SXSW Film Review – Impossible Light
When someone mentions San Francisco, what’s the first thing you think of? Chances are most people would mention The Golden Gate Bridge, and for good reason. With its striking color and artistic flourishes, and set against the backdrop of the city skyline, its no wonder the bridge is one of the great man-made constructions and an iconic part of the Bay Area. However, some might fail to recognize The Golden Gate Bridge’s nearby sister, The Bay Bridge. Arguably a bigger, more impressive engineering feat, The Bay Bridge unfortunately hasn’t received the same kind of recognition her famous counterpart has. I once visited the area a few years back, and I remember traveling over The Bay Bridge just as a means to get to The Golden Gate Bridge. What a typical tourist I was.
This is the kind of thing that lead a small, determined group of people to initiate The Bay Lights Project, featured in Jeremy Ambers’ documentary, Impossible Light (2014). Their goal was to create a large, light-centric art piece using The Bay Bridge as a canvas. Initially conceived by Ben Davis (chair of an organization named Illuminate the Arts), the piece aimed to draw attention to the often-ignored bridge, and inspire others through such an enormous undertaking.
“Enormous” is the operative word here. Early on, Ambers lays out some interesting bits regarding The Bay Bridge. To some artists and engineers, it’s considered only to be second-class. Although it is bigger and longer than The Golden Gate (it’s actually five to seven bridges strung together), it’s initial purpose was purely economical. Meant to transport commuters from one end to the other, it never generated a sense of wonder from people. There are no kinds of artistic dressings, and the grey color allowed it to be camouflaged with the rest of the city. Ben Davis wanted to change this, and with his team, set out to place their art along a one and a half mile stretch of it.
The best decision they made was to hire Leo Villareal to create it. Villareal is an accomplished artist who uses light and color as his means of expression. Playing with shape, technology, and scale, Villareal fastens light bulbs to structures in intricate and beautiful ways. A large chunk of time is dedicated to showing off his pieces. Working mostly from a computer, he programs the way the lights will pulsate, move, and change, in an image that flows with the background it’s set against. Whether it is hallways or buildings, indoors or outdoors, Villareal uses space to literally spread light in various directions. What’s most intriguing is the purpose of his art. In one interview, he mentions that what he creates does not have a secret message, but is intended to generate a level of comfort within the viewer, allowing them to react in their own way. His approach was perfect for The Bay Lights Project. If any other artist was chosen, it may not have worked at all.
Once Villareal was on board, the film shifts into a procedural the rest of the way. Tackling such a big goal comes with a lot of big obstacles. Numerous issues sprouted up from the get go. How would it be funded? What was the strategy to get the lights on the scaffolding? What kind of permits would they need from the city? Would the weather be a problem? Heck, what design would Villareal make to begin with? The project was conceived in 2011 and continued well into 2013, with most of the time spent on the logistics. At this point, the film starts to operate on autopilot. We don’t get a deeper sense into who Ben Davis and Leo Villareal are as individuals. Yes, we see them work diligently and sacrifice a lot of time, effort, and money, but they never quite open themselves up. We learn a little bit about some of the other people involved, but not enough about the two figures who spearheaded the campaign.
This is a pleasant and enjoyable film. It covers a likeable story, with names and faces who seem friendly and welcoming. But we have a plot where the end is visible from the beginning. No doubt this was a very difficult task, with plenty of trials and tribulations (in one scene, we see Davis travel to Pixar Studios to help with fund-raising). Yet, The Bay Lights has been well documented and advertised (the trailer and posters for this film even highlight the completed piece). The tension over whether or not everything will work is not there, since we already know the resolution. I see how it can encourage others to create, but the focus is so heavily on the barriers – barriers we know will eventually fall away. As a document recording the step-by-step process, Impossible Light does its job, but nothing more than that.