Feb. 13, 2008 - Issue #643: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
Love ain’t exactly a many-splendoured thing in the real worldNo card clichés, chocolate-sweet sentiments, or flowery lines—there’s no better time than this Valentine’s week for the DVD release of the ten-episode first season of HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me. It doesn’t have the flash or dash that can make it as marketable as other HBO, Showtime or F/X dramas, but Cynthia Mort’s show offers a tender and troubled look at relationships beyond a therapist’s office.
The intricacies of love and sex twine around four couples: twentysomethings Jaime (Michelle Borth) and Hugo (Luke Kirby), pregnancy-eager Carolyn (Sonya Walger) and Palek (Adam Scott), parents Katie (Ally Walker) and David (Tim DeKay), and sex therapist Dr May Foster (Jane Alexander) and her longtime husband Arthur (David Selby). The first two episodes, directed by Canadian Patricia Rozema, introduce the show’s strikingly sombre colour-and-lighting palette, understated drama, and sense of innerness—quiet little insights into relationships are glimpsed in stores, at the office or in bathrooms, living-rooms, bedrooms. Episodes simply begin, with no preamble, the credits only coming after the title flashes on screen, blue against black after the last scene. Characters glance past each other in a park or at a restaurant, their worlds sliding by the dark.
The show is fairly explicit (though prostheses were often used), but the sex scenes are usually shot up close and reflect the bruises and thrills of each relationship. (It’s a shame, though, that all four couples are straight.) Episode Three epitomizes the show, beginning with some amusing phone-sex that’s later countered by some disturbing, angry love-making on a couch.
Just when Carolyn and Palek start to seem irritatingly yuppie-ish and self-absorbed, something about that narcissism hits home with a flinch. After all, every relationship looks inwards—at preying anxieties (Jaime worrying about Hugo eyeing other women), at nagging worries about drifting apart (like Katie and David), at past wounds (Arthur and May’s gentle probing of a rift in their past).
As Jaime unashamedly keeps calling Hugo, hoping to get back together, Katie and David, their middle-class family life so touchingly real from the start, have been sucked into the silent strain between them. Ally Walker is especially good here—just watch her reaction to the wedding anniversary gift that the pair’s ten-year-old daughter encouraged dad to buy for her.
That description may sound melodramatic, but Tell Me You Love Me is never as earnest or pleading as its title. It finds a gentle, steadily fascinating poetry in the day-to-day struggle of steady, stubborn, often inexplicable commitment that two people find themselves pushing and pulling each other into.
The blindness of love is brutally literal in Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens’ documentary Crazy Love (Magnolia). It’s a near-blindness from lye, thrown on the face of Linda Riss at the behest of Ron Pugach, now her husband. But what’s surprising about this bizarre love triangle—think Hollywood Babylon, Othello, and Greek myth—is not how twisted and bizarre it is, but how boring.
Even with 40 minutes of interviews as disc extras, the only real insight Crazy Love offers is into how deeply corrosive and toxic ’50s America could be. Leave It To Beaver? This is a world of stunting sexual repression, casual anti-Semitism and racism (one of Ron’s friends still casually drops the “n” word), and the all-importance of looks and money. The problem is that the film never shows anyone being deeper, as if the surface patter of their ’50s world is really all they are.
But then, what insight can we get into a man so obsessed with a woman that he wouldn’t tell her he was married, had her beaten up and threatened so she would come running to him, then hired someone to blind her, was jailed, ended up in Attica during the ’71 riots, and got out on parole only to marry her?
It’s a head-shaking, tabloid tale that’s elevated here—by good editing and a wealth of photos and documents—into a well-organized doc, but there’s little point to the tale. We can’t care about these people because there’s something so careless about them. Pugach’s venal hypocrisy in the ’50s is offered so flatly and matter-of-factly that it makes Jake Lamotta seem complex—he was a relentless womanizer, prone to jealous rages, and he barely even mentions his wife or their disabled daughter. Linda seems to have mostly been impressed by Pugach’s wealth and status, then fell into needing someone for financial security in the ’70s when she was poor and living on her own.
There’s no figuring out just what makes a relationship work, as Crazy Love so ineloquently shows. But it’s best to just leave this odd couple to the distant past of Geraldo and other talk show appearances. Forget evil—apparently infamy, even lunacy, is just as banal. It’s not happily ever after but, in some strange way that truly bears no further scrutiny, Ron Pugach and Linda Riss deserve each other. V
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