Culture

A State-of-the-World Movie

Wiener-Dog (IFC Films)
Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog answers back to nihilism; Penny Lane gets empathetic.

Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog is not only a state-of-the-art movie, it’s a state-of-the-world movie. This means that although the film cracks open hilarious, jaw-dropping perplexities in modern American life, it also recognizes everyday tragedies. The eponymous dachshund, who travels through people’s lives in four discrete, linear segments (Remi, Dawn, Schmerz, Nana), is more than a symbolic hapless figure but a living being in its own right and subject to the laws of the universe as much as any human character.

When a dad (Tracy Letts) gives the dog to his son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who is recuperating from cancer, the father explains: “You have to break [a dog’s] will so it’ll conform to your will, so it acts like a human.” The pragmatic advice shows a worldview that Solondz wittily and touchingly critiques. It is Remi’s response — “What is will?” — that reveals Solondz’s inquiry.

Of all the American Eccentric directors, Solondz is the most eccentric — and the most solid. In such films as Happiness, Storytelling, Palindromes, Life During Wartime, and Dark Horse, he has developed the least commercial and most unflinching perspective on contemporary life. He shows a sturdy perception of both the comic and the tragic, lately doing so without lapsing into the smugness, cruelty, or sentimentality that was so confounding in his debut film, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995).

It is through Solondz’s interest in will that even his most off-putting characters win one’s compassionate regard. Remi’s stony father specifies: “Character, force of character, the thing that makes you you.” While the personalities in Solondz’s films can try anyone’s patience, they remain captivating despite behavior that is difficult to approve, much less meet with easy empathy. This oddity is embodied by Dawn Wiener, the schoolgirl protagonist of Welcome to the Dollhouse, who reappears in other Solondz films. Dawn (blandly portrayed here by indie darling Greta Gerwig) is the most challenging figure in modern American movies, precisely because she is such an unlikable sad sack. Her intractability tests our culture’s humane capacity. (Critics initially applauded Solondz for making Dawn a teenage doormat — Welcome to the Dollhouse was the favorite Solondz film of grade-school bullies who became wimpy, bullying film critics.)

Now, in Nuts!, Lane gets even more eccentric, using archival footage plus lots of animation and vocal dramatizations to present the true-life case of John Romulus Brinkley. She examines the legend of the charismatic early-20th-century quack who, by claiming to cure male infertility through implanting goat testicles, became a millionaire and a grassroots politician.

Caught up in the fun of telling this tall tale, Lane never matches the fine, humbling truth of Our Nixon. Unlike Edmon Roch’s fantastic political history Garbo: The Spy, Lane’s wild narrative flirts with Michael Moore–style deceit and contempt. Yet Lane’s essential humanity comes through. Her sympathy for both the wonder and the tragedy of Brinkley’s story derives from a basically decent instinct that, among current non-fiction filmmakers, is eccentric indeed.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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