DW Mault on that rarest of things, the English-language film which refuses to spoonfeed…
Duality is key component of the philosophical ideal of both reaction and explanation to the unanswered question: the Socratic idea. Cinema is at once a force for deconstruction of identities and a cave where the universe and everything in it represents itself for the common good. One never encounters “peaceful coexistence” of the two opposing concepts, but rather a “violent hierarchy”, where one of the two dominates over the other.
Keep The Lights On is the new (award-laden) film from Ira Sachs that looks at a relationship between two men: Erik, a documentary filmmaker and Paul, a publishing lawyer, over the course of ten years. Their relationship is the case in point of the classical philosophical opposition between two opposing individuals, where order is represented not by peaceful coexistence of the two opposing sides, but rather a violent hierarchy, where one of the two dominates over the other. How we learn to co-exist is to do with acceptance and with a celebration of difference and eternal interplay.
The film is roughly based on the ‘real’ relationship Sachs had with Bill Clegg, and his battles with crack addiction that have already been documented in the latter’s great memoir: Portrait Of An Addict As A Young Man. The very idea of this film is Aristophanean: of the inter-connection of two parts of man, each desiring his other half, longing to grow into one, they began to die from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate. Sex is thus, to put it in Derridean terms: simultaneously the condition of possibility and the impossibility of love.
There has been something of a nationalistic attempt to shove this film next to Andrew Haigh’s masterpiece Weekend, and shout, well: it’s a poor imitation. These films are separate, and links are tenuous: one deals with the heady days of attraction and growing love; and the tender touch that evokes, while the other shows us what it’s like after years together when the spotlight fades and we are left alone together, and the Satresque hell that calls to mind the level of emotional violence that means you really are in the eye of the storm of love. Of course, the main reason these two very good (but different) films are lumped together is because they both feature same sex relationships.
Sachs says himself, “in the end, it’s a film about a relationship. I didn’t necessarily approach it as a film about gay life per se — I approached it as a film about a relationship in New York at this specific time that happens to be between two men. I always approach characters as people. And I think that at this point in culture the questions of identity, gay or straight, are no longer as important. In cities like New York, Edinburgh and London there’s no longer a division between gay and straight people and the contexts are more internal. In that way, I wanted to simply tell a story about intimacy and it’s challenges, which is the main subject I’ve been interested in throughout my entire career.”
Erik and Paul are very much the same but very different, both adrift in the urban loneliness of downtown NY and both not searching for something that cannot be grasped (which is of course very much a search: one for a fluid identity). Paul seeks the answers to the unasked question in the becoming one of Ginsberg’s hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night; while Erik closes himself off and becomes a lover of love, and that search which entails an enabler’s moral fluidity which fugues into self righteousness.
Sachs talks about how he was influenced by Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances and Jacques Nolot’s majestic Before I Forget, but there is also an subterranean interconnection to Ozu and the loss at the heart of urban centres that is unified by a stillness that we all succumb to, while in the dead time of travel, in-between the ambient violence of the present that lies in the everyday.
One of the peripheral ideas that lurks in the background is Sachs’ attempt to bring to mainstream consciousness things that aren’t visible, including the history of art-making, and counterculture in New York. James Bidgood is the man interviewed in the middle (of Keep The Lights On, by Erik). He is an underground filmmaker and made a film called Pink Narcissus (released in 1971, which was one of the first films programmed by Matthew Fox in Liverpool’s own Outsiders Film Festival). That’s a counterculture history that is very different than the history of independent film.
It’s not the history of sex, lies, and videotape or Reservoir Dogs. It’s the history of David Wojnarowicz and Félix González-Torres and even, in a certain way, John Waters. This underground that isn’t economically rewarding but something else comes out of it, something more important. An idea that eventually becomes the culture of NOW: that has meant that thanks to people like James Bidgood, John Waters, David Wojnarowicz and Félix González-Torres; filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant now fight from within, and set cultural explosions that shake the pervasive thought of the mainstream.
Time is very much an earned concept in KtLo, in as much as, that what we don’t see is the point. The film just is, Paul and Erik, Erik and Paul: they are the film, not some facile explanation for their being. This is a rare English-language film in that it understands that emotional honesty should come via osmosis, we need not be told and explained to like a child.
Ultimately KtLo is a companion piece to Michael Haneke’s Amour, in such that it deals with the unsayable, how we must make the choice between the tyranny of coupledom or the lonely fight. The emotional voice of relationships is always here; the elephant in the room roaring at you, daring you to look. Whether you do or not is the films persuasive pull in either direction; which is neither YES or No.