Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ian Cheney's THE CITY DARK documents what light pollution's doing to the night sky

Yikes -- another environmental disaster to worry about! If you're anywhere near as old as TrustMovies, you'll be able to remember yourself as a child, looking up at the night sky and seeing the stars. No matter where you lived -- big city or out in the country -- you could still see 'em, though much better in the latter location. Well, no more. Here in New York, and I wager in Los Angeles -- the two places I've spent most of my life -- you're lucky to be able to see even a few of the brighter stars on any given night. According to THE CITY DARK, a new documentary from Ian Cheney (shown below), things are getting worse.  We need the dark -- for our and our planet's health and well-being -- so we'd better work on turning down the lights.

You may remember Mr. Cheney from a few years back as the co-producer/writer/star of the very entertaining and useful documentary King Corn. His new film is not so entertaining, due perhaps to its quiet-to-the-point-of-placidity tone, apparent in everything from its pacing to its music and narration. The last is handled, I think, by Cheney himself, who has a reedy, slightly-nasal tenor voice that exhibits little variety or depth. This is not a deal-breaker (the subject at hand is interesting enough to surmount these caveats), but you may need to pinch yourself now and again to keep focused and alert.

Initially, the film seems like simply an ode to the missing night and stars, but as it moves along, we learn that there are some very real threats to our and other species' well-being from this loss of night. (If the title were not already recently taken, they call could have called this one, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.") Birds use the night skies and stars as a kind of map for travel, and we learn of the increase in bird deaths due to slamming into buildings thanks to faulty navigation. (One scientist, below, keeps a feathered record -- drawer after drawer of different dead species -- that he lets the filmmaker peek into.)

Hatching turtles in Florida are experiencing something of this same directional problem. As for we humans, Cheney uses recent statistics drawn from women who work night-shifts (and are thus exposed to much more round-the-clock light) to demonstrate a rise in breast cancer among these darkness-deprived workers.

What about killer asteroids? (Yes, them again!) We visit astronomers in Hawaii -- which Cheney calls the best place in the world to view the heavens (despite another documentary, the award-winning Nostalgia for the Light, that places the "best" in Chile's Atacama Desert facility) -- to view the telescope (above) set up to be able to see these invaders at an early stage.

There's more -- including some smart tips on how to better light our world so that the light shines down where we need it, for safety, rather than every-which-way, particularly up, to obscure more of that precious sky. "All this may seem more spiritual than practical," notes one person interviewed. Yet, it is, in the end, a practical thing, if this loss of darkness impedes our health and safety, which Cheney pretty much proves it is doing.

The question may come down to a matter of priorities. In saving our environment, what's most important:  The air? The oceans? Renewable energy sources? Since our great and powerful political leaders seem unable, at this point, to save much of anything, we can hardly hope for great help in saving the dying dark. Still, Mr. Cheney has now brought this to our attention, so we can't say we didn't know. And we're rootin' for you, night sky!

The City Dark , distributed by Argot Pictures and running 84 minutes, opens this Wednesday, January 18, in New York City at the IFC Center. Other playdates across the country will soon follow; click here and scroll down to see all cities and theaters scheduled.


Virginia said...

Cheney´s film is worth to be listed as one of top environmental movies of 2011. But focus of The City Dark is not limited only to the environmental issues. I appreciate its ambition to capture the parallel between human soul (Cheney uses more exact psychology term "the self") and sky, as well as emphasizing our responsibility for both. Cheney´s movie perceives people as tiny dots, quite powerless in comparison to cosmos, yet powerful in their individual micro worlds.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Virginia, for taking the time to post this comment. You clearly found the movie more meaningful than did I, but your comments do strike a chord with me. If I get a chance, I'll try watching the movie again to see if it clicks a bit better. It is certainly worth seeing, but I am not sure I'd rank it quite as high as you.

James van Maanen, said...

Oh, yes -- and, Virginia, that list of top ten environmental movies from 2011 is worth checking out. Thanks for linking to it!

Virginia said...

I am glad, James, that my comment was inspiring for you. The list is actually very good.