On June 27th, BAM is screening a newly restored print of Manfred Kirchheimer’s classic and under-appreciated document of a recent chapter in New York’s history. Stations of the Elevated (1980) is an expressionistic cine-poem, set to a Charles Mingus and Aretha Franklin score, that chronicles the graffiti covering subway trains. BAM considers the film to be “the first ever filmed document of graffiti” and lauds its dedicated visual exploration of this “quintessentially urban art form — at a time when it was largely dismissed as vandalism.” While this certainly accounts for the film’s cult status among the historians of hip hop, Kirchheimer’s languid shots are not purely a stylistic tool to legitimize graffiti’s abstract beauty. The pace of the camera catalogues the tags’ content — spray-painted evocations of heaven and hell, whores and sinners, abandonment and liberation — as much as their craft. Watching the film, nostalgia for an unvarnished, less homogenized built environment is almost reflexive. But hopefully, the release of this overdue restoration will also remind viewers about a time when strategic neglect, chronic disinvestment, and the criminalization of poverty were official policy. I don’t remember if there’s a cartoon of Reagan on one of the subway cars depicted in the film, but I bet his recent inauguration loomed in the backs of viewers’ minds when the film premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1981.
Kirchheimer implied as much in an interview on the Leonard Lopate show five years ago. He and I had been invited to discuss the depictions of New York City’s transit system during a series of film screenings at the Brecht Forum, a cultural organization dedicated to Marxist thought, which closed its doors this spring. Organized by Red Channels, a group of leftist film programmers and filmmakers, the series included one evening dedicated to beautiful and rarely seen city symphonies from the dawn of cinema, another dedicated to films about New York City’s transit system, and a final event dedicated to the promise of public housing, the use of public parks, and the function of public plazas. Some of the films screened, like William Whyte’s Social Life of Small Urban Places (1980) are classic references for urbanists. Others, like Jay Leyda’s masterpiece A Bronx Morning (1931), are revered by cinephiles but rarely seen by anyone else. And Stations of the Elevated was, until the intervention of Artists Public Domain, which sponsored the restoration, in danger of being forgotten.
Screening them together in 2009 under the series title “A Right to the City,” in the venue of a Marxist cultural center (that eventually fell victim to the hypercapitalism of New York City real estate), definitely recontextualized the films in terms of public and private, labor exploitation and capital accumulation. Let’s see in what light the BAM screening casts Kirchheimer’s opus. And if it whets your appetite for more depictions of New York’s graffiti, check out City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection, on view at the Museum of City of New York until September 1st.
Cassim Shepard is the editor of Urban Omnibus. He makes non-fiction media, especially films and video, about architecture and urbanism. He lives in Brooklyn.