80 Blocks From Tiffany’s (1979)

In the summer of 1979, Gary Weis was a television director mostly known for his work directing the non-studio segments for Saturday Night Live. While looking for programming content that might fill the hour and a half television block that was necessary while SNL was on summer hiatus, he read a 1977 Esquire article by Jon Bradshaw detailing the violent and grimy lives of the various gangs ruling the rubble of the South Bronx during the height of New York City’s infamous fiscal crisis and Fear City era. Inspired, Weis pitched the idea of turning the Esquire article into a feature-length documentary to NBC and SNL showrunner Lorne Michaels, for which he got approval. The result is 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s, an incredibly organic and intimate look at New York City’s gangs of the period as they lived and existed at the time, from an unobtrusive perspective that mostly inhabits the point of the view of South Bronx residents.

80 Blocks From Tiffany’s focuses on two predominantly black and Puerto Rican South Bronx gangs, the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads, during the period just following the famous 1977 blackout but before the emergence of hip hop. At this time gang life seems heavily woven into the fabric of the community, with the Skulls and Nomads acting out a number of roles ranging from scoundrels to community mentors to thieves and social protectors. A civilian community activist for the neighborhood talks about her experiences with a mixture of amusement and something approaching parental exasperation. The gang members themselves intone about their loose moral code; being a member of the Nomads or Skulls is not an invitation to be ruthless or a trouble maker and you are expected to do something resembling keeping the peace. All of this community posturing is of course punctuated by shockingly offhand confessions of violence, sexual assault, theft, and prominent displays of Nazi symbolism. Gang members often speak about the even more decrepit and unhinged lives many led before finding each other.

The easy acceptance of gang life in the neighborhood extends from its residents to its police and business owners as well. NYPD detective Bob Werner carries on a conversational relationship with most of the gangs. He confiscates their weapons and books them when they are caught doing something serious, but he also comes to their neighborhood cookouts and gang members seem to have an odd professional respect for their local detective. A business-owning couple actively goes out of their way to befriend gang members and wakes up the morning after the 1977 blackout to find their shop is the only one on the block that wasn’t looted, having been zealously guarded by the Savage Nomads through the night. The different women gang members or girlfriends and wives are also given a fascinating spotlight, at times they are highly feared in their own right, at others they are doing a yeoman’s work in humanizing their boyfriends and husbands away from violent and disordered lives.

80 Blocks At Tiffany’s ends on a transitional note during a neighborhood block party, which features the embryo of the DJing and music culture that would mark the birth of hip hop in the next coming years. All hands from gang members to the local cops are on deck to participate and the event features glimpses at the softer side of gang life as the men and women members deal with fleeting romantic feelings for each other, a reminder of just how young the people sucked into this life are as they try to construct something out of the chaos and the rubble of a part of New York City that was lawless and ignored for nearly 30 or 40 years. Life in the South Bronx is cruel, violent, harsh and the social refuge such gangs offered to teenagers and young adults at the time cannot be mistaken as noble or reconstructive, but it is something.

And for the South Bronx, during a period when it was essentially an American favela teeming with unemployed desperation and social disorder, having at least something was in some cases the most you could count on.

further reading


In a Cult Bronx Film, Hints of Hip-Hop

Director Gary Weis on His Influential, Long-Lost Doc ’80 Blocks from Tiffany’s’

 

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Devilman Crybaby (2018)

Manga auteur Go Nagai casts an incredible shadow over the realm of Japanese animation and illustration. He has been a strong crafting hand for the two mediums since the 1960s, boasting a creative influence and figure of something equivalent to Stan Lee. Since 1967, Go Nagai has helped plant the formative seeds in the realm of what have become very familiar genres in Japanese popular media: mecha, magical-girl, horror, and the pornographic. By far, his most controversial and possibly most enduring creation is Devilman, a darkly subversive manga and anime series that originally ran in 1972 – 1973 in Japan and ignited a storm of controversy due to its frenzied depiction of violence, sex, and the occult.

The plot to the Devilman series is such: two boys (Ryo and Akira) find discover the existence of demons in the world, and seek to combat them, by having pure-hearted Akira become a powerful half-demon (a devilman) without losing his conscious. This eventually sprawls into a full blown war between the demon and human species that consumes the world and Akira and Ryo’s friendship.

At the time, Devilman pushed the boundaries of what was possible in popular manga, in both visceral and thematic content. Not only did the series distill Go Nagai’s hyperactive energy through over-the-top violence and sex, but lurking under all the juvenile posturing were more adult themes, with deeper allegories between the conflicts of the demon and human worlds to the many different conflicts within our own. The original manga ended as an explicitly anti-war series, with Go Nagai emphasizing an atmosphere of paranoia and societal destruction in conjunction with the ongoing Cold War. It is also notable for being one of the first series to display a fascination with Christian mythology.

The original 70s anime adaption of Devilman was a much toned-down series aimed at children.  The 2018 Netflix adaptation Devilman Crybaby is the first full-length adaptation of the series that is faithful to the original manga, helmed by Masaaki Yuasa, the creator of such similarly offbeat shows such as Kemonozume, which also features an occultist/demonic centered plot. Being an internet original series, Devilman Crybaby is freed to pursue an even more hyperactive depiction of sex and violent content, with an animation style that is often captivatingly disjointed and psychedelic, while exploring the original’s furtive thematic overtures.

Devilman Crybaby is first and foremost a series interested in the duality of human beings. To this point, the main characters, Akira and Ryo, are contrasting but complimentary entities; with Akira as a creature of pure human empathy, who literally cries when he senses the sadness and pain of others, and Ryo as his icy, calculating, and amoral counterpart. They are the series’ psychological centerpiece. Akira’s humanistic morality and Ryo’s cutthroat individualistic drive are competing human psyches, simultaneously inseparable and yet inevitably in perpetual, doomed conflict with each other. Their friendship, union, and downfall is the show’s most intriguing and entertaining centerpiece, with ruthless individualism eventually betraying collective morality to the destruction of both.

Similarly, the Demon and Human dichotomy is a thematic divide of impulse versus reason, desire versus discipline. The demons represent all that is instinctual, greedy, and base about human behavior. Humans stand in for reason, civilization, and all that is shared and societal. Early on in the series, demonic possession is also given some overtures to the experience of puberty. Upon being possessed, Akira begins to shed some of his previous naive innocence. His body grows and experiences changes that are often awkward and he is introduced to intense new desires for sex and violent conflict, along with a whirlwind of new emotional states. He even experiences a wet dream. As he grows into his body, he must carefully learn to balance his powers with his natural empathy lest he be overwhelmed by his demonic urges. Akira becomes a representative of a middle ground between the two extremes of human and demon, devilmen. Devilmen represent a sort of besieged ideal, embracing of  their new demonic power but able to maintain their human conscious. Liked by neither demon nor human, balancing their base instincts with a shared morality, devilmen are a lonely middleground that is not easily navigated. They only have themselves to rely on.

As the series progresses, the binary between demon and human blurs. The war between the two worlds causes the collective of humans to become rampantly suspicious of each other, fearful that everyone and anyone could turn out to be a demon, a social pariah,  a dreaded other.  In the original Devilman manga, this social paranoia was used to highlight the mutual fear and suspicion present at the height of the Cold War. In Devilman Crybaby, concerns about the Cold War and world conflict are switched out for social media and internet spectacle and outgroup derision. The main characters are all teenagers and prominently deal with struggles over peer group acceptance. Each teenager wants to be prominent or noticed, but not so prominent that they become a target. The character of Miki “Miko” Kuroda is particularly poignant in this case, as her demonic possession allows her to pursue her rawer ambitions and resentment of “reclaiming her name” against her more socially popular peer, Miki Makimura. Kuroda’s embrace of her demonic possession allows her to compete or succeed Makimura in tracking racing, but eventually renders her an outlaw.

Finally, Devilman Crybaby is steeped in something approaching a Christian gnostic mythos. Religious iconography is prevalent everywhere in the final episodes of the show. Ryo is revealed to be the reincarnation of Satan, a figure in the mold of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, eventually leading a second war against Earth and Heaven. Satan cannot understand love and despises the material world and humans but values Akira, the only creature to have ever shown him acceptance. Part of his subconscious urge to merge Akira with a demon was to create a creature possible of surviving his cleansing of the Earth. Satan completes his mission of purging the Earth but loses Akira in the process after Akira rejects his offer. Satan learns how to love and value others, and achieves enlightenment, but at too great of a cost and too late. God resets the world and Satan and Ryo are doomed to repeat the process again, possibly an infinite amount of times.

Devilman Crybaby is an eclectic mess. An exploration and celebration of various human impulses. The show and Go Nagai’s original work are obsessed with the duality of the conflicting desires of individuality and social acceptance, rationality and instinct, empathy and cold logic, and love and lust. Though they are all doomed, the main characters find redemption and solace in growing up and learning how to love and mutually support each other, no matter who they are. Fittingly, passing the baton is recurring motif in the series’ visual vocabulary. A show featuring literal demons, Devilman Crybaby is very much actually about humanity’s internal war with its own inner psychological demons.

Further Reading


Intro to Devilman, a Demonic Manga Masterwork

Devilman Crybaby: How the Better Angels of our Nature Can Constrain the Lessor So

Sympathy for the Devil: a lesson in love from Devilman Crybaby

 

 

 

Wildwood, NJ (1994)

In 1992, Ruth Leitman set out with a Super 8 camera and a small all-woman film crew to document the daily life of young teenagers and 20-somethings in Wildwood, New Jersey. Filmed during the twilight of the Reagan/Bush era, Leitman captures a  fascinating snapshot of what she describes as “the last great American blue-collar seaside carnival town”, the sort of boardwalk community on the Jersey Shore that has been in terminal decline; battered by the ghost of Hurricane Sandy and the increasing drug abuse and economic deprivation that is eroding American working class life everywhere else.

Wildwood serves as sort of a cultural Mecca for cheap thrills and escapism for the average Tristate area resident and the bulk of Wildwood, NJ is served through intimate and unobtrusive interviews with these working class subjects, mostly young women, who relay varying stories about scrapping-by poverty, regrettably losing your virginity, shitty body image, violence, deadbeat parents, fights, and a powerful sense of friendship with each other. Every summer they come to the beach resort, sometimes to flee abusive home lives or in other cases to flee boredom, where there are thrills and a therapeutic freedom from responsibility in summer flings, carnival rides, beach outings, and the sort of transitory nightlife that was being phased out of Las Vegas at around the same point in time. The town offers the comfort of anonymity and a sense of fleetingness that the visitors speak of admirably, where their summer memories of boys and fun in the sun can be left behind as they came, until perhaps they finally return to bring their own children to the resort a decade or two down the line.

A woman who dresses as a vampire for the carnival’s haunted house talks about how to make a good chunk of change working 13 or 14 hours a day. One awkward but earnest teenager shares what seems like a tall tale about putting another girl in the hospital. A guy sheepishly listens to his new summer fling drunkenly and enthusiastically ramble about Wildwood, repeating the phrase “it’s different, every night” over and over again. There are bad 80s haircuts, exaggerated Jersey accents, and religious adults that intone about the dark temptations that lurk everywhere for the girls on the boardwalk. Interviewees share dreams and ambitions about becoming a doctor, a nutritionist, a psychologist, an airline stewardess, or in the case of two go-go dancers, simply doing whatever you need to do to make a buck.

The movie’s subjects have an unscripted awkwardness and matter-of-fact way of speaking that sometimes lends itself to amusement but Leitman does not film them so they can be simply gawked at as period pieces, like in something such as in Heavy Metal Parking Lot. There is a lot empathetic intoning in each interview about struggling to get by, hating how the world makes you feel about your body, avoiding men who don’t respect you, and shouldering each others burdens and a scrappy solidarity that makes Wildwood, NJ in all its low-rent New Jersey griminess, a thematic meditation on the friendship and experiences between working class women.

Black Christmas (1974)

Several years before John Carpenter formally launched the teenage slasher genre with 1978’s Halloween, director Bob Clark managed to put together one of the genre’s strongest entries in Black Christmas. Today, Bob Clark is better known for his other hokey holiday staple, A Christmas Story, and the 80s teen trash comedy Porky’s. But in the 1970s, Clark was a part of the decade’s focus on having a gritty, realistic ethos in film-making, producing the 1976 crime drama Breaking Point, 1974 horror Deathdream, and 1979 Victorian murder mystery Murder by Decree. Released around Christmas 1974 for maximum marketing effect, Black Christmas plays with tropes that are by now well traveled in horror film: teenage co-eds being knocked off one-by-one, a killer in the attic, a “Final Girl”, point of view shots, and as far as I can tell, the earliest known use of the “the calls are coming from inside the house” staple in movies.

What separates Black Christmas from the rest of the pack is its a) focus on creating a foreboding situational atmosphere, b) solid ensemble cast who capture a classic snapshot of the 70s women’s lib era, and c) really good sound design. Black Christmas has a few intended jump scare moments but mostly it prefers to crank up the creepiness by having its suburban killer Billy remain mostly sight unseen, instead mostly placing nasty and abusive phone calls and unsettling mutterings while lurking in the shadows.  In the original script for Carpenter’s Halloween, the adult Michael Meyers was referred to as “the Shape”, in order to better emphasize the character’s mystery and unexplained nature, and that tactic is more successfully deployed in this movie as the killer not only remains mostly unseen but also rather unexplained.

In between the horror of the killer in the attic, the film explores the day to day lives of its rather charming university co-eds, who struggle with topical issues, such as abusive boyfriends, getting an abortion, overbearing fathers, underage drinking, and sexual harassment. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Marian Waldman as a drinky sorority mother are all particularly good. Keir Dullea is particularly obnoxious as Olivia Hussey’s vain and mentally unstable boyfriend, while Margot Kidder obviously had a lot of fun playing the hard-drinking and wise-cracking Barb.

Other reviewers have noted the film’s similarity to Dario Argento, and Black Christmas does indeed come off as something of a Canadian giallo film, with strong use of lighting and color, as well as typical close-up shots of quivering, murderous eyes. Specific praise must be given to the film’s ambiguous and unsettling ending, an effective use of silence and minimal sound cues that capably set a parting tone of dread and eeriness. The score composed by Carl Zittrer and sound design handled David Appleby, Kenneth Heeley-Ray, and Bill O’Neill do a lion’s share to help carry this movie’s mood and atmosphere and their efforts should be praised.

Overall, Black Christmas plays to its minimalist strengths of slow-building foreboding that make it an interesting and effective staple of 1970s horror, despite its deployment of what are now thoroughly exhausted cliches of the modern genre. Essentially, this movie is Carpenter’s Halloween beaten to the punch by four years with a different holiday framing and a more psychological edge. Bob Clark had shot horror and gritty movies as an easy way to break into the industry but he had not intended to stay as a genre director, as his later work in the 80s and beyond goes to show. An interesting entry by a rather unusual and eclectic director, Black Christmas stands well with slasher horror like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and When A Stranger Calls.


Further Reading
culture crypt
dangerous minds
canuxploitation