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City of Night 

Dark Days discovers the real tunnel dwellers beneath the urban myths

Wednesday, Nov 29 2000
You walk the streets of the big city every single day. You've seen both poor and rich neighborhoods, encountered people of all shapes and colors, and witnessed both atrocities and acts of kindness. You think you've seen it all, but you're wrong. Far beneath your feet, under the ground, there's a whole world you know nothing about: a world of darkness that, if you're lucky, you'll never have to see. Or will you? For someone from our world has just crossed over, into the depths ...

Could we be describing the latest Clive Barker novel? Or a second sequel to C.H.U.D. -- Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers? Not this time. The new film Dark Days is no fantasy. It's a real, startling documentary from a young Englishman named Marc Singer (no, not the Beastmaster star, though he'll undoubtedly helm something someday). Filmed in the abandoned railway tunnels beneath Penn Station and various other locations in New York City, Dark Days casts an unflinching, nonjudgmental eye upon the disenfranchised folks who have formed a strange community away from the light of day. Whether they should actually be referred to as "homeless" is debatable: They have constructed their own dwellings out of plywood and found objects, and they have an electricity supply siphoned from the railroad outlets (one of the residents tells the camera that they even had running water at some point). However, an older community member cautions against the complacency of viewing the place as a home, stressing that they may not be hopeless, but they are indeed homeless.

Perhaps most astonishing of all is the fact that director Singer actually moved into the tunnels by choice (motivated by curiosity), and only after two months down there -- on the suggestion of a fellow tunnel-dweller -- did it occur to him to document the experience on film. The denizens of the dark were more than happy to help, constructing dollies, holding lights, and generally performing all the essential crew functions, in the hope that the final product might help finance their paths to real lives. So much for the stereotype of lazy homeless people.

"You'd be surprised what the human mind and body can adjust to," says a surprisingly upbeat fellow named Greg, and the film bears him out: Even in tunnels that never see anything resembling day, a full-on community has formed, complete with domestic bickering, communal sharing, and the occasional violent feud. There are also some really large rats. About 80 percent of the tunnelers are crackheads who lost everything to their habit -- at least according to a young buzz-cut-sporting guy named Tommy, who seems to be the exception, decrying the hold drugs have on other people while puffing away on his ever-present cigarette.

In due time, the inevitable questions about toilet facilities and bathing are addressed, and neither answer is particularly pleasant. It may beat living on the streets ("It can't be as bad as it is up top," says Greg, citing the people who harass him on the streets above. "Ain't nobody in their right mind gonna come down here"), but not by much. And many do work toward a better life: They may not have jobs, but one can eke out a living on recyclable goods and scavenging -- many perfectly good items are thrown away every day, and these can easily be resold to the right person (gay porn is the top seller).

It's hard to imagine that the folks who run the railroads are unaware of the situation, and in due course they show up to intervene. Armed guards from Amtrak enter the tunnels to enforce an evacuation, in a scene Singer's camera was not permitted to witness. What we do get to see is the aftermath, as the tunnel residents gleefully demolish their shacks with sledgehammers. Clearly they're not that attached to the place.

The ending, for most, is a happy one -- surprisingly so. Given the large number of documentaries that set out to outrage us into action, it's something of a relief to see one in which the necessary action has already been taken. There is a light at the end of this relentlessly dark tunnel, and it isn't a freight train.

Singer may not have intended to become a filmmaker, but his instincts are solid, and his film is better looking than many "professional" documentaries with actual budgets. The black-and-white cinematography feels like an appropriate artistic choice, even though it was undoubtedly one of economic necessity. The film's sound is also worthy of note: a combination of the endless background rumbling of distant trains and the sparse, spooky beats of DJ Shadow. Never preachy and always compelling, Dark Days is well worth 84 minutes of your time.

About The Author

Luke Y. Thompson


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