In concerts, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley used to self-deprecatingly announce that he was going to play “another twisted love song” in a set that included titles like “Last Goodbye” and “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” from his only full-length release, Grace. Call it love, this thing we write songs and stories about, this crazy urge that inspires and gives birth to obsessions that take on lives of their own, this feeling that can make us do things that would seemingly contradict our very natures.
Back in the 1950s, Burt Pugach was a less-than-handsome ambulance chaser with a few extra coins in his pocket — enough to own a private plane — and connections in Hollywood that enabled him to get tacked on as a film producer. Those flashy credentials won him the casual affections of a bevy of young women at the time and earned a second glance from Linda Riss, a beautiful young woman with more self-worth than the average girl on the make.
Linda wanted the same things everyone else desired, but she wasn’t quite willing to sell herself short for the quick score. Ironically, she would find herself caught up in a never-ending game of love and chance with no clear winner.
It’s a story as old as time itself. Boy meets girl, woos her, loses her when he turns out to be married with a disabled child, decides that if he can’t have her no one can, horribly disfigures her, goes to jail for the crime and then, years later, embarks on a journey to win her back.
Yes, you read that correctly — he attempts to win her back, even after their arc jumped the rails so disturbingly.
The epic ode begins in the 1950s yet continues to survive into the present. It’s not so haunting and romantic; this tale is deeply rooted like a raging weed that simply can’t or won’t die.
An article in The New York Times a few years ago triggered filmmaker Dan Klores’ recollection of Burt and Linda’s run through the New York tabloids back in the day.
“I was 9 years old when it happened,” Klores says. “It was a big story in the tabloid papers, which were the only papers in my home.”
As he became re-familiarized with the story, Klores was overtaken by a gradual realization that there was something there.
“It had all the elements that I’m interested in,” he says. “It was in New York, it was about love, it was about crime, it was about media, sex, loss.”
Instead of calling a reporter to get a handle on the scoop, Klores decided to go directly to the source.
“I looked him (Pugach) up in the phone book,” he says, “and the listing was there, so I called.”
With little coaxing, Pugach, now 80, agreed to meet with the director. Klores fashioned his approach largely based on detailing his experience, as both a documentary filmmaker (Viva Baseball! and Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story) and his feature-film credits (he served as executive producer of City by the Sea). But he also has an extensive background as a shrewd public-relations veteran known for his key role in handling difficult litigations for high-profile clients.
His initial conception of the story of Burt and Linda married his documentary and feature sensibilities. There would be the important facts and details from the court and news records alongside reenactments of dramatic sequences. He pursued this path for a few months before scrapping it, but thanks to a wealth of research including every single piece written on the lurid saga at the time as well as all of the court records, the move toward straight documentary was smooth.
Crazy Love comes across as a document of not only the twisted relationship between these two people but our fascination with the media — far beyond the mere attraction we have as voyeurs caught up in the misfortunes of others, but our own willingness and desire to air our own dirty laundry before the cameras.
In response to my question about how tabloid culture has evolved, Klores quickly sums up the current state of our media obsession.
“If this (story) happened today, it would be in the news cycle for a shorter period of time,” he says. “Then, in the ’50s, the only tabloids were the newspapers, and in New York City we had seven newspapers, three of them tabloids. Now we’re overwhelmed with so-called tabloid journalism. Overwhelmed, you know. We make celebrities of the Paris Hiltons of the world.”
True enough, but Crazy Love captures the evolutionary footprints, the fossils left in the mire. From the tabloid newspaper cover in 1959 when Burt goes to prison for masterminding a physical attack on Linda (with all the ensuing coverage of his suicidal jailhouse exploits) to the 1970s when television becomes a key instrument in pitching the story to a wider audience (while making an even bigger celebrity out of Burt when he proposes to Linda on-air during a morning talk show) to never-ending twists and turns that are no less bizarre as the story arrives on the scene at the moment, the media often makes us love not the best in humanity but the worst.
Klores might be right in his estimation that such stories have a shorter cycle in the cultural consciousness now than before, but the craziest consideration is how even the briefest mention of these types of “news” items shapes our conception of love.
The ultimate question of Crazy Love is not whether Burt and Linda love each other despite all they’ve put each other through, but should we pay attention to the media in matters of the heart? (tt stern-enzi)