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film review

Laurie Anderson’s movie Heart of a Dog is about Lolabelle, a charmer of a rat terrier who belonged to the filmmaker and her husband, Lou Reed.

My first bout of inconsolable weeping in a movie theatre happened early in 1958 when I was but knee-high to the proverbial prairie grasshopper. The tears came a-gushin' in the final 10 or 15 minutes of Old Yeller when it was determined that the courageous, seemingly invincible canine of the title – "the best doggone dog in the West," as the theme song had it – was now crazed with hydrophobia and would have to be put down, oh-so-reluctantly, by the pioneer family he had so gallantly served.

I know I wasn't alone in my reaction. Many of my friends shared it and even now, decades later, we can vividly recall the agony. Mixed up with all that feeling was the then-largely inchoate realization that a work of art could provoke fear and pity, dismay and hurt in a way even real-life traumas couldn't. Little did I know then how many more tears awaited. (My next weep-fest came courtesy, I think, of The Little Match Girl.) But you never forget the first time, do you?

Atavism can be a powerful thing. Which perhaps explains in part why I got misty-eyed the other day as the end credits rolled for Laurie Anderson's Heart of a Dog. As the title clearly states, it's about a pooch in New York's Greenwich Village, a charmer of a rat terrier named Lolabelle, who had the very good fortune of being taken in in the mid-1990s by the famous Laurie Anderson and her even more famous co-vivant, Lou Reed.

Lola lived the life you expect of the boon companion of major artists unburdened by children – a good one, that is, with lots of "walkies" and trips to faraway places and hydrants and great snacks and toys and visits to the recording studio and piano lessons and painting lessons. Watching Lola hammer away on the keyboards and paw-paint, I couldn't help thinking of Patti Smith's poem, dog dream, about the magic we often ascribe to the possessions of the talented and famous: "have you seen/dylans dog/it got wings/it can fly."

Of course, Lola dies in the movie (has been dead, in fact, since 2011). But in revealing that I'm not really giving anything away, not "spoiling the story." Unlike Old Yeller, which was a narrative-driven machine for the elicitation of tears, Heart of a Dog is a drift-net of a movie with a complex weave that, in the flow and ebb of its 75 minutes, ensnares many things and people, not just Lolabelle (although it's Lola's loss that galvanizes the movie's other considerations of loss and memory).

Shot largely (and beautifully) by Anderson herself, its collage of animation, paintings and drawing, found footage, home movies, text and video becomes the instrument for, variously, a lyrical essay, ghost story, meditation, Buddhist teaching and confessional that becomes more knitted together and deeper with each sweep of the net.

Indeed, Heart's most powerful moments come late in the film. One occurs when Anderson recalls, in her characteristically intimate, sing-songy voice, a torturous episode from her preteen years near Chicago, a recollection made even more torturous as she adds details to the story she'd previously forgotten. Or suppressed.

The other deals with Anderson's meeting with a very hip Catholic priest to seek his advice on a trip she's going to make to visit her dying mother. This leads to another harrowing tale from Anderson's childhood, this one about a winter-time accident involving Craig and Phil, two of Anderson's seven siblings, and her mother's uncharacteristically generous response in its aftermath.

But how much Lou Reed is in the movie, you ask? Well, not a whole lot in terms of imagistic presence – maybe three appearances tops, one playing a doctor in a recreated hospital scene from Anderson's childhood, another of him from a home movie of a day at the beach, the last, longest and most poignant a black-and-white photograph of the singer-songwriter sleeping on the couch, a dog (Lolabelle?) nestled in his arms.

It's the film's last image, in fact, and with it Anderson begins to unspool the credits and play a 2000 threnody by Reed called Turning Time Around, the lyric – "My time is your time when you're in love/And time is what you never have enough of/You can't see or hold it, it's exactly like love" – seeming to encapsulate the Buddhist notion of "feeling sad without actually being sad" in which Anderson finds consolation.

The film's final frame contains these words: "Dedicated to the magnificent spirit of my husband Lou Reed 1942-2013." So, yes, Reed is very much in Heart's emotional ether, its whole climate of thought.

The wide swerve of Anderson's associations, their "hypnotic splattered mist," don't make for an easy film. But it is a very good one and only the hardest heart will leave the theatre unmoved.

Heart of a Dog opens in Toronto Oct. 30 and in Vancouver Dec. 11. It plays Regina Nov. 12-15, Ottawa Nov, 20-23, Waterloo, Ont., Dec. 4, Victoria Dec. 13, 14.