January 30, 2007

Park City Dispatch. 9.

Sundance 07 David D'Arcy on Crazy Love, Manda Bala and Ghosts.

When I think of the Sundance Awards, I can't help but think of the Special Olympics, in which everyone wins something, and you leave the ceremony believing that the world has been brought closer to enlightenment. Given the travail of parking in Park City (and doing anything else there during Sundance), there's also an element of sacrifice (and perhaps a long march) involved in simply going to the ceremony.

Sundance juries tend to be ruled by sentiment, which may explain why Sundance films that win tend to disappear when they enter the marketplace - note that this is not always the case - so I applaud the selection of films like Padre Nuestro by Christopher Zalla for the Grand Jury Prize and Manda Bala for the Doc prize, two films that deserve a wider audience.

One film which was far less acclaimed is the kind of film that brings audiences together in a sick and voyeuristic way. And I don't mean these terms to be negative. Crazy Love, directed by Dan Klores, is a documentary that tells the greatest kind of story - the kind "you can't make up." You can't tear yourself away from the film's characters, who can't tear themselves away from each other. It sounds like love, except in this case a nerdy personal-injury lawyer learns that a beautiful Bronx Jewish princess, whom he's been dating, is going to marry someone else, and he hires thugs to throw lye on her beautiful face. After endless motions and the longest trial in history of Bronx County, he's sentenced to 30 years in prison. The last few years are spent in Attica, where he witnesses the 1971 prison riots in which 39 people died. When Burton Pugach gets out of prison after serving 14 years in the early 1970s, even though Linda Riss is blind and bald from his attack, the two get married. It gets even better in the 1990s when the two seem to have settled into a dull period in their marriage, and Pugach's new mistress tells cops that Pugach threatened to throw lye in her face. (She took him seriously because he kept reminding her that he had already done it.) Pugach goes on trial again and the lawyer, who's been disbarred since the late 1950s, exercises his right to represent himself. Pugach wins an unexpected acquittal, and goes home to - who else? - his wife. Incredible? Of course it is. And that's why the very fact that Dan Klores has exhumed this story is remarkable in itself. The fact that he's made it into a film, and a film well worth watching, for its characters, suspense, and sheer color, made this film one of my favorites at Sundance 2007.

Crazy Love Pugach and Riss (still Mrs. Pugach) are still very much alive in Queens (where else?). And living with each other is as good a version of a life sentence as I can imagine. (They attended the Sundance opening of Crazy Love in matching white mink coats.) Dan Klores takes us inside their story from the perspective of the couple, Pugach's law associates, Linda's girlfriends, and a few journalists. But he also takes us into a very special social milieu - the Jewish Bronx, which is not what it used to be. This was a vibrant world in the 1950s, and Klores - although he's from Brooklyn - gets a lot of it right. (For a great Bronx Jewish screwball comedy, you can try renting Michael Roemer's The Plot Against Harry, a forgotten treasure when it was made in 1969 and re-released in 1989, and a largely forgotten classic today.) But if Car 54, Where are You? had been made like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, the Burton Pugach-Linda Riss ordeal could have been one of its episodes.

So, is love blind, or blinded? By the time Pugach gets out of prison, Linda seems to be well aware of what she was getting into, but as she told her friends, being married to a man who hired thugs to throw lye in her face was better than being alone. In A Very Different Love Story, Berry Stainback's 1976 book about the first stage of the case, Linda tells the author that lye actually nourished her skin.

Bear in mind that Dan Klores is a professional publicist with a glam and celebrity practice, although this is not his first feature documentary. To be fair, this doc is not what I would even call a publicist's doc. He's not relying on vapid interviews from hard-to-get celebrities, and there aren't any dull commentaries from frequent fliers on Page Six, although Jimmy Breslin and Andrea Peyser are brought in as New York hacks for abbreviated contextual observation. The hard-to-get thing here was the story from the loving couple themselves, and Klores got it. When a publicist does something right, it's best for us all to recognize it.

Manda Bala The other film that came as a pleasant documentary surprise at Sundance was Manda Bala, by Jason Kohn, the protégé of Errol Morris. Kohn's film is set in Brazil, and the look of it in bubbly digital video that seems to be approaching the boiling point, gives you the impression that you're entering another world indeed. The world is a world of corruption and it's a black hole. In Sao Paolo, people are kidnapped every day, and the kidnappers make videotapes of their hostages to send to relatives who are asked to pay ransom. It seems that one way to get a ransom quicker is to cut off someone's ear on camera and then send the ear with the videotape. When the ear doesn't work, kidnappers cut off a finger and send that with the next tape. Then comes the death threat, and when that doesn't work, you just kill the victim and kidnap someone else.

Manda Bala means "send a bullet" in Portuguese. By that point, the victim is dead. But the chain of corruption goes far beyond the kidnapper-victim equation. In Jason Kohn's documentary (this is real, of course, no one's making it up), there's a huge fund for the development of the impoverished north of Brazil, which contains the deserts of the Northeast and Amazonia of the Northwest. One entrepreneurial politician has taken a huge chunk of this to create a farm for raising frogs. You never knew that so many frogs could be in demand for the dinner table. And it's never sure that they are, although we do see Brazilians eating them with gusto, because the frog farm is part of a massive money-laundering scheme that enables the politician to acquire television stations, newspapers, and all sorts of other enterprises. It looks like an open-and-shut case when investigators and prosecutors talk to Kohn about it and the politician is even convicted of his crime: a rare triumph. But he's cleared of all the charges on appeal. If friends in high places can't help you in Brazil, where can they? It seems that every institution is failing in this country, and everyone's on the take. But there's an odd hero in Manda Bala - a plastic surgeon whose genius is rebuilding ears for wealthy abductees who have somehow managed to survive their kidnapping. If the judicial system can't reconstitute your world, at least you can have something that looks like the body part that was taken away from you, provided that you can afford the surgery.

Ghosts Jason Kohn's film is bound to get a lot of attention as a new doc from a young kid who's made his first film with a visual flair. One film that seemed to be invisible at Sundance was Ghosts - no pun intended - by Nick Broomfield. It's the haunting - still no pun - story of a group of 23 Chinese immigrants who died digging for shellfish in Morecambe Bay in 2005. In this dramatic feature, not a doc, Broomfield and his handheld camera recreate their journey from China, which took six months, to the UK. He follows them through awful jobs and even worse hostility from their British neighbors. (The Chinese call the Brits ghosts, and they are struck by their corruptibility. You will be, too.) They are attacked and beaten when they go to the bay to dig for shellfish, which they think will pay better than dingy jobs in supermarkets or slaughterhouses. After they are beaten with impunity by the locals, they decide to work at night and are surprised by high tides. Only one of them survives. The families who sent them to the UK still owe huge amounts to moneychangers in China. And the British government won't contribute a cent to help them. Broomfield should be commended for showing what it's like to be on the short end of globalism's stick.

It's not exactly like being an outsider in Park City during Sundance - more like being in Park City during Sundance without much money.

More tomorrow on the challenge of running a major film festival in Park City, the "border" films, and a new genre, the abusive romantic comedy.

Coverage of the coverage: The Park City Index.

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Posted by dwhudson at January 30, 2007 4:50 AM