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A VHS copy of “Stations of The Elevated”

The urban landscape, through the lens of an obscure independent film.   Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated is, on its face, not a particularly remarkable film. In terms of subject matter, it’s a cousin to the far more prominent 1983 PBS documentary Style Wars. Both explore the graffiti epidemic, or artistic phenomenon (depending on who you ask) that became a symbol of the New York City Subway in the system’s darkest span of the 70s and early 80s.

A straphanger stares out of a train window in “Stations”

Where Stations of the Elevated differs is in its minimalism. While Style Wars follows some of the graffiti artists, as well as the officials who tried to stop them, Stations has no narrator, and no particularly coherent voices. It is instead a swirl of  “tagged” train cars, rolling across the urban landscape to the jazz of Charles Mingus. The film is astonishingly obscure; a 2005 New York Times trend piece exploring graffiti documentaries mentions Style Wars  rather prominently, while completely overlooking Kirchheimer’s documentary—an omission that prompted the obligatory letter to the editor from the filmmaker. While listings note the runtime as 45 minutes, the more easily available versions (e.g. what you would find if you searched the title on YouTube) were clumsily edited down to 26 minutes. This review, however, is based off the full version (which is available in 5 parts here  Update 05/15: That link no longer works, but a full cut seems to now be on YouTube). The film starts with a wide shot of trains sitting at a rail yard. (Sidenote: the yard seems to be Concourse Yard, which is very close to where I went to high school)  We then hear one of the trains, roused from rest by a motorman, begin to slide out of its siding. With this, begins a montage that is captivating and haunting at the same time.

The subway and the statue

What makes the film a higher level of art than simply a collection of archive footage is its use of contrast, recurring imagery, and sound. Offices on 6th avenue and the Statue of Liberty are some early shots, but the main points of contrast are that of the graffiti with various advertisements. The sounds of the trains, sirens, Mingus’ jazz, teenagers on a subway platform, and disjointed recordings from the radio system used by train operators, nicely complement the images. These images of the urban landscape make the film a substantially more immersive experience than Style Wars. The variety of recurring shots, from an unnamed slum in the South Bronx, to a sprawling upstate institution that is slowly revealed to be a prison, truly place one in the time.

This man is one of many advertisements we see the graffiti contrasted with in the film.

All of that said, it’s hard to discern what the film means, or if it has any “message” at all. As the credits make clear, the director had the cooperation of several prominent graffiti artists, but the cinematography does not necessarily “glorify” the graffiti. On the other hand, as has been suggested by some, the recurring comparison of the graffiti with various billboards could be seen as a commentary on the contrasting values society places on art and public expression; sanctioning commercialized messages in some spaces and criminalizing them in other spaces.

A trackworker stands aside for a passing train.

Indeed, on some level, the very premise of this film is sympathetic to the idea of graffiti as art; no one makes 45 minute  documentaries about, say, broken park fences. Still, there are many messages one could take from the film, and credit should be given to the director for not hitting the viewer over the head with any particular social commentary, other than the rather obvious observation that the inner city (primarily the Bronx and upper Manhattan) of late 70s/early 80s New York was not the nicest place. As a film, Stations would not work in the Bronx of today, partly because the subway is long past its graffiti phase, but also because even the borough’s worst areas are no longer evocative of post apocalyptic imagery. Kirchheimer’s film  should be seen a product of the bleak place and time sharply and bitterly captured by Grandmaster Flash in one of the very first pieces of modern hip hop, “The Message” (see below). Questions of social commentary aside, should you see Stations of The Elevated? If you have just under an hour to kill it certainly is worth a view. The immersive use of the clips, recurring images, and sound make this less a documentary and more a semi-guided walking tour of the American inner city at the depths of its mid century decline.

The main screen of “Democracy 2”, showing the different policy areas and the demographic polling in the center.

Two games present differing visions.

As I have alluded to in an earlier piece, politics is not exactly the most popular subject for videogames, even in genres that would lend themselves to realistic portrayals of the political process. However, in this time of political conventions I thought it would be worth the time to look at the contrasting visions presented by two games, Democracy 2 and President Forever 2008. Their differing visions in part are a function of the different focuses of the games; Democracy 2 is about the business of governance, while President Forever is about the unholy art of attaining political office, in this case the presidency of the US.

Democracy 2 is politics as the civics textbook would tell it. The game puts the player in the position of leader in one of several fictional (though clearly based upon real-world) nations. After setting the rules of the game, such as deciding the proportions of some political demographics (socialists, environmentalists, etc.), the player is thrust into leadership.

There are seven policy areas under the player’s purview, ranging from transport to welfare and tax. These seven areas slice up the main screen, with the middle filled with a box showing approval ratings from all 20 demographics of the electorate, plus two ratings that represent approval from the populace as a whole. Inside of these 7 slices, there are three types of clickable icons, as shown in the above picture; statistics icons (crime rate, GDP, unemployment), policy icons (tax rate, military funding) and arguably the most important set of icons, the flaming-red icons that denote pressing problems, like crime waves or hospital bed shortages.

A look at what’s making the “Patriot” demographic in “Democracy 2” tick.

The game under default settings is quite realistic in its depiction of politics, in the sense that it models “political capital,” or the amount of “control” over the government needed to adjust policies. Adjusting funding levels upward, downward, or eliminating programs altogether require differing levels of this ‘capital’, which is represented as a literal number. While this is a valiant effort to simulate the real-world difficulty of changing longstanding policy, I find that it is still too easy to tweak major policies, but this could be a side effect of continued exposure to American politics.

However, the biggest divergence from realism in Democracy 2 is arguably an inevitable consequence of its design; the lack of unpredictability. Policy pages are accompanied by green and red bars showing effect on both demographic opinions and various statistics. While there are random one-off events that are semi-influenced by policies, the whole concept of The Law of Unintended Consequences seems to be absent from the modeling of policy effects. What you see is essentially what you get, which makes the game predictable after a certain length of time playing it.

The main map view of President Forever. Notice the daily activity selection screen to the right.

Closer to the other side of the idealism to cynicism scale is the electoral simulation President Forever 2008. The developer, 270Soft, has settled very snugly into this niche; other titles focus on Canadian, British, and German elections. The goal of President Forever is very simple; to triumph in the electoral college at the end of a campaign.

The simulation is clever in that it rewards indulgence in the morally ambiguous games of electoral politics, but only to a certain point. Running relentlessly negative ads is nice, until one of them “backfires.” Shifting positions to please differing electorates and regions is good, until it prompts a “flip flopper” headline, and so on.

The game also manages to nicely capture the tendencies of the campaign media. Of the several activities the candidate can perform on any given day, the most essential tool is the barnstorm, which describes your basic “roll into town and shake hands” event. Oftentimes this generates headlines from the in-game newspaper about where the candidate went, which feed the news cycle. A candidate looking tired on the trail generates an even bigger headline.

An accidental commentary on the repetitive nature of a horserace-focused media. Screenshot taken from a user-generated scenario simulating the 2009 New York mayoral race.

In fact, because of the limitations of the computer simulation and a likely desire to sidestep the possibility of political controversy, the in-game media perfectly simulates the preference of the real media to magnify gaffes and focus on campaign set-pieces instead of policy. The overlap between  the headlines generated by the in-game newspaper and the types of useless political pieces highlighted by a recent piece on the comedy website Cracked is almost exact.

So which vision of politics is closer to reality? Both games are true to their respective portions of the political process;  governing is no picnic, but Democracy 2 is a bit too predictable in the policymaking department, and a bit too easy in the problem-solving department. Running for political office, on the other hand, is an exhausting exercise in crunching data, tailoring pitches, and manipulating the media, a task that President Forever manages to capture well enough. Either game makes for an entertaining diversion.

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