March 30, 1997
Brian Treglio lies on his stomach on a mat, part of a circle of troubled New York City youths in a theater group called Faces. He’s about to go first in “Intimate Moments,” an exercise that the others know well: their leader, a social worker named Susan Montez, has often used it to draw them closer together, as well as to bring forth experience that is “real”–heartfelt and serious–on a subject of concern. The joke is that they’ve all done Intimate Moments so many times, people have started to cheat, to tell an intimate story for the second or third time.
But today that’s less likely, and one reason is that the subject is grave. Dating violence is something Faces has never really succeeded in talking about. And the story Brian Treglio is about to tell is one that will change the way they all think about him.
He’s not one for words, generally, but the surprise at hearing Brian talk for so long is soon eclipsed by what he has to say. His story begins with drinking at a party. Beeped by his girlfriend, he walks over to her house. Earlier in the day they had been squabbling, and now both of them are drunk; soon, they’re arguing in bed.
“She told me that she made out with this guy. So I got upset. . . . Then she started saying stuff about my father . . . that she knew would get me upset. She got poking at me, poking at me and, you know–she wouldn’t stop. I think I kicked her and she kicked me and I kicked her and . . . I was to the point of total outrage.
“So I got on top of her, right? And I just started whaling on her face, hard, real hard. And it was dark so I couldn’t see nothing. So then . . . I felt wetness on her face. I said, what the hell is that? So I turned on the light–her face was covered with blood, everything was bloody–there was blood on the sheets, there was blood on the wall, and um, I had blood on my hands.”
Among those riveted by Brian’s story are not only 13 other members of Faces but also two documentary film makers. Shuffling around inside the sacred circle of bodies, doubled over with the camera for a floor-level view of Brian, Andy Young, slightly flushed, is a picture of concentration, trying to keep his movements fluid and slow. His wife, Susan Todd, tiptoes an inch or two behind, holding a sound boom over Brian’s head.
“I felt bad about it, I really felt bad,” Brian continues, “and I started crying. And then the thing that really got me upset later on was that . . . she wound up comforting me. And I was thinking about it and I was like . . . there’s something wrong there. She’s comforting me. After I just busted her nose.” He stops and looks at Susan Montez. “Is that good enough? That’s my story.”
Montez nods, and it’s on to the next Intimate Moment. Gold, Young and Todd must be thinking, exactly what they’re after–and they don’t know the half of it. Not until days later, when they watch the rushes–the processed film–does Susan Todd notice the way that Brian had a Kleenex wrapped around his fingers like brass knuckles. Not until two or three weeks later do they hear from Susan Montez that the tissue was there because, in the minutes before Intimate Moments, Brian suffered an inexplicable nosebleed. Not until they get to know the kids and start putting two and two together do they realize that the woman Brian beat up, Irene Torres, was lying directly across the circle from him. And not until the filming is over will they know the exact significance of any of the footage they’ve got. They are collecting life on film, directing it when they can, hoping that the Faces subjects will deliver and that it will all, in the end, amount to a compelling documentary on dating violence.
For Faces, something else is at stake. They want to be in a film about themselves, yes–Susan Todd says they were “jumping out of their skin” to participate. But first they’ve got to open themselves up, give out some very private information and go through what will prove a painful process in order to give the film makers something to film. The doors were closed during Intimate Moments–Todd and Young’s production assistants weren’t even allowed in, because what was being said was, or had the illusion of being, a shared confidence. However, what the kids may not fully understand is that this will be a movie that, if televised like Young and Todd’s previous work, will be shown to millions of people. And Brian Treglio, in hopes of doing something therapeutic, has just described for them beating his girlfriend’s face to a bloody pulp.
This kind of intimacy is what verite documentarians live and die for. But it’s not always easy to get and it’s not always something the subjects, looking back, are glad to have supplied. When Andy Young and Susan Todd decided to do a film on teen-age dating violence–the precursor, ignored until recently, of domestic violence–they were faced with a particular challenge: how do you film something that takes place mainly behind closed doors? Short of installing yourself in someone’s house–the classic approach used with the Louds in “An American Family” (1973)–how are you going to get it? A conventional solution to this conundrum is to use “interviews and B-roll”: expert commentary interspersed with generic scenes of, say, couples on dates or of an emergency room, with an authoritative voice leading the tour. But Young and Todd wanted something organic, a film with “characters” and a “story.”
And so they found Faces, a theater group whose members reach into their private, shared agonies, improvise scenes and produce public performances. A community mental health project of Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Faces creates a new dramatic program every year and takes it on the road to junior and senior high schools in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The shows consist of high-energy scenes about drugs or crime or peer pressure or gang membership–topical issues that Faces members know about firsthand–and they are very popular: the group is paid $500 and up per performance and is booked months in advance.
Few Faces teen-agers are in active therapy; most are just poor city kids with the usual amounts of trauma in their pasts who like the idea of acting (some, like Brian, actually want to act professionally) and belonging to something hip and healthy. Susan Montez uses her experience in community theater to lead members to self-awareness through improvisation and calls the process “therapeutic, not therapy.” “I want young people to be able to look at trauma as a source of creativity, not as a place to get stuck in” she says. Through their work in Faces, Montez says, kids can end up with “head shots, not mug shots.”
On the other side of camera lens and microphone are two magna cum laude graduates of Harvard. Andy Young, 36, comes from a film family: his grandfather started Manhattan’s Du Art labs, a legendary processing facility for independents. His father, Robert M. Young, is the director of such films as “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” and the recent “Caught,” just two of his many collaborations with the actor Edward James Olmos. Susan Todd, also 36, a physician’s daughter from Cincinnati, worked as a Manhattan television producer and made an independent film of her own (“The Lost Army”) before she began collaborating with her husband. Both Young and Todd are people about whom, on first meeting, you would think “nice” sooner than “smart,” but “smart” wouldn’t be far behind. Andy is tall, slope-shouldered, affable and professorial; Susan has a gently wicked sense of humor and Midwestern openness. Though Andy seems to take the lead in many matters, the two have overlapping talents and make all the creative decisions together, with Andy’s expertise tending toward the technical and Susan’s toward the organizational. They seem to revel in each other’s company and are palpably devoted to their work. There is a bit of the nature nerd about them–Kahoutek, Andy’s boa constrictor of 22 years, resides in a cage in the couple’s Westchester living room a few feet away from the wedding photograph of them both atop an elephant in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1989, Andy in khakis and pith helmet and Susan wearing a leopard-skin dress.
A notorious money-loser, documentary film has usually been an altruist’s medium, and Young and Todd’s work tends to fit this mold: the first film they made together, “The Spirit of Kuna Yala” (1991), was about Indians on the coast of Panama whose culture is threatened by modernity. Their next film, “Children of Fate” (1993), juxtaposed the present-day life of one poor Sicilian family with footage of the same family shot 30 years earlier by Young’s father. The film received an Oscar nomination in 1993, as well as the Grand Jury Prize and the Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival. “Cutting Loose” follows several New Orleans residents through Mardi Gras; it, too, received the Sundance Cinematography Award and its Film Makers’ Trophy. “Lives in Hazard,” about Los Angeles street gangs, was broadcast on NBC in 1994, with an introduction by President Clinton.
This last film, an account of how the actor Edward James Olmos made his movie “American Me” using real-life gang members, came about when Olmos hired Young and Todd as his documentarians. They turned the film into something more than a tribute to the actor, and learned the pleasures of having someone else do the fund-raising and other chores that take time away from actually making films. When Olmos proposed a movie about dating violence to Young and Todd, they agreed.
Twenty years ago, remembers Alan Berliner, a New York-based documentary film maker, Barbara Kopple’s breakthrough “Harlan County, U.S.A.” was one of the first documentary films that anyone ever heard of. Today, the cinema-literate can usually name a number of crossover hits, from “Hoop Dreams” to “The War Room,” from “Truth or Dare” to “Roger and Me.” Nonfiction film, by most accounts, has broken free of its role as an educational, ethnographic or news tool, something dry and dull, and has become far more popular as a consequence. Its practitioners now conceive of documentary as an art form that can be creative, dramatic and personal. And the best film makers, rather than using the form simply to launch careers in feature films, now often return.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of recent documentary is increased intimacy, due in part to the shrinking size and cost of equipment, to the point where a film maker can set forth unobtrusively, even alone. Our mania for a view of what’s “behind the scenes” is now satisfied in documentary perhaps more deeply than in any other medium, whether in the bedroom of two brothers charged with the murder of a third (“Brother’s Keeper”), the dressing rooms of transvestites (“Paris Is Burning”) or the travails of seven strangers living together (MTV’s “Real World”).
In getting so close to the private lives of real people, however, documentary film makers step into an ethical quagmire well known to journalists. “At the time you ask someone to participate in a cinema verite project,” writes Michael Rabiger in “Directing the Documentary,” “you seldom have more than the sketchiest idea of who or what will be used in the film, what it will say or how this individual will appear to the world. Given such a shadowy outcome, films can only be made on a basis of trust.” In other words, the subject of a documentary–say, Brian Treglio–can lose out: the nature of the work is to take other peoples’ stories and turn them into a story of your own. As an artist, the film maker owes allegiance to the film and the truths it may convey, but as a human being he also feels loyalty toward the subjects who have entrusted to him their lives. In this battle of divided allegiances, the film usually wins.
Stresses over the shape of “Unzipped,” for example, the 1995 documentary about the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi’s fall show, and who should take credit for its success, reportedly hastened the disintegration of the relationship between the director Douglas Keeve and Mizrahi, his former boyfriend. The cartoonist Robert Crumb regrets the success of “Crumb,” Terry Zwigoff’s film biography. In a two-page cartoon in The New Yorker, Crumb and his wife, Aline, portrayed “T. Z., the great director” as a balding puppeteer who says, while pulling their strings, “Go ahead, do your shtick.”
Zwigoff says: “I just think for the sake of art, sometimes things are necessary to do. At the same time, it’s really a very tough decision. People put their trust in you … and you’re going to screw up their lives.”
In a letter to me, Robert Crumb wrote: “Artistically, I thought it was an excellent film.” But making it put stress on his 25-year friendship with Zwigoff, and “after the big wave of attention from the film began to crash all around me, I wished it had never been made. … This will plague and haunt me for the rest of my life.”
An even trickier set of moral questions comes into play when the subjects are private individuals with little power or sophistication. What will they do to please the film makers that might not be in their best interests? Does the film maker have any obligation to prevent them from looking bad? Are small deceptions forgivable if the end result will help people in trouble?
Faces had previous brushes with fame: members of the group appeared on specials on MTV and on ABC, had done public service announcements for television with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and had parts in movies like “Clockers” and “Flirting With Disaster.” But to be the focus of their own documentary–that was cause for celebration.
And apprehension. Though dating violence was a problem they knew well–just last summer, a few blocks from the Faces office, a young man held his pregnant ex-girlfriend and her family hostage before killing her and himself–they had made a tacit decision not to deal with it. Discussions about sex and violence tended to polarize males and females and torpedo the supportive atmosphere the group worked hard to create. A problem like Brian’s, because it fell within this forbidden zone, could be concealed indefinitely. But here was the trade-off: if they wanted the film they had no choice but to venture into treacherous emotional territory.
Before filming began, Susan Todd and Andy Young had come up with a title–”It Ain’t Love”–and a story line: watching Faces members as they created scenes about relationship violence for their new show. Early on, they realized that several of the men in the group and some of the women had unenlightened views about appropriate behavior. This intensive workshop-filming experience, they sensed, had the chance to change that, and the transformation of the kids into more sensitive men and women would be, in effect, part of the plot of the movie. It was March 1996. They planned to film for two months, mainly in a space rented at the Actors Institute on West 25th Street. After a summer of editing, they would have a fine cut of the film ready by September.
A core group of 14 Faces members had been selected by Montez on the basis of talent, firsthand experience with abuse and, most important, a willingness to talk about it on film. Three afternoons a week they gathered at the Actors Institute–a charismatic, multiethnic, beeper-laden group, clad in Hilfiger, Nike, Jansport and Fila, and using lingo like fly and phat, dolo and delf (both mean by myself) that more than once mystified the film makers. Brian Treglio, 24, like his stepbrother, Scott Burke, and their friend Carlos Medina, sported a Vandyke and silver hoops in each ear. Irene Torres, his ex-girlfriend, was open and chatty, and worked part time as a lifeguard. Cati Vasquez had been arrested for being in a knife fight with two girls. She sometimes wore her hair blue. A button on her day pack said, “May I [expletive] You?”
From Intimate Moments, Young and Todd had developed a particular interest in several of the youths, including Treglio; a woman named Aisha Scott, who had offered harrowing accounts of the abuse she suffered during a two-year relationship, and in Eric Scott (no relation), who had admitted to being an abuser.
The plan of action was to have those with personal experiences of abuse each create and direct a scene about it. This was how Faces often worked, but the film makers had asked for one change–they wanted the kids to re-enact their own scenes. Normally, Susan Montez told me, this wasn’t done because things could get out of hand. “That’s psychodrama,” she said, “and we don’t do psychodrama. We want to protect them.” The film makers knew, however, that having them act out their own scenes would add a visceral element, and Montez acquiesced.
Brian Treglio had shown markedly less enthusiasm since relating his Intimate Moment on film; he seemed to have nothing more to say on the subject. On the day Faces members began to hash out scenes, he withdrew to the back of the room. For the film makers, interested less in Brian per se than in the group process, this was no great cause for alarm; Eric Scott, the other self-confessed abuser, took center stage. He asked Passion Quick to act the part of Aubrey, his girlfriend and the mother of his young son. The others placed their folding chairs in a row and watched. As he walked in from work, she looked happy to see him. “It’s nice outside–why don’t we go out in the park and take a walk?” she asked. But Eric sat down. Exhausted from work, he replied with expletives; he was in no mood to go out again. What he probably wanted, it went without saying, was a good fight.
Which he got. The two sparred, their anger escalating until Eric rose to his feet. “I’m sick and tired of you day in and day out just bitchin,’ ” he screamed, his face a mask of fury. “Nothing ever makes you happy. What do I have to do for you? What?”
She pushed him away and Eric, his short fuse down to the bomb, raised his hand to strike her. Andy Young circled around for a better angle, catching the veins bulging from Eric’s neck; Passion covered her face, actually expecting a blow. Eric, trembling, stopped himself at the last instant.
“No, you don’t want me to go with this,” he said, addressing the floor. He looked at the group. “The old me would’ve decked the [expletive] out of her. But the new me. . . .”
The others were uncharacteristically silent as the camera panned across their faces, some consoling, some withdrawn. All of them knew that, for a minute there, Eric wasn’t really acting. Later, as Susan Montez led a discussion about what had happened, however, it became clear that there were sharply different interpretations of the scene.
“I think that we’re not addressing the issue,” Carlos said. “If you try to walk away and that girl follows you . . . then she brought the smack upon herself.”
Aisha Scott was on her feet in seconds, hurling invective at Carlos, and soon the fault line between the sexes widened to a chasm. For most of the women, including Susan Montez, there was never any excuse for a guy to “smack” them. But the men, and a few of the women, felt if a woman pushed past the point where she knew a punch was probable, she was partly culpable.
It was great footage, Young and Todd felt, the perfect “before” scene to complement the “after” they were counting on filming later in the process. Susan Montez assured them that the rifts would heal. “It’s never happened” that wounds were left open, she said; closing them, too, was part of her job.
A week later, though, Faces and the film makers were on a path deeper into the subject, and less in control, than they ever expected. Another scene exploded, just like the one with Eric and Passion, yielding the film makers more intense material and yet filling them with misgivings: this wasn’t in the script. Key characters like Aisha and Brian started calling in sick, and others stopped speaking to each other. Rather than transforming, the kids seemed to be retrenching. With the third week, there was more of the same–no progress toward scenes, no signs of enlightenment and dissent among the troops. As a woman named Rosemary half-jokingly implored Susan Todd, “Today can we do something that doesn’t make us want to kill ourselves?”
“They do seem pretty distraught after these,” acknowledged Andy Young. “We’ve never asked anybody to do anything like this with us.” It was true: their forays into filmic ethnography had never required them to ask people to spill their guts before the camera–nor to pause, while they did, so that Young’s assistant could change his 10-minute roll of film. He and Susan had never directed a film this way, either, had never asked people to veer from their usual routines to do something more cinematic. And it didn’t seem to be working too well: instead of hacking a trail through the woods together, Faces had split into at least two camps and seemed lost.
This fracture between the men and the women–what Young, trained in primatology, kept calling “aggression between the males and the females”–was highest on their list of worries. The guys showed little sign of being ready to accept that they as a group were the guiltier party. “Women hit men all the time,” Brian argued, in a rare statement–indeed, both Irene and Cati had admitted having premeditatedly slugged their boyfriends. “And when the police come, they’re both gonna walk out of there but he’s gonna be the one in handcuffs. Is that right?”
The guys’ recalcitrance was undermining Young and Todd’s assumption that the project would provide an ennobling education for the kids, a “process of self-discovery” that would return them to the world as ambassadors of enlightened attitudes. Susan Montez suggested the guys’ position was connected to how little social power they had: many were from Borough Park, Brooklyn. They held on to traditional rights and had a hard time imagining themselves to be oppressors.
Unsure of what they wanted, Young and Todd had been burning a lot of film, hopeful that in it was footage that would later seem germane. But the bottom line was that their movie depended on Faces producing new scenes for their fall show, none of which had even been started. “Always at this point in a project I start feeling paranoia,” said Young. “A lot of the time it’s pure neurosis, but at least it keeps you moving in the right direction. What you hope is that it will prevent disappointment in the editing room.” But no relief was nigh: at the end of April, halfway through the filming, the crew left for San Antonio, a trip required because a financer of the film had been assured that “significant filming” would take place there.
Young and todd returned to new york two weeks later, feeling more than a little frantic. Nights spent with the San Antonio police responding to domestic violence calls, and visits to a juvenile courtroom and a battered women’s shelter, had provided them with an education as well as good contextual footage. But they still needed a story to provide context for–and they had only four weeks of New York filming left. Worse, said Susan Todd, talks with Faces in the meanwhile had made them “think we’re in danger of losing the guys.”
Brian, the film makers noticed, was not even at the next Actors Institute session. With other footage lacking, the pressure on him from Montez and the film makers to re-enact his Intimate Moment had been growing. Brian was one of four stalwarts on the Faces payroll helping at the office; Faces to him was work, social life and family wrapped up in one. He knew, if he were to remain a part of the process, he would have to open himself up more, and the prospect literally nauseated him. Earlier that day, said Susan Montez, he had been throwing up. “I kind of think he doesn’t want to do it.”
“Brian is scared,” Aisha said. “He doesn’t know how to defend himself and he feels everyone is siding with Irene.”
“I’d like to see him do it because I think he’s got an issue,” said Andy.
“We need to have support for each other,” Susan Todd said. “We are all here together. We can’t be defensive.” The comments were uncharacteristically disingenuous, but getting Brian to re-enact that night with Irene was something they really wanted.
“He feels you all think he’s guilty,” said Scott.
Mildly exasperated, Carlos said, “He doesn’t want to come out on national TV looking like a criminal!”
Feeling the need for more of the kids’ total concentration, Young and Todd suggested a retreat for intensive work. Two days later, they were all off to a camp in Fishkill, N.Y.
Except for Brian Treglio. Though Carlos and Scott, his best friends, were going; though his boss had asked him to attend, and though the film makers had made a special request, Brian was a no-show.
Brian loved Faces, but he was supremely uncomfortable with the attention he was getting. The film sessions had become like a class he loathed–half the time he was absent; other times he would sit in back, gazing out the window and cracking jokes and his knuckles. One day he had a lump of modeling clay in his hand; it ended up stuck to the seat of a folding chair, molded into the shape of an erect penis. He didn’t like talking to Young and Todd, and he tried not to speak to me at all. “Mr. Ted, always asking questions,” he would mutter when I asked how he was doing. His hostility to the process was pretty much writing Brian out of the movie.
And yet, he was an interesting guy, as well as being potentially interesting material. When he joined Faces in 1992, he told me much later, “I had just come out of Rikers. And I had no job. And I had always been interested in acting.” He was already 20 but, as Susan Montez would tell me, emotionally younger than many of the teen-agers in Faces. The jail sentence was a result of getting caught by the police in a subway station “carrying weapons of many sorts.” “I had a beef with this kid,” he said. “I had intentions of really hurting this kid with a gun.
“I’m glad I got caught,” he continued. “If I hadn’t I might have shot the kid’s kneecaps or something.”
Brian’s bravado is only skin-deep. Some in Faces say he’s conceited, but he says that the opposite is true: “People with low self-esteem aren’t that friendly, because they think the other person doesn’t like them. I’m not friendly. I don’t look people in the eye–that’s related.”
His face is completely deadpan, practically immobile. But listen to his voice on the daily message of the Faces phone machine, and you hear animation. Brian can be very funny and is famous around the Faces office for his routines–looking at himself in a hand mirror lasted several months, said Susan Montez, and the creative knuckle-cracking has gone on longer than that. He also originated what is now part of the Faces argot: imitating the zong noise between “Inside Edition” segments whenever anything portentous arises. But even his best friends say he’s strange, a cipher. “We all say ‘Goodbye!’ when we see Brian,” says Carlos. “He’ll never say hello to you, even if you’re passing him on the street. So instead, when we see him, we say ‘Goodbye!’ ”
Irene Torres was also a Faces member when she started dating Brian in January 1994. The romance began, she recalled, when he spat on her–or more accurately, when he apologized. “He felt so bad–he said he thought it was going to miss me because I was so short.” A few months into the relationship, he knocked her down in an argument over whether she was too racily dressed. Furious, she responded by grabbing him by the neck; her fingernails drew blood. “But then, after that–I don’t know what the hell happened to me,” she told the film makers. She stopped fighting back. “My whole relationship with Brian, I felt that I was the mother, and he was the child. And,” when he would abuse her, “I felt that he had no idea what he was doing–he doesn’t know about love, he’s just confused.”
In a relationship in high school, Brian would tell the film makers: “I was mentally abusive. I mean, I was so bad, I would tell her not to look at guys, she would have to walk with her head down, she would not be allowed to have any friends–I was real scum.”
Brian’s parents divorced when he was 6 months old. He lived with his father, and when he was about 10, his father and Scott Burke’s mom got together; Brian and Scott now share a bedroom in their Brooklyn home and call themselves brothers, though legally they are not. “I’ve come a long way dealing with my anger,” Brian would tell me, months after the filming finished. His new girlfriend, he said, “is helping me with my self-esteem.”
The retreat was over and in its stormy wake the film had been reconceived. A major fight on the first morning led the film makers to conclude they would never get the finished scenes they had hoped for. So instead they decided to go with what they had: a story not of Faces creating a show with a cathartic conclusion, but of them wrestling with the tar baby of dating violence. “It Ain’t Love,” in other words, would not be about transformation, but about process. “The divides are so fundamental,” Andy Young had lamented. “I think I was naive to think I could make them feel the same way.” This new tack, he promised, would be just as compelling.
But it presented them with a new challenge. Now more than ever they needed in-depth footage of their main characters. Following them home for a glimpse of their lives outside Faces was a first step. But interviews with couples were the main thing: they wanted the exes of Eric and Aisha on film, too, to provide the missing half of those stories of abuse, but neither could be persuaded. That left them looking around. And again they saw Brian Treglio.
Brian, as his Faces colleagues saw it, had got off easy by avoiding the retreat. And now, their first day back, Susan Montez encouraged Irene to read a poem she had written about her relationship with Brian and how awful he made her feel. The cameras rolled.
“I would cry when I should have been screaming at you to stop/I would hurt you with my words, when I should have been crying at the pain you had caused me/ … I became insecure I became blind I became mute/… You became sure of yourself.”
Aisha and others applauded as Brian sat stonily. Then, with the film makers pressing in, Montez began to turn the moment into a kind of intervention. “What are you feeling?” she asked Brian.
“I don’t know. I don’t feel anything. I feel uncomfortable.”
“Why?” asked Aisha.
“Uncomfortable, that’s all.”
“He doesn’t want people to blame him or make him look like the bad guy,” said Irene. “And I understand that, which is why I feel you should open up, Brian.”
“I opened up already. I did my scene. I did my Intimate Moment. What do you want me to do,” he said, drawing his hand across his chest, “get a [expletive] knife and carve my heart out?”
For the next 20 minutes, practically everyone in the group urged Brian to participate more fully, with Montez leading the charge. “I’m trying to understand because I happen to really care about you, Brian, and this is a place you get to in your life that stops you, that you don’t like about yourself. Way before this movie was even a thought you came and you talked to me about this yourself.”
Brian responded: “But see, I don’t really know what caused me to hit her, because every time, I was drunk. I never touched her when I was sober.”
Montez made a strong pitch for Brian to re-enact his Intimate Moment for Young and Todd. In addition to not drinking, she said, “I really think that would make a tremendous contribution to your life, to Irene’s life, to this group and to this movie. … Everybody here has put their butts on the line, everybody has bared their souls, everybody has been hurt. … We went through something very deep together and it mattered that you weren’t there.” Brian looked at her silently.
The footage, the “Brian bashing” scene, as they came to call it, looked strong, and it made Young and Todd re-evaluate Brian’s role in the documentary. With Brian and Irene close at hand and with their relationship back at center stage, pressure could be applied. They again spoke with him personally about doing the re-enactment, and they asked Susan Montez to do whatever she could to help.
In the meantime, work continued at the Actors Institute, but with diminished urgency. Young and Todd were now after footage that would make “It Ain’t Love” feel more like a feature film. Scenes that fleshed out character, like having fun at Coney Island and in-depth interviews, were “the glue that’s going to hold the other scenes together,” Andy said.
In the interviews, separated from the group, the kids articulated thoughts they otherwise would not have, some of which presented the film makers with another problem. Asked about his ideal woman, Eric had to go no further than the singer called Smooth, whose sexy poster hung above his bed: “That’s a beautiful, well-spoken, intellectual woman. And she’s gorgeous!” Andy Young dutifully panned along her recumbent length, the motion a gloss on Eric’s comment. Carlos’s ideal woman was someone who “cooks, cleans, does the laundry,” just like his mother. It seemed that their thinking had hardly budged since the filming began.
As Andy Young explained: “Neither of them sounded that bad taken in their own context. But in the context of this film, the meaning changes. When that happens, you see your character putting the rope around their neck and jumping off the board,” he continued ruefully. “I don’t want them to. … I like them and I want them to shine. At the same time, well, they said it,” and it would be misleading, he said, to leave it out of the film.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, Brian agreed to re-enact his Intimate Moment, under pressure from Montez, who now seemed to recognize her own stake in the movie. “What changed my mind was Susan Montez,” he told me later. “She was like, Do it for you, don’t do it for anybody else. Just do it.” Young and Todd were thrilled and wanted to film the next day. Brian’s conditions were that only they, Montez, myself and Irene be in the room. But Irene was annoyed at Brian, so Susan Montez recruited Cati.
It was a stark moment, late at night in Irene’s bedroom after a party. A mattress was brought into the studio; Brian and Cati lay down, back to back. From Brian’s speech, you could tell he was drunk. Cati, playing Irene, was needling him, telling him she’d been making out with a guy he knew.
“Did you have sex with him, too?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“You better not have had sex with him.”
“Shut up, your breath stinks. You smell.”
“Like you don’t smell. You’re a smelly ho’.”
“Shut up,” she said, elbowing him.
“Don’t tell me what to do ’cause I’ll kill you. Plain and simple.”
“Right. Yeah, you sound just like your father. Loser.”
“Don’t. Don’t –.”
“Your father’s a loser, your father’s a loser –.”
At this point, Brian got up, straddled Cati and began pounding the pillow right next to her head–though in real life, he had pounded repeatedly on Irene’s nose. She screamed, then sobbed, then was silent. Brian stood up, wiped his hands on his pants, mumbled to himself. The action seemed perfunctory to him. Eventually he turned on the light, and then both of them re-enacted seeing the blood all over the sheets, all over her face, all over the wall. He began to apologize profusely: “Oh, my God, I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Look, I didn’t mean to do that. I love you, I love you so much. Please don’t break up with me now! I’ll be good.” After initial angry refusals, Cati allowed him to put his apologetic head on her lap. And then, saddest and most disturbing of all, she began to stroke his hair and comfort him, as though he were the more wounded of them both.
The camera took all this in–greedily. Later Young and Todd interviewed Brian at home. Certainly they could have predicted he would hang himself some more, and he did. “I know this may sound arrogant or stupid, but they’ve always come crying back to me,” he said. “It’s like people say, you treat women like garbage and they love you. You treat ’em nice and they’ll take advantage of you.” While feeding his eight cats, he picked one up and cradled it in his arms, saying, “You’re gonna lay down and enjoy me petting you, O.K.?” He also said, while cameras rolled, “Women can be abusive and controlling by telling you you’re nothing, by telling you you have a little penis … which I don’t, I’m just saying it.” Watching, you wonder whether he shouldn’t have had a lawyer present.
Of course the footage belongs in the film, because it offers insight into the abuser’s mindset. But it is nothing we haven’t heard or imagined before; rather, the interest in watching it is that the film makers managed to get him to say it all on film. And it’s a stretch to think of it as anything but harmful to Brian Treglio. By using it, Young and Todd cast doubt on their assertions that the film was collaborative, in the sense of equals working toward a common goal. Brian would become deeply conflicted about whether he should have consented to the re-enactment or the interview.
I watched the film at various stages of the editing process, and each time my main reaction was exhilaration: it is hard to be close to a well-intentioned project for so long and not become a partisan. Any reservations I had were muted by my recognition of how closely the film makers’ process mirrored my own as a journalist. We had leapt into our projects taking the same large risk: not knowing whether the facts as we found them would supply the narrative magic needed to make good stories.
Our missions were different, though: I had been charged by this magazine to focus on the kinds of bargains that documentary film makers strike with their subjects, the deals and trade-offs that make these films possible. In exchange for the good publicity they hoped to get, Young and Todd opened the blinds on their process for me–something, incidentally, I would never do for any magazine. They made themselves vulnerable, and hoped for the best.
The members of Faces did the same thing with the film makers–and with me and this magazine. They wanted attention, and took a chance. Never did they, or the film makers, or even I think that Brian Treglio would emerge as the focus of the story. My original draft mentioned him equally with several other participants. But when the editors looked over what I had written it became clear that the material on Brian was the most vivid, and that the story of trust and betrayal could best be told using his example, even though he’s featured for less than 10 minutes of the film. So I recast the story into what you are now reading.
“It Ain’t Love,” to all our surprise, did not make it to Sundance this year, nor has it yet attracted a network broadcast. I hope this article will change that, for the movie deserves attention. In the meantime it strikes me (and, no doubt Young and Todd) as an odd twist that the “outing” of Brian Treglio, for which I suggest some culpability on the part of Young and Todd, is being accomplished not by the film makers but by me and this article. As for Brian, would I have counseled him to pose for the cover, as he has? No, but in this publicity-conscious age, we all make our own decisions about how fame can best serve us. Brian Treglio, no longer a stranger to the public eye, is making his.
The relationship between documentarian and subject seemed high on Susan Todd’s mind at the Faces premiere of “It Ain’t Love.” Gathered in a small screening room at Du Art were most of those in the film; Jean Tsien, who had helped edit the 25 hours of footage into a 58-minute movie and was meeting the characters for the first time, and assorted friends. Andy Young was in Madagascar working on a nature film. Susan Todd stood, thanked everyone and introduced the film by simply telling her characters: “What you have become is really a symbol of something. It’s not really you up there, you’re standing in for something else. So think about it.”
I watched the film as though for the first time. “It Ain’t Love” captures much of the profundity of its subject–from watching Faces members conflict and reconcile, you learn a lot about relationship violence. Unfortunately, you don’t learn a lot about how to avoid or break patterns of abuse. If a course of therapy involves first the analysis, and then the healing, the therapy in this film–like some of the Faces characters–had stopped midway. The lack of personal progress among the Faces members had affected the film after all.
Despite Todd’s proviso before the screening, the film isn’t didactic; cool-looking guys like Carlos and Brian articulate chauvinistic attitudes and are not contradicted by a narrator. This approach acknowledged the issue’s complexity and kept the characters from becoming cardboard stand-ins for good and bad. In every case, that is, but one.
As the screening ended and the applause died down, as people congratulated Susan Todd and relived the parts they had liked the best, Brian remained in his seat. His new girlfriend, a sweet girl named Zoe, stood up and moved a few feet away, where Scott intercepted her and said sotto voce that Brian had changed after all this, and wasn’t like that anymore. Zoe began to cry.
I asked Brian what he thought. He wouldn’t really look at me, but he did speak. He was tentatively negative at first. “I’m not sure I liked it.” Would he do it again? “No, I don’t think so.” Then more began pouring out. “Every woman in America is going to want my head,” he said. “I said several times during the film that she mentally abused me, but that didn’t come across in the film. It just made her look like a [expletive] saint, you know what I’m saying?” He began to cry. “She says she felt like I raped her!”
Susan Todd approached, sat down and asked, “What are the strong points you made during the film?”
“None,” said Brian.
“But in the scene with your cats, you talk about how hard it is to control your feelings, and how sometimes women don’t want to know about them.”
“All that is voice-over, and voice-over isn’t as strong as what people are saying in front of the camera,” Brian responded. “To this day, people don’t listen to what I have to say about the relationship. They think I’m a monster.”
Susan Montez came up and told Brian that “from Day 1, you were risking the most. It was the hardest on you.” But, she added, in a sizable oversimplification, “the process is for you.” Finally she consoled him: “You’ve come a tremendously long way since then.”
Andy Young, in Madagascar, heard about this and wrote me that it saddened him but that the film may have done Brian a favor. “In the short term the exposure will certainly be hard on Brian,” he wrote. “In the long term, however, I believe it has the potential to be a growing experience. It is true that the Faces process would reveal such intimacies to only a small group of peers and not a national audience. However, inside those familiar surroundings it is perhaps too easy to look away from your problems. This is something I’m sure he’s really going to think about now.”
Which was true. In the coming months, those whose many eyes were on Brian in his new relationship would say he was better–drinking less, arguing less, not hitting. At the same time, he said, he felt used–good things Irene had said about him (and bad things he had said about her) had been left out, “because there has to be a villain in every movie. They cut it to make it one-sided.” He had been sacrificed in hopes of helping the many.
I thought back to the screening. Also present was another Faces member, who was starting to act in some of the new scenes that sprang from the movie. I asked her if she wished she could have been in the film–considering, I said, the final result, which would possibly be seen by people across America.
“If it could help other people, yes,” she said after a long pause. “But I’m not sure it’d help me.”