By Scott Tre
These days, films like The Warriors, Death Wish and Taxi Driver serve a dual function. For movie buffs they are classics of their respective genres. From a historical perspective they are also time capsule films. They are a snapshot of the biggest city in the world as it teetered on the edge of oblivion. The New York depicted in them is completely extinct, a museum piece. Tourists and residents now walk and meander about in some of the very locations shown in these films without fear. The South Bronx is perhaps the biggest example of this, having undergone so-called urban renewal since the late 80’s. These days, it is mainly known as the acknowledged “birthplace” of hip-hop. Throughout the 1970’s, it epitomized all that was wrong with New York City (and by extension the United States as a whole) at the time. It had yet to be recognized as the proving grounds of phenomenon that would grow beyond its borders and take the world by storm.
80 Blocks From Tiffany’s takes us inside the lives of two notorious Bronx street gangs of the time: The Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads. We see the adversarial relationship that developed between them and the cops that patrolled the neighborhoods they inhabited. Much of this story is told through interview footage taken with both groups. We see testimonials from former gang leaders such as “Blackie” and “Comanche". Managers and club owners such as the fittingly named “Heavy” and local merchant Mrs. Ostrov describe how the gangs impacted their businesses. Surprisingly, some saw them as a positive force. Others saw them as a pariah sucking the neighborhood dry. It also gives us a peek into the rather mundane and aimless lives of the Savage Nomads and the Savage Skulls, two of the most notorious street gangs to have prowled the streets of the South Bronx in the 1970’s. They harmlessly refer to themselves as “clubs”
Via reenactments, we see some of the gangs' more underhanded activities. The necessity of staging these portions of the film is obvious as gang members likely did not want to be captured on film burglarizing houses or hijacking trucks. Perhaps in the current climate of popular media and self aggrandizement, today’s gangs would be all too eager to commit various felonies for the viewing public. The barrier between voyeurs and poor people who resent being gawked at no longer exists. Still, these reenactments provide a fascination all their own. We see a young man scale the side of building like Spider-Man in order to burglarize an apartment. He does so without the aid of ladders or ropes. This leaves the impression that gang-bangers of decades past were both more inventive and physically fit.
Aside from the obviously staged reenactments, the gangs themselves seem to lead a rather uneventful existence. Their days consist of beer fueled bullshit sessions in squalid apartments. This adds an air of sadness that was perhaps unintended by the filmmakers or the gang members themselves. Whatever criminal activity these kids engaged in seemed to be an outgrowth of not only boredom, but an inability to picture another life for themselves. What you see around you daily greatly impacts your ability to visualize yourself someplace else. At the end of the day, for all the rapes and killings many of these guys brag about and confess to, they hardly seem truly evil. More or less they are resigned to their fates.
80 Blocks From Tiffany’s was directed by Gary Weis over a number of weeks in 1979. Gary did the short films on Saturday Night Live during its first few years, and much of that sensibility carries over into this film. The gang members and their world are viewed through a prism that regards the sadness and desperation of the situation, but also takes note of the absurdity and unintentional humor of it all. We see a pilfering hustler try to negotiate his way out of severe beating from a local. Having grown weary of the pilferers rambling, the local simply “mushes” him in the face and sends him on his way. The moment is amusing and slightly surreal, making the residents of these neighborhoods seem strikingly human. Much of what they do is for show.
Overall, 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s doesn’t take itself as seriously as the equally fascinating Flying Cut Sleeves but it somehow more cohesive. Flying Cut Sleeves was done with great empathy for the subjects. 80 Blocks maintains a certain distance, allowing other elements besides pity to creep in. This could be viewed as condescension by less perceptive viewers, but in actuality it takes a view that is much more honest. None of the people interviewed seem to grasp the reality of their situation, or the desolation in which they live. Why should they? For them it’s simply how it is, nothing more nothing less. This kind of nonchalant attitude makes 80 Blocks a slightly more colorful documentary than its counterparts.
80 Blocks From Tiffany’s offers a rather sobering counterpart to fictional depictions of New York Street gangs such as Walter Hill's The Warriors. Being a part of a street gang in the south Bronx during the 1970’s was hardly an epic adventure that promised immortality at journey’s end. It was more about living and surviving in the harshest of circumstances. Good times were savored and bad times were plentiful.