Todd Solondz on Wiener-Dog, Not Directing TV and Working with “Remarkably Stupid” Dogs
Todd Solondz has been exploring his animal side. Granted, the films that first placed him at the forefront of independent American auteur cinema – Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Happiness (1998), Storytelling (2001), and Palindromes (2004) – were well-acquainted with the bestial side of human behavior, offering unflinching and sometimes repulsive examinations of bullying, pedophilia, abortion activism, racial fetishization and the adhesive properties of semen.
Since 2009’s Life During Wartime, a theoretical sequel to Happiness, Solondz has toned down the bad-boy transgressions of his first few films, allowing his humanist sympathies to rise to the surface. Building on the structural aspects of Palindromes, Solondz’s recent films have become more self-referential (subtly building an interlocking “Solondz-World”), self-critical, and have increased their visual beauty even as they gaze into the soulless void of suburbia.
Wiener-Dog, Solondz’s newest film, is a story told in four parts (plus an intermission), tracing the sad progress of a hapless dachshund as she is shuttled among four different owners. They include a heartless yuppie couple (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy), Dollhouse’s now-grown Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), a burnt-out film professor (Danny DeVito), and an elderly former artist (Ellen Burstyn). The pointy-nosed canine drives the film forward, like time’s proverbial arrow on four stubby legs, leading us to the exploding fur-covered inevitable. (Editor’s note: this interview reveals the ending.)
Filmmaker: Several of your recent films have involved structural conceits, particularly Storytelling (2001) and Palindromes (2004). How did you decide on using a dog as the means to move between the four stories in Wiener-Dog?
Todd Solondz: I looked at Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar again and it has a very oblique narrative. I think that gave me a certain confidence to devise the movie in this way, of going from one owner to another. It provides this life trajectory, so to speak, presented through four owners at different stages of their lives. Each one gets older, from Remi the young boy (Keaton Nigel Cooke) to Nana (Ellen Burstyn). The movie is obviously not about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a dog. For me, it’s about mortality and the way in which that hovers over these characters and stories.
I don’t exactly know about the ways we’ve evolved in our relationship with these pets, but I think we tend to anthropomorphize them. We look at dogs as vessels for our own personal hopes or illusions, often projecting a kind of innocence or purity onto them. It’s a conundrum. Harm befalling a little cute dachshund is much more unsettling for many people than harm befalling a human being.
I remember reading My Dog Tulip many years ago and I think that stuck with me. I’ve always thought if there were some superior species that landed on our planet and thought that we were really cute and wanted to adopt us, would we still consider them our best friends, even if they neutered us all to keep us in line? We control our pets in this way and yet we consider them our best friends.
Filmmaker: You cite Wiener-Dog as a rethinking of Balthazar, although Balthazar and the wiener-dog are very different creatures. With Balthazar you have a donkey that is very much a natural creature – blank-eyed and moving through these human spaces.
With the dog, it’s notable that you never say the word “dachshund” throughout the film. It’s always “the wiener-dog.” This is a creature who is stranded between nature and culture. This is an animal invented through breeding, who is a product of civilization.
Solondz: Well, yes, but even in Balthazar the mule was something that is created for civilization, an animal that was bred to be a beast of burden. In the case of the wiener-dog it’s really bred to serve us in other ways. In fact, while making the movie I learned from the ASPCA representative that because of the inbreeding they do for the marketplace, to make the animal cuter and more desirable, one of the things that happens over time is a deficit in intelligence. It’s not the only breed that’s affected. The bulldog, for example, has serious physical, constitutional issues because of the way they’re bred. The same thing with the dachshund. We had three or four show dogs to work with, but they were all remarkably stupid and unable to respond to any command whatsoever.
But regarding Bresson, I would add that I was thinking not only of Balthazar but even of Mouchette, certainly the ending. That film also informed the way in which life can crush and assault us. I drew on the peculiar or perverse comedy of that.
Filmmaker: I also noticed Wiener-Dog finding a kind of forlorn humor in the American landscape of consumer culture, something also quite prevalent in Dark Horse and Life During Wartime. Your depiction of the suburban landscape (which owes much, no doubt, to Ed Lachman’s cinematography) seems particularly important here. We move through these very commercialized areas, strip malls, Toys-R-Us, Staples, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. You seem to be making a connection between that kind of landscape and the “quiet desperation” of your characters.
Solondz: That’s a common thread in my work, I suppose. I think in part the work is an evolving response to the kind of spiritual vacuum generated by America’s consumer culture. In lieu of religion as practiced in other countries, or certain kinds of totalitarian regimes where you have political dogma, in this country we do feel much more beholden to the affluence and consumption. The consumerist character of our lives shapes, distorts, and informs the struggles that so many of us are affected by.
Filmmaker: Although that may be a uniquely American syndrome in some respects, that culture continues to be exported, as globalization marches on.
Solondz: That’s the problem. You go to Europe and things get more Americanized in so many ways. Some countries are better at staving off the consumerist values that we worship here. In Wiener-Dog, obviously, you have Mexicans and their voicing of the anguish of the soullessness of the American value system. That’s somewhat comical, but it’s also sincere.
Filmmaker: That’s right. It’s a moment of internal critique, from an outside perspective, of what is wrong with this cultural space. This is what I meant by being grounded in the landscape. You’re really not treating “Americanism” as the default position. You’re investigating it as a specific and unique culture. I’m sure that’s very intentional.
Solondz: That’s fair.
Filmmaker: How are your films generally received outside of America?
Solondz: Often, if they like the movie they look at it as a statement about how horrible it is in America. Obviously it’s not a celebration. It is a critique, but it’s certainly not as bleak as all that. Everything is wrought with ambiguity here. It’s a little bit reductive to just write it off as cynicism.
Filmmaker: I agree. In Wiener-Dog, for example, Remi is a character who seems to display this unbridled joy when engaging with the dog. Granted, he is a child. Still, what’s unusual is that his tenderness and joy come across in the film almost like a foreign language. It’s as though his ability to exude tenderness is an anomaly that no one else can even understand. Certainly not his parents.
Solondz: They speak foreign languages to each other in some sense. Just as the dog lives in a cage, Remi lives in a cage as well. But then he has his Zero for Conduct moment. He has great compassion for his little pet.
There is obviously a misguidedness, at best, in the parenting here. The mother is blind to her own racism, and her fear of death. It’s that thing that can’t be seen or spoken of. This is a boy that has had a brush with cancer so it’s hard for him not to try and come to some kind of acceptance of that reality. It makes him more soulful and more human.
Filmmaker: What was interesting about the parents (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy) is that their inability to deal with their child’s mortality struck me as an extreme version of the parental control that characterizes the culture of fear. In a lot of ways, the cancer just made that explicit.
Solondz: Right, that sort of helicoptering. Even the long tracking shot of what the dog leaves behind after eating the granola has an ambiguity to it, I think. If I had left it for six seconds, it would have just been a gag, but by going on it maybe gets a little funnier and then, for me, it eventually becomes poignant. The scatology, juxtaposed with the music (by Cardigans’ vocalist Nina Persson), contextualized by the impending mortality… It takes on unexpected meanings. I suppose the shot was very much inspired by the traffic jam in Godard’s Weekend.
Filmmaker: The longer it goes on, we remember the father being disgusted and horrified. It clicks that the boy has cancer, this has to hark back to certain bodily, visceral messes that the parents would have had to clean up after him.
Solondz: It becomes a literal marker of that which we try to insulate ourselves from.
Filmmaker: That’s right. It’s something that’s virtually never seen in cinema, even in cinema that is ostensibly about aging or death. Defecation is literally considered the obscene, the thing that is kept “off scene.”
Solondz: Obviously it starts off as a comical set up. It’s just this teeny little dog and yet the trail of mess just goes on forever. There is a kind of comedy, but the comedy evaporates and you’re left with that sense of waste, but not just the physical but metaphorical waste, the loss.
Filmmaker: That’s the case throughout the film. The dark comedy falls away and you’re left with the horror. There is dark humor in the end when the dog meets her fate, it kind of goes splat, but then…
Solondz: I resurrect the dog! She finds other kinds of life, let’s say, through art. It was important for me that it not end just when the dog meets her fate, so to speak. For many people it’s hard to absorb all of this, so when charges of cynicism or cruelty are lobbed at me it’s okay, but I do think it’s reductive.
Filmmaker: Well, sure. Fantasy (Michael James Shaw) creates this hybrid mechanical/organic sculpture out of the dog. It seems like it’s a reference to cinema itself. Cinema revives the dead. It’s always this thing that was there before and is brought back to life every time on screen.
Solondz: Again, it’s like you can go back and forth with this. That’s what’s always so broad with ambiguity. Cinema perpetuates life and in another sense, cinema is nothing but a perpetuation of death, because all of that has passed, once the photographic image has happened. It’s already a little dead, what we’re observing.
Filmmaker: On the question of death and cinema. You’re one of this group of filmmakers who has resisted the lure of television. You seem to be pretty committed to cinema as a medium, “going down with that ship,” as it were. Do you think cinema is particularly suited to these questions of mortality, in a way that other media aren’t?
Solondz: You’re a little bleaker than I am. I don’t think that cinema is dead. I’m more hopeful about its future in some senses than I think you are. I don’t see the movies disappearing any time soon. It’s true, it’s no longer central as a cultural touchstone in the way it once was. It’s getting closer to opera. Are they more suited for this subject? No, it’s really the way you look at it. I suppose a person could make that argument, but I don’t know any art that isn’t suited to being a medium through which one can express one’s understanding of the un-understandable of death. I’m lucky I’ve been able to make the movies I’ve made. It’s very gratifying for me. I hope I get to continue getting to make movies. I grew up with television, so working in TV seems like that would be a natural thing. It’s possible something will happen there. I’m not opposed to it, but I do have a romance with the experience of going to a movie theater, even as I know that most people who experience my movie will not experience it in a movie theater. I teach at a film school and most of my students don’t go to the movies. Most of what I see, they see from the iPad or the computer, the laptop, and so forth.
Filmmaker: Does that shift your perspective as a maker? Do you feel like you compose and create for the ideal of the screen, regardless of how your work is going to be consumed?
Solondz: Yeah, in a certain sense that’s how I’m like like DeVito’s character (film professor Dave Schmirz). One way in which I do feel I’m like him is that I’m a dinosaur. It’s much more rare to see a young person value the moviegoing, theatrical experience the way I do, the way I grew up. I never even rented movies back when they invented the VCR. I was too old, by the time that came along, and people have a lot of nostalgia for the VCR and the VHS, but I never had a love affair with that. That was always so second-rate compared to the experience one would get in the movie theater.
Filmmaker: I tend to agree. It’s becoming a rarefied experience rather than a commonplace one, but it’s not necessarily going away.
Solondz: Every year there are always movies that come out of unexpected corners that excite me, and that surprise me, and that make moviegoing an exciting experience. It’s just unpredictable. It’s good that technology has advanced such that making a feature film is viable in ways it never was before. One of the results is that a lot more movies get made by young people.
What’s good is that the bar has been raised. It’s not enough to say: “Well, I made this movie for $8,000,” and you get a theatrical release. Nobody is impressed by that at this point, and that’s a good thing. You can’t just make the movie on a low budget, but you have to have something to say to get some serious attention. I think that’s a good thing. It’s like the invention of the typewriter. There is no reason to complain that there are so many bad books written. It’s a democratizing experience, but it opens up the possibility of great works coming from unexpected places.
Filmmaker: I think that’s true, and we’re hearing more voices from different places. Something low budget, like John Magary’s The Mend, comes out of nowhere to great acclaim. It’s very exciting. Have you seen that film?
Solondz: No, I haven’t. I’ve heard of it but I don’t even know if it played for more than a week or two. I missed it. That’s what’s so hard, is that many movies can get made but it’s much harder to get a theatrical release. If you’re a filmmaker you do want to be able to get a general audience to take note, to at least be aware that your movie is there and that it’s something worth talking about. It takes time and money. You need an economy, a marketplace that can afford that. That’s what makes things very tough.
But at the same time, I have no interest in directing episodics, whether it’s Mike White’s Enlightened, or whether it’s Mad Men from Matt Weiner, or whatever your favorite TV series is. That would have no interest for me, because my function would be to preserve what is already an established tone and style. I’m not interested in just serving something that’s already been established. To be able to write and direct, it’s too precious and difficult of a process. I can’t be like Soderbergh or Scorsese, “one for me, one for them.” I don’t want to die on the set of something I didn’t love.