They first encountered each other in Vienna a couple of decades ago; they were never real friends but “we kept in touch over the years, and we ran into each other in the most random places; after not seeing him for 10 years, suddenly there he was one day at my gym in Vienna. I knew he was living in New York at the time I moved here, so we met for a drink, and that’s when he told me his story. I was shocked—I was like, you gotta be kidding. We’d had a few drinks, we were both a little drunk. I ran out of questions to ask, I asked where he lived, and he started mumbling, and then he told me the story. I just couldn’t believe it, but when I saw he was serious… Well. I was looking to make a documentary, I wanted to change my career, and I knew right away this was it. He thought about it for a week or so, and then he said yes.”
Mark Reay, his subject, looks, as the saying goes, like a million dollars. He too, however, has given up modeling as he’s headed into silver-fox territory, looks-wise; the film finds him working as a photographer in the fashion industry, backstage at New York’s Fashion Week—and you can see his work on his website, Backstage/Slideshow.
Watching him work, you can see his charm, his chutzpah, as he snaps the models who come and go to Fashion Week, taking his chance on street-corners, and producing some terrific work, too.
But the story that shocked Wirthensohn, the story the film traces, is where he’s living: on the roof of an old friend’s apartment building in Chelsea. He keeps a nest—a secret he has to keep from the other residents in the building, sneaking up the stairs— which looks cozy until you begin to think of the rain, the cold, and see things like the gallon jug that he keeps to pee in during the night. He belongs to a gym, he can afford to pay for that: he can shower, he can keep his belongings in a series of lockers there.
“Follow your bliss—but be prepared to live your nightmare,” Reay says to the camera, and his story has the sense of how fragile a 21st-century existence can be.
Years ago he was renting a room inside a building in Chelsea; he was forced out when the building was sold. New York life, Manhattan life, is fabulously, extravagantly expensive these days: it’s easy to just fall off the edge.
Reay’s secret is out now, of course. The success of Homme Less—which has also won “Best Documentary” in this year’s film festival in Kitzbühel, in Austria, and was an official selection at the Hof Film Festival in Berlin—means that the word is out.
I wonder how hard that is for Mark. Austria and Germany, he tells me, were really enjoyable experiences; he was completely anonymous there, no one knew him. “But bringing it to New York was a bit nerve-wracking,” he admits. “I compare it to having a psychiatrist tell you that he’s going to make a film about everything you’ve been saying to him for the past two or three years!
So New York was…” he hesitates a little. “Somewhat uncomfortable, because everyone gets to know me quite—well.” But he is sanguine, thank to what Wirthensohn has achieved. “The film’s so good. And I’m not ashamed, either,” he says.
He made, he knows “some bad decisions” in his life; “but I always knew Thomas was a good guy. He could have made me look like a complete ass, but that wasn’t his intention. I never asked him that; I just knew.”
This is not homelessness as we usually imagine it: but the cut-throat economy of our day and age means acknowledging how hard it is to get a foot in the door. Mark hasn’t been on the roof since July; he spent the summer in Europe with a friend, and since his return has been spending a lot of time with his family in New Jersey, a couple of hours out of the city.
“It makes me realize how lucky I was to have a base in Manhattan,” he says. There’s a chance of an apartment share; and he hopes too that the film might make his work that much more visible. He’s shot for Diane von Furstenberg and Alexander Wang in the past, but he knows “it’s a cut-throat business”. His equanimity is striking.
I watched Homme Less back-to-back with The Homestretch, another new documentary which looks at the lives of three homeless teenagers in Chicago who brave the cold, go to school, try to find their feet in adulthood: three teenagers out of the 19,000 homeless in Chicago alone.
Mark Reay knows his predicament is very different from theirs. “I don’t consider myself homeless,” he says. “People can see a huge difference between people on the streets, people who are addicted to drugs, or mentally unbalanced, and me.”
On the roof, he says, “I was always safe. I knew once I was there, my physical safely was never in doubt.” He knows he was lucky that way; but also that appearances can be deceptive.
“I always felt it was funny, because I have a physical look that makes people feel I am successful. I might walk by people and have $30 to my name—but I look like I could have $30 million.” Of the people we are more likely to think of as homeless, he says, “it’s ironic how we are in both similar situations; I contend with the same issues they do. I’m walking in their shoes.”
Wirthensohn is talking to distributors now; there should be more festivals next year. “I never expected it to go so fast,” he says. You could argue that he’s living the American dream—but he knows that his film shows the flip side of that dream. In it there’s a shot of the view from Mark’s roof—midtown New York stretched out in the evening, the Empire State Building rising like a beacon.
“It is an image of the American dream,” Wirthensohn says. “And you know Mark will be there, sleeping under a tarpaulin. He walks up the stairs of the building every night, it’s like following your dream—you end up on the roof deck, but the dream is unreachable to you, and there’s nowhere else to go anymore.”