80 Blocks From Tiffany’s (1979)

Directed by Gary Weis
Pacific Arts VHS

During the first season of What’s Happening Now!, Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne impersonate a street gang called The Bangers. They wear giant afro wigs and fake Mr. T earrings. They do not eulogize rape or allow a child to sip from a forty-ouncer.

Perhaps that’s why 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s is so unsettling.

Everyone wants to feel safe. Yet, some of life’s most revelatory experiences are had at the moment that we jump off the veritable cliff. Case in point: 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s, a brief observational documentary on two late-1970s gangs and the maddening world they inhabit (aka the South Bronx). This is the sober, kick-to-the-balls flipside of the iconic, stylized cruelty found in A Clockwork Orange and The Warriors. We never witness any sort of onscreen violence in this film, but the sight of a prominent Nazi flag at a gang’s headquarters ensures that there’s no need.

It’s summer, 1979. The South Bronx is an anxious, dry-heaving disaster area. Blackouts. Riots. Funk-ified block parties. Smack dab in the middle of it all are The Savage Skulls and The Savage Nomads, two rival gangs led by guys named “Crazy Joe”, “D.S.R.”, and “Outlaw Manny”. For 67 minutes, the camera presents a balanced mix of interviews, fly-on-the-wall pow-wows, tag along adventures, and reenactments. There’s no narrative. The itinerary drifts in and out. Gang members speak of racial strife, hassles from the man, and proud “accomplishments”. Ex-gang members, cops, and neighborhood personalities calmly chat about acceptance and cooperation. There are slo-mo karate kicks, pet snakes, prostitutes, and disheartening sexual philosophies. Feeling safe? No? Then you’re right where you should be.

80 Blocks is a challenging proposition. Plainly photographed and intelligently edited by Gary Weis, the film gains its power from the simple act of running the camera and letting people talk. And that’s enough. As a snapshot of obscure late 70s culture, this film is a revelation. As a blunt moralistic expose, it’s a humble assault. The sheer heaviness of the subject matter may exhaust your emotions, but that’s a risk worth taking.

At one point, Weis asks a couple of gang members, “Where do you get money from?” They answer, “Just bein’ cool…it ain’t comin’ from the sky. But it’s comin’ from somewhere else.”

Not surprisingly, there were no giant afro wigs in sight.

Quite nice, actually. The print is bright and clean, with an occasional emulsion line or dollop of schmutz to keep things super fresh.

You bet — two handfuls of eclectic trailers follow the feature. I enjoyed Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, The Rutles, and Elephant Parts the most. I enjoyed Koyaanisqatsi the least. But, that’s only because I was required to study it in college and my resulting design project stunk.

80 Blocks From Tiffany’s is observational filmmaking at its most undaunted and fascinating. If you’re into obscure, freeform documentaries, this sparse-yet-intense dose of moral objectivity will hit the spot. Just make sure you watch it when things are cool. There’s more than enough heavy stuff to go around.