One of the earliest works of non-graffiti to consider graffiti as an art form is Manfred Kirchheimer’s 1981 film Stations of the Elevated, which opens today at BAM and will run through October 23. Filmed in the late 1970s on 16mm color reversal film, its 45 minutes are a gentle, lyrical meditation on the way the city used to look and feel, with brightly painted train cars rolling back and forth across the screen to the music of Charles Mingus and Aretha Franklin. The film plays with another Kirchheimer work, Claw: A Fable, a 1968 short film that is a powerfully creepy parable of nature, prosperity, and ruin.
The juxtaposition of the two films is poignant, and plays both sides of remembering history; where one is monumental and ominous, the other is measured and apolitical. Where one calls on history to hold a mirror to the present, the other’s only context is itself, the shifting, impermanent graffiti works in situ, transient murals against a skyline of unmarked brick, steel, and glass.
Claw: A Fable is haunting. It contains no dialogue, and only three or four people are ever seen. What begins as an almost painfully delicate nature film—long shots of tall grass and jagged outcroppings of rock on a crashing seashore—gradually becomes a story of industry and greed, scored with the noises of construction and demolition. Buildings rise and are dismantled, taller and sleeker in each regenerative cycle. The claw of Claw is a Derrick claw, a kind of articulated wrecking ball that, seen in isolation from the human operating it, is like an airborne Godzilla, crashing through the walls of abandoned buildings as if for fun. These scenes of destruction are intercut with shots of nature and close-ups of expressive stone figures carved into the stone of an old church, who watch on in horror.
Stations of the Elevated is longer, lighter, and with not much more dialogue. Filmed in the last years of the 1970s, it’s a rare visual record of graffiti in New York City, and is credited as the earliest film work to treat the medium as an art form. Wholly of its time, it contains not a speck of nostalgia, and its frank treatment of the era (because what other way is there to treat the present?) dates it almost more than the New York it depicts—the burned-out buildings of the Bronx and hand-painted billboards.
Watching Stations of the Elevated in a movie theater is as spare and lovely as an afternoon of people-watching from a shady sidewalk café. Its pace is gentle, plodding, no faster than an uptown 6 train. Charles Mingus’s jazz ebbs and flows with the chuffing of the trains in and out of frame, and the scenes seem to shift as easily as turning your head in another direction. It is a pigeon’s-eye view of New York: prosaic, street-level, pausing only briefly.
The almost anti-nostalgia of Kirchheimer’s work is due in large part to its mood of total observation, with no aim to preservation or immortalizing. In a director’s statement from this year, Kirchheimer writes, “Who knew that after almost 40 years the film would have historical interest?” There are no talking heads, no artists waxing epic over the fight for New York City’s soul; the only voices heard, in fact, belong to a group of teenage boys who stand up high on a train platform watching cars go by, critiquing the work of the artists they recognize at the sight of their tags—Shadow, Slave, the Fabulous Five, Hate, Trash, Aztec. Everything the camera touches speaks for itself with its presence, its commentary only as loud as its paint color.
In the contemporary urban imagination, graffiti is a symbol of something lost, something New York used to have and be. In the minds of many, the city is worse for having chased it away. At the same time this film was made, Jean-Michel Basquiat was painting on walls and boxes across lower Manhattan; Andy Warhol was still at the factory, and Keith Haring was putting together exhibitions at Club 57. The city was alive with art in new and unprecedented forms and places, much of it public, and much of it seen as a scourge on safety and decency. In the neighborhoods of the outer boroughs today, vibrant graffiti culture is a badge of authenticity, a remnant of a city given over to capitalism.
Though they were released more than a decade apart, Claw: A Fable and Stations of the Elevated both speak to the ceaseless self-destruction and regeneration of New York City. For as many monuments and historic sites as have been made from the churned present of previous eras, it seems impossible to set foot in the same New York City twice.
Stations of the Elevated plays at BAM Rose cinemas today through October 23. The 7:45 p.m. screening tonight and the 7 p.m. screening on Saturday, October 18, will feature a Q&A with director Manfred Kirchheimer. The 8 p.m. screening on Tuesday, October 21, will feature a presentation by street artist David “Chino” Villorente, and Claw will not be shown.
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