copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006

Dark Days:
A narrative of environmental adaptation

by Joseph Heumann and Robin L. Murray

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 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:

  1. going underground (with introductions to each character),
  2. living like a family in the relative domestic bliss below, and
  3. after a forced removal by Amtrak officials overseeing the tunnels near Penn Station, climbing back up above ground to begin living isolated lives in single-person apartments.

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).

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. Furthermore, 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. And 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. 

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.      

Works cited

Baxter, Ellen. “Private Lives/Public Spaces: Homeless Adults on the Streets of New York City.” New York: Community Service Society of New York, Institute for Social Welfare Research, 1981.

Briski, Zana. (director). Born into Brothels. Red Light Films. 2004.

Goodman, Amy. “Interview: ‘Dark Days’: The Ultimate Underground Film.” indieWire, October 3, 2003..

Gottlieb, Joanne. “Darwin’s City, or Life Underground: Evolution, Progress, and the  Shapes of Things to Come.” Michael Bennett and David W. Teague, Editors. The Nature of Cities: Ecocriticism in Urban Environments. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1999: 233-254.

Hardy, F., Editor. Grierson on Documentary. London: Faber and Faber, 1979.

Heider, Karl G. Ethnographic Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976.

Light, Andrew. “Boyz in the Woods: Urban Wilderness in American Cinema.”

Michael Bennett and David W. Teague, Editors. The Nature of Cities: Ecocriticism and Urban Environments. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1999: 137-156.

Morton, Margaret. Fragile Dwelling. New York: Aperture, 2000.

------------. The Tunnel. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1995.

Nelmes, Jill, Editor. An Introduction to Film Studies. Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Ross, Andrew (Interviewed by Michael Bennett). “The Social Claim on Urban Ecology.”

Michael Bennett and David W. Teague, Editors. The Nature of Cities: Ecocriticism in Urban Environments. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1999: 15-30.

Singer, Marc. Director. Dark Days. Wide Angle Pictures and Palm Pictures. 2000.

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