Sunday, August 1, 2010

Dog Day Afternoon at Freebird this Friday

Books Through Bars screens Dog Day Afternoon in Freebird's backyard this Friday
123 Columbia Street
August 6, sunset

As part of their "Summer in the City" series, Books Through Bars shows another classic film that epitomizes New York at its hottest, weirdest, and most anarchic.

Dog Day Afternoon's mix of comedy and tragedy would take its cues from a Life magazine article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore, based on a real life bank robbery at a Chase branch in Gravesend, Brooklyn, on August 22, 1972.

Al Pacino's character, Sonny, was inspired by John Wojtowicz, a Vietnam vet who was openly gay and in love with a transsexual whose sex change operation he desperately wanted to help fund. As the robbery escalated into hostage negotiation, Wojtowicz dodged in and out of the bank to speak with police while his partner Sal Naturile kept his gun on the employees. Wojtowicz soon revealed his motivation for the heist and demanded to speak with his wife, Ernest Aron, whom he had married months earlier in what Kluge and Moore dismissed as a Greenwich Village "drag wedding." TV crews and newspaper photographers reveled in the spectacle of Aron dressed in a hospital gown (he had been recovering from a drug overdose) being escorted to the scene by police.

Kluge and Moore, who prophetically compared Wojtowicz's "broken-faced good looks" to Pacino's, chronicled the siege as a sort of whimsical interlude in the lives of the bank's employees who never felt particularly threatened by John's "antics," his outbursts in a thick Brooklyn accent, or his odd sense of propriety (he insisted on paying for the pizzas that were delivered to the hostages). Even Barrett, the bank manager, scoffed at an easy escape while being examined outside by a doctor. He would insist on returning to his employees and the strange "camaraderie" created by Wojtowicz and Naturile.

On October 3, 1975, Wojtowicz was allowed to preview Dog Day Afternoon from his prison while sitting out a 20-year term. Though he found it "a very moving experience...[That] contains everything from laughter, tears, love, hate, devotion, religion, to hope, drama, and thrills," he felt it was "only 30% true." In an essay he sent to the New York Times in the hopes they would publish as a review, Wojtowicz bemoans the way his relationships with key people (his mother, his ex-wife, Naturile) were dramatized on-screen. He mixes exuberant praise with flat out anger--swinging wildly between labeling the picture "garbage" and demanding the Academy to acknowledge Al Pacino and Chris Sarandon at awards time. He saw no contradiction in calling Sidney Lumet's direction "fantastic," but the movie exploitative.

Needless to say, the New York Times passed up the opportunity to run the piece, its humorless Arts & Leisure editor issuing his verdict like a sentencing judge: "I just don't believe you have profoundly come to grips with the motives for your crime, and the complex relationship between art and reality."

In the end, however, Wojtowicz would have the last laugh. Despite his issues with the film and its producers, 70% falseness was trumped by 1% net of the box office. With the money he earned, Ernest Aron would finally get to become Elizabeth Eden.

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