Film Review: Style Wars.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Style Wars, directed by Tony Silver.

Image from film Style Wars, directed by Tony Silver, produced by Public Art Films, streamed on Kanopy database.

STYLE WARS

The streets are choked with rubble – vast plains of shattered brick, burned cars and the teetering skeletons of dead buildings. Former homes and businesses now looming tombstones. A horizon that resembles a yawning mouth, decaying and jagged teeth sullenly grinding against each other. New York, 1983.The explosive documentary Style Wars wasn’t the first movie of its kind. It was beaten to screens a year earlier by the loosely fictionalized film Wild Style. It remains, however, a slice of cinema that perfectly encapsulated the term “lightning in a bottle” – this is a document of change, and the flowering of a movement that once on its feet, could never be held back. This is, in a tight 70 minutes, a deep immersion into the world of art as a genuine community and those who would pursue and punish its practitioners. It’s a time and a place that we’ll never see again, as Hip Hop and breakdancing flourish from the underground to the mainstream, from being feared and hated to one of the lynchpins of Western Pop Culture nearly 40 years on.

Shot entirely guerrilla-style, the camera often prowling low and taking in its subjects surreptitiously, as though the act of filming itself was a crime, this striking, honest documentary takes us into the lives of the graffiti artists, break-dancers and rappers not only developing and defining their own culture, but actively using it to inject hope, colour and dynamics into a city offering them little but bleakness and poverty. We’re introduced to a head-spinning array of artists (some still operating and globally celebrated today) with an immediacy and lack of explanation that adds to the thrill of discovery. Director Tony Silver has a humanist eye that cuts past the bravado of many of his subjects, and exposes the real humanity behind their actions, not only the “heroes” of our film, but the police, parents and officials determined to force them into submission as they attempt to rebuild a city still reeling from the chaos visited on them in the late 1970’s in the form of garbage strikes, rolling blackouts and crippling unemployment.

And this idea of re-creating or reclaiming a city running on fumes is in the minds of every character we meet. The constant, twitchy impulse that runs through the whole movie is one of artistic expression and how it crosses over with criminal activity. The crime is an afterthought- the expression is the priority. What we see here is literally the changing of one’s landscape to reflect its inhabitants. The subway system that acts as the writing hub for most of the graffiti culture shown here has been elevated beyond its functional, ugly grey reality into a constantly moving gallery – its cars draped in kaleidoscopic design.

The documentary is remarkably conservative and balanced, considering the obvious sympathy the film makers have with the “criminals” it follows – while it offers most of its screen time to the mostly teenage artists that risk arrest, injury and punishment to pursue their craft, it takes the time to speak with the older guard of authority fighting the losing battle of controlling this undeniable groundswell of expression. By doing this it impressively and simply lays out the clear lines between one generation and the next. We get to see Hip Hop as a culture so distanced from what came before it that its practitioners are ridiculed and completely misunderstood. The lack of understanding regarding their art because it’s impractical is pervasive, the idea of going “all city”- so that an artist’s work can be seen on all major train lines in the city is treated as ludicrous – the idea of art for its own sake is considered laughable in this landscape of urban decay.

What time and the miracle of film has given us though, is a portrait of wide-eyed vigour in an oppressive world, of the vibrant explosion of colour, noise and motion that helped usher a sick city into a new century.

As one of the many artists we meet tells us when he ruminates on the hidden chambers of the subway system – “It’s a tomb, a dungeon under the city, and a lot of art that’s now going to be a part of New York City forever.”

Further reading

  • The Vanished Writing on the Subway Wall. Samuels, David; 2003, May 11. New York Times, 2.17. (article)
  • Arts & Entertainment: Graffiti Is Gone, but Its Story Can Be Salvaged. Dollar, Steve; 2010, Sep 08. Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition; A.27. (article)
  • Hip-Hop: The Culture, the Sound, the Science / One Planet under a Groove: Hip-Hop and Contemporary Art. Codrington, Raymond; 2003. American Anthropologist; Vol. 105(1), p.153. (article)
  • Graffiti Cinema Turns Moody. 2006, Oct 15. New York Times (Online). (article
  • The Rap on HIP-HOP. Piekarski, Bill, 2004. Library Journal, Vol. 129(12), pp.47-50. (article)
  • Wild street style. Hegarty, Khalil; 2004, Feb 27. The Age; Melbourne, Vic., p.18. (article)
  • Hip hop on film : performance culture, urban space, and genre transformation in the 1980s. Monteyne, Kimberley ; Jackson : University Press of Mississippi ; 2013. (ebook)
  • Documenting ourselves : film, video, and culture. Sherman, Sharon R ; Lexington, Kentucky : The University Press of Kentucky ; 1998. (ebook)
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