Josephine Decker (Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) Talks Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog

This very personal documentary prompts a very personal response, as an actress and filmmaker recalls the life (and death) of her family's dog.

“Laurie Anderson – where are you?”

this is a performance art piece you are invited to participate in right now.

write down a dream you had.
go outside and look for the dream.
move only in the ways the dream is asking you to move.

think of all the words you know –
don’t speak of any of them.
now think of unknown things. things you don’t have words for.
think of these for a long time.

think of an important time you spent with a dog.
now imagine the dog looking at you.
look at yourself in the same way.
draw a picture of yourself the way the dog pictures you.
(the dog loves you.)

“feel sad without being sad.”

write a letter to Laurie Anderson about one dog and one dream.

see something.
say something.

sit down with an animal.
if you don’t have an animal, nature will do.
look at nature.
say what nature would like to say.
record yourself saying it.
then – record nature.

now your performance has a record.


Dear Laurie Anderson,

I was supposed to write about your film for the Talkhouse, but then when I watched your film, I felt like you were starting a conversation with me, it turned out, and weren’t asking me to write about your work but say something back. When someone played me a song you made when I was in college, I felt the way I hope people feel when they see my films: I thought, This is something new.

We’re on a porch – it’s sort of long, and at one end, people drink champagne the way they do at parties, when there is too much space. They crowd. People are crowding near the champagne and the other half of the deck is totally empty. I wander toward the empty side to throw something away, and my best friend from high school catches me. We are talking candidly and enthusiastically, and she is telling me about her fiancé’s new important job. While we are talking, she sort of stoops, hunches – just basically squats, and by the end of a conversation, she has given birth to something furry. She picks it up – and holds it, and notes that she really doesn’t need more things in her life right now because she is so busy, and she heads to the trash bin to throw the baby monster away. I say: Please, please can I keep it? And she thinks she might have to check with her husband but no, somehow the understanding is complete right there and I peer at the purple hairy thing in her arms. It has outsized teeth and black eyes and little black clawed limbs and I know: I will love this monster. As I hold the furry infant and move away from the party toward the elevator (an elevator looms with promise at the end of the porch), I know I will take very good care of this monster. I will love this monster. I have a tender heart. And I feel proud of myself for taking something she discarded and loving it.

As an actor, I am sometimes asked to cry multiple times in quick succession. On the set of Brigitta Wagner’s Rosehill, I had to cry seven times on a short road trip, and after the third time, I could no longer conjure up longing about the usual things that make me cry, and I wandered through my personal history toward a moment that would be raw. I thought of my dad who always makes me cry because dads who write poetry do, and I thought of the way he held our family dog Cosmo right before Cosmo died. And how this experience of letting Cosmo die had been very difficult for him. Cosmo was run over accidentally by our dog walker because Cosmo was black and was sitting behind her car at night and because of his arthritis couldn’t get out of the way in time and so she hit him and ripped off a large part of the skin on his leg, and because she loves dogs with a deep and strong contentment, she made an extraordinary effort to get him good treatment, and had two nurse friends of hers change his bandages and massage him every day. Over Thanksgiving about six years ago, I helped with the bandage changing and the massaging because the nurses weren’t available and I was surprised how intimate and simple I felt with Cosmo. His wound wasn’t ugly or gross. He’d had good regular treatment, and I could see the healing, and could see that he wasn’t afraid of being touched in that area the way I would be – because he trusted the dog walker, and me. His eyes glowed.

Shortly after he healed, he started to die – he went blind and deaf. He’d already had his voice box removed because of some cancer (?) or something else I can’t recall which happened after I’d been away from home living in New York for a time. He would woof-woof in a way that was really loud to him (because he was deaf) but almost silent to the rest of us. This made it both more manageable and more sad when the doorbell would ring – because he couldn’t really hear it anymore and would be surprised by the person who was suddenly there and then would bark very not loudly to make up for the moments that the person was in our front room and should have been made aware that they were in our territory.

My father worried about being left alone to take care of the dog while my mom was away working in D.C. for a while, but when the dog grew very sick, my father – previously an engaged but not primary dog-carer – grew closer to Cosmo. We kids had left the nest, Mom was in D.C., and now the home was quiet – just Dad and our panting, wheezing, no-longer-house-trained Cosmo. I think they grew to love each other.

As our lab approached 17 years old, Dad really did not want to put Cosmo down and found the idea of ending his life without his consent utterly immoral. But a vet kept advising it and others told Dad it was the most humane thing to do. So, long after you would normally put a dog “down,” my dad took Cosmo to the vet and held him in his arms while the dog died.

None of us had really wanted a dog except my little brother, who’d committed wholly to taking care of the dog and walking Cosmo every single day – except that then he walked the dog on average twice a year, and so the dog became my poor mother’s (“I will not get you a dog unless you promise to walk it every day.”), and obviously, discipline didn’t really mean much in our household because she walked the dog every day. I would try to pitch in when I was around. In college, I would run with Cosmo around the lake – though sometimes too fast. He didn’t often get vigorous exercise, so while I ran six miles he would huff in the heat in his black coat about a half-mile behind me. Sometimes he just sat down – but he never wanted to get too far from me, so would drag himself along eventually. Now I wonder if my helping was really a form of torture for the dog.

When Cosmo died, I went through waves of grief around whether he’d had an alright life. I mostly ignored him when he grew up – to me, he became one more lonely person in a house of people who keep to themselves – and I imagined the years with our dog walker at the end of his life as his happiest. Because he was with someone who actually wanted to own a dog.

So, when I was in the car acting in Rosehill, and I needed to think my fictional friend was dying, I thought of Cosmo – in dog heaven or wherever he is – and I thought of him saying: “It’s okay, Jos. I had a good life.” And then I was able to cry.

Josephine Decker’s latest feature Shirley, starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young and Logan Lerman, premiered in competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is released on Hulu, VOD and participating drive-ins June 5, 2020. Her previous feature, Madeline’s Madeline, world premiered at Sundance 2018; it was hailed as a “mind-scrambling masterpiece” and was nominated for Best Picture at IFP’s Gotham Awards and for two Independent Spirit Awards. Josephine premiered her first two narrative features, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch, at the Berlinale Forum 2014 to critical acclaim. She also explores collaborative storytelling via TV directing, documentary making, performance art, accordion-playing, acting, teaching at CalArts and Princeton University, and leading artist residencies with the School of Making Thinking.