The Reeler


May 31, 2007

Crazy Love

Tabloid romance doc goes heavy on the "how," light on the "why"

Love makes us do crazy things. That’s the central conceit driving Crazy Love, Dan Klores’ fairly straightforward documentary about psychotic New Yorker Burt Pugach’s multi-decade courtship of Linda Riss, which started as harmless obsession and developed into murderous rage. Pugach seemed like a reasonably ordinary fellow, as acquaintances that have known him over the years recall, until he met Riss. Initially comfortable with her in a normal relationship, the two young lovers came to blows over questions regarding Pugach’s fidelity, and that was that. Except, for Pugach, that wasn’t that.

In a series of acts that suggested latent tenacity suddenly emerging from lifelong hibernation, Pugach began plotting to win back his girl. Note to young lovers in similar situations: Blinding the object of your desire generally doesn’t yield the intended result. Yet that’s exactly what Pugach did in 1959, hiring two goons to hurl acid in Riss’ face, and the trick worked: 15 years later, after Pugach was released from prison, Riss married him. If you believe the couple’s onscreen testimony, she did it for companionship, although the details of the case suggest that she was desperate for financial stability and settled for the marriage because there weren’t any better options.

It’s a silly situation that attracted tabloid attention for years, and Klores shows us that the personalities involved are exactly as wacky as the stories suggest. Watching Pugach and Riss, now in their 60s and 70s, sit side-by-side and discuss the situation feels sort of like eating dinner at the home of a passing acquaintance and praying for the final course. These bizarre characters have a sort of freak show quality to their interactions, as they simultaneously admit to the unlikely quality of their marriage and try to justify it. They certainly carry the show, but their eccentricities are less fascinating than sad.

Filled with such recollections (along with those of their close friends), Crazy Love is a surprisingly ordinary movie. Klores includes a terrific soundtrack (“I Put a Spell on You” hits all the right notes) and plenty of historical details (headlines, news footage, etc.) to bring the events to life, but my sense is that the end result doesn’t serve its purpose as a documentary: We get the how, but never the why. The story plays out like a dark joke, simple in concept and fairly amusing, but Klores doesn't deliver a strong sense for the emotional value of the courtship. If it's 50 percent sham marriage (Riss) and 50 percent loony possessiveness (Pugach), then the documentary never digs beneath the surface to unearth the underlying tragedy. If Riss has authentically learned to love Pugach, she doesn’t do a very good job convincing viewers that that’s the case.

That wouldn’t be a problem if Crazy Love were a narrative (it would make a terrific horror film), but as it stands, the product lacks a much-needed level of inquisitiveness. Since the story gives Pugach a central voice, the movie nearly makes a case for his sanity (at least, within its own sensationalist reality), but the facts overwhelm that obvious fiction.

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