In 1981, German-born filmmaker Manfred Kirchheimer released the first film to document the graffiti explosion that engulfed virtually every train car in New York City. Shot in 1977 and painstakingly edited over three years, Stations of the Elevated provided a crucial snapshot of an art form born to die, with the music of Charles Mingus providing the only real audio commentary. "I saw these trains at like five o'clock in the morning, in the summer, crossing the Bronx Expressway. And they were ribbons of color, and I was very taken by that," Kirchheimer explains of his first encounter with graffiti writing.
Newly restored and primed for rerelease this fall (it will be released digitally by Oscilloscope Laboratories on October 20th and as a two-disc, limited edition on November 17th.) Stations doubles as a commentary on what Kirchheimer describes as the "deplorable" nature of advertising and commercial art. Images of trains gloriously spray paint-bombed by voiceless, destitute teenagers snake through and around a city plastered with towering billboards meant to only to suppress its citizenry further, pimping everything from fast food to liquor in startlingly crass manners. Though New York City graffiti's initial forms and purposes have long since faded, the vitality of this most temporary of expressions is no longer lost thanks to Stations' haunted frames.
What was your greatest challenge in making the film?
Well, you've seen the film, right? And you know that it's an all-image film. And because of that, I had terrible difficulty with finding a structure for it. And, of course, a structure does not only mean a chronology or what follows what, but also built into it has to be the enticement to keep going. So for example, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, right? Which is a famous Hollywood structure. So here I am with all of these images, I don't quite know how to get from the beginning to the end and keep it going. It took me three weeks to shoot this film and three years to edit it, believe it or not [laughs]. Because I took a lot of false roads at the beginning.
Do you think there are any valuable contemporary temporary art forms like graffiti writing that exist today?
Well you know, I'm a filmmaker, and I'm not really up on all that stuff. I saw these trains -- I was in a food co-op -- and I saw these trains at like five o'clock in the morning, in the summer, crossing the Bronx Expressway. And they were ribbons of color, and I was very taken by that. Although my interest deepened as I shot it and I began to read the messages, which I didn't catch at first. So I took it as a filmmaker. When you ask a question like that, you're really asking someone who knows more than I do about the current scene, and I think it would be pretentious of me to answer that.
You thank the likes of well-known graffiti artists like Zephyr in the credits. Did you get to spend any one-on-one time with some of the more notable graffiti artists?
Not at all. I did later when I made Spraymasters (2008). At that time, I was a complete innocent, and I was outside the loop, and I hadn't met a single one. And as you can see from the film, I didn't really need to know anybody. It's a purely visual film based on what I shot and found out-- all the locations I found out-- and so on. Then what happened, since I shot the MOS-- do you know film terminology?
A little bit.
So you know what I'm talking about when I say MOS?
MOS means "mit out sound." And we old-timers, before the digital age, and before the time when so-called cinéma vérité came in, we worked with silent film that we put sound onto afterwards. Which is the way this film was made. This film was shot completely silent. And then all the sound you hear -- everything, without exception -- was put in later, so after two years of editing the film, I know had to start working on the sound portion of it. And there was the sequence of the boys up on the station commenting on the trains that went by.
Their reviews of the graffiti.
Right. So I needed some sound for that. My son, who was -- let me see, this is 1980 -- so my son was like 18 or 19, he knew a couple of graffiti writers, including Zephyr, whom I became friends with much, much later. First I met him... again because I teach at the School of Visual Arts and he went to the School of Visual Arts after being a writer. But that was not the reason I thanked him [in the credits]. My son rounded up these five guys or so on the 125th Street platform, and as the trains went by I recorded their comments. Zephyr helped me get those guys -- even though I didn't know Zephyr, Zephyr was a friend of my son's -- helped me get those guys onto the platform, so I thanked him.
You've made two films about the subject. Do you think the commercialization of graffiti writing has taken some of its soul? Or has the art form changed in ways that are irrevocable?
Yes, I do. I deplore -- as you can see from the movie -- I deplore advertising. People sell themselves out without even knowing it, I think. I mean for example, the guy in Stations who does the billboard -- Charlie Martinez was his name -- he probably went to art school, learned how to hone his craft, be skillful. And he got a job -- the outdoor job was perfect because he loved to play softball. But rarely do people look into the content of what they're doing. And of course what he was doing was selling cigarettes, and what cigarettes were doing was causing cancer. So after a while -- and this is talked about in Spraymasters -- graffiti, you know the guys on Madison Avenue said, "Hey, let's use some graffiti in our ads. Let's use graffiti backgrounds in our car ads. Let's get the kids to paint them and have them on sneakers and stuff like that." Well, yes I do deplore that. I think it takes the soul out of stuff. And one of the things I'm most pleased with is that I was able to show the original form when it was screening around New York and advertising the kids themselves, and their aspirations.
Do you see any value or beauty in the commercial art you juxtapose the graffiti with after almost 35 years have passed?
No, I don't. It's recently, in the past year and a half, that Stations has been out there on tour, and I've had the opportunity to do many Q&As. And unfortunately I find out that the people really like the billboards [laughs]. There's a romance, particularly to the hand-painted ones, because so few of them are hand-painted today. But my opinion of them has not changed. To me, it's the content, not the form of a billboard, that counts. And the content in my film, back then anyway, sells liquor, the content sells cigarettes, the content sells...
Whatever it's selling, it's selling in a meretricious way. Through sex, you know... regardless of the product. And no, I don't like our natural world polluted in this way. Not then, and not now. The 35 years hasn't changed anything, but I think it's changed a lot for the people who are seeing it. I think there's more of a romance about it now than there was back then. I never got the kind of responses in 1980, or '85 or whatever that I'm getting now about the billboards, which are kind of likened to the graffiti in a very benign way. My feeling is it's just the opposite. The kids are expressing themselves. The people putting up billboards are following the orders of some mogul who's making millions of dollars by creating cancer.
How much do you think that the city's cleaning of the trains was about vandalism, and how much was it about classism and racism?
I think it was definitely mostly about vandalism. First of all, there were some white kids who did the graffiti on the trains. It was not all blacks and Latinos. But also, everybody hated the graffiti. I'm talking about the strap-hangers, I'm talking about the stations, where they're trying to find a seat and this stuff is right in their face. And they go both inside and out, full of these unclean things happening. And I think that needed to be cleaned up because the elections... (the city) would not elect a mayor who would allow that to happen. And black people who went to work and Latino people who went to work, I think they hated it as much as the white people did. So I don't think it was a racist thing; I think they just couldn't stand the look of it and needed to get rid of it so they could have cleanliness again.
Well white, black or Latino, it was still a lot of low-income kids who were getting into this art form and giving themselves a voice. Maybe the city didn't want poor kids to have a voice.
Sure, sure, but look, consider yourself a 40-year-old going to a job you don't want to go to at eight in the morning on the subway station. And you're asked to go into this really crappy subway. And by the way, the trains look so much better outdoors than they do underground. The way I photographed them in the sun, they look mostly pretty. Some of them are better made than others, and I don't know whether you've experienced this, but the inside of these trains were full of squiggles, people's tags. All over the windows, all over everything. I mean, the place just looked like shit. Today you go into a subway, it's got a lot of problems, but you know, it's stainless steel, it's clean, it's sanitary, you would say. So I really think they just had to clean it up. I think the racism -- if there was any -- was a side issue. I don't think they were so interested in whether these people were giving themselves voices as they were in making the subways clean again. It felt to people like a plague.
Why use the music of Charles Mingus?
I knew it needed a jazz score. I'm fairly familiar with jazz, but I was less familiar with Mingus. And jazz, by and large, the songs have a theme, a standard piece, and they start with the theme and then it goes around to all the musicians, and they each do their own improv on the theme. Well, that didn't work in a film like this. It needed a raucous, maybe-a-little-angry jazz that was a whole piece, rather than improvs around a central theme. And so I discovered Mingus, and Mingus was very, very serious about his music. But there was also an edge, a real angry edge to it, which seemed to match the feelings in the graffiti. So we tried out some pieces and it worked, I thought. And the rest is history.
Obviously graffiti is an integral part of hip-hop, but in 1981, the music aspect of the culture was still very much underground and in its infancy. Looking back, would you have wanted to incorporate hip-hop into the film, had you been more aware of it?
You know, I have looked back on that, and I'll tell you that I started the film in 1977 and it was finished in 1980, and very, very soon there were already people asking why I didn't use hip-hop and rap in the early '80s. And my reason back then was a very innocent one, which was that in 1980, I was over 50 years old and was not up on it. I was not familiar with the form. I just don't know everything, and I didn't know that. I got to know it later, but it wasn't part of my equipment at the time. Then, recently -- because I've had to deal with the film at a lot of screenings and Q&As -- I have looked at the question, and knowing now what I know about it, it wouldn't have worked, Zach. It wouldn't have worked and I'll tell you why. Because, as you know, hip-hop -- the greatest variation in hip-hop are the words. The beat is often very similar, the melody is often hardly existent. It's the words, really. What's being said. Well, this is a film in which I was eager for people to read the words on the trains. As I said to myself at the beginning, I said "I'm going to make a movie in which people are going to be reading." People usually don't read in a movie, but here you have every train that's going by saying "Slave,""Shadow,""For the People of the City,""Heaven Is Life,""Earth Is Hell." You gotta read this movie. You're reading. So if you're going to pay attention and read what comes on the screen, then you're going to have a contradiction because you're going to hear other words that are going to act like a voiceover. Anytime you use hip-hop, you're really dealing with voiceover in a movie. Because you have to pay attention to those words, otherwise the song fails. You can just "bop" and not pay attention to what's being said. There's substance there.
That's an interesting consideration.
I think it would've clashed with the film.
Speaking of clashes, did you encounter any problems, either technical or personal, while filming in some of the more rundown neighborhoods or in downtown Manhattan?
Well actually only once -- do you remember the prison in the film? We went out of town in order to shoot some billboards, that big car on a pedestal, that big man behind the wires -- when we went out of town for stuff like that. I scouted locations. But while we're out of town, suddenly we discover this prison outside of Ellenville, New York. And I said, "Oh my god, this is perfect." And there's a hill on each side, and I'm on top of the car, and I'm thinking this is gonna be great to shoot because I can see the turrets, I can see the top of the prison building.
And even into the yard, where you can see actual people.
And even into the yard a little bit. And especially because I'm on top of the car so I've got an extra four, five feet there. So of course we get arrested [laughs]. And they open up the camera, they confiscate the film and tell me I can't do this. You can't just go shooting the prison, you know. So I said, "Well look, we're not doing anything wrong. We're not casing the joint. We didn't mean to upset you. So how do we get permission to shoot from that hill?" And they told us, "Well, you gotta write Albany," and they gave me the address, and I did that, and they gave me permission. So I went back and I shot it again. But that was about the only difficulty. You have to try not to work in traffic. But no, it was a piece of cake. Oh no, that's not entirely true. We always snuck into the [train] yards. The yards were off-limits. And I had an initial meeting with the MTA -- I'm not sure you should write about this -- saying that I want a pass so I can shoot on platforms. And they gave that to me with the admonition that I not shoot any trains that had graffiti on them. Now of course that's an impossibility, because at that time, there were no trains without graffiti. They offered me a train or a car in Brooklyn, I'm trying to remember the station... where they allow shooting under supervision. Where you have a film like, what is it, One Two Three?
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three?
That's right! That was shot there. So they're offering me this, but they're also giving me a pass for the platforms. So we of course snuck into yards until we were thrown out and our pass was taken away. But I can't really call that trouble because we created that trouble by doing something illegal.
So just to be clear, you want that off the record?
No, I didn't say anything bad, did I?
I don't think so. I think there's probably a statute of limitations on --
You made a follow-up to Stations of the Elevated in 2008 called Spraymasters where you documented former graffiti writers tagging trains. Do you think there's any room for graffiti art in the 21st century?
Well, once again, you're talking to a filmmaker, not an anthropologist. So I don't really know the answer. This particular kind of graffiti goes all the way back to the Roman times, or before that. But in America, it was in bathrooms. Guys were soliciting pussy and drawing penises with balls and all sorts of obscene things. And leaving their phone numbers and so on in public bathrooms. So that was a graffiti that everyone who was human deplored, and it was kind of disgusting. And suddenly these rich-hued, beautiful ribbons of color -- when you see them outside from a distance, not on the platform -- start coming by. And if you pay attention, you can see that there's not a single obscenity there. It's all about names, and then it begins to become about messages, like "Stop the Bomb." You know, important things they started to write about. And that started very small, in 1971 or something, with [famous graffiti writer] TAKI . It started very, very small and built up so by the time when I was shooting -- '77 -- it was very rich and had been going on for five years and was very, very colorful. Now I'm not promoting it as art or anything. I just felt it was a phenomenon to be documented. And then it went on and, in Spraymasters, I think Zephyr says it was gone after 1989. So it had a life. It had a life and it was pushed out by the fact that now these trains were stainless, so they could easily be washed. Whereas during my time of shooting, they had to be painted trains upon which they did this. It wasn't a stainless train. They never got a formula that really solved this problem. But then they did by making stainless-steel trains where the graffiti could easily be washed off. And furthermore, I think the kids may have gotten a little tired. The phenomenon had gone on for 15 years, from '74-'89, something like that. And I think in this century, there's room for a lot of protest, there's room for a lot of self-expression, but I don't think it will come back in the same form. I think that form had its day. And if something does crop up, it will come up in some other imaginative form, and we don't know yet what it is. Is there room for it? I think throughout the world, throughout history, there'll always be room for self-expression.