Richard Ledes’ The Dark Side
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.