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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Knight at the Movies: The Dog; The Giver; film note
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2014-08-19

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On the sweltering afternoon of Aug. 22, 1972—when John Wojtowicz robbed a bank in Brooklyn, taking hostages and standing off with the police for hours—he entered the legion of New York's most memorable characters.

He also became a gay-rights pioneer, of sorts, when the motive for the robbery came to light: Wojtowicz wanted the money to finance a gender-reassignment operation for his lover, a trans individuals named Ernest Aron nee Liz Eden. Three years later, both were immortalized in the Hollywood firmament with Sidney Lumet's vibrant masterpiece of the incident, Dog Day Afternoon, which starred Al Pacino and Chris Sarandon as the star-crossed lovers, both giving Oscar-nominated performances in the process.

As incredible as the story of the robbery and its lively, disparate characters are, there is much more to this story than Dog Day Afternoon revealed. Now, in Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren's The Dog, courtesy of Wojtowicz himself, we get the whole enchilada. Talk about colorful! For starters, the short, pugnacious, unapologetically horny Wojtowicz seemingly spent a lifetime indulging his sybaritic pleasures, both female and male. At the film's outset, this self-described "pervert" claims four wives and 23 girlfriends, although it becomes clear that his use of the word "girlfriend" blurs traditional gender categories.

"Anybody can be straight but it takes somebody special to be gay," Wojtowicz proudly asserts as he takes us along on a tour of the West Village, revisiting his old stomping ground, which he began visiting for male sex when his first marriage went on the rocks in 1969 just after Stonewall. In the process, a history of the burgeoning gay-liberation movement comes to light as Wojtowicz—who was known in the community by his alias, "Little John Basso"—was a fixture at the Gay Activists Alliance dances and took part in various gay lib activities. It was during one of these social occasions in June 1971 that Little John first laid eyes on "Ernie," aka Liz Eden.

Jeremiah Newton, a friend of Ernie who was also close with Candy Darling ( and the producer of the excellent Beautiful Darling documentary on her ), recalls the obsession that Little John felt for Ernie, showering her with gifts and indulging her every whim. The two were "married" in a mock ceremony that was so lavish and realistically done it fooled church officials ( right down to the bridesmaids in drag ).

This astonishing retro footage is just one example of a film filled with such moments. ( Newscasts of the bank robbery and a rare talk-show appearance by Eden after her transition to female are also eye-openers. ) The cast of characters—which also include Little John's doting, tough but broadminded mother to his first wife Carmen to George Heath, his male prison lover—is nearly as fascinating as the main attraction.

That would be Wojtowicz himself, of course, who the filmmakers interviewed repeatedly over four years as he struggled with skin cancer ( dying in 2006 ). Once the camera turns, nothing deters the profane Little John, who exhibits gifts for self-aggrandizement second to none, and for making both mundane and sordid details tremendously absorbing. He's bizarrely gleeful as he recalls everything from the most salacious, amusing, hurtful and oftentimes depressing areas of his often tatty life history of which, not surprisingly, the robbery was the infamous highlight. Even that renowned incident, worked over in Lumet's film and two subsequent documentaries, elicits new details. ( For instance, the three would-be robbers went to a matinee of The Godfather before committing the robbery as inspiration. )

Fueled by a queer Scheherazade whose legacy is both outrageous and pathetic, Berg and Keraudren's The Dog is as entertaining as its central subject. It's available on VOD and iTunes. http://drafthousefilms.com/film/the-dog

Set in a utopian, though rather boring, pristine futureworld, The Giver is based on Lois Lowry's 20-year-old YA novel that has been a must-read for teens since it was first published. The story focuses on 16-year-old Jonas ( Brenton Thwaites ). Along with his fellow teens, Jonas is assigned a job during the Ceremony of Growth. Unlike his pals, who get the job of rocking babies in the nursery or other nondescript vocations, Jonas gets singled out to be the new receiver of memory.

According to the chief elder ( Meryl Streep, stern and overbearing in a gray hippie wig with bangs ), this one-of-a-kind job is the juiciest of positions. Jonas will work closely with the giver ( Jeff Bridges, who speaks as if he had a mouth full of marbles ) and will slowly receive all the knowledge of the previous world—the world that existed before it apparently mostly destroyed itself.

Soon, the memories ( which include learning to play the piano and an introduction to war and violence ) begin to mess with the rigid regulations that Jonas and everyone else lives by—rules degreed by the ruling council. When the giver, who is at odds with the chief elder, realizes that Jonas is out of control, he overdoses the young heartthrob with the entire data bank of memories at his disposal before encouraging him to escape. We know this is a fantasy—and a dated one at that—because not one of the memories that covers the gamut of human history includes a single example from LGBT history or a queer person.

At that moment, this vaguely enjoyable but rather pedestrian movie from director Phillip Noyce—a quasi-Pleasantville ( right down to the black-and-white world giving way to color as the forbidden knowledge is learned )—lost its rather tentative hold on me. Back home, I did the sensible thing and popped 1976's cheesy but fun Logan's Run into the DVD player and enjoyed a true sci-fi guilty pleasure—something I suspect The Giver will never have the distinction of enjoying.

Film note:

Bruce Campbell, king of the '80s horror B movies, is in town for Bruce Campbell's Horror Film Festival, which takes place Thursday, Aug. 21—Sunday, Aug. 24, at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont.

The highlight will surely be The Evil Dead Marathon—screenings of Campbell's three best-known movies, the gross-out black comedy/horror films: Evil Dead, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. Campbell will preside over the screenings that are taking place Saturday, Aug. 23, at The Dome at the Rosemont Ballpark ( 34 Jennie Finch Way, Des Plaines ) beginning at 8 p.m. Advance tickets http://wizardworld.ticketleap.com/awesomefest/

Now available: The Best of Knight at the Movies: 2004-2014—a compilation book of more than 150 of my film reviews from a queer perspective for Windy City Times—is now available. www.knightatthemovies.com .


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