I have been lucky in the last 12 months to have been able to see Wild Style, Beat Street, and Style Wars on the big screen. They are all exceptional films in their ways, and especially when viewed together they provide a wholly fascinating glimpse into a singular world – that of the Bronx in the mid-‘80s. A world of colourful graffiti, emerging hip-hop sounds, and people who don’t quite believe that they have the ability to be more than they’ve been assigned simply because they live where they do.
Offering a similar, and yet altogether different view of this landscape is Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated. Filmed in 1977, released in 1981, two years before Wild Style and Style Wars shined a mainstream-leaning spotlight on the scene. Kirscheimer, a German native but raised from a young age in New York City, brings a clinically observational eye to his 46-minute film, beautifully restored and projected on screens again.
He appears far less interested in the people behind the images with his camera only occasionally drifting into the same orbit as human beings. Instead, Kirchheimer appears more interested in the way the subway interacts with urban life, cutting through neighbourhoods like a scalpel through flesh and how people have taken to the individual subway cars as canvases to educate, provoke, and infuriate. By painting these cars, these people are forcing those in the richer Manhattan to acknowledge them and to not act as if they don’t exist. Juxtaposing the so-called vandalism of subway cars with the far more respectable art of billboards (still hand-painted in that time), the film asks viewers to contemplate why it is that we think these graphic images aren’t valid art. Stations of the Elevated doesn’t say this explicitly of course – it doesn’t “say” anything – but the idea is explicitly there.
Unlike the other three films that I have mentioned, Kirchheimer doesn’t soundtrack his images with the scratches, beats, samples, raps, and crescendos of hip-hop music. Rather he chose jazz, which proves to be a rather ingenious choice. There is a certain structured freestyle edge to jazz that replicates that of the graffiti that adorned subway cars across the boroughs throughout the decade. Both the sounds and the images may at first appear on the fly and improvised, but rather they are planned down to finite details. The music, by jazz legend Charles Mingus, is as unpredictable as the film itself. Both veer and swerve in unexpected directions, looping back to previous notes that struck their fancy. I was reminded of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1953 short, Daybreak Express, probably my favourite short film ever it’s so swimmingly gorgeous, which also infused images of the New York subway with that of trumpets and saxophones.
That short film was created upon the realization that the elevated Third Avenue subway line in Manhattan was to be demolished. Kirschheimer’s subject, the graffitied train-cars that bundle about throughout the city collecting and disposing of passengers as if the traffic embodiment of a figure eight, still had a good decade of life left in it when filmed in 1977. Not only as seen through Wild Style, Style Wars, and Beat Street, but also prime time television series The Equalizer and numerous underground and low-budget NYC cinema. The city has successfully eradicated this, of course, and even movies have had, too – the adaptation of Rent could when they went into the depths of the subway system.
Offering a vision of New York that doesn’t fit into any preconceived box, whether that be romanticized or grittily to the fact, Stations of the Elevated is a curious film. Its images are fascinating to watch, although the film’s – yes – very jazz-like structure means viewers may drift in and out of what they may perceived as a lackadaisical form. Viewing it today some 33 years after it premiered at the New York Film Festival and Kirchheimer’s film is perhaps best seen as a nostalgic trip to a pre-gentrified New York rather than a quizzical look at the modern city. Either way it’s interesting and great documentation of a specific moment in time that shouldn’t be forgotten.