When director Manfred Kirchheimer's Stations of the Elevated premiered in 1981 at the New York Film Festival, the 90-minute film had the prestige of being the first graffiti documentary ever created. Despite this claim to fame, it's no surprise that the film wasn't a blockbuster. Filled with patient shots of New York's spray-painted trains, commercial billboards, and faceless commuters, there's no way in hell this dialogue-less 16mm ode to the city would stand up to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the highest-grossing film in 1981.
Still, Stations of the Elevated has lasting power, a certain timelessness that speaks to the soul of New York.
On June 27, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is screening Stations of the Elevated for the first time since it has been newly restored. 33 years later, Kirchheimer's masterpiece is still as powerful as when it was released.
Unlike other street art and graffiti-focused films, Kirchheimer's documentary doesn't try too hard to capture the 'gritty underbelly of the city,' an unfortunate cliché that's made more and more graffiti and street art stories look the same. While Kirchheimer does reveal a side of New York many don't see, his version of the city is so strange that it's brand new. More like a nature filmmaker than anything, Kirchheimer captures the urban jungle in all of its untamed glory; shooting from behind branches and between scaffolding, Kirchheimer awaits the lumbering subway trains as the snake across tracks.
Stations of the Elevated may be known as a graffiti movie, but Kirchheimer also focuses his lens on New York's painted billboards, capturing the art of sign painting both in contrast with the raw graffiti spray-paint and also as a partner movement in this explosion of public painting. He mostly films the billboards so we can't see what they're advertising. Instead, Kirchheimer shoots looming eyes and tantalizing bodies painted on enormous scales. Are they signs of commercialization or works of art?
This fragmentary style is also how Kirchheimer captures people, from glimpses through train windows and shutting doors to shadows. Even when filming kids playing outside, he refuses to create a narrative. He is merely an observer, an objective witness.
Stations of the Elevated has no dialogue, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to listen to. One of the strongest parts of the film is its incredible jazz score from Charles Mingus. His smooth notes compliment the huffing and puffing trains, capturing a city that is so alive and so wild.
Stations of the Elevated is being screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 27 at 8 p.m. Find out more information here.
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