Tonight I saw Ira Sachs' new movie, Keep the Lights On, here in Chelsea. What a complicated, intense couple of hours! Because I have any number of friends who are memoirists or writers of personal nonfiction, I'm used to reading about people I know. Usually that's an experience of intimacy; one comes closer to the inner life of friends than one might be likely to in conversation. Not because so much is revealed, necessarily; it's HOW that revealing takes place -- not content so much as the way content is thought about, reflected upon, understood. Great first person writing is the clearest and best rendering of what it's like to be that person that the writer can create. So when I read, say, Nick Flynn or Terry Tempest Williams or my friend Deborah Lott, whose marvelous new memoir I have just read in manuscript, I have the experience of coming closer, feeling, as it were, the contours of the inner life. It's amazing. I just read an excerpt from Salman Rushdie's new memoir in THE NEW YORKER, and though it's in the third person it has curiously just the same effect; we enter the interiority of the character.
Film's a different beast altogether, and since I don't know a lot of filmmakers, I don't think until this evening I've ever had the experience of seeing a movie about people I know, or about characters based on those people. I felt I was standing outside of someone else's house, looking not directly into their rooms but into a complicated mirror which possessed its own agency, and reflected the inhabitants in its own fashion -- so that they were artfully rendered, and unfamilar, and echoed the lives of people I know.
I want to talk about just one odd little aspect of this. The film begins with two men meeting over a phone sex line (it's 1998, so internet hook-ups haven't happened yet). There's a sweetness and lightness of touch during its first twenty or so minutes, as the guys become closer and more open to one another. I was caught up in the storyline, and suddenly there was one of the characters, in bed, reading my book ATLANTIS.
It didn't matter that I knew it was coming; Ira had asked my permission to use the book in his screenplay; because it's a book of poems largely concerned with the epidemic, it's a starting point for the two to have a conversation about HIV. Maybe I should have been prepared, but I felt two unexpected, contradictory things: first, I was tickled -- my book was in a movie! There was just something childishly delightful about the sense of validation. And it was a book from 1995, and there it was, alive, being read and discussed by two naked men onscreen. I loved it.
And I immediately understood that I had been in the suspension-of-disbelief zone, which is something that I truly love about the movies. The lights go down, the noisy previews end, the opening credits and music start to focus your attention, and suddenly you're allowed -- invited -- to relinquish your will, and allow your perceptions to be guided. We stop making decisions, when we agree to participate in a film. It doesn't matter to me one bit whether I am looking at, say, an opal-eyed dragon, or two men meeting and falling in love in New York City. Both are equally experiences of leaving the daily world, entering something other.
But there was my book, and there went the fourth wall. And then from that moment on I was required to participate in the film in a different way -- which could be a good thing, and is most certainly an uncomfortable one.