Sunday, November 27, 2011

Underrated Movie #140: Dark Days

Title: Dark Days
Year: 2000
Director: Marc Singer (Not the Beastmaster, a different guy)
Stars: Ralph, Dee, Henry, Brian, Clarence, Julio, Lee, Jose, etc…

The Story: A haunting, funny and eerie visit with the “mole people”: A group of surprisingly upbeat homeless people who have found a sustainable life for themselves in abandoned train tunnels beneath the streets of Manhattan. They tap into the electrical grid for power and the pipes for showers, scavenge together houses for themselves complete with working kitchens, and try to survive.

How it Came to be Underrated: This was Singer’s first and only association with any film of any kind, and so it’s in danger of being forgotten as a great one-off.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This movie is all the more remarkable if you know the backstory: A British would-be male model comes to America, crashes on the couches of other fashion world orbiters, finds out about the tunnel-dwellers for the first time and casually decides to make a documentary about them despite having no idea what he’s doing. His artsy friends convince him that he must shoot on film despite the fact that the light conditions are going to be non-existent and huge amounts of footage would be necessary on no budget. This should all add up to a disastrous, pretentious incompetent mess. But, amazingly, the final product is a profound, luminous work of art.
  2. The level of access is astounding. Singer eventually moved down there with them and built his own home, not to make himself a character in the movie, but just to get to know them. When one of the “houses” burns down. creating a homeless problem even amongst the homeless, what Singer doesn’t tell you onscreen is that he then surrendered his own house to the person whose house burned.
  3. The ironies pile up thick and fast. Most of them are defiantly proud to be homeless, but life underground becomes all about cooking, cleaning, security, and pressuring each other to give up drugs. Starting from scratch, they re-create everything they left behind (See the hair-cutting salon below). At one point a can-recycler talks about trying to make more money during the week so that he can take Saturday or Sunday off, as if that were a great new idea.
  4. Singer’s also coy about the fact that the footage he shot helps contribute to the movie’s shockingly happy ending. Instead, he rightly gives the credit to the resourceful mole people who, for the most part, saved themselves. When one of them dismantles his home so that he can move to the surface at the end, he casually reminds his friend, “Don’t mix the dirty clothes with the clean ones.” It’s a cathartic moment for the audience.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The most harrowingly realistic fictional movie about homelessness was Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge. Chaplin’s The Kid, one of the first ever feature films, is also surprising honest about the subject.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly.

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