Lumbering, skronking, and wondrously paint-bombed, Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated (1981) is a 45-minute proto-hip-hop bliss-out, a masterpiece of train- and tag-spotting dedicated to memorializing the extravagant graffiti on its era’s MTA trains and how those trains rumbled across Brooklyn and the Bronx, bearing not just exhausted New Yorkers but gifted artists’ urgent personal expression.
Over the clatter and grind of wheels on track, Kirchheimer layers prime Charles Mingus cuts, often the ones where the bassman’s band is swinging so hard and so loose it sounds like the music couldn’t possibly hold together. That’s a perfect accompaniment to Kirchheimer’s 16mm footage of train cars rounding curves and tipped at angles suggesting Coney Island’s Cyclone rather than sensible commuting.
There’s no narration and only fleeting voices, mostly the yawps of Mingus and the spirited shouts of a couple kids jumping from the second story of an abandoned building onto a couch or mattress. On occasion, Kirchheimer’s attention gets caught by billboards and bridges. He frames through girders and black pillars the great painted eye of the catalog-handsome man in an advertisement; the feeling is of some giant peeking at us.
The dull, idealized realism of these ads — beaming bikini women, the puckered-up ass of the Coppertone baby — clashes tellingly with the jagged glory of the tags. The graffiti, by comparison, is wild and Galápagan, part declaration of self and part impossible flora. Why is one considered an eyesore, and the other not? This newly restored print screens with Kirchheimer’s 1968 short film Claw, a pained look at urban renewal.