The perspective afforded by Dogwoof’s tenth anniversary rerelease of Marc Singer’s Dark Days (2000) reveals it to be a profound film about both a city and a medium in flux. A portrait of a homeless community living in a disused Amtrak tunnel beneath New York’s Penn Station, the doc was celebrated on its initial release for its unobtrusively compassionate portrait of the subterranean denizens as well as for Singer’s unwavering dedication to his material. The intervening decade – which has seen great changes to the city as well as to the indie filmmaking processes – actually enriches the pictures.
The background to the film itself is the stuff of indie legend. After moving from London, Singer befriended a group of homeless people who lived in the Freedom Tunnel. He decided to make a film about the residents, living with them and using them as crew for the film. The subjects helped Singer shoot, rig the lighting and prepare Steadicam dollies. It looks beautiful; the grain and lyricism are reminiscent of the time when the 16mm camera was the weapon of the American cinematic rebel. For Singer, it was equal parts artistry and activism, with the documentary intended as a way of getting proper housing for the subjects. The praise heaped on the film upon release is equally valid in 2014 – its power still undiminished.
Tunnel-dwellers have long been a subject of sociological fascination as well as a source of sketchy urban folklore, but the mythical visions of H.G. Wells’ Morlocks from The Time Machine or journalist Jennifer Toth’s controversial “mole people” are anathema to the straightforward, humanist concerns of Dark Days. Singer is at pains to stress that these are ordinary people who – due to drugs, poverty and/or violence – have fallen through the cracks of society and have literally gone underground. There’s also a sense of dry-eyed poignancy to Singer’s approach as well as a lightness of touch that belies the pervasive air of past trauma hanging over each resident.
Dark Days was made during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s much-vaunted clean-up of New York in the late nineties. With a heavy emphasis on increased law enforcement, the new Manhattan had no room for the shady eccentrics that had once defined its urban character. From the hipster junkies of St. Mark’s to the graffiti artists of the Bronx; the outlaws’ days were numbered. The tunnel-dwellers are a part of a complex sociopolitical history; they represent a failure of the city administration, and they move through the foundations on which the gilded sidewalks lay. A decade on, the film commemorates a forgotten New York, yet there’s also some relief in its passing.
Dark Days will be rereleased in cinemas on 24 January and a deluxe two-disc edition of the DVD will be released on 10 February. For more info, visit dogwoof.com.