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Plexifilm presents
Style Wars (1983)

"I did vandalism all right, but I did something to make your eyes open."
- Case, a graffiti artist

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: April 20, 2003

Stars: Skeme, Seen, Min One, Ed Koch, Richard Ravitch, Dondi, Case
Director: Tony Silver

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:09m:46s
Release Date: April 22, 2003
UPC: 082354000721
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+BB A-

DVD Review

If you live in or have visited post-Giuliani New York, you know that the city has dramatically changed, cosmetically speaking, in the last ten years. The Times Square of the 1980s was full of danger and menace, hookers and peep shows and guys selling dime bags—now it's all been Disneyfied, with family-friendly stores on every corner, peppered in with the stuff you can find everywhere else, like Starbucks and the Hard Rock Café. Was there something scary about that earlier Manhattan? Absolutely. But that was one of the lures of the big town, which has now been blanded down, and looks, feels, smells and sounds like just about anywhere else.

So there's something decidedly elegiac looking at Style Wars from the vantage of twenty years after the fact. It's a documentary about a particular cultural moment, in which the ethos of the streets was finding expression in unexpected and unconventional places. Basically it was a three-pronged attack: rap music, break dancing and subway graffiti. The film is particularly concerned with the last of these, as it documents the young men whose lives revolved around "bombing" the trains of the MTA.

There was a majesty to those trains going by, festooned with colors and designs and tags; but there was something sordid about it, too. The graffitied subway cars were either, depending on your point of view, the rich artistic expression of those who weren't provided with another outlet, or an emblem of a city out of control, or both. The film follows many of the graffiti artists, and the lengths to which they had to go to get into the train yards, and the care with which they designed their work. What's especially interesting is that the bombers are of all ethnic groups, from all five boroughs of New York, and from all socioeconomic strata. The cheap cultural stereotype of the Angry Young Black Man is undone by the legendary graffiti artists of Far Rockaway, who could understudy some roles in The Sopranos, or the privileged kids of the Upper East Side ditching their posh Riverside prep schools to tag the walls of a park, now hidden by the latest Donald Trump monstrosity.

Maybe the best scenes of the documentary are with Skeme, a 17-year-old tagger, and his mother, who is baffled and angry by her son's passion for sneaking into subway tunnels in the middle of the night with two dozen stolen cans of spray paint—the back and forth between mother and son give a kind of humanity and hominess to the piece that aren't found elsewhere. The breakdancing hasn't aged especially well, and the rap music we hear is really hip hop in its infancy. (Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge.) The filmmakers also interview representatives from the power structure, most notably Ed Koch, who was then mayor of New York, and had put these "quality of life" crimes in his crosshairs, with only modest success; Richard Ravitch, head of the MTA, who after a meeting with some of the taggers, labels them with that patronizing tag that conservatives so often slap on young black men—he found them "surprisingly articulate"; and a transit cop whose job it is to foil these artists, who considers their work: "Is that an art form? I don't know, I'm not an art critic. But I can sure as hell tell you: it's a crime."

One of the more uncomfortable scenes shows a hoity toity Soho art opening—the gallery has latched on to graffiti art as the Next Big Thing, and wants to turn the bombers into the next bunch of Keith Harings. But stripped of context, the graffiti loses much of its power. And there's a real innocence to a lot of these guys, sipping Cokes and making sketches for their next pieces, a far cry from the genuine urban menaces of drugs and violence, which were present then, and haven't disappeared. In the film, the Transit Authority combats the graffiti with only limited success, by whitewashing the trains with so many chemicals that the windows on the cars get destroyed, and by circling the wagons, placing the trains in the yards at night behind coils of razor wire and vicious attack dogs. The "problem" got solved in New York only years later, when the subway cars were all replaced, with new metal cars, their surfaces essentially graffiti-proof. New York's subway cars are uniformly clean now, but gone forever is that jolt of excitement that came with the sight of a newly tagged train pulling into the station. Step all the way in, and watch the closing doors.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Shooting in the streets and tunnels of New York, frequently at night, brings with it an array of technical challenges—the camera work here is generally pretty solid, but it's not a piece in which you'll find perfectly composed images or rock-steady color levels. Transfer to DVD looks fair enough, with little debris or interference.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 remix for this DVD release sounds fine, but as with the picture quality, it's not technical bravado you'll be looking for here; the early rap songs sound pretty good on this track, too. The 2.0 original audio track is certainly more than adequate for the task at hand.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
9 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Double alpha
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. graffiti artists' Hall of Fame, with guest artists, samples and interviews
  2. archive of graffitied trains
Extras Review: Producer/director Tony Silver, with his producing partner, Henry Chalfant, provide a commentary track, filled with technical specifications and happy memories of the shoot. They're full of funny revelations, such as the fact that many of the graffiti writers are now working as subway conductors—for who knows the system better than they? These two obviously have a great affection for the graffiti writers, but there's sometimes an almost clinical, anthropological tone on this track that can seem close to patronizing—they've given these street artists the language of academia, and I don't know that that's always appropriate. They discuss, for instance, the "iconology" of graffiti, and their highest compliment is: "He's so mimetic!"

Also on the first disc are nine chapters' worth of deleted scenes (21m:36s), most of which are just small snippets of additional interview footage; an interview (09m:57s) with Silver and Chalfant, interspersed with still photographs from the shoot—many of the taggers assumed that the two middle-aged white guys with the camera were cops, not filmmakers; and another interview (02m:30s) with the film's editors, Victor Kanefsky and Sam Pollard, which pays particular attention to the use of music in the film—the soundtrack ranges from Wagner to hip hop.

You want more trains? We got more trains. The second disc of the set is full to bursting with them—Chalfant photographed many, many tagged trains, and became a resource for the graffiti artists looking to learn about the history of their craft. A Hall of Fame features 28 graffiti artists, all with photos of their work on the lines, and many with recent interviews, catching up with the subjects. Skeme is now the father of four, and a sergeant major in the U.S. Army; his mother is interviewed, too, and all these years later understands no better her son's passion for tagging. Seen, one of the most famous taggers, has extended the product line and is now a tattoo artist; Crazy Legs, a breaker back in the day, now teaches dancing in the Bronx; Min One, just barely into adolescence in the film, now has a son, a receding hairline and something of a belly, and sips at his bottle of Poland Spring.

There's something a little strange about cataloging their work in this way—does their work deserve the reverence we give to the old masters? Anyway, also in the Hall of Fame are nine "guest artists," ranging from Martha Cooper, a Daily News photographer who documented much of the shoot, to Fab 5 Freddy, one of the great forebears of rap.

And still more trains: Destroy All Lines (32m:42s) is little more than footage of trains covered in graffiti; and an archive has photos of another 54 more trains. There are also many, many weblinks, to the film's official site, and to others featuring more recent work by some of the subjects of the film. If this package of extras doesn't sate your appetite for pictures of New York City subway cars decorated with graffiti, nothing ever will.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

The aesthetic and cultural debate surrounding the appropriateness and artistic value of graffiti continues, twenty years after this documentary, and you won't find a simple resolution to these questions. But this loaded two-disc set is as thorough a look at a particular cultural moment as you're likely ever to find, and brings with it a flood of memories and information about a New York that, for better or worse, we're never going to see again. Street culture has a pedigree and a history, and that culture is given the respect it deserves in Style Wars.


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