Last night, Noel and I watched a movie called Keep the Lights On. It’s a gay drama film about a Danish film-maker (Erik) creating a documentary on a gay artist working in the 1950s through 1990s in New York City. While living there, he’s lonely and meets a closeted lawyer (Paul) through a phone sex line. Once they meet in real life, their attraction to one another completes Erik’s need for a relationship while pulling Paul well and truly out of the closet, and the movie documents several years and moments in this couple’s relationship as it builds and breaks down several times.
Paul is addicted to crack and sex. Erik seems to have commitment issues and the inability to finish his work. And so, this semi-autobiographical film, co-written and directed by Ira Sachs, documents how these two lovers are so right yet so wrong for one another. It truly is an interesting movie, loosely based on Sachs’s relationship with Bill Clegg, a literary agent, who documented his side of events in the 2010 memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.
You feel sorry for Erik in some ways; the guy wants a stable relationship and sticks with Paul through thick and thin, although, towards the end, this falters. Paul’s addiction is the “other man” in the relationship. Paul is good looking, intelligent, and well-paid, but the drug addiction often gets the better of him, and his relationship suffers as a result. You see this relationship with so much promise (albeit with a somewhat shaky foundation) build up but never completed. In the end, it appears to crumble, never to be rebuilt.
Midway through the relationship, Paul sees Erik talking to a guy on the street — it’s never really apparent whether this is Erik trying to cheat on him with another guy, as he does attempt doing later by going back to an old friend with benefits, or if it is something more innocent, with Paul reading too much into it — and has a bit of a tantrum over it. Later, Erik holds an intervention over Paul’s addiction to get help, which Paul does agree to, but the addiction wins over again, with Paul disappearing for days or even weeks at a time; Erik waits for him, worried. And then, once they decide to give their relationship yet another chance, several years later, and they both agree to go slow, Paul has the gall to demand Erik make up his mind whether he wants to stay in a relationship with him or not, and he has to make his decision ASAP. At first, Erik decides to stay.
In short… I felt like throwing something at Paul for being a self-absorbed ass.
I think it was a good portrayal of relationships some people have been through, whether gay or straight or bisexual or whatever the sexual orientation. It could have even been one of those one-sided relationships, the ones where you really like someone and they kinda like you (maybe a little bit), and you put all the effort in to try to convince the other person of your love and affection without that reciprocated (and sometimes even taken advantage of). Yes, we all know those sorts of relationships, I am sure. It’s that one side gives-gives-gives and the other side takes-takes-takes without reciprocation. I’ve even known a few where gay guys have been taken advantage of by straight guys (just because they are enamoured that someone likes them) and straight girls face the same by gay guys. I’m sure the combinations are endless.
It made me think of one of my previous relationships. I have to admit, it was love at first sight between the two of us. And the relationship was a reciprocal one. But both of us were in the closet; I was willing to come out for him but he wasn’t as willing to do that for me. He was afraid what his parents would think, what his family would think, what his friends would think, what society would think. I was expected to follow that lead, be there for him when he needed me but, when too many questions were asked by his parents or his friends or society in general, he’d find a nice girl to date. I was the back-up plan. Being in the closet, and being very much in love, I didn’t think I had much choice in the matter. But I was always there to pick up the pieces and be that safe back-up for him.
But there comes a time where you can only take being second best for so long, no matter how deep or strong the love is. You accept that things will never change after the same pattern appears in your relationship over and over again. Self-respect kicks in. So you step back, try to keep your composure, and you walk away. Don’t look back, like Lot’s wife, for the threat of turning to a pillar of salt, or worse: going back (in your mind or in real life).
Leaving hurts like hell. You second-guess yourself. But deep down, you know it’s right.
The older I get, the more I realize he will always be a part of me. That love only changes; it never dies. What we shared during that time will never be anyone else’s. He will never be able to share my love with someone else and vice versa.
I couldn’t change who he is or how he behaves any more than he could change me. I decided to come out; he didn’t. I am happy in a nearly 17-year relationship with a man I love; he’s married to a woman and has kids.
And so, in the second to last scene of Keep the Lights On, when Erik comes to Paul in Paul’s new apartment to say, “You know, I don’t think we can do this any more,” I have to say that I understand. It’s the same conversation I had in a roundabout way. There’s too much water that has passed under the bridge. Your relationship has changed. Even when I told him I was coming to New Zealand and had met a guy that I thought I was going to try to have a relationship with — really, quite the final nail in the coffin of our relationship, even though I had ended it several months prior — he told me that I needed to stay in Chicago and I couldn’t go to New Zealand.
I told him straight out that he no longer had that say in my life; he forfeited that right when I broke up with him months before. The rest of the dinner was either uncomfortably quiet or even more uncomfortably full of polite conversation. And that night was the last I saw of him for a long time.
Although there were different reasons for my relationship to break down, Erik and Paul’s relationship was very like one of my own previous relationships. My ex-boyfriend wasn’t addicted to crack or sex like Paul was but to what everyone else expected of him and to (perhaps) the straight side of what I assume is his bisexuality (or even the open denial of his being gay). Like Erik had tried to do with Paul, I had tried to stand by my then-boyfriend through thick and thin, hoping that he’d work out what was right by us, but neither Erik nor I could see (at the start) that nothing he or I could do would change the men we loved.
That’s why Keep the Lights On hit a little too close to home.