Friday October 27, 2000
"When I first came into the tunnel, I was scared," the man says. "It was dark, even in the daytime. It looked dangerous." That day is now years in the past; the tunnel is now home. "You'd be surprised," the man says, "what the human body, the human mind can adjust to."
"Dark Days," Marc Singer's exceptional documentary on the people who live in train tunnels beneath Manhattan, won three awards at the Sundance Film Festival and may have deserved more. It's remarkable for where it takes us, how it takes us there, and the quiet way it changes our view of the world by giving a voice to people no one has much listened to before.
Producer-director Singer was so far from being a filmmaker when he started "Dark Days," he had to be shown how to load a camera. More an advocate for the homeless, he had as his aim not to win prizes but to somehow earn money to get these people above ground. He ended up not only living in the tunnels himself for extended periods of time, but he also used his subjects as his entire film crew. Rarely has the typical closing dedication to those "who put their hearts and souls into making this project against all the odds" meant as much as it does here.
This kind of personal involvement makes "Dark Days" all the more powerful for being nonjudgmental. Told from deep inside by people who trusted Singer enough to be open and candid, the film treats its subjects straight-on, without the kinds of patronizing or romanticizing that often mar generically well-meaning documentaries on the dispossessed.
Inspired in part by "Hoop Dreams," Singer ended up investing nearly six years, all told, in "Dark Days." And as happened with the landmark basketball documentary, the director discovered that spending that much time with a subject allows reality to come up with unexpected twists that fiction would have a hard time matching.
"Dark Days" begins in daylight, with a man walking down a flight of stairs. Then, like Alice, he continues his journey through a hole in the ground. While he doesn't end up in a wonderland, the destination is not a complete nightmare either.
In fact, it's one of the ironies of "Dark Days," and a bleak comment on the kind of society we've created, that the tunnel's residents almost uniformly feel far safer and more secure down there than anywhere up on the surface. "Ain't nobody in their right mind coming down here," a man named Greg says. "They're not going to mess with you."
The tunnel community turns out to be--and why should this surprise us?--a very human place, a kind of parallel universe where young and old, black and white, male and female try to survive and even get a little bit ahead. Though the percentage of crack addicts is considerable, many tunnel dwellers are eager, as Greg says, "to make that almighty dollar," even if it means collecting cans and bottles and selling things scavenged from the trash.
Ignoring as best they can the omnipresent rats and horrific noise of Amtrak trains hurtling past, tunnel residents plug into available electricity and use scavenged material to build and furnish wood-walled shacks so sturdy that when some say they don't consider themselves homeless, you know what they mean.
In addition to the talkative Greg, "Dark Days" introduces us to a tunnel cross-section including former crack addict Ralph, energetic and motivated dog fancier Tommy and a woman named Dee who unburdens herself of a life story that is heart-rending. None of them are archetypes, or even types, but rather people more like us than we really want to acknowledge.
Like regular citizens, many of the characters in "Dark Days" have a great desire to be busy, to be productive, to be doing something. And like homeowners everywhere, they are forever tinkering with their roofs, their walls, even their makeshift security systems. So when a crisis arises and armed Amtrak police give them 30 days to evacuate, it's an action that's both profoundly shocking all the way around and the catalyst for a powerful ending.
Despite filmmaker Singer's lack of previous experience, "Dark Days" is smartly shot on black-and-white film and makes excellent use of a moody, evocative soundtrack by DJ Shadow. Like a Dante back from the deepest circles of despair, Singer has personalized his friends and neighbors and made it as hard as it should be to look on homeless people as no more than a shapeless, formless mass.
Dark Days, 2000. Unrated. Wide Angle Pictures and Palm Pictures present a Picture Farm production in association with the Sundance Channel, released by Palm Pictures. Director Marc Singer. Producer Marc Singer. Executive producers Paolo Seganti, Randall Mesdon, Morton Swinsky, Gordon Paul. Cinematographer Marc Singer. Editor Melissa Neidich. Music DJ Shadow. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times