Saturday, December 19, 2020


 This review originally written for in 2011.

Marc Singer's documentary about homeless people living in the subway tunnels under New York City, Dark Days, was released at the turn of the new century.

 There is no hard sell or high-concept pitch for this one. Singer opens the lid on an entire community living below the streets of the Big Apple. Some of the folks went underground in the 1970s and had yet to move their lives back up top when the film crew went down into the blackness. Living in a state of perpetual night, these tunnel dwellers learn to cope with their surroundings, building homes out of scrap and finding ways to get along. Some of them are on drugs, some are clean, and none of them could have predicted they would end up here. Dark Days follows a select handful, getting a sense of their day-to-day, digging a little into their past, and in general acting as a passive observer, giving the participants a clean platform to express themselves.


We see a variety of activity. One of the subjects takes care of several dogs, another hustles on the streets to find trash he can sell. Another man talks about how he eventually conquered his crack addiction, while Singer shows us another lighting up. There is also Dee, the only woman the film follows for any length of time. Her shack gets burned down due to some disagreement with another addict. We never really learn why, and Singer never asks. There seems to be no whys or wherefores in Dark Days, just as after a while there is really no above or below. There are only the tunnels and the pervasive darkness. Forget ceilings or sky or even time. Living in the subway is an all-encompassing isolation. As one of the men explains it, he thought his life down there would be temporary...and that was five years ago. Basic human concerns keep them going: feed yourself, clean yourself, keep warm. And though most claim to be on their own, they all end up finding some companionship. This is a neighborhood like any other, no matter how unconventional.


Singer's choice to shoot in black-and-white only emphasizes this otherness. The world contained in the frame is contained even further by the limited light that Singer brings into the picture. Color would only remind us that this is an incomplete existence, which would fail to effectively communicate the exile. Color would point toward a ceiling, whereas black-and-white ensures that the "regular" world is forgotten. There is only the drudgery of this purgatory. One day looks like any other.


Change comes unexpectedly, giving Dark Days a third act where prior there might have been none. Amtrak succumbs to pressure to clean up the tunnels, and this opens the way for advocacy groups to negotiate a safe return to regular life for the homeless being displaced. Hope emerges in the darkness thanks to a government voucher program that sets up the subway's inhabitants in new apartments. The anger at this forced eviction quickly turns to elation, and Singer captures the cathartic demolition of the underground shantytown. For some of these folks, wielding the sledgehammer to knock down their make-shift walls is the first time we see them fully happy. The prisoners are destroying their own prison.


Even so, I can't tell if the coda of Dark Days is intentionally precarious or if it's my own cynicism coming to bear. It's hard not to wonder how well any of the individuals we've met will function in their new lives. Singer shows them in their assigned apartments--cooking, decorating, dreaming of decorating more in the future--and it struck me that in some weird way, they have only traded one enclosed space for another. It's like how addicts pick up other addictions to replace the ones they are getting over--alcoholics turning to coffee, or smokers turning to junk food. Have they emerged into the sunlight only to close themselves off? Ironically, the community has disappeared, now they are even more on their own than they were prior.


Luckily these concerns are answered by some of the bonus features presented on video editions of Dark Days over the years. Bac at the 10th anniversary [when this review was first written], Mark Singer went back to visit the tunnels for a new twenty-minute documentary featurette called "The Tunnel Today." It's amazing how different it all looks years later. For one, we are seeing many of the locations in color; for two, the tunnels are now open and the sun can come in. Singer finds strange remnants of the lives that were once here: fading graffiti, indications of now missing huts and train tracks, spliced wires, scorch marks from when Dee's shack burned down.


Singer clearly has a melancholic nostalgia for his time spent in the tunnels, living with his subjects, immersed in their experience. This is more evident in the "Life After the Tunnel" featurette, a collection of stills from the movie with Singer narrating. The documentarian has kept in touch with most of the people in the movie and tracked their journeys. For the most part, the main people featured in Dark Days have gotten on well with their lives above ground. They got clean, got jobs, and rebuilt their existences, flying in the face of conventional cynicism and the misconception that people living on the streets don't want change or help. Granted, the move wasn't 100% successful, but nothing ever is. Even so, humanity is perhaps the most resilient natural resource we have.

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