Before our chat, Laurie Anderson plays with her dog. He runs around her spacious Tribeca office, which is somewhere between a working space and a comfy home: lots of books, a painting of the Dalai Lama, a modest picture of Lou Reed, her husband until his death in 2013, tucked away near one of several bookshelves. Anderson is that most feared-by-the-masses entity: a performance artist, whose albums and concerts mix in the avant-garde and spoken word. But she’s also someone who plays with a dog, shows off a pet trick, hands out sesame cookies as I’m heading out. She grins when she talks, and when I confess I’ve never seen one of her favorite films — Vittorio De Sica’s “Miracle in Milan” — she gets childishly excited. “How fantastic!” she exclaims. “You have the pleasure of seeing it! You’re so lucky.”
It’s a film we’re here to discuss. She’s made one: “Heart of a Dog,” less a documentary than a cine-essay reminiscent of Chris Marker and Agnes Varda. Ostensibly it’s about Lolabelle, her departed rat terrier, so dear to her she would even join her in public, including on a 2003 episode of “Charlie Rose” she did with Reed. But it keeps getting away from canine matters and to philosophical reflections on grief, existence and the idea of “feeling sad without being sad.” It uses stories of her life but also from others. She’s only made one feature before — the 1986 concert film “Home of the Brave” — and a couple shorts. Our conversation, like her film, has a habit of roaming.
It’s strange to think this is only your second feature, given how much your work is about blending mediums. Was cinema just not something that interested you?
It never occurred to me to make a movie! It just seemed, like, too daunting. I had forgotten you could make a movie for the cost of nothing — just using iPhones and making an incredibly homemade movie. What was putting me off was looking for the money. I just hate fundraising. I’ve always given this advice to young artists: Don’t dream of this big thing and this big system that will solve all your problems. Just do something with what you have. Pencil drawings can be dangerous. They can be monumental. With some projects it’s good to have a big system, but not if it’s going to stop you from doing some smaller thing. Usually I never follow my own advice. In this case I did, because that’s good advice.
It is very homemade. I pictured you piecing it together on a desk staring at a screen.
That’s what it is. It’s me on a laptop, piecing things together. That’s really exciting because anyone can do that.
It’s tempting to read this as a memoir film, but you leave so much of yourself out when you really look at it. It’s not really a memoir film.
It’s not. It’s not self-expression. It’s not a story about getting to know me or my childhood. That’s not the point. I’m definitely using myself, but it’s not autobiographical stories. It’s an essay that uses stories from my life. It’s disguised as a memoir, but it’s not really a memoir. Because the point of a memoir is to say who I was, who I would be and how it is to be human. Those things play into it, but they’re not primary.
Making a film is different from, say, an album. But was it that different?
The structure was how I would do any performance, really, although maybe a little bit more geared to the engine, to the propulsion of where this is going. In a concert it can be 15 songs that are unrelated, and they’re each in their own style. It can be a collection. Film, I think, has to be driven. I tried to set it up with a series of questions that thread through it, things that are addressed. And I wanted to always keep in mind that it’s about the fallibility of language, to leave a lot of room for these other things to take over in music and image. Even though it’s a film about stories, it’s a film about failure of words. What happens when you repeat or forget them? What happens when someone uses them in a way that’s not familiar to you? Or they describe you in a way that you’re like, “I’m not that person you’re seeing at all”? Or in surveillance culture, when a portrait is created of you?