Wiener-Dog (2016, Todd Solondz)
Todd Solondz operates within his own otherwise unheard-of genre; call it humanistic cynicism. He’s extremely faithful to a strict, artificial-looking aesthetic and unceasing, taboo-ignorant discomfort established in the script and direction of his second feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and carried through to everything since. It’s no accident, of course, that characters from that painful document of misfit adolescence have popped up in fully half of his subsequent movies. Dawn Wiener, subject of so much mockery as a child, was killed off at the beginning of Solondz’s relentlessly bleak fable Palindromes, but in Wiener-Dog she lives again, in the person of Greta Gerwig rather than Heather Matarazzo. In a rare display of (welcome) sentimentality as a writer, Solondz not only allows her to be resurrected but in some small, awkward way lets her thrive. Just after making a kind-hearted sacrifice, she’s for the first time permitted to ride happily into an uncertain, tentative future.
This is by no means the overarching mood of Wiener-Dog — the Dawn story only comprises one fourth of the film’s episodes — but it’s telling specifically because of its demonstration of how complicated Solondz’s feelings toward his stories and characters have become as he’s matured. As remarkably thorny and difficult to pin down as his run from Dollhouse to Palindromes was, it’s in Life During Wartime that we begin to see a shift toward a more heartfelt consideration of his world’s oddball, normal occupants. We see far less of the skewed perspectives that make, say, John Goodman’s aggressive father figure in Storytelling or Cynthia Stevenson’s aloof homemaker in Happiness look like expressionistic monsters, even as Solondz’s terrified response to American homogenization — which he routinely renders as horribly desolate — becomes ever more apparent. Wiener-Dog, his highest-profile release since probably Storytelling by virtue of its connection to Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, breaks harshly with this trend in the abstract, but the truth is that its episodic structure and the unifying theme of a hapless dachshund have given him an excuse to compartmentalize, to render his universe in multiple ways, so that it can give vent to a hopeful, Modern Times-like vision of a reluctantly optimistic sea of possibility, but can also show us a dog being hit by a car four times by vehicles of comically varying sizes.
The resulting film is conceptually brilliant, and artistically masterful as an act of filmmaking and storytelling, but that’s assuming you are not destined to run screaming away from its creator’s bizarre sensibility in the first place. There’s no use actually explaining what’s so consistently unnerving about Solondz’s work — if you’ve seen any of his films you know better than to trust him, so first viewings are as tense and edgy as your first time with a classic Hitchcock — because laying it out at face value, it won’t sound like anything to strike fear into your heart. He alarms us because the perspective he provides us on human beings is so unflinching and so unforgivably honest; he makes comedy-dramas but from moment to moment, the comedy and pathos are completely inseparable — one cannot always concisely explain why an off-kilter, well-observed line or interaction or performance quirk in his films is funny, or why it’s achingly moving. This extends to a feeling of, at various points in all of his movies, being unsure of whether you ought to laugh; that discomfort is too excruciating to some, while for others it’s a mark of real ingenuity. Needless to say, I fall in the latter camp — as with all of Solondz’s films, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Wiener-Dog since I saw it, and my strongest impulse is to watch it again as soon as possible.
Wiener-Dog is Solondz’s blackest, most acerbic film since Palindromes, and likely his most directly funny since Storytelling, and it returns at times to a kind of nastiness absent from Wartime and Dark Horse. The films themselves are never cruel, but they do betray an unusually casual relationship to cruelty, going back to the incessant bullying in Dollhouse and the many instances of sexual harassment and violence in Happiness, both of which — as Solondz himself has pointed out — put an all too human face on lurid nightmares. The common denominator in the four shorts Solondz presents here is the little dog, used consistently as a subtle commentary on death within these stories: she dies twice herself and nearly once more, and is constantly surrounded by the lingering fear of mortality in her human companions. Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar is a directly acknowledged inspiration, but one’s thoughts also inevitably drift toward the popular Inarritu portmanteau Amores Perros, which shares Wiener-Dog‘s devastatingly dim outlook but hasn’t anything like its levity or directness.
After a mournful title sequence of the dog initially being dropped off at a shelter, we open with a visual quote from Richard Linklater’s Boyhood that most viewers are bound to see as slightly sardonic (especially taking the sarcastic attacks on American Beauty in Storytelling into account): a boy is lying on some grass, and we observe him from above for just long enough that we can question whether he’s breathing. It turns out that this is symbolic: Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) is a cancer survivor, and his affluent, distant, yoga-loving parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts) don’t seem entirely over the ordeal, but they’re incapable of contending with it by showing any sort of love for the boy. His dad instead gets him a dog, which then spends almost all of its time in a cage. Their house is as cold, mechanical and spotless as a hospital; it scarcely even seems like anyone lives there. Remi’s another in the long line of “Solondz kids” with that same inquisitive face, always asking adults questions that they don’t know how to answer. In Life During Wartime, challenging questions about American warmongering are met with exasperation; here, Remi earnestly asks his mom to explain spaying and death to him, and she responds with unconscious (?) racism and wildly problematic stories about rape, always deflecting the real essence of his queries. The aggressive Letts does no better when Remi demands to know what “housebreaking” is, slipping into strangely violent analogies.
Delpy and Letts — artificially overprotective parents who aren’t any more capable of raising a dog than they are a sick child — are both made to look extremely stiff and uncomfortable in the setting Solondz creates for them, using static, unfeeling compositions that suggest Aki Kaurismaki and late-period Alain Resnais which are then to be broken beautifully by one moment of absolute joy. As soon as his mom and dad pull out of the driveway, Remi yelps “they’re gone!” and he and Wiener-Dog (the name he’s given her) race through the house ruining pillows, jumping around and — fatefully — eating granola bars. Solondz approaches the dog’s subsequent violent illness almost balletically, and the frustrating end is for Wiener-Dog to be taken without the boy’s knowledge and put to sleep.
But the veterinary technician in charge happens to be Dawn Wiener, so the dog’s destiny as well as hers is for the story not to end here. Unable to bring herself to finish the job, she covertly rescues the pup and brings her home. While at a convenience store to buy dog food she runs into her old childhood semi-boyfriend Brandon (Kieran Culkin), who calls her by her old derogatory name “Wiener-Dog” from Welcome to the Dollhouse, a film in which their relationship was the only slight glimmer of hope. Obviously alone and longing for companionship, she tries and fails to engage him in “catching up,” then — after Brandon takes to the dog on the sidewalk outside — ends up suddenly on a road trip to Ohio with him, with Wiener-Dog in tow and for an indeterminate amount of time; on her last night at home we hear her whisper “There’s nothing here.” Brandon’s evasive about the purpose of the journey but in time we learn he’s attempting to get the word out about his father’s death. Driving through a barren Midwestern landscape of parking lots and strip malls, they pick up a traveling Mexican band and are witness to their dim opinions of the United States, but the true heartbreak comes when we’re introduced to Brandon’s brother Tommy (Connor Long) and his wife April (Bridget Brown), both of whom have Downs.
Solondz handles the couple’s disabled state (both played by actors with Down syndrome) very delicately without skirting the issue; they are both looked upon as complex characters and their problems are neither minimized nor exaggerated, and do not become the essence of their story. April and Dawn try to take a walk together but April’s much too uncomfortable outside of her home, while meanwhile — after forcefully interrupting a session with a sadistic video game — Brandon and Tommy share a haunting conversation about their father’s death, observed from inside the house by Dawn. This is one of the trademark scenes in Solondz’s work: a moment of perfectly acted and observed dialogue that’s eerily, almost time-stoppingly real, and as in the gumdrops scene of Life During Wartime, the post-murder meltdown in Palindromes, the final father-son talk in Happiness and the deeply upsetting, unhinged monologues in Dark Horse, as much credit is owed to the two extraordinary actors, Culkin and Long, as to the impeccable writing itself. All of the performances in this portion of the film are magnificent, with Gerwig and Culkin playing off one another with beautiful tentativeness.
Throughout the visit, Wiener-Dog (renamed Doody) is almost magically drawn to April and Tommy, and this is the basis of Dawn’s great sacrifice — she leaves the dog with Brandon’s brother and sister-in-law, the latter movingly noting that she’s “always wanted a leash.” In the car heading away from all this the conversation is again stilted and protracted, with much talk of the complete uncertainty of their next destination, but it ends with Dawn and Brandon gently holding hands. It’s unusual for Solondz to give himself or us permission for such an optimistic finale to one of his stories, and it’s probably deliberate that it only occurs at the halfway point of the film and that the idle chatter suggests this happiness may be fleeting or may even just last for a moment, but there are worlds contained in Gerwig’s smile in that moment.
We’re next treated to an intermission (in a film running less than 90 minutes!) that doubles as cute crowd-pleasing and as a reprise of Dark Horse‘s satire of the movie theater experience; the dog is shown gigantic, walking through America as represented by a variety of locations from seedy strip clubs to crime scenes to mountainous landscapes, all while a ridiculous Lorne Green-like country ballad about the dog’s varied travels blares on in the background. As usual, Solondz’s capacity for the less investigated corners of human emotion is matched only by his love of pure weirdness.
The third sequence is the film’s most expansive, and its darkest and most horrible, calling back in style and content to the second half of Storytelling. In the “Non-Fiction” segment of that film, Paul Giamatti portrayed a frustrated documentary filmmaker who seized upon the subject of a slacker teenager whose family life was increasingly in disarray through the course of the project’s creation; as soon as the film was completed, the boy’s life was upended in the most devastating manner possible for unrelated reasons, but when Giamatti rushed up to him to apologize, all he could answer with was “Your movie’s a hit.” In the corresponding portion of Wiener-Dog, Danny DeVito is Dave Schmerz, a non-tenured screenwriting professor whose bullshit “rules” (“What if?… Then what?”) are increasingly rubbing up against the sensibilities of students with equally bullshit nebulous ideas about the thematic structures and social comments of the films they want to make. Solondz teaches film at NYU and it would be easy to read this as autobiographical but, apart from various comedic injections of clearly lived experience, there’s no reason to suggest his own program requires or warrants such cynicism. For outsiders, the awkward student interviews we suffer through are hideously funny — one applicant to the program is unable to name a single movie that’s influenced him (“there’s just so many!”), while one of Schmerz’s own students goes on an interminable monologue about the finer points of various superhero comics; perhaps low-hanging fruit but still funny, and still (in my experience with film students) unfortunately accurate — but they are a mere backdrop to the undeniable sadness at the core of Schmerz’s life.
DeVito is extraordinary, the strongest grace note in what’s otherwise marginally the film’s weak point (by virtue mostly of its similarity to Storytelling and the “write what you know” attacks to which it leaves itself open, though anyone who doesn’t find the group of students angrily discussing Schmerz’s “rules” — they accuse him of owning the boxed sets of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld and every Woody Allen movie — to be hilarious is watching the wrong film). He’s increasingly desperate and lonely, his health is grave — his only physical activity is walking the wiener-dog through the city every day — and his attempt to revive a dead career is always finding new dead ends to run into. This instability and loneliness is shown, as in Dark Horse, to breed a level of alienation that can result in something darker and more morbid yet, in this case actual violence. Worse yet, the formerly therapeutic practice of walking the dog finds its end when the dog becomes a catalyst for his “way out” of all this… at which point the wiener-dog is actually killed for the first time. We never learn how the dog passed from the hands of Tommy and April into Dave’s, and we probably don’t particularly need to — another reason to doubt the sunniness of the conclusion we’ve been given for Dawn’s chapter — but we break into Solondz’s magical realism again, long enough for him to physically revive the dog one last time.
Despite everything else that happens in Wiener-Dog, its last and simplest chapter, which takes place on just one real set, is the one that’s ultimately hardest to shake. Each owner of the wiener-dog has been older than the last, and her last human is Ellen Burstyn playing a grouchy, nearly nonverbal elderly woman visited by her overly enthusiastic, obviously needy granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet). The dog — now named Cancer — seems happy here, following and lounging with her contentedly and rarely the target of her succinct, sporadic verbal barbs. Zoe’s purpose after a lot of small-talk is to borrow money — she’s done it before, back then for drugs, but swears she’s done tweaking — for her flamboyant boyfriend Fantasy (Michael Shaw), an artist who’s working on an installation dedicated to dead animals. The exchanges between the three of them are of the most uncomfortable and awkward breed of comedy… but for all the anger embedded in the scene, we can sense a yearning to connect and to be good and compassionate within Burstyn, the clear opposite of the empty atheist parents who convinced their child that death is a good thing at the beginning of the film, their illusions of kindness so dreadfully chilled and empty.
We’re then given another Solondz dream sequence, a motif that always appears at least once in his work, and a glimpse into the old woman’s secret soul: outside on her bench, she’s visited by manifestations of her past self (Melo Ludwig). They announce that each of them represents a version of the person she could have been if her choices had been different. Burstyn greets each of them warmly, but her defense is unforgettable and may be the best and most sobering line in all of Solondz’s work: “But… I didn’t choose.”
The physical portrayal of her regrets is followed yet again by an opportunity for her to provide some benefit for someone else’s life. The dog runs from her, into the street, and is hit by a massive truck. This is tragic and a horrid thing to watch. Then she gets hit by another truck, at which point it becomes shocking. By the time two more vehicles — including a Smart car — run over the dog, splattering it all over the road, the tragic has directly become comic before our eyes. And the dog will then live on in some strange way, much as it has through the vessel of this film. We are shown an art gallery — another freezing, barren interior design — and Fantasy shaking hands with visitors. We zoom into a glass enclosure in which the corpse of the wiener dog is mounted… mechanically assisted, it turns its head and barks. It’s a truly grotesque vision, maybe of how sentimentality turns around into perversion or of the dog as the same sort of symbol she becomes in the movie: the world goes on all around her. Either way, it’s as blunt-force a challenge as the closing throes of every Solondz movie have been. For me, the feeling after the surprise faded is simply joy that this nasty thing was made and is now available to the world, with all four shorts elegant, economical and knife-sharp, calling back the giddiest moments of transcendent black humor and confused sympathy in Happiness and Storytelling. The whole thing is a thrill to watch, and a thrill to ponder afterward.
Wiener-Dog was shot by cinematographer Ed Lachman (Carol, The Virgin Suicides), reteaming him with the director after Life During Wartime, and it continues the trend of Solondz’s films becoming increasingly clear and beautiful — the color balance and contrast are stunning, allowing the diversity in setting between the four sequences to become all the more pronounced. Though we step back from the explicitness of observing a Toys R Us as a metaphor for purgatory as in Dark Horse, we continue to see through this director’s eyes a dystopian, bland America as consumerist landscape, rife with futility and pain and everything seeming to lead nowhere, but with no judgment cast upon the common citizen for being an unwitting cog in this system. When compared to nearly everything else in the marketplace, it’s clear that Solondz’s are just about the only honest films about America currently being made, with none of the manufactured inscrutability of so much arthouse fare, even as his characters behave just as mysteriously and naturally as anyone’s. The constant battle of being mordantly, humorously cynical and trying to have faith in people is his eternal battle, never to be fully resolved, and Wiener-Dog dramatizes this back-and-forth with a particular incisive cleanness and even warmth.
The wiener-dog herself begins and ends the movie in solitary confinement, alive and then dead. But each of the four universes that become hers — a cage in a museum-like house, a car and a trailer, a drab university office, and finally an embittered person’s lonely resting home — isn’t much less of a trap. The only sense of true, potentially sustained freedom any character ever gets is that shared between Dawn and Brandon on the open road — and in that moment the dog is no longer with them. Perhaps the point is that actual human connection is the only real way out of an insular desperation that can’t be alleviated by the emotions we wrap up in our pets, and — depending on where you stand in life — that might be either the most or least hopeful message imaginable.