Descent of Man

Dark Days and Decline of Western Civ III look at homelessness as an American underground

In the first minutes of Dark Days, we watch a man cross a New York sidewalk, descend down a stone stairwell over a train tunnel, then casually disappear into a hole in the ground. It's a simple, disconcerting sequence. So simple, in fact, that you may be taken off guard by the dread it inspires. We might not yet know that the documentary we're watching is about what lies just beyond that hole--the Amtrak tunnel where director Marc Singer spent two years living among the subterranean homeless. But the image evokes all the primal anxiety of Alice falling through the rabbit's chute.

Emerging on the other side, the man doesn't look especially troubled. He grins as he climbs down toward the railroad tracks, and we sense that this is part of his daily routine--which only makes him, for the moment, more alien. It's a dislocating effect that Singer spends the next hour and a half reversing. And he begins by letting Greg, the figure whose descent we've followed, speak indirectly to our fears. "When I first came in the tunnel, it was looking real dangerous, man," he says in voiceover, as DJ Shadow's eerie piano loops swell on the soundtrack. "I was scared. But I said, it can't be as bad as it is up top. Ain't nobody in their right mind gonna come down there. So you ain't got to worry about nobody coming down there to mess with you."

It takes a moment for this sad paradox to register: Only by living in constant danger can homeless folk find refuge from police harassment and civilian sadism. But this rationale for total withdrawal doesn't quite prepare us for what Singer shows next: a shantytown built in near-total darkness. America may be filled with voluntary exiles, but the homeless around Penn Station--America's most literal underground--seem more entrenched in oblivion than any survivalist, squatter, or hobo. Perhaps no one could have captured these fiercely world-wary train dodgers without joining their culture, but Singer left nothing to chance. Not only did the novice cameraman first gain the tunnel residents' trust as a friend; he garnered their enthusiasm as crew members--a hiring decision that, in retrospect, proved to be smart producing.

Subterranean homesick blues: The tunnel dwellers of Dark Days
Subterranean homesick blues: The tunnel dwellers of Dark Days

Once you're in the tunnel, Greg insists from the start, you adjust. And the audience adjusts, too, perhaps laughing at the surreal conversation between two residents about who has the best "house" in the tunnel. (Actually, Tommy's house does look pretty good.) The men and women Singer profiles have clearly adjusted to the presence of his camera. They argue freely in front of it, wrestle with pets, jack into the electrical lines. They scrounge for food, cook, joke, bathe, smoke crack, collectively forbid crack, and tell their horror stories. You needn't strain to detect a work ethic in their junk scavenging, or middle-class aspirations in their homemaking. People may insist that you're on your own down here, but they take each other in, anyway. And race seems to be a non-issue in the dark.

The tunnel dwellers rise every morning to that same, unsettling abyss, with the trains roaring in the background and moisture seeping into their clothes. Singer's grainy 16mm black-and-white makes the dark in Dark Days look blacker than any Blair Witch tent. Scarier too, and not just because we fear people more than ghosts. When the tunnel residents move into sunny, federally subsidized apartments, who can blame the director for his rather simple-minded elation. We're glad to get out of there too.

 

Meanwhile, the homeless "gutterpunks" of The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III seem eager to hop into their own black hole. But their brand of exile makes a lot more self-righteous noise--a combined result of youth, ideology, and drug of choice (the punks are given to drink, not crack). Credit their unsentimental treatment to Beverly Hillbillies auteur Penelope Spheeris, a director whose capacity for empathy is surpassed only by her admirable ability to ask Mom-style questions over and over again. (After berating every spiked head in sight with, "What will you be doing in five years?" can she really be surprised when one finally answers, "I'll be dead"?)

Part III begins much as the previous installments of her Decline series did, setting cameras loose on concerts by select L.A. rock bands--thus, the Western in the title. As before, the director hangs out with the groups (Naked Aggression, Litmus Green) and their families in order to make impolite queries about self-destructive habits--thus the Decline. These interviews feel more than ever like interventions by some irreverent, fed-up social worker: At one point in III, Spheeris challenges the mother of a garbage house to wade across her living room to reach the TV. Elsewhere, per tradition, she plucks interesting-looking kids out of the crowd to prod them, with her deadpan offscreen questions, against a plain white background.

Most of these children weren't born when the first Decline hit theaters, and they seem no wiser to their sociological carnival value. But at least the latest Decline finds a little poignancy in the title. Where 1980's I took a long, wry look at Hollywood punk's vital first wave (Black Flag, X), and 1988's II let Eighties glam-metal (Poison) hang itself by its own perm, the far drearier III finds neither great music nor easy targets in the realm of no-sellout hardcore. Instead, Spheeris reveals how punk culture has become bereft of culture--the ultimate decline! And when she loses interest in the bands (which isn't hard to do), she turns to the audience: to their beer parties, their belligerent begging in front of the liquor store, their cigarette wounds, their squat fires. (Only one subject rents an apartment, paid for with a disability check; a friend's drunk-driving accident put him in a wheelchair.)

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