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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Richard Ledes’ The Dark Side positions its viewer on a critical edge. In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes argues that pleasure in written language springs from the collision of two edges, “an obedient, conformist, plagiarizing edge […] and another edge, mobile, blank (ready to assume any contours), which is never anything but the site of its effect” (6). Ledes’ film navigates the contours of film language to arrive at a place conceptually concurrent to Barthes’ edge, a place defined by greed and lust amongst the ruins accumulating on the periphery of the world’s epicenter, Manhattan. As Barthes asserts, “Neither culture nor its destruction is erotic; it is the seam between them, the fault, the flaw, which becomes so” (7). And Ledes’ film is saturated in a complicated kind of eroticism, a molten desire made crude by the presence of detritus, both material and emotional.

 

Through its style and story, The Dark Side dwells at the collision of two edges: documentary footage from Hurricane Sandy interspersed throughout a fictional dark comedic narrative about the crossing of romantic paths in a distressed, and distressing, New York. The film moves its viewer through an overlapping and intersecting of narratives, truths, untruths, desires, and fears only to ultimately blend the meanings of these seemingly disparate entities. Borders become permeable in this narrative universe. The middle space—the betwixt and between—becomes the foundation for important communications and their misinterpretations. Indeed, these moments betwixt and between structure the short film which, in many ways, inherently defies structure itself by charting a disintegration of New York with the violent arrival of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Throughout the film’s entirety we reside on beaches, in twilight, in the heat which emanates from a flame, between fiction and documentary. And it is in these moments between when our role as spectator is called to action, as it were, and we inhabit the filmic rhythm Ledes sets forth for us.

The film begins with Marx’s assertion, or premonition, that capitalist society will one day face the monster it will inevitably create. Specifically, Ledes places Marx’s phrase “All that is solid melts into air” at the center of footage depicting a home in flames. From here, we enter a psychologically and narrartively kaleidoscopic universe, one we simultaneously know well and one that feels distinctly foreign. Is the real disaster Hurricane Sandy? Or is it the way we have responded to nature and tragedy that constitutes the ultimate disaster? The Dark Side requires us to meditate on the perils of our postindustrial society, as Dan, the main character, must answer to his angry bosses at his luxury evacuation firm—a concept simultaneously absurd and realistic.

 

This tension in the film between the landscape and the state of society at large brings in questions not only of economics—Marxism—but of performance more generally. Bertolt Brecht, for example, was interested in highlighting the significance of surroundings and they how affected the interactions between people, rather than focusing on a broader humanist position. Ultimately, his epic theatre, often referred to as a dialectical theatre, sought to interrogate the mode of relating between subjects and how this very relating was a reaction to societal influences of the time—namely, capitalism.

 

But, what is probably most interesting about his epic theatre is the spectatorial participation it not only allows but inherently encourages. In epic theatre, the audience can respond, probe, and question the actors as they demonstrate an event: “In short, the actor must remain a demonstrator; he must present the person demonstrated as a stranger, he must not suppress the ‘he did that, he said that’ element in his performance. He must not go so far as to be wholly transformed into the person demonstrated” (125). While the characters in The Dark Side do not abide by Brecht’s character formation necessarily, there is nevertheless a complicated and noteworthy melding and distancing occurring in the film. Dan and Sandy, for example, eventually break the fourth wall, as it were, and interact with the firemen interviewed in the documentary portion of the film at the Point Breey Fire Department. We realize they are actors demonstrating something to us: an innocent perversion saturating contemporary life so confused by what is real and what is not. Dan and Sandy are also audience members, questioning and responding to the firemen as they tell their real stories.

Storytelling occurs at all levels of the film experience in The Dark Side. From firemen recounting their encounters with Sandy, to Dan’s drifting consciousness, to the film itself, we realize that the story is the thing. Similarly to Brecht’s politicization of performance and engagement with the audience, we might examine the nature of spectatorship proper in The Dark Side. Ultimately, it is a story about spectating, about watching. The firemen watch their own neighborhoods burn to the ground. The Greek couple—signified by their voiceovers, translated for us on screen—watch as Dan and Sandy’s relationship unravels. Jacques Rancier argues that storytelling is crucial for a kind of freedom to take place: “An emancipated community is in fact a community of storytellers and translators.” Given Rancier’s premise, we might well assume that the community of The Dark Side is emancipated. But they are quite the opposite. They are tied to the very materiality of their surroundings….

Brecht – epic theatre. Marx. The spectator.

Rancier – emancipated spectator. Mulvey’s pensive spectator.

Barthes – close. We arrive at the eroticism in the film through the very seam between culture and its destruction which Barthes points to. Indeed, the film resides in this realm between culture—highbrow philosophy as well as popular sensibilities—and its destruction through the path of a storm as well as the crossing paths of New Yorkers.

As for the emancipation of the spectator – she is tied into the fabric of this film, emancipating her only so far as it requires her to engage her own critical intellect in order to maneuver within it. She is nevertheless tied to the very threads which stitch this narrative universe into her own [and to the contours of its language and to its very edges]. The edges of the film bleed out into the realm of our lived experiences, confronting not only the nature of this but also the nature of cinema itself.

Alison Fornell

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“The Second Game” by Corneliu Porumboiu is an unusual film and a favorite of mine though I think many people will not share my taste. It is an uncut 1988 soccer game between the Romanian army and secret police, narrated offscreen by the filmmaker and his father, who happened to be the referee during the game. @ledes