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Laurie Anderson's 'Heart of a Dog' is an experimental marvel

 Laurie Anderson's 'Heart of a Dog' is an experimental marvel
A scene from "Heart of a Dog." (Abramorama / HBO Documentary Films)

Like a docent of the soul, Laurie Anderson guides us through the often confounding and illuminating stages of love, death and loss in "Heart of a Dog," a transfixing personal essay inspired by her rat terrier Lolabelle, who died four years ago.

It's the renowned multimedia artist's first feature since the 1986 concert film "Home of the Brave," and it's a welcome return. Fusing personal diary and memory-embroidered observation, it leaves space for big, knotty questions (Can one feel sad without being sad?) and small, joyful eccentricities (Lolabelle's brief piano career).

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As meditations go, it's a collegial meander through the ways we process life in the face of death, using a collage style that combines her own artwork, 8-mm home movies from childhood, and original footage and musical compositions. Holding it together is Anderson's hushed, wry voice, which manages to sound innocent and wise in the same breath. She can make retelling a dream about birthing Lolabelle ("Hello, little bonehead, I'll love you forever") deeply funny and touching. Yet with little inflective variance, she can imbue a story of a meadow-roaming Lolabelle sensing the threat of a circling, swooping hawk into a sublime metaphor for post-9/11 anxiety about a once-free, now-sinister sky.

As she tells the story of Lolabelle, a puppy mill adoptee turned cherished family member, her occasional musing about our new surveillance state — cameras everywhere, your conversations recorded — may seem incongruous. But Anderson somehow connects it all as a sort of dream logic philosophizing on our stewardship of the senses as we move through our days. Shots of the NSA's vast desert data-mining compound and security cameras suggest a bastardization of how the world has chosen to "see." Juxtaposed, though, with how a blind Lolabelle gamely responded to music and sculpture lessons, and the heart swells for the ways a shift in perspective can rejuvenate us all.

At the center of it all is a mesmerizing sound-and-image diptych of sorts, beginning with Anderson leading us through Lolabelle's post-death journey into an intermediate state described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead as "the Bardo." The sequence, anchored by fragmented images meant to represent Lolabelle's flashing life and superimposed over rain-flecked glass and the gold, textured canvas of a beloved Goya painting, has a compassionate directness — a study in lifelong companionship celebrated through spiritual release.

Anderson follows, though, with a harrowing story about a weeks-long stint in a hospital children's ward when she was 12, and the strangeness of being surrounded by illness but spoon-fed children's stories by nurses who wouldn't acknowledge the grim mortality in their midst. After years of telling others about her time there, she arrived at a grave epiphany about this carefully crafted narrative of hers, and the revelation is heart-stopping, a shattering insight into how our own stories sustain us but also unwittingly shield us.

"Heart of a Dog" is that rarest of pieces, an unabashedly experimental work that's as inviting as a visit with an old friend, one who may not always make sense, who's sometimes goofy, but has been through a lot lately and treasures the opportunity to artfully unload.

Lolabelle's other parent, Lou Reed, died recently too. Anderson saves mention of him for last: his wonderful song "Turning Time Around" closing the film, his face next to Lolabelle's the last image. It's Reed's "magnificent spirit" she dedicates the film to, but it's hers — beautifully inquisitive, witty, open, lyrical and generous — that makes "Heart of a Dog" so dreamily memorable.

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'Heart of a Dog'

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Playing: Nuart, West L.A.

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