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Arts & Culture

Suggested Viewing: Blackout Films

The documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."
Magnolia Pictures
The documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."

Films About Being in the Dark

So if you were affected by the power outage yesterday, here are some films to supplement that experience.

A power outage may leave you without the usual entertainment options -- no video games, no surfing for YouTube videos, no Netflix streaming, no going out to movies. But now with the power back on, you might want to program a night of films that address that experience in different ways. The first film that came to mind was the documentary, "Enron, the Smartest Guys in the Room." The film played in theaters and on PBS' Independent Lens. It turns the collapse of a mammoth corporation into a riveting thriller as it delivers the inside story about the recent business scandal involving top executives at America’s seventh largest company who walked away with over one billion dollars while investors and employees lost everything. The film also explores the role Enron played in California's energy crisis and rolling blackouts. Here's the trailer.

enron the smartest guys in the room - Trailer

The 1978 film "Blackout," chronicled the massive 1977 New York blackout. The trailer serves up the cheesiest take on the crisis and taps into our worst fears. It sensationalizes the drama with tag lines like: "The night the power failed.... and the shock began!"


New York, along with a chunk of the Northeast and parts of Canada, were hit by an even bigger blackout in 2003, affecting some 50 million people. That outage inspired the 2007 film "Blackout," which focused on a small Brooklyn neighborhood coping with no electricty.

Final Blackout Trailer

The concerns of these films -- despite differing tones and approaches-- are very real. What happens when the most basic things we depend on -- like electricity -- are not available? What happens to our social structure? Do people remain civilized or take to looting or worse? These issues have come up around other crises as well whether it was the rioting in L.A. after the Rodney King beating or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The aftermath of Katrina was covered in a pair of films by Spike Lee, "When the Levees Broke" and " If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise," and another indie doc, "Trouble the Water" (see trailer below).

TROUBLE THE WATER official US trailer

"The Trigger Effect" serves up a fictional story that explores what happens when the lights go out for days. Does human nature make us more inclined to help each other or to only look out for oneself and family? The tag line for the film sums it up: "When nothing works. Anything goes."

Contemplating human nature without the restrictions of civilization has been done frequently in literature such as "Lord of the Flies," which was also made into a film in 1963 and again in 1990. All three explored what happens to a group of British schoolboys who get stranded on an island and are left to their own devices. They initially set up a society with rules and structure but it soon descends into violence and anarchy.

In some ways, power outages are a modern way of getting at a very primal fear, the fear of the dark. Blackness and infinite dark are classic elements of horror. Fear of what might be lurking in the darkness is key to vampire and zombie mythology, with those creatures being primarily of the night. It's what lurks in the darkness that is so creepy in the original "Cat People," the TV movie "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" (and its remake), and the sci-fi horror film "Pitch Black." So many horror films play on our fear of the dark and provide a way to confront those fears or vicariously live through terrifying experiences so we can think about how we would react. So horror provides a perfect way of looking at situations like a blackout where we are deprived of certain necessities. People stranded, trapped, or living in isolated conditions provide a perfect foundation for horror. Films like "Straw Dogs," "Ils/Them," "When a Stranger Calls," are all "home invasion" type films where people have their phones and/or electricity cut by some kind of attacker and then have to figure out a way to survive. The premise is used to create tension and within a classic horror formula. "The Blackout" (yeah that's a popular title) uses a blackout as the catalyst for a horror tale about people stuck in the dark and they are not alone.


So there are plenty of films out there (feel free to add your own suggestions) that provide appropriate companion viewing to yesterday's crisis. Here's a list of real blackouts from Wikipedia, so you can try to place yesterday's into a context. The grid is being described as still "fragile" so stock up on water, batteries, candles, and charge up that portable DVD player. Or better yet, turn off all your electronic devices of your own free will and reconnect with your friends, family, and neighbors, and remember what real and not virtual social interactivity is like. Blackouts have the potential to be dangerous and life threatening but they can also be quite enjoyable and oddly liberating. So I may be lighting some more candles tonight and bringing out the James Bond and Star Wars Monopoly board games for an unplugged evening of entertainment.