‘Keep the Lights On’
Not rated, but contains some profanity, drug use, nudity and strong sexual content.
An intimate, honest and uncompromising study of the need for love and the addictions to drugs, sex and intense emotion that may accompany love's pursuit, Ira Sachs' "Keep the Lights On" is the most fully realized feature film in the Memphis-born director's almost 30 years of moviemaking.
The film's unconventional pacing and elliptical storytelling are central to its power, although these qualities may alienate viewers who prefer plots that are as accessible and easy to consume as potato chips from a vending machine. The fact that the almost decade-long love affair chronicled here is between two men also might discourage conservative moviegoers, although it's hard to imagine anyone seeing this film and failing to identify with its lead figure, a Danish filmmaker named Erik (Thure Lindhardt) who functions as Sachs' stand-in.
An autobiography transformed into symbolic art, "Keep the Lights On" was inspired by Sachs' longtime relationship with literary agent and writer Bill Clegg, whose own story of these years, "Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man: A Memoir," was published in 2009. In the film, Clegg becomes Paul (Zachary Booth), who keeps the truth of his sexuality and the extent of his addiction to crack cocaine closeted away from some loved ones, at least at first.
The movie opens in 1998 and ends some nine years later, so that in addition to being a fraught love story it functions to some extent as a social and cultural history of gay and artistic New York in this era, and an homage to the gay artists who preceded Sachs. For most of the movie, Erik — like Sachs, the privileged son of a wealthy father — is working on a documentary about photographer Avery Willard, whose underground films, "beefcake" portraits and other photos captured may aspects of New York gay life, especially in the 1960s and '70s.
In addition, the film's score is taken almost entirely from the once-neglected work of singer-songwriter and experimental composer Arthur Russell, who died of AIDS in 1992 at age 40. Russell's electrified cello solos and sonorous vocals, often redolent of remorse and regret, add a ghostly element to certain scenes. The art motif is further amplified but made contemporary by the use of paintings by Boris Torres under the opening credits; Torres is Sachs' husband, which adds yet another personal element to the film.
"Keep the Lights On" examines the story of Erik and Paul entirely through Erik's eyes, a subjective approach that narrows the script possibilities but contributes to the film's honesty: There is no attempt to imagine events in which Erik is not a participant. As a result, Paul is often not present — in more ways than one — in a hop-scotching story in which he theoretically should be a co-star. His unexplained absences are often attributable to his crack binges; but even when he is in a scene, he often seems distant or abashed or even unaware, as in a degrading sexual encounter involving Paul, Erik and a third man. (The movie's sex scenes are not explicit but are very frank, which may explain why Music Box Films decided to release "Keep the Lights On" without a Motion Picture Association of America rating.)"Keep the Lights On" — which credits Memphians Iddo Patt and Adam Hohenberg among its producers, and Hohenberg's Alarum Pictures as one of its production companies — is the New York-based Sachs' fourth feature film. His first, the very low-budget "The Delta" (1996), was shot in Memphis, as was his second, "Forty Shades of Blue" (2005), which won the Grand Jury Prize in drama at the Sundance Film Festival. The latter's success led to the relatively luxurious "Married Life" (2007), a noirish period melodrama with Pierce Brosnan and Rachel McAdams, but "Keep the Lights On" represents a return to a very modest budget. (The film's $700,000 cost was raised, in part, via Internet "crowd-funding," with contributions from fans of the director's work.)
Key to the film's success is the mesmerizing work of Greek cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, who also shot one of the more original movies of the past decade, Greece's "Dogtooth" (2009). For "Keeps the Lights On" Bakatakis worked with Kodak 16-mm film, which contributes grain and texture to the enlarged picture. Many, perhaps most shots are dusted with a golden light that gives the images an iconic quality, in the original — and not insignificantly Greek — meaning of the adjective: The characters sometimes appear almost gilded with gold-leaf highlights, like the saints in old religious paintings — martyrs who would sympathize with Erik and Paul's suffering. The Vermeer luminosity reinforces the message of the movie's title and its pro-honesty theme, while the amber dust of the grain suggests the words of James Joyce, in "Ulysses": "My methods are new and are causing surprise. To make the blind see I throw dust in their eyes."
"Keep the Lights On" is exclusively at Malco's Studio on the Square.