USA 2000 : Marc Singer : 94 mins (documentary)
Dark Days is a zero-budget documentary about homeless people living in New York. Or rather, house-less people living under New York: as one of them points out, they do have homes, even if they’re nothing more than DIY shacks, hidden away in the recesses of the labyrinthine subway system. This is a dangerous, rat-infested netherworld, but it isn’t entirely squalid: they have access to electricity, and the shacks allow the ‘residents’ a degree of privacy, warmth and security. There’s also a distinct sense of community: these people have chosen to live down below, rather than take their chances on the streets up above, and their shared privations give them a sense of common identity and purpose, though this doesn’t mean they get on all the time.
Singer was a former resident of the tunnels, and it shows: his closeness to his subjects, both literal and emotional, is apparent in every scene. They’re as comfortable with Singer and his camera as he is with them, and this allows him an access to material which most ‘professional’ documentarists – i.e. outsiders – would struggle to match. And Singer is clearly a gifted film-maker, though this isn’t necessarily to Dark Days‘ advantage. Despite its zero budget, it looks amazing, full of atmospheric black-and-white shots of the tunnels, the trains, the streets and the people.
But occasionally these images are too atmospheric, too striking – it’s as if the aesthetic power of the image is more important than its actual meaning.Even the rats look good. On-screen titles are written in the form of the graffiti ‘tags’ that cover the subway walls and trains, and the low-key soundtrack from DJ Shadow only adds to the ‘too cool for skool’ vibe. This film could easily play on an MTV loop, and that isn’t a compliment.This kind of no-nonsense urban anti-glamour has perhaps become too familiar from glossy magazines seeking the ‘reality’ of the streets, but there are distinct overtones of Bruce Weber when we see athletic young Brian taking an impromptu subterranean shower.
On occasion it’s hard not to think of the homeless-chic ‘Derelicte’ collection from Ben Stiller’s Zoolander, especially when Brian’s pal Tommy – the youngest, most articulate and charismatic of the tunnel-dwellers – is on view: you can imagine the manufacturers of urban fashion and skategear queuing up for his signature. And Tommy is such a sharp-brained entrepreneur, he’d certainly negotiate the best possible contract for himself. At the end of Dark Days, his life – and those of the other ‘characters’ – takes an unexpected turn when, due to unspecified ‘external pressure’, subway company Amtrak is shamed into transferring the tunnel-dwellers into the relative comforts of sheltered accommodation.
This is presented as a victory, the result of negotiations between Amtrak and a homeless-persons’ organisation. Tommy seems happy with the situation – we see him and the other residents gleefully tearing down their shacks and, later, settling into their new environments. But having established the positive side of tunnel life, we’re rather too abruptly expected to wave it goodbye and cheer as the residents demolish their once-beloved homes.
Singer can’t be blamed, of course, for wanting to end Dark Days on an optimistic note – there’s been sufficient harrowing material along the way, and these are, of course, his friends as much as they are his ‘subjects’. But in the final credits he includes three memoriams to subway-dwellers who didn’t make it, reminding us that the reality of zero-budget life seldom has such happy conclusions.
17th December, 2001
(seen Dec-11-01, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)
by Neil Young
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