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City Dark, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Dark certainly does matter."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2011: Every few weeks, will mention a meteor shower or comet, and I'll stay up late and eagerly make my way out to my back porch before remembering that I live right across the river from Boston, and the city lights more or less blot out the sky. I accept this as part of the trade-off for all the great things that the city brings close to me, and know I will get the stars back the next time I spend the night with my family up in Maine. Maybe I shouldn't take that for granted, though - as "The City Dark" informatively and entertainingly points out, there are bigger issues involved than just my frustrated interest in astronomy.

Why do the stars disappear when you enter the city? Basically, the illumination from streetlights and windows reflects off particulate matter in the atmosphere, creating a diffuse glow from which the stars (whose apparent brightness is in large part a result of contrast with perfectly black surroundings) can't stand out. We all know this in general, but director/host Ian Cheney makes sure to explain it in clear language. That's a particular strength of his and the film's; though the concepts being communicated are not exceptionally complicated, they could be made so. Cheney avoids context-free numbers - at times, specifically, as when he tells the audience that there is a technical way to quantify light pollution but he is just going to use letter grades.

In addition to speaking in layman's terms, The City Dark is broken up into sensible chapters which are each interesting in their own right. After showing how artificial lighting makes the stars harder to see, "Islands of Dark" introduces us to a community of enthusiastic stargazers who have banded together to create a community in Portal, Arizona, with strict controls on light pollution. There are segments on how artificial lighting and urbanization is throwing the natural world off, and not just with animals; straying too far from the day/night cycle seems to be harmful to human beings as well. The effect is not like an anthology film - the segments flow into each other naturally and build upon what we've previously learned - but it keeps the various topics from competing with each other for the audience's attention.

For all that the film is educational, it's certainly not dry. Cheney's narration is conversational, sprinkling in a fair number of personal anecdotes, and his on-screen persona, at least, is that of a curious and open-minded person. The film seldom feels like a lecture; indeed, one can tell that the instinct to move close to the fire remains strong even after everything the audience has learned by the end. He and the other filmmakers are well aware that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar: The first astronomer we meet is Professor Irving Robbins of the Staten Island Observatory, who comes across as much Old Jewish Comedian as academic, and a scene of newly-hatched baby turtles dangerously crawling toward city lights rather than the reflected moonlight of the ocean is played cute and funny - reassuring the audience that the misdirected turtles were rescued actually underscores how nearby human presence has fundamentally altered the ecosystem, even without releasing toxins.

The music during that segment is bouncy and especially memorable, although the soundtrack for the entire film is quite nice; composers Simon Beins and Benjamin Fries do a good job of matching the film's cautionary but generally upbeat mood. Different audiences will likely wish for more or less emphasis on certain aspects of the topic or interview subjects, but Cheney and the editors do fairly well in allotting time fairly and not letting any one topic overstay its welcome. Cheney's and Taylor Gentry's cinematography is also invisibly impressive - they don't go for a particular look or style, but their chosen subject means that they have to accurately show the character of the night sky, and anybody who has tried to shoot stills by starlight, let alone video, will tell you that it's not an easy thing to do at all.

As with many documentaries, nine out of ten people who watch "The City Dark" will likely already be concerned about light pollution. That's okay; it's friendly and entertaining enough to win the attention of that tenth person, and informative enough that even those already familiar with the topic can learn something new.

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originally posted: 05/26/11 09:21:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 series, click here.

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