I’ll begin with a vision of fire, the opening sequence of The Dark Side: the words “all that is solid melts into air” appear, and then evaporate. The camera is led toward a smoky orange glow, a sea of flames. Although ashes fly toward the screen, the man behind the camera inches closer to the fire. Abruptly, there is a cut to a landscape, where the ocean meets a shoreline. These images inaugurate Richard Ledes’ meditations in The Dark Side, an experimental film that dissolves the solidity of genre while manipulating the boundaries between historical truth and representation; fact and fiction; and documentary and romantic comedy. Documentary and romantic comedy are indeed unlikely bedfellows, and the two genres commingle in surprising and poetic ways throughout The Dark Side, resulting in the film’s unique meditations on the stagecraft involved in representing calamities.
New York City’s encounter with Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is the event that brings together two contrasting narrative threads. One documents the testimonies of firefighters who witness how the storm catalyzed a destructive fire in Breezy Point, Queens. The other is a fictional romance story: Dan and Sandy, former lovers, reconnect because of an accidental butt-dial on the night of the storm. Meanwhile, the soundtrack further disintegrates the generic boundaries, a withering away of the border that is akin to coastal erosion. A faceless Greek Chorus comments on the actions of the lovers in the romantic plot, and clips of chamber music in a sparse recording studio interrupt the documentary footage. The juxtapositions dramatize the film’s thematic of whether disaster—natural, historical, or otherwise—creates meaning for the individual, or whether the individual makes meaning from disaster.
The film’s fascination with the mediation culminates in the testimonies of Firefighter Burke, a self-described “lifelong emergency service professional.” Viewers of The Dark Side learn that the opening image of fire belongs to the footage that Burke himself filmed when Hurricane Sandy and the ensuing fire hit Breezy Point. Narrating the event with scientific precision, Burke maintains a professional distance from the event. However, Ledes’ camera turns around and captures a stunning moment: Burke watching his own footage of destruction on a television, the fire on the screen distorted by sunlight and Burke’s reflection. The representation of fire mediated through multiple screens—the television’s screen, Ledes’ camera lens, and the glass wall between the audience and The Dark Side – Ledes’ film suggests the strange intimacy, at once distant and near, between past devastation and its resonances in the present.
Burke’s watching of the fire at Breezy Point evokes Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, a text that Ledes converses with throughout The Dark Side. In particular, the scene recalls Benjamin’s description of the Angel of History: “His face turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” The romantic plot of The Dark Side constellates around this image, drawing—drafting— from the documentary component of the film. Drafting, as Burke defines it, is the technique used to put out the fire at Breezy Point because the system of hydrants collapsed: “basically, instead of receiving water from a fire hydrant under pressure, they’re taking water [from another source] which was the sea water.” Ledes deploys a similar method in terms of blending the documentary form with the romantic comedy. Genres, closed forms shaped by the pressures of aesthetic tradition and audience expectations, collapse in the face of a natural calamity like Hurricane Sandy. Thus, the romantic plot in The Dark Side is, in part, the director’s turn to the global-scale of climate change as the source for his aesthetic experimentation. While giving local expression to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, The Dark Side might be viewed as Ledes’ grasp for understanding how the forces of climate change and the flow of capital manifest in socially orchestrated disasters. In this regard, The Dark Side is something of a debut performance where Ledes plays the role of Benjamin’s historian who “grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one.”
At one point in the romantic plot Sandy finds herself vulnerable to Dan’s storytelling and, frustrated, she uses language that evokes the firemen’s definition of drafting: “You just take,” she says to Dan over the phone, “you don’t give.” While romantic comedy and documentary converge in this film—perhaps representative of the laughing and crying masks of drama respectively—Sandy and the other characters of the romantic plot echo, contrast, and exaggerate some of the narrative fragments in the firefighters’ testimonies. Saturated with literary and philosophical citations, voiced through the fictional characters, the romantic plot is set in an absurdist version of New York City. From Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, to Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, the allusions in the romantic plot point to a world where language is fragmented and meaning is unstable. Thus, while placing the stories of a post-Hurricane Sandy Breezy Point carefully in relation to the fictional realm of comic relief, The Dark Side suggests how the palpable effects of disasters exhaust the forms and vocabulary available to describe them. Indeed, as we approach the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy and the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, The Dark Side invites viewers to grapple with the two faces of civilization: its veneer of stability and cohesion and its flipside, where calamities unsettle and endanger.