Dark Days is so engrossing it’s easy to forget you’re watching a movie. It’s a film whose subject matter is so much larger, so much more interesting than sitting in a theater (or on your couch), that it’s practically impossible not to get caught up.
Dark Days opens on a man crawling down through a pile of rubble with a flashlight. He enters a crawlspace of a tunnel. The tunnel opens up and train tracks appear. He follows the tracks to his “home,” a wooden structure built from scraps. It has walls, a ceiling, a door, electricity, even a TV.
This man is not an actor on a set but one of the subjects of Marc Singer’s documentary. He was one of hundreds of people living in an Amtrak tunnel at the time this movie was shot.
- "Making of" documentary
- Deleted scenes
- Follow-up on the lives of the subjects
He says he came down here because up above, kids and cops are always messing with him. Down here, there are no hassles. Another man came down because he says if you’re homeless up above, you don’t have anything. Down here, you have electricity, walls, a little privacy, and temperature regulation.
Before coming to live in the tunnel, many of these people were drug addicts. One of the interviewees says that about 80% of the people who live in the tunnel are crackheads. A woman named Dee still smokes crack and we even see her lighting up several times — a disturbing image in any movie, but more so in a documentary, with the camera only a few feet away from the subject.
One subject in particular seems to have captured Singer’s eye. Ralph was addicted to crack, but miraculously, he kicked the habit. His life is still too much of a mess to be anything other than homeless, but he has no complaints about living in the tunnel. He seems to take it all as part of the flow of life. He tells stories matter-of-factly that ought to be shocking — tales of drug use and violence, stories of lives wasted.
The people in the tunnel are not completely removed from society. Some are entrepreneurs. Two of the men make a living, such as it is, by rummaging through the garbage of Manhattan, collecting the perfectly good refuse of an opulent civilization, and selling it back to its own citizens. Another dweller works all week collecting cans and bottles. He works extra hard on Fridays so he can have a little spending money for the weekend. He earns about $70 recycling New York’s trash.
There is some crime, but it’s not total anarchy. Boundaries are almost always respected, and there is a sense of uneasy camaraderie among these people. When Dee’s house gets burned down Ralph takes her in, despite her crack addiction.
People even argue about cleanliness. Dee drinks out of a cup that belongs to Ralph, who gets angry because she didn’t wash it when she was done with it. Then again, uncleanliness just invites the rats. There are tons of rats, and nothing gets rid of them. All you can do is hope to keep them at bay.
Photography and Editing
Singer is a very good black and white photographer. In one scene, lit from below, a man is cooking his dinner, stirring his food in a pot. The camera is close on the man’s face, but the shadow of his hands cooking is projected up on a wall, in the frame of the picture. It’s a beautiful shot that shows two layers of detail without resorting to camera tricks. Whether or not Singer was consciously going for the effect, he shows his instincts as a photographer.
Singer and editor Melissa Neidich found a way to put some structure and texture to the movie even though the subject matter didn’t lend itself to texture. The editing is even more impressive when you watch the documentary on the making of Dark Days, because you find out that Singer and Neidich spent fifteen months cutting 50 hours of footage down to 90 minutes.
The DVD is outstanding. Not only are the picture and sound good, but the extras are phenomenal. The disc includes a 45-minute documentary on the making of Dark Days, which is as interesting as the movie itself.
Singer was fascinated when he learned that people were living in a tunnel under New York City. He thought that story was just an urban myth. Curiosity drove him into the tunnel to meet its residents. Singer made some new friends and they decided to make a documentary about life in the tunnel.
Marc Singer had never picked up a camera before he started shooting Dark Days. He learned how to load a camera and shoot film by doing it every day. His friends in the tunnel became his crew, even building him a dolly for his camera.
Other extra features tell what happened to some of the subjects after the movie was finished. There were a surprising number of happy endings, including Singer’s — the film won three awards at the Sundance Film Festival.
Dark Days is a fascinating movie on an outstanding DVD. If you don’t buy it, make sure you rent it for more than one night because the extras are worth a look.