I’m a trusting person. Living in New York, I can believe that Ian Cheney, an amateur astronomer since his teenage years in Maine, might miss seeing the stars at night, and feel deprived. Even before seeing his documentary, The City Dark, I could also believe that the inescapability of electric lighting in modern cities might lead human beings towards a precarious, imbalanced connection to nature. I also believe that this is sad.
What I won’t believe is that Cheney actually expects audiences to listen to him harp on something so obvious for the duration of a feature-length documentary. And yet he tries. The film opens with long shots of Cheney pointing a constellation map towards the sky while standing in Times Square (under the dorkish premise that he might actually be able to see stars from there). Astronomers talk ardently about how difficult it is to conduct their research except in the most remote parts of the country, smiling softly as they admit to the feelings of humility and wonder their profession can bring when practiced under ideal conditions in Hawaii or Arizona (“It’s like smoking the best weed or drinking the best single malt scotch,” says one professor. “Once you’ve tasted it, you can never go back.”) An officer from animal rescue in Chicago talks about birds that are thrown off their migration trails by lights from tall buildings, and a marine biologist in Florida explains how adorable baby sea turtles are unable to reach the ocean waters after hatching because the lights from nearby hotels disorient them.
Cheney’s documentary is about humankind’s alienation from the beauty of the stars, but he seems reluctant to want to explore or celebrate that beauty in an inventive way. Most of the outdoor shots are of the cameras, telescopes, and computer screens, with little left over to convince an urban viewer of what he’s missing. Images of the rural sky (besides Arizona, Hawaii, or Maine) are scarce. Meanwhile, you see far more stock shots of large cities at night than are necessary to make the point. It’s a missed opportunity.
With the tools he had at his disposal, Cheney could also have given us a much richer history of the human relationship with the sky. Very few actual facts are shared from experts in mythology or ancient cosmology. Eventually, you wind up with some astronomers who posit that city lights will make it difficult for humans to watch and prepare for an asteroid traveling towards the Earth, without even a winking reference to Deep Impact or Armageddon. And of course, an epidemiologist suggests that light pollution causes cancer. To make this point, Cheney relates one study of rats whose malignant tumors got worse when their melatonin levels were out of whack. He also introduces us to one cancer survivor who used to work nights. Done. We have a documentary.
Watching The City Dark was the first time I’ve ever wanted to walk out of the IFC Center before a movie was over. It hurts. Cheney attempts, as many have before, to mine an uplifting story out of the apparently inconsequential, and while he succeeds in elicting some interest in our loss of darkness, he fails to convey anything meaningful or persuasive about it. The resulting film seems like a joke, played by some guy looking to parody the many flowery documentaries made by youngish white dudes that get screened at South by Southwest. I entered the theater with an open mind. I was disappointed.
The City Dark is on view at the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas.