Love and Disfigurement

It's the classic tale of boy-meets-girl, boy-throws-acid-in-girl's-eyes, boy-marries-girl

What the hell is wrong with people? The documentary Crazy Love tries to figure this out in the case of Burt Pugach, an obsessive psychopath and philanderer who hired people to blind and disfigure his ex-girlfriend by throwing acid in her face.

The weird thing is, when he's not conspiring to have people assaulted, Burt's a pretty nice guy. I mean, most people are pretty nice when they're not hiring people to throw acid in your face, but then, very few people go out and hire people to throw acid in your face, so in Burt's case, the contrast is striking.

In the late 1950s, scrawny, ugly, wealthy Pugach fell madly in love with curvy, beautiful, middle-class Linda Riss. Burt was an ambulance-chasing lawyer, film producer and club owner whose hobbies included cheating on his wife and committing acts of fraud. Linda was more into just going out and having a good time, but somehow, they connected, and Pugach became obsessively fixated on Linda in a manner that modern people would call "creepy" and "stalkerish."

After Linda found out that not only did Burt Pugach love her, and he didn't love his wife, and, oh yeah, he had a wife, she decided it was best that they split up and that Burt do something else, like, say, go to hell.

Burt was not fond of this idea, and, in spite of having lots of other girlfriends, he felt it would be more just if Linda either kept seeing him or was painfully disfigured or killed. And thus a story was born.

The tale was sordid and convoluted enough--I'm leaving out lots of nasty details, including child abuse and racism, America's two favorite amateur sporting events--that the New York tabloids picked it up and ran with it for weeks. Headlines like "Acid Thrower Blinds Girl" and "Acid Blinds Bride to Be" (Linda had become engaged to a non-psychopath after dropping Burt) added color to the otherwise dull 1950s, and Pugach and Riss became a strange sort of celebrity couple.

Some 40 years later, director Dan Klores caught up with the Pugachs and asked them how it all went down. Yes, the Pugachs. See, at some point, Linda married Burt. It's the classic boy-meets-girl, boy-throws-acid-in-girl's-eyes, boy-marries-girl romance, just like you see in the Hollywood movies.

How disfigurement, hatred and marital commitment come together makes for a pretty interesting story, especially in the latter years, where it becomes more and more obvious that Burt Pugach is not exactly remorseful, nor is he entirely sane.

But the weird thing is how rational he seems, at least at first. He's calm; he recounts in careful detail his misdeeds and the emotions he felt. He certainly admits that you shouldn't throw acid in anyone's face. But otherwise, he thinks of himself as a victim. He even says that the courts railroaded him by convicting him of something he actually did. I mean, he literally says that: He was guilty, but he didn't get a fair trial.

Interviews with Burt's friends show a similar pattern: All think Burt's a swell guy, but criminally insane, dangerous and devoid of the capacity for basic moral reasoning. Nonetheless, Burt is smart and knows how to put on appearances. That kind of thing plays well with a parole board, sadly, and so when Burt was released from jail, he did what any upstanding psychotic would do: He returned to courting Linda Riss.

But it was a new age, and instead of the tired, old-fashioned, 1950s-style dating techniques like "lying about your wife" and "blinding your girlfriend with battery acid," he tried the more modern, groovy, 1970s style of sending Linda lots of cash.

Linda did not respond particularly well to this at first, what with her being unable to clearly see the cash through her acid-scarred retinas, but ultimately, she and Burt started appearing on talk shows to discuss their storybook romance.

So, over the years, they explained their special feelings to Mike Douglas, Joe Franklin, Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessy Raphael, among others. And in doing so, they acquired a special connection, which, if not quite love, was like love, in that it was mutual dependence bonded with bitterness and hate.

If you want to see the hows and whys of this, you can either read the book A Very Different Love Story by Berry Stainback, which provided inspiration for this film, or watch Crazy Love, which updates the tale to include Burt's latest criminal/delusional behavior.

I can't say this is a perfect documentary: It uses the cheesy technique of creating 3-D effects from old photos; the midsection is terribly drawn out; and director Klores holds on to some information for too long in a bid to drag out the suspense. But the music is excellent, a mix of old blues and R&B focusing neatly on obsessive love, and the leads make for great interviews. On a scale from protozoan to land mammal, I'd give it at least a lizard, because even when the technique falters, the story succeeds.

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