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DARK DAYS

Review by Alex Haberstroh

Director:  Marc Singer
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby 2.0 (English)
Video:  1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Studio:  Palm Pictures
Features:  See Review
Length:  114 minutes
Release Date:  September 25, 2001

Film ****

Growing up in New York City (especially in the eighties, when many mental institutions were shut down, sending thousands of unstable patients out onto the streets), one quickly became accustomed to seeing (and ignoring) the thousands of homeless men and women living on the streets.  As the homeless are often delusional through mental illness, or addicted to drugs or alcohol, people preferred to avert their glances, and simply walk on, rather than bother to face the problem.

Since it often takes someone who’s out of the proverbial “box” to perceive problems and attempt to find solutions, perhaps it’s easy to understand why it took someone English-born like Marc Singer to reach out to the New York City homeless.  Overhearing one homeless friend complaining that he had had it with “life above,” Singer eagerly listened to stories of communities of so-called “mole people,” living underground in old railway tunnels between 72nd and 125th streets.

Embarking on a quest to find such societies, Singer found a community of makeshift shacks and shanties, surprisingly well constructed by the resourceful itinerants.  Finding himself spending more and more time in the world below, after two months, when one of his new friends jokingly suggested that someone should be “making a film about this,” he attacked the project fervently, although he had never filmed anything before. 

The path that he would choose would be a tough one (and explained through the “making of” on the disc, just as fascinating as the actual film itself), leading the previously middle class first-time director to the edge of poverty, and beyond (in the end he would sell all of his belongings for money to purchase and develop film).

What he and his friends produced (many homeless not only were stars of the film, but were also Singer’s crew, working with lighting, sound, and even constructing elaborate things like giant dollies, so Singer could move down the train tracks while filming) is probably one of the most powerful and engrossing documentaries yet made.  Shot in 16 millimeter, Dark Days differs from the petty and septic documentaries that often fill the genre.  By becoming one of the inhabitants of the tunnel (and destitute himself), Singer not only deals with the many pains (and occasional triumphs) that his subjects feel, but he also learns about them, so unlike most documentaries, which suffer from their creators either pitying or deifying their subjects (from an outside perspective), the film’s potency isn’t diminished by Singer’s judgments on how is subjects live.  Rather, Singer’s camera is poised to capture what his subjects choose to do and discuss, allowing a much more candid environment that added to the film’s overall realism and interest.

To say that Singer’s documentary is eye opening would be an understatement.  Among the dank tunnels, giant rats, and disease, Singer discovered a spark of humanity and decided to capture it. 

Singer’s subjects are often a far cry from the stereotypical homeless above ground.  While some do occasionally run to the garbage containers above to get food, many often cook meat or soup on stove units in their shanties.  Moreover, the inventive dwellers have frequently constructed their own wooden homes, decorated with things found on the streets, some including amenities we enjoy above, such as: refrigerators, lights, fans, and heaters, all illegally feeding off the electricity from above (one man even installed a crude kennel for his dog and her three puppies). 

While the title is Dark Days, the film is really about people pulling together when those days come.  In result, this is a stirring, and even at times, amusing, look at the human perspective of the poor.  I eagerly await Mr. Singer’s second endeavor.

Video ***

Since that this was a documentary filmed in 16 mm, made with an incredibly low budget, expectations were low for this transfer.  While the DVD is a more than a respectable reproduction (beyond a few points where images seemed cropped on the top and bottom of the widescreen transfer, due to how the film was converted from the 16 mm footage) of the grainy footage, it is still a far cry from the silky smooth transfers many are used to.  Yet similar to productions like The Blair Witch Project, this is one of the best transfers you can get out of slightly limited source material.  

Audio ***   

Considering this film is basically the independent film of independent films, in that it was produced for what many spend for their automobiles, the sound is amazingly well done.  Included on the disc are both a Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 tracks.   Dialogue is crystal clear in this mostly center channel driven piece.  In addition, funneled through the surrounds, are tracks from DJ Shadow’s shining album “Endtroducing.”  Brilliantly used, these music cues help to set or aid the mood at hand.   

Supplements ****

Sporting quite a few supplements, this is a treasure trove for fans of the film.  First is the “Making of Dark Days,” approximately forty-five minutes in length, and one of the better “making of’s.”  Rather than the typical mutual backslapping, you instead get lengthy interviews with director Marc Singer, co-producer Ben Freedman, composer DJ Shadow, title designer Jaylo, as well as editor Melissa Neidich, discussing how they decided to get the film from point a to b.

After that, and strangely included under “disc setup,” is a director’s commentary with Marc Singer.  While repeating some information from the “making of,” this is still a top-notch commentary told with enthusiasm, and including some valuable information about the relationships between the inhabitants as well as insight into their personal characters.  

Fifteen additional scenes are included on the disc, each with linear notes explaining the scene by director Singer.  After that is “Life After the Tunnel,” with detailed descriptions of what happened to the dozen homeless that participated in the documentary.  Rounding out the disc are the film’s trailer, biographies, and finally, “The Tunnel,” which gives a brief history of the tunnel since its construction in the early 1800’s. 

Summary:

A wonderful documentary that shows the inextinguishable power of the human spirit, this is a superb release from Palm Pictures, with a decent transfer and magnificent supplements.  Unabashedly recommended.