Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dubious fame, but without shame

Director Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon remains one of the great movies of the 1970s, a look at a Brooklyn bank robbery led by a character named Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino). In what proved one of the most unusual motives for felonious activity, the desperate Sonny claimed he needed money to pay for his lover's sex change operation. Dog Day Afternoon was based on a real Brooklyn man, and the documentary The Dog tells his story. During a summer afternoon in 1972, John Wojtowicz -- the real robber -- became a New York tabloid sensation by holding hostages in a bank, attracting massive TV coverage and introducing the world to his strange rationale for robbery. In telling Wojtowicz's story, directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren have found one of the strangest screen characters yet, a tough-talking Brooklyn street guy who was married to a woman and who also came to refer to two men as his wives -- and this was long before any gay marriage movement. Using news footage and interviews with Wojtowicz after his release from jail, the directors present a character who seems to operate entirely without shame -- either about his criminal act or about sexual desires he describes as rampant. A Vietnam veteran and a father, Wojtowicz tried to exchange hostages for cash and ultimately for safe passage out of the country. His partner in crime - one Sal Naturale -- ultimately was killed by police. Wojtowicz ended up in jail. The object of his affection -- Ernest Aron -- eventually became Liz Eden. The documentary allows Wojtowicz, who died of cancer after filming was completed, to define himself, which is to say that he seems to defy definition. Part romantic, part gay activist and part tough guy, Wojtowicz didn't seem to give a damn what anyone thought of him. Wojtowicz's unapologetic bravado and self-proclaimed indifference to social pressures turn The Dog into an intriguing footnote that seems to underscore a shopworn adage, the one about truth being stranger than fiction. In this case, it certainly is.

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