By Jerry Portwood
Artwork by Boris Torres
After years in which filmmakers have felt compelled to shy away from the sexual reality in gay male relationships, lately we’ve gotten intimate, explicit portrayals (Andrew Haigh's Weekend, Travis Mathews's I Want Your Love) that that don’t require imaginative leaps on the behalf of the audience. It could be described as mumbleporn, except in Keep the Lights On, director Ira Sachs has mined autobiographical material to give us a raw account of what loving in the 21st century can look like.
“There aren’t many films that look like the life that I live as an urban man in New York City,” Sachs explained when we met at Ferrara, a historic coffee house in New York’s Little Italy located near his office. “That’s kind of shocking.”
Soon after we took a seat, applause erupted when a young man proposed to his girlfriend. “I think he got on his knees,” Sachs said with a smile. The guys in his movie may do the same, but the romantic details are never that rom-com sweet.
You told me earlier that the title is significant because it relates to not having some sort of sexual shame, right?
It’s about the idea of transparency. I do believe that, even for gay people who are just discovering their sexuality, there’s still a process of going from something that was hidden to something that’s public. It seems that, for my generation, it was more violent. And I think this film is a coming out on that level.
A “coming out” because of political reasons or personal reasons?
Because of shame. Because of this society that we’re in. Because the fact that we’ve established a subculture in which we’re both embracing and uncomfortable with ourselves. Because we think we need to keep to ourselves as a gay culture, so we can’t always voice it in our visible life, which include anonymous sex, hookups, the drugs in our culture that many of us know are prevalent. A lot of those things are things we’ll talk about between ourselves, but we won’t talk about to other people. And often we won’t even speak to each other, either. I think that’s universal.
You also seem to have set up a conflict between an urban lifestyle and a more bucolic lifestyle in the country. Did you want to show that urban life as a negative thing in contrast to the life outside of the city?
It’s actually interesting because in the relationship that inspired this film, we often did go to the country as a way to avoid the issues of drugs, or the issue of sex and monogamy and sex outside of the relationship. It did feel like we could run from the addiction issues by going to the country. There were temporary respites, which were ultimately not the answer—formal recovery was the answer, not location.
It was like a Band-Aid on a wound.
Yeah, and it occasionally worked for a period of time. The culture had things that were wonderfully freeing for me as a gay man, coming in to a place that had a sexual culture, but it also had complexities involved. And I think the introduction of crystal meth and crack into the gay community—which was already sexually very active and alive—was a little like the introduction of crack into the African-American community. It was a bonfire. Taking sexual compulsion and adding drugs to it is something that was also a response from my generation to AIDS.
But that seduction of drugs, when we don’t tell people why it might make them feel great, just tell them not to do it, when they aren’t aware that it might make them feel free or...