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SXSW Film Review: ‘The Dog’

The subject of 'Dog Day Afternoon' makes a surprisingly charismatic tour guide through the early gay-rights movement.

With:

John S. Wojtowicz, Liz Eden, Carmen Bifulco, Theresa Wojtowicz, Jeremiah Newton, Richard C. Wandel, Randy Wicker, Stan Thaler, Bob Kappstatter, Tony Wojtowicz, George Heath, Eugene Lowenkopf.

How often Hollywood embellishes. How rare, then, to find a documentary like “The Dog,” in which we discover that, if anything, Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” left out much of the incredible story behind its 1972 hostage crisis, in which misguided romantic John Wojtowicz robbed a bank to finance his lover’s sex-change operation. Here, opening up to filmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren over the course of several years, the irrepressible stick-up man shares his side, serving as the unlikeliest of tour guides through the early gay-rights movement in the process. This lively Drafthouse Films pickup should have a small but wild ride in theaters and VOD.

Personified by Al Pacino in the 1975 film, Wojtowicz was never what one might consider leading-man material. A short, self-described “pervert,” the Brooklyn lothario compensated with charisma for what he lacked in looks (and teeth). While married to his first wife, Wojtowicz sought sex in the bars and parks of Gotham’s West Village, which the still-randy ex-con tours for the cameras here, carrying himself like the neighborhood’s unofficial mayor.

The helmers are careful to show Wojtowicz at his blustery, ebullient best (despite hints of severe mood imbalances), dynamically intercutting his semi-embellished stories with B-roll of the early-’70s gay scene, vintage interviews and a series of historical events, including the widely televised Brooklyn bank robbery. Berg and Keraudren began filming Wojtowicz in 2002, devoting long hours to chronicling their subject until his death in 2006, after which the project took another seven years to complete.

Their approach is far more intimate and personal than that of previous sensation-seekers, whose interest in Wojtowicz and his case centered largely around his transgendered love interest, Ernest Aron, aka Liz Eden, who died of AIDS 15 years before this docu began filming. Via archival footage, the pic downplays the freakshow factor evident in other coverage while fully embracing the catty, unconventional terms of the couple’s relationship.

More incredible than the heist itself is the fact that Wojtowicz had participated in protests at the New York City Marriage License Bureau; that he and Eden were hitched in an early gay wedding ceremony; and that their status did little to curb either of their extracurricular sexual activities: She continued turning tricks for cash, while “the Dog” still wanted to screw everyone he met.

Naturally, the most compelling aspects are the lead-up to and retelling of the heist by Wojtowicz himself (already the subject of two other docs, “The Third Memory” and “Based on a True Story”), in which some surprising new details come to light. For example, Wojtowicz claims New York mayor John Lindsay called him during the robbery and threatened to kill all the hostages, which, if true, presents a very different picture from the historical record, where the incident is credited with inspiring the city’s hostage negotiations team. Another fun fact: Just before entering the bank, the entire team went to see “The Godfather,” starring Al Pacino.

The robbery may have been the directors’ initial reason for contacting Wojtowicz, but they clearly developed a deeper fascination with him, which results in a more intimate character study. Beneath the colorful facade, they reveal “the Dog’s” strange co-dependent relationship with his mother (a nosy old woman who describes following him down to the Village gay bars one evening), tag along for a visit with his developmentally disabled brother and interview his jailhouse husband, George Heath, who became his next obsession.

What emerges is a spunky yet surprisingly sad portrait of a sexually liberated man held captive by his past, forever chasing and trying to rewrite his own legend — to the extent that Wojtowicz, who sued Warner Bros. for his share of a movie he considered largely inaccurate, actually returned to the scene of the crime wearing a T-shirt that read “I Robbed This Bank,” selling autographs and telling his story any who would listen. Such a pathetic character normally wouldn’t warrant one film; the fact that “the Dog” spawned four proves there’s more to Wojtowicz than his crime.

SXSW Film Review: 'The Dog'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 11, 2013. (Also in SXSW Film Festival — Festival Favorites.) Running time: 101 MIN.

Production:

A Drafthouse Films release of an Unleashed Films presentation. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced, directed by Allison Berg, Frank Keraudren.

Crew:

Camera (color/B&W, HD/16mm/video), Amanda Micheli, Nim-Rod Bachar, Peter Ginsburg, Axel Baumann, Wolfgang Held; editor, Kaeraudren; sound, Andrew Freiband, Brad Bergbom; sound editor, Lora Hirschberg; re-recording mixer, Brandon Proctor; graphics and animation, Wyeth Hansen, Ryan Dunn.

With:

John S. Wojtowicz, Liz Eden, Carmen Bifulco, Theresa Wojtowicz, Jeremiah Newton, Richard C. Wandel, Randy Wicker, Stan Thaler, Bob Kappstatter, Tony Wojtowicz, George Heath, Eugene Lowenkopf.

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