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Dark Days

There was a time in America when the railroads were everything. In the 19th century — before automobiles and airplanes, international airports and Interstate highways — the rails linked our states together, providing freight and passenger service from the largest cities to the smallest rural hamlets — a fact known today by Amtrak travelers, who will notice major rail lines often run through the middle of small towns that no longer receive rail service of any sort. The decline of American railroads is nowhere more genuine than in the middle of New York City, although in some ways it's a lot less apparent. The Hudson River Railroad was built along the Hudson River in Manhattan in the mid-1800s, but with the island's growing population and wealth, few developers were willing to sacrifice waterfront property to the railroad tracks, or the shantytowns that sprung up beside them. In 1934, apartment buildings were constructed along the Hudson River Railroad, which was then covered by a steel structure and landscaped exterior. Nearly 40 years later, the line itself had become unprofitable for freight traffic, and only Amtrak service via Penn Station used the passageway. But when Amtrak started to lay new track in 1991, officials made a discovery that should not have surprised them, but it did — more than 150 people were living in the pitch-black tunnel, having constructed an ad hoc village in the darkness, complete with rickety shacks and even electricity. Some of them had been living there for 10 years, and some even longer. Marc Singer's award-winning documentary Dark Days concerns some of the residents of the nameless tunnel community in Manhattan, and it's not a documentary from a film-school grad looking for a sanctimonious first project. Singer — a Brit living in New York — first became aware of the tunnel community in the mid-1990s and found himself drawn to it, not because of any need or desire to be homeless, but simply first out of curiosity, and then camaraderie. After a few months of making friends with the affable, unconventional, and somewhat dysfunctional denizens, Singer decided he would shoot a film about their living conditions (the plan being that the money made would get everybody out of the tunnel). Among the folks we meet are Greg, a talkative homeless man who claims he first entered the tunnel to get away from the hostility he found on the street, and wound up staying for five years; Ralph, a former addict who has been clean for several years, but first wound up homeless when his wife kicked him out because of his drug use; Tommy, who left home when he could no longer get along with his family and lives with his girlfriend underground, returning bottles for money by day; and Dee, a woman who lost her two children in an accident and has turned to drugs as a means to cope.

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For some, being offered the chance to watch a documentary about homeless people may sound as attractive as a college lecture on microeconomics. For those who live in larger cities, homeless people in America are simply a fact of life, and while it's easy to pay lip-service to the overall problem, few average Americans really want to know anybody who's homeless. Normal stereotypes play into this — they're on drugs, we tell ourselves, or they're thieves. We figure ol' grandad maybe had it right when he called people bums because they couldn't hold a job. And above all, we don't want to assume responsibility for the problem. We've got problems of our own too, right? But what makes Dark Days so appealing is that it never addresses the social issue of homelessness in an academic manner — Singer avoids the role of a social worker advocating more shelters, housing, or funding, and instead simply lets his subjects tell their stories, and thus presents them as very human, and in some ways little different than the above-ground working people they seek to avoid. Former addict Ralph is so sick of crackheads — and so afraid of being around crack — that he paints "NO CRACK" in foot-tall letters on the side of his shack. Tommy has several dogs, and in order to keep them under control he builds a dog kennel along the side of his hut, where he supervises their feeding to make sure all of them get enough to eat. Despite being homeless, Greg is full of energy and ideas, aware for example that he can get clean food from the trash of a local delicatessen, as they separate their food waste from other garbage ("And it's kosher," he notes). None of these folks really decry homelessness as a social issue, although they often are full of self-loathing over their current predicament. But until they can put their lives back in order, their greatest desire is solitude — which is why they are so distressed by Amtrak's eventual eviction notice. "I've got three words for them," says one resident, "And it ain't 'I Love You.' It's 'Leave Us Alone.'" Inevitably, Dark Days will draw a mixture of sympathy and pity from most viewers — the best documentaries always have a level of up-front, emotional engagement — but perhaps even more so because none of the subjects ever asks for sympathy. They don't even ask to be understood, but after one viewing it will be hard for anybody to see a homeless person in the same nondescript way again. Palm Pictures' DVD release of Dark Days features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. The supplements are extensive, and include a 45-minute behind-the-scenes feature "Dark Days: The Making of a True Independent," with comments from Singer, co-producer Ben Freedman, DJ Shadow (who provides the excellent score), and others; 16 additional segments not included in the film; the theatrical trailer; notes on the Hudson River tunnel; crew notes; and textual follow-ups on 12 of the film's subjects. Keep-case.

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