Style Wars (Henry Chalfant & Tony Silver, 1984)

The modesty in which Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver approach their subject matter is what makes Style Wars so relatable. The film is just as much about the graffiti that imbues 1980s New York as it is about the people and cultural movement behind the artwork. The argument as to if graffiti ought to qualify as art is discussed, but the joy of Style Wars stems from how nonchalant such a discussion is proposed – Chalfant and Silver are less concerned with the answers, less concerned with the right and wrong attached to the actions, and more concerned with immersing the audience into a unique world.

The handheld camera element Style Wars adds to the sense of guerrilla movement through the streets of New York. We are displaced, led through a maze of abandoned subway tunnels, as flashlights hint at the larger mass of graffiti that surrounds us. Chalfant and Silver allude to this sense of unknowning from the onset of their film, as a passing public train is shot at night, with track lights illuminating the side of the train – we gather how the train is used as a canvas from this point on.

The directors hint at the larger cultural purposes behind the graffiti, though I found their analysis on the topic to be a bit too half-hearted due to their forced neutrality. This is perhaps the greatest flaw of the film – questions are posed and discussed, though at times, there’s a preoccupation with trying to remain neutral. This is particularly evident in Chalfant and Silver’s inclusion of the other side – lawmakers and “ordinary” citizens are interviewed in talking head segments that rarely serve to enlighten the discussion. Perhaps that’s the point? The artists helming such grandiose graffiti projects may not be the most educated, by they certainly possess a level of bite and audacity to their convictions – you get a sense that they live and die for their art.

That visceral quality is the lasting impression I get out of Style Wars. The film’s sampling population is composed of people who want to make a name for themselves but don’t have the resources to do it the traditional way. They crave to be seen, to be understood, and to be appreciated. One of the recurring interview segments involves a young black boy and his mother. The boy discusses why he does the art, while his mother is distressed at the very idea of what he’s doing. In a way, I can sense the frustration on both ends – they both want the same thing, but it’s the method in which it should be reached that divides the generations. Though the boy’s mother, I believe, is limiting the canvas of possibilities for her child – the boy is trying to expand on it.

Rating: 7/10