January 19, 2020

A new dawn, happier end for character in ‘Wiener-Dog’

“I grew up with a number of dogs, but none of them lasted very long,” Todd Solondz, one of independent cinema’s most persistent provocateurs, said during a phone conversation from New York.

The canines would die or run away or simply disappear, courtesy of his parents, only to be replaced by a new (and perhaps less challenging) pooch. “The result, for a child, is that mortality impresses itself upon you and shapes your experience,” Solondz said. “And this is rooted in the inspiration for my new film.”

In Solondz’s new movie, “Wiener-Dog,” the doomed, titular dachshund is passed from owner to owner, forming a series of four vignettes that spotlight the human preoccupation with death. The pooch first lands in the home of a loving boy, Remi, who is recovering from a serious illness, as his parents bicker and resent caring for the canine. When the dog becomes severely ill, Remi’s parents seek to euthanize it, but instead, it is stolen and adopted by a compassionate veterinary technician, Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), an adult version of the mercilessly bullied child protagonist of Solondz’s searing 1995 film, “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” 

Eventually the dog comes to be owned by Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a failed independent filmmaker and professor with ultimately violent inclinations, and then, finally, by a bitter elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn) whose granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) comes to visit, seeking cash.

Solondz grew up in a kosher home in New Jersey and attended an Orthodox yeshiva, but he eventually became, in his words, a “devout atheist.” His branch of Judaism, as well, taught that there was no heaven or hell: “I’ve lived my life knowing that this is the one life, so you want to do the best you can with what you have, as opposed to making a ‘down payment’ on what comes in an afterlife,” he said.

Now 56, he said he has been pondering his own demise — as well as taking advantage of senior citizen discounts he is routinely offered at the movies, he quipped.

Mortality has also become a topic of discussion with his 7-year-old son, who “is always interested in how people die and when they die,” Solondz said. “It’s almost something of an obsession. It’s certainly a presence that he’s very aware of, and the fear that accompanies it is certainly something I can see shaping him.”

Solondz’s response to his son’s questions has been, in part, to emphasize that “death is a part of life, and something that defines us in the way that we live.”

In “Wiener-Dog,” the fictional Remi’s mother (Julie Delpy) tells her son as much — and that “all we can do is love each other.”

“But the paradox is that love is the deficit in her own family,” Solondz said. “She is part of a brittle marriage that cannot sustain a family in the way that a child needs.”

Solondz perhaps relates to the misunderstood character of Schmerz, who sees life passing him by (and whose name means “pain” in German), as a filmmaker who has often been reviled as misanthropic.

Solondz’s 1998 movie, “Happiness,” revolved around a suburban father who is a pedophile; his 2001 film, “Storytelling,” included a section in which a Jewish mother mouths platitudes about the Holocaust in order to fundraise, while mistreating her Latina housekeeper. Eventually, the maid turns on the household’s oven and gasses the Jewish family to death.  

Solondz’s darkly comic “Dollhouse” was inspired, in part, by his fraught experiences at a private middle school where he was one of only a few Jewish students.

“My films aren’t for everyone, especially for people who like them,” Solondz has often said.

His idea for “Wiener-Dog” began some years ago as he was contemplating his childhood experiences with dogs, and also Robert Bresson’s 1966 film “Au Hasard Balthazar,” which follows the travails of an abused young woman and an even more abused donkey as they encounter the cruelties of the world.  

Solondz decided that his movie would focus, rather, on a dachshund, or wiener dog, since that was the nickname given to the bullied Dawn Wiener in his “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” “ ‘Balthazar’ is filtered in the way my dog meets her end, and the way in which the world can [literally] be crushing,” Solondz said. “Humans are so anthropocentric that it’s hard not to anthropomorphize animals,” he added. “So often they become a vessel for our own human hopes and yearnings.”

Solondz emphasizes that the character of Dawn, played by Heather Matarazzo in “Dollhouse,” was never a victim: “I see life as a struggle,” he said. “And Dawn is someone who struggles with her plight. It’s that struggle that engages us and make us feel for her as opposed to simply pitying her.”

Matarazzo told Solondz she would never again portray Dawn, since she preferred to remember the character in her hopeful outlook at the end of “Dollhouse.” Solondz killed off the character in his 2004 film, “Palindromes,” but decided to revive her (played by Gerwig) in “Wiener-Dog.”

“I had always wanted to offer an alternative trajectory for Dawn, because it was never my intent to make ‘Palindromes’ the defining end of Dawn Wiener’s life,” he said. “That felt too cynical. So I wanted to create something more hopeful and even romantic for her.”

Even though Solondz is an atheist, he is sending his son to a Chabad Hebrew school in order to learn about his heritage. “He loves all things Jewish,” the filmmaker said. “He just seems to lap it up. It’s not anything he learns at home, but something about it has made my little son very happy to be a Jew.”

“Wiener-Dog” opens in theaters June 24 in Los Angeles.