Not long ago, realistic portrayals of LGBT relationships were rarely seen on the small screen, let alone in feature films.
Gay film festivals were flooded with poignant, if saccharine, coming out tales from budding film students who had nothing to lose and the airwaves filled with flamboyant stereotypes.
But, in the years since Will & Grace, To Wong Foo and The Birdcage, public acceptance has created openings for gay and mainstream filmmakers to explore the nuanced facets of these relationships.
One such film, Keep the Lights On, coming off a successful screening at the Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and opening Friday, Oct. 12, at local art cinemas, offers a jarring portrayal of a dysfunctional gay relationship fueled by sex and drugs.
Erik (Thure Lindhardt) is a young Danish filmmaker who hooks up with anonymous sex partners on a Manhattan chat line in 1998—years before AOL, Manhunt and even Grndr. One hookup takes him to the apartment of a young closeted attorney, Paul (Zachary Booth). What follows is a nearly decade-long rollercoaster ride as the couple test the boundaries of love and loyalty. At times, Erik enables Paul’s addiction, facing the consequences in his own livelihood and happiness.
But while that relationship might seem familiar to residents of Wilton Manors, South Beach, Chelsea or the Castro, how would straight audiences react to this depiction from filmmaker Ira Sachs? Keep the Lights On was named the Best Narrative Film at the Sundance Film Festival.
Sachs sees his film, which he started penning in 2008 and completed last year with the asssistance of co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, as an important milestone for LGBT cinema.
“My generation entered with a lot of baggage, but it’s not all baggage we created,” he said. “Gay filmmakers (over the years) have found new closets, a result of society. I knew this wasn’t going to be a conventional gay film,” citing excitement within the gay film and arts communities in New York City to his script. “There’s no Hollywood money here.”
Sachs, who was born in 1965 and came out at 16, said it took more than two decades to eventually tell his story, “to be honest and share secrets,” he said.
Acknowledging the darkness—and subsequent resilience—of his characters, Sachs also sought to pay homage to other gay artists and disciplines through his film. The score includes performances by the late Arthur Russell, who died of AIDS in 1993; nods to Avery Willard, an experimental pornographer during the ‘70s; and even the art work of Sachs’ husband, artist Boris Torres, featured in the opening credits.
By his own admission, Sachs could not have made such a film without having taken his own journey through relationships.
Today, he teaches in the graduate film program at New York University and mentors young filmmakers. He also facilitates workshops and interdisciplinary programs for gay artists.
“These kinds of programs are so important,” he said. “That’s why my own work got closeted in a way.”
If you go see Keep the Lights On
Opening Friday, Oct. 12
Gateway Classic Theatre, Fort Lauderdale
For tickets and showtimes, go to www.TheGatewayTheatre.com.
Tower Theater, Miami
For tickets and showtimes, go to www.TowerTheaterMiami.com.