Two Movie Reviews: Dark Days and Before Night Falls
by Jeffrey W. Ruggles
Dark Days -- Marc Singer
Imagine this: you are a fashion model from London. After moving to New York you become appalled by the homeless population in the city. You befriend numerous "mole people," those that live in the underground train tunnels in NYC. You sell everything you have and rent a 16mm camera...something you have never even touched before. Then you spend the next 5 1/2 years of your life living in a pitch black underground infrastructure making a documentary. If you have done this, then you are probably Marc Singer the director, photographer, and editor of the highly acclaimed documentary Dark Days, a film about the down and out lives of homeless people in New York.
Dark Days is a documentary about people. In seeing the struggle of these individuals one must look at themselves and their goals and attitudes. These people are forced off the streets by New York officials and into a dark pit of despair. The tunnels are dank, smelly, and infested with rats. Yet, these people create "homes" for themselves. They make use of items that most people discard everyday: pieces of wood, old televisions, CD's, etc. They live without things we take for granted and even become comfortable in their makeshift places of residence.
Yet, even pushed to the lowest part of the city they are not safe. In a move to clean up the underground train tunnels, Amtrak sends armed guards to evict the tunnels' residents. The company assures the settlers that they will be guaranteed a room at a shelter in the city. But most are unhappy. In the tunnels there is a sense of community, one does not have to worry about his or her things being stolen. The mole people virtually have a neighborhood. Just when things don't look so good, the Coalition for Homeless People steps in to save the day. They dispute Amtrak's decision and ultimately secure apartments for all the mole people in the tunnel.
At first one might think this film to be voyeuristic. But Singer's personal sacrifices opened the lines of communication to a cast of characters as lovable as any in fictitious films. In fact, Singer even employed the homeless people he photographed as his crew. He vowed that if the film made any money he would give each of them a sum to start a new life. That to me makes Dark Days a truly heartwarming film. One will leave the theatre with a new found respect for what they have. After viewing this film one feels that there is hope for humanity. It instills in the viewer the thought even though people might have different colored skin, different clothes, or different bank statements we are all human beings with the same troubles and hopes.
****1/2 (stars out of 5) www.darkdays.com
Before Night Falls -- Julian Schnabel
Americans are prone to complain. There is always too much of one thing or too little of another. We take for granted many things. For example, we take for granted that at any time we can pick up a piece of paper and a pen and compose a poem or short story. This issue is at the center of Julian Schnabel's sophmore effort, Before Night Falls. Based on the book of the same name by Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls explores the struggles and turmoil the writer dealt with in his native Cuba.
At first supporting the revolution by Castro, Arenas (played to the "t" by Javier Bardem) soon comes to despise it. For Castro artists signify dissent from the communist ideal. Therefore, after winning a writing contest, Arenas is carefully watched by the government. From this time on he must compose his pieces in secrecy, sometimes in the forest at dusk, before night falls (hence the title). He once tries to flee to Florida on a home made raft. When that tempt fails, he must rely on others to smuggle his manuscripts out of the country to be published abroad.
Arenas is also homosexual, which was not a popular lifestyle under the Castro dictatorship. Being a writer combined with being homosexual is almost a lethal cobination. He is imprisoned late in the film. But he soon makes freinds with the other inmates when it is found out that he is a writer. Every inmate "hires" him to write letters for them until one day he is released. This leads to his ultimate "escape" from Cuba, when in 1980 Castro sent the sick, old, mentally handicapped, and homosexuals out of Cuba. Arenas then moves to New York, but sadly he is already suffering from the AIDS virus.
Like Basquiat, Schnabel's first feature, Before Night Falls has a feel good humanity about it. One truly feel the writers pain and anguish. Schnabel's camera work captivates the audience and "puts them" in the time and place of the film. This surely comes from Schnabel's day job as one of the world's most recognized painters.
Also, Before Night Falls is an adult film. I mean this in the sense that Schnabel does not tell every part of the story. He does not take the audiences hand and lead them from point A to point B to point C. The film is evasive and calls for one to examine and ponder the film after the film is over.
All in all, Javier Bardem is amazing as Arenas and the film is quite beautiful in it's photography and message.
**** (stars out of 5)