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LGBT Film Festival Presents ‘Keep the Lights On’

Oct. 17, 2012
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I think I didn’t love him enough,” says Erik, a 30-year-old filmmaker, near the start of Keep the Lights On, Ira Sachs’ searching, autobiographical film. Erik (Thure Lindhardt) is referring to his first and so far only attempt at a committed relationship, which failed after five years. For the rest of the film, he will attempt to do better by his new love, Paul (Zachary Booth). A selection in this year’s LGBT Film Festival, Keep the Lights On will be shown 9 p.m. Oct. 20 at the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre.

The trouble is that Paul, a handsome New York lawyer, has a growing addiction to crack cocaine. He is secretive and disappears for long periods without warning or explanation, then returns, ashamed and loving. Erik keeps the lights on for him, so to speak, and succeeds in getting Paul into rehab, but the addiction resurfaces. In an emblematic scene, Erik refuses to leave the drugged-up Paul in the cheap hotel where he’s found him, although Paul warns him to go, promising to come home the next day. Erik waits in the next room while Paul has sex with a hustler. In the midst, Paul calls Erik in. Erik holds Paul’s hand while the hustler penetrates him.

The film seems as honest as it can be, given the demands of storytelling and the ambiguities of life. The above scene did happen to Sachs. It was also described by the real life Paul (Bill Clegg) in a book (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man) about his addiction and eventual recovery, viewed in the context of the struggles of queer people for acceptance. The film takes that struggle for granted. Sachs and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, never judge the characters, which is to say that they forgive them equally.

The subject is the fine line, familiar to women, between self-sacrifice and masochism. Erik, frustrated by Paul’s recalcitrance in one scene, beats himself on the forehead with a metal bowl. There’s nothing sadistic about Paul’s behavior, though. He’s trying, as he says at one point, to save his life. Likewise, Erik is trying to love him the way a former Catholic seminarian like me was taught to understand that word. Let me add, lest you worry that Sachs has sainted his avatar, that Erik’s compulsions are also recorded.

The filming is beautiful and the acting is brilliant. Booth, best known for his television role as Glenn Close’s son in “Damages,” plays Paul with sympathetic understanding and no sentimentality. Lindhardt, a star in his native Denmark, gives Erik huggable transparency. In a hall-of-mirrors moment, when Erik is interviewed in the film about his documentary on Avery Willard, an actual documentarian who recorded queer life in New York City through much of the 20th century, Lindhardt’s smile ravishes. Keep the Lights On continues Willard’s work.

The “2nd Annual 25th Anniversary Edition” of the LGBT Film Festival, assembled by UWM’s Carl Bogner with his usual wisdom, runs Oct. 18-21. For the complete schedule, visit arts.uwm.edu/lgbtfilm or call 414-229-4758, ext 3.

Of special note at this year’s festival is video artist Charles Atlas’ recording of the seminal choreographer Merce Cunningham’s dance piece Ocean, performed in a Minnesota stone quarry in 2008. It screens 5 p.m. Oct. 19 at the UWM Union Theatre.


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