I wanted to give your eyes freedom to drift from shot to shot. As soon as you put a beat in, it’s a music video. You’re “Cut, cut, boom. Boom, boom, boom. Cut.” You’re not able to connect these ideas and thoughts and images as well as if you stream over the cuts with strings. You’re in a more open world where you go “Whoa, well, what’s that going on back there?” And then you can connect things a little more easily. It’s a less-defined tempo and a less choppy world. There are a couple beats in there because I love beats. “Home of the Brave” was all beats.

Dan Janvey, who produced “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” seems like an interesting collaborator to bring into the mix. How did he get involved?

I was actually commissioned by Arte [the European culture channel], so I thought “Oh, it’s a little art film. I’ll just do it myself” because I produce all my concerts and other stuff like that. Then it got a little longer than I was thinking and a little more complex. So I thought “Maybe I’ll just find a film producer because there’s things about the medium that I’m not really sure about.” I asked around, and I met a lot of Brooklyn Indie guys. They were all interesting, but their first question was always “What’s the budget?” Dan’s first question was, “What’s the story?” I said, “You’re hired, man. I love you.” He’s a really, really smart guy, but he’s very interested in the stories and he wants to make real cinema. That’s really important to him. It doesn’t matter to him what the budget is.

This was a no-budget film. I shot probably 80% of this myself on my iPhone or Canon 5D, etc. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m a novice. I’m not a [cinematographer] at all. I just carry this around [pointing to her phone]…I’m not a fancy photographer. Where it gets a little fancy is layering because I love filters. Like in music, a violin has 16 filters on it, pulling up harmonics and overtones and scratching or making that string go four octaves down — that’s all generated by the instrument itself, it’s not MIDI. It’s gritty, it’s like “Rrrr.” So with the visuals, I did the same thing. For example, there’s animation in the beginning, just my drawings of this weird operation on my dog, and it was a very quick brush animation, but I wanted it to look more like pages ripped from an old comic book, so I put Benday Dots on it, and then I thought this needs another grittier layer, so I put another layer of paper that has a lot of chips in it to give it just a rough feel. Sometimes [this film] was literally homemade and sometimes I had to work to make it look homemade.

“Heart of a Dog” will play in Los Angeles at Cinefamily on December 20th. It will open at the Royal and the Arena Cinema in L.A. on December 26th. It continues to play around the country. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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