The following post was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog on February 14, 2013.
At six years old, it may seem too soon to call Crazy Love a classic. But I’ve always stressed the theory that documentaries can become classics quicker than fiction films, just as they tend to become dated much faster, too. This film was an instant classic, though, in part because romantic nonfiction had not been common in cinema, and so Crazy Love was a revelation when it debuted at Sundance in 2007. It has remained the first title to come to mind every Valentine’s Day when I think of documentary love stories to recommend. And now that I’ve finally seen it, I can attest that it may just be the best movie ever to watch on this day, whether you’re in love or not, and whether you celebrate the holiday or cynically dismiss it.
Romantic docs have been arriving more and more steadily recently, but they can’t really compete as chronicles of passionate love stories. Planet of Snail (which just hit DVD this week) offers a wonderful peek into a loving marriage. Only the Young and The Argentinian Lesson do a nice job of following coming-of-age affairs of the heart. The Loving Story is a great addition to the genre of civil rights films before it’s a notable romance picture. And recent Sundance selection Cutie and the Boxer is similarly more on the side of a feminist tale than a doc that celebrates its central couple. Going back, Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March is still the best doc about looking for love, but (spoiler alert) the filmmaker never really finds his Valentine in the course of the film.
What makes Crazy Love stand out, besides a perfectly picked and woven soundtrack, is that it first and foremost tells a love story from the beginning to… not the end, because a perfect love story has no ending. Maybe it’s not a story many can relate to. Maybe it is a story that some can identify with negatively, having been an abused partner who still can’t let go of the abuser. But no matter the ups and downs, the common obstacles of other suitors and deceit and unfaithfulness, and the uncommon hurdle of one partner permanently blinding the other and ending up in prison for many years as a result, the love story told in this film is undeniably romantic in a really messed up sort of way.
And it’s so incredibly real, one of the greatest examples of the “truth is stranger than fiction” maxim. You could not make a dramatic/narrative version of the scandalous story of Burt and Linda Pugach and have it play out better than it does through this simple, conventional documentary of talking heads and basic archival compilation. The many storytellers on screen are so clear and detailed in their relay of events that you can see the scenes in your mind. And the story being told is so distinct and fascinating that it almost doesn’t even need to be so well-directed (by Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens) to hold our attention.
But it is very well made, with its varying ways of revealing moments through the interviews (his or hers or theirs or theirs) or tabloid headlines or some other most suitable device for the occasion. Enough that long before the “crazy” part of the title kicks in, even just the set up of Burt and Linda’s initial courtship is riveting, in spite of it just being your seemingly everyday encounter and instance of two people falling for each other. It helps that both Burt and Linda are so open about their sides of the story, especially him considering the bad things he’s done. At their age, though, and given the media attention on them in the past, there’s very little reason for them to not be so candid and honest nearly half a century after the worst of it.
It also helps that Klores and Stevens went with such a poppy and popping soundtrack of oldies. It’s like a Scorsese movie, particularly the section of Goodfellas when Henry is wooing Karen, with its progression of nightclub standards through to ’70s rock. But the songs aren’t just any random tunes from the times. They’re mostly fitting numbers involving borderline obsessive rather than romantic lyrics — tracks include Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s rendition of “I Put a Spell on You” and The Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”
True romance, such as that which we see in Crazy Love, has to be unbelievable and involve questionable sanity. It must be fantastic and unfamiliar and unhinged and be easily mistaken for something completely unromantic. Otherwise it’s just the sort of insignificant love story that happens every day. The biggest competition for this film’s status as the best Valentine’s Day movie of all time is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Actually, since that’s set on the holiday it should probably win, but like Crazy Love it’s both a genuine depiction of what it’s like to fall in love and be in love and a psychotic deconstruction of a relationship. It’s a battle between the mind and the heart.
And it plays one way to people who see it as a romantic tale of love ruling over reason and another way to people who focus on the extreme proof that love is a construct and a disorder. As does Crazy Love. How can we not find it romantic that Burt would disfigure the love of his life so no other man can have her? How can we not obviously find it sickly disturbing, as well? Truly passionate romance is not sweet, it’s ridiculously insane. It’s crime sprees and suicide pacts and singing in public and other unpredictable actions, and it’s easily mistaken for hatred and it’s almost always dangerous for the couple (or at least one of them).
Crazy Love wins the day because, unlike Eternal Sunshine and many other crazy romance pictures, this one is true. And while there have been some other documentaries on passionate, obsessive love, such as Errol Morris’s Tabloid and Marie Losier’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, this is more conclusively romantic than the former and better told than the former.
It’s also worth seeing now if you never have, regardless of it being February 14th, because Linda Pugach just died of heart failure last month. In her obituary in the New York Times, Klores is quoted as offering some doubt about the couple’s love, particularly as reason for their marriage and continued relationship. I certainly didn’t get a sense of doubt in watching his film, and while I never met the pair as he did, I choose to disagree that love isn’t a word applicable to what they had (and still have). It might not be the sort of love and relationship that I wish for myself, but a story needn’t be desirable whatsoever to be utterly romantic.
Crazy Love is available on DVD and iTunes and is streaming on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus and SnagFilms.
This is re-printed with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.