Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: As we roll out our picks for the best films of the decade so far, several A.V. Club writers stump for favorites that didn’t make the list.
The directorial output of Ira Sachs can be separated into the movies set in Sachs’ native Memphis (1996’s The Delta, 2005’s Forty Shades Of Blue) and the movies set in New York City (Keep The Lights On, 2014’s Love Is Strange), where Sachs has lived since the ’80s. (The outlier here is 2007’s Married Life, a droll, studio-era-esque experiment in period artifice.) Keep The Lights On might be the definitive work of this latter, NYC-based stage: It both takes the degree of autobiography in Sachs’ work to a new level—the narrative is based on his 10-year relationship with literary agent and eventual Portrait Of An Addict As A Young Man memoirist Bill Clegg—and builds on Sachs’ instincts as a thoughtful chronicler of gay culture.
Keep The Lights On opens in 1998 on Sachs’ stand-in, Erik (Thure Lindhardt, whose Danish roots render moot most conceivable claims of solipsism), an East Village dweller and maker of little-seen documentaries. One of the appeals of Sachs’ work is the detailed, quasi-procedural attention to hook-up customs—in The Delta, nighttime car-rides lead to front-seat fondling—and Keep The Lights On starts in a similar register, showing lonely, single Erik caressing himself while scouring the phone lines for potential mates. The dirty-talk conversation oscillates between the statistical (“6-and-a-half, thick, uncut”) and the promotional (“I got a beautiful cock”). That night, Erik falls into bed with Paul (Zachary Booth), a Random House lawyer whose “little secret”—a crack addiction—will go on to test this decade-long relationship time and again.
The beauty of Keep The Lights On lies in its clear-eyed, full-bodied empathy: In looking back on this up-and-down, often hysterical experience, Sachs communicates not blind anger or frustration but a warm, complicated acceptance. Sachs and DP Thimios Bakatakis (Dogtooth, Attenberg), shooting on Super 16 mm, bathe the action in the glow of memory; Lindhardt and Booth’s bodies at times appear downright golden in the soft light of their fashionable apartments. Moreover, Sachs’ elliptical handling of the timeline—some years are announced via black-on-white title cards, while others are made specific through dialogue or background clues—fosters the movie’s resonance as an effortless, unforced compendium of gay life and history in New York City. Commencing with an elegant opening-credits series of nude portraits by Sachs’s husband, Boris Torres, Erik’s story takes place within a meaningful lineage that includes James Bidgood, Avery Willard, and Arthur Russell. Russell’s delicate soundtrack, which slides in and out of the movie, is essential to its poignant effect.
Availability: Keep The Lights On is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services and is currently streaming on Netflix and Fandor.