January 04, 2014

Lerman's 14 For '14 Day Two - CRAZY LOVE Is The Precursor To The Horrors Of Reality TV

"When I get my wife home, there may be another sexual abuse charge against me."
Halfway through Crazy Love, I texted Lerman the following:

"These people are FUCKED."

Pictured above are Linda Riss and Burt Pugach.  Theirs is a classic love story.  Linda was a stunning young beauty and Burt was a successful New York lawyer.  Sure, he may have been a bit of an ambulance chaser and he might not have been the most attractive guy on the block, but he had a lot of money and he loved spending it to impress young Linda, so she thought, "Why the hell not?"  After a whirlwind romance in the late 1950's, Linda eventually discovered that Burt had a wife and a child in another state, and that was NOT cool.  He tried to convince Linda that he was in the process of getting a divorce and that worked for a time, but he also became extremely jealous and paranoid, convinced that she was secretly sleeping with other men despite her insistence that she was saving herself for marriage.  She even went so far as to take Burt to a doctor so that she could give him medical proof of her virginity.  So clearly this is an extremely healthy relationship built on mutual trust and respect.  Eventually Linda realized that Burt's wife was never going to grant him a divorce, so she broke off the relationship and Burt promptly went absolutely fucking nuts.  His depression became so severe that he was eventually committed to a mental institution, emerging a few months later with a beard that properly reflected his unhinged nature.  Linda was now engaged to an attractive young guy and Burt grew so enraged that he began stalking her, even going so far as to wait outside her home with a gun in order to kill them both.  But when actually faced with killing the object of his obsession, Burt simply couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger.

So instead he hired two guys to ring her doorbell disguised as delivery men.  When she answered the door, they threw lye in her face and blinded her.

The media circus that followed was long and involved, but in the end Burt was sent to prison, where he spent the next 14 years writing Linda love letters in an effort to win her back.  Linda, now missing most of her sight, was attempting to get by in the outside world but her handicap limited her employment opportunities and her new physical deformity chased away most potential suitors.  (Her fiance had quietly broken off the engagement once the media frenzy had died down.)  She was making very little money and growing increasingly lonely and...well I'm sure you can see where this is going.  At Linda's request, Burt started sending her money as a form of penance, an act that would eventually get him paroled from prison.  The two began communicating directly, started spending time together...and eventually got married.

Like I said, these people are FUCKED.

They remained married, even after Burt was caught in an affair in the late 90's and was accused of threatening to blind and murder his mistress when she decided to leave him.  Linda defended her husband to the press while Burt defended himself in court and he was acquitted on all major charges.  Linda died last January at the age of 75.

That's all pretty much terrible, a story that's equal parts horrifying and depressing.  Burt was a victim of constant child abuse and clearly became incapable of expressing his emotions in any kind of healthy or appropriate way.  He seemed to emerge from prison a changed man and all of their friends were forced to admit that, despite the couple's extreme history, Burt spent the rest of his life taking very good care of Linda.  And I'm not categorically opposed to the idea that even a man as so clearly disturbed as Burt Pugach can be rehabilitated and earn a second chance in life, but if I were Linda Riss, I simply don't see how I could ever feel safe being alone in a room with that man ever again.  Sadly, as depicted by Dan Klores's documentary, Linda comes off as one step short of being the world's most tragic gold digger.  Her initial attraction to Burt was largely based on his ability to provide for her and shower her with lavish signs of affection.  And when an imprisoned Burt sent a friend to try and talk to her, she told the man that if Burt really wanted to do something for her he could send her some money.  It was this financial patronage that eventually brought the two back together, and word of their engagement sparked a whole new media firestorm, including a biography and appearances on a number of talk shows.  These were clearly two people who craved the spotlight, regardless of the circumstances that brought them notoriety.

The Pugachs became the darlings of the tabloids and they absolutely ate it up.  The more bizarre their story became, the more attention they garnered.  It's shocking true crime meets celebrity romance gossip, the kind of grotesque horrorshow that has become inescapable in the modern era of 24-hour-news and rumormongering infotainment.  If this happened today, the likes of Nancy Grace and US Weekly would lose their fucking minds.  And by the time they were married, I have no doubt whatsoever that the Pugachs would have their own reality show on E! or TLC.  I have a longstanding hatred of all reality television, which started as my actor's resentment at seeing so much of the television landscape dedicated to inexpensive nonsense that actively took jobs away from working actors.  But over the past dozen or so years, that resentment has morphed into full blown disgust at the amount of time and attention paid to lowest common denominator shitshows that celebrate the reprehensible behavior of shallow attention whores and the intellectually bereft.  Sure, there are people who consider stuff like Jersey Shore or Keeping Up With The Kardashians as farce, an extreme theater of the absurd to be looked down upon and mocked for the minstrel show that it is.  But these televised clowns are increasingly regarded as actual and unironic role models - look no further than the backwoods bigot from Duck Dynasty being held up as a persecuted hero of free speech while dominating news cycles for two solid weeks.  With a story like the Pugachs', this threat feel particularly insidious as it sends a dangerous message to both women and men concerning what constitutes acceptable behavior and a healthy relationship.  (Twilight famously suffers from the same malady, exacerbated by the fact that it's inarguably aimed at girls at their most impressionable age.)

I'd say we dodged a bullet in that the modern media machine wasn't around in 1959 to feed on the Pugach saga, but Burt and Linda's influence on today's culture of manufactured celebrity seems undeniable.  Jamie saw the first few minutes of Crazy Love, wandered back in around Linda's attack and said, "These two are gonna get married later and I'm supposed to think it's really sweet, right?"  To her, the ending was obvious because, "I watch TV.  I know how this works."  I really can't argue with that logic.

What's The Connection? -  I was looking for all sorts of plot-driven or thematic connections.  A guy who falls in love with a woman he doesn't really know and tries to impress her with over-the-top methods?  Burt and Craig McHugh even drove almost identical cars.  But as the closing credits rolled, the connection became obvious: Crazy Love was co-directed by none other than Fisher Fucking Stevens, who I had almost forgotten is now an Oscar winning documentary filmmaker.  I've been meaning to watch The Cove for years, especially now that I like sushi so much.

Up Next - High Tension


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Title: Crazy Love
Director: Dan Klores, Fisher Stevens
Starring: Burt Pugach, Linda Riss, Bob Janoff, Syliva Hoffman, Rita Kessler, Berry Stainback, Margaret Powers, Jimmy Breslin
Year Of Release: 2007
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD