Wiener-Dog (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Wiener-Dog (2016)

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Passed from owner to owner, a dachshund bears witness to the troubles of connecting in a world that is advancing while people find ways to stay apart.  Todd Solondz wrote the screenplay for and directs Wiener-Dog, and stars an ensemble cast led by Ellen Burstyn, Danny DeVito, Greta Gerwig, and Julie Delpy.

This year I've lost two good friends, both to cancer, and both with social media pages that are still up for viewing.  Even if I wanted to get away to mourn on my own terms I run the risk of logging in with my social media platform and seeing someone post under the dead person's name.  With all these advances in technology we can preserve the memory of those who have died and refuse to let go.  Death awaits us all, so why do we need our technology to keep that which is no longer with us?  Fundamental human nature, I suppose, and with Todd Solondz's latest Wiener-Dog he comes closest to any other director to show what humanity we've lost in our progress.

There is cause for celebration in the four sections that form Wiener-Dog.  Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) would have succumbed to cancer in earlier decades but is now on the upswing.  So why don't his parents, played with pitch-perfect passive-aggression by Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts, celebrate the advancements that kept their child alive?  Because the struggle of life continues on whether Remi lived or died.  The fears Remi's parents refuse to give voice to in-between their bickering are reflected in the titular dog, bought by Remi's father as a way of easing his child back into the "real world."  When Wiener-Dog eats granola and begins the slow process of dying, it's hard not to think that his parents are imagining a world where their child was also able to go peaceably instead of having to create an environment where Remi can flourish.

Solondz makes his feelings on Boyhood clear with the first section of Wiener-Dog.

You might find that monstrously selfish, and I'd agree to a point, but it's a basic fact of self-preservation that the majority of modern stories refuse to grapple with.  The same advancements that kept Remi alive also create tension between Dawn (Greta Gerwig) and Brandon (Kieran Culkin).  What would have been a chance encounter between two people quickly turns into daggered questions about why one hasn't found the other on Facebook.  Increasingly diversified populations on campuses around the country leave frustrated professors like Dave (Danny DeVito) trying to teach the basics without triggering his class.  Then there is Nana (Ellen Burstyn), always a phone call away from her granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet), but only gets a visit when Zoe needs money.

Some of these problems have been around as long as humans have existed, which is why Nana's story is the most universal.  I like that the isolation Dave's experiencing is something that more leaders around the country should feel.  At the same time, coming in with a high-concept about shattering gender lines in narratives while asking how to make it consumable to a mass audience is a tall order to put it mildly.  Experimental directors like Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage have answers that the guy who wrote a successful rom-com doesn't.  It's necessary to progress narratives for inclusion but the armchair activism of wannabe visionary artists in Dave's classes is frustratingly accurate.

The distance everyone feels from one another fuels the alienating cinematography by Edward Lachman.  A too-long shot of a nausea-green caging facility for dogs sets the alienating tone well only to be matched by the aggressive staging of Remi's motionless father yelling at the mother who can't sit still.  Intimacy is out of the question for many of these characters and Lachman exaggerates the distance between each when in conversation.  This makes a moment of connection, when Zoe tells Nana she thinks her boyfriend isn't being faithful, all the more painful.  Despite the ease of connection they could have with one another Zoe goes back to distance and Nana returns to the hell of her own mind.

Solondz isn't one to shy away from criticizing suburban America and takes the surprising step of placing most of the criticism in the soundtrack.  The music for Wiener-Dog was done by James Lavino and Nathan Larson, who chillingly punctuate setbacks in each story with generic whispy-voiced women singing, "Doooo deeee dooooo deeeee."  Commercials for insurance companies have deployed generic singer/songwriter tunes for their pitches for some time now.  The hollow intimacy of that kind of music is taken to new depths when the faux-reassurance of the soundtrack cheerily chimes in as one brother promises to another he will stop doing drugs moments after getting high on crystal meth.

The distance between people cuts deeper with a soundtrack forcing happiness into lives where there is none.

Then there's the titular dog, whose use in Solondz's film directly confronts the cowardice of audience members who can watch human misery but can't watch an animal be hurt.  In truth, there's only one scene in which the dachshund is hurt, and the repetition of that hurt pounds the point home that we can't care for each other so why should we care for this dog.  The point's made hilariously in a stab at cutesy internet videos with an over-the-top intermission sequence of the dachshund traveling across the country.  Finally, it's made in a grotesque but brutally funny point about the moral vacuum in art and our collective wish to shut out dealing with death in a healthy way.

With all these cynical thoughts of what might have been if we used our advancements to connect instead of distance ourselves Solondz hits a powerful note in the last story.  Nana confronts visions of herself, all played by the same girl, who tell her they represent what she could have been if she made different choices.  This is our life, we need to make of it what we can, and the reality is the little day-to-day decisions don't change the fundamental core of a person - they are the person.

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Wiener-Dog (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Todd Solondz.
Starring an ensemble cast led by Ellen Burstyn, Danny DeVito, Greta Gerwig, and Julie Delpy.

Posted by Andrew

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