Sunday, December 30, 2007

Crazy Love

The smart-alecky writer Joe Queenan was on NPR recently talking up a piece he wrote for the LA Times about how much he hates documentaries.

Rather than watch a documentary, he wrote, "I would rather have my eyelids devoured by enraged piranhas." That's because for Queenan, documentaries evoke school-day memories of "being locked in a steamy, smelly auditorium for 45 minutes and forced to watch a grainy film about the boll weevil."

I'm sure Queenan's brand of macho anti-intellectualism sells well in some places, but his argument is weak. All documentaries aren't created equal, yet Queenan's broad brush sweeps away not only a PowerPoint classroom lecture like An Inconvenient Truth and agitprop like Michael Moore's Sicko, but also an enthralling human-interest doc like Crazy Love, which surpasses many fiction movies in pure entertainment value.

Crazy Love is this year's Capturing the Friedmans, a superbly edited recounting of a lurid story that once dominated New York headlines. Directed by Dan Klores, the film tells the story of the bizarre, multi-decade relationship of Burt Pugach, a lawyer and onetime B-movie producer, and Linda Riss, in the Bronx. On Rosh Hashana in 1957, Burt spotted Linda, 21, sitting on a park bench. He thought she was "absolutely gorgeous," a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor. He decided he had to have her. Burt was 32 and decidedly unhandsome — skinny and nearsighted, he looked like Arnold Stang (a more contemporary analogue might be Robert Crumb).

Linda, who was uncommonly naïve about men, thought he was "a nut." But he was also "a lot of fun." He had money, drove a Cadillac convertible, flew his own plane, and owned a nightclub in the Latin Quarter, where he took Linda dancing every night.

He was also, as Linda later discovered, married. When she tried to break off the relationship, Burt concocted a series of lies — he was getting a divorce, the papers weren't finalized yet, it was only a matter of time. He took Linda shopping for a house in Scarsdale.

When Linda discovered that Burt's "divorce papers" were fake, she again broke it off, but Burt wooed her back, then tortured her with mad jealousies. He forbade her to talk to other men and dragged her to a doctor to prove she was a virgin (she was). When no divorce came through - Burt's wife tolerated his philandering and would not give him a divorce - she broke it off and started dating a nice young man named Larry Schwartz.

When Linda became engaged to Schwartz, Burt "just flipped." He began threatening Linda, throwing rocks through her window, even planning to kill her fiancé. Linda turned to the police for protection, but in the 1950s, stalking wasn't recognized as a crime, and the cops ignored her pleas.

On the week Linda was to be married, the situation erupted in a shocking act of violence that provides the film's devastating climax.

Burt and Linda's story has been widely publicized, and since the movie's release, they have appeared in newspapers and on TV. Yet the film's publicists have asked critics not to reveal all of the movie's surprising details. Tempting as it is to discuss the rest of the story, it would be unkind to deprive viewers of the revelatory shock. It's enough, then, to say that Burt's psychotic obsession marked Linda for life - and that this event was just a prelude to decades of pain, prison, psychosis and perverse events that kept their story in the papers sporadically for decades.

Klores, who grew up in Brooklyn, remembers reading about this story in the tabloids as a child and being "saddened and moved by the cruelty." He became a magazine journalist and founded a high-profile public relations firm and, at age 50, launched a new career making documentaries. The delicately and dramatically constructed Crazy Love shows off his fine storytelling skills.

Although the movie tells the unusual story of two people, it's also a commentary on its times, when a woman's value and security rested on her looks. After her terrible experience with Burt, Linda felt like "damaged goods," and two men who wanted to marry her fled after seeing that damage. Unable to work, she sank into a desperation that made Burt seem like a reasonable partner. To us, it seems crazy, but to a woman with no options, maybe not so crazy.

It's also interesting to see how the couple's story intersected with trends in journalism. The Pugach story sold stacks of papers in the early '60s, and their unlikely reunion was tailor-made for the emergent medium of tabloid TV in the '80s.

Crazy Love is superbly strange, sad and difficult to shake from the memory. And there's not a boll weevil in sight.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times,

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