5 Questions: Todd Solondz on His New Film, Wiener-Dog

The director of Happiness and Life During Wartime talks about the quality of dogness, his disparagement of film school, and the small glimmer of hope he slips into the film.

Filmmaker Todd Solondz has been packing the art houses and subsequently bumming out his audience since the release of his 1995 dark comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse. Since then he has made the disturbing ensemble Happiness and its follow-up Life During Wartime, Storytelling, and Dark Horse, among other heavy works; call his particular brand of awkwardly confrontational humor Dispirit-Com. His new film, Wiener-Dog, follows along a similar trajectory of jet-black humor and despair. It uses a guileless dachshund to link together four different vignettes of characters suffering from one depressed malaise or another. In Solondz’s vision, the characters are invariably on the outside looking in, hoping for things to be different, but becoming more and more twisted around by their crippling loneliness. For all his on-screen bleakness, however, the director himself comes across as well-spoken and quite sociable. He spoke with Ticket about the quality of dogness, his disparagement of film school, and the small glimmer of hope he slips into the film.

Why a dachshund, exactly? Was there something about that breed?
It came to me when I thought about Dawn Wiener [a character played by Greta Gerwig in the film], that’s what she had been called, that was the epithet hurled at her. Then the animal itself is just one of the ultimate, cute animals that you can find. It seemed to suit my purposes. What interests me, first of all, is not dogs per se, even though it’s a dog movie. That’s more of a MacGuffin, so to speak. This is a comedy of despair about mortality. The dog is a kind of conduit that provides a structure. It’s the characters, and the way they contend with mortality, that’s where really my heart is. Dogs embody a kind of ultimate innocence that humans can’t rival. In part I think it’s very much a projection that we impose on the dog, because while it is innocent of some things, it is a dog. With its own dogness, and its own yearnings and needs. Yet we project onto the dog myriad kinds of needs and yearnings that have nothing to do with the dog itself.

You have generally been unflattering about the human race in your films, and this film appears to be about our terminal narcissism and myopic viewpoint. Fair to say?
It’s hard to understand what a dog is, but we’re not dogs. People study, and try to understand, but it’s another species. The dogness of a dog is as alien as the humanness is to the dog. It doesn’t mean we can’t have profound attachments at all. It’s not to reduce us to narcissistic and myopic, but we are all frail. We all have our needs, that’s what defines us. I think this reflects some of what I’m saying here.

No one would ever accuse you of being a romantic, yet, in the film’s second segment, there is a moment of genuine connection and hopefulness (that the other three segments seem to counter). Have you grown any softer over the years?
I would say it’s more than a little — it’s probably the most romantic, hopeful ending I’ve ever had. There is, and it’s all in a paradoxical way, philosophically, a kind of sense of hopefulness that the child has as well, given his own personal history with mortality. For me there is a balance, but you bring what you bring to the experience. Some may see only “Oh my God, this is so dark,” and others may bring a more playful attitude.

The third segment is set in a film school that seems pretty similar to NYU, your alma mater. Do you agree with the character who suggests the students are far better off out of school and just making films on their own?
Nobody that is a student of mine or is a colleague would confuse me with this character. Nevertheless, I can empathize with him. Being a teacher at film school, it opens up a new world. It’s hard not to be philosophical, not to be satirical, given the realities. NYU, it’s an evil empire. It’s managed with such remarkable incompetence and corruption, it’s hard not to let some of that seep in.

That segment also has a cringe-inducing scene where two millennial film students are talking disparagingly about their professor. The coup de grace insult is when one of them says he “probably owns a box set of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I have to say, that stung a bit. Why single out that particular show for their scorn?
Maybe it’s most insulting to you, others might pick other things out. When you’re young, it’s important to knock over the idols of the previous generation. To stake out your own claim, your own territory, and I think that’s healthy. They have plenty of time to grow up and be mature, but I do relish the irrelevance of youth, because once these things become reverential, they lose in fact their value and meaning, it’s diminished. I hope Larry David gets to see it. I’m hopeful that he might enjoy this.

Wiener-Dog opens Friday at the Ritz East.

Piers Marchant is a film critic and writer based in Philly. Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.