In recent years, many regional theaters in the United States have staged Maxim Gorky's "The Lower Depths", a play that revolves around the lives of the dregs of society in a flophouse in Czarist Russia, with homeless people in the leading roles. Such productions were meant as a commentary on the downward spiral of the American economy, which for many marginalized people meant catastrophe on a par with the Great Depression.
Against insurmountable odds, a 21 year old Englishman named Marc Singer descended into the cavernous train tunnels beneath the Amtrak station in midtown Manhattan five years ago with a 16 mm camera. His goal: to make a documentary about the homeless people who had taken shelter in these lower depths. He is a Maxim Gorky for our era. Trying to avoid the inhumane city-sponsored shelters that had become a scandal in the press, they constructed "homes" made of scavenged building materials and filled them with the amenities of middle-class life, including pets and television sets (electrical power was tapped from lines in the tunnel.)
Not only did these fearsome people living in fearsome conditions open their lives up to the novice film-maker, they provided the crew, learning as they went along, much as he did. A profile on Singer in the NY Times reveals the kind of creativity that went into the production. "When they needed a dolly, they built one using an old grocery cart and an abandoned stretch of rail. They ran cable underground, hooked up to whatever power source they could find, and for lighting used hand-held floodlights mounted on metal crosses. He gave a dozen of the homeless -- three of whom died before the film could be released -- part ownership in the film, so they stand to profit if it makes money."
Despite the fact that most of these people survived by panhandling on the street, not a single piece of equipment was stolen. Furthermore, since Singer--not knowing any better--utilized a old-fashioned 16 mm camera rather than the modern digital video camera, the documentary has a more burnished and professional quality than one would expect. It succeeds not only as social commentary, but as art.
The substance of the film consists of the tunnel people going about their daily routines, which includes cooking, cleaning, playing with their pets, socializing and going out into the daylight to find a way to eke out a couple of dollars. This means collecting bottles on the street or finding used goods in dumpsters that could be resold on the street. In New York City's more bourgeois neighborhoods, defined as they are by conspicuous consumption, there are always pricey goods that are thrown out for no good reason. Indeed, the contrast between the misery beneath the city's streets and the opulence above it constitute the main social comment in the film, despite the rather wise choice of the director not to preach such a message.
In an interview with the NY Times, Singer explained what he wanted to accomplish with "Dark Days", least of all to preach any kind of message:
"I never wanted to go on a mission with this film. I never wanted to convert anyone into helping the homeless. But we look at them as if they're not human. It's like there's an invisible wall there. But you go and meet them, and it turns out they're just like me and you; they just don't have a home."
Most of the film's subjects are crack addicts, including an African-American woman in her 50s named Dee who is shown smoking immediately after recounting the death of her two children in an apartment fire while she was high on crack. For all of these people crack is a way to deliver themselves from the miseries of their lives, even though the drug is also one of the main causes of their misery.
Most are aware of that, as becomes evident in a discussion between Dee and Ralph, a Puerto Rican man who has taken Dee in after her shack has been burned down by a tunnel dweller seeking revenge for some offense. (Although the film does not spell out the nature of the conflict, one can only assume it is over drugs.) Ralph has lost everything because of crack, including his marriage and a middle-class life-style. He hasn't smoked crack in over 3 years, but admits that the temptation is always there. When he insists to Dee that the only to stop smoking crack is to just stop it, she replies that his badgering her only makes her feel like going out and scoring some crack.
Ralph, like Dee, has his own traumatic memories about the cost of getting high to his immediate family. He confesses that his 5-year-old daughter was raped and mutilated while he was in jail on a drug charge.
That Dee and Ralph can live together fits in with the general absence of racial tensions in the tunnel, no doubt explained by the recognition that those in the lower depths need to rely on each other's solidarity to survive. One of the other main characters is Tommy, a young white teenager who ran away from alcoholic and drug-addicted parents. He looks like the boy next door.
The film has a "happy ending" of sorts, as Amtrak is forced to back down from an assault on the shacks which it has deemed correctly as a danger the health of their inhabitants. (The film is filled with shots of marauding rats. Also, the sound of the trains is omnipresent. One tunnel dweller was hit by a train during the filming.) Through a combination of legal action and mass pressure, advocates for the homeless successfully establish the point that unless an alternative to the shacks is provided, the tunnel people will just end up on the streets or in the dangerous city-sponsored shelters. At the last minute, the tunnel dwellers receive modest new apartments in a clean, well-kept building provided through federal aid to the homeless.
The perpetually snide Village Voice did not like this ending, stating: "There are too many shots of the tunnel dwellers gleefully wrecking their shacks and of their happy faces and glib pronouncements as they take possession of their new dwellings."
As a socialist, I have a totally different reaction than the postmodernist/liberal Village Voice. I see the happy ending as one that embodies the kind of message that socialists put forward. In a world divided between the super-rich and the countless numbers of those living in the lower depths, either in train tunnels or in the shanties of 3rd world countries, we explain that the former condition is tied to the latter. We also treasure the happiness of the great masses more than we do the right of the small minority to live like Croesus. Until those conditions are eradicated, we will not rest for a moment.
"Dark Days" is showing right now at New York's Film Forum. It is not to be missed.