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Manny Kirchheimer's 'Stations of the Elevated' Is a Paean to the Old New York

The painted trains that were popularly despised as emblem’s of NYC's decay and chaos in the late 1970s and 1980s are now viewed with a certain nostalgia and respect, along with the gritty landscape that has since vanished.

Manfred Kirchheimer’s 1981 masterpiece Stations of the Elevated begins its first theatrical run in the United States this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Cinematék, over 30 years after it debuted at the New York Film Festival to little fanfare. Out of the 31 films that were featured in the 1981 festival, it was notable for being the only one not reviewed by the New York Times. Given the film’s rich beauty and meticulous composition, it's reasonable to assume that this initial dismissal and belated critical embrace has much to do with shifting attitudes toward the subject of graffiti writing. The painted trains that were popularly despised as emblem’s of the city’s decay and chaos in the late 1970s and early 1980s are now viewed with a certain nostalgia and respect, along with the gritty landscape that has since vanished. Set to a jazz soundtrack featuring Charles Mingus and Aretha Franklin, Stations of the Elevated flies through through the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, the billboards of Times Square, and even an upstate prison, raising difficult questions about life in the city and the nature of urban art. Who owns the streets, and who has the right to vandalize them?

I met with Manny, who is now eighty-three years old, at the School of Visual Arts, where he has been happily teaching an array of filmmaking courses since 1975 and continues to teach today, to talk about the making of Stations of the Elevated and its long road to a theatrical release. Born in Germany in 1931, Kirchheimer’s parents brought the family to Washington Heights in 1936 to escape Hitler. He learned the craft at the very first documentary program in the United States at City College under the instruction of Dadaist filmmaker Han Richter in the 1950s. Kirchheimer then worked as an editor on industrials and television programs in New York before making his early films Colossus on the River (1963), about the docking of an ocean liner, and Claw (1968), about the rise of glass and steel skyscrapers and the destruction of older buildings in their wake. These films are largely wordless and possess a timeless quality that feels fresh today, owing to his expressive visual style and use of classical and jazz music. Somehow, it was not a surprise when Kirchheimer revealed that he regarded himself as a kind of cinematic time traveler, consciously working to produce images likely be more resonant in the future than at the time of their creation.

VICE: When did you first encounter the painted trains in Stations of the Elevated? I have this vision of you seeing them on an elevated platform on your way to work.
Manny Kirchheimer: No, it’s not like that. Because when they roll in on the way to work, they’re in your face. They’re as close as you are to me, you know? So you see a little patch, you don’t really pay attention. And I think most of the people just felt it was an assault on them. It’s bad enough having to go to work in the morning, but they have to go in these smutty, smudgy, abusive cars. I didn’t think about it one way or the other, it didn’t bother me big time, but I was hearing what people were saying. My father-in-law said that the kids who were doing it ought to be strung from lampposts. That was a fairly common attitude.

I was part of a food co-op at the time and I would go to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx—where the wholesale markets were—via the Cross Bronx Expressway. The Cross Bronx Expressway has three or four elevated lines crossing it, and by 5:30 PM in the summer, the sun is out brilliantly, and it would illuminate these screens of color. It was very pretty, and that’s when I became interested and thought to myself, this could be a film. So I applied for a grant and gave myself two hours to write the proposal. I used big words like “quintessential,” and at the time we were using tokens to get on the subway, so I talked about the trains coming from “the token ends of the Earth.” It was all bullshit. I didn’t really have respect for the process of applying for a grant, because I had unsuccessfully applied to the American Film Institute for a grant 21 times before this. And of course, this was the one that was accepted, after spending so much time being a goody-goody.

I didn’t do much research. The things that I found out, which are in the film now, are things that happened mostly while I was shooting. The fact that there was a gun, that there were eyes looking at you, that there was fire, that there were whores, that there were angry faces and clenched fists. And messages like “HATE” and “SLAVE” and “SHADOW." There was so much fire on these trains. I was finding a lot of fire, and “The Bronx is burning!” you know?

What was your sense of the inspiration behind these paintings?
I figured this is a scream from the ghetto and these kids are bursting out and expressing themselves out of the experience of their lives. Years later, when I was making Spraymasters (2008), I told that to Zephyr—Andy Witten, wonderful guy, a graffiti guy from the old day, he was the white kid and he was sort of the archivist. When I interviewed him, he did not agree with what I had concluded as an outsider who knew nothing and was trying to make a sociological thing out of it. He felt that you’d have to ask each individual writer why he was doing what he was doing. That some people were just influenced by comic books or by things they saw on television or by each other, and not necessarily by the signifiers I was finding. I was finding a lot of low-class kind of imagery and a lot of anger, which I connected to their surroundings. Why else would somebody want to call himself HATE? But Zephyr discounted that, he thought it was simplistic. I made Stations of the Elevated long before I knew him based on ideas like that. I think that’s what a lot of philosophy is about anyhow. I think that a lot of philosophy may not be true, but the process produces great work. I’m not saying mine is great work, but it’s the process that counts, not necessarily the premise.

Something I admire about Stations of the Elevated is the way people and images in the city are constantly regarding and judging each other. Somehow, every person and object feels engaged and opinionated. In particular, you feature a group of kids hanging out at an elevated train station and commenting on the art that goes by.
And the billboard faces—who are of course, contemptuous of what’s happening. They’re intimidating. They’re looking. Well, that’s what I thought. And then, sometimes they’re meretricious, like the woman who seems to be making eye contact with another billboard, who is hardly clothed.

Right. You’ve said elsewhere that you had this idea that there was legal vandalism as well as illegal vandalism, the advertisements versus the graffiti. You’re posing a question about who has the authority to vandalize our cities.
Right. Billboards and all that stuff is legal vandalism. So the question of property being abused, property being destroyed, if you put it in a different context, it’s “Who owns the streets?” In that sense, these people have a perfect right to express themselves. The billboards are expressing on behalf of some mogul in Texas or wherever, who is selling you cancer. But I don’t think these kids understood any of that. I think that they were compelled, obviously, by competition and peer pressure, but also the idea that they were seeing everything promoted instead of themselves. They were such small fry, and they put themselves up, as they say. I didn’t know any of the graffiti writers when I made this film. Before I knew anything, I called these images on the trains live souls, after Gogol’s Dead Souls. Because that’s how it seemed to me—very lively stuff, traveling on the trains and making these circuits, saying, “Look at me! Look at me!”

Why do you think there’s a renewed interest in Stations of the Elevated today, over 30 years after it first appeared?
Everybody now knows that that graffiti happened 30 years ago. But it doesn’t seem old fashioned, you know what I mean? It seems current. I tried to exclude current things so that the film would seem modern many years later. I saw myself as a visitor from the future, trying to understand what was there. Like a time capsule. I thought: Here are clues, which are bound together by these trains, but they’re all over the place, like the shadows I captured on the walls. They were being made unconsciously and without notice every day of the week by the sun on the walls of those stations. Which made me think about Hiroshima. You know about Hiroshima, where the shadows stayed on the wall after the blast? And what’s interesting is that in a sense, it’s coming true. It’s 33 years later and suddenly there’s a revival and people are seeing this world of 1977.

Like I say, the film was not successful in 1981, but now the Times calls it “achingly gorgeous.” Now they’re talking about there being beauty in this film, but in those days, those nostalgic days, everybody wanted to clean up the subways! And they’ve succeeded—tthey cleaned up the subways—but it’s also more bland. That’s always the trade-off.

Stations of the Elevated plays October 17 through the 23rd at BAM Rose Cinemas. Get more info here

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