Directors: Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 8/8/14 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 14, 2014
The name John Wojtowicz may not ring many bells. Here's the high-point of the story of his life: In 1972, he robbed a bank in Brooklyn to pay for his partner's sex reassignment surgery. That, of course, will sound a lot more familiar, as Wojtowicz's story was the basis for Dog Day Afternoon. In that film, Al Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik, the character inspired by Wojtowicz, as a quiet and thoughtful man who is gifted with impressive improvisational skills. In the middle of fumbling through a bank robbery and hostage situation, Sonny puts on a show for the crowd and television cameras that have gathered around the bank, trying to get them on his side and to keep the police at bay.
Dog Day Afternoon and Pacino were wrong. That is not intended to take away from a great film or an equally strong performance. It is simply the truth. There is nothing quiet and very little that is thoughtful about the real Wojtowicz. The Dog opens with its subject proudly announcing, "I'm a pervert." There's no sense that he's playing to the camera, as Sonny does in the fictional account. Wojtowicz is simply being the person he is. He does not need to "put on" a show. Wojtowicz truly believes he is a show.
The documentary, directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, is the study of a man in love with his own legend. When he introduces himself to people, he does not simply proffer his name. He goes on to explain that he is "the basis for the character played by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon." When Wojtowicz was in prison, a few of his fellow inmates didn't believe Hollywood made a movie about him, so he extorted the warden to show that film to the general prison population with promises of going to the media and a massive riot. It worked.
The move surely couldn't have ingratiated himself with the warden, and Wojtowicz doesn't offer information about the other prisoners' reaction to seeing the film. He tells stories of being physically assaulted or raped on almost a daily basis during the five years he served in prison (on a 20-year sentence). The "wife"—as he likes to call all of the major romantic partners in his life regardless of their sex, whether or not they were officially married, or their fondness for the term—he met in prison corroborates this.
Both men argue that part of the reason for those attacks was that there was a movie made about him. Surely a prison-wide screening couldn't have helped matters, but that wasn't important. What was important, it seems, was that those doubters were proved wrong. No matter what the consequences may be, his legend stands.
As documented here through archival interviews and ones recorded by Berg and Keraudren until his death in 2006, Wojtowicz seems to want people to dislike him. It's more than that, though: He wants people to admire him for having the chutzpah to be dislikeable.
Beyond filling in the gaps before and after the central event in this man's life, what makes this prosaic collection of archival footage and interviews fascinating is Wojtowicz's honesty. This is a man with nothing to hide. The information most people might be embarrassed to share—details of one's sex life, a tendency toward narcissism and greed, and, obviously, one's criminal background—is the stuff that feeds Wojtowicz.
He was a rebel fighting against whatever they had. People explain how, while working with the Gay Activists Alliance, he latched on to the idea of same-sex marriage decades before it became a topic of national discussion. He was married to and had two children with a woman even when he married Ernest Aron in a ceremony held across the street from a police precinct. Here's something telling: Everyone who knew the couple refers to Ernest as "Elizabeth," which is the name she took after the sex-reassignment surgery; Wojtowicz always calls her "Ernest." Even though he paid for the operation (with the money he received for selling the rights to his story), he had protested it (A suicide attempt changed his mind). Wojtowicz calling her "Ernest" seems like a way of paying her back for daring to go against his wishes.
It's also, though, a sign that this is a man who wants—maybe even needs—to live in the past. After he was released from prison in 1978, he would return to the scene of his crime many times to take photos and sign autographs. He happily takes the filmmakers on a tour of the important locations in his life (always with an anecdote that he seems to have told many, many times before but is more than happy to tell again), and it's actually Wojtowicz—not the filmmakers—who suggests that they make a stop at the place where the bank used to be. He also takes control of how his story will be told by saying, "Cut," whenever he's finished talking. He's happy where it stands; no further questions are necessary.
There's a sad undercurrent of desperation to The Dog in Wojtowicz's telling of his story, too, and this is especially true after he reveals that he has been diagnosed with cancer. He doesn't want to escape his infamy, but for as often he as points it out, he wants to be more than "the basis for the character played by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon." It's a desire for his life to stand on its own terms. Well, here it is.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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