Filmmaker Gary Weis is best known for the short films he made during the first, greatest incarnation of Saturday Night Live. He also directed the Beatles-inspired mockumentary The Rutles. But his almost forgotten 1979 documentary 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s reveals a world far from celebrity and with a very different kind of energy, as well as a different side of New York – one that has all but vanished thirty years later.
The film’s title comes from a 1977 article in Esquire magazine in which journalist John Bradshaw vividly documented his encounters with Bronx street gangs The Savage Nomads and The Savage Skulls. Bradshaw enlisted the help of NYPD Detective Bob Werner, who had developed a rapport with gang members as part of his duties leading a special task force on youth crime and gang activity. Weis was intrigued by the article, and, under the guidance of Bradshaw and Werner, spent a few weeks documenting gang life in the midst of what was then a devastated South Bronx. Bradshaw likened the blocks of destroyed apartment buildings and rubble to something out of Dresden. But as the documentary attests, vibrant lives were lived among those hollow shells.
Efficiently setting the scene as a series of interviews, 80 Blocks introduces us to gang members, police officers and social workers. Weis and crew also recreate some of the gang members minor transgressions in the form of a staged robbery. Such re-enactments were unusual in documentaries of the time, but have since become a staple of crime and other “reality” programming.
The characters and their relationships are set up just long enough to set up the film’s final and most fascinating reels, a Bronx block party that follows the youths in their quest for braggodocio or just young love. But if there’s anything wrong with 80 Blocks, it’s that it doesn’t spend enough time with these people. At 67 minutes, the film satisfies the length requirement for its original late-night time slot, but one wishes for a more patient narrative, and, perhaps, deleted footage. But what we do have is a remarkable fragment of a gang environment that seems positively innocent in light of today’s gang bangers.
The documentary presents a view of New York that seems galaxies away from popular contemporary depictions like Sex and the City. Sadly, the lifestyle of the latter is part of a greater sentiment in New York rapidly consuming the old school character of the city in favor of million-dollar condos that, by city standards, are cheap. Which makes this an even more invaluable document of a city that was perhaps more dangerous than it is today, but was almost certainly more vital.