Dark Days

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Richard Gere playing a desperate derelict in Time Out Of Mind, and the excellent Heaven Knows What new to Blu-ray, we look back at other films about homelessness.

Dark Days (2000)

One of the most difficult aspects of making a documentary is the uncertain relationship between director and subject. Without a trusting connection, the people being filmed may feel disinclined to be forthcoming, rendering the exchange unhelpful at best and inaccurate or false at worst. So it’s not surprising to discover that, prior to making his first (and only) documentary, director Marc Singer had been living among New York City’s homeless population for months, and it wasn’t until a friend pointed out what rich story material surrounded them that he committed to acquiring a camera and capturing it on celluloid. It’s hard to imagine the raw footage and intimate accounts laid bare in this gripping slice of verité being revealed to anyone outside such a community’s circle.

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Dark Days literally goes underground, following a community of homeless people who have taken up residence in an Amtrak tunnel beneath the city. The film introduces a group of New Yorkers, of disparate demographics, who have managed to carve out a life (and home) for themselves in a place devoid of sunlight. We meet Ronnie, who calls his shopping cart his “station wagon.” There’s Tommy, a young man who makes money recycling cans and looks after his adorable dog, Ladybug, and her three pups. Dee is a woman who defends her crack use (also shown on-screen) while cracking wise with friends. Each of these people has a backstory, usually heartbreaking, and the film chronicles their struggles to make and maintain a life for themselves.

But the real brilliance of the film lies in how it lays bare the contradictions at the heart of the lives it depicts. Greg, an older gentleman who has spent years down in the tunnel, functions as a living avatar of these conflicting impulses. On the one hand, he’s extremely proud of his ingenuity, demonstrating the ways this community has managed to build homes down in the gloomy catacombs of an underground maze, acquiring electricity and cooking food. On the other hand—and in the same breath—Greg expresses anger at his situation, frustrated and sad about the hand he’s been dealt. It’s this complex emotional state, of taking pride in marshaling the very resources you feel rage and shame at having to endure, that lends the film its potency.

Equally important is Singer’s soundtrack: The filmmaker managed to convince reclusive artist DJ Shadow to compose the score, layering the film with pulsing, moody beats that provide the aural equivalent of his grainy, black-and-white images. Like Errol Morris or Albert and David Maysles, Singer lets his camera record slice-of-life vignettes that get at deeper truths about the subjects portrayed. A late-in-the-film struggle with Amtrak, in which the company’s security forces give the tunnel dwellers 30 days to vacate the premises, provides a narrative charge. (The film’s climax is also a surprising hat trick of right-place-right-time, a rare real-life happy ending.) But while Singer allows an Amtrak spokesman to make a fair case, and briefly lets an NYC housing project make an impassioned plea for providing shelter to this community, he keeps his camera fixed on the people he befriended. It’s their world he cares about, not ours.

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Availability: Dark Days is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix and possibly your local video store/library, and can also be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets. There’s also a special 10th-anniversary edition that includes bonus features like Singer returning to the tunnel a decade later, and includes updates on subjects from the film.