“My first exposure to the transcendent grit of Dog Day Afternooon, at the age of 13, may have aroused an inchoate urban longing.”
Okay, so I missed my favorite actor — still sizzling at 70 — as Shylock in "Shakespeare in the Park's" staging of Merchant of Venice this summer. As a consolation prize, though, I got my dose of Al fresco Pacino Brooklyn style: at an early August screening of Dog Day Afternoon in the backyard of Red Hook's Freebird Books.
What is it about this film that continues to resonate with my soul 30-odd years after my original rapturous viewing of it in the mid-1970s? My first, magical encounter with Dog Day Afternoon occurred when I was a shy teenager growing up in the Mayberry-like town of Edgewater, NJ; nestled on the western bank of the Hudson River opposite upper Manhattan. I had ample woods behind my house to play in — the lower portion of the green Palisades ridge — and peaceful, leafy streets (where neighbors waved to you) to ride my bike. It was like growing up in Our Town, or in a Norman Rockwell painting. With one strange juxtaposition. We were directly across the river — one mile as the seagull flies — from Harlem.
The big city, for me as a kid, was an exciting, frightening, illusive and mythical place. My first exposure to the transcendent grit of Dog Day Afternooon, at the age of 13, may have aroused an inchoate urban longing. New York was so close yet so far. Perhaps the film articulated a message about my own boredom I was only hazily aware of. Not only did exciting things like bank robberies never happen in my little town, it was also devoid of street theatre. I still get goose bumps every time I witness Sonny's electric transformation on the street into a political being. Remember Attica?! Followed by revolutionary cheers from the growing, multiethnic crowd. Could there be a direct link to that peculiar cinematic moment and my eventual religious conversion (in the early '00s) to Reverend Billy's Church of Life After Shopping? So far, I've forayed with the rollickin' Rev (shouting and screaming as intensely as Sonny during his sidewalk vignettes) into two Manhattan Starbucks and, most recently — in a sign that life really might be imitating art — a bank lobby! . . . part of the LAS Church's campaign against Chase Manhattan over their nefarious mountaintop removal in Appalachia.
Miraculously, Chase (bowing to pressure from the Rev) has decided to scale back its mountain-destroying activities. Like the New York cops surrounding Sonny, they too put their fucking guns down.
Back in the '70s, my mom had a huge crush on Al Pacino. This didn't go over too well with my dad, though, who was born the same year as Pacino, but gave up his own acting dream (he starred with a pre-famous Warren Beatty in a 1960 staging of Dr. Pretorious at the North Jersey Playhouse) to be a "stable" married man. I remember the quiet, rageful tension I sensed in my dad — which infected our entire home — when my mom hung up that iconic, sexily bearded Serpico poster of Pacino . . . in her bedroom! Right behind the headboard of the bed, no less. I forget now, through the foggy shroud of dysfunctional family memory, whether this was in response to my dad's posting a Playboy centerfold on the bedroom wall, or whether dad's bunny art was revenge for mom's Pacino poster. For weeks, though, these two wall hangings squared off menacingly — like U.S. and Soviet missiles during the Cold War — in my parents' bedroom: Pacino and the Playboy bunny. A touching pastiche to the dangers of marrying young, and deep-sixing your dreams, during the erotic heyday of the Age of Aquarius.
In some ways, the emotional tension in my family made childhood feel like one long hostage crisis. (Where was Nightline's Ted Koppel when I needed him, with a daily count of my days in captivity?) Or like being trapped inside Dog Day Afternoon's Brooklyn bank. But perhaps I'm being unfair. My parents are wonderful people who, cliché or not, really did do the best they could. And all families, as we know, are dysfunctional to varying degrees. Last year I met the son of the scientist who invented the anti-depressant in 1957. In fact, I happened to meet him right at Freebird Books: this bracing, low-key wonder of a culturally hip and cognitive social space. He was there to read from his latest book, where he excoriates his cruel dad for totally fucking him up for life. Ironically (or not surprisingly), the man who gave the world the "happy pill" was himself a horrible father who terrorized his family.
Since families are influenced — or, if you will, contaminated through osmosis — by the larger world in which they exist, considering civilization and its discontents it's most likely society, and capitalism, that submerge humanity (to stay with this metaphor) inside that sweaty Brooklyn bank. Seeking freedom, we turn to politics and art. Art names the social problems — like DDA's linkage of low wages to bank robberies (in addition to lovers in need of sex-change operations) that politics might fix. It also art-iculates nuggets of radiant hope against all odds, a kind of radical futurity, that we might apply to our own lives. As in Sonny's visionary idea to fly to Algeria — I'll fly us to the tropics, fuck the snow! Sal, I can make it happen! — which might've gotten further if Sal was smart enough to not keep his gun down during the bus ride to the airport.
Judith Malina, who played Al Pacino's mom in DDA, as founder of the Living Theatre pioneered a space for experimental drama in NYC in the early 1960s — along with Judson Church and LaMama — forging a nexus of art and radical politics that continues to bear fruit today. Who can forget that riveting scene where Malina urges Sonny to "Run!" despite being surrounded by hundreds of cops. In this surreal filmic encounter between two of the twentieth century's great artistic innovators (in different mediums), a lesson in eternal maternal optimism is taught. The crazy love of a mother for her child is impervious to rationality, the logic of police, or corporate bottom lines. Such love believes anything is possible. Even saving our planet. Or paying our sons and daughters a living wage, to make the robbery business less tempting.
Even method acting itself — with its critique of the status quo petrifying, artificial theatre of the 19th and early 20th centuries — whose torch Pacino carried forward from Brando, can be construed as a political project for its communication of the raw, problematic truths of the human condition. Though I can't think of a film made —yet — that fully employs the richness of method acting as a direct attack on the status quo, there are glimmers. Like in Dog Day Afternoon. Sonny became a hero in the same way working stiffs are now rallied behind Steven Slater for his "take this job and shove it" antics at Jet Blue: he's so easy to identify with. "Why did you do it?" (rob the bank), a news reporter asks Sonny in a phone interview, to which he responds incredulously: "Do you know what a bank teller makes? You try living on a bank teller's salary." At which point even the "hostage" bank workers begin to sympathize with him.
I can't think of a more perfect venue to have revisited this cinematic treasure than an edgy, atmospheric used bookstore in a slightly gritty Brooklyn 'hood — as if it were part of the film's iconic opening montage: a mini work of art in itself (set to Elton John's "Amoreena") depicting working-class NYC in the '70s. And when it rains the rain falls down. I sensed a pedagogy implied, too, in watching this film at Freebird Books. Cognitive wonderings aroused by it might later be researched the old-fashioned, non-wiki way: perusing the deliciously musty, on-site used books on art theory, cinema history, or Marxist politics.
The evening itself, though it called for the kind of muggy, broiling, "dog day" conditions mirrored in the film (which might've been fun in a perverse, life-melting-into-art way), turned out to be refreshingly mild and breezy: perfect for relaxing in one of Freebird's cozily eclectic outdoor chairs, grabbing a cold beer and some bar-b-cue, and blissing out on this Sidney Lumet masterpiece projected onto a raggedy-edged white canvas slapped against a brick wall. Perfectly imperfect! As an added bonus, fragments from the overheard city soundscape blended wondrously with the film — a passing jet plane, police sirens — lending a stereophonic urban verisimilitude. Appropriately enough, given the crime and punishment theme of DDA, the event was sponsored by Books Behind Bars: a nonprofit that gives free books to prisoners.
One fly in the ointment (for me) was that after the screening, on the F Train to Manhattan, a band of thuggish young men of color were acting obnoxious, semi-terrorizing folks on the train. One even threw a crumpled piece of paper at my face as I exited at the W4 Street station, prompting an eruption of derelict laughter from his cohorts. Suddenly my nostalgia for '70s-era grit — rendered so aesthetically by Lumet — seemed shallow and out of touch with reality. Actually, it was the first time since the '90s I felt the kind of "sphincter-tightening" fear on the New York subway that Tom Wolfe renders brilliantly in Bonfire of the Vanities. So what's the deal, are Big Mike B and the NYPD dropping the ball on crime? Could this be recession-induced outrage starting to simmer?
Though I doubt this incident on the train has the power, like the proverbial mugging, to transform me from a liberal to a conservative overnight, it did give me increased respect for the law and order aspect of society, however unhip to admit this would be in edgy progressive circles, including at Freebird. Though it might be cool to mock and boo the slightly Keystone-ish cops in Dog Day Afternoon (along with the crowd of bystanders in the film on that hot Brooklyn street) late at night, on a subway car full of hooligans, it's still Moretti you want sitting next to you.