Monday, December 09, 2013

Keep The Lights On

Keep The Lights On, directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, is drawn from the director’s long-term and now concluded relationship with a man fighting a drug addiction. The stand-in for Sachs here is Erik (Thure Lindhardt) , a Danish filmmaker working in New York who in 1998 spends an evening with an publishing house attorney named Paul (Zachary Booth). Paul has a girlfriend when he first meets Erik, but she’s soon out of the picture as the men’s relationship deepens and they move in together. The movie, with a few time jumps, follows the tumultuous relationship until 2006, with the tumult being caused primarily by Paul’s drug use and his habit of disappearing for long stretches. Erik, outwardly confident but upset by Paul’s inconsistency, must finally decide if the relationship is worth the stress.

 A description of the plot doesn’t do justice to the success of Keep The Lights On, a film full of memory of nuance. Sachs has a way with details and moods, from the play of light on a New York street to the way that a drive outside the city can feel like skipping school. The film takes place in a series of apartments, art galleries, restaurants, and all the places a downtown life might unfold. There’s a wonderful lazy Sunday quality to the happiest moments, and so when things go bad it’s all the worse for Erik since the couple’s cozy life offers few options for escape. I had never heard of Thure Lindhardt before I saw his performance as Erik, but it’s a performance that will serve as a fine calling card for future work. We’re told Erik comes from money but don’t get many details; he’s determined to make his own name yet money is never an issue. Sachs’s script (co-written with Mauricio Zacharias) is very good about the ways that being a caretaker can grind on you. No matter what success Erik enjoys (a documentary he makes wins a film festival award), his worry that Paul is slipping into trouble overwhelms his life. Lindhardt gets this conflict and turns in a performance of great sensitivity. Zachary Booth is off screen for stretches but is equally good and never overplays Paul’s addiction. We worry about Paul the last time we seem him, just like Erik he’s a picture of confidence masking inner troubles. I don’t know anything about how Sachs works, but there is plenty of credit to go around between him, Lindhardt, and Booth for these lived-in., utterly convincing characters. 

There is another strand to Keep The Lights On worth discussing, one that connects it to its audience and its city and other filmmakers and artists here and yet to come. The documentary Erik is working on is about Avery Willard, a gay photographer and filmmaker, and Sachs uses the theme of an earlier New York gay life as a background to his characters’ struggles. Of course Erik and Paul have straight friends (including Julianne Nicholson as a woman interested in Erik fathering her child), but they often seem to exist in a sort of self-selecting world that in Sachs’s vision has existed and will continue to do so as people pass through it. Erik interviews Willard’s contemporaries for his documentary, and they bring their own memories of how their friend carried the fire of what was then an illicit subculture. Late in the film Erik enjoys a flirtation with a younger man (Miguel del Toro) who is still flitting from relationship to relationship, excited by the possibility of what’s to come. Erik and Paul are searching for their own places on this continuum, and as they end the film in transition Sachs gives us an appropriate Arthur Russell lyric to focus on: “Every step is moving me up.” I would describe Keep The Lights On as a Gay Human Drama, with equal emphasis on both of those adjectives. Ira Sachs knows where we’ve been and wants to find out where we’re going.

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