For two years, Mark Reay let Austrian filmmaker Thomas Wirthensohn in on the secret life behind his seeming successful career as a dapper fashion photographer and movie extra: he let him follow him home, to a Chelsea rooftop, where he slept under a tarp.
In the remarkable new film Homme Less, Wirthensohn tracks his 52-year-old subject to other places, too: to the sketchy New York public toilets where the former model grooms himself so impeccably; to the YMCA where he stashes his shirts, suits, and other worldly possessions into a couple of small lockers; and to the Starbucks where he Photoshops his pictures till it shuts down at midnight. It was a carefully orchestrated life that he juggled for six years.
How does it feel having the world now know about it all?
“It’s awkward,” the affable conversationalist says with a small laugh, speaking to the Straight before heading up here as a guest at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and showing the candour that brings the taut, stylish little documentary alive. “It’s very personal. Part of me wishes I could be known for some great achievement. So that’s a bit awkward dealing with the public.
“It’s kind of like going through three years of therapy and then the therapist says, ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve made a film about that therapy and now the whole world’s gonna see it.’ I mean, I knew what I was getting into. I knew it was a good story. But you wonder if it’s ever going to be made or will it have wide release. And now it’s ballooned so much: I was just interviewed by China MTV.”
These days, Reay is a little better off. He says he’s paying rent to couch surf at a friend’s place in the Upper West Side. “It’s not a permanent solution to my situation and I would still be on the roof if they didn’t change the locks on the door,” he says, and then adds, surprisingly: “Part of me still wishes I still had access to the roof. It had great independence and freedom.”
Wirthensohn does catch a bit of the gritty beauty of Reay’s secret sanctuary, including the film’s opening moment, on the fourth of July, when his silver-haired, Montgomery Clift–styled subject takes in fireworks with the Empire State Building on the horizon. But mostly Homme Less is a poetic piece about the mercilessness of New York, where an artist like Reay can manage to make healthcare and gym payments, and wear a $200 pair of shoes, but can’t scrape together enough for sky-high rents—an issue that resonates in real-estate-starved Vancouver and elsewhere in these post-recession times.
“I have chosen three highly improbable fields to succeed in, so people could say, ‘Silly model, silly actor, silly photographer,’” Reay says. “But there are many accountants or waiters or nurses that actually realize, ‘I’m living paycheque to paycheque, and where would I be in a few months if there was an interruption in those paycheques?’ This is just a way that one eccentric person dealt with it.”
What perhaps resonates most in the film, and in conversation, is that Reay is the exact opposite of the homeless stereotype; he is, in fact, more sane and self-aware than 99 percent of the population. And you have to respect the fact that, while he may feel awkward, he displays very little shame about the predicament he found himself in. Ask him, and he’ll tell you the most embarrassing moments in the film aren’t, say, showing the jug of pee he has to keep under his tarp at night or the fact he has to listen for tenants every time he sneaks to the rooftop; it’s the scenes where he hits on women. “I didn’t think my pickup lines were that bad,” he says with a laugh.
Reay shows a good sense of humour about it all, but there is pain, too, and moving, intimate moments he shares with the one-man camera crew of Wirthensohn, whom he once knew as a fellow model. In fact, don’t be surprised if Reay looks a little red-eyed when he speaks at a screening here in Vancouver.
“There are a lot of photos at the end of my father, who’s dead, and me as a child,” he says, referring to Wirthensohn’s closing montage of a smiling, innocent Reay before life took him into survival mode. “So if I do a Q&A, I might catch the last few minutes, and they move me so much. It’s almost like a posthumous retrospective. It’s very emotional.”
Mark Reay joins director Thomas Wirthensohn for a Q&A at the Centre for Performing Arts on October 4 (6:30 p.m.). Homme Less screens again at SFU Woodward’s on October 7 (11 a.m.).