Returning to the Self, Reigniting Community: the RECAPS Ira Sachs Interview
A spectrum of intimacy is rendered visible by the artist’s hand. The concentration in the eyes of the masturbating subject posing for the camera is met and mediated by the image being rendered as a line drawing. The slickness of a photo in a smut magazine melts in black and white paint. The watercolor of a personal snapshot, two naked friends living with HIV at the breakfast table serves as a small alter to moments that often go uncelebrated. These images and others by Boris Torres comprise the opening credits to Ira Sachs’s new film Keep the Lights On. The intensity of looking required to translate a photograph into a painting becomes a metaphor for the unflinching acts of examining one’s self and community that film performs and facilitates. Desire colliding with the archive becomes another. Pulling from source materials ranging to jpegs from Grindr, pre-Stonewall male physique magazine, staged S+M, and images of friends, Torres’s work bridges the past and present, the personal and the political.
The images are set to the music of Arthur Russell, a Lower East legend lost to AIDS in 1992. Sachs crafted the whole soundtrack of the film from his melancholic pop meets avant-garde compositions. Russell was a collaborator and lover of Allen Ginsberg, helped give bands including The Modern Lovers and the Talking Heads their big breaks. He was a founding member of the short-lived disco group Loose Joints. Uncovering the embedded gems of queer history in Keep the Lights On becomes its own process of discovery. Community and history are central to production of the film.
Keep the Lights On is the story of a ten-year relationship between Erik, a documentary filmmaker, and Paul a literary agent. Their casual encounters turn into a love affair simultaneous to the spiraling of Paul’s addiction. In their early romps, Paul introduces Erik to smoking crack, a seemingly recreational habit to loosen inhibitions. Unlike the closet, which is a crutch that fades away for him, drugs becoming increasingly central in his life . He disappears and withdraws support at crucial moments for Erik. who he refuses to give up on him . It is the kind of martyr complex that is anchored in a deep love that happens to be in conflict with the self.
The film is a product and document of working through these struggles. With co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, Sachs revisited journals from an analogous relationship in his life to create the script. As he says of the period in his life the film is based on, “I was scared of the world, so putting my energies on the obsessions of love and sex and home, each being equal terms, was very natural to me and I think not uncommon for gay people. Not uncommon for many people. There is real warmth to a bad relationship.” The psychological and emotional landscape Sachs inhabited as a young gay person was a fertile ground for addictions to sex and drugs fuel each other. “Drugs were like a stick of dynamite that was dropped into a community and the effects of that have been explosive.”
The film, which Sachs describes as “a form of activism” lives up to the charge of its title “Gay male culture has been very nocturnal, if you use nocturnal to describe shadows and not just night. It’s very enclosed. A lot gay men struggle with negotiating what they do in private and what they share in public. The film shines a light on that and is in a way a challenge for us to be open.” One of the ways in which Sachs achieves this, beginning with Torres’s paintings, is in his quotidian treatment of sex. It is not separated from the rest of the characters lives by coding or editing devices, but simply is on screen.
The ways in which Sachs’s is able to represent the body and sex index the possibilities of confronting shame. “I had to accept myself, accept my history, accept my behavior, accept my culture. It was scary passage to know that I would need to share the story and script with my family. But it wasn’t that scary. It didn’t stop me from making it. Ultimately I wanted to be revealed because it’s a lot easier on the other side.”
Footage from Cary Kahayan’s documentary In Search of Avery Willard is another node of the past and present of gay culture inserted into the plot. Kahayan’s film, which Sachs served as executive producer on, draws from archival material and interviews about the life and legacy of pornographer, filmmaker and photographer Avery Willard. We get a peek of these images and history in Keep the Lights On when Kahayan’s documentary becomes fictionalized as Erik’s central professional project in the film. The potential of erotic representation for community and self-formation in Willard’s work is echoed Sachs and Torres decades later.
The movement between the personal and the political that Sachs’s work evokes reflect a long history of engagement of activism around gender and sexuality. “My sisters were feminists. That was a part of my definition of myself as alternative growing up. In college I worked on the feminist paper. When I came to New York I was on the Women’s Committee of the Dukakis. Most the faces and people I remember from ACT UP are women,” During his college years at Yale, Sachs worked with a small group of friends over a period of months to change the bylaws of the university to add sexual orientation included in the non-discriminatory act.
In between his focus on community during and right after college and the work he is doing now, Sachs says for about twenty years he was “somewhat obsessive” about a limited number of things: love-sex-home, and how to be a critically and economically viable filmmaker. This partly involved a turn away from gay main characters. His last feature before Keep the Lights On with queer content at the foreground was his 1997 film, The Delta. Sachs made significant career strides during this time despite being engulfed in private turmoil. He made the acclaimed films Forty Shades of Blue, winner of the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury, and the 2007 dark comedy Married Life starring Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams, Pierce Bronson and Chris Cooper.
Sachs began to “let the world in again” around 2008. He entered twelve step programs and began building a partnership with Boris Torres. “When we got together we very consciously committed to each other to say yes to things in the world, to have our relationship encourage and not be the antithesis of that.” As he explains, the Obama campaign lent itself as the medium through which to do so. “There was a recognition that I lived in a world of really talented, competent people and that one of the things I could do was provide an opportunity for those people to get together and do something.” The connections made on the ground organizing, then and now, are as important to him as the larger political picture.
In 2009 Sachs made Last Address, an eight-minute elegy to both artists who died of AIDS in New York and the culture that was lost with them. It is composed of long shots of the exteriors of apartment buildings where the artists last lived before dying. A few blocks radius in Chelsea, once a compound for creativity, is now a string of white cubes. There is still vibrancy to Saint Marks and Astor Place despite of multiple 7/11s and chain stores springing up. But to preserve the presence of that legacy is a fight, one which Sachs has taken up.The website for the film is a rich example of activism, archive and community. Each artist represented has a short biography with links about their work, which often includes a film or research project by someone a generation removed seeking to excavate obscured histories. “The art world has shifted. I think Last Address was when I started to narrate the idea that there was a time where art meant different things and that we can still access that.”
After finishing the film, Sachs started Queer/Art/Film in 2009, a monthly screening at IFC where an artist chooses a film to show that has deeply influential. “Being in a space physically where you sense the warmth and embrace and the excitement and stimulation of an audience’s exposure and re-exposure to the history of cinema, aesthetically, politically, and content wise, gives you permission to think about what kind of images are possible. Permission has become a key term for Queer/Art/Film,” he says. Building on this momentum, Sachs founded Queer/Art/Mentorship to take up the void in queer culture after AIDS and the lack of mentorship in his own life.
“So much of all of my organizing is an awareness of space and architecture,” Sachs says, “Warhol’s Factory is a positive example of how spaces can create production.” He has expanded what the space can look like go beyond the physical. For Keep the Lights On he created a blog as a space for dialogue about the filmmaking process. “I had an idea where individuals working on the film would talk about what was happening from their perspective. The set is such an interesting place of subjective experiences” It has become a porthole to queer culture that includes interviews, essays and videos not directly related to the film. “It is a building that exists online,” he says.
The connections between Last Address and Keep the Lights On are complex, as Sachs explains, “It’s the personal inverse of a lot of public stories.” After doing an interview with How to Survive a Plague director David France, Sachs said “A lot of people in the film who are still alive have said to me that Keep the Lights On was a version of their life.” In addition to the social and political relationship, a personal narrative links the films. “There is in inspiration to death,” he says of Last Address. “As artists we might as well make the work we want to make.” After making the short, Sachs says “There was a conscious recognition that I would serve myself and the world better by embracing my marginality instead of shying away from it. Personally, socially, creatively and professionally. That has proven to be true. I have a place in the world that I didn’t have four years ago.”