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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Dog Day’ documentary offers reprieve from dog days of summer

It’s a pretty lousy week for movies. Next week doesn’t look much better. Yes, we’re just hitting the lull that always occurs between the end of summer movie season and the beginning of Oscar season, when Hollywood uses late August and early September as a dumping ground for one bad movie after another. (Consider that the only major release of the week worth seeing is 30 years old.)

So it’s a good thing that we’ve got the Magic Lantern to provide us with some interesting, offbeat indie selections, and tonight it’s hosting a special screening of one of the year’s most entertaining documentaries. It’s called “The Dog,” and it’s a fascinating true crime story, a warts-and-all character study and look at the inspiration behind one of the best American films of the 1970s.

Here’s my review, which I recorded for Spokane Public Radio:

When Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” was released in 1975, it was an instant critical and commercial success, becoming the fourth highest-grossing film of that year and landing an Oscar nomination for Best Picture amongst perhaps the best batch of nominees in Academy Awards history. It’s an offbeat, darkly comic crime thriller that audiences gawked at in morbid fascination: The ad campaigns screamed, “It’s all true,” because how else would anyone have believed the story otherwise?

As “Dog Day Afternoon” garnered universal praise and awards consideration, John Wojtowicz, the inspiration for Al Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik character in the film, was serving a 20-year prison sentence in a Pennsylvania penitentiary. Three years earlier, he’d been all over the news for a failed bank robbery he had orchestrated with two accomplices in New York City, a crime that, had it been successful, would have supposedly funded a sex change operation for Wojtowicz’s male lover. It made for perfect tabloid fodder, lurid and violent and nearly impossible to fathom, but the personalities and motivations behind it turn out to be much more complex.

“The Dog,” a new documentary that steps back and allows Wojtowicz to tell his own story, begins as a quirky stranger-than-fiction crime story and slowly transforms into something more somber, a portrait of a strange man whose overblown mythology was entirely of his own creation. It’s a fascinating character study, one that directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren spent 11 years putting together, as well as a colorful look at post-Vietnam America as viewed from the fringe, when a haze of brutality and paranoia hung over everything and gay Americans struggled to find their place in society.

Wojtowicz, who passed away in 2006, is the kind of guy who the documentary form was created for. He’s intense, direct, overflowing with personality and unbelievably frank about his sexual history. Being anything other than straight in the ’70s was already a taboo, but Wojtowicz was vocal about his attraction to both men and women: He joined a number of gay advocacy groups and later (illegally) married a man named Ernie Aron (John wore his military uniform, Ernie a white wedding gown and a blonde wig), who would become Liz Eden following gender reassignment surgery.

As the film progresses, details of Wojtowicz’s home life come into sharper focus, and we sense that perhaps he lived a sadder existence than he lets on in his interviews. He ended up serving three of his 20 years, and once he was released he would stand outside the Chase Manhattan Bank he’d held up, wearing a shirt that read “I robbed this bank.” He later tells a story about applying for a job as a bank security guard, trying to convince the management that no one could better protect a bank than an honest-to-God bank robber. A TV news report from the time shows him signing autographs and taking pictures with his “fans,” while one of the bank tellers he held hostage looks on in disapproval.

It’s hard to tell if Wojtowicz’s tough guy persona was the product of delusion, posturing or insecurity; that he held up a bank and then ordered pizzas for his captors suggests that he was always operating on his own bizarre wavelength. “The Dog” is an entertaining documentary not just because of its subject matter, but because it simply gets out of Wojtowicz’s way and lets him talk, and his personal yarn grows stranger as it unravels. Wojtowicz attempts to direct the film he’s in – Berg and Karaudren leave in moments in which he yells “action” before he starts to talk and “cut” when he’s finished – just as he directed the events of his own life, and whether or not he’s a reliable source, he knows how to tell a deeply compelling story.

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