Saturday, August 2, 2014

Expanding, exploding the documentary genre: Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren's THE DOG

Exactly how wide and deep can a documentary delve? Consult THE DOG-- the new film by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren  --for what is likely to be, perhaps for a long time to come, the answer. The film's subject is John Wojtowicz, the fellow behind the bank robbery immortalized by the hit movie Dog Day Afternoon (in which Al Pacino played Wojtowicz). As great a film as is Dog Day, this one proves a bit better in terms of its ability to capture humanity in an encompassing, ever-expanding manner that will keep you on the edge of your seat, even as it has you laughing -- and then crying -- at what it means to experience and understand a hugely flawed human being.

Ms Berg and Mr. Keraudren, shown above, spent a decade putting this movie together. It shows -- and pays off in spades. Featuring some of the best archival footage (personal, historic, political, the works!) I've ever seen in any documentary, which Keraudren has edited supremely well, the movie manages to cover what seems like almost all of Wojtowicz's life -- in bits and pieces, yes, but in a way that allows us to see this man from so many different angles and viewpoints that if this is not, finally, the "real deal," I can't think what else might be.

The movie begins with a TV interviewer Jeanne Parr explaining that she has the "real" version of events that led to Dog Day Afternoon. Immediately after which Wojtowicz (above) informs us, "That was the abbreviated version." Later he tells us, "Anybody can be straight, but it takes somebody special to be gay." Soon we're thinking, "What a sweet, funny, very human guy this is!" Yeah? Just wait.

Not that John lies, exactly, but it eventually becomes clear that he's a real attention hog. "There's only one star, and that's me!" On the other hand, how many men would cheerfully admit to having a small dick. "That's where I got my nickname: Little John." Still, he was hardly "the troll that loved me," as one of his wives mentions, and as the mugshots above firmly disprove.

We hear from everyone including Wojtowicz's mother (above, right) and mentally disabled brother to various wives and friends and even the NY Daily News reporter who first broke the bank robbery story. And we see John in every phase from diapers to young lover, political activist, bank robber and finally end-of-days wheelchair-bound.

The filmmakers have done an expert job of getting their interviewees to speak frankly and directly, no matter how silly they might sound: "I told him," notes the sex-change wife, "Don't bring me real roses because they all die, and that means our love is going to die!"

The robbery itself seems almost as exciting here as Sidney Lumet made it in his fictionalized film: crazy, anarchic and oddly fun. And considering just how far the gay rights movement has come over the ensuing decades, this story and its characters take on near-mythic proportions, with Wojtowicz becoming a kind of bisexual icon who lives for his libido and goes well beyond the usual symbol of gay rights (or wrongs).

Eventually, though, this film is all about love and family and what these might actually mean -- from perspectives that we've previously barely come close to.

In showing us everything from the John whom one newspaperman calls a loser ("Give us a break: He robbed a bank. He was a criminal"), to the man whose time is prison was rife with threat but which led to a new love relationship, to the fellow standing in front of the bank he once robbed and signing autographs for money, to the guy who cares for his younger autistic sibling and loves his mom something fierce, we finally experience a character in full.

If you're not careful and instead open yourself up to it, this film may leave you sobbing for humanity in general -- that very extended family of man and woman, young and old, gay and straight, and yes, especially those who find themselves "in between."

The Dog -- a great documentary from Drafthouse Films and running 100 minutes -- opens theatrically this coming Friday, August 8, in Los Angeles at the CineFamily and the Downtown Independent, and in New York at the IFC Center and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Click here then scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, and note that many of these venues will have special screenings of both The Dog and Dog Day Afternoon on a double bill. Perfect combo!

Photos are from the film itself, except for that of the 
two filmmakers, which comes courtesy of

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