KEEP THE LIGHTS ON (Sundance Review)
By Justin Chang
Published January 22, 2012
Delicately tracing the troubled nine-year bond between two men living in New York, Ira Sachs mines his own memories to sensitive, melancholy if somewhat muted effect in "Keep the Lights On." The writer-director's first same-sex relationship drama since 1997's "The Delta" plays out episodes of sexual awakening, substance abuse and romantic indecision against a luminous, beautifully textured canvas. Yet by exclusively favoring and even flattering one partner's p.o.v., the experience feels a touch emotionally lopsided, withholding the gut impact necessary for a gay-themed film this nakedly personal to cross over beyond the festival circuit.
In recounting the beginning, middle and end of his own long-term relationship, Sachs constructed a screenplay from an enormous backlog of personal emails, diaries and memorabilia. His stand-in is Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish expat in his 30s trying to complete a documentary on the legacy of pioneering queer filmmaker-photographer Avery Willard. Erik is introduced cruising phone-sex chatlines in a lonely Gotham apartment circa 1998, a scene that lightly foreshadows his wariness about commitment in all aspects of life, work and relationships included.
He thus feels happily dazed to find himself involved in more than just a quick fling with younger lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth), still closeted at the time of their passionate first coupling. A quick leap ahead to 2000 finds the honeymoon phase long over, as the familiarity that comes with live-in coupledom has begun to breed contempt. Preoccupied with his career, and often emotionally as well as physically distant, Paul scorns Erik's more laid-back lifestyle and touchy-feely way of relating. Yet these differences are nothing compared with the matter of Paul's increasingly reckless crack habit, which gets bad enough to warrant an intervention and rehab.
And so the film goes, propelled forward a few years at a time to encounter the two at different stages of their relationship -- sometimes together, sometimes apart, their status generally dictated by the ups and downs along Paul's road to recovery. Recurring characters from the couple's support network, like Erik's tough-love older sister (an underused Paprika Steen) and loyal friend Claire (Julianne Nicholson), keep the proceedings from feeling too claustrophobic.
As in his past movies, which include "Forty Shades of Blue" and "Married Life," Sachs' thrust is entirely relational, and he avoids the expected historical and political markers of the past decade almost entirely. There are no cutaways to TV sets and, rather remarkably for a New York-centric film, not even a fleeting mention of 9/11. Time is measured in Erik's relief at finding out he's HIV-negative at a time when the AIDS crisis loomed larger than it does now; in the slow progress on his Willard documentary; in Erik and Paul's regular visits to a Chelsea art gallery or an idyllic woodland retreat; and in joyous holiday celebrations with friends and family.
Sachs' autobiographical memory piece likewise has no time for discussions of gay identity politics of the sort found in 2011's British indie "Weekend"; in shielding Erik and Paul from such topical burden, the director is asserting his right to present them in his own way. Frequently bathing the men's bodies in a golden, soft-edged light warmly captured by Thimios Bakatakis' Super 16 photography, the helmer folds his characters in what feels like a tenderly protective embrace.
All the more perplexing, then, that the other man in this picture never fully comes into his own as a richly developed character. While Paul certainly conveys his own outlook, often in the form of tetchy, too on-the-nose dialogue ("Some of us have jobs, you know," he tells Erik more than once), he remains a curious blank and, given the hell he puts Erik through, a not especially sympathetic one. Even the story's emotional low point following the 2004 debut of Erik's doc, after which the patient helmer suffers with Paul through a massive drug binge, highlights the former's devastation to the near-exclusion of the latter's agony. The result may well reflect a certain ambivalence on Sachs' part, but the impression it leaves is that of a personal experience to which viewers simply haven't been given complete access.
A slim, handsome blond who speaks in a charmingly accented, high-pitched voice, the excellent Lindhardt ("Flame and Citron") makes Erik a distinctive enough figure that he doesn't invite easy identification, although his desire to offer his lover the impossible, a chance at salvation, registers quite movingly. Despite his role's problematic conception, Booth gives a fine, nicely shaded performance as Paul.
"Keep the Lights On" shares a certain timeless quality with much of Sachs' other work, aided by subtle period touches in Amy Williams' low-budget production design and a wide-ranging soundtrack and score, the latter drawn from the compositions of Arthur Russell. Footage from some of Willard's original short pics add greatly to the film's formal and thematic richness.
Camera (color, Super 16), Thimios Bakatakis; editor, Affonso Goncalves; production designer, Amy Williams; art director, Laura Miller; set decorator, Amilia Tybinka; costume designer, Elizabeth Vastola; sound, Brett Van Deusen; sound designer, Mariusz Glabinski; re-recording mixers, Dominick Tavella, Damian Volpe; line producer, Tory Lenosky; assistant director, Urs Hirschbiegel; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 2012. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- Panorama.) Running time: 103 MIN.
With: Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane, Paprika Steen, Miguel Del Toro, Justin Reinsilber.
The Enduring Erotic Life Cycle of an Unpromising Relationship
‘Keep the Lights On,’ Directed by Ira Sachs
By A. O. Scott
Published: September 6, 2012
When we first meet Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish filmmaker living in New York in 1997, he is on the telephone looking for a casual sexual hookup. He seems fickle and impatient, hanging up on potential partners at the first hint that the chemistry might be wrong, but eventually he finds more or less what he is looking for. Quite a bit more, actually, in the person of Paul (Zachary Booth), even though Paul says he has a steady girlfriend, and Erik is not interested in commitment. Fate — or whatever force governs the erotic destinies of modern city dwellers — has other plans. “Keep the Lights On,” Ira Sachs’s sensitive, knowing new film (his fifth feature), follows Erik and Paul for more than a decade, during which their relationship blossoms, withers and renews itself like a perennial flower with a peculiar and unpredictable life cycle.
The physical attraction between them is strong and immediate, but they don’t necessarily seem like a promising couple, and not just because Paul is ostensibly straight. That is a minor detail in the greater scheme of things. The more significant obstacle appears to be a temperamental difference.
Erik, who has been desultorily working on a documentary about an avant-garde New York filmmaker, is something of a flake in work and love. His best female friend (Julianne Nicholson) worries indulgently about him. His sister (Paprika Steen) scolds him about his lack of direction, warning him that being “up and coming” is not an appropriate condition for a man in his 30s. With his gap-tooth smile, laid-back posture and unkempt blond hair, Erik seems locked in perpetual, irresponsible boyhood.
Paul, in contrast, presents a more conventionally grown-up face to the world. He is organized, ambitious and professionally well-established, with an important job in book publishing. But one of the most ingenious and convincing aspects of Mr. Sachs’s film is the way it allows the characters to move in surprising directions, upending our expectations and their own sense of who they are, individually and to each other.
So it is Paul who proves to be the wayward soul, in danger of losing everything — Erik, his job, his life — to drug addiction. And Erik, at first glance a freer, more hedonistic spirit with a wandering eye and an eager libido, turns out to be a more disciplined and steadfast fellow than anyone might have supposed. He grows out of his dilettantism and promiscuity even as Paul slides perilously in the other direction.
This summary — and I have only sketched the outlines of a wandering, episodic story — makes “Keep the Lights On” sound much more schematic, more like a morality tale, than it really is. Its subject is not addiction or ambition, or even love in a conventional romantic sense, but rather the more elusive and intriguing matter of intimacy: how it grows, falters and endures over time. The dialogue sometimes has a canned, hectoring sound, as if the actors had been called upon to announce their feelings rather than express them, but the look, mood and rhythm of the film are exquisitely, even thrillingly authentic. In scenes that jump from year to year and linger over significant, ordinary moments, Mr. Sachs captures the ways strangers turn into lovers and the equally scary and exciting ways that lovers can remain strangers.
In its commitment to candid, sympathetic emotional exploration, “Keep the Lights On” invites comparison to Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” perhaps the best big-screen love story — gay or straight, vampire or human — in recent memory. That film seemed to telescope a universe of romantic possibility into a single 72-hour stretch, during which a one-night stand between two young British men grew into a profound, life-altering and yet still elusive connection. Mr. Sachs takes a longer view, but the films share an interest in mapping the nuances of feeling that arise between men for whom sex is the easy part. They also both examine the complexities of gay life at a time when closets have (mostly) emptied, the threat of AIDS has (largely) diminished and the tide of intolerance has (significantly) receded.
The richness of Mr. Sachs’s accomplishment lies in the sense of familiarity he creates, the implicit bond that develops between the couple on the screen and the people in the audience. Even more than “Forty Shades of Blue” and “Married Life,” his two most recent films (both well worth watching if you haven’t already), “Keep the Lights On” feels as if it’s about people you know. I don’t mean that Paul and Erik are recognizable types — since I’ve never met a Danish documentary filmmaker, I couldn’t really say — but rather the opposite. They are so real, so specific, that by the end of the film you feel implicated in their lives, close to them precisely because after all this time, you still don’t understand them completely.
Keep the Lights On
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Ira Sachs; written by Mr. Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias; director of photography, Thimios Bakatakis; edited by Affonso Gonçalves; music by Arthur Russell; production design by Amy Williams; costumes by Elisabeth Vastola; produced by Marie Therese Guirgis, Lucas Joaquin and Mr. Sachs; released by Music Box Films. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Thure Lindhardt (Erik), Zachary Booth (Paul), Julianne Nicholson (Claire), Souléymane Sy Savané (Alassane) and Paprika Steen (Karen).
'Last Weekend' Revives 1951 Film Site
By Edward Guthmann
Published December 3, 2012
In the 1951 movie "A Place in the Sun," Elizabeth Taylor pauses in the arched stone porch of her parents' home. "Every time you leave me for a minute," she whispers to her lover, Montgomery Clift, "it's like goodbye."
Sixty years later, in the same Lake Tahoe house where that scene was shot, Tom Dolby is directing his own movie.
The son of Dolby Laboratories founder Ray Dolby, Tom Dolby spent summers and winter holidays in the historic lake house. His parents bought it in 1979 and this year gave him permission to turn it into a film location for five weeks.
His movie, "Last Weekend," is a family drama starring Patricia Clarkson and bears scant resemblance to the tragic melodrama of "A Place in the Sun." And yet the exquisite ghosts of the Taylor-Clift film, directed by Oscar winner George Stevens, inevitably seep in.
"Purely by accident, we re-created some of the scenes," Dolby said during a lull in production. "Not literally. But we had scenarios where there would be a bunch of young people on the back deck, or goodbyes at the front entryway.
"So in a way, we have these little moments that are an homage to 'A Place in the Sun.' "
A stone-and-beam structure with Arts and Crafts features and exquisite lake views, the Dolby house was built in 1929 on Hurricane Bay, on the western shore of Lake Tahoe.
There were four owners before the Dolbys, but most of the house remains intact: the stone archway where Taylor says goodbye to Clift; the flagstone patio where Taylor's gleaming, upper-crust friends assemble; the broad lawn stretching down to the emerald lake; the boat house and dock.
Tall and thin with a gentle manner, Dolby seemed equally thrilled and unsettled by the chaos of film production: cables snaking across the living room floor, furniture rearranged, bedding replaced with camera-friendly colors.
Vintage items that his mother, Dagmar, collected for years - McCoy pottery, Indian baskets, rugs, Early American quilts - were culled or mixed with newer pieces introduced by production designer Amy Williams.
Sundance Review: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina Give Their Best Performances In Years As Struggling Couple In Ira Sachs' Tender NYC Drama 'Love Is Strange'
By Eric Cohn
Published: January 19, 2014
New York filmmaker Ira Sachs' best work is steeped in understatement and introspective characters, from the disgruntled music producer played by Rip Torn in "Forty Shades of Blue" to the troubled gay couple in "Keep the Lights On." In between those two projects, Sachs took an uneasy step into more traditional big budget filmmaking with the quasi-Hitchcockian "Married Life." Like that movie, Sachs' new work "Love Is Strange" features name actors and a polished look, but it remains remarkably faithful to the strongest ingredients in his other work: Featuring extraordinarily sensitive turns by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an aging married couple forced to vacate their Manhattan apartment, "Love Is Strange" is a sophisticated take on contemporary urbanity infused with romantic ideals and the tragedy of their dissolution.The movie opens on the celebratory wedding day for Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina), who have been a couple for nearly 40 years and finally get to legally tie the knot. Surrounded by friends and family, including the 71-year-old Ben's grown nephew (Darren E. Burrows) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei, matching the movie's leads with a deeply believable mixture of delicacy and obstinance). Sachs lays out the prevalent happiness that defines the groups' lives: Ben, a painter, lives happily with his creativity while George maintains a steady job leading the choir at a local church. Seen charming their house guests after their marriage with a piano duet, their happy existence takes on utopian dimensions — an upbeat atmosphere that intensifies the gloominess to come.Abruptly fired from the church where he's worked for years due to congregation members complaining about his sexual orientation, George is suddenly left without any resources to support their cozy world. This shift features Sachs' repeated means of skipping ahead to significance moments rather than weighing down his story with exposition: From George's tense exchange with his former employer about his faith, Sachs cuts to a scene in which George and Ben explain to their close friends that they've decided to sell their apartment. Suddenly forced into a nomadic state, the men have no choice but to split up — physically, anyway — by staying with different friends willing to squeeze them into their own tiny abodes.The environment of 'Love Is Strange' is nearly as intrinsic to its appeal as the performances.George winds up in the living room of mutual acquaintance Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) — a uniform-clad, socially active gay man whose energetic lifestyle casts a significant contrast with George's settled ways — while Ben squeezes into his nephew's place, sharing a bedroom with his angst-riddled great-nephew, teenager Joey (Charlie Tahan). These ingredients don't lead to major twists so much as a series of observations about the ways that this imprecise arrangement impacts both men. Uneasy in their makeshift homes, they exchange doleful phone conversations while making awkward attempts to blend in. But with no professional hope on the horizon, their situation starts to feel more like a frozen state than any sort of limbo, which heightens the sense of unease about their prospects. While Ben struggles to remain invested in his freelance teaching gigs, George lies around feeling uninspired until he attempts to paint Joey's close teen friend, a decision that leads to consternation in his nephew's household.Constantly uncertain of their next moves and always on the brink of hopelessness, the couple's quandary is written on the actors' faces: Molina, eyes routinely heavy as he gets lost in one train of thought after another, has a more complex screen presence than anything he's done on the big screen in years; Lithgow, playing a klutzy introvert on the verge of senility, emanates both depression and slapstick in his struggles to keep his mind going. This erratic quality gives "Love Is Strange" a fascinating perspective as it veers from a placid take on desperation to a galvanizing consideration of life's unpredictable ironies.Sachs follows this conundrum with a patient rhythm while elaborating on the community of people surrounding the two men. The formidable supporting cast draw out the sense of great motion encircling the couple's increasingly static lives. Tahan, as George's angry, confused great-nephew, stands out as the film's great counter-point to the quieter struggles of the older men.Filmmaker Ira Sachs.Yet the environment of "Love Is Strange" is nearly as intrinsic to its appeal as the performances. Christos Voudouris' swooning urban cinematography, often set to a tranquil Chopin score, lends an air of elegance to the plot while pitting it against the main dilemma. Most scenes take place in the claustrophobia of middle class Manhattan apartments, an apt reflection of the couple's limited mobility as well as the shrinking personal space that typifies contemporary big city life.But Sachs rarely overstates his themes. "Love Is Strange" is largely a restrained drama about the loss of comfort. "When you live with people, you know them better than you want to," George tells Ben, giving voice to their inability to make peace with any company except each other. It's a conceit expressed even better in visual terms, when George pays a late night visit to Ben and simply embraces him for seconds on end, weeping softly. Sachs' patient camera simply observes the couple, and for a moment the movie nearly freezes all semblance of narrative and transmutes it into sheer emotion. That "Love Is Strange" manages to squeeze in these tender asides while retaining a wholly straightforward narrative is indicative of the refined filmmaking capabilities on display.Still, "Love Is Strange" gently pushes its story along by leaving major developments off-screen, making the texture of their ramifications especially pronounced. The result is a consistent look at the ceaseless passage of time that sometimes forces audiences to do too much guesswork and has a distancing effect. Nevertheless, the approach reaches a stirring outcome in the final, lyrical images that mark a generational transition from the older characters to the movie's youngest star. It's during this phenomenal ending, one of the best found in any recent American movie, that "Love Is Strange" progresses from a rumination on the past to celebrating the wonder of anticipating a sunnier future.Criticwire Grade: A-