It’s been reported that filmmaker Ira Sachs originally intended his new non-romance Keep the Lights On to be titled “Shame.” But that title was already taken by British artist Steve McQueen’s silly movie about “sex addiction.” Sachs isn’t silly. All his films deal with sex but not in McQueen’s trendy, fraudulent way. Sachs, a personal and revealing artist, goes deeper than topical issues.
In Keep the Lights On, a gay male filmmaker’s sexual compulsion is complicated by the conflicting compulsions of his lover, a closeted bisexual man who gives in to crack addiction. This story, detailing the personal unease of seemingly sophisticated, urban white males, discloses how sexual activity can perplex even the most self-conscious class—an exploration that goes back to Sachs’ first film, 1997’s extraordinary, scarily insightful The Delta. The troubled couple of his new film, Erik and Paul, are led by solitary, introverted impulses to spiritual isolation and mutual destruction.
Few filmmakers have dealt with this problem, which Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura described as “Eros is sick.” Gay filmmakers particularly opt for sentimental eroticism (last year’s Weekend) or simplistic pathology (Mysterious Skin and almost any Gus Van Sant movie). Sachs’ filmmaking is notable for its reproof of gay furtiveness and bold revelation of gay men’s hidden emotions. The autobiographical elements of Keep the Lights On are less interesting than Sachs’ unadulterated style of representation.
His actors, Thure Lindhart as European émigré Erik and Zachary Booth as literary lawyer Paul, are plain, almost unprepossessing. They embody a blunt naturalism, unlike the gay cuties in Weekend. Erik’s needy eyes and small teeth and Paul’s pallor are as realistic as those uncosmeticized rascals of low-budget porn, but Sachs asks for emotional depth. Erik and Paul’s turbulent relationship is unentertaining, due to each man’s befuddlement and intransigence. Recognizing their folly is as agonizing as it is insightful. That’s because Sachs dares such unsparing confessions as on singer-songwriter Grant King’s CD Let Love In for his self-published record label Know More Secrets. Sachs breaks through the façade of most queer cinema to uncover the difficulty and ugliness of sexual and emotional maturation.
There aren’t many cinematic equivalents to Sachs’ honesty—surely The Delta has no rivals for exploring the range of inhibitions (not silly, disingenuous “addiction”) among sexually active men across class and racial lines, then suggesting its terrible costs. (Since Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s death, no gay filmmaker has been this emotionally and socially astute.) In its stringent honesty, Sachs’ artistry resembles James Baldwin’s. The scenes where Erik and Paul volley infidelities, accusations and out-of-synch emotions recall Baldwin’s 1953 novel Giovanni’s Room; to paraphrase: “If dirty words frighten you, I really don’t know how you managed to live so long. The only time people don’t use them is when they’re describing something dirty.”
It’s the hidden dirt of gay lives that separates Keep the Lights On from Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece Happy Together. Sachs’ work doesn’t have Wong’s sense of ecstatic aesthetic discovery. Perhaps because Sachs naturally harbors American middle-class guilt as well as the personal identification—and shame—that Wong didn’t feel when projecting his heterosexual’s imagination onto the tensions of two gay men, it is the dirt and anguish that predominate in Keep the Lights On. This is Baldwinesque, too: “I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy, we gave each other joy that night.”
Sachs isn’t big on joy. He focuses on the anguished working-through of lust and shame and dissatisfaction. During a tormented, unerotic threesome, Keep the Lights On uses post-porn frankness to portray lovers’ painful failure. It brings sacrifice and humiliation together with discomforting honesty.
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