There’s something about the night that is beautiful, mysterious, and humbling all at once. Gazing at a clear night, glimpsing stars and other heavenly bodies light years away from our immediate sight, one could certainly choose to gawk at the prettiness of the sight. But there are also its magisterial cosmic implications to contemplate: how small we ultimately are in the grand scheme of things, how much is out there that we may not even realize exists, and ultimately how much we don’t know about this great big world surrounding all of us.
But how many people even bother to look at the night sky and contemplate such cosmic queries? Ian Cheney gets to heart of the matter and asks a rather more mundane question in his new documentary The City Dark: In this modern age of ours, how many of us can even see a clear night sky anymore?
The film is about light pollution, but this isn’t an “issue documentary” in the usual sense—or at least, if it is, then it approaches the issue at sometimes unusual angles. Cheney may have activist intentions on his mind, but, at least for this particular subject, he also has evinces the soul of a poet.
“What do we lose when we lose the night?” he asks in his wide-ranging voiceover narration; the answers he comes up with range from the concrete (there’s apparently research, both empirical and anecdotal, that suggests a link between overnight shift work and an increased risk of breast or prostate cancer) to the philosophical (a loss of a sense of perspective on our place in the wider world). The City Dark is informative in the best sense—genuinely inquisitive and exploratory, and even willing to briefly consider the other side of his chosen issue. I mean, you have to admit: As much as we may be losing the night sky to an excess of light, a softly lit night sky carries a gentle beauty of its own—something Cheney not only acknowledges directly in his film, but also reflects visually and aurally, not only in some of the self-shot nocturnal astrophotography he features, but also in its wonderful score, by the Fishermen Three & Ben Fries (recalling the evocative tenderness of the Tindersticks score from Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum). In fact, the whole film is as beautiful to look at as it is eye-opening in its content, with Cheney’s charming use of squiggly hand-drawn animation to illustrate some of his points.
After the film was over, I walked out of the Austin Convention Center here at South by Southwest and took my own long, hard look up at the night sky and reflected on what it is that I knew was there but wasn’t able to see with my own eyes. Perhaps this is a cheesy pun, but it is completely appropriate for The City Dark: This is a truly enlightening film, the increasingly rare documentary that not only opens your eyes to what the filmmaker considers an important issue, but also has the power to expand your perceptions in valuable and even life-affirming ways.
The City Dark played on March 12 as part of this year’s SWSW.