Ira Sachs' latest film is a much-needed corrective to current Queer cinema
by Gary M. Kramer -
Special to the SGN
KEEP THE LIGHTS ON
SIFF CINEMA UPTOWN
Opens October 5
In an empty hotel bar on a summer Sunday morning, openly Gay filmmaker Ira Sachs spoke - in hushed, almost confessional tones that revealed his thoughtfulness - about his award-winning new film, Keep the Lights On. This searing drama about Eric (Thure Lindhardt), a filmmaker whose lover Paul (Zachary Booth) is a drug addict, is based on the Sachs' own experiences in a toxic, co-dependent relationship.
Sachs demurred at any suggestion that he made this film to exorcise his own demons. 'I don't begin to write a film until I have both the intimacy of the experience but also the distance to view the story as a storyteller - the analytic distance is as important as the emotional intimacy for me,' he said. 'I feel this film is a rebirth for me. I think that in the wake of the experiences on which this film is based, I've become more comfortable with myself, and that's shifted my work and the openness of my filmmaking. I think this is my freest film.'
DESPERATION AND DESIRE
Keep the Lights On is certainly Sachs' most personal project since his extraordinary first feature, The Delta, back in 1996. That film concerned a closeted 18-year-old white man in Memphis who begins a clandestine affair with a half-Vietnamese, half-African-American man. Keep the Lights On is not only Sachs' first Queer-themed feature since then, but it is also his most passionate - not just for its considerable eroticism, but also for its heartfelt emotional resonance. The characters' despair and desire are palpable.
'As a filmmaker, I'm always mining my own experience - because it is what I know best. I try to make films about things I know more about than anyone else,' he continued, quickly adding, 'But I never sense that privileges my story over others.'
Keep the Lights On is a strong, extremely well-crafted story that has universal appeal. While it will resonate with anyone who has ever loved an addict, it will also speak to those who want to understand the intricacies of human nature and behavior. Eric and Paul each keep secrets as they find ways of coping with the corrosive nature of their relationship. How they each fare by the end of the film is revealing.
Sachs, who described his drama as a 'tabula rasa,' said many people who see it talk to him afterward about their own relationships. He also indicated that some folks don't consider it a 'Gay film,' citing the example of a psychologist in his 80s who said it is 'not a film about love, or addiction, but about obsession.'
'That was very clarifying to me,' the filmmaker observed. 'I think what happens, for a lot of people - and this can be through other individuals, it can be through sex, it can be through drugs - is that by narrowing the range of what compels you to another person, you kind of silence the loud noises that are surrounding you.
A SHAMELESS LOOK AT SHAME
'Obsession is a very comfortable place to be,' he added, smiling noticeably. He paused, and quoted Emmylou Harris' song, 'Where Will I Be,' which includes the lyric, 'Addiction stays on tight like a glove.'
Sachs reframed that idea, saying, 'I thought about that often in my life. I think addiction can be to a person as much as a drug.'
The filmmaker revealed that he was involved with Al-Anon and had learned what he could from the experience. He described this 'research' as a way of formulating the content of his film - 'how my behavior was cyclical and unenlightened in terms of the role that I played within the dynamic of this relationship.'
Sachs added that he worked through his own guilt and pain about his relationship in therapy. He then referenced Goodfellas, of all films, to explain that his goal in making Keep the Lights On was to 'depict bad behavior, but not judge that behavior or shy away from the consequence of what we do in our lives. I attempted to make a film about shame, but to do so shamelessly. I wanted to look without judgment at the behavior and the actions of these characters.'
Viewers surely will connect with - and understand - Eric's struggle as he tries to help Paul during his downward spiral. His efforts to try to maintain hope for their relationship are evident even when that relationship is at the apex of its crisis.
Keep the Lights On unfolds over 10 years, with some episodes happening on one particular day and others over an indeterminate period. This oblique narrative approach is forceful because it shows how Eric and Paul relate to one another over various jumps in time - in ways that range from warm and caring to cold and fighting, but with always some element of love.
'The script is like a diary,' Sachs commented. 'If you think about diaries and journals, they are made up of events and ellipses. You write in your journal when something bothers you. So the film is, like, all the high points.'
These include an incredibly tense moment when Eric places a call to see if he's contracted HIV, and a seductive scene in which Eric is offered a drug and warily tries it, perhaps in an effort to understand what Paul finds so alluring about crack and crystal meth.
'THE BRAVEST ACTOR IN DENMARK'
Keep the Lights On benefits immensely from Lindhardt's revelatory performance as Eric. Sachs, a nice Jewish Gay man from Memphis, said it was liberating to cast the Danish actor as his alter ego. 'I was free from any attachment from the past,' he explained.
He then effused about Lindhardt, 'I didn't set up to cast a Danish guy. I heard Thure was the bravest actor in Denmark and one of the best. I sent him the script, and he auditioned by doing a few scenes from the film on his cell phone. He chose all the scenes he could do alone, which meant a lot of masturbation scenes. There was a fearlessness - even in the audition - that was apparent, as well as an extraordinarily vibrant energy to have as an actor.'
Sachs added that he could not easily cast this film in America because of its Queer sexuality and explicit nature. 'Believe it or not,' he said, 'I sent the material to an agency in Los Angeles that I always send new work to, and I got the response, 'No one in our agency will be available for this film.'
This led to a discussion of the current state of Queer filmmaking. Sachs remarked that his latest work is part of a 'new Queer cinema' that focuses more on relationships and less on coming-out stories. Keep the Lights On considers what Sachs called 'the nocturnal world of Gay life.'
'I think we have to recognize that there are still so few images of what Gay life looks like, particularly around sex and drugs,' he said. 'We as individuals and as a community have re-closeted ourselves. We've created a safe space where we can have certain kinds of experiences, and then we've stopped talking about them and stopped looking at them. There's very, very little about Gay life as I know it on film.'
Sachs continued on this rant, as he insisted that even his film's title is a call to arms for the audience. 'It's a direct address for people in the cinema to not live in the darkness,' he said. 'I think as Gay people, we have learned out of need to live with secrets. This film, in a way, is a testament to the destruction those secrets can create. The film is very, very open about two men who keep everything closed.'
RAISING THE DRUG ISSUE
Sachs insisted that Keep the Lights On is not an 'anti-drug' film, but he asserted that people need to talk about drugs. He expressed hope that his film will spark conversations about the place of drugs, particularly meth, in the Gay community.
The filmmaker likened the current crystal-meth epidemic among Gays to the invasion of the African-American community by crack cocaine in the early 1980s. 'It was a fuel that set off a huge fire, and I think we are in the middle of that,' he said. 'But there is a way of ending it, and that's to admit it. I think it's another closet. We're very used to creating closets and staying in them.'
As angry as Sachs gets, his calm demeanor reinforces the very happy place he is in now. Sachs and his partner, Ecuadorian artist Boris Torres - whose beautiful and sexy artwork is seen under the film's opening credits - have been together for five years.
'I feel like I came out at 40 in a lot of ways,' Sachs, who is now in his mid-40s, said sunnily. 'I live a very different way now. This relationship I'm in now is the first honest relationship I've been in.'
The couple recently became parents of twins - a boy and a girl - and the proud father displayed cute photos of two adorable, smiling babies who surely have had a transformative effect of their own on both him and Torres.
'I tried to start keeping a journal when we had kids,' he said. 'Because I found it complex to be a parent - and fascinating and wonderful. Maybe it's too wonderful to write about.'
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