Tuesday, June 24, 2014

BAM Cinema Fest ’14: Stations of the Elevated

Never one to mince words, former Mayor Ed Koch called it “vile.” Criminologist James Q. Wilson and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani took a more considered and proactive response to graffiti with the “broken windows” theory of policing and quality of life policies. Fortunately, their approach took, at least up to now. It was a different story in 1981 when Manfred Kirchheimer’s forty five minute docu-tone poem-MTA travelogue Stations of the Elevated debuted at the New York Film Festival. Nearly thirty-three years and a more livable city later, Kirchheimer’s freshly restored ode to late 1970s graffiti screens at the this year’s BAM Cinema Fest (trailer here).

While Kirchheimer produced Elevated with the cooperation of some of the City’s top graffiti practitioners, they never get a talking head segment. Instead, the filmmaker simply documents the sites and ambient sounds of the thoroughly tagged trains and outdoor stations throughout the outer boroughs. For Manhattan elites, it would have been a convenient way to ground themselves in the graffiti scene without having to be there.

To give Kirchheimer all due credit, he certainly has a keen eye for visual composition. However, there is not a lot of charm to the images he captures. Frankly, he largely vindicates Mayor Koch’s withering assessment—this is blight we are looking at.

Fortunately, Kirchheimer also had a fine ear and ripping good taste in music. Most of the soundtrack consists of cleverly edited selections from Charles Mingus at the absolute peak of his powers. Most of the tunes are drawn from his truly classic Atlantic albums, including Oh Yeah and The Clown, including probably his “greatest hit,” “Haitian Fight Song.” The way Kirchheimer segues from Mingus’ “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop that Atomic Bomb on Me” to a gospel track from Aretha Franklin is particularly sly. Granted, you really ought to already have this music on your iWidget, but if it doesn’t get your toe tapping and your head nodding anyway, you’re probably either mostly dead or totally square.

In many ways, Stations functions as a time capsule, giving us a quick fix of a New York many still appreciate on an aesthetic level, but they still would not want to live here then. With little real substance beyond its gritty alternative to the Circle Line Tour, it gets a bit repetitive, even at its three quarters of an hour running time. Some New Yorkers may still share its nostalgia, but for everyone else it merely proves Mingus + 1970s graffiti = Mingus. For those aging hipsters, it screens this Friday (6/27) following a special performance by Mingus Dynasty, as part of the 2014 BAM Cinema Fest.