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Ira Sachs’s Keep the Lights On Is At Last His New York Movie

Ira Sachs wants to start at the beginning. We meet on the corner of Delancey and Kenmare, where the filmmaker’s New York story started in 1985. This is where he worked as an assistant to Eric Bogosian while a Yale sophomore, poised between the suburban Memphis of his childhood and big-city adulthood. On a warm August morning walk up through Soho to the Village and Chelsea, past the work spaces and restaurants and apartment vestibules that have defined his adult life, it becomes apparent how important memory and physical return are to both Sachs’s life and work, and how effectively subjective recollection can evolve into objectively rendered art.

Two and a half decades after his arrival, Sachs has finally made his New York movie. Keep the Lights On, which opens this Friday, tells the autobiographical story of a tumultuous 10-year relationship between Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a documentary filmmaker, and Paul (Zachary Booth), an attorney who spirals into drug addiction.

The film focuses on Erik and Paul and the cramped apartments and crowded cafés where their drama unfurls, closely mimicking the real-life relationship between Sachs and literary agent Bill Clegg (whom, through mutual agreement, Sachs only refers to as “my ex,” and whose own story was published as a memoir this year). Yet the city feels like a third character to both the film and the relationship it depicts. In Keep the Lights On, lives are defined by sidewalk encounters and changed over the course of three-block walks to the subway.

Zigzagging up Lafayette Street, Sachs talked of how his films about Memphis—The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue—flowed from the confidence of someone who could tell stories from “right in the center of that city.” “It’s taken me 25 years to feel like I was ready to do that here,” the 46-year-old filmmaker says. He points out the former location of a restaurant where he once waited tables. “I was struggling with myself enough that I didn’t have any distance from my own experience. New York grabbed me too hard, as did adulthood.”

That struggle made its way into Keep the Lights On, which spans a professionally unproductive period from the late ’90s to the mid ’00s when he dedicated himself to a doomed, co-dependent love affair. “He couldn’t get on a plane without me holding the tickets, and I couldn’t write an e-mail without him reading it and improving it,” he recalls, before pointing to a window above Petrosino Square in Soho behind which he once shared an office with filmmakers Kelly Reichardt and Larry Fessenden. Like many postgrads, he tried to create stability during an unstable time of life. “I think of it as the struggle between bohemian and bourgeois. Most of us are somewhere in between—we want both.”

Keep the Lights On directly references late-20th-century downtown art and gay culture, from its Arthur Russell soundtrack to a film within a film about queer-scenester photographer Avery Willard. For Sachs, it was about acknowledging the history of this community of artists, many of whose apartments we pass—as well as owning up to who he is. “Most simply but profoundly, I chose to live an honest life,” he says. “Which I think as a gay person is not a given.” With its naked but never self-indulgent depictions of sex and all manner of addiction, Keep the Lights On is disarmingly, at times exhilaratingly, human. When Erik holds Paul’s hand through an act that directly betrays him, you’re invited not to judge but, thanks to our complete access to the characters, to empathize and identify. It’s a drama of hidden things brought to light.

The Knickerbocker Bar and Grill on University Place is one of several homes away from home Sachs winds past. He points out two tables: one up front where he used to sit with his ex, and another in back where he now sits with his husband, the artist Boris Torres. Across the street—in the film and Sachs’s own life—is where an explosive fight helped point toward an eventual breakup. “This block is the past, is the present, is the movie,” he says. Over on 15th Street, we visit the row of apartment buildings where Sachs’s doomed affair both began and ended, which is also where the director shot his film’s finale. Although he describes grueling nights circling the block waiting for his bingeing ex to come home, he does so less as divulgement than testament, as someone whose experience has fully transformed into narrative.

“All of my films have been autobiographical—it’s all I’ve got to go on,” he says. “But on no level do I think that this is a confessional film. The process of talking allows me to voice the story,” a story that can have value, and be owned, by others—just as the New York of his memory is lapped by the New York of his film, both of which we’ve just lapped on our morning stroll. “You’re going to take what we just did, and you’re going to define it. You’re going to narrate it, you’re going to create the chronology, and I’m not going to be able to read it before you publish it,” he tells me, sounding both wary of and excited by the prospect. “And at that point, you will disappear from it.”

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Enemy of Climate Consensus Gets a Soapbox in Cool It

The nitty-gritty science of global warming is tough enough to evaluate without the sort of hard-sell Ondi Timoner pushes on behalf of her subject, Bjørn Lomborg. Author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and the movie’s eponymous source book, the Danish adjunct professor of statistics became, over the past decade, a thorn in the side of the environmentalist consensus on climate meltdown. Given a soapbox (and an inexhaustible supply of black tees), the fresh-faced gadfly gets to air back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit objections to widely accepted proposals and entertains what-if alternatives that sound dubious for the long-term. Thanks to knee-jerk condemnation by scientists back home, he’s cast as the rationalist victim of groupthink, and has a counterproductive advocate in Timoner. How seriously can you take any portrait that follows a segment of criticism with its subject doting on his momma and a testimonial from his assistant? Versed in the visual rhetoric of check-this-out pseudo-journalism, the Sundance-approved director of DiG and We Live in Public displays a weakness for heavy-handed pivots, unexamined arguments, and wall-to-wall filler music. Even if Lomborg has a good case to make, it’s short-changed by the film’s selective centerpiece: Yale lecture footage in which he responds to the movie An Inconvenient Truth (complete with a hilarious cutaway to one audience member’s the-man’s-got-a-point-there nod). Timoner does present a colorful cast of supportive scientists and scores a funny dig at green-cause indoctrination with a classroom of schoolkids with cute British accents fretting over Dad’s toaster usage. But by the time we’re being hustled through the finer points of algae energy and the renewed viability of dikes, Lomborg sounds like an infomercial huckster, down to the vow to have money for “all the remaining problems of the world” thanks to his low, low price for managing global warming.

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LIVE TO CREATE

Yale alum Brennan Gerard and former ballet dancer Ryan Kelly have been working together since 2002, creating dramatic site-specific pieces in basically every venue—from galleries, museums, theaters, and shopping malls to glue factories, can factories, and cement factories. Their new work, titled The Armory Show, set in the historic military space the Park Avenue Armory, will blend contemporary dance, experimental theater, and visual art performance to explore “questions of history, memory, the epic, and the ephemeral.” The performance will also include three musical scores commissioned by Moving Theater.

Sat., Feb. 20, 8 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 21, 8 p.m., 2010

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EVERY BEAT COUNTS

So Percussion are, as befits their name, both effusion and simplicity—a clan of Yale grads who push drumming into original, symphonic scope. Unlike other beat-driven clans, though, these erudites are entirely accessible, from the everyday instruments they retextualize (glockenspiel, toy piano, even duct tape) to their newly established So Percussion Summer Institute, an annual chamber music camp for college-age percussionists on the Princeton University campus. Tonight, they perform Imaginary City, a new reflection on urban sounds inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities and commissioned as part of BAM’s 2009 Next Wave Festival. It will be a multifaceted marvel.

Oct. 14-17, 7:30 p.m., 2009

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Reunion Goes as Skin-Deep as its Screenplay

Upwardly mobile dullards with unchecked superiority complexes, all members of an early-’80s Yale secret society, reconvene at the 10-year anniversary of a mutual friend’s death for some trivial group therapy in a high-rise conference room. Not so much a Big Chill knockoff as a poor man’s Whit Stillman comedy, this pretentious gab-fest from trial lawyer-turned-filmmaker Alan Hruska (Nola) feels like it traveled through a wormhole after someone watched Metropolitan in 1990. The cut-out characters—an ethnocentric Jewish doctor and his self-righteous wife, an aloof billionaire and his starlet girlfriend, a high-powered agent and her tagalong boss who wants to meet the billionaire—say very little with too many syllables (examples: The deceased is a “hypersensitive empath,” and a simple retort requires, “There’s something deeply paradoxical about that statement”). Nobody talks like this, and Hruska is complicit in both failing to call bullshit on his characters’ loftiness and cutting scenes on humorless zingers that emphasize how clever he thinks he’s being: “That is the advantage about being an actress,” a soon-to-be ex-lover declaims. “I get rejected all the time.” Interrogated by these odious clowns who were once his pals, the whiny doctor asks, “How deep are we gonna go?” As skin-deep as that screenplay, baby.

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FOILED AGAIN

En garde! Slashing and thrusting their way to a 12-8 finish last season, the Violets—yes, that’s their team name—had a strong roster returning this year, featuring All-American Sam Roukas (who was honored as the University Athletic Association’s Men’s Fencing Athlete of the Week of December 15) under the direction of Steve Mormando, who is in his 22nd season as head coach. The team will host the annual NYU Fencing Invitational, a competition that will include nationally recognized programs from around the country, including Ohio State University, the University of Notre Dame, Yale University, and Wayne State University. Last season, the Violets defeated both Wayne State and Yale at the event. Admission is free, which makes it a palpable hit with us. Matches start at 8 a.m., but you can call the Coles Center for specific match times.

Sun., Jan. 25, 8 a.m., 2009

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SMARTY WEARS PANTS

A musician on the verge, Novice Theory (a/k/a Geo Wyeth) materialized suddenly on the downtown music scene a year ago, with appearances at Weimar New York and the Tingel Tangel Club, and his skills have kept him there credibly. In his first full-length show as a headliner, the trans female-to-male pianist, singer, and accordionist takes the stage at Joe’s Pub, proving that brains come before a beautiful voice: The Yale grad actually wrote his thesis on the Pub’s namesake, Joseph Papp. Wyeth sings
his deeply emotional numbers with a unique, soulful voice, and the haunting “At the End We Listen” is destined to carry him smoothly on toward breakout stardom.

Sat., April 5, 9:30 p.m., 2008

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Disco Balls Meet the Iraq War in Williamsburg

No one takes on the existential, impossible-to-answer questions of making art quite as honestly and consistently as Rochelle Feinstein. A longtime professor at Yale who’s seen her painting career soar, then dip off the market radar, she knows whereof she speaks. Hopefully, she’ll get a leg up with this fine—if off-the-beaten-path— Williamsburg show. It’s full of deceptively slapdash paintings (plus a couple of installation pieces) that are so juicily cynical, they’re redemptive.

What’s more, Feinstein amps up her usual self-referential fare into a tougher arena: the vicissitudes of making art in wartime America. Take the darkly political triptych The Little Engine, for instance. In one panel, Feinstein appropriates an image of a bullet-ridden windshield from the Iraq War, rendering it in pretty sky blues and white; in a second, we get a sort-of-gorgeous abstraction composed solely of gold and silver leaf (precious metals are all the better for sales), while a third panel transcribes a quote by South African artist Zwelelu Mthethwa, a statement full of cogent references to social and global issues and how essential they are to 21st-century artists. You sense that Feinstein agrees with Mthethwa, but she also transcribes his name and words with a host of silly misspellings. In an imperfect world, artists make the best of what they’ve got. If you’ve got a sense of humor, better use that, too.

A strange visual theme is peppered throughout other work: a mirrored disco ball. Feinstein paints it onto the screens of a cluster of junky vintage TVs, all of them cacophonously playing real-time programs: election returns, game shows. Are real-world events just fodder for artistic narcissism, as implied by those mirror balls? Or maybe, on a more practical note, to any woman artist over 40, today’s competitive, youth-besotted art market (thanks, Yale) must look like one long, ridiculous dance marathon—last one left standing, wins.

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Tarell McCraney’s The Brothers Size

Great class projects earn A’s, praise, a “Good Job!” sticker, if your teacher obliges. But coursework, no matter how excellent, rarely merits near-simultaneous play openings in New York and London. Newly minted MFA playwright Tarell McCraney must have done his homework. The Brothers Size, which he began as a drama-school assignment two years ago, started preview performances this week at the Public Theater. A separate production opens at London’s Young Vic on November 8. And the Public’s version will soon move to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre.

McCraney has a tough, moving, lyrical style, but lyricism alone doesn’t make an impressive résumé, especially for a 27-year-old. The playwright can credit a measure of his success to the Under the Radar Festival and producer Mark Russell, who gave the production a slot last January—which McCraney describes as “actually kind of a miracle.” The year before, Russell had traveled to Yale to give a talk, and a venturesome theater-management student handed him the Brothers Size script. “You have to know about this artist,” he told Russell. Russell apparently agreed. Though it meant programming an utter unknown—students are way, way under the radar—he booked the play, with the Foundry Theatre serving as the show’s producer.

“Actually,” says Russell, “it was a no-brainer.” The piece concerns the relationship between two brothers: Ogun, a mechanic, and Oshoosi, a very recent ex-con; they are at once blue-collar American mortals and West African deities. When Elegba, Oshoosi’s prison mate, arrives, he threatens the brothers’ fragile stasis. The script seduced Russell, who praises its “muscular writing” and “command of stagecraft.” Russell mounted the McCraney play with its original director and actors, explaining: “I’m very interested in seeing works developed with the people he was sort of writing the words for. We could have done the show in three or four years when he was famous and put Denzel Washington in it, but I wanted to see it with these guys.” So did sell-out crowds at UTR. In its review, The New York Times cheered the “beautiful music of a new voice.” Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis heard that music, too. The production at UTR, which he saw three times, convinced him to schedule The Brothers Size in his regular season and develop the two other plays in McCraney’s brother/sister trilogy, of which The Brothers Size is a part.

At rehearsal in the Public’s Shiva Theater, the cast and crew luxuriate in the long process afforded them. During scenes, everyone concentrates fiercely. On breaks, the space whirs with amity and shared jokes. The actors run lines in cockney accents, director Tea Alagic doles out Ricola lozenges, someone lobbies for a bubble-blowing machine. McCraney says that working again with the Yale crowd is “more than a luxury—it’s a blessing. This is a much longer journey than the week and a half we had to put it up at Yale two Novembers ago.”

A professional debut at the Public is doubtless exciting, but daunting, too. Early success often inspires jealousy and backbiting. McCraney, however, describes his classmates and fellow playwrights as “more than supportive, overcompensatingly generous.” And Russell says, “If anyone can handle this kind of attention, McCraney can. He’s articulate and centered, very smart and mature as an artist.”

Russell is well equipped to judge: When he served as artistic director of P.S. 122, he helped launch the careers of John Leguizamo, Danny Hoch, and Sarah Jones. Now, as head of UTR, he’s promoted shows such as the Civilians’ Gone Missing, Cynthia Hopkins’s Accidental Nostalgia, and the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s No Dice, soon to open at Soho Rep. Eustis says he hopes to produce more UTR works at the Public: “UTR is proving to be a wonderful way to cross-pollinate work with our conventional subscription season.” Trendspotters should mark their calendars for the 2008 festival, January 9 through 20, where they might see the next The Brothers Size. Russell offers a tease: “A group from Australia at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, a thing by Stan’s Café at the World Financial Center, and something in situ at Veselka.” Tasty.

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The Mind-Body Problem

Barely a semester into Yale, Robin Hazelwood, a chisel-jawed 5′ 9 1/2″ fashion model, got sick of the two responses she’d hear when a stylist or photographer discovered her Ivy League status. “You must be a genius!” was the most common, Hazelwood says. “The second was, ‘Well, there must be a lot of rich guys on campus.’ ”

“I think highly of myself, but I don’t think I’m exactly genius material,” says Hazelwood, now the author of Model Student: A Tale of Co-eds and Cover Girls (Crown), a chick-lit “cautionary tale” about the modeling industry. “But they would say it in all sincerity.”

Fat English-lit anthologies and fluorescent highlighters are foreign to the fashion world, but Hazelwood often had them in tow during her Yale years, from 1988 to 1992. She recalls cramming for a final during a shoot in the Caribbean—precisely where Emily Woods in Hazelwood’s roman à clef is found reading Milton on the beach by her feisty, gum-snapping hairdresser. (The coiffeuse’s reaction after flipping through Paradise Lost: “Good lord, you’re a genius!”)

As for the supposed rich guys, Hazelwood never needed them— she estimates she earned between $80,000 and $90,000 in the summer before her freshman year alone. Besides, Hazelwood explains over a Stoli soda in her Upper West Side neighborhood, “the broad strokes” of Emily’s character in Model Student mirror her own experiences, and throughout the book, Emily’s love affair is with runways and glossy magazine pages, not a fellow student.

In her lucrative liaison —long weekends in exotic locales, designer gifts, all the lettuce, champagne, and coke she could consume—young Emily, who attends Columbia, feels like an Ivy League philanderer, Barbie’s evil twin in a sea of Dukakis T-shirts and frayed jeans. She vows to keep her modeling gigs secret from her studious roommates and friends, tucking her designer frocks into storage bags and ceasing-and-desisting all shoulder pad and eyeliner use. (This is a sacrifice: It’s New York in the late ’80s.)

The secret holds for a couple hours, until half the Columbia football team arrives on Emily’s dorm doorstep, checking out her lanky frame and asking to see her fashion portfolio.

Hazelwood says she psyched up for freshman year at Yale by telling herself, “OK, Robin, this is a very intellectual bastion. People are going to be in the dining hall talking about Nietzsche and Proust—very serious things. No one can know you’re a model.” Hazelwood admits she was wrong about Proust buzz, but was right that mentioning modeling brought to the surface assumptions that her latest intellectual pursuit was more nail polish than Naipaul. In her inability to hermetically seal her work life from her world on campus, Hazelwood’s Emily confronts stereotyping on both fronts.

Our culture is fascinated by the mind-body problem presented by people—especially women–who are both physically and intellectually stunning. Pop culture lets beauty and smarts duke it out in game shows, like the WB’s recent Beauty and the Geek 2. The Miss America pageant, which began as a competition of looks, later adopted talent and interview segments; now it’s billed as a scholarship contest. The assumed beauty-brains paradox provided a plotline for America’s Next Top Model, during which cycle three runner-up Yaya Da Costa, a recent Brown graduate, had a heart-to-heart with host Tyra Banks about her decidedly non-intellectual career move. (Tyra: “Do you think you are going to choose one or the other?” Yaya: “I think of it like this: I’m 21 years old.”)

Most models, like most ballet dancers, don’t graduate college. To really succeed takes a full-steam approach at a wrinkle-free age. And as Emily discovers, taking off days to cram for finals or attend college formals doesn’t make casting-minded agents happy. Top Model‘s Da Costa says she feels lucky to have waited to graduate before making a career out of modeling. But to her, modeling is still a “surreal world” in which it is difficult to practice any of the four foreign languages she speaks while getting her hair done.

“In modeling you put on a mask and accept that they don’t want to hear you, that they don’t really care what you think,” Da Costa tells the Voice. “You learn to just play the game, and it’s very light and fluffy and convenient.”

Stanford student and part-time model Logan McClure, 20, encountered academia’s backlash against beauty early and often. During her senior year in an all-girls Palo Alto high school shortly after she began modeling, her class considered hosting an end-of-the-year fashion show. The idea was quickly squashed by fellow students protesting the objectification of women. McClure kept quiet, thankful that no one seemed to have seen her latest catalog appearances.

Once in college, McClure didn’t attempt to keep modeling secret—mostly due to the implausibility of doing so: Within weeks of starting classes at Stanford, a rumor spread that she’d modeled for Abercrombie & Fitch (she hadn’t). Denial was useless, because she’d appeared in plenty of other catalogs and was going to castings three days per week. Her friends were fascinated, and only one professor has found out.

“There is a shallowness in the industry, and there are the eating disorders,” McClure says. “When I was in Greece I lived with a girl who only ate fruit— ever. But another girl there from Norway is probably the most beautiful person I’ve ever met and she’s the only girl in her engineering class.”

Hazelwood’s novel deals in the industry’s underbelly of sex, drugs, and collagen, but she hopes Model Student doesn’t come across as a bitter tell-all. At least
she ‘s not bitter—she says her 13 years of catwalks and covers were worthwhile, because she didn’t miss too many lectures and got a lock on writing about an industry that is “darker and funnier” than even Zoolander portrayed. As for long-term side effects, Hazelwood says, “I’m reluctant to say it made me dumber, but my brain definitely thought more superficially. You kiss each other like 50 times when you say hello, but you don’t really know anything about them, you know?”