Stations of the Elevated: A Love Letter to 1981 New York

A languid, almost reluctantly poetic portrait of an unmistakable period in New York City history,Stations of the Elevated is an independent documentary film produced, directed, edited, and shot by Manfred (Manny) Kirchheimer in 1981.
Composed largely of slow pan shots of subway cars, rail yards, bridges and water towers, the film is set to a score that mixes Charles Mingus with the sounds of screeching subway brakes, honking horns and police sirens.
There is no commentary and no judgement, but the sounds and images—children playing in abandoned buildings, jackhammers bouncing under elevated tracks—evoke a New York City that feels both familiar and nostalgic.
It’s an impressionistic jumble, but one where the image associations inevitably surprise and delight. The film is chock-full of accidental moments of eerie beauty—a billboard’s advertising cowboy can be seen through a bridge’s hand rail. We see a graffiti Charlie Brown followed by a 1920s gangster complete with wide lapels and menacing smirk.
Another billboard, this time of a cheeseburger, replaces a graffiti-emblazoned train that says “Ease.” A rickety train ambling down elevated tracks that seem certain to collapse is quickly replaced by an image of another train emblazoned with the word: “crime.”
For urbanist film buffs, the lingering, loving effort to chronicle graffiti’s golden age is what distinguishes Stations of the Elevated. It was one of very first films to document New York’s graffiti and present it as a whimsical, resourceful cultural phenomenon rather than as a symbol of urban decline.
Stations of the Elevated can be seen as a something of a downbeat sequel to D.A. Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express, a film about similar themes made almost 30 years earlier. Pennebaker’s effort, which also blends documentary and experimental filmmaking, is anchored by Duke Ellington, a choice tailor-made for 1953.
In 2009, Manny Kirchheimer was interviewed on The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC radio to discuss New York’s train system and how it has shaped the city over the last century.
“I really didn’t think I was making it in a romantic light,” said Kirchheimer. “I was intrigued by the color.” In the film’s final minutes, as an elevated train recedes into the setting sun and throaty gospel singers croon, you may find yourself feeling similarly intrigued.