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South Bronx street life circa ’79…


The roots of the film lay in a lengthy 1977 Esquire article written by Jon Bradshaw about two gangs who operated in the South Bronx – the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads. “I’d always liked non-fiction and I read that piece,” Gary Weis tells the Guardian down the phone from California. “Bradshaw was a guy who wrote about Baader-Meinhof, went to Angola … one of those hard-drinking journalists who went to crazy places. I hadn’t really thought about doing it as a film, but then one week Raquel Welch was the guest host on Saturday Night Live (Weis was the show’s in-house film maker) and her manager was Carolyn Pfeiffer, who was living with Bradshaw. And later that summer I was asked by NBC to do three longer films for their late-night time slot, so I did a couple of comedy shows and then suggested we do this piece on gangs.” This was quite a change from his best-known previous work, The Rutles’ Beatles spoof All You Need Is Cash, co-directed with Eric Idle. Weis’s original route into the gangs’ milieu was via community organiser Joan Butler and Bob Werner, leader of the NYPD’s Youth Gang Task Force and the kind of cop you would generally assume only existed in the imaginations of late-70s screenwriters and the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage video. Sporting a bandit moustache and Aviators, he’s first encountered unwinding on a firing range, claiming that he’d requested a transfer to his current precinct because his previous stomping ground was “too quiet”. At one point later he’s cheerfully advising an aspirant felon as to why his theoretical plan to kill a cop and “just do seven years” is fundamentally flawed: “Because your life would end right on the scene.” And yet, despite his position, Werner seems able to stroll around the area, even being invited to the block party that closes the film. “When we first went to meet them,” Weis recalls, “Werner would climb into their building with his gun drawn, then bring the guys out for us. He’d leave us in the car. It looked like Dresden.” Even Butler describes her own neighbourhood as “a land of nowhere”. Neither of them are exaggerating. If nothing else, 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s serves as an excellent corrective to all those complaints you started hearing about 10 years ago that the city had been “totally cleaned up and lost all its character”. The film is a stark reminder of the damage that had been wreaked on parts of New York throughout the 70s; the depopulated districts, burnt-out buildings and human waste serving as the end point for a decade of mismanagement and unaddressed social problems. The spirit of these dark, troubled times was captured in a Daily News front page from October 1975 after the president vowed to veto any attempt to bail out the city from bankruptcy – “Ford To City: Drop Dead”. (In reality, Ford never actually said those words and two months later would approve federal loans, but the sentiment stuck in the popular memory.) And while announcing the 1977 World Series from Yankee Stadium, commentator Howard Cosell supposedly declared that “the Bronx is burning” as roving cameras panned over streets alive with fires. In the 1981 cop film Fort Apache, The Bronx, Paul Newman came to a similar conclusion. More than 30 years on, Weis still recalls leaving Manhattan for filming. “It was really like a foreign land. We gave it that title because it was 80 blocks away from where Tiffany’s was on Fifth Avenue and these guys never, ever left the Bronx. All the buildings were boarded up, a lot of the buildings were burned down.”

Left living in the wreckage were two predominantly Hispanic gangs – the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads. Decked out in a strange combination of biker denim and bandolero chic, both gangs now look anachronistic, almost romantic. “I think the look all derived from biker stuff,” muses Weis. “They called themselves a motorcycle club, but didn’t have the money for motorcycles. I did feel scared around them on occasion, but really it was a different time. Now it’s about money and drugs, but to me the film looks more like West Side Story. They were tough guys but it almost looks nostalgic.” To a modern audience, much of the film’s impact comes from Weis’s light touch. There is nothing in the way of narrative or moral judgment imposed on the film: cleaving more to the Direct Cinema techniques then being pushed by the likes of the Maysles brothers (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter etc), Weis simply records the Skulls, the Nomads, the police and the citizens as they are. “I just went in,” he says. “I didn’t have an agenda, no social commentary, and they picked up on that. They weren’t stupid.” Indeed, it was the few parts of the film where Weis deviated from these principles that ultimately proved to be its undoing. “Obviously, we couldn’t film them actually breaking the law, as they wouldn’t do anything in front of the camera that was a robbery. So what happened was, when we heard those stories about what they’d done, we recreated them and filmed them pretty quickly, so we had a dramatisation to put in there.” Nowadays, this sounds like fairly standard reconstructive documentary behaviour. But these vignettes saw the film embroiled in an internal dispute over the fact that it had been made by the entertainment division rather than the news division, and it was duly shelved. “It was frustrating,” admits Weis with magnanimous understatement. Much of the fascination in watching 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s lies in seeing a selection of now-lost worlds. The gang culture portrayed may be violently amoral, but it precedes crack and the routine carrying of guns. The film also sits just before hip-hop arrived and self-documented much of the city around it; a street party is soundtracked by Chic’s Everybody Dance and the Bar-Kays’ Let’s Have Some Fun, along with some embryonic MCing. But perhaps the most striking difference between now and then is that the director benefited from having subjects who weren’t precociously aware of a need to “perform” for the camera, manipulate their emotions to grab a few more minutes of the final edit or contrive their own story into a predetermined “journey”. For the most part, Weis’s ultimate success as a film-maker rests in the fact that the people in 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s look like they couldn’t care less whether he filmed them or not.

(THE GUARDIAN UK  11.27.10)

“80 BLOCKS FROM TIFFANY’S” 1979 directed by Gary Weis

go to Classic NY Street Gangs for lots of info and photos from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s…


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