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Just Who You Calling 'Crazy'?

June 7, 2007 By:
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Love, look at the two of us: Linda Riss and Burt Pugach Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Shoot the Moon Production

For those who think love has blinders, meet one of them: Burt Pugach, whose blinding of his lady love in 1959 was tabbed by the tabloids as a vision in viciousness, a crime so cruel that the victim -- Linda Riss -- exacted her vengeance against him in the most vicious of vendettas.

She married him.

Opening this Friday, "Crazy Love," Dan Klores' absolutely, compellingly crazy-but-true documentary of love never having to say you're sane, is all about lye and lies -- those Pugach had tossed in Riss' face by accomplices, and the untruths she discovered about him being married even as he courted her as if she were the one and only.

In a way, he was the one and only, pulling off a crime so brazenly bizarre and distinctive that it disfigured not just Riss' face but her future.

And yet they got married ... what can you say? Kids.

She was more akin to that age range than he when they first met in New York, where she was a 19-year-old dazzler and he a much older, dollar-gone-wild spender -- an attorney taking a spin at the high life even as it would soon spin out of his hands.

At best it was beauty and the beastly, with the Jewish couple first meeting on Rosh Hashanah in the Bronx in 1957, and soon being written into the book of life with a table of contents so catastrophic, it was as if Kol Nidre had become "their song" -- a Hebraic "Desperado" for the desperate set.

The tort attorney was tortured by jealousy when his lovely Linda looked at others and, unbelieving in his promises that he'd marry her, broke off their relationship. When she segued to another suitor, he sicked hired hands to commit an act so sicko that audiences at a preview gasped aloud at its gargoyle grotesqueness.

Then again, documentarian Klores has never clung to Cinderella stories, where the coach doesn't turn into a hearse for the pretty pumpkin perched inside.

Klores' killer instinct for instructionals on "injustice, love and loss" gets a beastly blackboard here to chalk up, ultimately, lessons on loneliness, showing why being alone may mean more of a threat than caring for a companion with an eraser aimed at his lover's eyesight.

Klores is of sound mind and body about a film as loopy as it is about loneliness. But this isn't the first time Klores -- a powerhouse of a public-relations player internationally, whose New York firm has firmed up and fleshed out images of the rich and famous -- has used film as a screen saver.

Since taking to the backlots of B-ball in Brooklyn and brooking a rebellious life as a teen teaming with rage against his frustrated parents, this erstwhile Jewish rebel without a cause has since found one in the forum of film.

A writer whose early bouts with self-doubt had him boxing against his shadows with no corner to resort to, Klores kayo-ed the evil empire within to start afresh in a field where his public -- and private -- relations netted him nachas.

But, he avers, bagging big accounts couldn't account for the emptiness he still felt inside, even if they served as a soulful safety net.

"I was never truly happy," he said, with his mega-millions of a career in Manhattan, where sending press releases about clients couldn't staunch the endless release of ennui inside. "I never felt fulfilled. But it was safer for me to be in the background -- it wasn't me being criticized, if there was criticism, but the client."

Now he faces movie critics with the assurance that comes from honors and accolades -- at film festivals and in the feeling from many that his documentaries form a docket of some of the demanding industry's best and brightest.

His last? "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," about the bout of the '50s that inflames still: Griffith's welterweight championship of a welt-inducing pummeling to death of boxer Benny Kid Paret and the punch-drunk lifeless existence Griffith endured shadowed by guilt and recriminations, made for a masterwork. It was as much about the rope-a-dopes who deal in pain outside the ring as in.

Klores' bio also sports the seminal "The Boys of 2nd Street Park," his inchoate inner salute to his fellow basketball players on the Coney Island courts where cyclones of life blew them together and apart.

He had never gone to film school, says Klores, but he felt the full-court press of the past on his needs to commit to the dare of documentary. And with the encouragement of Lynn Novick, whose own docu work is alongside producing partner Ken Burns, and Matthew Penn, exec producer of "Law & Order," Klores reordered his career priorities.

Viva la difference -- and the difference his next success with the Latino-landscaped "Viva Baseball" made. Now that he knows how to define success -- and it's a dark room with audiences staring at his enlightening stunning works on screen -- Klores still has trouble defining love. Not at home, but in society.

"Who could define love?" he muses after trying to make sense of the sado-masochistic masterclass in love-hate that is "Crazy Love."

It is all an age-old story of love being blind taken to an absurdly eyesore of a spectacle in which affection is gauged by a ... gouging?

Oedipus as educator? Pugach as the man with the evil eye? Despite the occasional laughs generated by the film, this is no ocular as jocular -- and it's certainly no joke to Pugach, who spent 14 years in jail looking at the four walls and clanging gates before him. "Watching these characters ... it's like my parents' friends I grew up with, like the women who played mah-jongg with my mother," says Klores, clearly not intending it as a slap at the neighbors, but at the surface innocence which coats the characters with a patina of patently innocuous behavior.

But then the gloves come off, and the pain plastered on as onscreen friends and family take their ringside seats to a beating that nearly parses with what Paret put up with.

Pugach's punching bag of a partner is smeared red by the hateful, hurtful act of a bloodless, soulless sap whose vindictiveness vetted his need to control and con.

Yet there they sit, blinder and blinded, together on screen discussing a love that almost dares not speak its name -- one that would drive even Oscar Wilde wild with exasperation over its earnest outrageousness.

And, Pugach, it seems, had gone on a wilding spree: After finally landing Linda, he baited another trap for another beauty, yet one more victim of this vulpine veering ever so close to the abyss.

Abysmal may have seemed the prospects at that point for this nutty newlywed game played with loaded dice, but rather than flee, Riss relented -- and posted his bail when Pugach was arrested on a police complaint by his mistress that he assaulted her. Ultimately, Pugach was acquitted of the most serious charges he confronted thanks, possibly, to the sterling job turned in by one of his major character witnesses: Linda Riss.

Is there a pill potent enough to cure these characters? It's enough for Prozac to throw up its hands and accede the case to the real pros: Burt and Linda.

How does it all play out for the players involved? "Burt loves it," says the filmmaker. "He feels [the film] vindicates him. She ... she's excited" about the movie coming out.

And he himself?

"I go back and forth," says Klores of the whiplash ride of his reel life. "There's a large part of me that feels for the both of them."

Yet "there are other moments, where I just feel like saying [about the movie], 'Leave me alone!' "

It is an insightful if ironic comment coming from a filmmaker whose own sense of abandonment and loneliness are what links him to the loners of his own films.

"It is no accident," says Klores, "that all my films are from New York. It pulls me -- the outsider that I am -- and I feel like that person standing there alone, singularly vulnerable. It is not a psychological accident that all the characters end up alone."

Alone again ... unnaturally? "I was the outsider, rebelled against my parents because I felt isolated -- which is now why I'm especially sensitive to the underdogs."

Barking up the wrong tree of life? Or hounded by history? "When I look at this film, I see [its message] as what we do to not be alone," says Klores. "That has always haunted me -- look, I have a great wife, great kids -- but I've always felt that."

He also feels it's time to move on professionally, and is looking forward to "soon make a sale" of his public-relations company.

Because it is the relations with the film and theater world he relishes most. The author of Roundball Culture is going for the hoop and hoopla of the stage -- his first full-length play "Little Doc" will bring the documentary maker to Broadway this fall even as he fills his schedule once more with the fall of Griffith, whose story is being made into a feature.

And "Crazy Love"? It, too, will be featured again -- with plans for a full-length feature on the boards.

Does Klores have some black magic at his disposal to deal with such a workload? Lay off the heavy lifting? Ha, lay up the heavy hitting -- he has another documentary in the works: "Black Magic," about black B-ball stars, using the backboard as backstory, with some shooting set for Philadelphia. "But that," he says firmly, "will be my last documentary."

Because it makes him feel like the last one standing: "The making of a documentary, after a while, makes you feel all alone." Just you and the editor, he says.

But theater ... it's the music, the mirror and the ... No, Klores doesn't seem like a "Chorus Line" kind of creator, more the type to focus the spotlight on those who step out of line with some off-kilter choreography to their credits while taking a step back from the social norm.

And while the chorus line's Cassie cares for the limelight, Klores is no Cassandra, his messages heeded and taken to heart as singular sensations that may make for tabloid headlines, even while headed straight for the heart.

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