SXSW Review: The City Dark


Arguably the invention with the most profound effect on civilization is the light bulb. But along with the advances in technology it heralded, is there a dark side to all the light we have in our lives today? Director Ian Cheney (King Corn) explores the scientific and philosophical side of lighting the night sky in The City Dark.

Cheney explores the history and impact of all the light at night in various chapters, from the history of lighting to light pollution to the impact on nature and humanity. He could easily make a movie on each chapter, but instead includes just enough to make a person consider how much artificial lighting they include in their lives.

The City Dark is not just a romanticized longing for the heavens above.  Some of the facts Cheney presents may at first seem like they're not relevant to everyday people, such as light pollution making it difficult for astronomers do their jobs. Urban dwellers may even wave off the impact on other species. But others are much more relevant, such as how light impacts the human body, and how shift work can be deadly to the point the that World Health Organization has made a declaration about it.

As someone who grew up in rural upstate New York (and other places), I'm keenly aware of the impact of light at night. I remember the wonder of standing in a field of fireflies on a summer night under a cloudless sky and feeling like I was walking among the stars.  Now I'm grumpy about all the newly installed lights my apartment complex has installed, because it obscures what little view of the night sky I have.  So I readily admit I'm a built-in audience for the subject matter, as I always look up at the night sky before going indoors at night, searching for my favorite constellation. I can still see it in my South Austin neighborhood, but I wonder for how much longer. Clearly I'm not the only one thinking about this.

Perhaps like Helvetica, where people left screenings at a SXSW suddenly sensitized to the impact of fonts on our everyday lives, The City Dark will make us reconsider how much illumination can darken life as we know it.

You can find out more about the film at The City Dark website. The City Dark plays again today at 11:15 am at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, and on Friday at 4:30 pm, also at Lamar.