Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. As part of Y2k Week here at The A.V. Club, we’ll be listing the 25 best films of the year 2000. These are some of our favorites that didn’t make the countdown.
The opening scene of Marc Singer’s documentary Dark Days (2000) is not for the claustrophobic. Opening with an exterior shot of New York City’s Penn Station, Singer’s hand-held 16mm camera follows a man in work boots and a canvas jacket through the station and down to an Amtrak platform hundreds of feet below the busy sidewalks of the city. The man pulls out a flashlight, and lowers himself feet first through a tiny hole in the floor of a subterranean room strewn with trash. The hole is barely big enough to fit both him and his backpack, but the man shows no signs of hesitation or fear. After all, he’s done this every single day for years.
“When I first came down to the tunnel, it looked real dangerous, because even the daytime was dark,” he says, the camera keeping pace as he walks past lean-to after lean-to made of particle board, scavenged furniture, and scraps of metal. “You’d be surprised what the human mind and the human body can adjust to,” he adds. A train rumbles by overhead. The existence of people living in the subway tunnels underneath New York City was once considered an urban legend by some, but Dark Days, which was filmed for two-and-a-half years in the mid-’90s but wasn’t released until 2000, proved definitively that not only did these people exist, but that they had managed to create lives and communities out what the rest of the city left behind.
Dark Days spends its short, 82-minute running time getting to know about half a dozen people experiencing homelessness in the tunnels, a fraction of the overall population. Many (but not all) of them are drug users, and most have experienced personal tragedies that put them on a path that eventually led them to the tunnels. All of them survive on sheer toughness and ingenuity. But Dark Days isn’t a documentary designed to make you feel sorry for its subjects, or to gawk at their unconventional living situations. Instead, Singer lets his subjects tell him about their lives on their own terms, for an extraordinarily honest look at the challenges and camaraderie of trying to live without a permanent home.
Under Singer’s camera, daily life in the tunnels seems pretty normal, all things considered. Hidden away from the rest of the world, people build their own homes, which they paint and decorate. They have (re-routed) electricity, they have beds, they have TVs and pets and hot plates to cook on. (“Miss Peaches was all right, man,” one resident says, remembering a favorite gerbil.) Friends come over and visit. They used to have running water, but not anymore. They all agree it’s better than being up above, where you never know what’s going to happen from moment to moment.
Part of the reason behind Dark Days’ nonjudgemental approach to its subjects comes down to the participation of tunnel residents in the filming of the documentary. Residents hooked up lights, built dolly tracks, held boom mics, and served as the crew for what was otherwise a one-man filmmaking operation. 20 years later, Dark Days remains Singer’s one and only outing as a director: A 21-year-old British model, of all things, who became fascinated with the culture of homelessness in NYC, he had never picked up a camera before he decided to document the people he befriended exploring the tunnels underneath Penn Station. A friend suggested filming in grainy black-and-white 16mm to hide his inexperience, and an aesthetic was born.
Today, the most dated thing about Dark Days—but not unpleasantly so—is its soundtrack by DJ Shadow, a combination of original music and tracks from his albums Endtroducing... and Psyence Fiction. Turntablism has since fallen out of style, but the film’s portrait of human resilience in the face of intense odds is sadly more relevant than ever. The tunnels have since been cleared out—in fact, Singer helped secure housing for the subjects of his documentary, and slept on some of their floors while he was editing the movie. But the housing crisis in America, and the disparities between rich and poor, are both more extreme than ever before. On the verge of an eviction crisis, the value of a documentary that shows that human dignity and worth aren’t tied to someone’s housing status should be obvious.