MT-spray: Old doc about subway graffiti finds new life at BAM

MT-spray: Old doc about subway graffiti finds new life at BAM
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Stand clear of the multicolored doors!

In the late 1970s, filmmaker Manfred Kirchheimer could hardly keep his eyes off of the subway cars. Graffiti artists were in their heyday, and their work virtually covered the transit system.

“There would be these beautiful streaming colors,” Kirchheimer said. “I decided I wanted to capture it.”

Kirchheimer’s documentary, “Stations of the Elevated,” premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1981. It is a gritty, atmospheric reel of tagged trains and rail yards, with no dialogue and a soundtrack by jazz legend Charles Mingus. The film did not receive a single review, and it slunk slowly into relative obscurity.

“It went to the New York Film Festival, and then it died. It was never heard from again,” Kirchheimer said.

But it will be heard from again on June 27, when a newly restored, high-definition version of the film will be screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Musics’s upcoming BAMcinemaFest, which runs from June 18–29.

Before the show, jazz ensemble the Mingus Dynasty will perform a selection of songs from the score. Many of the band’s members played with Charles Mingus before his death in 1979.

“Thank God I lived this long,” said Kirchheimer, who is 83. “The film is being resurrected, and I would never had known about it.”

To research his film back in the 1970s, Kirchheimer said he rode every subway line that goes outdoors, sitting in the front car so he could see out of the windshield.

“I took it to Coney Island, to Brighton Beach, to Smith Street — the highest point in the subway system,” Kirchheimer said. “I discovered Brooklyn.”

When it came time for him to actually shoot the film, however, he was limited mostly to areas of the Bronx and Manhattan.

But the trains were not meant to represent a specific part of New York, he said — they were supposed to be emblematic of the whole city’s underside.

“I wasn’t trying to locate or place these trains,” said Kirchheimer. “I wanted them to be universal.”

It may have been the colors that drew Kirchheimer in, but soon he started to see messages behind the fast-moving images. He saw what many were calling “vandalism” as a form of expression for young folks who were living in the city at a very troubled time.

“The images had a lot of fires in them. A lot of guns pointed at you. A lot of eyes pointed at you,” he said. “It was like a cry from a ghetto. A scream.”

But Kirchheimer does not miss the graffiti-covered trains. Nothing can last forever, he said.

“It was a special time in New York,” he said. “It had to end eventually.”

Nevertheless, the expression of our city’s youth has not diminished just because the subway cars are now shiny, he said.

“Things like that are cyclical. They come back in different ways, and they have,” he said. “With street art, with hip-hop, with skateboarding. The youth will be the youth.”

“Stations of the Elevated” at the BAM Harvey Theater [651 Fulton St. between Rockwell and Ashland places in Fort Greene, (718) 636–4100, www.bam.org]. June 27 at 8 pm. $25 general, $20 members.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.