A rare breed of di­rec­tor

Todd Solondz is back with an­other grimly orig­i­nal, un­flinch­ingly funny hu­man drama, this one cen­tred around a mutt who makes the rounds. ‘Lassie Come Home’ it’s not, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

Lis­ten care­fully to Todd Solondz’s Weiner Dog and you will hear the di­rec­tor make a good joke about his own au­di­ence. A film stu­dent, out­raged by a lec­turer’s neg­a­tive cri­tique of his script, de­fends the piece with the words: “But it’s trans­gres­sive.”

That word has been fol­low­ing Todd around since his sec­ond film, Wel­come to the Doll­house, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1995. The tricky de­ci­sion to make his bul­lied hero­ine, Dawn Weiner, dis­lik­able was seen as “trans­gres­sive”. That was noth­ing com­pared with the “trans­gres­sive” treat­ment of pae­dophilia in Hap­pi­ness or the “trans­gres­sive” use of racist lan­guage in Sto­ry­telling.

“Well, you are pick­ing up things there very well,” Solondz says in his tense Newark croak. “I don’t think I need to ex­plain any­thing more. You have got it right.”

The t-word will not be thrown quite so lib­er­ally at Weiner Dog. In­deed, the de­vice that links the four darkly comic sto­ries could scarcely be more adorable. The tit­u­lar dachs­hund is passed from lonely child to wan­der­ing young peo­ple to mid­dle-aged aca­demic to a bit­ter el­derly lady. There’s a lot here about mor­tal­ity. Solondz may have taken Robert Bres­son’s Au Hasard Balt­hazar (1966) as a model. But, hey, Weiner Dog is still a doggy film.

“Yes, I wanted to do a dog film,” he says. “That could go any­where from a movie like Benji to some­thing like this. I wasn’t in­ter­ested in the tri­als and tri­umphs of a dog, but the dog could serve as a con­ceit. I could cre­ate sev­eral sto­ries that could be re­fracted through the prism of this pet. But really, the movie is more about mor­tal­ity. It’s about the shad­ows on each of these lives.”

Dog­days

Let us talk about the chal­lenges of shoot­ing with a ca­nine ac­tor. You have a star to whom you can’t rea­son. Sud­denly, train­ers are part of the team.

“Oh, I can’t even be­gin to talk about the train­ers,” Solondz groans. “The quote-unquote train­ers? I sur­vived it, and over­all I am glad I did it. I would not have said that while mak­ing it. This is a breed that’s been bred in such a way as to keep them cute. But there is a price in other as­pects of their con­sti­tu­tion. The main one in this case is in­tel­li­gence. I had no idea this breed was so lack­ing in in­tel­li­gence.”

Solondz seems to have light­ened up a lit­tle over the years. Now 56, he is not quite so pinched and in­tro­spec­tive as he was when we first met more than a decade ago. He en­joys laugh­ing at him­self. He savours

Todd Solondz “Yes, I wanted to do a dog film. That could go any­where from a movie like Benji to some­thing like this” Some­thing has to be fresh to have a the­atri­cal life now. To get them off their couches, it has to be the right kind of con­tro­versy. The ways in which peo­ple talk on­line are mon­strous

the uni­verse’s ab­sur­dity. But the artis­tic sen­si­bil­ity is sim­i­lar to the one he re­vealed a few years after grad­u­at­ing from Yale Univer­sity: chilly, bleakly funny, border­line mis­an­thropic.

Raised in a mid­dle-class Jewish fam­ily, Solondz stud­ied English lit­er­a­ture, but soon re­alised that his ca­reer would lie elsewhere: “I guess I ini­tially thought it would be neat to be a pro­fes­sor be­cause I’d be sur­rounded by peo­ple who would be rea­son­able,” he laughs. “Ev­ery­thing is a life les­son. Right?”

Be­fore he got to col­lege, he worked on mu­si­cal projects and writ­ing plays. Watch­ing movies in the evening at Yale swung his psy­che in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.

“When I went to col­lege it was be­fore VHS even ex­isted,” he said. “We had screen­ings all the time. You could see the Marx Broth­ers fol­lowed by Maya Deren all in the same night. Be­cause I was so­cially shy when I started, those screen­ings be­came a sanc­tu­ary. I had fallen in love with the movies in my youth. But it was so dis­tant. There was no sense of pos­si­bil­ity. I didn’t know what a di­rec­tor was.”

The Marx Broth­ers and Maya Deren? Ab­sur­dist comics and a spooky ex­per­i­men­tal­ist? That doesn’t quite get the Todd Solondz sen­si­bil­ity, but he has al­ways com­bined com­edy with un­ease to orig­i­nal ef­fect. As for the lack of “pos­si­bil­ity”, Solondz ar­rived just as the in­de­pen­dent scene was open­ing up new thor­ough­fares.

In­die rev­o­lu­tion

His first film, a mu­si­cal called Fear, Anx­i­ety & De­pres­sion (that ti­tle a vir­tual man­i­festo for the Solondz project), van­ished with­out leav­ing any rip­ples in 1989. Made for $800,000, Wel­come to the Doll­house was swept along by the same in­die rev­o­lu­tion that brought us Quentin Tarantino, Har­vey We­in­stein, Todd Haynes and Sun­dance Fever.

One can only imag­ine the on­line furore that would greet Hap­pi­ness if it was re­leased to­day. Back in 1998, the in­ter­net was still back­ground noise that could be avoided. Solondz’s de­ci­sion to write a ma­jor – not wholly un­sym­pa­thetic – char­ac­ter as a preda­tory pae­dophile would now kick up a dig­i­tal hur­ri­cane.

“I don’t know. That may be true,” he says. “Some­thing has to be fresh to have a the­atri­cal life now. To get them off their couches, it has to be the right kind of con­tro­versy to elicit that. The ways in which peo­ple talk on­line are mon­strous. There is this sham­ing and cru­elty on the Twit­ter-sphere.

“That’s fine. You have to take the good with the bad. But I don’t think it would have in­hib­ited the re­lease of that film if it had hap­pened 20 years later. There were just as many haters then as there are now.

Solondz uses a word – “haters” – that didn’t really ex­ist in 1998. “Yeah. Hey look. I’m try­ing to stay hip and now. Ha ha!”

Ama­zon life­line

Like most of that gen­er­a­tion, Solondz now finds it tricky to fi­nance films with mid-level bud­gets. Films ei­ther cost $100 mil­lion or $3 mil­lion. But he is one of those less main­stream film­mak­ers (Jim Jar­musch, Woody Allen and Park Chan-wook are oth­ers) who have been taken un­der the wing of Ama­zon Stu­dios, which has com­mit­ted it­self to re­leas­ing its fea­tures into cin­e­mas be­fore they stream. This sounds like a life­line.

“When I go to the movies, I still go to the movie theatre,” he says. “I am at­tached to the ro­mance of the movie theatre. I think ac­cord­ingly and de­sign ac­cord­ingly. It is much more rare for young peo­ple to have that at­tach­ment. As far as Ama­zon goes, I am grate­ful there is still an en­tity that is in­ter­ested in movies.”

We need the likes of Todd Solondz. There is too much com­pla­cency and bland­ness in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture. We need his edge and his un­flinch­ing eye. I hope he’ll re­as­sure us that he’s go­ing nowhere.

“I al­ways like to set my­self up for fail­ure. I am lucky and grate­ful to have done what I’ve done. But I am hope­ful that I’ll do an­other. Al­ways hope­ful.”

Weiner Dog is re­leased next Friday

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