Wiener-Dog”: A Satiric Dachsund Encomium by Todd Solondz Rated R for “some disturbing content”

“Wiener-Dog”
Written and directed by Todd Solondz
Acted by Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Zosia Mame
Produced by Annapurna Pictures and Killer Films
Distributed by IFC Films and Amazon Studios
Rated R by MPAA for language and some disturbing content
Running time: 90 minutes
Exhibited at The Music Box Theater, with Todd Solondz appearing at 7pm show on July 16th

by Bill Stamets

 

The title canine passes through the lives of various owners in a mannered exercise of moralizing by writer/director Todd Solondz. “Wiener-Dog” is a thread of vignettes involving a dachshund in transit. She goes by various names. Her next to last owner, an elderly companion called Nana (Ellen Burstyn), names her Cancer.
In his press notes, Solondz synopsizes his effort as “a chronicle of the life of a dog and how this particular dog spreads comfort and joy to the people she meets, bringing meaning to their lives.” The dachshund indeed uplifts its human companions, who vary in their competence in caring for her and one another.
But Solondz omits his ironic style and spin from his line above. “Wiener-Dog” is a sentimental narrative of moral satire about mortality. Although Solondz (“Happiness” “Palindromes,” “Storytelling,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse”) mentions “Benji” and “Au Hasard Balthazar” as his screen “touchstones,” I think he’s really working in the Renaissance genre of the animal encomium and later French satires that embroidered eulogies for dogs and other animal intimates– even our diseases.
The “wiener-dog,” as some owners and others call her, is not so much a character as an occasion for human characters to ask uncomfortable questions about life and death. The dog offers no consoling answers. She gets few close-ups and is not called upon for reaction shots. Unlike the Weimaraner and German shorthair pointer in the backseat of the Lincoln Navigator driven by Matthew McConaughey in the TV spot “Time to Eat.”
The film begins with someone dropping her off at an animal shelter. As opening credits in a mock-fancy typeface scroll by, she tries to figure out what she’s doing in a metal cage surrounded by the din of barking. This will be her longest one-shot.
Solondz soon places her in a home where a boy receiving cancer treatment will pose the most profound questions. Next we see her in a car with Colorado plates heading to Ohio, in the office and apartment of a screenwriter, a residential street, and ultimately an art gallery. Her role is always to help humans make their own sense of things.
A cynical, maybe sophomoric choice is later sampling “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy as counterpoint to the distressed barks the wiener-dog heard in the opening scene. Solondz’s most arch move is inserting a too-cute old-time intermission with corny titles. For an entra’-acte he includes a clever montage of a partly animated dachshund trotting in front of various backdrops around the country, reminiscent of passages in Buster Keaton to Maya Deren films.
Last listed under “Thanks” in the end credits are “Little Hope, Big Hope, Vodka, Ruby and Rozie.” Could they be dachshunds playing the wiener-dog? Things may not have ended well for all of them, since there’s an anomalous qualification in the disclaimer: “American Humane Association monitored some of the animal action. No animals were harmed in those scenes.” Let’s not ask about  unmonitored animal action in those other scenes. Also note the absence of a disclaimer that no dogs died in the making of this motion picture.
“Wiener-Dog” is a weirdly touching memorial with caustic inflections. (Spoiler: the Classification and Rating Administration of the Motion Picture Association of America indicates there is “some disturbing content” so “Wiener-Dog” is rated “R” for “Restricted.”)

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