Ad­dicted to love

Mem­phian Sachs de­liv­ers gen­uine art film

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Stage - By John Bei­fuss

An in­ti­mate, hon­est and un­com­pro­mis­ing study of the need for love and the ad­dic­tions to drugs, sex and in­tense emo­tion that may ac­com­pany love’s pur­suit, Ira Sachs’ “Keep the Lights On” is the most fully re­al­ized fea­ture film in the Mem­phis-born di­rec­tor’s al­most 30 years of moviemak­ing.

The film’s un­con­ven­tional pac­ing and el­lip­ti­cal sto­ry­telling are cen­tral to its power, al­though these qual­i­ties may alien­ate view­ers who pre­fer plots that are as ac­ces­si­ble and easy to con­sume as potato chips from a vend­ing ma­chine. The fact that the al­most decade-long love af­fair chron­i­cled here is be­tween two men also might dis­cour­age con­ser­va­tive movie­go­ers, al­though it’s hard to imag­ine any­one see­ing this film and fail­ing to iden­tify with its lead fig­ure, a Dan­ish film­maker named Erik (Thure Lind­hardt) who func­tions as Sachs’ stand-in.

An au­to­bi­og­ra­phy trans­formed into sym­bolic art, “Keep the Lights On” was in­spired by Sachs’ long­time re­la­tion­ship with lit­er­ary agent and writer Bill Clegg, whose own story of these years, “Por­trait of the Ad­dict as a Young Man: A Mem­oir,” was pub­lished in 2009. In the film, Clegg be­comes Paul (Zachary Booth), who keeps the truth of his sex­u­al­ity and the ex­tent of his ad­dic­tion to crack co­caine clos­eted away from some loved ones, at least at first.

The movie opens in 1998 and ends some nine years later, so that in ad­di­tion to be­ing a fraught love story it func­tions to some ex­tent as a so­cial and cul­tural his­tory of gay and artis­tic New York in this era, and an homage to the gay artists who pre­ceded Sachs. For most of the movie, Erik — like Sachs, the priv­i­leged son of a wealthy fa­ther — is work­ing on a doc­u­men­tary about pho­tog­ra­pher Avery Wil­lard, whose un­der­ground films, “beef­cake” por­traits and other pho­tos cap­tured may as­pects of New York gay life, es­pe­cially in the 1960s and ’ 70s.

In ad­di­tion, the film’s score is taken al­most en­tirely from the once- ne­glected work of singer­song­writer and ex­per­i­men­tal com­poser Arthur Rus­sell, who died of AIDS in 1992 at age 40. Rus­sell’s elec­tri­fied cello so­los and sonorous vo­cals, of­ten redo­lent of re­morse and re­gret, add a ghostly el­e­ment to cer­tain scenes. The art mo­tif is fur­ther am­pli­fied but made con­tem­po­rary by the use of paint­ings by Boris Tor­res un­der the open­ing cred­its; Tor­res is Sachs’ hus­band, which adds yet an­other per­sonal el­e­ment to the film.

“Keep the Lights On” ex­am­ines the story of Erik and Paul en­tirely through Erik’s eyes, a sub­jec­tive ap­proach that nar­rows the script pos­si­bil­i­ties but con­trib­utes to the film’s hon­esty: There is no at­tempt to imag­ine events in which Erik is not a par­tic­i­pant. As a re­sult, Paul is of­ten not present — in more ways than one — in a hop-scotch­ing story in which he the­o­ret­i­cally should be a co-star. His un­ex­plained ab­sences are of­ten at­trib­ut­able to his crack binges; but even when he is in a scene, he of­ten seems dis­tant or abashed or even un­aware, as in a de­grad­ing sex­ual en­counter in­volv­ing Paul, Erik and a third man. (The movie’s sex scenes are not ex­plicit but are very frank, which may ex­plain why Mu­sic Box Films de­cided to re­lease “Keep the Lights On” with­out a Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica rat­ing.)

“Keep the Lights On” — which cred­its Mem­phi­ans Iddo Patt and Adam Ho­hen­berg among its pro­duc­ers, and Ho­hen­berg’s Alarum Pic­tures as one of its pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies — is the New York-based Sachs’ fourth fea­ture film. His first, the very low­bud­get “The Delta” (1996), was shot in Mem­phis, as was his sec­ond, “Forty Shades of Blue” (2005), which won the Grand Jury Prize in drama at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val. The lat­ter’s suc­cess led to the rel­a­tively lux­u­ri­ous “Mar­ried Life” (2007), a noirish pe­riod melo­drama with Pierce Bros­nan and Rachel McA­dams, but “Keep the Lights On” rep­re­sents a re­turn to a very mod­est bud­get. (The film’s $700,000 cost was raised, in part, via In­ter­net “crowd-fund­ing,” with con­tri­bu­tions from fans of


“Keep the Lights On” is told through the eyes of Erik (played by Thure Lind­hardt) whose lover Paul is a drug ad­dict.

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