Keep the Lights On
By Nathan Lee
The heartache of a lopsided long-term relationship
1998: They meet on a phone-sex number of the old-school landline type, a carnal technology as obsolete as the hanky code. You never know with these things. Negotiating anonymous sex with a stranger is risky imaginative business, and sometimes the vision you’ve constructed of a hot, well-built jerk-off buddy turns out to be an egregious condo-dwelling muscle queen hopped up on meth. But on a good night you walk across town, ring the buzzer, climb the stairs, and are greeted by just the right guy. Hello! Trim and boyish, with an easy smile, tight ass, and closet full of preppy basics, Paul (Zachary Booth) is a nearly perfect specimen of the clean-cut post-twink power bottom. Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a scruffy East Village horndog and self-described dominant top, has no sooner grunted hello and disengaged from a kiss than he’s deep inside him.
Beyond locating us in a specific sexual culture—downtown New York in the late Nineties—the random hookup that opens Keep the Lights On establishes a number of themes that will resonate across its 10-year chronicle of Erik and Paul’s relationship. Directed by Ira Sachs (sharing screenplay credit with Mauricio Zacharias), the movie begins on a note of contingency that will haunt, in powerful but subtle ways, all to come. By showing us the poses and personas required to pull such seductions off, Keep the Lights On acknowledges (without belaboring) the performative nature of identity; how each of our claims to selfhood, be it sexual, romantic, or professional, are staged on a shifting terrain of habit, fantasy, and desire. Erik’s studiously butch telephone manner is only a heightened case of the more generalized projections that shape all of our psychic and social bonds. Keep the Lights On is sharply attuned to the resentments that undergird couples whose shared lives must negotiate wildly different career structures and claims on their attention. Paul, a documentary filmmaker partly funded by his family, is more than once reminded by Erik, a literary agent, that “some of us have real jobs.” And it’s characteristic of the film’s emotional economy that we’re made to see, without it being explicitly pointed out, how the maintenance of a day job assists Paul in masking—from himself and others—a serious crack cocaine habit. That’s the real meaning of his parting words to Erik on their first night: “I have a girlfriend, by the way, so don’t get your hopes up.”
2000: Keep the Lights On is structured by abrupt leaps through time marked by title cards identifying the year, with each subsequent chapter bringing us to a more fucked-up place than the last. Erik and Paul now share an apartment, but only nominally; Paul repeatedly vanishes into weeklong sex-and-drugs binges. The movie’s title will come to mean something much different later on, after all the cycles of desperation, hurt, anger, and rehab have played themselves out, and more than love—life and death—depends on the vigilant illumination of shadows. For now it signifies Erik in his lighthouse, maintaining a beacon for Paul.
One night in bed, Erik literally fucks the shit out of him. Admirably matter-of-fact, if perilously blunt as a metaphor for uncorked emotional messiness, the scene deftly stages the pragmatics of buttsex etiquette. The cleanup routine: apologies en route to the shower and the stripping of sheets, undertaken with a crisp efficiency that telegraphs the event as one of those grown-up things you just deal with, albeit with a certain amount of unavoidable embarrassment. Followed, as such things often are, by either the outright neutralizing of horniness or at least a period of Downy-fresh regrouping and pillow talk.
Sachs orchestrates the sequence with his typical acumen for the nuances of gay sexual experience, and uses it to flesh out the core dramatic problem of the film. Keep the Lights On is not the story of why Paul is Paul, what motivates and triggers his addiction, whether or not he’ll pull through—all that messy shit. It is, instead, almost entirely concerned with Erik’s addiction to the highs and lows of an all-consuming attachment. I don’t mean to be callous, or to suggest that Paul isn’t worth the trouble. But the very design of the movie renders the question beside the point. There’s something illogical about all relationships, some degree-zero of pure contingency under all the various “compatibilities” and “mutual interests” and “amazing blow jobs.” Sometimes people hook up by phone, and they like it, so they fuck some more, and start hanging out, and stay together for 10 miserable years.
We see very few scenes of happiness between them, all localized at the start of the picture, after which, and relentlessly, there is little but hurt. In a different kind of movie this would constitute a flaw in the structure of investments (for both Erik and the viewer), and even here the distance kept from Paul, the almost total lack of access to his interiority, needs to be accounted for. Sachs, I would argue, is less interested in the reasons we care about things than in the mechanics of care itself—what it looks like, how it feels, its ardors and torments. Keep the Lights On is not a portrait of love’s object, but a study of love’s zealous procedures.
1996: “The distance between two men is…” The Delta. Sachs’s 1996 debut film—and still his best—expands on the neorealist technique of situating a drama in, and through, a real- time flow of context and milieu. The film evokes an amazingly vivid image of Memphis and environs as experienced through the intersection of two alienated lives: Lincoln (Shayne Gray), a diffident middle-class white kid who cruises porn shops and pickup spots; and Minh (Thang Chan), a gregarious Vietnamese immigrant whose avid sexuality bears complex ties to his socioeconomic marginalization. Sachs decimates two of queer cinema’s most persistent clichés here: the closet-case coming-of-age yarn, featuring some hairless all-American type; and the hustler psychodrama, with its trapped-animal erotics and tortured subalternity. Anchored, like all of Sachs’s work, by exceptionally intelligent casting and the privileging of behavior over psychology, The Delta stakes out a vantage from these characters that allows for indeterminacies of feeling, atmosphere, and motive to be captured with great precision.
Historically aligned with the New Queer Cinema, the film’s energies feel closer to Garrel or the Apichatpong of Tropical Malady, and it would be remembered as sui generis if Sachs hadn’t reworked the template in Forty Shades of Blue (05) and Keep the Lights On. You could track any number of consistencies across them, starting with the trope of the stranger in a strange land, tied up with themes of estrangement and the couple. Forty Shades of Blue, like The Delta, displaces a foreigner to the South then doubly displaces her in an alienated relationship. (Married Life, the anomaly of the Sachs oeuvre, totalizes this procedure in genre terms: the mid-century Hitchcockian domestic thriller transplanted to 2007 Indiewood.) Throughout his films, Sachs has leveraged this conceit to open perspectives on class and cultural difference, but its persistence in the case of Erik (a Dane in New York) suggests a deeper strategy for articulating his own experiences by proxy.
2012: Keep the Lights On is based on Sachs’s relationship with Bill Clegg, a well-known New York literary agent whose outrageous drug and sex addictions were parlayed into the 2010 memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. I haven’t read it, and don’t much care to: I have my own distances to calibrate. Autobiography is an eternal problem of critique, since all critique founds itself, explicitly or not, on some relationship (embraced or disavowed) to autobiography. Does it matter that these things “really” happened to Sachs? Does it account for any special effect? I feel, intensely, the stakes of Sachs’s project, his effort to analyze the past, to locate memories and appraise their texture, to weigh their resistance, and embark on the delicate, dangerous work of prying them out and folding them into the material of a film. Does it matter that any of this presses on the bruise of my own recent breakup? Everything matters to someone.
1992: The year arthur Russell Died. His music—aching ballads, experimental disco, downtown classical—blankets Keep the Lights On from start to finish. More than the lighting or cinematography, though nicely keyed to their moody grain, it is Russell’s gorgeous melancholy that establishes a tone. It’s almost too apt and too much, a minor case of excessive enthusiasm born from the recognition of one artist’s project reflected, with great lucidity, in the practice of another.
Russell died at the age of 40 while living in an apartment at 437 East 12th Street. Sachs filmed the exterior of this building, and many others once home to those lost to AIDS, in his 2010 short film Last Address. Here is a memorial of absolute simplicity and complex witness, folding, in one gesture, memory and its capture, desire and distance, shadows and light.