Todd Solondz’s latest film is one of his most moving and acute studies of the role played by kitsch in American culture. It unfolds as a series of vignettes, or short films, all of which turn on an unbearably cute wiener-dog, called Wiener-Dog. In the first of these, Wiener-Dog is adopted by a couple, Danny (Tracy Letts) and Dina (Julie Delpy), as a companion for their son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke). During the opening scenes, Solondz opts for quiet, long, still shots, devoid of any musical accompaniment, and mainly set to ambient noise, such as cars in the distance and birds outside, that only make his spaces feel more sequestered and muted from the everyday world. Within that impoverished hush, Wiener-Dog is the only source of movement, continually moving himself, but also generating different movements from Danny, Dina and Remi. The first traces of music in the film are also stimulated by Wiener-Dog, who is so cute that Remi makes up a flute piece for him. These patterns continue as the film proceeds, until Wiener-Dog becomes inextricable from the tonality and rhythm of the film – the only thing letting it emerge from this shapeless opening ambience.
Throughout the first part of the film, Solondz draws deeply upon his career-long fascination with kitsch surfaces, and the way in which they subsume and repress the violence of American suburbia. As the opening scenes move between Remi and Wiener-Dog, their interactions take on an intensified cuteness and credulity that fuses them into a single kitsch surface. The fact that Remi has survived cancer, and that Wiener-Dog is his prize for surviving cancer, just makes their kitsch regard feel even more suffocating and overwhelming. As a result, this kitsch quickly grows so pronounced that it ends up testifying to everything that kitsch is designed to suppress and sterilize, making for a series of interactions that pair kitsch and morbidity in the manner that Solondz has made his own. In one scene, Remi reserves his most credulous and po-faced manner for a series of grotesque questions about sterilization itself, along with the cremation of animals after death. In another scene his parents reminisce about their previous dog, a stray named Mo. While Mo was as cute as Wiener-Dog, he also had a venereal disease “like AIDS” and an unfortunate habit of assaulting whatever cute animals came into his purview, from puppies to squirrels.
This juxtaposition of kitsch and abjection suggests that the function of kitsch, in American culture, is to subsume or submerge those parts of social life that can’t be properly or directly articulated, especially those relating to how death is understood and processed in a late capitalist environment. The pinnacle of this first part of the film comes with the first introduction of non-diegetic music, as a classical score contours a scene in which Remi and Wiener-Dog have a massive pillow fight, shot in slow-motion. For a moment, when Danny and Dina return home, it looks as if Remi has died, since he’s lying so still amongst the pillows that it’s impossible to believe he was fighting with them just a moment before. Eventually, he does get up, and the morbidity of this kitsch display is transferred back to Wiener-Dog, who has left the house, but left a trail of bloody diarrhea behind, which the camera traces via a lyrical, languorous pan that leads us on to the next part of the narrative.
This part of the film revolves around Dawn Wiener, a woman in her late twenties, played by Greta Gerwig. Like Remi, Dawn immediately connects with Wiener-Dog, although in her case it’s because he fulfils all her desires for a family and for children. Not only does she treat him as a baby, nursing him, singing him lullabies, and feeding him with a bottle, but she gives him a name – “Doody” – since her own nickname during high school was also “Wiener-Dog.” Both cute and scatological the name “Doody” (“you mean, like shit?”) only sticks for this part of the narrative, which follows Dawn as she joins her ex-boyfriend, Brandon, played by Kieran Culkin, on a road trip to visit his brother. To call this a road trip is perhaps an overstatement, however, since it’s clear that Brandon has no interest in Dawn, and only allows her to come along because he has taken a shine to Wiener-Dog. Moreover, Dawn has no idea where Brandon is going, although that doesn’t stop her from leaving everything behind at a moment’s notice, noting to him cursorily that “I miss nothing here.”
Most dramatically, however, this road trip has no real sense of beginning or ending. We never find out where Dawn comes from, or where she and Brandon end up. In fact, there is no sense of progression at all, just an endless array of Middle American suburbia, all of which is shot with the same muted, pristine quietness as the film’s opening scenes. During the road trip, Wiener-Dog not only becomes a surrogate child for Dawn, but brokers a surrogate marital relationship between her and Brandon, as they find themselves turning into a temporary family unit whenever the dog is cutest or most kitsch. In this way, Solondz suggests that kitsch is necessary for coupledom, parenthood and family to operate, and that the nuclear family unit is itself a form of kitsch, a way of papering over the abjection and violence that makes these endless suburban vistas bleed into each other. More eerily, perhaps, kitsch is also what provides a sense of place, or a sense of home, a way of coping with the voracity and insatiability with which Solondz’s muted backdrops contain any semblance of difference or individuality. Suggesting that American culture is undersignified without kitsch is tantamount to breaking the fantasy of kitsch, as Solondz alternates between scenes that need kitsch to function, and scenes with too much kitsch to function.
That produces an inchoate sense of sadness, expressed in Wiener-Dog’s theme song, which consists of Gerwig simply singing “Doody-do” over and over again. At times, this sadness reminded me of Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls. In Bujalski’s vision, America feels undersignified without cinema as its main medium, but this very realisation means that Bujalski’s characters feel poised between scenes in which there is too few cinematic cues, and scenes where there are too many. Since Solondz sees kitsch as the defining feature of American cinema, the effect is much the same here, as we move from scenes that feel illegible without cinematic kitsch, to scenes that feel suffocated by cinematic kitsch. The sadness that ensues is therefore both the most remote feeling from kitsch in the film and the feeling most indebted to kitsch, producing reflections that are too sincere to be parodic, but too kitsch to feel sincere: “America is so lonely and sad and depressing, like an elephant drowning.” Pathos itself, the motor engine of Hollywood, is inextricable from kitsch in Solondz’s vision, epitomised by a scene in which Dawn and Wiener look out the window to see a group of Mexicans standing by the road in traditional gear. Perfectly poised, they’re inseparable from kitsch sympathy, and the white gaze that defines pathos in Hollywood film, and lose all of their emotional appeal when they actually get into the car to hitchhike.
This road trip culminates with the most provocative part of the film, which occurs once Dawn and Brandon reach their destination – the home of Brandon’s brother, Tommy, played by Connor Long, and his wife April, played by Bridget Brown. Both Tommy and April have Down Syndrome, as do Long and Brown, and they both connect with Wiener-Dog immediately. On its own terms, this is the most dignified and interesting performance that I have seen from a pair of actors with Down Syndrome, tallying with the work that Long has done with raising awareness around the condition. What makes it provocative, perhaps, is that Solondz doesn’t make any particular kitsch provisions for these characters, instead subsuming them into the broader kitsch ambience of the film. While Hollywood cinema depends upon kitsch, it conceals that dependence, Solondz suggests, by ascribing explicit kitsch to certain key demographics, especially those with different intellectual needs. By refusing to highlight Down Syndrome as a kitsch object, but also including it in the broader kitsch address of his film, Solondz effectively suggests that Sean Penn’s performance in Mystic River, or even his career as a director, is every bit as kitsch as his role in I Am Sam, denying one of the most privileged kitsch tropes in Hollywood as a source of kitsch pleasure.
This produces the one and only happy moment in the film, as Tommy and April hold hands, and Dawn decides to leave Wiener-Dog with them. The film now enters an intermission, in which Wiener-Dog walks in front of one back-projection after another, from the White House to a baseball game, all the while accompanied by a gunslinger ballad. This comic sequence reiterates that American cinema is unthinkable without kitsch, but also that American cinema has lost kitsch, placing Solondz in the tortured position of mourning or missing something that was oppressive and overwhelming to begin with. This leads on to the second half, which mainly focuses on one sustained narrative, revolving around the role of the film academy, and indie filmmakers, in this broader kitsch matrix. The main player here is Dave Schmerz, played by Danny DeVito, a screenwriting professor at a New York university who is trying to option his screenplay Celebrity Schmelebrity. Schmerz is now the owner of Wiener-Dog, and takes him with him to work each day. In part, that’s because Wiener-Dog humanises his office, but it’s also because Wiener-Dog provides him with some solace on his long commute, as it did for Dawn and Brandon on their drive across America.
For the most part, this second half doesn’t depend so much on Wiener-Dog moving around from owner to owner. Instead, the focus is more on his implications as a lost object of kitsch consensus in American cinema. As the character most aligned with Wiener-Dog, Schmerz also reflects an older kind of cinematic attachment. This is particularly clear when he interviews a prospective filmmaker, but discovers that he can’t name a single film that has inspired him, or even a film that’s he seen over the last six months. Closer to home, one of Schmerz’s students consults him about how to integrate Eve Kosofsky’s Epistemology of the Closet into his upcoming piece about his own queer identity, prompting Schmerz to recommend that he forget about critical theory, and instead focus on story above all. The waning of kitsch and the waning of narrative are here dovetailed into the same situation, while the only resource that Schmerz has to arm himself against this situation, and continue his older cinephilia days, is shtick. In fact, his own screenplay, Celebrity Schmelebrity, is nothing more than shtick, while his millennial students pinpoint him, contemptuously, as exactly the kind of academic “likely to own the box set of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Between these different claims to cinema, a complex and scabrous critique of both Hollywood and indie aesthetics emerges. On the one hand, Solondz realises that traditional cinephilia always depended upon kitsch, and has been reduced to so much shtick. On the other hand, he’s prescient that indie cinema is often a negative gesture, merely removing kitsch and shtick without offering all that much in its place, let alone considering what kitsch and shtick meant in the first place. In lieu of both those options, Solondz positions the film in a haunting and tensile space that longs for kitsch even as it is suffocated by kitsch when it inevitably does occur. Again, this reminded me of Support the Girls, which longs for cinema as a point of cultural consensus even as it is woke enough to recognise that this consensus was always artificial and exclusive to begin with. The paradox of kitsch, Solondz seems to suggest, is that it precludes sadness, since in both its presence and absence it co-opts sadness into its own saccharine agenda, turning the morbidity and pathos of the kinds of indie cinema that the film focuses on into a kind of false consciousness, or bad faith gesture.
In the end, Wiener-Dog not only captures the inextricability of kitsch from Hollywood, but the inextricability of pathos from both. In lieu of all three options, we’re left with a remarkably affecting echo of sadness, or second-degree sadness, which gradually sees the muted and airbrushed palettes of the opening scenes, and their suffocating sense of stasis, return to Solondz’s tableaux. In his last movement, Wiener-Dog launches himself into this stasis, running out onto the highway, and into the midst of the omniscient drone of passing cars, the synecdoche ne plus for this looming post-cinematic ambience in current American cinema. Predictably, he’s hit, and dies, only for a conceptual artist to reanimate, roboticise and display his body as a “living sculpture” in a downtown New York art exhibition. In a logical conclusion of indie cinema – or the indie cinema that Solondz decries – kitsch is now repurposed as an avant-garde gesture, restored as a cinematic lost object, but at the expense of any real reflection on what that restoration entails, or why kitsch was lost to begin with. That reflection remains with the film, which combines Solondz’s trademark melancholy and bitterness for one of the most affecting works in his entire career, brimming with a sadness it can never feel explicitly, or permit its audience to experience completely.