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.
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.
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.
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.
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.