Scenes From a Marriage
'Keep the Lights On'
As Ira Sachs' movie Keep the Lights On begins, we observe a character named Erik trolling the gay telephone chat lines for sex. It's 1998, and Erik is a fledgling documentary filmmaker who's about 30 years old. He hooks up for a satisfying encounter with Paul, a lawyer who works at a major publishing house. With that, the film is off and running on a 10-year survey of this couple's relationship, through its rise and fall, peaks and valleys – a relationship complicated by Erik's addiction to love and Paul's addiction to crack cocaine. The film is drawn from diaries Sachs kept during his own 10-year relationship with a crack-dependent attorney, who would frequently disappear on benders, leaving his partner a worried mess.
Although the story of the relationship is told chronologically, Keep the Lights On shows us only glimpses of Erik and Paul's long affair. "I would say the film is filled with ellipses," says Sachs during a telephone interview. "You can think of the film as imitating the diaristic form, which is one in which people tend to write about the dramatic high points of their lives. And then there are gaps. At one point in writing the script, we [Sachs and his writing partner Mauricio Zacharias] took out the beginnings and ends and we made a film about the middle – the events. I think that also throws the audience inside ... I put you right in the middle."
Keep the Lights On stands out from so many of the films that form the bulwark of queer film festivals in that it is not a movie about the unmasking of gay identity or the process of coming out. "It's a coming-of-middle-age film, to be honest," Sachs continues. "For many of us, becoming an adult was much harder than we expected. And I think both the characters, and myself, came to a point toward the end of this relationship in which there was enough self-knowledge as well as self-love to let go. That's a little cliche, but I actually think it's true. These are two men who believe they don't exist without the other."
Sachs remarks that people always ask if he "set out to make a gay film instead of just another film about individuals and how they struggle to figure out their lives. I realized about halfway through the process [of making Keep the Lights On] that no one ever asked me if Forty Shades of Blue [the 2005 feature for which Sachs received the Grand Jury Award at Sundance] was a Russian woman's movie." Nevertheless, the fabric of gay culture and history is part of the intrinsic underpinning of this new film. For example, Erik is working on a documentary film about the photographer Avery Willard, who documented the New York gay scene, and the cello music that accompanies that film within a film is by the musician Arthur Russell, who was commemorated in the film, Wild Combination.
Keep the Lights On is firmly set within the gay community of New York during a particular era, without specifically being a story about that gay community. "It's a film about addiction, and it's a film about compulsion," Sachs comments, "but I didn't want to judge the characters in what they were doing. At the same time, I didn't want to avoid the consequences of those behaviors on their lives." It's as though Sachs is reminding us all to keep the lights on when observing our relationships with others. It's in the shadows that secrets, deceit, and destructiveness dwell.
Keep the Lights On screens Saturday, Oct. 6, 6:30pm, at the Stateside at the Paramount.