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"Dark Days"

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For two years, the filmmaker Marc Singer lived inside the Amtrak tunnels beneath midtown Manhattan in order to document its homeless population in their makeshift huts of plywood and plastic. Dark Days (at Film Forum), which was filmed -- remarkably well -- by a crew of people from the tunnel, captures the livid squalor of the scene but also its fierce, lower-depths sense of community. (The extraordinary editing is by Melissa Neidich.)

Many of the denizens are black, most are crackheads or former crackheads, and they exhibit a mixture of pride (in having survived) and self-loathing (for the miseries that brought them low). What comes through most is their need to sustain a sense of personal integrity. One man, using power tapped from the city's electrical sources, mixes up some corn bread with a gourmet's panache; another shows off his hovel's jerry-built décor as if he were a real-estate agent on Sutton Place. What comes through also is humor: Two grinning, emaciated guys, probably high on something or other, go into a fractured discourse about pets, and one of them reveals his amazement at how gerbils eat their young. But he adds, "Then how come there are so fucking many of them?"

Misery pours out, too: A man who spent all but two months of his past ten years in prison recounts the horrors visited upon his young daughter, for which he holds himself responsible by his absence. His underground life is, for him, a penance and a punishment. The woman he lives with, whom he has been trying to get off crack, breaks into utter, stark-faced anguish at the thought of her own abandoned motherhood. The people in this movie don't have that primed-for-the-camera look that so many interviewees have now in documentaries; their lives don't appear to be shaped by the culture of television, and so their feelings come through in all their rawness and transparency. It's a near-great film, reminiscent of the early Frederick Wiseman movies like Welfare and Hospital that left you both aghast and exhilarated at what human beings are capable of.


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