Dark Days and Substrait
The Barbican cinema offers a rare chance to catch two films on New York’s tunnel dwellers, by Marc Singer and Gordon Matta-Clark
Dark Days; Substrait
Directed by Marc Singer; Gordon Matta-Clark
January 31, Barbican Cinema 1, London EC2.
Dark Days is a film that makes you yearn for the sun. Shot in black and white in the rubbish-strewn Amtrak tunnels beneath New York City, it documents an underground community that existed in a parallel world to the Manhattan streets “up top”. For some, this grim existence was home for more than 20 years.
Screened next week at the Barbican, Dark Days is part of the Architecture Foundation’s rolling programme of films that offer an alternative narrative on architecture to the usual, well-chewed menu of Metropolis, Blade Runner and Jacques Tati. It is paired with Substrait, a 1976 short by the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who made a film “scrapbook” from his wanderings through aqueducts, crypts and tunnels below Manhattan. This is New York, but not as we normally see it.
Like the giant alligators said to inhabit the city’s sewers, communities of troglodytes living below the streets may seem like an urban myth. But these films show that it was very much a reality. In Substrait, an Amtrak employee questioned by Matta-Clark is heard denying the existence of people living in its tunnels. Decades later, when Dark Days director Marc Singer was making his film, it was clear people had indeed been living there for years.
This was no utopian community but a gathering of the desperate and the damaged, all conventionally homeless but preferring life underground to the dangers of the street in the world above. For them, the confines of the tunnels represented freedom. Singer lived in the tunnels for part of the filming and ended up enlisting some of his neighbours to help with the film as well as star in it.
He is not interested in the underground spatially, only how it is colonised. The film is a portrait of day to day life – cooking, scavenging on the streets above, keeping pets, socialising and getting high – 80% of those down there were estimated to be crack addicts. Even in such difficult circumstances the urge for home-making is striking as the tunnel-dwellers domesticate their share of the underground infrastructure. Here, they have the autonomy that they lack in the other world above. We see residents making home-improvements to their shelters, painting, tidying, even setting up trip-wire house alarms. One is house-proud to the point of obsession. They had power – illegally hacked into – and reputedly once had access to the water supply, although in Dark Days, the only running water was a leaking pipe used as a bracing shower.
Living in limbo
But with alarmingly huge rats, heaps of rubbish and the relentless dark, it could never be a comfortable environment, despite their best efforts. Even so, as one of those filmed points out, it’s good enough to keep them living underground in a limbo existence for years, further delaying the necessity for a permanent solution as to how to live in mainstream society.
Thanks to the personalities and stories of those featured, the film is engaging despite its gruelling subject matter. It is sobering stuff, although there is a happy-ending of sorts – when Amtrak decides to evict the residents, their case is taken up by the Coalition for the Homeless and they are given their own apartments. Only then do some of the former tunnel-dwellers realise how hellish their former existence had been. Could this happen in our cities now? It certainly makes you think about what goes on beneath the pavement.
Dark Days, released in 2000, is currently between distributors; next week’s screening is a rare opportunity to see it. Meanwhile Substrait serves as a taster for the Barbican’s show this March on Matta-Clark, fellow New York artist Laurie Anderson and choreographer Trisha Brown.