Director of Panned ’80s Graffiti Doc Stations of the Elevated Wonders Why We’re So Into It Today


Nobody thought a movie made entirely about graffiti-covered trains would be so compelling. But it was. Or so people think today. Stations of the Elevated, a 1980 documentary by cinematographer and School of Visual Arts professor Manfred Kirchheimer, has been getting the kind of recognition — 24 years later — that it never saw when the film was first released. During a sold-out screening at BAMcinemaFest, the theater still had a line around the block.

But why?

“I’m not altogether sure,” Kirchheimer, now 83, tells the Voice. “There’s a resurgence, but I don’t know why. I’m just a filmmaker.”

At the time Kirchheimer made the film — which he calls a “visual poem” honoring the numerous spray-paint-covered elevated subway cars of the Bronx — it was largely panned or ignored. “The film made it to the New York Film Festival at the time, but it went no further,” Kirchheimer remembers. “It didn’t get a review from the New York Times, anyway. It did get a review from the Voice — not a good one, by the way — and so it kind of [fizzled].”

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Film review:
Stations of the Elevated Is a Graffiti-Bombed NYC Blissout

Not a good one, indeed. In a 1981 review, Voice critic J. Hoberman called the film “disappointing,” “a downbeat, unintentional parody of the 1950s ‘eye on New York’ school where Kirchheimer has his roots”:

[Kirchheimer] makes the same points repeatedly without amplification. (Advertising billboards sell sex — what else is new?)

(Times change, and when we reviewed it for its re-release, current Voice film editor Alan Scherstuhl adored the movie. Just sayin’.)

As a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts — where he still teaches today — Kirchheimer has enjoyed a firsthand look at the resurgence of graffiti art and appreciation. Students come in every year, he says, wanting to learn more about the hip-hop art and style movement of 1980s New York. But since its heyday more than 30 years ago, the city has taken drastic steps to criminalize graffiti, making the landscapes that Kirchheimer documented feel practically foreign.

“I guess nostalgia can crop up at any time,” he says. But, he adds, the crackdown made subway graffiti nearly extinct before the decade was out. “Effectively, there was no more graffiti on the subway trains after 1989. I don’t know…I think to attribute it to any one thing might be wrong.”

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One thing he does know, though, is that it’s rare for an artist to witness this kind of tidal change in recognition and regard. “If you want to ask me how I feel about it, I’m absolutely thrilled [the film] has had this resurgence,” he says. “I’m 83 years old, and you have to live long enough, I guess, for this kind of thing to happen.”

You can catch Stations of the Elevated at BAM October 17-23.