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in Filmmaking
on Jan 20, 2007

What are the odds that 2007 would see not one but two documentaries about people whose lives and relationships are transformed when they are blinded by acid thrown in their faces?

Gary Tarn’s brilliant Black Sun, which Peter Bowen has written about for the current issue of Filmmaker, uses the attack on writer Hugues de Montalembert as an opportunity to consider the subject of sight in all its dimensions – practical, philosophical and even ethical. Dan Klores’s Crazy Love (produced and co-directed by Fisher Stevens) takes a different approach. Such issues of sight and seeing are almost afterthoughts in what is ultimately a kooky, only-in-New-York tale of improbable love.

Crazy Love tells the story of a wily, womanizing ambulance chaser, Burt Pugach, and the young beauty, Linda Riss, he falls for one day. Directed in a breezy, music-driven style, the doc zips through archival footage of New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s, family photographs, and talking head interviews with Pugach, Riss their friends and other commentators.

Pugach, a young personal injury attorney, spots the beautiful Riss while driving down a New York street in 1957 and soon he’s courting her 24/7. Riis enjoys the attention until she learns that Pugach has a wife and disabled daughter. She gets engaged to another guy, and Pugach sinks into a kind of depressive psychosis, culminating in his hiring three men to ring Riis’s doorbell and throw lye in her face. One eye is severely disfigured, Riss loses most of her sight, and she also becomes an instant tabloid celebrity.

Crazy Love goes on to tell what initially seems to be the unfathomable story of how Pugach and Riss went on to a 28-year marriage following Pugach’s release from prison. Along the way, the movie opens up to touch upon cultural change in America as Pugach becomes an almost Zelig-like figure, participating in the Attica prison riots and hob nobbing with activist lawyer William Kunstler.

There are scores of docs that center on the mysteries of character. Why do people do the things they do? Many of these docs leave you unsatisfied at their conclusion, though, when you realize you still don’t know what makes these people tick. It’s the ultimate success of Crazy Love that, I think, you perfectly understand these two people by its end. Pugach, quite simply, was (and probably still is) nuts, and his relative cheerfulness in narrating this tale is awfully disturbing. (Jimmy Breslin says in the film that Pugach was the most insane person he met who wasn’t in prison.) Pugach’s love of Riss is clearly a form of psychodrama and domination. And Riis, well, midway through the movie she can’t work due to her blindness, is running out of money, and is having problems finding a man who’s not put off by what’s behind her fashionable eyeglasses. Pugach, who has been released from prison, has cash, and he loves her – obsessively, perhaps, but that’s more than she’s got from anyone else. Just as importantly, Pugach and Riss bestow upon each other a strange and very American form of celebrity, appearing together on talk shows and in magazine profiles.

In the film’s disquietingly upbeat third act, the couple is just like those old radio-show characters, The Bickersons. In other words, just like any old married couple. And that’s what’s most shocking about Crazy Love.

(For more on this year’s festival, including interviews with fest heads and many of the short filmmakers as well as personal statements from most of the feature directors, click here.)

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