I can't recall if I read Michael Pollan first or saw Aaron Woolf's 'King Corn' first. The two experiences occurred roughly the same time (in mid 2007). But either way I'm sure that I learned a lot about the food industry from the latter (which features Pollan as a talking head). And as an ignorant eater unaware that corn dominates our diet and may be ruining the American farm system through its industrialization, I appreciated the way its information was filtered through the investigatory curiosity of two college buddies, who learned right alongside the viewer.
Now one of those inquisitive guys, Ian Cheney, who is also credited as a writer and producer of 'King Corn,' has a new directorial effort (following his 2008 debut, 'The Greening of Southie'), which is a similar sort of personal journey that looks into another sort of taken-for-granted subject. Titled 'The City Dark,' the new documentary, umm, sheds light on the growing problems of light, specifically of the artificial variety. Like corn, artificial light seems to be another hidden evil, evidence that, as the film states, "everything that does good to humans also does bad."
At first, the film concentrates on how all the light emitting from cities hinders our ability to see the stars. Obvious, I know. We don't exactly need for Cheney, in first-person filmmaker mode, to hit Times Square at night to show us how bright it is and how there is no celestial visibility. And I think it slightly ironic that 'The City Dark' is co-produced by Rooftop Films, which shows movies on rooftops in NYC during the summer (that's how I first saw 'King Corn'), and these screenings are also sometimes hard to fully appreciate due to the lack of outside darkness in certain areas (I'm sure this film will be on Rooftop's slate this year).
Anyway, Cheney eventually moves on to less commonly known material, like how some animals, specifically birds and turtles, are affected by the removal of their stellar and lunar navigational references. Footage of turtle newborns heading towards the city instead of the ocean because they're attracted to the light is sadly reminiscent of the dementia-suffering penguin in 'Encounters at the End of the World.' Unlike Herzog, though, Cheney is told to and does help the little guys. Scarier for the viewer is the idea that too much light pollution in the sky and in space makes it difficult to spot potential cataclysmic asteroids (and I guess maybe attacking spaceships).
Somewhat harder to believe, but only because I've never heard the theory ever, is the idea that people who work night shifts are more prone to cancer, particularly breast and prostate cancer. It's not even necessarily related to artificial light so much as the connected issue of humans unnaturally decreasing or eliminating their sense of night, or at least ignoring it for activities and jobs that run later than we're naturally used to. Coming from a family that I do believe has a gene that makes us inherently night owls, I'm unconvinced all humans prehistorically followed such a traditional schedule (But I also would prefer not getting cancer).
Compared to 'King Corn,' 'The City Dark' is a less informative and seemingly less crucial doc, but on an aesthetic level I enjoyed it a lot more. It has a kind of abstract and new age-y tone, rendered by the jangly ambient techno score by The Fishermen Three and Cheney's quiet, contemplative voice-over narration. In ways it's vibe reminded me as much of Michael Madsen's sci-fi-like 'Into Eternity' as it does an innocently inquisitive film like Josh Fox's 'Gasland' (though 'The City Dark' has none of the scares of those recent doc favorites).
More entertaining than enlightening, and at many times gorgeous to look at, as long as there's nothing for you to watch in the night sky anymore, 'The City Dark' is worth viewing as a substitute for stargazing, even if that might make you a bit sad on multiple levels to do so (aren't you glad I didn't just say, "don't be in the dark about this subject, so go see it!"?).