SCREEN QUEST: DARK NIGHT

FEATURED ATTRACTION: DARK NIGHT — (2016) — d. Tim Sutton — 1hr 25min — ICA London — until 29 AUG 2017.


Filmmakers addressing American mass shootings are caught between the rock of BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and the hard place of Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT. With a punning title that Google doesn’t take seriously – search for “DARK NIGHT movie” and the algorithms autocorrect you, presumably out of force of habit than any sentient superhero preference – it’s sometimes hard to know where Tim Sutton’s film stands on its subject matter.

Formally, it is descended from ELEPHANT, an elegantly framed fictional recreation of the build up to one such shooting that casts mostly non-professional actors playing themselves. Yet, it is neither a searing analysis of cause and effect nor a disturbing plunge into absolute darkness. It’s just there, a strange hymn to people in their place that invites the audience to listen attentively and (maybe) make sense of it.

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DARK NIGHT (2017) shows snapshots of one mundane day in North American. We flit between characters that are only connected by our sense of what might be about to happen. There is no obvious demarcation of shooter and victim. There is only time before the end where we watch people live their lives, packed with mostly irrelevant detail. They make arrangements to see each other later – or not. Nothing matters. Yet.

The film is set in the kind of quiet, anonymous place that only comes screaming into collective consciousness when it is the site of something heinous. One such real life atrocity – the 2012 cinema shooting in Aurora, Colorado – gets partially reported in the film as we catch glimpses of news. Elements of Sutton’s montage also echo the true life facts of that case – hair is dyed red, characters dress as The Batman and a film sharing this film’s title is about to open – locating DARK NIGHT in some kind of corrupted copycat universe. But nothing coheres.

Instead, DARK NIGHT is a study of layered meaning as characters are developed in their contexts and somehow implicated by their surroundings. The fact that the shooter could be anyone implicates everyone. As we parse knowledge of recent social history – knowledge required to make this film work – everything becomes a threat. Maica Armata’s haunting use of You Are My Sunshine adds considerably to the strangeness.

Heightening tension (sometimes playfully, which adds to the film’s tonal ambiguity), Sutton’s locked and loaded frames are designed to make us peer into the cinema screen, soaking up the detail. T-shirt slogans, signs and graffiti all escalate a sense of inescapable anxiety. A military veteran in an unspecified support group sobs uncontrollably, his t-shirt bearing the slogan, “I will never accept defeat”. The targets in a shooting range are printed up with the venue’s name and address, Take Aim. Graffiti gives ominous glimpses of a future we haven’t yet seen.

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Tonally, Sutton’s strange elegiacal film leaves you in a dark place. If these shootings happen in the nowhere of everyday lives and seemingly erupt without significant cause, will they ever stop? By weaving together the ritual of cinema going with what has become the coded visuals of such horrors, they also start to appear inevitable.

On the occasion that we saw DARK NIGHT at ICA, the venue must have forgotten it had an audience and the film spooled out, leaving us sat – alone – in an empty auditorium. No house lights. No staff. Just darkness and an eery silence. Getting up to leave, we stared through the glass of the empty projection booth, becoming part of an accidental artwork, a reflection of the terrifying nightmare that continues to eat away at American society.

IN MOVING PICTURES

  • Silently, we watch as a mouse scrolls and clicks through Google Street View, taking us down unremarkable streets and intersections, finally scanning and surveying an empty cinema parking lot.

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Featured image: DARK NIGHT (2016).
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