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SXSW review: ‘The Dog’

Staff Writer
Austin 360

John Wojtowicz was charmingly foul. He lived his life proudly and openly in a way that might shock people now, never mind the fact that he was doing it more than 50 years ago. Using his own words, this clever documentary lets us observe the man who was once portrayed by Al Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon.”

In the mid-1960’s, he went from “warmonger to peacenik” after returning from the Vietnam war. While he was in the military, John had his first sexual experiences with men. Even though he came home and got married to a woman named Carmen in the fall of 1967, within a few short years he would start living as an openly gay man and he become heavily involved with a militant group known as the Gay Activists Alliance. John met Ernie in the summer of 1971. By the end of that year, they were joined together in a ceremony at a local bar by a gay priest with Ernie sporting a $1,000 wedding dress. For somebody who was seemingly not attempting to be a trailblazer, John pulled off what may have been the first public same-sex marriage in the country, whether it was legal or not.

It wasn’t long before their relationship turned sour, partially because John did not want Ernie to undergo the sex change operation that he so desperately desired. When Ernie started to identify as transsexual, John knew that the only way for his partner to truly be happy was if he somehow came up with the money for surgery. The resulting bank robbery and hostage situation that followed was, in the words of a witness, “a full-blown show.” In the film, John walks us through the streets of New York, retracing the steps of the heist and even meeting a man on the street who he had once held hostage inside a Chase Manhattan branch bank in August 1972.

Co-directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren worked on the project off and on for 10 years. They spent a solid four years of just getting to know John and filming him directly. At a certain point, as his health began to fail due to skin cancer, their footage became more sporadic. Afterwards, they still spent time interviewing his highly quotable mother for a year or more, even though she oddly appears with subtitled dialogue at all times when I had no trouble discerning her words at all. All of the other interviews in the film, including eyewitnesses, original hostages and news reporters, all happened after John’s death in 2006.

Hundreds of hours of footage was meticulously edited down into a sharply funny and vibrant 110 minutes that may simultaneously engage and enrage you. Berg noted in the Q&A after the film that part of John’s charm was that he had “zero filter” and “zero shame about who he was.” He looks directly into the camera and describes his notorious life story in a way that is unique and often romantic, even though there can be no denying that he had a very dark side to his personality.

In the eyes of Hollywood, the story of John Wojtowicz was simply limited to his botched bank robbery attempt. “The Dog” digs deeper to show us a complicated and volatile man who ultimately had a lot of heart and a libido to match. You can expect a theatrical release this August from Drafthouse Films.

“The Dog” screens again at 11:15 a.m. on Tuesday at the Alamo Ritz and at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Alamo Village.