Letters From the Editor

Method Dogs

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I watched Dog Day Afternoon last night for the first time and have to say I was very impressed; it falls within the late-70s camp of New York films that are well-made, well-written, and bizarrely forgotten by today’s serious directors and writers whose veer towards preciousness and hyperbole drives them away from resonance and thrill, or perhaps redresses medium talents in storytelling as vogue, new styles that can do without souls.

Dog Day Afternoon concerns the true story of John Wojtowicz (as done by Al Pacino in his best acting) who unsuccessfully robbed a bank in 1972 to finance his male lover’s sex change. Wojtowicz served seven years in jail for the heist, only to watch Pacino play his life onscreen and lose the Oscar for best acting to Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (a double loss, undoubtedly, for Wojtowicz).

The movie was based on a profile of the crime published in Life; that article can be read here and tells an amazing story, though without the subtly and sympathy of the film.

They are all part of an American street scene now-the FBI agents, the curious mob, friends and relatives of hostages and bank robbers-all crowding together on the Flatbush sidewalk in the early summer evening, booing, cheering, giving the neighboring pizza joint one of the best nights it’s ever had. Into this scene comes [Wojtowicz’s love] Ernest Aron, dressed in a wrinkled hospital robe, thin and haggard. In exchange for his delivery, Wojtowicz release’s the first hostage. Calvin Jones, the guard, saunters out of the bank, flashing a peace sign and wearing a weak smile. From police headquarters in a nearby barbershop, Ernest Aron calls Wojtowicz. In the bank, Shirley Ball overhears part of their anguished conversation.
The conversation here described was shown in the movie, though not scripted: Pacino improvised the conversation, as director Sidney Lumet describes: ‘He opened up a pit about that human being, a place where that man was, that was so devastating. It was so profoundly moving that anyone could even be in that state and still be alive. It just became a very important moment to me.’ If you’ve seen the movie, you know what he’s talking about: it is devastating.

Later, after the movie was forgotten, things got weirder: French artist Pierre Huyghe decided his obsession with the movie was worth making into a project. He re-built the movie’s set of the bank and invited Wojtowicz, now out of jail and back in Brooklyn, to act as himself in a re-make of the crime that would stick to Wojtowicz’s account, slightly different from how the film told it.

So get this, Wojtowicz played himself in a re-make of Pacino playing Wojtowicz which was an interpretation of an article that was biased against Wojtowicz from the start; very weird. Or as Huyghe describes,

So the interesting part is how you represent this story, how he came to find himself represented in the press, television, then in a fiction film. I decided to ask him to explain how it happened, but what is interesting today is that, of course, his memory is affected by the fiction itself.
Ultimately, you have to wonder who played it better: the real criminal or the real actor, both trying to find a ledge of truth to stand on while the media blabbered on.

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biopic

Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. He is the author of three books, including his latest novel The Last Kid Left (NPR’s Best Books of the Year). His nonfiction appears in a variety of magazines, mostly GQ. More information can be found at rosecransbaldwin.com. More by Rosecrans Baldwin

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