astronomers, astrophilia, benefits of sleep, cinema, circadian rhythm, city living, darkness, documentaries, documentary, Errol Morris, film reviews, films, Ian Cheney, Jack Newton, light pollution, melatonin, Morgan Spurlock, Movies, observatories, Sky Village, social commentary, technology, The City Dark, the night sky, urban vs rural
This modern world of ours provides us with a lot of necessities, along with plenty of unnecessary (but still nice) stuff. Whereas concepts like “wi-fi,” “streaming video” and “mobile devices” are things that many of us take for granted, it wasn’t too long ago (relatively speaking) that these ideas would have been more synonymous with fanciful science fiction than with real-world applications. For most, however, any notion of looking backwards, to a less technologically advanced time, is more pointless nostalgia than anything else. The thought process always seems to be that any price we pay to advance to the “next level” (whatever that may be) is worth it: whatever we lose on a personal scale will be more than made up by the fact that we can now watch reruns of Cheers, on our phone, while we wait for the bus. There are more arguments, pro and con, than can realistically ever be examined in a forum like this. There is one thing, however, that should be plainly clear to everyone, regardless of which side of the “technology divide” you happen to fall on: our hyper-modernized, super-aware, technologically advanced society has cost all of us some of our humanity. Whether you find this troublesome, however, is a whole other issue. Documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney does and his thought-provoking documentary about light pollution, The City Dark, should make everyone stop and think about the ultimate price that we all pay to light our way in a frighteningly vast universe.
The documentary begins by introducing us to narrator/creator Cheney, a recent transplant from rural Maine to the bright lights of New York City. While growing up in Maine, Cheney was fascinated with the stars and astronomy, even going so far as to build his own telescope. Upon moving to the big city, however, he realized that he could see far fewer stars and, in some cases, he couldn’t see any at all. What, if any, impact does “losing” the night sky have on humans, he wondered: was this a trade-off that we could happily live with or were we giving up a vital part of our humanity? The City Dark, then, is his attempt to answer this question, as well as figure out his own conflicted views on the subject of mankind vs natural order.
Structurally, the doc is broken up into six sections, each of which deals with a different issue/aspect of light pollution: defining and giving examples of light pollution; fleeing over-lit urban areas for darker rural areas; the effects of light pollution on animals/nature; the effects of light pollution on humans; the reasons why humans use light; and possible solutions to this issue. This structure is very clear and well-defined, making it easy to follow the flow of Cheney’s research. There’s also a decent amount of time spent with each issue, making the film feel well-balanced. If nothing else, Cheney is obviously a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing, which is always a good feeling for an audience member.
There’s a good balance between traditional “talking head” interviews with various astronomers and scientists and Cheney’s own commentary. Unlike other indie documentaries about niche subjects like this, The City Dark is the perfect synthesis of more traditional documentaries and more open-ended, philosophical ruminations. There’s enough expert, scientific information for the doc to feel authoritative, yet there’s enough of Cheney for the doc to feel personal. It helps that Cheney has a very easy-going, pleasant personality: he’s the perfect host for something that requires a little personal reflection along with the historical record. This also helps make the film feel even-handed: although we definitely get the idea that Cheney is anti-light pollution, he goes out of his way to explain the factors that brought our world to this point, which are just as natural as the impulses that will need to get us out of it. There are no easy answers but it helps when the host refuses to take a hectoring tone: more documentarians should take note of this.
As someone who’s always had a twin love of bright, neon lights and the dark, starlit night sky, I found The City Dark to be immensely thought-provoking. The film is filled with some absolutely stunning imagery, including some of the most beautiful, chill-inducing shots of the night sky that I’ve ever seen. Couple this with some equally eye-popping views of the various lightscapes that are evident across the entire globe and The City Dark is never anything less than gorgeous to look at. Cheney is a more than capable filmmaker and I can’t help but feel that he’s the next Errol Morris or, at the very least, a more laid-back version of Morgan Spurlock.
In many ways, The City Dark is all about the continual, endless struggle to be human. Small, fragile, adrift in a vast ocean of night, with only the meager candles that we craft to light our way, humanity peers ever outward. While we light the way to make ourselves feel safer, Cheney makes the valid point that we may just be isolating ourselves more, cutting ourselves off from the natural world around us and relegating ourselves to a beautiful prison made of steel, glass and an infinity of brilliant lights.