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’

 

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