Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Ira Sachs | Keep the Lights On

breaking up is hard to do
by Douglas Messerli
Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias (screenplay), Ira Sachs (director) Keep the Lights On / 2012

 The first full-feature film of documentary filmmaker Ira Sachs seems, in its unremitting linear structure—portraying ten years of a complex and difficult relationship between two young gay men in New York—very much like a documentary film. Although Sachs has made clear that a great deal of this film is fictional, it is based on his past relationship with a closeted literary agent Bill Clegg (Zachary Booth in the film, who works as a publishing-house lawyer), and he and his co-writer created many of the films memorable scenes by perusing Sach's own journal of the ten years of his fraught relationship, also recounted in a book by Sach’s ex-lover.

       Like many documentaries, the film begins with a defining event and expresses its story through a series of revealing scenes, conveying the vagaries of the story and pointing up the inevitable outcome—in this case the end of their relationship. And, in that sense, this film lacks a certain amount of substantive richness that might have been achieved by occasionally refocusing on characters or events slightly askew from his two major figures, himself (in the movie a Danish documentary filmmaker, Erik [Thure Lilndhardt]) and Paul. Although by the end of the movie, we do have some idea of the problems facing both these young men, it would have helped, moreover, if the filmmaker and his co-author had somehow given us a few clues, without over-psychologizing the work, as to how the two had developed into the two ciphers who, through a casual sexual hookup, suddenly fall in love.

      Part of the difficulties facing them simply to do with the time of their encounter, beginning in 1998 and moving over a span of 10 years, where the quick sex of bar life, having been replaced with the furtive cell-phone hookups, creates a kind of hyper-kinetic speed-dating converted into speed-dialing. The dark specter of death, in the form of AIDS, has now spread over everything. When you add to this Paul’s closeted sexual and drug addiction, doom is in the air from the very beginning. Finally, there is the charming Erik’s own addiction to casual sex and his failure to express his life fully to others, and we suddenly realize that theirs is clearly a world of quick fixes instead of a coherent social behavior. In some senses, despite its deep honesty about the behavior of gays which still may shock some heterosexuals—who often pretend their aberrations are “normal”—Sachs’ film is not so much a “gay” film as it is, like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend of last year, a film about a relationship and the problems those involved encounter.

     Despite the fact that the film is somewhat heavily-laden with “plot,” the characters, particularly Erik are absolutely charming. Both Erik—who underneath his sexual addiction, truly seeks a monogamous relationship and, as the director reveals again and again, to use the cliché, is “head-over-heels” in love with the attractive Paul—and his companion seem immediately right for one another, despite Paul’s inability to totally commit. Paul is, nonetheless, a hard worker and, evidently, makes a decent salary. At several points in the story, Erik is needled (in one instance by his sister, in another by Paul himself) for not truly having “a job,” as if working as a documentary artist was less a profession than a hobby. It is little wonder that, later in the film, Erik is attracted—both physically and psychologically—to a young gay man, Igor, who is studying to be an “artist.” For the wage-earners of this world, perhaps justifiably, but always mistakenly, are dismissive of those who create as opposed to those who work by the clock. Throughout Keep the Lights On, Paul insists he must work the next morning and, when morning arrives, that he is afraid we will be late. Such a mantra, in fact, becomes, at times, another ruse not to discuss the real issues at hand.

     What we also discern early on is that it not only takes a great deal of time (four years, at least, for the film that Erik is working on) to accomplish his art, but it takes an enormous outpouring of money (I had earlier in the day watched Godard’s Tout va bien, which begins with a satirical look at how much money a film takes to get made by showing check after check being torn from away from a checkbook). Fortuitously, Erik appears to have been born into a fairly wealthy family, and his father has bankrolled his first film, a fact his well-off sister—who evidently feels she has more entitlement to the inheritance than her more-independent brother—somewhat maliciously reminds him. Obviously, we must put Erik’s fairly affluent upbringing and his ability to see the world both from a European and an American point of view (Paul is his first American boyfriend) into the brew of their bubbling relationship.

     For the first several “scenes” of this film, love seems to dominate, as, despite occasional instances—for example when the two male lovers encounter Paul’s girlfriend visiting the same gallery in which they are strolling—they seem truly to discover and enjoy one another. Erik’s few friends, mostly straight co-workers, are enchanted by his new love interest, and the couple seem on its way—despite the dreadful times—to some sense of permanence. Paul is both beautiful and intelligent; Erik almost boyishly hopeful and creative. It is a couple everyone who loves happiness might envy.

      Yet Erik’s travels for his work breed difficulties, deep-lined resentments and simple temptations for his mate. Telephoning home, is he met increasingly with unanswered calls, long silences, and upon returning, with equally unexplained absences. When Paul sees Erik even talking with a young man on the street, he goes into a quiet frenzy, determined to spend the night on the couch, Erik equally determined to force him back into bed. Erik’s increasing attempts to save Paul from himself further send Paul into the drugged-out corners of his life. The very night Erik wins a “Teddy” in Berlin (an award for documentary film, which, coincidentally, the director has since won), Paul is not to be found, and upon Erik’s return to New York he discovers that his lover has been missing—clearly on a drug binge—for several days. With Erik’s insistence and caring, Paul suffers a several month rehabilitation program, but as part of the program he must keep away sexually for a period from the very man who has saved him. Erik's loving tribute to Paul and his courageousness at a Christmas dinner party only exacerbates Paul’s sensitivity.

     Life goes on. But when Erik is given the possibility of working in a writer’s colony, Paul again goes missing. Erik’s return to reclaim him is the most powerful and perverse scene in the movie, as he discovers the missing Paul in a hotel room, after days of crack-cocaine, awaiting the services of a hustler whom he has hired, obviously, to fuck him brutally as self-punishment and also in a desperate attempt to reclaim his own being. He insists Erik leave, that he not be witness to his drugs and self-immolation, but Erik, almost saintly but, also, clearly out of intense love, remains—at first painfully separated in the other room, but when his name is called, coming into the bedroom to hold his lover’s hand at the very moment he is being roughly screwed. I know there are millions of Americans who will not understand this scene as one of the deepest expressions of love and compassion, but they are, quite simply, mistaken. Yet Erik’s great sacrifice can only come with further expectations and disappointments. And it is followed with a subterfuge visit—in Erol's own enactment of self-hatred—to one of  his earlier sexual partners, an exhibitionist, slob of a human being, who represents Erik’s polar opposite. 

     Paul returns to therapy, joining his friend again on a night where they lay next to one another naked without—through his insistence, evidently part of the therapy—their being able to have sex. Erik is so delighted just for Paul’s presence that he will not allow the lights to go out; Erik wants to see, to “witness” the embodiment of his love.

     It is at that very moment that we realize there has been a deep toll to pay. The couple, spending a few days at a country escape, might as well be on other planets, Erik, perhaps because of his lover’s continued abstinence of sex (which is, after all, for both men, another kind of drug) quietly masturbating in the woods before demanding a discussion with Paul, asking Paul what is the future for them. For once, Paul turns the tables, demanding Erik express his own feelings rather than passively relying on him, insisting that Erik take responsibility for his own emotions. But even here, Erik bases his responses on his lover’s. “What do you want?”

     To our surprise, Paul suggests that they return to living together. But this time, he gives no room for equivocation. He demands Erik make his decision in three hours. As Erik drives Paul to the train station, intending himself to return to New York the next day, Paul demands his decision. Erik agrees to continue the relationship.

    We all may hope for that. Certainly my companion, Howard—with whom I have lived through mostly good times, but many difficult periods as well, for almost 43 years—desired the happy ending. Yet such an ending might only have required these two to go on living in their own very different realities, lying to themselves about their own beings, despite the deep love that they obviously hold for one another. Upon Erik’s return to New York, Paul again asks the question. For once, Erik is completely honest with himself, despite his needs, his deep love, his desire to see things the way they “should be,” instead of the way they are. He has decided to abandon what for a decade he is worked to maintain.

      That is the way most relationships end, and most relationships, unfortunately, end these days. At least here, both men end in a hug instead of hate, and move on with their lives. Perhaps that happens only in movies, but I’d like to think that, at least the ending of Sach’s moving and honest film was closer to a documentation of the facts than a fiction.

Los Angeles, September 14, 2012
Reprinted from Nth Position (October 2012).

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