PRINT November 2000


IN THE END, JOHN WOJTOWICZ’S STORY WAS TOO GOOD TO RECOUNT JUST ONCE. Its first telling came in 1975, via the Sidney Lumet-directed movie Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino as Wojtowicz, the gay bank robber whose heist “should have taken ten minutes,” in the immortal words of the Warner Brother’s advertisement, but “four hours later, the bank was like a circus sideshow. Eight hours later, it was the hottest thing on TV. Twelve hours later, it was history.” (“And it’s all true,” concluded the ad, breathlessly.) The film depicts Wojtowicz’s 1972 attempt to rob a New York City bank to pay for his lover's sex-change operation, and as such could be read as offering a vivid parable of what Guy Debord must have meant by life in the society of the spectacle (and accounts in part for the film’s cult status). Wojtowicz and his accomplice, Sal, were media superstars not for fifteen minutes, but for at least fifteen hours. Indeed, through Pacino and Co., their fame has become eternal. The cosmically botched robbery was covered live on several television stations, interrupting coverage of the Republican National Convention in Miami—indeed, Wojtowicz believes that the threat of further disruptions was what compelled the FBI to get rid of the two bandits as quickly as possible. Sal was killed by the police at JFK International Airport, where the pair were preparing to flee the country. Wojtowicz, whom Life magazine described as “a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino,” was given a twenty-year jail sentence.

This was all too much for French artist Pierre Huyghe to resist. A filmmaker known for his metacinematic experimenting, Huyghe decided to invite Wojtowicz, paroled in 1979, to tell his “real story” in front of a camera. The result is The Third Memory, 2000, an installation on view in Montreal at the Musée d'Art Contemporain until early next year that consists of two projections, each showing reconstructions from different angles of the robbery and hostage-taking in the Brooklyn bank. Wojtowicz, now a rather heavy man in his late fifties, is shown walking around the set, built to look like the scene of the crime, brandishing a rifle, instructing a group of extras where to stand, how to move, and how to act. “OK, this is a stickup,” he says. “OK, girls, raise your hands, take a giant step back. Raise your hands slowly. Anyone touch the alarms and I’ll blow your brains out.”

Those who have seen and remember Dog Day Afternoon—and if you’ve seen the movie you do remember it—will automatically make comparisons between the two films, a process that Huyghe facilitates by providing fragments from the Hollywood version in one of the two projections. But how much is Wojtowicz himself influenced by the film? Of course he thinks he is reconstructing hard facts, but when he refers to what really happened as “the real movie,” as he does in The Third Memory, one has reason to get suspicious. The situation is complicated: Not only were Wojtowicz’s looks compared to Pacino’s in the press at the time of the robbery, but it was Pacino, along with Marlon Brando, who provided a fictional model for how to be a crook; the robbers watched The Godfather for inspiration the very afternoon of their crime. (In another twist, the same actor who played Fredo in The Godfather, John Cazale, played Sal in Dog Day Afternoon.) Now the “real” Wojtowicz, who was brought to tears by Pacino’s performance when he first saw the film in prison, paces the set, reconstructing the “real” event.

“THE WHOLE LIFE OF THOSE SOCIETIES in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived by John Wojtowicz on August 22, 1972, in a bank in Brooklyn has withdrawn into a representation.” Thus does French critic Jean-Charles Massira open his ambitious catalogue essay for The Third Memory, “The Lesson of Stains,” which in an elaborate way paraphrases Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, developing (in 221 sections) an “aesthetic of reconstitution” that sees all events as “situated” and therefore impossible simply to restage. Remake, reconstitute, remember: How can one best approach things past? At the very end of the film’s nine and a half minutes, Huyghe provides the audience with a third layer of representation, showing a few seconds of television footage from the actual crime scene. We see the young Wojtowicz in a white T-shirt yelling and gesticulating, communicating with the masses in front of the bank. So how should one understand the “reconstitution” of The Third Memory? As an attempt to finally get to the truth, to let Wojtowicz take possession of his own face? Or as an additional layer of fiction and role playing? Huyghe offers no answers, but he makes these complex problems of time, fictionalization, and memory painfully clear in his riveting double loop.

Like many artists who emerged during the ’90s—Douglas Gordon, for example—Huyghe has spent the past several years scrutinizing the technological as well as the ideological aspects of film production. Not all of his pieces deal with the moving image, but since the mid-’90s he has produced works that relate directly to films by Hitchcock, Pasolini, Bergman, Disney, and Warhol, among others. He has used scripts, sound tracks, and subtitles as points of departure for his various projects, as well as dealing with dubbing, translation, and remaking. A description of a typical Huyghe work, not only in terms of its reference to an aspect of the filmmaking process, but also for its collaborative nature, reads: “‘Parallel Time Soundtrack’ (1996) presents a discussion, an experience in transferal. The dialogues originate from the recording of a conversation between Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Philippe Parreno [regular collaborators of Huyghe’s], and Pierre Huyghe, about their project ‘Temporary School’ (1996). Three actors were asked to perform a transcription of this recording. A new soundtrack is created.” Note that this is a film experiment; no actual movie is being produced.

Huyghe’s metafilmic obsessions have resulted in a series of large-scale productions that are admirable not only for their artistic rigor but also for their innovative modes of presentation. The effect of his Sleeptalking (With Sleep by Andy Warhol and the Voice of John Giorno), 1998, for example, was due in large part to the spatial component of its installment in Luxembourg’s Manifesta 2. On one side of a glass wall, Warhol’s Sleep, showing the poet John Giorno catching forty winks, was projected in 16 mm without audio. On the other side of the glass, one heard Giorno’s voice reading a long monologue about the work and about Warhol’s technical ineptitude: “And it’s true, Andy did do that and indeed Andy cut real time by the repetitions, blah blah blah, but that was not Andy’s intention. . . I have this idea that all works of great art are done by mistake.” The two rooms were not directly connected. At the Casino Luxembourg, where the piece was first installed, one actually had to walk through large parts of the museum to come to the other-side of the glass. This created a strange sense of unreality, and people signaled to one another to make sure that the reverse side was not some kind of visual special effect.

The most typical feature of Huyghe’s recent works is the perplexing and provocative amalgamation of different levels of reality. The Third Memory crosses the line between fiction and nonfiction, of course, but so does the triple video projection L’ellipse, 1998, which takes as its point of departure a jump-cut in Wim Wender’s The American Friend. In one scene in the Wenders film, the main character, Jonathan Zimmermann (played by Bruno Ganz), is on the phone in a Paris apartment. Next thing you know, he is receiving horrible news in another apartment on the other side of the Seine. How did he get from one place to the other? We accept such mysterious transports in film; it’s the way stories are told. We hardly ever think about these abrupt cuts. L’ellipse fills in the gap with reality: We now see Ganz walk across the river, from one apartment to the other (which is quite a distance in real life; it takes a good ten minutes to walk). It’s been two decades since he played the role of Jonathan Zimmermann, so naturally Ganz looks older. But who is this person in the film—the fictive character Zimmermann? The actor Ganz? Or some character in a new story? Huyghe writes, “A ghost is a character from the in-between, trapped on a bridge between two banks, in a suspended time. L’ellipse is a story of a ghost who, in actual reality, comes to haunt a gap that is missing in the narrative. . . . L’ellipse hollows out an imaginary time in the interstices of fiction.”

Inquiries into narrative conventions and techniques can be a dry business, but Huyghe’s installations are strangely riveting. In recent years, artistic appropriations have reached a point where one may question the real point of one art form (the video installation, say) cannibalizing another (the cinema). No doubt, over the course of its evolution, the multiprojection video installation will introduce new forms of narration and viewer participation. Still, why steal from cinema? Perhaps the answer is that video can pose questions to film that film is incapable of to itself. This is exactly what Huyghe’s L’ellipse does, for example, when it makes us aware of the function of the jump cut and inserts the actual distance and the time it really takes to move from one place in the story to the next.

Another recent project concentrates on the physical aspects of something even more elusive than a cut in a movie: the voice of a girl in a fairy tale. Blanche-Neige, Lucie, 1997, is a brief documentary about Lucie Dolène, the woman who provided the voice of Snow White in the French version of the Disney film. She explains her situation: “When I gave my voice to that character, that beautiful little princess, graceful and innocent, I was Snow White. . . . Yes, absolutely. . . .Today, when I watch the film, I have the strange feeling, it’s my voice and yet it doesn’t seem to belong to me anymore.” Dolène has good cause for concern: Disney was using her voice-over without her permission. After lengthy legal proceedings over royalties, she can again claim the rights to “her” voice. “The happy ending is the fact that, by winning her case, she really becomes Snow White,” Huyghe writes. Such a happy ending has not yet been reached in the case of John Wojtowicz, who is still fighting Warner Brothers for the rights to his story as the world-famous bank robber who loved another man so much that he was willing to risk his life to give him the sex-change operation he dreamed of. Wojtowicz is not trying to become Snow White. All he claims are the rights to himself.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.