Directed by Dan Klores
Fisher Stevens (co-director)
I will freely admit to having a particular fondness for upsetting documentaries. I’m intrigued by first-person narratives where terrible things happen to those telling the stories, to John Irving-esq tales of lives diverging in some horrible and unpredictable way. I am also fond of trashy docs; films about serial killers that present conjecture and hyperbole as fact and poorly-researched docs about neo-Nazis and Christian right-wing movements and generally tabloid-worthy investigations are the focus of some of my favourite things to watch for fun.
Unfortunately, Crazy Love is really neither. Too well researched and competently presented to be a trashy distraction but with a story far too trashy to be interesting in any other context, Dan Klores’s new film is a confusing experience.
The story, beginning in the late 1950’s, revolves around Bert Pugach, a New York lawyer, and his courtship of a woman named Linda. Bert, a married philanderer who freely admits to openly propositioning all of his female clients, becomes infatuated with Linda after driving by her in a car. After pursuing her relentlessly, she ultimately discovers he’s married and breaks off their relationship. Bert becomes obsessed with her and even admits to waiting outside her building with a gun, intending to kill her after finding out she had become engaged to another man.
Bert says he was unable to harm Linda himself. Instead, in the summer of 1959, he hired a man to come to her apartment and throw lye in her face, permanently disfiguring her and destroying her right eye. This horrible act, obviously the fulcrum of the story, changes both Bert and Linda’s life’s forever and leads them to some very surprising places. The film’s third act will, I think, be a shock to anyone not already familiar with the story.
Filmically, Crazy Love is very well made. Kolores draws on a wide variety of media, including archival news footage, family photos, print articles and an eclectic assortment of interview subjects who tell Bert and Linda’s story from myriad perspectives. The film moves well and the editing shapes and develops the story in a very clear and controlled manner.
Unfortunately, Crazy Love is undone by two fatal flaws. First and foremost, there are literally no likeable people in this story. Bert is an unrepentant sociopath, his friends who are interviewed are vile, callous bigots and even Linda, who should be an easy sell as a sympathetic character, is far from it. Many of the people in the film would be considered extremely offensive anti-Semitic stereotypes were they not, unfortunately, real people. Although this kind of moral ambiguity is often prime real estate for narrative documentaries, the film fails to examine its subjects in any meaningful way, staying firmly on the surface of this sordid tale.
This lack of depth highlights its second flaw, which is ultimately a lack of sensationalism. Kolores moves the film along in a manner that suggests an attempt to avoid sensationalizing this already sensational story. However the payoff he seems to be promising, that of a deeper, more thoughtful examination of these people, their connection and the reality of obsession, never materializes. So we get neither; not guilty voyeurism, nor revealing insight. Dan Koloes would have done well to consult Billy Corben, of Cocaine Cowboys fame, about properly presenting lurid, entertaining stories without character insights.
Jimmy Breslin, the famous New York journalist who covered the case throughout its numerous developments over the years, gives one of the film’s more memorable interviews. Breslin, among the most quotable people alive, has little insight to offer on the story. When asked what he thinks about Bert Pugach after following him for years, Breslin shrugs and says “Everyone deserves a second chance. But I think he’s used up his ticket, y’know? I mean, he better not run a red light.” In the end, there might not be much more to say.
Ultimately, Crazy Love is a well-made film about a terrible story that neither indulges nor enlightens the viewer and will leave both those seeking insight and those looking for cheap thrills somewhat disappointed.