The best sort of documentaries are the ones that don't spoon-feed you the events they follow exactly as they happened, but weave a compelling narrative that makes you ask questions of yourself as you watch. Dare I say the best documentaries are the ones that leave a few loose ends? To that end, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren's The Dog, which premiered last September at Toronto International Film Festival, accomplishes its aim.
The documentary tells the true-life story of formerly infamous bank robber John Wojtowicz, the basis for Al Pacino's character in the iconic film Dog Day Afternoon. Berg and Keraudren spent ten years on the making of this documentary, and it shows. While the story is light on his formative years, focusing more heavily on Wojtowicz's life after entering the Army, the filmmakers reveal just enough so that you understand that whoever he was - husband thrice over, gay man, activist, bank robber, nymphomaniac, megalomaniac, hopeless romantic, son, brother, despotic sociopath - something in his head was not quite wired right from the beginning.
"On a good day," Keraudren said to the NY Daily News, "John was great. On a bad day, he was sociopathic."
It is the sociopathic tendencies that come to the surface with the filmmakers smart enough to get out of their own way, letting John's words and inconsistent actions speak for themselves. His convoluted, outlandish life, which may have seemed exaggerated or clunky in the wrong hands, is instead unfolded at a pace rapid enough to have kept me interested, but not so quickly that the twists and turns got to be too much to follow.
The documentary follows Wojtowicz through his years in the Army and Vietnam, where it touches upon his first gay experience. From there, it moves quickly through his three marriages, first to Carmen Bifulco, from whom he never legally separated, then to transsexual Ernest Aron as Wojtowicz gets pulled into the blossoming gay activist movement of the early 70s. This explosive relationship is the catalyst of the event that shapes Wojtowicz's life from that point on, when Wojtowicz robs a bank in order to pay for Aron's sex reassignment surgery to live as female Elizabeth "Liz" Debbie Eden. From there, it's on to prison where Wojtowicz meets and "weds" another male inmate, George Heath. After his release from prison, the documentary follows the aftermath, focusing on how the pivotal event of Wojtowicz's life shaped the rest of it.
Along the way, his relationship with his mother, Terry, is touched upon in detail - the one relationship that was woven throughout her son's entire life. While one of Wojtowicz's problems was that he had no idea how to let people go and wanted to keep everyone he cared about in his life forever, it becomes clear that much of his headstrong and perverse attitude toward the mores of society come directly from his defiant, strong-willed mother, who was, as his psychiatrist said, "the great love of his life." Many lovers came and went in Wojtowicz's life, but his mother was the one defining constant.
Scenes from the past are juxtaposed with interviews from his later years, and the effect of hearing Wojtowicz talk about himself is a curious one: Scathingly honest about himself in some ways ("I called myself Littlejohn," he said of his time in prison, "because my prick is small."), there's also an incredible lack of self-awareness about how his sociopathic tendencies hurt those around him. Simultaneously loved and pitied by his partners, Wojtowicz inspired fierce loyalty and equally fierce bitterness. A gay rights advocate, he was nonetheless shunned by the gay community, which viewed him as boorish, vulgar, and far more damaging to their cause than helpful.
But ultimately, the documentary tells a compelling and honest story about a man who was wholly, unrepentantly himself and had no qualms about what society thought, for good or for ill. He comes across as a force of nature, as completely unaware of the destruction he wreaks as a tornado is when it wipes out a Midwest town. As with so many infamous criminals, he creates more questions than answers. Ultimately, the deliberate decision of Berg and Keraudren to let this chameleon quality to Wojtowicz shine through is the real strength of the documentary, a testament to their dogged patience over 10 years and The Dog's larger-than-life story.
The Dog is in theaters now and available on iTunes on Friday, August 15th.