But at some point, you just get used to it."
One thing quickly becomes clear in Men for Sale: The sparse room where these men sit (save for one) is a haven, the director one of the few people in life that they trust. That results in some candid and chilling admissions that are so heartbreaking, you start to wonder if this was scripted--it's almost too brutally real, especially if you haven't lived on the streets and experienced this reality first-hand. The similarities in the stories are striking--most of these men come from broken and abusive homes, got into the profession by the lure of quick money and are all fighting a day-to-day battle with drug addiction that prevents them from holding down a real job, developing healthy relationships and staying out of trouble (numerous stints in jail are frequently discussed, some men unable to stay out of the slammer for mere hours). The similarities in their demeanor are also striking, the majority of the men initially uncomfortable and jittery--and often using nervous laughter as a coping mechanism.
There's no formal structure here, and those looking for smooth transitions, closure or happy endings are in for a rude awakening. This is just life unfolding in front of the unflinching camera, with no influence or agenda by the filmmaker. We're never formally introduced to these men or officially told their names, although we pick some of them up over the course of the documentary. Each of them adds something powerful to the film, although a few of them become more prominent contributors--especially the first man we're introduced to (we later learn his name is Anthony), the most complex man here. He can barely look at the camera at first--and also admits to a less-than-favorable view of his johns: "They're hard up...they're pathetic. It's the only way they feel loved. They think we love them...we don't give a shit," he says, apparently unaware of the irony. "The number of people who get screwed up every year by us prostitutes...we destroy lives."
We soon learn that he's one of the men prone to violence--a trait he shares with the eighth man we meet, who claims he sometimes needs to fight if clients don't pay: "I don't even know my own strength," he says. "I'm afraid of myself." It's a theme that gains steam as the film progresses, and Anthony shares some chilling stories along the way, including one with a baseball bat and one about why he now uses gloves ("I don't want to get AIDS after punching someone's mouth."). He also has an extremely unhealthy relationship with his girlfriend, their dynamic made clear in a story about a sexual encounter that brings up conflicting emotions in him ("It's mixed up in my head"). For some men, their potential for violence scares them, while for others it's often the threat of violence from their tricks ("He might be dangerous; you can't tell with perverts") that contributes to their overall paranoia.
The question of sexuality comes up a few times, but is never a comfortable subject for most of the men. "I'm not a fag--I like women," says the aforementioned Man #8, while Anthony also seems to have some homophobic issues to deal with. That dictates what most of the men will and won't do with clients--many claim anal sex is off limits, but others say that's a lie: "When other's say they never do that, it's bullshit. Some will do it for 20 bucks," says our ninth subject, another main contributor who has a baby on the way with his ex-girlfriend. He briefly touches upon one question I couldn't help but constantly wonder about: If these men trick as much as they do in one day, how can they perform? "Three-quarters of the sex workers don't get hardons. Even 90 percent of them," he says, later adding that anal sex can sometimes be quick and easy money. "$20 clients, it doesn't pay well. It's sickening, but it's over fast. For 20 bucks, you only have to tough it out for 10 minutes."
For him, it's psychological: "I'm not gay, but I just gave a 50-year-old guy a blowjob," he continues. "I'm just providing a service. I don't get turned on." Still, he notes that "gays are pretty clean, they're not violent...it's just sex. It doesn't change who they are," he says, an accepting outlook that provides a stark contrast to Anthony's attitude. He also notes that, in general, their clients are generally safer than those of their female counterparts ("For girls, it's a lot worse."). Man #9 proves to be one of the more intriguing contributors, and his impending fatherhood gives him a reason to try and clean himself up--something that doesn't prove easy. "It's ridiculous because it doesn't pay well," he says of a part-time job, "but it gives me back a lot of self-esteem...I could get a real job now, but the first check I'd get would go right into my vein." He estimates that he's made nearly $400,000 during his four-year stint in Montreal, but "it's all gone into drugs. Every penny."
Sadly, that's a universal problem here, the one that fuels all of their lives. It's the need for quick drug money that keeps these men from getting out of the business, the vicious cycle repeating itself despite their desire to break free. And make no mistake--these are smart men who are fully aware of their problems, and you get the sense that all of them truly want to get help. They know what they need to do but can't overcome their addictions, which sometimes creep up during the segments: "Once I was stoned, but never like this," says Man #5 (the only one here who doesn't allow his full face to be shown), admitting he got one of his interview days mixed up. He appears to be in denial about some of his problems ("I'm not hooked on drugs," he insists), but also uses humor to try and force some smiles ("Clients want muscles. They don't give a damn about faces").
Most of these men haven't slept or eaten for days when they appear on camera, and their lifestyle has hampered their health (they all look older than they actually are). One man develops a terrible skin rash (initially unrecognizable to me, I thought he was a 12th man), perhaps the most jarring site in a film filled with verbal shocks. The coughs from all are frequent, and it's those little details that--combined with the gut-wrenching stories--make the film often hard to watch: "When I got out of prison, I had strong lungs. I could take deep breaths," says Man #2. "Now I'm short of breath, gasping all the time, like coke has got me all messed up and tense. On coke, I'm tense."
The one contributor who beats to a slightly different drum is Man #4 (the only one interviewed in his own apartment). The oldest one here, he initially doesn't seem as affected by the lifestyle. A former porn star who appeared in productions from top-name studios, Danny (aka Dany) Brown notes he's comfortable in front of the camera and even made a compilation tape of his X-rated scenes to play for his clients, who like to have it on during their encounters. He proudly shows part of one clip on his small, ancient television--a moment that channels Sunset Boulevard.
Danny aspires to change his image by bulking up, growing a beard and getting tattoos, then moving to San Francisco and focusing on older, more mature clients ("I'll look great...I'll be a star again."). You get the sense he believes it, and considering he come across as more capable and confident than the rest of the men, you might believe it, too. But by the time we hear of his own drug problems, depression and his latest re-entry to the porn world in an underground film ("I didn't like it...it bled a bit"), one of the few glimmers of hope in the film fades fast: "I'm stuck. It's not fun anymore. The job is really depressing, too. I was trying real hard to keep it, but I'm worthless. I can't even keep a job."
For some of the men, the sexuality lines aren't so clear: "I've never been in love, but sometimes, I've felt strong feelings. When a guy is sucking you off, well...I'm not made of stone. For sure I feel something," says the third man we're introduced to, one of the more intriguing subjects that we don't get nearly enough time with. "Whether you like it or not, after the 18th client and you stop feeling like throwing up, and you start wondering." You can see the ache on his face, and get the sense that--despite his claim that he doesn't allow himself to get attached to anyone and that "maybe I'm just a loner"--it's that kind of love and intimacy that he wants the most. You can see the ache in his eyes, and the sheer weight of his depression can be overwhelming.
Two other men prove to have a lasting impact: Marc-Andre (Man #10) is a young man who talks about the abuse he didn't initially recognize when he was younger, as well as a painful recollection from his youth that undoubtedly affected his self-confidence ("They weren't laughing with me, they were laughing at me"). Marc-Andre also has a fascination with death that is further probed by the interviewer ("In school, I figured I'd end up killing myself," he says, noting that he got into prostitution--in part--to get back at his parents). In addition to his cold life on the streets and an unhealthy relationship with a co-dependent friend named Willy, he also has dreams that have an effect on his well-being ("I don't know what it means, but it scares me"). Of all the men here, he seems the most lost. "I'm starting to get worn out," he notes at one point, later sharing a story so painful, he can only smile to combat the pain.
Also unraveling is Man #7: "23 years old, and I'm missing teeth." His story is a familiar one filled with group homes, drinking and getting hooked on crack. "I've reached my limit. I feel I don't have any control over it," he says, later adding "talking about my feelings, I can't handle that" after sharing stories about the tempestuous relationship with his girlfriend. We don't see too much of him during the earlier stages of the film, but a majority of the conclusion is devoted to his story--a sad one filled with self loathing. He gets the final words here, and they aren't uplifting.
There are a handful of violent episodes that rear their ugly head in the latter half of the film, and the path of two men collide in an unexpected--and tragic--coincidence. We see and hear about blood, and it speaks to the power of these men's words that you can practically smell and taste its stench. Clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, Men for Sale is a raw sore that slowly grows and demands your attention, often making you sick to your stomach. You root for these men, even when you hear about some of their violent actions. You want them to get better, but we all know the chances of that are slim. We get only two very brief respites from the dark material here: One man seems to turn things around, while another is still able to see beauty in life during an outdoor celebration that brings a smile to his face.
This film is unforgiving and unfair--these men really never had a chance given their circumstances, and you'll ache right along with them. We're seeing these human beings at rock bottom, their absolute lowest point in life where hope is gone. Making it all the more painful is that they recognize the absurdity of their situation but still can't make the right choices, squandering the few opportunities afforded them by loved ones ("It's a disaster...I never manage to do what I have in mind."). Their complete lack of confidence and self-worth is staggering ("I disgust myself"), their faces permanently stuck in defeat.
This is a film that demands a lot from the viewer--you need to desensitize yourself from the tragic world that these men have emotionally distanced themselves from. There's nothing flashy or fun about this brutal look at an oft-forgotten segment of society, one that deserves far more love, compassion and attention than it's getting. Hopefully by pulling off the bandage and exposing the sore, films like Men for Sale can inspire action.