In Todd Solondz's new movie Wiener-Dog, Danny DeVito plays a college film professor who is confronted with the snarky, know-it-all attitude of a young gay student (Trey Gerrald). Their clash is hilarious but disastrous. The student is a distinctly-Solondz character reflecting the shallowest standards of modern culture by always trying to fit-in like the legendary Dawn Wiener (played by out actress Heather Mattarazzo in his debut film Welcome to the Dollhouse).
This teacher-pupil conflict is a lesson in egotism. Being young--part of Hollywood's target audience--makes the student feel superior. But what DeVito as Professor Schmerz knows about life, art, and especially filmmaking makes him the butt of jokes by the gay student and his snarky classmates. Schmerz critiques the student's screenplay submission but his friends love it--one quickly insists "It's transgressive!"
Here's where Wiener-Dog becomes the gay satire that heterosexual directors (Solondz is straight) wouldn't dare make and that many gay filmmakers are scared to. Wiener-Dog takes an honest look at the superficiality and naivete that is rampant in modern culture, sometimes including gay film culture. The student is unable to say which movies inspire his career choice, even when he's asked to "name just one." He shows the cluelessness self-involvement of the millennials for whom identity politics are more important than education, self-awareness or interpersonal curiosity.
Wiener-Dog doesn't condemn naive gay cineastes but sees their confusion as part of our national, culture-wide, tragically human imperfections. This bold insight proves Solondz to be as perceptive and sensitive to human frailty--to the cruelty and unfairness of the world--as are the best gay filmmakers who, given their usual outsider status, share Solondz' understanding. His sensibility is as fine and profound as that of the greatest gay artists--William Inge, Tennessee Williams, Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who are all evoked in Wiener-Dog.
Just as Dollhouse was an implicitly gay tearjerker, Solondz still dares to brazen past the insider status and new social protections that gay people have recently acquired. That ignorant college student is mocked for his share in society's general narcissism and mindlessness, not for being gay. This even-handed critique makes Solondz worthy of gay viewers' attention, just as Wiener-Dog's university scenes make it an ideal presentation of the moral and aesthetic values that Gay Film 101 ought to teach.
Wiener-Dog's sensitivity to the human condition can be felt as a defense of the gay condition. The insufficiencies of a gay upper class romance like Joey Kuhn's Those People stand to be corrected--and improved--by what Solondz demonstrates about social interaction. Wiener-Dog deals with realistic emotional complications that an over-hyped, upper-class gay film such as Todd Haynes' Carol get all wrong in its high-minded, film-school, pseudo sophistication. Those People and Carol are designed to make gays feel special--apart from and better than other people. For all their style and refined posturings, they don't confront complex realities of human relationships but settle for fashionable political correctness, or being trendily "transgressive."
One of Wiener-Dog's boldest lessons mocks the overrated indie film Boyhood (above). Solondz depicts a young kid, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a cancer survivor, who escapes the tyranny of insensitive parents by bonding with his pet dachshund; when alone they ransack the boy's living room, strewing the floor with pillow stuffing like the anarchic display of freedom during the boys' school pillow fight in Jean Vigo's classic Zero for Conduct. In a long-held overhead shot of Remi and Wiener-Dog lying motionless on the floor--exhausted--Solondz teases the possibility of their death. But look sharp, this image is a parody of Boyhood's famous poster.
Solondz's visual pun challenges that film, which was a real example of heterosexism with its celebration of straight-boy "normalcy" while, at the same time, showing benign neglect to gay youth experience. This is real cinematic savvy and cultural courage. Gay film students everywhere can learn from it. Wiener-Dog should be on the curriculum of every film class as part of Gay Film 101.