Crazy Love
Director: Dan Klores, with Fisher Stevens. Documentary about Linda Riss and Burton Pugach, still married 27 years after he was paroled from a 30-year jail sentence for hiring the hitman who blinded her for life. Interview subjects include Linda Riss, Burton Pugach, Jimmy Breslin, Rusty Goldberg, Joyce Guerriero, Sylvia Hoffman, Bob Janoff, Rita Kessler, Marvyn Kornberg, Janet Pomerantz, Margaret Powers, Marvin Scott, Berry Stainback. Screenplay: Dan Klores.


Photo © 2007 Magnolia Pictures
Paving the way for other kitsch effects that will nonetheless exert considerable and entertaining power over the course of the film, the title of Crazy Love, in the simple, boldface italics of the public alarm call, races toward the viewer like an implacable pair of oncoming headlights. A calamitous collision is indeed in the offing, but not between the film and the audience. Very much on the contrary, Crazy Love is the rare documentary that aims not to hammer or arrest the audience or to pacify us into a more sober and teachable attitude (though these are worthy ambitions of many excellent documentaries). Instead, it sidles up to us, thrills and surprises us, seduces us with the pop flavor of its mid-century paperback aesthetic and its titillating tabloid tale. Crazy Love is chummy. I'm used to having my jaw hit the floor when I watch documentaries, but usually because some further aspect or degree of political misrule has been exposed, or some redoubtable fact about worker abuse or environmental degradation has been crystallized for mass contemplation—less often because, as in Crazy Love, the serial twists of a salacious story, as related by the people who lived it (and are still living it) seem too outsized or too guignol to be believed. Here is a story of a man, Burton Pugach, whose mother bathed and also beat him until he was "ten or twelve," who chased ambulances in the 1950s all the way to an $80,000 annual salary when the national average was closer to $4,000, who laid eyes on a Bronx beauty and decided he had to—in the casually egregious lingo of the time—"have" her, and who forged his own divorce decree to mollify the girlfriend who only discovered several months into their very public nightclub-society courtship that this man was already married. And here, too, is the story of that woman, Linda Riss, who prevaricates only a little about whether she loved this man back or (much more likely) was stunned at his wealth and attention and stupefied by his doggedness, and then tried to cut him out of her life following a series of flagrant deceptions, who became engaged to another man, and who then opened her apartment door one day to have a vial of acid tossed right in her beautiful brown eyes.

Recounting this tale in retrospect, Burt is now a reasonably unassuming septuagenarian who is, happily, a little fuller of face than he was in the beetle-eyed years when he took out a hit on his disillusioned girlfriend. She, in her array of folksy and proudly gossipy close-ups, is a dramatically wigged dame who knows she's telling a corker of a yarn, who keeps unspooling it from behind some notably outlandish sunglasses that register a little less hilariously once we discover what the lenses conceal. I should mention that Burt and Linda are also married to each other, and have been for 27 years—more or less since he got out of jail, where he was incarcerated for 14 years for "conspiracy to maim."

I mentioned that most documentaries these days are explicitly political, perhaps too predictably so; audiences can't tell them all apart, and even bigger audiences are too exhausted to try, and even bigger audiences than that never get a chance to see them in real theaters anyway. Crazy Love is now on DVD, which raises its level of accessibility considerably. As for politics, director Dan Klores and co-director Fisher Stevens haven't shown the slightest impulse to extrapolate any political message from this material, though had they been so inclined, they could hardly have hoped for a splashier, more colorfully caustic demystification of that idealized and stridently defended "marriage" that voters and lawmakers are so busily fighting for or about. Crazy Love doesn't superimpose any cultural narrative or any frame of emblematic reference on its story, probably because this story doesn't need any editorial assists. Klores and Stevens surely sense that their movie keeps its surest footing when it hews to this outrageous, winding narrative of airplane rides, iguanas, sexy secretaries, masturbation in solitary confinement, demonic penmanship, and flagrantly not learning from past mistakes. The whole creative team behind Crazy Love, particularly composer Douglas J. Cuomo and editor David Zieff (also a co-producer), have a grand time immersing this story within a climate of cultural outpourings—photographs, jukebox chord progressions, crooners, Cadillacs, cheesy movies with ersatz stars—that situate the tale historically but also evoke the weird balance of earnestness and barely sentimentalized insanity that beats at the heart of Burt and Linda's tale. One wonders if they are, in some measure, and against the culture's best intentions, the very pinnacle of those addle-brained romantic mythologies (love against all odds! love at first sight! love without sight!) that America paints for itself and sings to itself and sells to itself and buys from itself. The old Buddy Clark serenade "Linda," a key prop within this drama but also an effective embellishment, inspires some of the plushy-kitschy romanticism in Cuomo's music while also repeating itself as a properly stalkerish motif, over and over and over. Plus, as with any good documentary, Crazy Love packs some pungent and some revelatory peripheral details, as when distasteful "biographer" Berry Stainback slides unconsciously between the terms "murderers" and "black guys" as though they are synonyms, and comparably sensational ones at that; and when Camcorder footage from 1996 shows Burton panning and narrating the space between a statue of "Venus, the goddess of love" and "Linda, the goodess of breaking balls," which she finds uproarious; and when Linda's face, many many many years into her marriage to Burt, patently lights up in a completely new way, even behind her enormous dark glasses, when she remembers the man she almost married in Burt's stead, before her acid bath—and, perhaps, her unbreakable, Euripidean bond to the acid-thrower's employer—scared the nicer guy away.

What became of this almost-husband, Larry Schwartz? Or the actual acid-thrower? Which half of this couple, or was it both of them, made the decision to parade their story on Geraldo's show and Sally Jesse's show? How bad did it get for Linda, financially or emotionally, in the years while Burt was writing her in prison, and she was alone inside a "cheesebox" of an apartment? The montage can't quite decide if Linda was living a high life or a pauper's existence during those years, just as it can't quite make sense of the Attica riot's precise relationship to Burt's eventual parole, or the exact timing of the couple's marriage in relation to that parole. Savvy stewards of their notorious and deeply fractured fairy tale, Burton and Linda don't say much about the parts they presume to be boring, or perhaps embarrassing, or (least of all) potentially incriminating. Crazy Love is never less than transfixing, and it lays out a carpet of chintz and wacky irony so that we know it's okay to enjoy this tale of lunatic obsession and ghastly revenge, rather than balk at it, but viewers may feel an undercurrent of frustration that the narrative as presented and the zesty, corroborating music don't allow us to experience this story with anything except astonished, largely anecdotal bemusement. Good on the filmmakers for even capturing a confession like Linda's that she sees her own incessant carping, her goddessness of ball-breaking, as the most poetic justice Burt could ever have received—but how deeply does she mean this, and how deeply, indeed, does she mean anything? Anyone who complained about Hillary standing by her man oughta get a load of Linda, seemingly an even sturdier and more unapologetic figure but surely masking an even more bottomless self-deception or self-denigration that the film is, frankly, a little jejune and even cowardly not to plumb. A plucky but nonetheless haunting image near the very end of the film, with Linda's dark lenses barely hovering over the edge of Burt's shoulder during a slow dance, doubly encapsulates the remove at which she stands from the audience, and likely from herself, but the same image may remind the audience that Crazy Love would rather sit at her feet while she tells the whopper she's happy to tell, rather than ask the questions that might throw her, or anybody, a little off their well-rehearsed game and into our fuller, more textured understanding.

Still, if Crazy Love errs on—of all things!—the side of tact and passivity, it does so in a gratifying guise of merry tastelessness and crafty tale-spinning, and it robustly personalizes the people in this story, not just their pulp-novel history and most grandiose acts. The movie is a pip, I promise. Don't ask for more than you're given, but be glad for what you receive. And really, don't try this at home. B


Awards:
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Documentary Feature

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