The Dog is a documentary directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren in 2013, that follows the epic life story of John Wojtowicz. John attempted to rob a bank in 1972 in order to pay for his partner’s sex-reassignment surgery. The film follows John around as he shows us New York City as it was back in the 70’s, when being gay was an alternative, underground, and somewhat dangerous lifestyle.
The story itself was gripping on its own, however it is John’s lively and admittedly at times shocking commentary that keeps the audience laughing and fully engaged. John is a vibrant and exuberant character who says what he wants and does as he pleases. This is seen throughout the film as he reflects on his views of love, marriage, gender, race, sex, and sexuality. He is unapologetically himself, and whether he is abhorred or adored (it’s usually one of either end of the spectrum), he couldn’t care less. He begins by illustrating his journey of self discovery after enlisting in the army. It is here that he discovers his attraction to men, and engages in his first gay sexual experiences. This then causes him to become heavily involved in the gay activist movement once he returned home, and thus exposes him to what was then an underground subculture of sorts.
It is very clear form the beginning that Wojtowicz is our anti-hero. His commentary may be colourful and his views questionable, but we choose to overlook them because he entertains us, and seems to have a good heart deep down. He goes back and forth between seeing his sexual partners as mere objects, often using problematic and offensive language, and simultaneously lamenting that all he really desires is to be married and to find true love. His approach may be crass but his message remains pure, he has love in his heart and is desperate to give it to someone special.
As the film progresses, we start to realize that that “someone” happens to be many people. His wife Carmen and he got married early and had children. This would be his first of many wives over the course of John’s lifetime. After becoming more active within the gay community, John soon met Ernest, who would soon change her name to Elizabeth. Later, in jail, John would soon take another wife.
Elizabeth, at the time that she met John, still went by Ernest, however she dressed in drag often. John admitted to being attracted to her gender fluidity; being able to identify with both the male and female gender. However as their relationship developed, Ernest became more and more inclined towards their female side, and began identifying as transgender. John was aware of this, but once Elizabeth told him that she wanted to have the surgery, he was deeply upset. He initially could not see past his own binary thinking; seeing gender as strictly male and female. But after Ernest’s many suicide attempts, he realized that this was what was important to the person he loved, and therefore he would do anything to attain it.
In this way, we see John’s true nature. He truly cares for people and despite his own opinions and prejudices, will do anything to ensure their happiness and safety. When he finally does rob the bank, and the police arrive, his first request is for them to bring Ernest to him. It is unclear whether this is because he wants to say goodbye, or is hoping to escape with Ernest, but either way it is clear that Ernest is the most important thing to John.
What is also interesting about this scene is that John completely disregards, and in fact challenges the homophobic (prejudiced agains homosexuals) protestors and police officers outside the bank make towards him. He meets their threats with equal defiance and courage. This is very reflective of John’s character; at the time homosexuality, being attracted to someone of the same sex, was seen as morally wrong and something to be ashamed of. This is the exact opposite of what John is, he is proud of who he is and could care less about what anyone thinks. In response to being called a gay slur, he responds with “Yes, I am” and threatens to fight the accuser. He may not always be the most politically correct, but he stood up for what he believed in and did not discriminate. It is also suggested later in the film that Wojtowicz may have been bisexual, being attracted to members of both sexes, but that is never confirmed.
Overall the movie itself was incredibly well shot and did a good job of telling what was an astonishing and gripping story. It was obvious that everyone in the theatre was glued to the screen to find out what happened next. John himself was a complex and somewhat likeable character, sort of like the drunk, obnoxious uncle who embarrasses everyone at Thanksgiving but everyone still manages to laugh about it after. I would definitely recommend the film and will probably watch it again.