The film focuses on how the homeless "domesticate" an underground world in an ultimately romantic narrative about environmental adaptation.
The opening sequence shows us the setting above ground and the slow climb below.
Here some characters, Amtrak officials, and the underground setting, Amtrak tunnels, are introduced.
One of the first shots below ground.
The continuing climb down below ground.
The entrance to the Amtrak tunnels.
Greg’s descent into the tunnel.
Greg continues his journey “home.”
One of the “homes” tracked by the camera after Greg’s entrance.
Another tunnel home.
A home complete with provisions.
Another home in a line of shanties below ground.
A homeless man safe in the tunnel.
Our introduction to Tommy, one of the film’s protagonists.
Tommy getting up for a day in the streets.
Our introduction to Tito.
Our introduction to Ralph, who becomes Singer's [the filmmaker's] assistant.
Greg talks about life below ground.
Ralph discusses how he ended up on the streets.
Ralph’s pet dog sniffs at the door.
Tito watches Ralph brush his teeth.
In modern mythology, the underground has served as the site of technological progress where excavation produces not only the means of production—coal and oil, for example—but also the foundation for the urban infrastructure—sewage and water systems, railways, gas, and lines for electricity, telegraphs and telephones. What, then, happens when humans not only enter this technologically-driven underworld, but also domesticate and humanize it as a space to escape from the savage city above them? Historically such adaptive living practices have gone on for a long time in New York City; according to Margaret Morton, finding living spaces underground began there with the arrival of the Hudson River Railroad in the mid-1850s (The Tunnel ix) (see also, Fragile Dwellings). In a black and white documentary film set in a contemporary mode, Marc Singer’s Dark Days (2000) records the lives of several “homeless” people living in subway tunnels underneath New York City. As this documentary enters the "domesticated" underground, where those who have very little struggle to make a home, it traces the inhabitants' lives using what we call a narrative of adaptation.
As Henry (one of the older homeless people in the film) puts it, the homeless people in the tunnels have built themselves shanties there to “stop you from being helpless, not from being homeless.” We see little houses that have become homes with domestic comforts like electric lights, hot plates, and coffee pots. Like Flaherty’s subjects in films like Nanook of the North, Singer’s homeless have adapted the environment to meet their needs. But also like Flaherty, Singer shapes his subject romantically: He further transforms his subjects’ context both by physically altering it and by manipulating his subjects’ stories into a traditional narrative.
We argue that Singer’s ethnographic portrayal of eight of the homeless people living beneath the city complicates images of the underground either as hell or as technological foundation. In her interview with Marc Singer at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, Amy Goodman argues that Singer’s Dark Days “is unique among documentaries because while it is not an advocacy film with an overwhelmingly sagging political agenda, the subjects’ stories and their sensitive treatment by Singer are testament to more creative, gentler solutions to the problem of homelessness.” Goodman sees the underground Singer enters as “possibly America’s most damnable version of hell” and finds Singer’s decision to live with the homeless in their underground homes as an “abandon[ment of] comparatively opulent lives on earth.” For more than two years, Singer lived in the New York subway tunnels with the homeless, and eventually intervened as an ethnographer seeking to document their stories.
Singer’s own story about the making of Dark Days demonstrates that Singer acted as more than an objective observer. He not only enters the world of the homeless; he alters it by including the homeless in the filmmaking process. Singer argues that involving the homeless in the process helped them in at least two ways: It gave them a way to earn their way out of their homeless state, and it provided each with employment that helped prepare them for the world above ground—a world Singer suggests thrives more on community than on the alienation caused by the homeless state. To facilitate this new way of thinking, Singer not only helped build community by providing a common cause among the homeless. He also manipulated film footage to create a narrative of community below ground.
Dark Days illuminates urban underground adaptation as it is fed by stolen technology: Electricity and (at least for a time) running water from above ground is accessed cost-free by the homeless living in the tunnels built for the New York subway system. However, documentary realism or facticity is complicated as Singer’s Dark Days seems to portray a realistic representation of homeless New Yorkers living in shanties built under the city—in an underworld created by the subway tunnel system. Here, Singer controls not only the perspective and point of view of his camera, but also the world above ground, which the homeless enter to “earn” a living and then return to their underworld homes. The city streets Singer shows are nearly devoid of human activity, even during the daylight hours when several of the homeless forage for cans, bottles, compact discs, books, and discarded television sets to sell for an income. Singer seems to have constructed this above-ground city as a “wilderness” the homeless must escape because they cannot tame it. And they only reenter this “wild” urban world to acquire subsistence. Below ground, however, domestic life flourishes in a world the homeless, according to Singer’s perspective, have adapted to serve their needs. Singer, too, then, takes a “hands on” approach to filming Dark Days because he represents the city as virtually devoid of the human (and natural) life that thrives (or shall we say, prospers) below.
Singer interviews subjects to reveal back stories, and they both build narratives out of individual tales of environmental compromise. To construct this narrative, Singer and his subjects create a world where the city is a dangerous place, a wilderness, and the homeless seek shelter where no one else will go. Singer and his subjects work together to alter the underground landscape to accommodate filmmaking, as well. In Singer’s discussion about the making of Dark Days, he explains how involved the homeless he interviewed became. Singer had lived with these homeless long enough to learn about their skills and the jobs they had worked above ground, so the homeless became both cast and crew in the film. For example, “one of the guys” (“Making of Dark Days”)—who had worked on the railroad—built the dollies that facilitated the film’s tracking shots. And Henry “tapped into” the city’s electrical system, so Singer and the crew could construct power lines with sockets throughout the tunnels. Ralph took on the most responsibility, acting as Singer’s primary assistant, helping with every step of the process—from filming to editing. Homeless who had adapted the underground environment to serve their domestic needs altered it even further for their own documentary, a film built on a traditional narrative that advocates both interdependent living and progress.
The narrative of Dark Days seems to follow a three-act structure:
Act one begins with a representative of the homeless, Greg, descending out of a dark urban landscape into the relative domestic comfort below. The normalcy of living in shanties built in subway tunnels is first emphasized by portrayals of each of the “main characters” waking up in their shanties and getting ready to go to work, but this first act only shows us a glimpse of the ordinary lives Greg, Ralph and Tito lead. The first act seems to focus instead on the individual tales the homeless tell, which explain not only how they ended up homeless and why they moved under ground, but also how they escaped from a certain kind of hell above ground by entering this underground world.
Greg’s first comment after descending into the subway through a hole in the city’s concrete establishes this bifurcation between the urban wilderness and the domesticated tunnels below it. Greg calls the tunnel dangerous because “it’s so dark,” but argues that “it can’t be as bad as it was up top.” Greg’s comment aligns with the first dimly lit shot in the tunnel, a pan of the shanties homeless have built underground. A train comes in at an angle, bringing up the title, “Dark Days,” but Singer’s focus on individuals living ordinary lives deconstructs notions of darkness as entirely bad. Immediately after the title, the ordinary lives of the homeless living in those shanties come to the fore, so we first see each subject waking up and getting ready to go to work. Tommy, Tito, Ralph, and Greg—with captions announcing their names—get out of bed one by one, each stating his working aims for the day. Greg is “ready to hit the street.” Ralph is, as Tito claims, “always workin’ on the house.” Greg tells us “I got to get paid. Got to make that almighty dollar. Find me something to sell.”
The introductions to the characters include not only their immersion in the middle class values exemplified by emphasizing work and, especially, workin’ on the house—civilizing the underground. The opening also provides a space in which each subject can tell his or her story, which explains how each ended up homeless but fled the city—first, as Greg puts it, to “get out of the public eyesight,” but then “this fuckin’ became home.” Even though Henry tells Tommy that “houses stop you from being helpless, not from being homeless,” according to their narratives each subject seems to have made a home underground that would be impossible on the streets above. Ralph explains how crack made him homeless and lost him his family. And Tommy tells about his escape from a family that “couldn’t treat him like a human being.” These introductions move the narrative forward because they allow us to view the contrast between the hell of living on the street and the homes and families they have built below ground.
Singer’s Dark Days first presents an ethnographic reading of particular homeless under New York, using film as his tool. He adheres to the criteria Karl Heider outlines for ethnographic filmmaking, when explaining that “the most important attribute of ethnographic film is the degree to which it is informed by ethnographic understanding” (5). According to Heider, first of all, “ethnography is a way of making a detailed description and analysis of human behavior based on a long-term observational study on the spot,” (6) a technique Singer applied by living with the homeless before during and after the shooting of his film. Secondly, Heider suggests that ethnography should “relate specific observed behavior to cultural norms” (6). Singer demonstrates well how even these homeless individuals are immersed in U.S. middle-class-driven culture in which goals like building a house and community prevail. He also shows us how middle-class norms are refracted to fit the sub-human underground environment in which the film's subjects live.
The individual narratives Singer provides us also support Heider’s third criteria for an effective ethnography: “holism” (6). The stories of these poor individuals are presented in not only their context as narrations unique to each individual, but also in the context of an overarching story about the movement down into the world beneath New York, the growth of a community below ground, and then the movement back to a brighter life in apartments above ground. These interconnected stories are “truthfully represented” (Heider 7), Heider’s last criterion for an effective ethnographic film.
Dark Days fits into Heider’s definition of the genre: “Ethnographic film is film which reflects ethnographic understanding” (8). Like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922)in which archaic Inuit hunting practices are re-enacted to highlight a romanticized, more natural state and Cooper and Schoedsack’s Grass (1925)and Chang (1927),which show us how civilization has corrupted the native, Flaherty’s film reconstructs (both literally and figuratively) the stories his subjects tell, providing viewers with a romantic narrative that foregrounds progress. Heider argues that Flaherty's and Cooper and Schoedsack’s works “reflect the romanticism of the period” (26). Dark Days suggests that the middle-class U.S. values highlighted in this film rest on such “romanticism,” a foundation of the American dream.
The contrast between the hell found above ground and the American dream found below it also illustrates the complex combination of documentary and ethnographic strategies Singer draws on in Dark Days. The filmnot only follows the approaches taken in ethnographic films; it also integrates elements of at least two other types of documentaries. The first of these answers the question, “How do they do that?” which focuses on the details of human skill or ingenuity practiced in unusual circumstances. This is the focus and the appeal of films like Dogtown and Z Boys (which documents how skateboarders learned their craft practicing in empty swimming pools)and Riding Giants (which shows us how the forerunners to skateboarders upped the ante for surfers). The other common type of documentary filmmaking illustrates how people cope when they are in a transitional state or moment in their lives, as do the recent academy award winning documentary, Born into Brothels (2004), and the earlier Maysles’ brothers’ Salesman (1969)and Frederick Wiseman’s Basic Training (1971).
Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) shows how skateboarding evolved from a dying fad to a competitive sport based on hot-dogging stunts that grew out of surfing techniques. The documentary includes footage of stunts performed in empty swimming pools around Santa Monica and clips of some of the first competitive events sponsored by Zephyr Productions Surf Shop. The film depicts the rise of the skateboarding lifestyle, including how skateboarders like Tony Alva, Jim Muir, and Jay Adams transitioned from surf board to skate board, performing similar tricks on land as well as water, as they do in Riding Giants.
Born into Brothels (2004) represents a second category of documentary, those that highlight coping skills during fundamental transitions. Although criticized for spotlighting Western intervention as a cure for poverty in India, the film still attempts to show us, as a review from Newsweek proclaims, “the power of art to transform lives.” In the film, Zana Briski, a photographer first drawn to Calcutta’s red light district to photograph women sex industry workers, teaches these prostitutes’ children how to take pictures, and she attempts to finance some of their educations through exhibits of their photographs. The film's construction, documenting these children’s transition from hopeless resignation to hopeful love of learning, is certainly fabricated through Briski’s narrative (and editing) choices, but the film does attempt to show how the children and their mothers cope with changes brought on by both the entrance of the westerner (Briski) and her camera. The Maysles brothers' work shows us how Bible salesmen cope in Salesman (1969). The film follows middle aged male salesman on their day to day, house to house sales pitches and from the winter in Massachusetts to new territories in Florida. While the weather becomes vacation-like, many of the men question whether or not they can continue in this line of work, questioning their ability and contemplating a transition not only from region to region but from the stressful profession of bible sales to something else. In another transitional documentary, Wiseman reveals how military recruits survive in Basic Training (1971).