Home Video Hovel- Keep the Lights On, by Dayne Linford
By all appearances, though certainly thriving previously, “gay cinema” has exploded over the last year (not enough to even dent the Oscars, of course), shelling out critical darling after critical darling, films ranging from North Sea Texas to How to Survive a Plague, among many others. Queer cinema, with its attendant film festivals and film culture, is doing quite well for itself.
Part of what makes Keep the Lights On unique is the relationship it bears to the larger queer cinema movement, simultaneously, obviously, a part of the movement and, in more subtle ways, not a part of it. Personally, having studied the literary version of queer theory (to reduce it – the exploration of identify formation, particularly how it relates to sexual mores but not limited to that relationship), I don’t see this film as being part of that group at all. In fact, this is simply a romance/drama film, about people who happen to be gay. Finally.
It’s a testament to Ira Sachs’ direction that we never feel like either of these men could be women or anything other than homosexual men, but neither does the film spend half its length defending/explaining/exculpating their “gay” status. It simply takes it as a given and proceeds to tell its story, making Keep the Lights On a breath of fresh air in today’s film culture, one riven beyond proportion with identity crises. Don’t get me wrong, I have no trouble with identity crises in storytelling, especially not when it concerns LGBT characters – the process of self-discovery is a key process for all humans, particularly those bearing some minority trait or other.
But Sachs determination to avoid the politicization of Keep the Lights On into a larger part of this country’s “gay” narrative, to resist any and all attempts to draw some kind of actionable civil rights message from its text or subtext is, I think, admirable. Instead, he opts to simply tell the story of these two men, that decision itself being a kind of civil rights message much more powerful, as an assumption, than any declaration he could’ve written into the text, the implicit message being that this story should be told, because of the people at its center, regardless of political/social/racial/sexual, etc., etc. identity.
‘So what is that story?’ the patient reader asks, tempting me off what is fast becoming a soapbox. I shall step down: Beginning in 1997, Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a documentary filmmaker and German immigrant living in NYC meets Paul (Zachary Booth), a lawyer, through a phone sex line. They hookup for the night, though Paul stipulates to Erik that there’s no chance of anything going beyond this one night stand, since he has a girlfriend. But the chemistry between the two is obvious, and the relationship develops as Paul slowly steps out of the closet and he and Erik begin their romance. Over the course of the next decade we follow this tangled, powerful relationship over its highs and lows.
The main conflict of the piece revolves around Paul’s drug addiction and the slow havoc it wreaks on his and, by extension, Erik’s life. But Keep the Lights On is much more than a run of the mill romance-with-drug-problems movie, and uses the relationship, with its despair and hope, happiness and pain, to explore Erik and Paul, the people they are and the people they become in response to each other. It’s especially a testament to Sachs’ sensitivity and skill as director and cowriter of the film that Erik, despite being the more obviously stable of the two (and most clearly the director’s stand in), is not at all let off the hook. He is Paul’s equal in every way, in terms of flaws and selfishness, but also in terms of tenderness and goodness. There are moments in this film of such delicate emotion, played so simply and beautifully, that it simply breaks your heart, a profound connection achieved between these two men that makes their love a difficult thing to reckon with, especially in terms of its fickle and problematic nature, at once giving joy and wrecking destitution.
Though the film suffers at times from being over-written, all in all, Keep the Lights On is an incredible, searing, authentic study of a beautiful, difficult, painful relationship, a film that treats its characters with dignity and respect but never shies away from who they are, warts and all as the saying goes. Ira Sachs directs with a sure hand, and it almost goes without saying that Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth deliver – but, damn, they do. At its best moments, the film is an exquisite, honest romance, and at its worst only tiny bit less so. Highly recommended.