Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The City Dark (2010): This American Life Goes Cinematic

The City Dark (2010)
dir: Ian Cheney

NPR's This American Life has been on the air for YEARS. It's been going on since 1995, and caught fire by the late 90s when my mother used to rave about it. For those of you who don't know the program, it is an hour long radio show hosted by Ira Glass, which generally assembles 2-6 stories centered around a theme of the week. These stories are generally sociological in nature, sometimes they're fictions and sometimes they're scientific stories. But, they're told with a rather calming pace frequently interspersed with calming music and sometimes containing interviews. There is a very specific pattern to This American Life, which becomes immediately apparent after just one of the episodes.

The City Dark is not unlike the radio show of This American Life. The theme is the lights in the city, and how they create light pollution. The City Dark is narrated by Ian Cheney, with a calming peaceful tonality.  It is divided into 6 different sections, each with a different angle on the night sky and the city lights. It frequently intersperses generic calming music in the pauses. It has interviews with people to relay information regarding each section. But, the main difference is that The City Dark is a film with some periodically gorgeous imagery.

Ian Cheney grew up in Maine, and moved to New York City. In his small town in Maine, the night sky was lit up like a Christmas tree, with thousands upon thousands of stars. But, in New York City, he noticed that there were maybe tens upon tens of stars if you strained your eyes enough. This difference was caused by the light pollution in New York City. This disturbed him because, as a kid, he had fancied himself to be an amateur astronomer who drew up star maps and recreated his own constellations.

The City Dark is Cheney's meditation on the importance of the night sky, where he interviews different scientific figures and visits various locations which have to do with the topic. He visits a light store in New Jersey where the owner comments on the increasing brightness of the bulbs. He also visits Sky Village, an astronomer's paradise in between Arizona and New Mexico. He starts to dive into topics like cancer, sleep deprivation, crime prevention, and animal migration patterns.

Cheney doesn't form a conclusive statement saying that city lights are bad. He merely presents some of the cases that city light might be affecting us negatively, but concludes that he kind of likes the big city and all that the light can offer. Much like most episodes of This American Life, Cheney's intent isn't to make a de facto statement and conclusion on a topic, but merely to relate how one topic can relate to various people's lives.

While worries about Light Pollution have been around for years, Cheney still finds new angles to explore. Such as when he goes on a hatching quest for the sea turtles, who have developed in such a way that the light was what guided them to the water. But, now that the brightest light source is the city the turtles generally head in the wrong direction (though he says that they saved all of the turtles they recorded). Or, the studies that have proven that non daytime workers have a much higher rate of breast cancer than daytime workers.

Cheney's use of stunning nighttime imagery elevates The City Dark above its This American Life style narrative. It's a meditative poetic film that can be looked at or can be listened to, but it is gorgeous in either way you watch it. The open ended nature of the documentary may be frustrating to some who want their documentaries to have a bit more of a conclusive and decisive tone. If you can handle information dealt to you in non-confrontational methods that ponder the positive and negative effects that city light and the disappearance of the stars means to city dwellers, you may enjoy this. I did.

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