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[whitespace] 'Dark Days'
Tunnel Vision: 'Dark Days' sees life through the eyes of Manhattan tunnel dwellers.

Tunneling In

Marc Singer's first documentary, 'Dark Days,' makes for an underground film in every sense

By Jim Aquino

THE STORY OF THE MAKING of this year's Sundance Film Festival sensation Dark Days is so remarkable it deserves a documentary of its own. In 1994, English-born fashion model Marc Singer was so fascinated by the experiences of homeless friends who lived in the Amtrak tunnels beneath Manhattan that he abandoned the runway and devoted several years to filming a 16mm black-and-white documentary about them.

Singer moved in with these tunnel dwellers, who lived in tiny yet comfortable houses they built from discarded plywood and scrap metal, and he even allowed them to participate as members of his crew. They taught Singer how to use abandoned train tracks as camera dollies and how to tap into the city's electricity to power the filming lights, in what has to be the most intriguing low-budget-filmmaker-works-with-what-little-he-has story since those anecdotes about how Robert Rodriguez turned a wheelchair into a dolly and recorded dialogue with a chintzy Radio Shack tape machine when he filmed El Mariachi.

Dark Days is a startling first achievement for someone who never picked up a camera before and had to be taught how to use one from a photo store worker. There are shots in Dark Days that rank with the best black-and-white photojournalism pieces of the '30s and '40s. The film's haunting opening sequence, which follows a solitary peddler as he makes his way through the tunnel town's secret entrances and passageways to the minimalist beats of DJ Shadow's effective score, puts to shame most big-studio thriller directors' attempts to create atmosphere. Singer's attention to detail rightly deserved the Cinematography Award at Sundance; no detail of the tunnel dwellers' surroundings is overlooked, from the rats that forage through trash to the leaking water pipes used for taking showers.

Dark Days humanizes the homeless without romanticizing them or reducing them to foolish, cartoonish bums. The closest Dark Days gets to a cartoonish figure is Greg, an energetic peddler who supplies most of the film's twisted street humor. The most unexpected elements are the humor, upbeat attitudes and dignity Singer's subjects express in their interviews. The most interesting is Ralph, the town's Puerto Rican moral center. A former crackhead, Ralph paints a message on his doorway saying he doesn't allow junkies in his home, which doesn't stop him from taking in his crackhead neighbor Dee (the film's only female interviewee) after her home burns down, and the two temporary housemates amusingly bicker like an old married couple.

There are serious moments too. The scene in which Dee tells how her children died in a fire while she was too dazed from crack to rescue them--and then we see her suck on her crack pipe several times--is as devastating as the quick close-up of a singer's face as he shoots up in Topsy-Turvy.

But for all its attention to detail and compassionate yet unsentimental treatment of its subjects, Dark Days feels incomplete. The ending, in which Amtrak evicts the tunnel dwellers from their homes and they enthusiastically move into subsidized apartments, is too tidy. Singer omits a lot of information about the circumstances that brought them to the new housing. He doesn't even bother to include any titles explaining what happened to his subjects after they moved. You get this feeling that he's too hasty and impatient to reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

Dark Days (Not rated; 109 min.) a documentary by Marc Singer, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the November 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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