By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Crazy Love,” Magnolia Pictures, 2007]
“Crazy Love” could only work as a documentary. If you tried to pass off this story, about a man and a woman who marry years after he blinded her by dousing her with acid, as an invention, no one would believe it. And yet here it is, complete with old photographs, newsreels and articles (“Acid Thrower Blinds Girl” screams a typical headline). They say it takes all kinds. Well, some of those kinds are severely deranged.
Burt and Linda Pugach met in the Bronx in the 1950s. She was a young girl he spotted one day on a bench; he was an unscrupulous ambulance chaser who would ask all of his female clients a simple question “Yes or no?” Many said no, but enough said yes to keep him happy until he met Linda. After that, there was only one woman for him. Pity he didn’t tell his wife.
Their meeting is as cute as a sitcom but their lives even before their relationship were as stormy as something out of a Douglas Sirk movie (and who’s ever accused Sirk of aping reality too closely?). Burt was abused by his mother; Linda never had any positive male role models. And when Linda gets engaged to another man, Burt loses his mind. He hires men to threaten her in the hopes that she’ll be so afraid she’ll come running back to him. When that doesn’t work, he buys a gun and plans to kill her fiancé, but can’t bring himself to do it. So he hires someone else to knock on her door, claiming to have an engagement present. He throws lye in her face and blinds her.
Before we go on, a question: who throws acid at someone? This is how supervillains are created in Batman comic books! Actually, comic books might be the only other place where a story as straight-up insane as this one could come across as something approaching believable. It’s also the only place you’d expect someone to look like Pugach did during his darkest periods, with a thin moustache and beard and a downright Satanic gleam in his eyes. Even as he discusses those events with the hindsight of decades, Pugach still sounds a little off. Journalist Jimmy Breslin calls him “the most visibly insane man he’s ever met that’s not institutionalized” and it’s easy to see why.
Some have argued that “Crazy Love” tells a great story but that director Dan Klores doesn’t necessarily tell it in a great way. There’s a fair point to be made there; Klores isn’t a particularly revolutionary or formally experimental filmmaker. But consider how easy it would have been to turn “Crazy Love” into a freak show or a circus, the way the media did when Burt and Linda went through all of this the first time. Klores never does; and he gets candid interviews from both that run the gamut from charming to chilling. The portrait that comes out is well-rounded; even if you still can’t quite grasp how these two ultimately wound up together. But, really, who could? Even some of their closest relatives couldn’t.
Above all, “Crazy Love” shows us a glimpse of unvarnished humanity, where old people use phrases like “handjobs” and where a woman justifies her marriage to a man responsible for her disfigurement by calling herself “damaged goods.” Someone in the film suggests that Burt having to care for the woman he harmed was some sort of ironic revenge, and it is. But you couldn’t have written that into a script a million years. Not one anyone would buy, anyway.
“Crazy Love” opens in limited release June 1st (official site).