When I was a more militant and less reasonable youth, I used to think that religion and money were, in tandem, the root of all evil. It seemed so obvious at the time; in the name of God and eternal life, men hijacked planes, sprayed airport ticket counters with machine gun fire, and firebombed abortion clinics from coast to coast. Just as heinously, corporate crooks and average Joes alike polluted rivers, hired assorted thugs and assassins to intimidate workers, and ignored simple human decency, all in the name of profit and economic advancement. It’s a reasonable mistake, needless to say, and a common misconception for any number of budding idealists. If at war with “them,” after all, the passions are stirred, the moral clarity deceptively pure, and life itself has purpose and depth. Now, in the full bloom of my wasted adulthood, teeming with missed opportunities and squandered talent, I am equally certain that instead of God and green, it is love that most lastingly devastates the human experience. For every bloated body sent into the river of greed, there are dozens stripped of life by the hellfire of amour. Sure, we’ve killed for it, died for it, and even waged war for it, but more than that, we’ve acted most contrary to good sense in its pitiful name.
Material interests, on their face, are more reasonably defended, as their loss is immediate and tangible. Even in the most extreme of circumstances, “jobs” and “progress” don’t seem altogether ridiculous as motivating factors for widespread retribution, and a good argument could even be made for a good cleansing now and again. But love? Over the centuries of this global circus, we’ve seen men and women alike carve, slice, dice, bludgeon, and mutilate, all for (and because of) other human beings who are, even on their best days, decidedly average. Armed to the teeth for hearth and home? Without question, but going to the mat for dullards, dipshits, nitwits, and fools? We’ve roasted our children alive for slovenly husbands who can’t even be bothered to shave. We’ve shot up restaurants for uppity tarts without so much as a job prospect or decent education. Chests have been cracked, heads split open, and genitalia removed with surgeonlike efficiency, all because we’d rather endure the unendurable than be alone.
But it’s love just the same, as the very term – whose origins are dubious at best and clouded in sentimental mystery – can rarely be disentangled from narcissistic entitlement. Love then, for damn near the whole of humanity, is at best a survival mechanism; a distorted, devious frame of mind that remains indistinguishable from the urge to possess outright. When we love, then, it is not giving, or kind, or selfless, or evenhanded, but cruel, vain, and repellant; the manner by which we keep others in our grasp so as not to face the pointlessness of existence without distraction. Love is the ultimate balm, and if nestled in a shroud of company and attention, we can shoo away the nagging doubts and crippling insecurities that otherwise dictate our daily routines. Love grants an importance we might not have actually earned, and it most certainly teases us with the notion that we are anything but temporary creatures facing a quite permanent rest. It’s one of the few things in life that simultaneously keeps us alive and has us praying for death.
And so we have Burt and Linda Pugach, two of the most certifiably insane people ever captured on film, who are nonetheless in love. It’s nakedly sadomasochistic dependency – perhaps the clearest case in the annals of psychiatric medicine – but why must that term be so loaded as to preclude a more mainstream classification? Burt, a former attorney (ambulance chaser, as he’s described even by those who care for him) and wealthy eccentric, loves the woman in his life with body and soul, not despite having once hired several goons to throw lye in her face (an act that permanently blinded her), but because of it. But this was back in the late 1950s, was it not? And so what if they get married 16 years later, immediately following Burt’s release from prison? Are they not still together? Has he not been reasonably loyal, only cheating on her now and again, rather than repeatedly? So they fight, bicker, threaten, and manipulate; what couple doesn’t see its set of trials and tribulations? Burt and Linda are intolerable, sick, revolting, and clearly mad, but I’m still not in the position to say that love doesn’t also enter the equation. Everything they do violates our collective sense of love, of course, but even this has the dangerous byproduct of defining what that sense must be. If love is a greeting card with lush fields, should we not investigate the source of such images? Love might not be so flexible as to include beatings and attempted murder, but on whose orders is such a thing declared?
We first meet Burt and Linda as young suckers in lust, though Linda’s not about to give it up for anyone, even if he’s wealthy, fun-loving, and connected. As you would expect from such a tale, Burt first saw Linda on a New York street corner, declaring that against all odds, he’d win her heart. It’s that old “love at first sight,” which, contrary to the romantics, is based solely in sadism and dehumanization, as it is founded on the ludicrous notion that someone can be assessed entirely without communication. But he wants her, and she’s self-involved enough to follow suit, as this older gent is more than willing to whisk her away to restaurants, shows, and even up in his private plane for a unique view of the city. He’s crazy about her – smitten as all get out, needless to say – but she senses his jealousy burning beneath the surface. And so it explodes, despite the fact that Linda remains a virgin. She even takes him along to the doctor to prove it. No matter, as he turns into a maniac (rather, a deeper, more bizarre kind of maniac), a transformation that sends her packing and into the arms of a more handsome, though decidedly poorer, young stud. Quickly announcing their engagement, Burt is pushed up and over the brink, and he enlists the services of three black men (their race being important only in that it was hyped by the media at the time) to visit Linda at her home and throw the caustic solution in her face. We’re not sure if Burt hoped for death, but blindness and disfigurement is what he gets, and it takes the authorities little time to trace the attack back to its demented source.
The New York papers gobbled up the case, and it hit the headlines with all the force of a hurricane. People who seemingly had it all – wealth, power, and good looks – were embroiled in the usual business of petty jealousy and callous revenge. Burt, being of sound mind, fired his attorney, accused everyone (including the judge) of being insane, and took to his own defense. It was a pointless effort indeed, and the jury spent but a few hours deciding his fate. Obviously, though, jail wasn’t enough to stop him. He sent letters, begged forgiveness, proclaimed his love, and offered her the money he earned from defending his fellow jailbirds. Gleefully recounting the events from the present day, Burt tells us how he exploited loopholes to spring murderers and bastards alike, who predictably killed again upon release. He doesn’t care, of course, as he needed the cash for his one and only Linda. In fact, these contemporary discussions prove conclusively that if anything defines the life of the self-absorbed, it is the complete disengagement from a larger world. No one (and nothing) matters save the fulfillment of personal desires. As such, he’s the sort of chap who would bemoan the loss of a shoe in the midst of global war. But Linda is no shoe, and he works at nothing less than a fever pitch to win release and do right by his woman.
And what does Linda think of all this attention? After all, this is no mere suitor, but the very pig who took away her sight, locking her forever in darkness. Instead of feeling pity for Linda, though, we shrug a bit and accept that as she’s a fighting match for Burt in the narcissism sweepstakes, it’s not altogether shocking that she’d also covet her attacker. The conversations with Linda hammer this down with disgusting force, as she believes herself unworthy of anyone else’s attention. She’s alone, broke, and lonely, and Burt is, well, rich and available. And since he caused her injury, he’s cheerfully accepting of it, so there’s none of that embarrassing explaining to do. Hell, she can even take off her dark glasses and let her butchered eyes breathe a bit. It might be tempting to dismiss her acquiescence as sheer survival (how else is she to live?), but there’s more at work here than needing a man to sign the checks. The staggering evidence proves that this is a woman – even after being blinded – who had more pictures of herself than anyone who has ever lived. There are at least two dozen of her standing before a mirror alone, as if on permanent display to the world. She’s a woman in constant need of reinforcement and acknowledgement, and the very pictures that fill her albums act as the essential spark for her heartbeat. And again, this is not a battered woman overcompensating for her loss of sight, as her crushing vanity predates the attack. One after another, these images flew by the screen, and with each jaw-dropping pose, the more I understood why she so readily married the man who wanted her dead. Assault and attempted murder are still attention, are they not? Maybe love, then, is nothing more than finding someone who loves you as much as you love yourself.
Throughout the film, we not only listen to the words of Burt and Linda (who at last share the screen near the end), but friends, journalists, and relatives who witnessed the extended car crash firsthand. Even the legendary Jimmy Breslin joins the party, giving us a sense of a time now past where the writers among us had grit and personality, rather than simply the drive to succeed. Curiously, no one involved seems overly saddened by any of this, or even the least bit shocked. As such, the tone of the movie is jovial, almost celebratory, and you’d have to look twice to realize that these people weren’t heroes or historical figures of import. A slight effort is made to explain away Burt’s savagery as the product of an abusive mother, but I’m not even sure they believe it, as it’s casually pushed aside in favor of more wild anecdotes and cruel punch lines. What, then, is the point? It’s pure tabloid, to be sure, but also entirely possible that the film’s themes speak to the sheer complexity of human happiness. Here these two stand, smiling and giggling like teenagers in love, and we’re to strip that away from them because of our sanctimonious disapproval? Is it permissible to find the loathsome so fascinating that we end up loving them ourselves? Could they be both criminally insane and hopelessly devoted? Frankly, it’s all too much for us to handle, and as we think in dichotomies and gross oversimplifications, I’m not sure we’ll ever be ready to declare Burt and Linda as the new Romeo and Juliet. They’re doomed, but we can’t admit it’s love. Depressingly, I’m starting to think it might be so.