July 6, 2016
5 mins read

Pedophilia, incest and rape. Let’s get those out of the way. Sadly, a cursory online search of the films of Todd Solondz invariably pulls up those descriptors. And even though, for the past 20-plus years, Solondz has been an undeniable master at addressing these and other taboos, usually in the American suburbs, he has been unjustly pigeonholed as a controversial filmmaker. Yet Solondz’s films are merely unafraid to acknowledge the darker realities off life, as well as the lighter, even kindhearted, facets of the human experience.

In the ’90s, Solondz released Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and Happiness (1998), two films that took a both sardonic and compassionate look at coming-of-age, families, and the sometimes darker undercurrents of American life. Subsequent films like 2001’s Storytelling,Palindromes (2004) and Life During Wartime (2009), with a blend comedy and drama, at times created with innovative structural concepts that challenged the viewer’s proverbial and literal view of cinema, and put the New Jersey-bred Solondz in tandem with literary fiction mavericks like William H. Gass or John Barth, as much as any fellow indie filmmakers.

Solondz’s new film, Wiener-Dog, takes the template of the “dog movie” and interlaces it with four stories, the protagonists tethered together by their respective ownership of the same dachshund. Like his previous work, Solondz’s Wiener-Dog is a successful marriage of sadness and humor, where the characters experience insight, sorrow, and even release.

Solondz returns to Sun-Ray Cinema on July 8 to screen Wiener-Dog and participate in a Q&A after the film.

Folio Weekly Magazine and Solondz discussed dealing with dogs, his views on media, and his gratitude for his work being shown on the big screen.

Folio Weekly Magazine: Dachshunds are usually considered to be a cute, adorable breed of dog. I mean, you never see them chained up and snarling in hip-hop videos. Why did you use that breed? Do you simply like dachshunds or was it somehow to disarm the audience and bring them into the story?
Todd Solondz: Well, it is a very cute and very charming emblem of the “cute dog” and of course it was an opportunity to offer Dawn Wiener (protagonist of Welcome to the Dollhouse) to reappear. I killed her off in Palindromes and I wanted to offer her a sunnier, happier sort of story and alternate reality. And I felt it would resonate most effectively with this kind of dog. Although I learned that they’re very difficult because they’re apparently so mentally deficient.

Really? Is that right? I didn’t know that.
Yeah, I mean it’s part of the business of dog breeding for the marketplace, you know, to sort of retain its cute appearance. All of the inbreeding has resulted in a loss of intellect.

How many dogs did you use, like, dozens of dachshunds to get one shot? [Laughs.]
No, we used three or four and they were all stupid. They didn’t respond to any commands, ever. And they were show dogs so it just couldn’t get any better in sense of quality than that. There are several breeds that are bred for the marketplace in this way, in that you damage the constitution of the animal.

I first saw Welcome to the Dollhouse when it was released in video in the early ’90s and I immediately liked your style of humor. And Wiener-Dog has many moments I think are really hilarious. But your style leans so much toward a kind of deadpan, dark comedy. Do you think some audiences are so perplexed that your work might be baffling for larger, “pop” audiences?
Well, I’m just grateful to have any audience. My films are expressive of a sensibility in which comedy and pathos are intertwined and cruelty and tenderness are wed, and experienced in some kind of simultaneousness. But look, even when I did Welcome to the Dollhouse, there hasn’t been that much difference in the response where audiences would say how funny it is. And others will say, “Why are they laughing? This is so sorrowful and sad and horrible.” But it’s always been both concurrently.

On this idea of concurrent emotions or feelings, in Wiener-Dog, I wouldn’t say the people are necessarily happy. To me, they seem unfilled. But they seem somehow both affected by his arrival yet, with maybe the later characters, they also seem so self-absorbed that maybe the dog’s arrival might not affect them either way.
I don’t know if I can see them so self-absorbed in that way but of course I can’t really account for or control the ways that others see the movie. There are four protagonists, and the first one is a little boy who experiences a new understanding of the nature of mortality through this dog. And I don’t see things quite so bleak as that. And with Dawn, I don’t feel like I’ve had a sunnier ending than for what I provided for her. Letting go of the dog allows her to have this kind of romance. I do think things are tougher for the latter two protagonists. But I certainly don’t see it as a uniform, kind of blanket experience, as far as how the dog is in, or affects, their lives.

So do you think the dog is an agent of change who shows up in their lives? I don’t know if the right word would be a “device.”
Oh, he is a device. It’s a “dog movie” and it’s about a dog but not really about a dog. You know, when an owner has a pet, we’re all anthropocentric and it’s hard to not anthropomorphize. It’s hard to see a dog in its “dog-ness.” We tend to fill them like vessels with our own hopes and so forth. And we project a kind of innocence or purity on them, so if harm befalls a little dog, it’s more keenly felt.

I’m sure you’re used to this by now — but there seems to be a big disconnect between reading about your films and actually seeing them, to the extent where you’ll be categorized as, like, a “dark comedy auteur” followed by a list of controversial topics you’ve addressed. Yet your films have a great deal of tenderness and poignancy in them, too. Do you feel like these sweeping descriptions have somehow negatively compartmentalized your work?
Well, it’s out of my control how people respond to my material. And obviously I’ve dealt with subjects that are often sensationalized in the media. And it’s always going to be a limited audience. I know that. But I’m grateful for having been able to make these movies. They’re important for me and I hope that they’ll speak to others as well. So I don’t have any regrets about that, but as far as what people say, one way or another, that remains out of my control.

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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