Stickup Artist

By Birnbaum, Daniel | Artforum International, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Stickup Artist


Birnbaum, Daniel, Artforum International


THE ART OF PIERRE HUYGHE

IN THE END, JOHN WOJTOWICZ'S STORY WAS TOO GOOD TO RECOUNT JUST ONCE. ITS FIRST TELLING CAME IN 1975, VIA THE SIDNEY LUMET-DIRECTED MOVIE DOG DAY AFTERNOON, STARRING AL PACINO AS WOJTOWICZ, the gay bank robber whose heist "should have taken ten minutes," in the immortal words of the Warner Brother's advertisement, but "four hours later, the bank was like a circus sideshow. Eight hours later, it was the hottest thing on TV. Twelve hours later, it was history." ("And it's all true," concluded the ad, breathlessly.) The film depicts Wojtowicz's 1972 attempt to rob a New York City bank to pay for his lover's sex-change operation, and as such could be read as offering a vivid parable of what Guy Debord must have meant by life in the society of the spectacle (and accounts in part for the film's cult status). Wojtowicz and his accomplice, Sal, were media superstars not for fifteen minutes, but for at least fifteen hours. Indeed, through Pacino and Co., their fame has become eternal. The cosmically botched robbery wa s covered live on several television stations, interrupting coverage of the Republican National Convention in Miami-indeed, Wojtowicz believes that the threat of further disruptions was what compelled the FBI to get rid of the two bandits as quickly as possible. Sal was killed by the police at JFK International Airport, where the pair were preparing to flee the country. Wojtowicz, whom Life magazine described as "a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino," was given a twenty-year jail sentence.

This was all too much for French artist Pierre Huyghe to resist. A filmmaker known for his metacinematic experimenting, Huyghe decided to invite Wojtowicz, paroled in 1979, to tell his "real story" in front of a camera. The result is The Third Memory, 2000, an installation on view in Montreal at the Musee d'Art Contemporain until early next year that consists of two projections, each showing reconstructions from different angles of the robbery and hostage-taking in the Brooklyn bank. Wojtowicz, now a rather heavy man in his late fifties, is shown walking around the set, built to look like the scene of the crime, brandishing a rifle, instructing a group of extras where to stand, how to move, and how to act. "OK, this is a stickup," he says. "OK, girls, raise your hands, take a giant step back. Raise your hands slowly. Anyone touch the alarms and I'll blow your brains out."

Those who have seen and remember Dog Day Afternoon--and if you've seen the movie you do remember it--will automatically make comparisons between the two films, a process that Huyghe facilitates by providing fragments from the Hollywood version in one of the two projections. But how much is Wojtowicz himself influenced by the film? Of course he thinks he is reconstructing hard facts, but when he refers to what really happened as "the real movie," as he does in The Third Memory, one has reason to get suspicious. The situation is complicated: Not only were Wojtowicz's looks compared to Pacino's in the press at the time of the robbery, but it was Pacino, along with Marion Brando, who provided a fictional model for how to be a crook; the robbers watched The Godfather for inspiration the very afternoon of their crime. (In another twist, the same actor who played Fredo in The Godfather, John Cazale, played Sal in Dog Day Afternoon.) Now the "real" Wojtowicz, who was brought to tears by Pacino's performance when he f irst saw the film in prison, paces the set, reconstructing the "real" event.

"THE WHOLE LIFE OF THOSE SOCIETIES in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived by John Wojtowicz on August 22, 1972, in a bank in Brooklyn has withdrawn into a representation." Thus does French critic Jean-Charles Massera open his ambitious catalogue essay for The Third Memory, "The Lesson of Stains," which in an elaborate way paraphrases Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, developing (in 221 sections) an "aesthetic of reconstitution" that sees all events as "situated" and therefore impossible simply to restage. …

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