JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Julio is introduced.

Greg is disappointed by an empty dumpster above ground.

An angry boyfriend burns down Dee’s tunnel house.

Dee talking about her crack habbit.

Dee and Ralph set up housekeeping.

Tommy’s friend, Brian, comes to visit.

Brian showers in a cold “shower”—a crack in a water pipe.

Julio breaks down his house, preparing to move into an above-ground apartment.

Ralph’s apartment building.

Ralph pours himself some cereal in his own kitchen.

Greg fries chicken in his apartment.

Dee lies back in her freshly made bed.

Ralph looks out on his sun-lit view.

Everyone seems happy to leave the underground squalor behind.

Greg signs an apartment contract.

Tito, Ralph, and Ronnie talk about filming Dark Days.

Dee cuts Ralph’s hair.

Tommy and Brian smile for the camera.

It’s so dark below ground, that Singer and his “crew” set up many lights.

The AMTRAK official explains why the homeless must leave their tunnel homes.

"In response to external pressures, armed Amtrak police are ordered into the tunnel to tell the residents that they have 30 days to pack up and evacuate or face a forcable eviction. Filming was prohibited": a title card to replace footage impossible to film.

Homeless advocates that ensure the homeless portrayed here move into apartments above ground.

Mike Harris is a sympathetic advocate for the homeless.

A reminder of the shanties left behind.

Providing the fascination of the "how do they do that" type of documentary, Singer both shows us what these homeless literally do to survive in the second phase of his film, which climaxes with a view of how they cope with a transition from their underground community to a life above ground. The lives the subjects live in the underground and their means of sustaining are traced by Singer in detail in this phase of his narrative. Here we see each subject leaving home and reentering the city streets to earn a living. Tommy collects plastic, proud that he collects enough from selling bottles to take the weekend off. And Greg sells anything he doesn’t keep himself, bragging that he had once sold “40 faggot books” and movies. But they all return to their self-built homes for comfort. As Henry cooks country corn bread made with buttermilk (because it makes it go together better) on a hot plate, he clarifies their world:

“Being homeless you can like consider growin’ down here. ‘Cause if you homeless on the street, you got only [what’s] on [your] back. If they got caught in the rain, they ain’t got shit. If you’re homeless, better to be down here in a shanty than up top, where [you] only have what [you] can carry.”

The world these subjects have created has become so civilized that they can own and nurture others, including pets. Tommy talks about his dogs and the pen he has built for them. Julio (with Lee) shows pictures of all of his pets—cats, birds and a hamster—and tells a story about each one. Ralph plays with his dog in the house and then puts it outside “’cause [it’s] too rough.” Above ground we see life and light only at a distance with sounds of sirens in the emptiness. The sirens serve as a bridge to the first major conflict below—Dee’s house fire, which firefighters attempt to extinguish. But even though Dee is burned out, she does not end up homeless. Instead, she moves in with Ralph, and the two become a family. Dee cooks meatballs on a two-burner hot plate in the well-stocked home Ralph has constructed and explains, “If you know how to cook, cook right.”

Ralph and Dee form a relationship so close that Ralph tries to intervene in Dee’s crack habit and the two scrap about a cup Dee left out so long that Ralph threw it away. The cup incident, however, brings up another source of conflict in the underground world—rats. All of the subjects have stories about rats, from Greg suggesting they “are intelligent enough to tell others to come back,” to Henry stating that the rats “walk at night. I try to sleep at night.” The story underground, then, includes conflict with nature. Subjects must contend with rats and must fight to maintain a civilized life in the underground where the city hides not only the source of its progress, but also the real consumer products—human and animal waste.

Hygiene and waste seem to center this final scene before the film’s climax. Tommy’s friend Brian showers in the cold water leaking out of a dirty pipe. Tommy shovels dog waste out of the kennel, and Brian pours a human waste bucket down a sewage crack. “Welcome back to the shit,” Tommy says. The last scenes tracing subjects’ lives below ground intertwine images of and discussions about food and rats and shit disposal, including even a match-action cut from people eating doughnuts scavenged from the garbage above ground and wishing for milk to rats drinking milk underground from an overturned carton. Dee’s story about losing her children and how she liked “the responsibility of being a mother,” another veiled reference to milk, ends this scene, with shots of Dee ending her story preparing a crack pipe. Such narration and imagery foreshadow the end of the underground narrative.

The climax of this narrative occurs when Amtrak intervenes and breaks up the family-like relations and domestic world that the film's subjects have built for themselves below ground. Such a climax also parallels the kinds of the transitional coping strategies documented in films like Born into Brothels (2004). The order to dismantle the shanties and leave the tunnels within thirty days destroys the civilization the film's subjects have constructed. As Julio puts it, “You guys are coming down here to fuck me up,” at the point of a gun. They all fear the alternative homeless life above ground. Ralph proclaims that “I don’t want to go to the shelter—steal all I have. Drugs. They should leave us down here until they get housing.” Julio focuses on Amtrak “breaking up the family” and argues that they should “leave us alone.” According to the subjects, “This has been our home. For some twenty years.”

This major conflict seems like it cannot be resolved. Amtrak officials like Rich provides ample evidence that the life below is dangerous because of respiratory illnesses, vermin, trains, and exposure. But the film's narrative structure works here, too. A homeless advocate, Mike Harris, provides the story’s resolution. He works with Amtrak officials and promises that no one will be left in the tunnel if all the homeless get housing above ground. Amtrak agrees, and the underground pioneers are elated. Tito starts knocking down his shanty and yells, “We’re out of here!” Dee, Tommy, Brian, Ralph and Greg all jubilantly destroy their underground homes. Greg signs a contract, proving that he is actually homeless, in order to acquire an apartment, and the music rises to a crescendo as the walls come down.

The film ends as it concludes the underground narratives. But the ending also demonstrates that each subject’s story has only just begun, with a clear transition from one life to another. The film subjects' own narratives traced how they evolved from helpless homelessness to pioneering shanty lives below ground, but now the people have entered homes above. The last shots of Ralph, Greg, Dee and Tommy show each living isolated in apartment homes with windows overlooking sun-lit trees filled with birds. Greg cleans windows and fries chicken. Dee puts clothes away in dresser drawers and makes up her bed. Ralph pours out cereal and looks out the window, saying he feels like a baby. Tommy plans his living room decor—sectionals and an entertainment center with a 25-inch TV, a VCR, and cable hook up.

The brief speech each gives demonstrates they have left both the street and the underground for good. Greg highlights the film’s title when he claims he’s left the dark days behind. And Ralph argues,

“It will never happen again… Never. I will never go homeless again. It was like I was asleep…I’m stayin’ awake.”

Dee’s only comment is to yell “Whoopee!” as she falls on her clean sheeted bed and proclaim, “It feels good.”  The dark days do seem to have ended by the film’s end. Subjects have moved from the streets to underground adapted to meet their needs up to the isolated but clean apartments above ground. But, as Tommy suggests, the move from pioneer in a dark wild underworld comes at a price: “I’ve got some good memories here, too,” he says. “I’m going to miss the freedom.”

Currently, writers, filmmakers, and other elements of pop culture seem to be constructing the inner city landscape in terms of seeing the inner city as a wilderness that must either be tamed or escaped. Its inhabitants seem like savages—dehumanized (and inferior) natives from whom “white suburbanites” must separate. If we expand the boundaries of this view of wilderness to include the inner city, the subjects in Singer’s Dark Days might be viewed as superior humans choosing to separate from the demonized city and its dwellers above ground by entering the more civilized tunnels below. This construction seems effective because each subject—Greg, Ralph, Tommy, and Dee, especially—embraces middle-class values like cleanliness and a strong work ethic that seem to be emblematic of the suburban lifestyle. Ronnie, another tunnel dweller, even calls his shopping cart a minivan, the soccer mom vehicle of the 1990s. And the “city” above ground each subject endured has savage tendencies. Living above ground means suffering the challenges of a savage environment inhabited by savages, who can’t treat Tommy like a human person and who steal Greg’s and Ralph’s possessions, even in what is ironically called a shelter. As in this classical view of the wilderness, the wild city holds the resources humans must exploit in order to survive. So each subject goes above ground every day in search of food and items to sell, just as 18th and 19th century fur-trappers killed wild prey both for food and hides to sell.   

A more romantic view of the wilderness might also be applied to the film, however, if the underground instead of the city above it is constructed as a wilderness. From this perspective, the subjects in Dark Days act like pioneers who leave civilization behind in order to live a freer and, perhaps, more natural life below ground. The city they leave seems, as Andrew Ross puts it, “sick, monstrous, blighted, ecocidal, life-denying, [and] parasitical” (16). Like Huck, who runs from “civilizin’” forces that encourage monstrous practices like slavery and squelch attempts to live a free life outside the status quo, each subject escapes his or her own monstrous conditions when leaving the city to build homes where they can live unique, individual, free and, thus, more natural lives. Such romantic views of the wilderness seem distinctly American, especially in terms of the ideology embedded in such views—freedom, individuality, and hearty self-reliance.

Dark Days challenges views of the homeless as savages and of their underworld homes as a form of hell. Living in and adapting the wilderness to meet their needs in some ways means that this wilderness is a necessary. Without a wilderness to tame, a community cannot be built. Although crack addictions and domestic crises had isolated them above ground and drove them to the street, in the underground tunnels, subjects form strong relationships that transcend race and gender. Ralph, for example, is never alone when he tells his story and illuminates his underworld life. Ralph’s introduction shows him with his dog beside him and his friend Tito explaining, “He’s always workin’ on the house.” Tito is there when Ralph narrates his homeless story, as well, and laughs as he rough houses with his dog. Tito returns to Ralph later in the film after going through rehab, to exalt the eggplant parmesan Ralph too had enjoyed. Tito and Ralph share doughnuts and camaraderie above and below ground. Knowing from Singer’s commentary that Ralph was Marc Singer’s main assistant on the film cements Ralph’s rehabilitation.

Race and gender don’t seem to hinder friendships formed below ground, since Ralph is a light-skinned Hispanic male and Tito a bi-racial, mostly African American, young man. And Ralph forms another close relationship with Dee, a dark African American female, when her house burns down. Dee shares Ralph’s home until Amtrak evicts them, sharing the cooking and helping Ralph out with his hygiene. In one scene Dee shaves Ralph’s head with an electric razor, laughing when she shows a clump of hair left at the nape of the neck. Ralph takes the joke, but the scrapping between them here (as earlier over the mermaid cup) demonstrates the closeness of their relationship.

Ralph’s close relationships below ground seem to have helped him both kick his crack addiction and gain some insight into his failed relationships above ground. The next shot of Ralph after the laughter over the funny haircut shows him reflecting on the break-up of his family: “I’m bein’ punished for every goddamn thing I did wrong. Sometimes I felt like crying. I was so damn selfish,” he says before talking about his five-year-old daughter being raped and burned. Dee, too, seems to have learned the value of close relationships, saying she “miss[es] all those things,” when talking about the loss of her own family. Even when dismantling their shanties after Amtrak and the Homeless Coalition find them apartments, Ralph has his friends beside him. Dee and Tito hammer away on the shanty walls with Ralph looking on and then helping out, maintaining these close relationships until the end of their underground lives.

The film highlights close familial relationships not only for Ralph, Dee, and Tito, but also for other characters in the film—anyone who narrates a personal story seems to become a central character. Tommy is introduced waking up with a woman lying beside him. He is shown caring for a mother dog and her puppies. And he reunites with a close friend, Brian, early on in the film. Brian shares as close a relationship with Tommy as Dee and Tito do with Ralph. When Brian moves in with Tommy, he shares chores as repugnant as dumping the waste bucket. And when the order from Amtrak is coupled with a promise of above ground housing, Brian helps Tommy pack up their belongings and dismantle their shanty. Tommy tells Brian, “Don’t mix dirty clothes in with clean ones,” as they stuff clothing into garbage bags. Only one main character, Greg, seems isolated below ground, shot mostly alone while shaving or collecting compact disks to sell. But even he talks about selling books and movies with a friend. Singer does show other subjects surviving in the elements—sometimes alone, like the older light Hispanic, Jose—but, they remain peripheral to the film’s narrative, as “extras” rather than central characters.    

Viewing the underground as a romantic wilderness seems to allow individuals to form relationships naturally, without cultural barriers based on race, gender, and, of course, class. Domestic virtue is valorized. The domestic harmony and relative comfort subjects have created in their underground shanties seems clear, since Singer focuses on relationships with pets and other subjects and on domestic symbols like food and hygiene.

Amtrak’s eviction order, though, is the first written document shown in the film, and the order is reinforced at gunpoint, according to Julio’s recapping of events. Before the Coalition for the Homeless intervenes, Amtrak felt justified in evicting the homeless from the subway tunnels because they viewed them as if they were in a savage wilderness, dangerous and life-threatening. And just as in Ellen Baxter’s study of homeless adults in New York, the homeless they evict have become so dehumanized that they see no need to offer them alternative housing—until Mike Harris advocates for them.

Any previous opposition between the relationship-bound domesticated wilderness below ground and the city above, where subjects now live isolated lives in one bedroom apartments, also breaks down under scrutiny. The film shows Ralph, Greg, Dee and Tommy preparing for their lives as individuals in their new apartment homes and highlights their joyful reconnection with the status quo. But subjects’ new lives are only introduced at the film’s conclusion, so Dark Days fails to reveal the extent of progress that each subject enjoys once they escape the unsanitary conditions below.

Since the film is shot in black and white, we can’t see the extent of the squalor and filth subjects must combat under ground, even in scenes foregrounding conflicts with rats and precautions each must make to keep home, self, and food clean. Singer’s use of black and white high contrast film stock in some ways enhances the location shots, giving images a “documentary news footage” quality. Singer shot under extreme low light conditions, in underground settings. As a first-time filmmaker, he shot in 16 millimeter with a small budget. So even though we see human and animal waste in buckets and on the ground, we can’t smell the stench that would surely permeate their world with no sewage system in a closed tunnel. Black and white film footage sets and maintains a mood and captures a documentary aesthetic, but it in some ways disguises the horrific conditions in which the homeless lived.

Dark Days seems to combine the romantic views of Flaherty, and Cooper and Schoedsack, all harking back to a more communal and, perhaps, more natural state, which Dark Days implies that the homeless create for themselves in their underground haven. As with Flaherty, the film also critiques the negative impact contemporary “civilization” has on these pioneers below ground. Yet the film ends with a vision of progress like that recorded in Born into Brothels. As in Briski’s Indian documentary, the "outsider" view is shown as dominant and superior to that of the “natives.” In Briski’s case, the "natives" are Calcutta children and their prostitute mothers, in Singer’s, the homeless. 

Such an "outsider" view also matches the perspectives of what Andrew Ross calls mainstream environmentalism (15), an environmentalism concerned with traditional definitions of “wilderness, water-quality control, land-use planning and control, [and] outdoor recreation” (Ross 15). Because mainstream environmentalists view the city as a monstrous savage (Ross 16), the contrasting idea of an environmentalism grounded in the city—an urban ecocriticism—seems like, as Ross puts it, “an oxymoron” (16). For Ross, urban ecocriticism would embrace “environmental priorities that affect urban residents, like sanitation, rat and pest control, noise pollution, hunger, malnutrition, poor health, premature death, not to mention the conditions that underpin these hazards, like the slashing of public services and the savage inequities of public housing policies” (15).

By Ross’s definition, Dark Days could be seen as an urban environmental ethnographic film, in which at least some urban environmental priorities are combated, for at least a select group of homeless people. Even the Amtrak official recognizes the priorities Ross outlines, since he notes them as reasons for evicting the homeless from the subway tunnels. Amtrak easily gives into pressure from the Coalition for the Homeless, as well—perhaps as a public relations ploy but definitely to the advantage of the homeless subjects Singer’s film highlights. As in Born into Brothels, however, the solution still seems to be provided by benevolent outsiders, who know better. The homes these “pioneer” homeless built and the community they represent seem to be dismissed by even representatives of the Coalition for the Homeless.

But Dark Days goes beyond the simplistic message of Born into Brothels, where Briski seems to beg for a pat on the back for all of the help she and her program have provided to the helpless Calcutta children and their mothers. Dark Days does not suggest that the only solutions to such urban problems are institutional—gained through public organizations’ interventions. Instead, the film (and Singer, its creator) foregrounds how well the homeless subjects adapt their environment and themselves not only to survive but prosper in their (perhaps) savage underground world. Individuated through their stories and their uniquely furnished homes, especially Ralph (with friends Tito and Dee) and Tommy (with friend Brian) prove the resilience of humankind and suggest that the best way to solve environmental problems, both rural and urban, is to construct narratives that intertwine humans with each other and with their environments. And Dark Days also proves, once again, that the best ethnographic films are those constructed mutually by both filmmakers and their subjects.      

Continued: Works cited


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