Something I Couldn't Name
I would go nuts if I couldn’t have the dark night sky. There’s a whole universe up there.
—Jack Newton, Astrophotographer
“It’s a crappy night. We sometimes call it schmutz: that’s a local expression.” For astronomer Irve Robbins, local is New York. An astronomer at the College of Staten Island, he still likes to head out to Jones Beach, where he can best see the night sky. In the city, he laments, the view is limited by light pollution, and he likes to see more. “When you look at the sky,” he says, “It really is the sum total of everything around you.”
As charming as Professor Robbins’ enthusiasm may be, his point is actually complicated, both obvious and abstract. It’s the sort of complication that characterizes all of The City Dark, Ian Cheney’s meditation on the night sky. Opening this week at New York’s IFC Center, the documentary is alternately poetic and angsty, clever and banal.
This mix of affects emerges plainly in the film’s overuse of time-lapse imagery, as lights play over surfaces, dissolve into the sky. But it’s more compelling in Cheney’s voiceover. “I live in the city, a big city with 8 million people,” he says at the start. The camera follows him along the Manhattan sidewalks as he looks up at the sky, trying to count the stars. “On most nights,” he says, “I can count only a few dozen stars.” The reason, Cheney explains, is “light pollution,” too much artificial light, especially light that spins off into space. The effects of that excess might seem self-evident—say, that schmutzy sky—but they’re also unknown. When he was a child in rural Maine, he says, “I never stopped to wonder what those dark starry nights meant to me. But when I moved to the city, I felt at once like I was at the center of the world under all those lights and like I’d left something important behind, something I couldn’t name.” He adds on the vaster question, “What do we lose when we lose the night?”
To start, Cheney talks to (and drives around with) people who have given the matter some thought, from Robbins (“I need to go farther and farther to see the sky, to be part of the universe”) to Washington Heights Boy Scouts leader Matty Holzhacker, who makes a point of taking his urban-based scouts out in the woods. “I can’t tell you that I’m very familiar with the stars,” he smiles, adding, “My son knows, but he never goes on any of the damn trips, so…” He turns to the scouts gathered before him, their number, following some cancellations, now down to five. They head out: the mountains are grand, the trees are tall. And when night falls, the kids look up: “My God,” says one, “There’s like 100 stars!”
This episode illustrates the film’s point about the losses caused by light pollution, that next generations’ experiences are changed in ways they can’t even know. Its other arguments are less spiritual, more concrete. “It’s only the last 120 years,” says University of Connecticut epidemiologist Richard Stevens, “where the masses of people have had their night period dramatically eroded through the use of electric lighting.” He believes this may have to do with that most concrete effect: cancer.
The case in point is Suzanne Goldklang, who used to work the night shift on TV, selling jewelry and clothing. Some 10 years after she left this job to pursue journalism, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Tulane University’s David Blask, a cellular biologist, says his research indicates shift workers like Suzanne show a greater incidence of breast cancer, in particular. While the doctor speaks briefly on the circadian disruption brought on by nighttime light (it has to do with the suppression of melatonin by light), the film notes in passing that the World Health Organization in 2007 called shift work a “possible carcinogen.” Suzanne sums up, whatever direct causes might or might not be found, “Working overnights is extremely difficult on your body… you feel like you’re moving through molasses.”
The general (possible) alarm sounded by Suzanne’s specific story exemplifies the movie’s imprecise approach. A little like Cheney’s previous film, King Corn, it presents loose, if logical connections between likely causes and effects, structured as a kind of road trip, as Cheney pursues one question after another. The answers range from scary to cute: in Hawaii, he meets astronomers looking for dark-enough skies in order to spot killer asteroids headed toward earth (cosmologist Chris Impey calls the observatories there “The gold standard, like once you’ve smoked the very best weed or had the very best whiskey, you can’t really go back”).
In Florida, Cheney accompanies a team of scientists with infrared cameras to watch sea turtle hatchlings trying to find the sea; and in Chicago, he follows Bird Collision Monitors, butterfly nets in hand, who collect birds who have become disoriented and smashed into buildings. An ornithologist reports that a billion birds hit buildings each year; the film shows dozens of flat drawers full of dead birds, stuffed and tagged in a rudimentary, and fairly unnerving, accounting system.
These scenes don’t come together so much as they offer a series of impressions, circling around the idea that light pollution is bad. Still, the film allows, that’s not to say darkness is good: as criminologist and ex-cop Jon Shane drives Cheney through Newark NJ, he points at the black night and says, “Darker areas tend to be backfilled by offenders and they like that, because then they can operate under the concealment of darkness they can hide guns they can hide drugs they can wear dark clothing and recede into the recesses of the alleyways.” That logic also seems clear, underlined by residents who point out: “It’s a lot safer now.”
And so the film sets up expected but not easily reconciled tensions. This as Cheney insists on the most lyrical element in his quest, his desire to understand what it means to be disoriented, and in turn, to be oriented.