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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 'Dog Day Afternoon' and the evolution of...

Screen Grabs: ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and the evolution of trans cinema

1975 classic was rare sympathetic portrayal—now continued in new films 'Orlando, My Political Biography' and 'Biodome'

Dog Day Afternoon (Tues/14 and Thu/16 at the Roxie, more info here) was one of the big movies of 1975, though overshadowed by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Oscars—and by Jaws in everything else. Still, it is the title among that year’s hits that is least imaginable as a major popular success today, even more than such justifiably forgotten endeavors as Funny LadyThe Other Side of the Mountain, or The Apple Dumpling Gang.

It is ostensibly a thriller, but much less concerned with action or suspense than character dynamics. It also provides an apex of the “gritty” Seventies filmmaking that’s retroactively become as fetishized as a prior generation’s film noirs. Yet while many now-highly regarded such films actually flopped at the time, this one proved a little more popular than The Return of the Pink Panther—albeit a little less than Shampoo—as runners-up to Jaws and Cuckoo when the annual box-office was tallied up. Fully half 1975’s top ten were pointedly movies for adults, in tone, gist, and R ratings. The year had exactly one comic book movie (Doc Savage, Man of Bronze), which bombed. Yep, it was a very different era.

Al Pacino, anointed as a new star by 1972’s The Godfather, had had his first successful solo vehicle with the next year’s Serpico. Another ripped-from-headlines NYC tale directed by Sidney Lumet seemed an obviously wise choice as followup (after Godfather II). Yet the actor was skittish about committing to Dog Day Afternoon for a while. Evidently he wasn’t all that sure then that he wanted to focus on movies anyway, as opposed to returning to the stage; and the “gay stuff” in this particular story made him nervous.

The eventual solutions arrived at included casting a lot of his off-Broadway cronies in supporting roles, and downplaying the over-the-top nature of some real-life protagonists Frank Pierson’s script dramatized. These decisions proved happy ones, not least in that the restraint exercised makes Dog Day just about the only Hollywood movie of its decade whose portrayal of gay characters isn’t cringe-inducingly condescending and stereotypical. (The same could not be said for the Life Magazine article it was based on, smirkingly called “The Boys in the Bank.”)

The potential for caricature was certainly there, as the original incident offered a prime “This city is crazy” exhibit for those rolling eyes at the Big Apple’s chaotic decline. One sweltering August day at closing time in 1972, John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in Brooklyn. Things immediately went wrong: A third partner got cold feet and fled; it turned out the day’s majority cash intake had already been taken away by armored truck, leaving little loot on-site. A passer-by grew suspicious and called police, trapping the criminals before they could make a getaway. Thus what was intended as a five-minute heist turned into a hostage situation that stretched out for 14 hours.

Though it doesn’t ridicule its figures, Dog Day Afternoon quickly grasps the absurdity of the crisis, and how very Noo Yawk it gets in a hurry. Soon everybody’s yelling at everyone else: Sonny (Pacino’s character—the names were slightly changed for legal reasons) yells at monosyllabic Sal (John Cazale). The mouthy bank tellers (led by Penelope Allen) are yelling at them. The police yell at a rapidly-growing crowd of gawkers outside who in turn yell back at them.

Trying to maintain some semblance of calm in order to resolve the situation peaceably is Sgt. Moretti (Charles Durning). He alone here susses that these perps are inept, likely posing little threat to anyone but themselves. However, he’s got to deal with a trigger-happy NYPD force that seems eager to end things in an undiscriminating hail of bullets. When humorless FBI operatives show up and push Moretti aside, you know someone’s gonna wind up dead.

But meanwhile, the circus has come to town, and it’s a pretty good show. Sonny isn’t sophisticated, but he’s smart: He knows how to work the cheering crowd, and how to spot a tactical trick being pulled against him. The bank-employee hostages too (including a young Carol Kane) start to enjoy the vicarious media attention—why, they’re on the news!!—and develop a certain quarrelsome rapport with their captors.

“We’re entertainment,” Sonny tells a TV reporter on the phone, refusing to be treated as a “freak show” but willing to leverage his instant celebrity for advantage. For a while, the negotiations, demands, and arguments are amusing, because these people are very recognizably human—embattled New Yorkers who’ll probably experience worse indignities on the subway ride home after all this is over. Under different circumstances, some new friendships might even be made. But the tone shifts when the cops seek to manipulate Sonny into capitulating (for whatever reason, they assume Sal is more dangerous) by hauling in people from his personal life.

In reality, John Wojtowicz had been involved in Gay Activists Alliance; he’d married his male lover, a drag performer, mostly as a gesture of political defiance. (At the time, that act had no legal standing.) There has been doubt cast since on what the true motivation for the bungled robbery was. But here, it is primarily driven by Sonny’s desire to fund a sex change operation for Leon (Chris Sarandon), whom police find groggy in a hospital, but put on the phone anyway.

Sarandon—who, like Pacino, got an Oscar nomination—makes a comically ditzy impression at first. But during their long conversation, we gradually realize that Leon is on his own path… moving away from Sonny, who is too much for him. “He’s been crazy all summer,” he tells the cops, before telling Sonny directly that he’s been “taking a lot of pills to get away from you.” They are over, whether Sonny funds the surgery or not.

Later, the offense is compounded when Sonny is confronted in turn by the ex-wife (Susan Peretz) who’s mother to the children he’s also abandoned, then by his mother (Living Theatre co-founder Judith Malina)—two empresses of yelling. Arriving onscreen with his mop of hair spiked higher than 1980s Liza Minnelli, Pacino wilts visually and spiritually during these late scenes. The familiar live-wire sparks he shoots off give way to something that feels even more tragic than this tale’s violent denouement.

Spitting at his ma “I’m a fuckup and an outcast and that’s it,” Sonny realizes it’s all been in vain; had the robbery had come off, he’d still be surrounded by losers and ingrates. Even the people who claim to care about him don’t understand him. The existential gravity of his disillusionment is reinforced by one of the director’s boldest creative choices: After an opening montage set to an Elton John song, Dog Day Afternoon’s 125 minutes sport no backing music whatsoever.

A decade ago, an excellent documentary titled The Dog made the rounds. It proved that truth was, indeed, stranger than fiction—even the fact-inspired kind. Following his prison sentence, John Wojtowicz just kept kicking around, often trying to milk the longer-lasting fame that the Hollywood film he had mixed feelings about had lent him. (He was paid a very nominal fee for life-story rights, duly turning most of that over to the Sarandon figure known in life as Elizabeth Eden for her gender reassignment procedures.)

By this point he was pretty much your consummate old neighborhood crank, but it’s clear he was never exactly a prize…certainly no mid-’70s-model Al Pacino, soulful and wistful. A filter-free schlub, he made for a hilariously out-there camera subject. It was obvious he’d been a trial to others in his life who got interviewed, including the ex-wife and the mother rather cruelly portrayed in the Lumet film. The latter was frequently paired with the documentary, making for a perfect mind-bending double bill.

Alas, you’ll only get Dog Day Afternoon at the Roxie this Tues/14 and Thu/16, in a 35mm print. But that’s still plenty. One surprising thing about it now is that without any overt case-pleading—supposedly Pacino thought the screenplay originally “pushed they gay issue” too hard—the movie reserves judgment not for the gay, bi, or trans characters, but only for those who snicker at them. (That would be you, nameless background NYPD personnel.) Pacino’s character has a dignity that comes precisely from his refusal to “play gay”…even if one can only wish the nobility of the result had carried over to William Friedkin’s Cruising, which he starred in five years later.

Sarandon made me shrink with discomfort a bit as a not-exactly-out teen watching the film in 1975. But similarly now, with transgender issues so prominent (for better and worse), it is remarkable how the performer and filmmakers make a figure that typically would’ve been caricatured and exoticized at the time have their own sense of purposeful self-worth. Sonny and Leon’s relationship is played to the media (in the film, as it was in real life) as “Believe It Or Not” stuff. Yet the movie allows that it makes sense to them, conferring the viewer’s respect—even though their paths are diverging while we watch.

Two new movies address gender-identity in very different ways that are at once eccentric and insightful. (There’s also the SF Trans Film Fest, which continues online this week.) The more straightforward treatment, so to speak, is French documentary Orlando, My Political Biography, opening at the Roxie on Fri/17. Yet there’s nothing conventional about this primarily French-language feature by Spanish academic, writer, and gender theorist Paul B. Preciado. A transperson himself, he uses the medium for a sort of deconstructive phantasmagoria “freely adapted” from Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, which famously became a 1992 Sally Potter film starring Tilda Swinton as the titular ageless, gender-fluid aristocrat.

A narrator here expresses “rage” at the evasive fantasy nature of that original construct, as Orlando’s abrupt, unexplained change from male to female in adulthood sidesteps all the real-world complexities of transition. Of course, Woolf was writing when few knew such things were medically possible—while gender reassignment surgeries were being attempted as early as the book’s original publication era, the earliest footage we see of trans persons in the public eye is Christine Jorgensen in the early 1950s.

The two dozen or so modern trans and non-binary people who participate here, by contrast, are very much interested in discussing the psychological, physical, pharmaceutical, societal, et al. aspects of personal journeys that are often by no means “complete” yet. “Now I define myself a non-binary person… but I consider myself changing,” one says.

In costume, they also reenact scenes from Orlando itself, vignettes presented not as a story to get lost in but as latterday probings of a towering if problematic work. Preciado’s aesthetically refined, conceptually bold film can feel too much the fussy intellectual gambit, an audiovisual essay playing self-consciously with the tools of narrative cinema. But it is a strikingly singular addition to the fast-growing canon of transgender film nonetheless. The wide range of experiences glimpsed here testify to the expansiveness of what remains fairly new cultural terrain, encapsulated when one interviewee/actor says “The words to describe the gender I want to be don’t exist yet.”

Also playful, albeit in a more overtly comic way, is Mel Eslyn’s feature directorial debut Biosphere, which fleetingly visited theaters in July and starts streaming on AMC+ this Fri/17. Sterling K. Brown and Mark Duplass (who co-wrote the screenplay with Eslyn) play lifelong besties apparently doomed to spend the rest of their lives in each other’s exclusive company—some catastrophe has extinguished all life outside the self-sustaining domed experimental habitat Brown’s scientist Ray had built for fun. It has been their salvation, but it is also their prison. Fortunately for both, they still get along, with Ray’s serious-minded personality balanced out by the silliness of Billy, who doesn’t protest when called a “giant manbaby.”

Still, it would appear the human race will die out with this duo. Until they realize that nature fights to survive no matter what—first, a form of “accelerated evolution” renders the male last-surviving fish in a tank adaptable enough to extend its species’ existence. Then signs of the same mysterious, gender-blurring process appear on (and in) the body of one of our protagonists.

Biosphere is an indie dude-bro comedy whose starting premise may inevitably recall 1996’s mainstream yukfest Bio-Dome, with its fingernails-on-chalkboard pairing of Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin. But while there are occasional moments of juvenile humor, this movie by contrast has a fairly ambitious thematic agenda it approaches with some wit, nuance, and surprising sweetness. While the notions of kinda-gay sex between two heterosexual men and an unanticipated gender “transition” trigger some laughs, they aren’t the trivializing kind—instead, the amusement arises from these guys’ awkward yet earnest attempts to get with nature’s surprise plan for them.

Biosphere manages an impressive hat trick: It’s a goofy comedic buddy tale that gets viewers to root for precisely the kinds of strayings from trad “masculinity” that conservatives fearfully fixate on. And it does so in ways that are whimsical, funny, endearing, and ultimately a bit profound.

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