Stations of the Elevated is a portrait of New York City made by an alien. It most immediately suggests comparisons with the work of European documentarians visiting the United States, like Werner Herzog and Goran Hugo Olsson (The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975). Yet the film’s director, Manfred Kirchheimer, was not exactly a visitor. As a child he was brought to America by his parents, on the run from Nazi Germany. He grew up here. Kirchheimer learned his craft in New York City.
Nonetheless, Stations of the Elevated has the air of an outsider’s perspective. Actually, it feels made by an extraterrestrial. This 1981 documentary, newly restored and receiving a special screening at this year’s BAMcinemaFest, is a peculiar trip through the graffitied mass transit system of New York City. Unlike Style Wars, released two years later, Stations of the Elevated isn’t a social portrait of the city’s renegade artists and the debate over their work. It is instead an almost wordless trip up and down the tracks of the subway, from the enormous rail yards of the outer boroughs into the busy hubbub of Midtown and out again.
It gives off an extraterrestrial impression, in part, because it presents the trains as the real New Yorkers. Kirchheimer begins at the rail yards, the unfathomably vast homeland of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s fleet. They rest on the edges of the city, waiting to awake in the morning and charge forth toward Manhattan, one by one. Quite a lot of time elapses before Stations of the Elevated includes even a single human face. Instead, these metallic snakes begin to resemble sentient life forms.
Crucial to this is the soundtrack by jazz legend Charles Mingus. The improvisational, unpredictable nature of his music gives personality to these behemoths of modern engineering. They have the energy of characters in a cartoon by John and Faith Hubley, a spirit that remains convincing in spite of the detachment we normally feel from machines. Kirchheimer finds exactly the right angle at which to shoot these trains, following the tracks as they go round a bend or head off into the distance in such a way that seems to imply consciousness solely through movement. It’s quite something.
And the trains themselves are only one element. The presence of humans in New York City is felt, not through images of actual New Yorkers, but through those designs they have plastered all over the place. Kirchheimer has a particular obsession with bright billboards, most of which have gained a layer of comic nostalgia in the three decades since the world premiere of the film. They have a very distinctly 1970s sexual energy, most of them featuring enormous pinups. It wouldn’t seem out of place if one of these idealized women stepped out of her commercial framing and into the universe, wreaking havoc upon the consumers below like Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini’s The Temptation of Doctor Antonio.
In direct conflict with the buxom women and mustachioed gentlemen of the billboards is the extensive, diverse work of graffiti artists that accompany the trains through the city. As these elaborate tags travel up and down the subway tracks they participate in a playful dialogue with the other distinctive images of the city. Stations of the Elevated matches advertising and graffiti, Madison Avenue and Grand Concourse Avenue, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions as to the artistic validity of both.
And, after all, a city symphony without dialogue or narrative is a work open to interpretation. There are a number of striking architectural images in the film, not all of them charming. Kirchheimer allows for a diversion in the latter half of the film, a trip up the Hudson River to an intimidating correctional facility. The specter of the prison hovering above the playful, frenetic buzzing of the metropolis is a striking one. The MTA has since completely succeeded in preventing graffiti and so the images of tagged cars are perhaps more nostalgic than provocative. The criminal justice system, however, remains an enormous problem in the lives of American cities. Kirchheimer’s inclusion of the upstate correctional facility is an enigma that has changed overtime, a testament to the continued relevance of this near-forgotten triumph.
This review was originally published during BAMcinemaFEST on June 24, 2014.