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Review: The City Dark

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The City Dark
Directed by Ian Cheney
2011, 84 minutes

The first time I really saw the night sky I was 13 years old. Oh, I had seen the night sky plenty of times before, but living in even a medium-sized Midwestern town, on a street corner brightly illuminated by a streetlight, meant that I saw only a washed-out version of the sky: the brightest stars and planets, the most familiar constellations, and little else. As a boy already enthralled by space and astronomy, I knew there had to be more, but I just couldn’t see it. But during a family road trip one summer, I woke up in the middle of the night as our car sped across a desolate, dark stretch of interstate highway in Nebraska. I craned my neck back to catch a glimpse out the hatchback window, and finally saw it: a sky filled with thousands, not dozens, of stars, with the glowing band of the Milky Way readily visible for the first time. Those images of starry skies in books and TV weren’t just artistic embellishments: that was how it was supposed to look, I now understood.

Cheney interviews people who suggest we lose a sense of wonder about the cosmos, and perhaps a degree of humility as well, when we’re deprived of the night sky.

Filmmaker Ian Cheney had the opposite experience. Growing up in rural Maine, he was used to seeing the night sky in its full glory. However, he lost that view once he moved to New York City, whose denizens are better able to see entertainment stars than astronomical ones. That loss of the night sky, and its implications for society, spurred him to produce and direct the documentary The City Dark. The film, which premiered last March at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, has been on the festival circuit since then, as well as a brief theatrical run last month in New York; it was also screened at last month’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin.

Cheney’s study of the effects of light pollution on humanity and nature start in New York, where he explores the challenges of observing the night sky from Times Square and elsewhere in the metropolis. From there he crisscrosses the country, offering little vignettes of what it means to observe—and lose—the night sky. He visits a “dark sky” community in Arizona where residents are united in their love of stargazing; astronomers in Hawaii looking for potentially hazardous near Earth objects, who worry about the encroaching effects of light pollution on their observations; and biologists on Florida beaches who try to save newborn sea turtles disoriented by the artificial lights of communities that have sprung up along the coast. He even goes as far to suggest in the film that light pollution might be linked to increased incidences of breast cancer among night-shift workers, although the film admits there’s as yet no evidence of any causation for that correlation.

There may be a more fundamental reason for appreciating the night sky, though, he suggests in the film. Cheney interviews people such as Ann Druyan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who suggest we lose a sense of wonder about the cosmos, and perhaps a degree of humility as well, when we’re deprived of the night sky. “It’s kind of a resetting of your ego,” Tyson says of looking at the sky. That may be true now more than ever, as discoveries in recent years have made it clear that solar systems are relatively common—and thus, perhaps, so is life. The City Dark examines some of the efforts to mitigate light pollution, but even those measures make it unlikely residents of cities will be able to appreciate the night sky in the same way as Cheney did in his rural Maine home. However, this film, like my glance out the car window on a Nebraska night years ago, makes you better appreciate what you’re missing.