John Wojtowicz, star of the new documentary The Dog, comes across as a selfish jerk. That, alone, has no real impact on the quality of the film. There are plenty of excellent documentaries about terrible people, and plenty of horrendous documentaries about wonderful people. The problem with The Dog is that its filmmakers, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, fawn over him anyway. I argued this point with a bit more detail in my review. Now that the film has opened, however, something else needs to be addressed. The mainstream critical response has been almost entirely positive, if not exactly ecstatic. And like Berg and Keraudren, many critics have bought into Wojtowicz’s bravado hook, line and sinker.
Wojtowicz is, of course, the man whose story was turned into Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. His most famous act was that bank robbery in Brooklyn, ostensibly to steal the money needed for his wife’s sex reassignment surgery. The woman in question is Liz Eden, Wojtowicz’s second wife, after Carmen Bifulco. Some time in the 1960s he left Carmen and his two children and found himself in New York City’s West Village. He became involved with the Gay Liberation movement — though he himself claims that he was only interested in having as much sex as possible. He met Liz, they got married and then he robbed the bank. Eventually he sold his story to Hollywood and used the money to pay for her surgery.
Yet his very relationship with Eden is fraught, the most unsettling part of this very unsettling film. Eden was a transgender woman, named Ernie Aron at birth. In spite of their apparent love, Wojtowicz exclusively uses male pronouns and refers to her as Ernie. Whether one believes that he actually loved her is up to the spectator, of course, but it’s enormously clear that he never took her identity seriously. This same half-passion is true of his involvement with the Gay Activist Alliance, whose members vociferously reject his loyalty to the community. Yet the filmmakers remain fiercely loyal to a subject who they present as benign, charming and hilariously profane.
This awkwardness is essentially ignored by many critics. Instead, a number of them have bought into Wojtowicz’s own interpretation of his relationships. Peter Debruge at Variety quickly equates Eden’s sex work, long a troubled element of representation of the transgender community, with Wojtowicz’s sleeping around. Peter Vonder Haar at The Village Voice puts Wojtowicz and Eden’s marriage in quotes and refers to Eden as “his gay husband.” Lou Lumenick at the New York Post actually uses quotes for “wife” when describing Eden but leaves them out when describing Wojtowicz’s first, cisgender spouse. Eden died of AIDS in 1987 and so can defend neither herself nor her identity in The Dog. It is one thing for the film itself to buy into the blunt ignorance of its subject, but it is another thing entirely for critics to do exactly the same.
Moreover, the less obvious but perhaps more frustrating element of some of these reviews has to do with the Gay Activist Alliance and the classification of The Dog as a gay film. At The New York Times, Manohla Dargis devotes her last paragraph to same-sex marriage as an important context for The Dog, concluding with the following passage: “All these years later, as marriage equality heads toward universal acceptance, Mr. Wojtowicz doesn’t remotely register as a freak. He was a lot of things when he tried to rob that bank, as this sympathetic documentary makes clear, including a man in love.”
This is odd for a few reasons. Firstly, putting Eden and Wojtowicz’s marriage in the context of same-sex marriage equality is a red flag of sorts. Same-sex marriage doesn’t really have anything to do with this story, unless you choose to believe that all gay things are relevant to all other gay things. Next, Dargis’s use of the word “freak” comes after a prior evocation of the work of pioneering gay cultural historian Vito Russo. Russo objected to Dog Day Afternoon on the grounds that it was essentially a freak show for straight audiences. Dargis has chosen to rehabilitate the messiness of Wojtowicz into the now-acceptable politics of same-sex marriage and gay love. Yet while it is true that Wojtowicz was never a “freak,” he also was not a gay man in a relationship with another gay man. This is a messier narrative and it is in desperate need of a much more involved, piercing critical appreciation.
Besides, the “universal acceptance” of same-sex marriage is not a triumphant conclusion but rather one more step on the road to equality. The legal victories for same-sex marriage have had little or nothing to do with the film industry; film critics even less so. Instead, critics have a role in the way that LGBT people and their stories are experienced socially and culturally. America will never be able to understand, appreciate and respect LGBT people if it can’t even do so for those featured in movies. The fact that many critics have essentially thrown Liz Eden under the bus is certainly not encouraging, to say the least.
The core of this problem is the trust offered to Wojtowicz by critics as well as filmmakers. Dargis says that “Wojtowicz changes identities as easily as other people change socks,” while Debruge mentions the way that he “carried himself like the [West Village’s] unofficial mayor.” Wojtowicz’s many performances of identity deserve scrutiny rather than blind belief. Is he to be believed when he presents himself as a crucial member of the Gay Liberation movement? Is he to be believed when he expresses his love for a woman who he refused to take seriously as a woman? One wonders whether critics avoid these questions because they simply didn’t think of them, or whether it was a fear that addressing questions of gay identity would get them branded as homophobes. In either case, the problem remains. Critics need to seriously consider queer films, even bad ones.