Published on January 15th, 2012 | by Charles H. Meyer0
“The City Dark” opens Wednesday, January 18 at IFC Center.
Running time: 84 minutes.
I found “The City Dark,” Ian Cheney’s documentary about “light pollution” to be nothing short of terrifying. But its effectiveness lies in making us feel rather comfortable in our cozy little seats before scaring the living daylights out of us.
The film ruminates upon a rather obvious, albeit easy-to-forget, seemingly benign fact–that throughout human history, but especially over the last 120 years, with the dawn of electric lighting, we have waged an unending war on the darkness of night, culminating in the present moment, when the stars above have become all but invisible to city dwellers, who now account for the majority of the world’s population. One irony of this situation is that astronomers have continued to make great strides (for instance, in recent years discovering extra-solar planets for the very first time, and continuing to discover many more daily), seeing farther and farther into the cosmos even as ordinary citizens grow ever blinder to the cosmos, blinded, quite literally, by brilliance of our own manufacture, our man-made luminescence being, of course, quite beautiful (who doesn’t love to look down on the million twinkling lights of a city from an airplane?) but so punily, pathetically modest by comparison to the mind-boggling majesty of outer space. We’re gazing down self-adoringly at our own tiny, glowing anthills rather than up at the positively mental-hard-drive-crashing enormousness of billions of galaxies.
And yet lighting up the world in defiance of nature has, for better and/or for worse, been essential to our species’s conquest of the earth. It is no coincidence that the Enlightenment is so named, nor that it started happening in the 17th and 18th centuries when we began using oil rendered from whale blubber to fuel our lamps. The same period also saw vast improvements in both printing technologies and adult literacy. Having artificial light by which to read printed books and pamphlets late into the night was undoubtedly a boon to our social, scientific, religious, political, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera progress. Years of further progress later, in the late-19th century, Thomas Edison’s introduction of the electric light bulb, and all the continual advancements in electric light technology since then, have only accelerated our progress in every sphere. (And, of course, light has never been just for reading; it also greatly helps to prevent crime; there’s a good reason that shopkeepers don’t lock up without leaving a few lights burning.)
However, it seems as though we have gone too far in our relentless banishment of the dark, that, in fact, we went too far a long time ago and yet, maddeningly, keep going further, almost entirely ignorant of the potential dangers (to ourselves, to animals and to our environments) posed by our ever-more-forceful assault on the night, which “The City Dark” explores thoroughly, engagingly and somewhat horror-inducingly in a series of illuminating (pardon the pun) interviews with astrophysicists, cellular biologists, ornithologists, and other relevant experts.
The big problem is that when our species was undergoing the bulk of its evolution over millions of years in equatorial Africa, we were accustomed to spending twelve hours in the rich sunlight of day, followed consistently by twelve hours in the pitch-black darkness of night. Human, animal and plant physiologies developed their circadian rhythms in relation to this lightness/darkness cycle (which goes a long way toward explaining the power on our collective psyches of the rationality/irrationality binary associated with day/night, man/woman, et cetera–but that’s another discussion), so it should come as no surprise to us that our very very recent tampering with the light/dark cycle (120 years being but a blip in human, much less biological or geological, history) might be screwing us up, at least a little bit (but more likely a whole lot).
The most disturbing effect, confirmed by medical researchers, of this steady human-caused erosion of our bodies’ daily exposure to darkness is the dramatic suppression of our brains’ secretion of the essential neurotransmitter serotonin. If you’ve wondered lately why people are so concerned about breast cancer, consider that it is the number one most common variety of cancer that women contract. And research has revealed that women who work night shifts are one to two times more likely to get breast cancer than other women. The international incidence of breast cancer is currently increasing at the alarming rate of one to two percent per year, and this increase is most pronounced in countries that are either industrialized or industrializing, i.e., places where work days are increasing and whose electric lighting is steadily on the rise.
So if you think that “The City Dark” is just a sweet little movie about the joys of stargazing, think again. It does have wonderful chalk-animation title imagery of stars; magical, pantheistically mystical stop-motion cinematography of our magnificent, star-filled sky flowing around our fragile little world (actually, the opposite, of course, but from our vantage point on earth, it always looks like we are standing still while the heavens swim around us); and rapturous amateur and professional astronomers and astrophotographers showing off their telescopes and space photographs at choice stargazing locations in Long Island, New York; Bar Harbor, Maine; Sky Village, Arizona; and Mauna Loa, Hawai’i.
“The City Dark” should be required viewing for every inhabitant of this planet but particularly for young people, as their future is looking unbearably bright. As Ian Cheney says near the end of this exceptionally valuable, urgently needed film, “Though we may love the night, we also might need the dark.”