Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Subterranean New York: Dark Days

They are not Morlocks, but profoundly flawed human beings. While many have questioned the veracity of a widely cited early 1990’s book-of-the-moment on the so-called “Mole People,” this is the straight dope, produced with the very denizens of New York’s Amtrak tunnels serving as the crew. Eleven years after sweeping Sundance’s documentary awards, director-cinematographer Marc Singer’s Dark Days returns to theaters, opening this Friday in New York.

Everyone living in the tunnel stretching from Penn Station up to Harlem has a story. Many involve drugs, but there are all terribly human. Quite a few are also absentee parents, whose own demons have cost their children dearly. They insist they are not homeless though and maintain a sense of community, albeit a rather harsh one. Supposedly, they chose to live underground to avoid cops and the larcenous junkies who haunt the shelters looking for anything remotely saleable. Yet, when crack addicted Dee’s lean-to is burned down as part of a vaguely criminal dispute, there is not a lot of sympathy forthcoming. Still, she finds temporary shelter with Ralph.

Though clearly intended as an advocacy film, Dark is more like the equivalent of a film noir documentary, immersing viewers in a world of dramatic shadows and ominous dread. Each character also has a secret past and a fatal flaw which inexorably shape their fates. Insightful one minute but profane or possibly stoned the next, the men and women of Dark are far too complex to pigeonhole. While that might not make particularly efficacious propaganda, it is certainly fascinating cinema, which is considerably more valuable.

The British born Singer (not of Beastmaster and V fame, alas) gained the tunnel dwellers’ trust living amongst them and employing them as crew. Through happenstance and necessity, his harsh lighting and grainy black-and-white film stock is spookily evocative. It is perfectly underscored by DJ Shadow’s eerie award-winning soundtrack, representing the absolute high end of instrumental hip hop. The combined effect comes perilously close to romanticizing the hand-to-mouth existence of Dark’s subjects. Frankly though, Singer’s only misstep occurs when he tries to gin up outrage over Amtrak’s plan to remove the tunnel dwellers, for a variety of reasons (including their own safety), essentially breaking the spellbinding mood he created with some up-top talking head sound-bites.

Dark is a peculiarly New York movie, trading on urban legends and illuminating a furtive corner of a city on the rebound, but only a year away from its gravest heartbreak. A haunting film in terms of look, sound, and subject matter, Singer’s documentary is definitely worthy of a revival life. It opens (again) this Friday (7/1) in New York at the Cinema Village.