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How the Score to “Wiener-Dog” Blurs the Edges of Character Development

wiener dog header

By Deanna Radford

If you are reading this then I suspect my confession may also be yours: One of my pastimes is watching cute animals on YouTube. I spend more time doing this than I get to spend with animals in real life. Fortuitously, not only does Todd Solondz’s recent film Wiener-Dog feature nearly and hour and a half of cute dog screen time, but it also includes a ton of famous people interacting with the same cute dog (which I guess would’ve been novel if not for Lil BUB’s videos).

Wiener-Dog is a satiric comedy in four parts mainly about white folks. Needless to say, the film’s namesake is the through line. The pert Dachshund is many things: a caged object of affection, a euthanasia-rescuee, an involuntary dress-wearing suicide bomber, a senior citizen comfort companion named “Cancer,” and eventually (spoiler alert), a ten-thousand-dollar taxidermied robotic work of art. There’s a lot going on, and all it takes is one 90-second trailer to expose all the different colors of soundtrack music supporting all the action.

As in other Solondz pictures — Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse — Wiener-Dog features awkward folks and awkward moments. It’s populated with the kinds of misfits we’ve come to know and love (or love to hate). Despite the title, this film mostly concerns human-human, not human-dog relationships. We get dark character studies that are simultaneously tense, ridiculous, hilarious, bleak, and heartbreaking. The wiener-dog character serves as a tragicomic “wingman,” with the star being the human underdog. While their are moments of happiness for some characters, what the film does best is to show the weight of failure and failed circumstances. And the soundtrack comes alive, in part, because of this.

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The Effects Triggered by Sound and Music

Sound effects and music here are placed scrupulously, and are often used defiantly to create the sense of the characters feeling out of place. The film is illuminated with the banal sounds of the everyday. Often the sounds seem to intensify, escalated by the awkward situations on screen. The sound design stands in stark contrast to films with sweeping orchestral narratives accompany struggle, soul music used in moments of humor or montage, indie music with emotional pondering, or contemplative minimalism showing the passage of time.

Here, it is the aural-ordinary that serves to create tension and anticipation or longing.

A great example of this is in an encounter between Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig) and Brandon McCarthy (Kieran Culkin). After making off with the wiener-dog, who is about to be euthanized at the veterinarian clinic where she works, Dawn runs into her junior high crush and tormentor at the Food Mart where she’s shopping for dog food. They haven’t seen each other for years. (If these characters sound familiar, it’s because Solondz resurrected them from Welcome to the Dollhouse.)

As Dawn and Brandon’s awkward conversation barrels forward, Food Mart has no Top 40 radio station blaring overhead, as is often the case at convenience shops. Instead, we hear the deliberate sound of pushing buttons, the ka-ching of an electric cash register, the hum of cold drink freezers, and the overhead buzz of fluorescent lights, placed among an otherwise cold silence. These sounds punctuate the breaks between Dawn and Brandon’s words, saying, perhaps, what the characters don’t say. These sounds alone could be characters in the film.

In another instance, a highly independent elementary-school-aged Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), in the car with his mother going to the vet’s office to have the dog spayed, asks “What’s spayed mean?” Mother Dina (Julie Delpy) replies, “It just means that we don’t have to worry about the dog getting pregnant.” The car stereo is not playing. There’s no recorded music, no podcast, or talk show sounding. We hear the wiener-dog panting softly and cars passing on the highway. Dina goes on to tell a bigoted and explicit tall tale of how her childhood dog was sexually assaulted by another dog named “Mohammed” and thus became pregnant. There are split seconds during the scene where Dina looks as if even she can’t believe what she’s saying, but continues.

There’s no Muzak to invoke mockery or meta-mockery. Instead, the bare satire of the moment dissipates and we’re left with the sound of the car tires cruising down the highway, the feeling of emptiness inside the hearts of the characters has already rubbed off on us.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Lessons from Film Composer Michael Giacchino”

Non-definitive Theme Music

Wiener-Dog’s theme song is played as an intermission piece mid-way through the film (sorry there are no streaming versions yet!). The song is an antithesis to the more triumphant themes belonging to other wing-animals like Silver, from The Lone Ranger. Have a listen to Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” the Lone Ranger’s personal soundtrack.

It’s gallopy, confident, pushing ever onward towards the horizon. But the wiener-dog’s theme is twangy, lazy and features violin, bass, and vocals. The male singer croons about an endearing agent of sad change, in a pseudo-dramatic send-up which lies musically somewhere between the theme song to the 1950s dog-themed TV show Lassie (an orchestral piece with whistling) and the 1980s English-Canadian TV show The Littlest Hobo — a truck-driving country-rock tune with simulated whistling by Terry Bush.

Where many of these other wing-animal themes seem to put their subjects on a mighty pedestal, wiener-dog’s theme seems to argue her destiny isn’t anything worth singing about.

As the film is built around the micro-stories of several people and relationships, one by one, the main character within each story sequence gets his or her own leitmotif. These are the only moments in which music plays during the film, other than during the intermission. When a character’s theme plays, it’s usually when he or she is taking action, and the music is a variety pack. Remi gets a trite, pastoral sounding ditty with moments of glockenspiel (perhaps to indicate innocence). Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito) gets a smooth jazz song (perhaps to indicate the ephemeral fading of luxury and success). And on it goes.

But the musical buck pretty much stops there, which makes the score that much more powerful. These micro-themes don’t really define their characters, they issue a pre-judgment on them, as if to alert the viewer to proceed with caution before emotionally rooting for them.

Can’t Make Heads or Tails of It

Composer James Lavino crafted the character themes carefully, making each almost completely unrelated to the style of the others. Lavino has a broad-spanning compositional vocabulary, composing choral and concert music, in addition to his numerous documentary and feature-length film and television series scores.

On the official Wiener-Dog website you can download a variety of free animated GIFs with crafty lettering and the wiener-dog walking endlessly. There’s a wiener-dog in the city, in outer space, in the desert, and for a very particular type of fan, a wiener-dog walking off a cliff. Naturally, the GIFs are silent.

Wiener Dog on the beach

Todd Solondz leaves few stones unturned in Wiener-Dog: Judging by how the film works aurally and structurally, and by the freebies on its website, the film is about the characters and Western culture. And I suspect the movie is also a commentary on its audience (conceivably referencing the film Soylent Green: “Wiener-Dog is made out of people!”). Wiener-Dog is well done and creepy, though not quite as horrifyingly so as some of his other films. Much like Wiener-Dog’s dog-tagonist, the film’s misanthropy shows sadness, yet unlike the dog, it is biting.

Photo by Dallas Curow
Photo by Dallas Curow

Deanna Radford is a writer and poet. She has a long history of working in music related undertakings, some of which include: collective member of G7 Welcoming Committee Records; executive director of GroundSwell new music series; collaborating organizer, programmer and director of send + receive: a festival of sound; and co-founder of shibui_oto: [subtlety in sound] a sound art presentation collective. She has written for MUTEKmag, Musicworks magazine and many others. She lives in Montréal. 

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