Written and oral history of New York in the ’70s paints the city with “rotten apple” rust, “burnt out” brown and “cesspool” crimson. Then art imitates life as the city’s debauched and violent past bears no resemblance to what it’s become. A considerable level of intrigue remains when researching New York’s past, though. Thus Gary Weis’ 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s steps in to present an overlooked side of late ’70s NY reeling from a dwindling economy and literally burnt-out neighborhoods.
The documentary released in 1979 follows two of the South Bronx’s most notable clubs, The Savage Nomads and The Savage Skulls. New audiences would expect the film to feature a droning narrator bemoaning the gangs terrorizing the neighborhood all while offering a sappy solution to push them out. Weis and his crew take a hands-off approach and let the subjects speak candidly, interact with each other and share bits of their realities with us: largely a bunch of outsiders.
Many of the film’s subjects have become pieces of Bronx and internet legend. Some allegedly died of unknown causes or even got taken out by HIV/AIDS among other harsh demises. Others purportedly left that lifestyle behind for a better tomorrow. Either way, pieces of their formative years lived on in this film which, despite some dramatizations, made their day-to-day footage not feel too staged.
There’s always a level of mystique maintained among the crews as well. The audience get thrust into the situation not fully understanding their motives, past crimes and they’re never caught doing dirt. There’s never a full explanation on why black and brown organizations became enraptured with swastikas or their other peculiarities.
So 80 Blocks walks a tight rope in its storytelling since these figures don’t get outright glorified or easily comprehended. Plus the film does very little to make viewers think they’re experts on gang life i.e. The Wire effect or feel sympathetic by the end credits. Thankfully the aforementioned points don’t outline its mission statement, either.
80 Blocks From Tiffany’s fulfills its purpose of displaying some of the Bronx’s last, native clubs standing tall before sharply declining in the ’80s. Gary Weis’ vision plainly shows these people as hard rocks but doesn’t condemn their way of live. So this approach lets viewers form character judgments on their own.
Tiffany’s also serves up a polished cut of the “old New York” millennials can’t remember, older residents actually recall yet few from either camp want to witness first hand. Except now the flashback’s a click away.