Over the past two decades, director Todd Solondz has established himself as that guy who goes where most directors fear to go. With films such as Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling, Palindromes, Life During Wartime and Dark Horse, he explores the dark side of suburban life, offering up grim accounts of people with deep psychological issues.
His latest effort, Wiener-Dog, which opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights and at Nightlight Cinema in Akron, takes on similar subject matter. Divided into a series of short vignettes, the movie follows the life of a dachshund as it goes from owner to owner. It might be a dog movie, but Solondz didn't hold anything back.
"I thought about [the French film] Au Hasard Balthazar, and I watched that again," says Solondz via phone from New York. "It has an oblique narrative that gave me a certain confidence to pursue this in the way I structured it. It's yes and no a dog movie. It's connected by the life trajectory of a dog that passes from owner to owner, but it's more of a conceit. It's how our mortality hovers over each of these protagonists and stories."
And what was it like to work with a dachshund?
"It was an ordeal," says Solondz. "I hadn't known until I was in production. I learned from the ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ] that because of the way they breed the dog for the marketplace, they breed a certain amount of intelligence out of them. I worked with three or four of them, and they were all remarkably stupid. It was very hard. These were show dogs, and they still didn't understand any commands. They didn't respond to 'stay' or 'sit' or anything. For the film's interlude, we had to put it on a treadmill, and we sat around for three hours until we could get 12 seconds of usable footage. That's what it was like working with the dog. They're cute, but they're mentally deficient. It's a sad state of affairs."
The film's second half shifts its focus from the various families who adopt the dog to a frustrated screenwriter and college professor (Danny DeVito). While the dog is still present, the film offers a critique of film school.
"I feel for him, but no less and no more than any of the other protagonists," says Solondz when asked about DeVito's character. "It's a sad story about ambitions and dreams and a man's quest for meaning and redemption. It's suffused with a certain satire. That's hard not to apply since I'm a teacher. While I love teaching and I love my students and I have wonderful colleagues, I do have an inside view of how NYU is a kind of evil empire managed with a remarkable level of incompetence and corruption. While it's not about film school per se, it's informed by that understanding. I think even as he is a failed screenwriter, he actually could be a good teacher. He has some sensible things to say but is viewed too much as a dinosaur by young people."
The ending is likely to jar audiences. Even if you're familiar with Solondz' dark sensibilities, the final scene still delivers a punch to the gut.
"Art is a transformative experience," Solondz says. "Everything is fraught with ambiguity and ambivalence. We look at pets and dogs as, in some sense, vessels for our own hopes and dreams and illusions. We project an innocence and purity on them. This is why it's often harder for people to see harm befall a little dog than to befall a human. I've always described my movies as sad comedies, but this one I might call a comedy of despair."