Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
#5: Dog Day Afternoon|
(USA, 1975; dir. Sidney Lumet; scr. Frank Pierson; cin. Victor J. Kemper; with Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, James Broderick, Penelope Allen, Sully Boyar, Chris Sarandon, Susan Peretz, Judith Malina, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Carol Kane, Amy Levitt, Lionel Pina, Dick Anthony Williams, Lance Henriksen)
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Having read Inside Oscar several years prior, I knew heading into Dog Day Afternoon that it was based on the true story of a gay man who robbed a Brooklyn bank in 1972 to pay for his male lover's sex-change operation. I'd recalibrate some of those terms now, but this was the vocabulary in which I approached the filmonly to discover I was wrong. Nearly an hour into it, and thrilled by every detail, I realized I had remembered correctly about the bank robbery, which launches in the opening minutes, but had mistakenly transposed the queer angle from the plot description of some other movie. And then I discovered I was wrong again. Dog Day Afternoon was the first movie I had ever seen with an LGBT protagonist that didn't advertise that fact from the outset and, having established it, didn't privilege it over all other story concerns. You could have knocked me over with an ostrich feather boa. I hope it's obvious that I have nothing against stories with out protagonists who announce themselves as early as you please, but it was thrilling to know that gradual reveals were an optionand that, following an interval of titters and surprise among the supporting the cast, the bulk of the movie's relationships resumed more or less as they had been before. This isn't to say that Sonny's queerness is remotely incidental to Dog Day Afternoon, or that it recedes from our attention. Once disclosed, it inflects all the preceding and ensuing action but not in such a way that it predominates. Dog Day Afternoon is about Sonny's primary audience within the narrative and, hopefully, the ones in the theater forming an unlikely bond of solidarity with him that even the sensational discovery of his wife Leonone of his two wives, in factdoes not disrupt. Moreover, no matter how much Dog Day Afternoon would be a different movie without its anti-normative desires and partnerships, it was neither made nor marketed to appeal only to LGBT audiences, or to endear straight audiences to an uncomplicated paragon, or to sweep Sonny's sexuality under the rug (or that of his real-life alter ego, John Wojtowicz), or to reap hedgy, "good for an LGBT film" kinds of admiration. Dog Day Afternoon is a phenomenal film and a phenomenal LGBT film, no asterisk required, served well by every cast member and component, but carried to glory by one of America's best actors, with his peerless macho credentials, giving one of American film's best performances as the crazy and calculating, comically deluded, category-defying, "Attica!"-spouting, Algeria-bound, fundamentally decent heistmaster.
Wrong again! Or so I was told by someone I trusted. Shortly after seeing Dog Day Afternoon, I read Fredric Jameson's book chapter "Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film," still one of the most challenging and transformative single essays I've ever read about a movie and one of my favorites to teach. Among many other things, Jameson contends that from the vantage of trying to make class structures and politics representable within a mass medium, or of making a timely intervention into then-contemporary realities, Dog Day Afternoon reflects a "basic paradox," insofar as "what is good about the film is what is bad about it, and what is bad about it is, on the contrary, rather good in many ways; that everything which makes it a first-rate piece of filmmaking, with bravura actors, must render it suspect from another point of view, while its historical originality is to be sought in places that must seem accidental with respect to intrinsic qualities" (41). Chief among Jameson's deceptively "good" demerits is Pacino's performance, which strikes him as leaning nostalgically on 50s-era tropes of the mumbling loner-outsider and on Method virtuosity, which inevitably makes individuals more fascinating than social relations, and which renders dubiously transparent what is ostensibly inscrutable or inarticulate in human experience. The revelation of Sonny's queerness also discomfits Jameson, because Dog Day declines to pursue LGBTs as a structurally oppressed class, and again makes Sonny's singular circumstances more salient to the viewer than any broader force for which his anger and desperation might stand. By contrast, what he admires about Dog Day Afternoon are its attention to the nonplace that is the local branch office of the First Brooklyn Savings Bank; the portrait of the female bank tellers, emblematic of a whole stratum of wage-workers who constitute a global majority but rarely attain any cultural representation; and the casting of James Broderick, a TV actor of limited expressivity, as the federal agent and arm of law, evocative of an entire power structure precisely because he does not or cannot conjure any convincing human texture.
Got all that? Jameson's argument is dense, historically grounded, frequently counter-intuitive, and much more nuanced than the précis I've just offered. I don't necessarily subscribe to all its terms, much less do all my students. As dramatized in the recent frictions between #BlackLivesMatter activists and the Bernie Sanders campaign, with its stalwart messaging about class as the master trope of social division, many would refuse Jameson's assumption that "identity" is bourgeois and distracting, inimical to social progress even when it seems to broker new affinities across groups. What I care about is that Jameson's rich argument, dismissive of ideas like gender, race, and sexuality that I tend to foreground in my own spectatorship and scholarship, and insistent on maxims of capital and class where my thinking has always been vaguer, made me rethink a movie that I thought I knew well. But I'm not telling a story of capitulation; neither Dog Day Afternoon nor my enjoyment of it crumbles in the face of Jameson's critique. For example, he finds Sidney Lumet's brand of documentary realism as outmoded as Pacino's Method performance, particularly in the wake of new reflexive genres and aesthetics after the 1950s that expose realism as itself a naïve form of illusionism, as though we can or should recreate spaces, people, or events "as they were." But I experience Pacino's flamboyant showmanship as an open signal of Dog Day as a creative restaging, not an attempt to pass as actuality, even as it does exhume aspects of truth that another aesthetic would not have accessed in the same way. Furthermore, if Lumet's film allows for two and possibly more political readings based on totally different assumptions, one flexing the viewer's limits of personal identification and one allegorizing the structural dynamics of class, surely that is an ambidextrous credit to the movie? Alfonso Cuarón's Y tu mamá también is the only recent film I can think of that explores gender, class, national identity, and sexuality with comparable rigorand with the same balance of comedy and serious pathos, and the same challenge to audiences not to omit some of these interpretive lenses while favoring others. (When I wrote about Y tu mamá también, Dog Day and Jameson's take on it were both crucial reference-points.) That Lumet achieves via realist docudrama what Cuarón does through ironic voiceover and heightened visual language only convinces me that both styles are capable of more than we often ask of them, especially when we pigeonhole in advance what they can or cannot do.
I've made Jameson so important here because, first as a student and now as an academic, maybe my greatest joy has been rediscovering beloved texts through other thinkers' perspectives, however sanguine or skeptical, and however much I agree or don't. I'm sure there are scholars who go into this profession in pursuit of personal corroboration, but in my experience that's just another wrong-footed stereotype, like all the ones that Sonny upends about homosexuals (his word, despite two female lovers) or veterans or bank robbers or working-class Italian guys. There is a peculiar intimacy you establish with texts that you teach repeatedly but never tire of, wrapping your mind mostly but not entirely around some piece of criticism you typically assign with it, and seeing how student responses vary over the years, or even around one seminar table. I teach so many different courses in multiple disciplines (film, literature, and gender studies) and revise my syllabi so often that I don't have a huge stable of standbys, though Dog Day Afternoon, like Bonnie and Clyde or Paris Is Burning, like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying or Morrison's Paradise or Erickson's Arc d'X, is one I reprise a lot. And Jameson's essay is up there with Eve Sedgwick on Billy Budd, Patricia White on All About Eve, Lee Edelman on Laura, Elin Diamond on Adrienne Kennedy, and David Savran on Angels in America that drop the mic so hard I'm inspired on every re-reading to try to think of something, anything, even halfway as smart about any text I love even half as much.
There's a particular victory, though, to seeing Dog Day Afternoon in that list, beside Herman Melville's vertiginously nested narrative about private aggression and imperial law, or Kennedy's elaborate smashing and remaking of theater, or Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Citizenne Kane, or Tony Kushner's self-consciously epochal fantasia on sexual, religious, and political themes. By comparison to texts like those, Dog Day Afternoon not only appears formally modest but topically esoteric. Sonny, née John, was one guy with an errant plan and an outlandish motive, shaking down a minor urban trading post and getting a lot of people behind him on the way to inevitable comeuppanceyet here he is, pivotal and durable within my burgeoning cinephilia, my professional development, and my expanding sense of all the things "gay" can mean, all the stories it can tell. And there are so many stories! I'm not sure why The Dog, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren's 2013 documentary built around John Wojtowicz's remarkably merry memories of that fateful day in Flatbush, barely made a commercial or critical blip, but there's even more to learn from him, enjoy in him, and pity about him than Sonny, Pacino, Pierson, or Lumet could capture. And I do agree with Jameson that Dog Day Afternoon is not just the Sonny Wortzik Show, anyway. The women are an indelible bunch that nobody, but nobody, would ever have made a movie about if they hadn't been robbed, or reacted as they did. Charles Durning's shambolic local cop is as memorable a creation as Chris Sarandon's Leon; that neither presumes the other as a laughingstock or an antagonist is special in itself. And then, of course, there's John Cazale's Sal, the only inarticulate, anxiety-prone, jaundiced-looking, trigger-happy hostage-taker I've ever wanted to hug as long as he would let me. How did that actor find that amount of soul in that strange and tersely written figure? Is it coincidence or not that Sal almost never comes up in Jameson's analysisi.e., is he even less explicable than Sonny through theoretical maxims or pre-fabricated labels? Dog Day Afternoon, within the text and in all the years I've spent with it, abundantly testifies that there is always more to any story, even when you think you've exhausted it. And on just this one point, when I said before that Dog Day encompasses one of America's best actors giving one of American film's best performances? I should have said, it encompasses two.