“We have TV down here,” says one of the tunnel dwellers in Marc Singer’s Dark Days. For five years, Singer documented the men and women who forged a precarious community deep in the Amtrak tunnels beneath Manhattan. Dark Days concludes in the late ’90s, just after Amtrak evicted the squatters and the Coalition for the Homeless found them housing aboveground. Thus, we’ll never know how Dee (the crack addict who wept for her two children, killed in a fire while she was in jail) or Tommy (the runaway who kept a family of dogs and had managed to equip his shack with a shower) or Lee (who showed off photos of his deceased cats, gerbils, and birds, and who committed suicide before the film was completed) would have responded to the concept of survival as game show. I suspect they’d prefer that other Nielsen winner, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Dark Days is right on the millennial zeitgeist, where every experience—from cancer to a Prada sale—is fed into an all-encompassing narrative of survival while the planet careens toward destruction. That, in part, accounts for the film’s out-of-the-blue success (three big prizes at Sundance alone). The survivalist tale that we see on the screen has its counterpart in the film’s actual production. Singer devoted six years to the project, racking up a huge debt and briefly becoming homeless in the process. And—although we only discover this in the end credits—the film depended on the cooperation of the tunnel people, not only for its cast but also its crew. They had the know-how to tap into power lines for juice, they built and pushed dollies, they carried and hung the minimal lights. Singer doesn’t inscribe these behind-the-scenes details in the film itself; the spirit of collaboration, however, informs every frame.
With no firsthand knowledge of filmmaking, Singer took the impractical advice of an acquaintance and shot in 16mm black-and-white rather than in user-friendly video, which for a decade has been the documentarian’s basic tool. The high-contrast, grainy celluloid look is not only beautiful, it connects Dark Days to a history of film and photography that takes life on the margins of America as its subject and includes such epic image-makers as Lewis Hine and Robert Frank.
The economics of film production (film stock is more costly than videotape) forced Singer to plan what he was going to shoot, rather than just running camera for hundreds of hours, as is now customary. Dark Days has an elliptical, stripped-down structure that doesn’t squelch the spontaneous behavior on the screen. Organized around the rituals of daily life, the film shows the tunnel people cooking, cleaning, socializing, and tending to the shacks they’ve ingeniously constructed from scavenged materials, and which they must constantly secure from marauding humans and rodents. Singer achieves remarkable intimacy with his subjects, who share their experiences and joke around with the man behind the camera as freely as they do with their peers.
The film shows us the underground shantytown through the eyes of those who’ve taken refuge there, and who, despite the inconveniences, squalor, and bad air, find it a less threatening place than the streets, subways, and homeless shelters where they lived before. The film neither pumps up the drama of their situation nor cosmeticizes it (although a bucket of shit is easier to look at in black and white than it would be in living color). Acclimated to life underground, they manage to block out its nightmare aspects until they return to the surface and, thanks to the Coalition for the Homeless, real apartments. At this point, the film turns unexpectedly mushy, ignoring the fact that, for most of the tunnel people, addiction, poverty, and lack of education predated their sojourns underground. There are too many shots of the tunnel dwellers gleefully wrecking their shacks (Amtrak insisted that the “tenants” return the property to the condition in which they found it) and of their happy faces and glib pronouncements as they take possession of their new dwellings. On a human level, it’s hard to fault Singer for being supportive, but Dark Days suffers from a lack of rigor at the very end.
How a nightmare existence can come to seem almost normal is also the most disturbing aspect of Roger Michell’s Titanic Town. Adapted from Mary Costello’s fictionalized memoir of the Troubles, it’s one of the rare movies about war that focuses on the relatively nonpartisan civilians whose front yards are turned into battlegrounds.
It’s 1972, and Bernie McPhelimy (Julie Walters), her sickly husband, Aidan (Ciaran Hinds), their teenage daughter, Annie (Nuala O’Neill), and their two young sons have no sooner moved to a supposedly peaceful neighborhood in West Belfast than the IRA and the British go into all-out combat mode. Bullets fly and bombs explode at all hours with no consideration, by either side, of the innocent people caught in the crossfire. When one of her friends is shot dead coming back from the butcher shop, Bernie becomes a peace advocate. All she wants, she explains to the IRA and the British, is for them to refrain from fighting during the daytime so that kids can go to school and men and women can get their work done. Bernie becomes a kind of folk hero, but she also incurs the wrath of brick-hurling neighbors who view her peacenik efforts as a betrayal of the IRA.
Titanic Town plunges us into the surreal conditions of civil war, where people pursue their needs and desires regardless of the risk involved. The fact that a kid might catch a bullet on his way to pick up a date doesn’t stop girls and boys from their romantic pursuits. Annie’s teenage angst has less to do with the danger she’s in every day than the fact that classmates ostracize her because of her mother’s supposed British sympathies. Walters and O’Neill insightfully flesh out the mother-daughter conflict, even though the longer Bernie persists in her naïveté (she’d have to be an idiot not to know she was being co-opted by the British), the less believable she is as a character. Titanic Town isn’t convincing on every front, but as a political conversation piece, it’s potentially effective.
Madadayo, the last film of Akira Kurosawa, is unabashedly personal and uncool. I don’t know if Kurosawa, who was 83 when he made the film, admitted to himself that it would be his last, but he must have known he was near the end of his life. In their late works, great artists sometimes risk breaking the rules—taboos even—that govern the making of art: Thou shalt not be sentimental; thou shalt not expose your desire to be loved; and, in the particular case of Kurosawa, thou shalt not be so un-Japanese as to express transcendence through the music of Vivaldi. Madadayo, which opens here seven years after its initial release, was pretty much dismissed for all these infractions by both the pro- and anti-Kurosawa critical camps, but between you and me, dear reader, I love it to death.
Gently ironic, Madadayo evokes baldly personal feelings and deeply held, easy-to-ridicule beliefs at one remove. The film is a meditation on the life and writings of the essayist and novelist Hyakken Uchida, who in middle age retired from teaching German literature to write full-time. Among his finest works is a collection of essays entitled Nora, My Lost Cat. Thus, the protagonist (Tatsuo Matsumura) of Madadayo (English translation: “Not Yet”) is a German-lit professor who retires in 1943—smack in the middle of World War II, and the very year that Kurosawa directed his first film—and spends the rest of his life at home writing (not a very cinematic activity). His companions are his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) and two cats who enter his life consecutively, and ever in attendance are his devoted former pupils—each year, on the anniversary of his retirement, they throw a banquet in his honor.
Madadayo is basically a film structured as three set pieces with lots of picture-perfect downtime in between. The development of postwar Japan is suggested by the difference between the scruffiness of the first anniversary banquet and the respectable opulence of the 20th, both hilariously drunken affairs. The centerpiece of the film is an extended sequence in which Nora, the professor’s much doted-upon cat, goes missing. The professor frantically searches for her and obsesses over her fate, long past the point of what would be considered rational. Through the images of Nora that completely occupy the professor’s imagination—either she’s happily leaping about the garden or miserably trapped in bombed-out rubble—we realize that the entire film is about identification and attachment, and the separation and loss inscribed within them. In other words, eros and thanatos. Or maybe it’s just an unembarrassed reflection on a man and his cat.