In 1975, convicted bank robber John Wojtowicz sent a prospective article to The New York Times. It had been three years since his crime, and in the intervening period the details of August 22nd, 1972 had formed the basis of a bestselling paperback and an Academy Award-winning film, Dog Day Afternoon. Wojtowicz now wanted to set things straight. “I felt the movie was in essence a piece of garbage. It did not show the whole truth, and the little it did show was constantly twisted and distorted,” he wrote, “I estimate the movie to be only 30% true”.
The response from Times editor William H. Honan was brief and brutal (emphasis mine):
I’m very sorry to say no to this after all of our correspondence, but this [article] just won’t work for us. The problem is that I just don’t believe you have profoundly come to grips with the motives for your crime, and the complex relationship between art and reality in this instance.
Perhaps it was this phrase that prompted Pierre Huyghe to create The Third Memory (1999), a short, two-channel video for which Wojtowicz re-enacts, from memory, the events of the robbery. Pacing around a Thomas Demand-like recreation of the bank, Wojtowicz directs a team of actors playing bank tellers, policemen, and his murdered accomplice Salvatore Naturile, giving them their spots and lines; on one of the two screens, we occasionally see clips from Dog Day Afternoon, whose production must certainly have looked similar.
The key to Huyghe’s project is the degree to which Wojtowicz’s memory of the robbery has merged with his memory of the film. The “first memory”, here, was Wojtowicz’s direct perception, his immediate storage of events he lived through without the influence of the media, the trial, or the fading of time; given the live telecasts of the robbery – a spectacular rarity in 1972 – this memory may have lasted only an instant. The “second memory”, then, is the public record that is Dog Day Afternoon, endlessly reproducible and possessing the unquestionable, closed truth of a film, but having only a frayed connection to its subject. The “third memory” is what Huyghe shows us on-screen: the complex interaction of media and memory that causes Wojtowicz to occasionally make verbal slips like “in the real movie…”
For a man who once accused Dog Day Afternoon of being “30% true”, Wojtowicz seems to now have surprisingly few changes in mind. It’s a shocking tribute to the power of the media: after spending 25 years in prison fuming about his own misrepresentation, in his one chance to make things right Wojtowicz largely accedes to the force of the second memory. Occasionally, though, he has been too deeply wronged to forget. As the video opens, we hear him say, “I tell the FBI to go fuck themselves, because I’m not gonna betray my partner”; it’s a reference to the allusions the Dog Day Afternoon made to Wojtowicz having a deal with the FBI, allusions Wojtowicz referenced in his jailhouse piece for the Times:
Many of the men in here thought the movie was a good comedy, but most were outraged at how they misrepresented the truth and invented things that were so despicable. I even had some problems as a result of it, especially the part they invented that hinted of a deal with the F.B.I..
We must assume this to be an understatement.
Wojtowicz has victories, too. He committed the crime explicitly to pay for a sex change for his biologically male wife, Ernest Aron, and a central complaint about his Hollywood treatment was the degree to which this love story was minimized:
The main reason I did what I did on 8/22-23/72 is never explained in the movie, and instead you the viewer are left with many questions. I did what a man has to do in order to save the life of someone I loved a great deal. His name was Ernest Aron (now known as Ms. Liz Debbie Eden) and he was Gay. He wanted to be a woman through the process of a sex-change operation and thus was labeled by doctors as a Gender Identity Problem. He felt he was a woman trapped in a man's body. This caused him untold pain and problems which accounted for his many suicide attempts.
Ernest and I were married in Greenwich Village in N.Y.C. on 12/4/71 in a Roman Catholic ceremony. We had our ups and downs as most couples do, and I tried my best to get him the money he needed for his sex change operation he so badly needed. I was unable to obtain the funds for his birthday on 8/19/72 and so, on Sunday, 8/29, he attempted suicide while I was at of the house.
In The Third Memory, Wojtowicz ensures that his sexuality does not go unspoken. In a faux showdown with a policeman outside the bank, he orchestrates what is unavoidably the most memorable moment of the piece. He gives the cop his lines: “Drop the shotgun, you lousy cocksucker, or I’ll blow your brains out.” Wojtowicz, now narrating his own movements in detail, drops his gun and turns to face his opponent: “Who are you calling a lousy cocksucker? I’m a good cocksucker!”
This bear expresses how The Third Memory makes me feel about the potential of art.
Business/Pleasure is Will Brand's new daily column of the best of Video Art and YouTube crap. Most days have one business video and one pleasure video. Got a tip? E-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org.