Making its North American debut in the Metropolis section at DOC NYC, Thomas Wirthensohn’s beautifully crafted “Homme Less” follows the quintessentially eccentric New Yorker Mark Reay. At 52, the still dashing and debonair, former international model now strives to make a living as a fashion photographer and bit actor (the “Men in Black” franchise is just one of his gigs). When not working out at the gym or editing photos at Starbucks, Reay attends Fashion Week and all the right downtown parties. Then he goes home. Not to the Chelsea loft he maintained for years, but to his friend’s rooftop (unbeknownst to the friend), where he sleeps under a tarp.
Interestingly, there’s another film in this year’s DOC NYC lineup – “Penthouse North” by Swedish director Johanna St. Michaels – that would make for a great, contrasting double bill with “Homme Less.” (I actually discovered that film last spring, nabbing the U.S. premiere for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival where I serve as director of programming.) “Penthouse North” similarly follows a former international model with housing issues – but in this case the protagonist Agneta forfeits her sanity to make rent and keep her glamorous life (represented by her upscale penthouse). Though Agneta and Mark choose different paths, they face the very same question of how to survive in an urban jungle once you go from being a fabulous “have” to a struggling “have not.”
Global Comment spoke with Austrian director Wirthensohn and “homme less” subject Reay prior to the film’s DOC NYC premiere at the IFC Center on November 15th.
Lauren Wissot: So I read that you two have been acquaintances, going back decades to when you were both on the international modeling circuit. Later you both pursued photography. How did this shared history play into gaining each other’s trust?
Thomas Wirthensohn: Our common history and friendship made things a lot easier. Confidentiality was absolutely mandatory right from the beginning, especially from Mark’s point of view. I can’t thank him enough for trusting me, not only as a filmmaker but also as a friend, to tell his secret to the world. I have the highest respect for his courage to reveal his life in front of an audience with such openness, and without any filter really.
The fashion world is a very tempting environment to be in as a 20 year old. Who at that age, or at any age really, wouldn’t like to travel the world, meet glamorous and beautiful people, and make lots of money? It has a short lifespan though, and when it’s over it’s hard to come back to a “normal” life and career. This common background and understanding, the similar struggle after our modeling careers, made me understand his situation better. The film became much more personal for me than I’d anticipated in the beginning. I realized that I’m also telling part of my own story.
Mark Reay: Just like soldiers in the trenches…I thought very fondly of Tom during my months in Vienna modeling, and was saddened that our friendship fizzled out during my last months in Europe. Reuniting 13 years later was so unexpected and wonderful – a second chance at friendship. I don’t know about Tom, but I felt like my attempt at modeling was pretty much a failure. Tom had better success, but still perhaps not what he’d hoped for. I think this experience and subsequent attempts to have a career produced a shared frustration, and that made it easier to reconnect. When I met Tom in 2001-2002 I had not yet taken up photography, though I had by the time I divulged to him my living situation eight years later. Based on my experience studying acting, performing, working in fashion, spending many, many days in museums, and finally being creative with a camera – all this gave me a critical eye through which I could realize that what Tom was doing had artistic merit. I also knew that Tom was a very decent person.
LW: Thomas, Mark welcomes you into his world, warts and all, for the most part. Yet we in the audience are never made aware of his background, aside from glimpses of a few modeling photos from his younger days. Even when you trail Mark to his family home in Jersey his mother remains off-camera. Was it your decision to stay firmly in the here and now, perhaps eschewing any easy psychoanalyzing – or did Mark put his past off limits?
TW: If as a filmmaker you are lucky enough to find a story like Mark’s (or the story finds you) you have to make a decision of how you want to tell it. For me it was clear from the beginning that I wouldn’t judge or psychoanalyze his life. “Homme Less” is not so much about finding answers through analyzing a person’s behavior in order to satisfy an audience. Rather, we’re showing a situation that might tell us something about ourselves, and the time and place we are living in. I tried to avoid finger pointing in order to leave space for viewers to have their own thoughts. That’s what filmmaking for me is about. Provoke a discussion rather than provide a readymade solution. Besides, Mark didn’t want me to film his family, and I respect that.
MR: Well, we need to save something for the sequel, no? Yes, my decision is that my family was and is off limits. We live in very different worlds. I chose the spotlight for better or worse, not them.
LW: Watching your film, I started pondering “Penthouse North,” another Metropolis section selection by a foreign filmmaker, in this case Swedish director Johanna St. Michaels. Her doc similarly follows a former international model fighting to survive in the Big Apple – though in this instance the sixty-something Agneta is willing to sacrifice everything to keep her tony apartment (whereas Mark gives up housing to keep everything else in his life). I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that it took European directors to see both these struggles in existential, rather than “unaffordable rent,” terms. (After all, once you’re a New Yorker you don’t simply live in NYC – the city itself gets intertwined with your very identity. To leave New York would be to leave your soul.) Thomas, can you talk about how your “outsider” viewpoint – as opposed to that of your subject, a longtime New Yorker – affected how you saw Mark’s story? And Mark, what would it mean to leave NYC for cheaper frontiers?
TW: When I first came to New York the city just blew me away. The intensity of life, the cultural diversity, the skyscrapers that make you feel small but bigger at the same time, the creative inspiration of so many great people in one spot – all that pulled me in. And then came the struggle to make a living, and with it the doubt if it was the right choice to come here, leaving a place with a much higher quality of life in terms of convenience and health maybe (in my case Vienna). It always came down to the question, “Where else can I go, or do I want to go, after New York?” And the answer up until today is still a big question mark. It’s like being in a relationship. You fall in love with a place and get to know it better, and it’s not always pleasant what you discover, but you put in the work to make it work.
Today, after I’ve been living here for six years, the first excitement about the city has calmed down. In relationship terms you could say the sex is not like it used to be. New York has not only changed me, but has changed itself to a more and more commercialized place that seems to be losing its magic, inspiration and edge, while making it harder for a lot of people to survive.
Mark’s relationship with New York is very strong. The city stimulates and motivates him, and he’s prepared to sacrifice almost everything just to be here. He refuses to be pushed out by rising costs for rent and food. There is certain stubbornness in this, a will to fight against the establishment. He insists on the right to be part of this place and enjoy it no matter what. New York is his home, his resource and inspiration, and he’s not gonna get kicked out easily.
MR: I vowed as a teen, after living in a remote village, to live in a city where you don’t need a car. New York is the place for me in that regard. I feel very at home in this city, with nice friends, things to do and see, some work opportunities, lots of excitement and the feeling of potential. When I go back home to the country I pretty much just sit around the house un-stimulated. As for cheaper frontiers – in the past every time I got away from one place, there I was already waiting for my arrival in the new place, carrying the same old baggage. It’s not so much the physical location but the mental stagnation.
LW: As a New Yorker who spent time couch serving (after a couple decades of just barely making rent) I could relate to Mark’s situation. I think a lot of NYC artists can. Yet gradually, I went from willingly sweating blood to stay in my beloved city to feeling like its sucker. I never went as far as sleeping on rooftops, but there comes a point when you wonder if the everyday financial stress is worth it. In some ways Mark’s opting to be homeless can simply be seen as another form of artistic resourcefulness. I’m curious to hear how the German audiences you’ve screened for view Mark’s decision. (I’m guessing New Yorkers will have a different reaction.)
TW: “Homme Less” won the award for best documentary at a film festival in Austria. The jury told us that their only issue with the film was that they weren’t completely sure if the whole thing wasn’t a hoax. Even after seeing it they still didn’t fully believe it was a true story. At the International Film Festival of Hof in Germany, where we sold out three screenings, the reaction was amazing. People were truly touched by the film, and came up to us on the street to offer congratulations and to talk to us about it. Some even invited Mark to stay at their place, but that’s another story. (laughs)
I think for Europeans “Homme Less” is much more incomprehensible than for Americans. They are used to a social benefit system that usually catches them before they hit the ground hard. In America you are more or less on your own when you lose your job and things go south.
I’m very curious to see how New Yorkers will react to the film. New York is full of unusual and crazy stories similar to Mark’s, and some might say it’s just another one of those. To me, Mark is a survivor with a certain sense of artistry in the execution of his lifestyle. The way he manages his life takes a great deal of courage, energy and discipline. Beyond that, he also stands for the frustration, loneliness and desperation that many of us feel today.
MR: It was quite funny that audience members in Kitzbühel, Austria asked me how I coped in the wintertime. These are people who, for hours, ski down mountains going 50 miles per hour in subfreezing temperatures. I’m sure I could learn a lot from them!
Personally, I don’t really think that being without a place to live is what my story is about. That’s just a curiosity. It’s a byproduct of the frustration of feeling directionless, unsuccessful – and of severe sexual malnourishment.
LW: I actually love the fact that you’ve put a spotlight on a side of urban homelessness rarely seen. Particularly after the financial crisis, many folks who don’t fit the “homeless profile” – those who were once solidly middle class – have found themselves in the same boat as subway beggars, or the mentally ill digging through trash for a meal. Yet I’m also quite uncomfortable with the notion that any Joe can slip into homelessness. There’s a huge difference between Mark – an unmarried, childless white male with a college degree – and the single black mother of three living in a shelter in the Bronx. That difference amounts to a freedom called choice. Mark has consciously decided to be homeless rather than move to a cheaper city (or even to the Bronx) – whereas the Bronx mom is forced into homelessness with no real means to change her circumstances. Isn’t optional homelessness (including couch surfing) just another manifestation of privilege?
TW: That’s a great and complex question. It’s difficult to compare people’s struggles since we all have different roots and reasons for what decisions we make in our lives, or for which situations we are pushed into by our circumstances. Mark is part of the privileged white class in America, and has a very different background compared to the African-American mother in the Bronx. The fact that he gave up on the American Dream, a dream that was designed for him as a white male in this country and never really has been true for the black community, is something that stood out for me in his story. I think privilege today is not only a matter of race anymore, but also of economic means manifested in the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the vanishing of the middle class. Mark walking up those steps to the roof every night to find nothing but a shed with a tarp and a sleeping bag – and a view to the most famous skyline in the world, a symbol of the American Dream, which became unreachable for him – is a metaphor that contains an important aspect of what I was trying to say with “Homme Less.”
MR: Having responsibility for others can be a great motivator. I often think I am living an extended adolescence – living for today and for me.