Look Out Below
The subjects of Mark Singer's extraordinary documentary Dark Days were once the stuff of urban myth -- the homeless "mole people" said to inhabit dank railroad tunnels below the streets of Manhattan, eking out subsistence in the face of scurrying vermin, disease and drug addiction. As it turns out, they weren't fictional. These remarkably inventive folks weren't even homeless -- not in the strict sense of the word. What Singer reveals in his blunt and sympathetic film, which won audience acclaim and three awards at the Sundance Film Festival, is a community of tattered human beings not so unlike their more fortunate counterparts "up top." They were people who laid scraps of discarded rug down in their plywood shanties, cooked their favorite hobo recipes and showered in the icy drip of leaky water pipes. They discussed life, kept pets, played darts, even watched television using electricity filched from aboveground outlets. When Amtrak officials evicted nearly 100 of the squatters in 1995, some of them had been living underground for 25 years.
The natural magnetism of Singer's enterprise grows even more powerful by knowing the circumstances of the filming. A British expatriate whose family moved to Miami, the producer/director was a twenty-year-old ex-beach bum when he drifted to New York seven years ago in the hope of working as a model. But when he heard rumors about people in tunnels beneath the West Side Highway, between 72nd and 125th Streets, he was intrigued and went down to investigate. Singer had never held a movie camera in his hands or otherwise aspired to filmmaking, but before long he was living belowdecks with his subjects, hooked heart and soul on the idea of chronicling their invisible and forgotten lives. He borrowed a pair of 16-millimeter cameras, begged Kodak for black-and-white film stock and enlisted the tunnel people themselves as his crew. For two years they held lights, hauled cable and improvised camera dollies from shopping carts, committed in various degrees to the idea of telling their story to the world. For their efforts, the ever more obsessed Singer promised them shares in the project's future profits.
The result is not the most polished 84 minutes of film ever put in the can, but Dark Days is an engrossing glimpse of human will and survival instinct. Some of the principals here may be delusional crack addicts, manic-depressives or petty thieves, but the spark of life inside them, their wit and their wiles, never fail to enthrall us. "Once you get past your fear," a wary-eyed man named Tito tells us, "it's amazing what the human mind and the human body can adjust to." His compatriot Greg puts it another way: "After a while this fucker became...like...home."
For young Singer, too. Having gained the confidence of his new friends and collaborators, he was able to explore their lives in intimate detail: the tragedies buried in their pasts, their shopping trips to dumpsters on street level, the agony of unfulfilled craving and the minor ecstasy of finding, say, a bag of yesterday's doughnuts. When one of the subterraneans, talking in a disturbed stutter, tells us about his long-lost pet, Peaches the gerbil, there's no sentimentality in the tale, nor does Singer seek to romanticize it. When an obviously vulnerable 26-year-old relates how he ran away from his violent father's loveless household and ran aground on New York's mean streets, the cold ring of truth is unmistakable. From such seemingly insignificant stories does the great power of this modest film continue to grow. It's nicely edited by Melissa Neidich, and the blowup process to 35-millimeter gives it an even grittier, more haunted look. What's more, the score, a series of impulsive urban beats by electronic composer DJ Shadow, perfectly suits the fugitive tone of the images.
Half a dozen of the characters whom we come to know on a first-name basis are indelible, none more so than Dee, a wisecracking crackhead who reveals that her two children died in a fire long ago. Her eyes, which have clearly seen the world's battlefields, well up with tears, and she asks: "Why couldnt'a been me?" Why, indeed? Luck of the draw, we are left to suppose. There but for the grace of God...
For the filmmaker, too, survival was a dicey proposition. Despite the kindness of strangers, he went broke several times trying to keep Dark Days afloat and wound up selling all of his possessions to finance post-production costs. Invited to Sundance, he got on the airplane in New York with the one existing copy of the movie tucked under his arm, fresh from the editing room.
If happy endings count for anything in the midnight of a tunnel, we've got one here. When Amtrak served eviction papers on the squatters, one of them, called Julio, told the camera, "They gonna break up the whole family." But director Singer, in league with the city's Coalition for the Homeless, took action to help. In the film's final scenes, we find some of our new friends, including the heartbreaking Dee, aboveground again, provided with jobs and moving into apartments subsidized by public-housing vouchers. Those who doubt the efficacy of the welfare state need only see the looks on these faces to understand the meaning of dignity -- and the quality of mercy. Alas, this extraordinary documentary (which will now presumably put a few bucks into the pockets of its crew) is dedicated to Clarence, Lee and Jose, three tunnel people who never made it up from darkness to see a new day.
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