The second film in my fourth and final match-up in the first round of the 80s US Bracket almost gets to the heart of a very interesting subculture!
Directed By: Henry Chalfant & Tony Silver
I’ll get this out of the way right now, there were still a few moments in Style Wars that irked me in the way that only moments from a documentary can irk me. For example, there is a collection of scenes where the filmmakers are following a group of young graffiti artists as they explore hidden or barely used parts of the subway system. Yet, as this supposedly real journey is taking place the kids round corners to cameras already set in high places to capture their completely disingenuous reactions. That is when I really hate documentaries, with a passion, when they attempt to present something fake as real, and have no qualms about doing this. But, you already know my documentary hang-ups, so I won’t bore you with them any longer.
Style Wars tackles the interesting topic of graffiti art in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s New York social scene. It also attempts to get at break dancing a smidgen of hip hop from the same time period. This is easily the films biggest problem, or I should say, it plays into the films biggest problem. Before I go any further let me get something else out of the way real quick, I was deeply fascinated by most of Style Wars. The subject of graffiti artists, their craft, how they view their craft, how they go about implementing their craft and whether it should be viewed as a craft in any way is very interesting to me. I found Style Wars to be the most interesting documentary I have ever seen for the most part, but I do feel it bit off more than it could chew, yeah, I just dropped a well used phrase on you, deal with it.
With a run time of a little over an hour, Style Wars is never really able to get into any of the issues it wants to explore. It attempts to get into the ideas of graffiti artists, their regular lives, how they view their art, why they do what they do, how they do it, the battles that can take place between them, the people who hate graffiti art, how the city deals with their work, and even has a couple of segments devoted to break dancing and every once in a while makes a grab at including the burgeoning hip hop/rap scene in the mix. That sounds like a lot doesn’t it, well that’s because it is a lot. It’s too much in fact, and every time Style Wars was getting into territory I wanted to delve deeper into they would cut away. Style Wars leaves far too much unexplored, in its desire to present as much as it could about the late 1970’s-early 1980’s underground subculture it actually shortchanges its subject matter.
I was captivated by Style Wars, I did very much look forward to each coming moment in the film. Those who know me know that this is usually not the case when I am watching a documentary, but the subject matter of Style Wars interested me and the way it was presented was interesting. I wanted to know more though, less so about the very dated break dancing, but definitely more about the still alive “art” of graffiti. I think Style Wars would have worked a lot better as four full fledged documentaries. One each about the topics of graffiti art, break dancing and hip-hop and then a final smaller documentary to tie in how all three work off of one another and influence the underground culture of their place and time. As it is, Style Wars is an interesting watch, but a frustrating one because I know how much more interesting it would have been to fully explore its topics. Still, for anyone who is into the subculture of hip hop/rap and graffiti like I am Style Wars is definitely a must see. Style Wars is a frustrating must see, but a must see nonetheless, just make sure you see it before it gets washed away by the cleaning system that is society.