Before documenting contemporary NYC life in his films Love is Strange (2014) and Little Men (2016), Ira Sachs created a portrait of New York City through the lens of the relationship between Erik and Paul, between the years 1998 to 2006. Where Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) documented the shifting stages of the heterosexual American family through the 2000s in the character of Mason, Sachs presents the shifting nature of gay American life.
By the film’s release in late 2012, the state of New York had legalised same sex marriage. Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled same sex marriage legal in all fifty states. Love is Strange was able to present this reality through an elderly couple. Keep the Lights On retraces a different era, the pre-Grindr world of phone sex, infidelity, clubbing and casual hookups; an era where queer representation in the media began to enter the mainstream, in everything from Will and Grace (1998-2006), Queer as Folk (1999-2000), Cruel Intentions (1999) to episodes of The Simpsons like Three Gays of the Condo (2003); as civil partnerships and same sex marriage began to enter the agenda as public perception shifted.
However, the film does not romanticise its era. There is no sense of the optimism and fears of cyberspace; it does not fetishise the World Trade Center (indeed, the city’s skyline is never shown); nor does it position our protagonist’s lives around the aftermath of 9/11. Bush’s name is never mentioned; American Idol doesn’t appear on any television screens. Sachs positions a timeless narrative; the era is only communicated through the film’s title cards, its cellphones and its iMacs. Shot on 16mm, its visual style removes the late 90s and early 00s from its clean, digital HD aesthetic, in favour of physical film that recalls the imperfect images of the underground gay cinema of the 60s-80s, in parallel to Erik exploring an underground gay artist of the mid-20th century in his documentary.
We shift from the lingering late 90s fears of HIV, only a couple of years after the height of the AIDs epidemic, to the modern face of homosexuality. Perhaps there is a sense of the autobiographical: Sachs explores the uncertainty of establishing a career in filmmaking, beginning in the late 90s (when he begun his career in film), parallel to the uncertainties of a relationship.
The relationship between Erik and Paul is never presented as something for the audience to root for; I spent the duration of the film waiting for them to break up for good. The film often incorporates sex scenes, yet they hold a narrative function. Sexuality becomes a form of procrastinating the issues within their relationship, and as a means of escape. The film’s sex scenes are neither PG-13 nor Helix Studios: the film acknowledges that pensises exist, but it also acknowledges that it is painful, and often not pleasurable. Sexuality highlights isolation: when Paul hooks up with a rent boy, as Erik sits in the other room, he decides to enter the other room and hold Paul’s hand. But Paul still lays on the bed, fucked by and making out with the rent boy. In an earlier scene, Paul decides to sleep in a separate bed, as Erik forces them to share a bed.
This is not an idealised gay romance of monogamy, with a sprinkling of formulaic melodrama; it is a realistic one. It takes Erik and Paul nine years to realise that romantic, physical intimacy can transcend sexual intimacy; yet soon after, he encounters Igor in the streets of New York, and they decide on a dinner date. Erik and Paul’s relationship exists as a fluctuating thing, before eventually deciding they need real time apart.
As Erik struggles to find stability within the eternally early stages of his relationship, his friend Claire faces the instabilities of the heterosexual world. On the surface, she faces stability: a house and a partner, as Erik becomes more and more detached from his own flat, instead often being defined by the flats of other men. But she also faces anxiety around the ticking body clock of maternity, pressuring Erik to take on a role as a surrogate father.
Keep the Lights On is not the height of queer cinema. Looking forward, another film around the issues gay men face feel rote, in the face of bi-erasure, trans narrative relegated to cis narratives, and the near non-existence of asexual or non-binary representation. Yet it takes a strong place within the canon of Ira Sachs’ films as a promising work.