“Keep the Lights On”: A gay breakthrough, and a great movie

The wrenching gay relationship drama "Keep the Lights On" may also be the year's best American film

Topics: Our Picks, Our Picks: Movies, LGBT, Movies, Ira Sachs, Keep the Lights On, ,

"Keep the Lights On": A gay breakthrough, and a great movieThure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth in "Keep the Lights On"

When we first meet Erik (Danish actor Thure Lindhardt), the New York documentary filmmaker at the center of Ira Sachs’ gripping relationship drama “Keep the Lights On,” he’s got his hand down his pants and is describing himself to a stranger on a phone-sex line. (It’s 1998, so yes, such things still exist.) What he says is pretty accurate — 5-foot-11, blond and handsome, “masculine” — although we never get to confirm the “six-and-a-half inches, uncut” part. While “Keep the Lights On” is plenty explicit on the subject of gay sexuality, it’s not an NC-17 picture and has relatively little nudity.

That’s quite an introduction to a character, especially considering that Erik is evidently based on Sachs himself, an indie-film stalwart best known for the 2005 Sundance prizewinner “Forty Shades of Blue” — in which Rip Torn delivered a memorable performance as a Memphis music producer based on Sachs’ father. As the filmmaker discussed in a recent New York Times interview, while he has lived an openly gay adult life his films (including the 2008 “Married Life,” with Patricia Clarkson and Chris Cooper) have primarily concerned heterosexual relationships. There’s not necessarily any contradiction or hypocrisy to be found in that, but there’s also no doubt that “Keep the Lights On,” as its title suggests, is a work of self-revelation and even of nakedness.

Sachs has made no secret of the fact that “Keep the Lights On,” the story of a tormented, 10-year relationship between two men in millennial Manhattan, is drawn from his own life. (Sachs’ real-world ex-boyfriend is Bill Clegg, a New York literary agent and author of two drug memoirs, including the recent “Ninety Days,” which appear to confirm many of the personal excesses depicted in the movie.) But the film is not an excuse to issue apologias or vent personal grudges. Rather, it’s a loving but fearless portrait of gay urban life at the turn of the century, seen through the prism of one dysfunctional love affair.



This movie may serve as a marketplace test for gay-themed films in the wake of crossover hits like Lisa Cholodenko’s Oscar-nominated “The Kids Are All Right” and Andrew Haigh’s British indie smash “Weekend.” It also may measure how far the gay community has come on issues of self-representation. While it seems unlikely that bigots and homophobes would actively seek out “Keep the Lights On” (except, you know, on the sly), any who do see it could certainly cherry-pick details to support the thesis that Erik’s entire cadre of humanity are degenerates.

As seen over the course of an on-and-off decade together from 1998 to 2008, Erik and his lover Paul (Zachary Booth) — a dreamboat lawyer who is, at first, purportedly straight and has a girlfriend — drift in and out of substance abuse, compulsive promiscuity and at least the outer margins of mental illness. Paul has a habit of disappearing for days or weeks on crack benders; on one such occasion, Erik tracks him down in a midtown Manhattan hotel room and holds Paul’s hand while he has sex with a male prostitute. As I said earlier, there’s no full-frontal nudity in this film, but Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias are frank about the messy realities of man-on-man sex in a way rarely or never seen on-screen in a mainstream film before.

I was a huge fan of “Forty Shades of Blue” and found myself mystified by the arch and chilly “Married Life,” while believing in both instances that Sachs would make a magnum opus that still lay ahead. Here it is: “Keep the Lights On” is a landmark work in gay cinema, in New York cinema and in American cinema. Whatever else it may be — scathing self-portrait, old-school NYC independent film (shot on super-16 film, not digital video!), showcase for two marvelously liberated performances — it’s absolutely not a freak show. Erik and Paul are complicated, confidently realized creations, and there’s plenty of human commonality to be found in their relationship, no matter what gender you are or whom you go to bed with. Sachs’ characters are specifically and recognizably gay, no doubt about it; but that’s not anywhere close to an adequate description. They’re also creative-class professionals, city dwellers of the 21st century and self-destructive, narcissistic young men of a variety who torment male and female lovers alike.

Like “Weekend,” another recent film that feels like a step forward or a step away from the “queer cinema” of the ’90s, this isn’t a movie about identity or coming out or facing oppression. It’s an unstinting relationship drama about two guys who fall in love in the most tolerant and diverse metropolis in America, surrounded by supportive gay and straight friends, and manage to screw it all up with drugs and craziness and horndoggery. I was reminded immediately of Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” but Sachs, a hardcore cinephile, has cited all sorts of other influences, from “Goodfellas” to “Annie Hall” to the films of French cult hero Maurice Pialat.

I’ve heard it suggested that “Keep the Lights On” is a covert portrait of the costs of homophobia; in other words, that Paul and Erik wouldn’t act so crazy if our society weren’t so severely polarized around questions of sexuality in general and gay sex in particular. Maybe that’s a valid extrinsic interpretation, but there’s nothing in the film to support it. As Sachs has said, he’s trying to depict a New York society that has evaded the movies until now, in which affluent, ambitious urbanites like Paul and Erik are not defined by their sexuality (central as it is to their lives) and do not live in a “Boys in the Band”-style gay ghetto. There could be a lot of reasons why they did so many drugs and treated each other like crap, but Pat Robertson didn’t have much to do with it.

Gorgeously photographed in moody, grainy hues by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, “Keep the Lights On” also features songs by underground New York music legend Arthur Russell (who died of AIDS in 1992), and an internal tribute to photographer Avery Willard, who documented New York’s gay community in the mid-20th century. Tragic, challenging, uplifting and finally liberating, this is a film that will reward multiple viewings for many years to come. It fulfills the potential with which Ira Sachs has tantalized us for years – and also explains why it took him so long. Out of lost love comes a terrific work of art; it’s the oldest story in the world, but it always feels new when it’s done right.

“Keep the Lights On” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles. It opens Sept. 14 in San Francisco; Sept. 21 in Palm Springs, Calif., Philadelphia and Washington; Sept. 30 in Dayton, Ohio; Oct. 5 in Columbus, Ohio; Oct. 12 in Boston, San Diego and Toronto; and Oct. 26 in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis, with more cities to follow.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>