Academic journal article CineAction

Beware of 'The Dog': An Archaeology of a Thoroughly Mediated Event in the Life of a Bank Robber

Academic journal article CineAction

Beware of 'The Dog': An Archaeology of a Thoroughly Mediated Event in the Life of a Bank Robber

Article excerpt

At TIFF this year, my decision to see Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren's documentary The Dog was not a 'disinterested one. While I had always liked Sidney Lwnet's 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, it was a 2 channel art installation by French artist Pierre Huyghe called "The Third Memory" (1999) screened at the Guggenheim NY's "Moving Pictures" in 2002 that prompted me to delve more deeply into the real-life character/caricature called John Wojtowicz, the (nominal) subject of these three iterations of the particular moment in his life which propelled him to celebrity status. An integral part of my interest was the question concerning mode of presentation--feature film, gallery film installation, documentary--and the opportunity it offered to consider what each form brings to the table. In order to simplify this potentially labyrinthine task, I have structured this quest chronologically for an archaeology of the facts.

Aug. 22, 1972 The Real Event 15 hours

Forty-one years ago, on a hot summer's day in late August, an attempted robbery took place at a small Brooklyn bank which was reported on the next evening's national news.' While bank robberies were daily occurrences in the New York area at that time, this one presented enough uncommon features to make it newsworthy. The facts of the case as reported were that, while the robbery was in progress, the bank was surrounded by 200 police and FBI agents, dozens of journalists, and hundreds of local bystanders who cheered on and applauded the perpetrators. What had started as a simple robbery soon turned into a hostage-taking, resulting in a 15 hour standoff between the police, the FBI and the 2 would-be robbers. Perhaps the most uncommon feature was that one of the two perpetrators, John Wojtowicz, described by the Tv reporter as an "admitted homosexual", had asked to see his male wife, Ernest Aron, who, when brought to the bank site, subsequently refused to meet with Wojtowicz. The hostage-taking presently transformed into a hijacking when the robbers insisted on a jet plane to carry them out of the country. At the airport, the FBI managed to disarm and arrest 27 year old Wojtowicz, and shot and killed the other robber, an 18 year old named Sal Naturile. (2)

The 'live' video footage used to illustrate the Tv news report showed Wojtowicz, outside the bank, dressed in a white t-shirt and dark slacks, walking up and down in front gesticulating to the police while telling them to back off. There are reverse shots of the police, crouched down behind their cars, guns pointing, and of the crowd gathered as an audience for this spectacular event. Wojtowicz is also shown talking to some cops while half inside the bank's door. Then a night shot of the airport limo pulling up in front of the bank, with the robbers and hostages exiting the bank for the limo, and the procession of cars, lights Hashing and sirens blaring, as they drove to the airport. The segment ends with a shot of a sign posted on the bank's door notifying the public that the bank was closed, and the reporter's oddly humorous comment that the former hostages, while freed, did not show up for work the next day.

Sept. 22, 1972 "The Boys in the Bank"

Exactly one month later, Lift magazine published "The Boys in the Bank", (3) an article by P.F Kluge and Thomas Moore that documented the botched robbery in an expanded manner, changing the tone from the disinterested (though bemused) reportage of the initial news item to a "Jimmy Breslin/The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight" type of embellished narration filled with colourful characters who all seem to be nice people, even when brandishing guns and threatening to shoot hostages. The bank manager, for instance, is quoted as having said to Wojtowicz, "I'm supposed to hate you guys, but I've had more laughs tonight than I've had in weeks." And one of the tellers, said, "If they had been my houseguests on a Saturday night, it would have been hilarious. …

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