Correction to This Article
The review incorrectly described lye as an acid. It is a base.

'Crazy Love': That About Sums It Up

After they met, and she spurned him and he blinded her, Burt and Linda found true love. Dan Klores's documentary offers the gory details.
After they met, and she spurned him and he blinded her, Burt and Linda found true love. Dan Klores's documentary offers the gory details. (Magnolia Pictures And Shoot The Moon Productions)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

When Elizabeth Barrett Browning said she'd count the ways she could love someone, she never quite made it to No.11: "I shall love thee so entirely that if thou leavest me, I shall throw acid in thy face."

But that's the story of Burt Pugach and Linda Riss of the Bronx, N.Y., as told in Dan Klores's documentary "Crazy Love," and here's the nut-root part: Sixteen years after the fiery liquid ate away her eyes and hair, Linda married Burt. As they say, the path of true love seldom runs -- oh, nevermind.

Some, of course, would argue that to call what Burt felt for Linda and what he did when it appeared he had lost her wasn't any kind of love at all; it was a deep hostility driven by obsessional neurosis and a total narcissistic personality disorder. In other words, the then-32-year-old lawyer was not merely creepy but nuts.

However . . . you can't tell them that. What they've got, and what the movie documents, is something that would be utterly strange if it weren't so banal. It shows, alas, how love (or something; maybe companionship) grows anywhere there's need, fear, desperation and that terrible sense of being trapped in lonely nothingness. So when Linda, faced a bleak set of blind tomorrows in a little cheesy Bronx apartment, a growing old of infinite regret and solitude, it was perhaps not so surprising that she turned to the one person in the world who still saw her as ('50s word) a dish, despite ruined eyes eternally shaded by Zsa Zsa Gabor sunglasses and a head so scared that it is eternally sheathed by what appears to be one of Diana Ross's old wigs.

She even stuck with him when -- old leopards cannot change their spots! -- a mistress sued him for abuse and phone calls threatening an acid attack.

Klores tells the story through two modes: The first is through piercing, straight-ahead, fearless interviews, primarily with Burt and Linda, but also through friends, colleagues and observers. The outsiders provide a sense of the outside world in the compacted madness, but it's Burt and Linda who are the main attractions.

Perhaps the competition of reality television, where people's fears are exploited, emotions are bared and humiliations are inflicted, have made such face-to-face stuff inevitable. So, how did it feel when the acid hit, she is asked, and she tells, and it's not pretty. Then there's Burt. Excuse me, but whatta bum! Preening, eager to sincerely fake contrition, secretly loving the attention, manipulative as a salesman in a convent, he really is never touched by the Klores technique. He's just too slippery, too facile. A shame. You sort of want to see him broken. If only he didn't enjoy this so much!

The second technique is a straight-ahead narrative that evokes the Bronx of the late '50s and early '60s, beautifully crafted melanges of archival stills, snips of pop culture, as well as photos of Burt and Linda and newspaper headlines telling the lurid story, which was quite the rage back when it happened. (And there were several New York papers clamoring for readers with ultra-vivid, snazzy headlines.) By the way, Klores's last documentary was "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," also largely set at that time and place and equally effective in its re-creation of the milieu.

What we see is that Burt styled himself a kind of Playboy figure, a suave man about town with a swank car and sleek clothes. He was a lawyer who loved the nightclub life and to give lavish presents -- and how was Linda supposed to know he was already married? Girl, you think, dump the hustler and go elsewhere.

And she did, without much trouble. Linda was a va-va-voom girl, though she tells us that while she dressed hot, she lived straight and it never got physical with Burt or her other beaux. She eventually figured out who he was and what his game was, and when she realized he was married and wouldn't get a divorce, she dumped him.

He began stalking her. Ugh, it gets so creepy here. The next thing you know, he's hired three thugs to knock on the door, pitch the juice -- it was lye, actually -- and run. The slime didn't even have the guts to do it himself.

He got 14 years. It was in the slammer that he began writing to her.

You can make of it what you want. Klores offers no cheap psycho-babble to suggest why Linda agreed to meet with Burt when he got out in 1974, and then married him that year. He offers no theories as to why, in 1997, she stayed with him when he was accused of more wretched behavior, was found guilty of second-degree harassment and spent 15 days in jail.

Now, they're together, the four of them, man, woman, sunglasses and wig. You can't look at them, but you can't look away either. So it goes.

Crazy Love (92 minutes at Landmark's E Street Cinema, Landmark's Bethesda Row and AMC Loews Shirlington 7) is PG-13 rated for intense material.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company