The Best Documentary Filmmaker You’ve Never Heard Of
Manny Kirchheimer is one of the New York City’s most under-appreciated documentary filmmakers. His film “Stations of the Elevated,” which is getting a retrospective theatrical run this week (Oct. 17 to Oct. 23) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is considered to be the first documentary about graffiti. However, calling “Stations of the Elevated a mere “documentary” does not do it justice. It is a visceral symphony of urban sights and sounds set to a soundtrack of Charles Mingus and Aretha Franklin music. More broadly, it is a moving commentary on the intersection of urban art and daily life. The shows at BAM will also include one of Kirchheimer’s earliest films, “Claw,” which focuses on the consequences of demolishing nature and old urban buildings.
Kirchheimer was born in Saarbruecken, Germany in 1931, and his family fled the Nazis to the United States in 1936. After working as an editor for over 300 films, he now teaches at the School of Visual Arts and continues to make his own films. He spoke with the Forward’s Gabe Friedman about his career, his filmmaking techniques, and his seminal work that is experiencing an overdue resurgence.
How did you get your start in film?
I went to City College [of New York] where there was the first documentary institute in the country, and it was headed up by this Dadaist artist who both painted and made experimental films. His name was Hans Richter. My dad, who was a graphic artist, of course was kind of excited when I said I wanted to go into films and that I would learn from this German ex-pat – who I only found out about a half a year ago was half-Jewish. He was a political refugee, he left really early, in like ’33 or something like that, and he went to Switzerland and to Holland to make films. Then he came over here in the late thirties, and by early ‘42 or ‘43 he got the job to head up the film institute. So my dad primed me, he said ‘Before you go into movies, you ought to ask Hans Richter whether there are any opportunities in that field.’ So I go and say ‘Professor Richter, are there any opportunities in film?’ And he says [in thick German accent] ‘Yeah, opportunities, there are plenty – but no jobs.’ So that was my introduction.
But you worked as an editor for many years?
That’s correct. I worked from 1952, when I graduated from City College, to 1976. I worked mainly as an editor in the industry, although I did get some directing and some photography work.
When you started making your own films, was it partly to rebel against the traditional editing and other production techniques that you had worked with for so long?
Yeah, well I was very frustrated. You know, because you get very involved. A cameraman on a job, he flies to Tucson and shoots for 4 days then he comes home and he goes off to something else. Same thing for the director, unless you have a very ambitious director. Whereas an editor, especially back in the day when you had – well nowadays they make a film in 3 days that they used to make in 3 months. So 3 months was a life, it’s a quarter of a year, and you get involved. You say ‘I’ve got this baby’ and it’s terribly frustrating. So yes, that did lead to my saying I’ve got to be able to command my own films, absolutely. And that happened fairly early on… In about 1958 I was beginning to shoot my own. And teaching myself the camera because, as you say, I was an editor, and I didn’t have opportunity to film. So I taught myself.
Are there certain unorthodox, anti-mainstream techniques – when it comes to your editing, or the script, or anything else – that you try to get into most of your films?
I don’t do that consciously. I do want to do it with all the skill I’ve accumulated. As I work on it, I have ideas for the future of the editing and I’m eventually able to, hopefully, do what I envision. Now since everybody’s different, I think if everybody had a chance to do that, and be free as I feel I am, you’d have a lot of different films. The mainstream film exists because everybody’s emulating a style…It’s not that I consciously avoid the mainstream, its just not my way of making movies. Now the films you saw, ‘Claw’ and ‘Stations,’ were typical of me at that time. Since that time I’ve made a lot of films that have interviews in them and they still have montage…but they also have what is called talking heads because I love interesting people talking. In fact, in the next film that I have in mind, and the tentative title is ‘My Coffee with Jewish Friends,’ I’m going to discuss their feelings and mine about Judaism…So I love all kinds of filmmaking.
You should send that next film to the Forward.
Oh I will! But it hasn’t been shot yet. I’m doing it over Christmas with a cameraman who’s studying to be a priest, if you can believe that.
So you threw together the proposal for Stations of the Elevated on a whim, and you didn’t think that graffiti was a really deep subject at first. Did you have an epiphany moment about graffiti and its relationship to its urban surroundings?
Yes. I was part of a food co-op, and once a month my car and I were chosen to go to Hunts Point where the wholesale market was. And I had to do this very, very early in the morning because they started selling the food at 9 oclock. So in the summertime at 4:30 or 5 o’clock the sun is out, and I would take the Cross Bronx Expressway, which has at least three overhead [subway] lines across it. And I would see these streams of beautiful color go by above. Now this same color would happen at my subway station which was indoors, but of course when you go to work in the morning and see a subway station up close in your face, you’re trying to find the right door to go in and compete for a seat. And so you’re really not paying attention, unless you think that it’s messy and dirty. So this was the first time I saw whole cars streaming in color in the summer light. And that’s what gave me the idea that this would be a nice thing to make a film about. But I had been rejected 21 times for grants, so it was my 22nd try, and I determined to do [the proposal] in 2 hours, and not spend any more time on it…And I used pretentious words, you know, a lot of bullshit to try to impress people. And I got the grant of course!
So the moment of realization was based on the aesthetic quality of the graffiti?
That’s right, and as you say, I didn’t take it seriously. It was pretty pictures with which I could make beautiful visuals. Once I did my research by going into the front car of all the elevated lines in the city, from Far Rockaway to Woodlawn in the far Bronx and began to look at these things outdoors, I began to see the content. The content was loaded with fire, and guns pointing at you, and clenched fists, and tags like ‘hate’ and ‘shadow’ and ‘pusher,’ and I realized that this is serious business. This is a scream from a ghetto which I have to take seriously and build around. So even though the aesthetic is what prompted it, it then got deeper.
Did you try to use certain techniques to get that anger in the graffiti across? The film is poetic but also very fast and loud.
Yes, but I think the editing isn’t as angry as the Mingus music. And so I looked to the Mingus music to emphasize that element. I was not familiar with Mingus, and he had died just briefly before. I did like jazz, but jazz also picks a theme and then let the various instruments improvise on it. Wheras Mingus did whole pieces that were musically controlled from beginning to end and did not necessarily make the rounds of the instruments. That was hall music that also had a traveling quality to it…It also had anger in it. And that [affected] my editing. It makes it feel like the editing is angry, but I don’t feel like the editing is angry…and at the end of course, where I wanted something uplifting – after all its called stations of the elevated, right? Which is obviously a play on ‘Stations of the Cross,’ so that there is a resurrection of these denuded trains at the end. You may remember you see…the trainyard cemetery with all these switchers that look like gravestones. Then at the end with the golden train across the bridge and all that there’s a sort of resurrection. So I used Aretha Franklin, with her exaltation and exultation.
There’s a scene in “Stations” in which you show a man painting a large billboard advertisement of a face. These ads represent commercialism, but is the point of showing the man painting to show that there is still humanity behind it?
There are several things that went into that. One is hand-painted signs: they hardly exist anymore. And I kind of had a feeling that it would eventually go out, seeing the pace of technology. So on the one hand yes, it’s a wonderful thing. On the other hand, this young man…has been co-opted by some Texas mogul who’s selling you cancer. So even if it’s beautiful and it’s moving, it makes you think. Which is the important thing as far as I’m concerned. The other thing is the structural-emotional thing. I had a feeling that people seeing this film wanted to see something being created. I was not about to go into the yards at night when the trains were being sprayed. That happened only at night, and you’d have to dodge the security, you’d have to dodge the double rows of barbed wire, you’d have to find the holes in the fences…And I didn’t know any of the graffiti writers. I would have to acquaint myself with them. So I’m very conscious as I make a film of the needs of the audience and I felt the audience at a certain point would need to see these kids actually making these things. And since I wasn’t about to show that, I used this as a substitute for that hunger. Surely by now you know that there are a lot of ambiguities in both films [“Claw” and “Stations of the Elevated”]. Obviously I’m entranced by the glass buildings and at the same time I’m deploring them. So I try to be honest. I do deplore those buildings, I think they’re the ruination of cities. But on the other hand, there’s no questioning their fascination. So both are brought in. I think you’ll find ambivalence in many of my films. And so what? Why does it always have to be one way?
When you were filming “Stations” did you ever think it would become such a highly praised historical document?
Not really. I worked in isolation. When you work in isolation and you’re doing something that excites you in your work, then you daydream about conquering the world with it. Of course that hasn’t happened – although some have done better than most, and right now “Stations” is doing better.