After its debut at the New York Film Festival, Manfred Kirchheimer’s street art film “Stations of the Elevated” (1981) quickly fell off the radar of graffiti and documentary enthusiasts. The film enjoyed a revival in at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, though, with sold-out screenings and plenty of press coverage. Scored with a Charles Mingus soundtrack rather than hip-hop, it was a film seemingly both before and behind its time.
The graffiti can be aphoristic or iconic, but it’s tough to pin down: you’re just as likely to see a smiling sun as a gun pointed toward the viewer. The few scenes including people are similarly giddy and grim by turns: a Bronx teen jumps from the second floor of an abandoned apartment building to a mattress on the ground; young men on a train platform critique the images that pass by; passengers stare blankly through train windows.
Kirchheimer’s exploration of urban mobility recalls a number of experimental shorts from the mid-1950s that recorded the Third Avenue Elevated train’s last runs through Manhattan before its 1955 demolition. D.A. Pennebaker’s “Daybreak Express” offers the clearest parallels, with a Duke Ellington soundtrack offering a counterpoint to the abstract latticework of platform girders and train tracks. Carson Davidson’s “Third Avenue El” and Joseph Cornell’s “Gnir Rednow” alternate between shots that examine urban infrastructure with others where passengers stare into the camera.
Stations anticipates many components of street art films such as Style Wars and Wild Style – static wide shots that let a train’s message unfurl on the screen, an interest in the ways that the young artists inhabit their decaying urban environment. What makes Stations different from later street art films, especially Exit through the Gift Shop, is its dismissal of commercial iconography. The film draws clear distinctions between the elaborate burners on the sides of trains and the garish, Pop-inspired billboards that surround them. Both types of images feel like assaults on the viewer, but the graffiti at least connects to the realities of the landscape and culture while the Coppertone baby and the Marlboro man seem flat and inhuman by comparison. The film ends with an Aretha Franklin cover of “Amazing Grace,” reinforcing its belief in the power of art to humanize the city.