This upcoming Tuesday (September 6, 2011) Brian DePalma’s 1983 ultra-violent classic Scarface comes out on Blu-Ray for the very first time. Maybe it’s because there’s a glut of Scarface representations in the media lately; maybe it’s because The Blood Bros’ second mix Heaven 2 Hell begins with Paul Engemann’s Push it to the Limit and I’ve been listening to that mix regularly for the last few weeks; maybe it’s because I seem to watch Scarface every decade – I’m not entirely sure. I just know that I’ve been itching to watch Scarface for the last few weeks and last night I achieved just that.
Ten years ago, the last time I watched Scarface, I didn’t really like it. All the hype surrounding the film didn’t equal the presentation. I still feel this way but watching this viewing yielded a different response: I loved Scarface and thought it was hysterical. I know DePalma, Pacino, and author Oliver Stone weren’t looking for camp but that’s exactly what they delivered. Scarface, even with all its social commentary and explorations in humanity, is a gaudy film akin to other unintentional comedies like Showgirls (which is far superior). The characters, for the most part, are ridiculous and the Cuban accents portrayed by American actors are laughable. I’ll admit Pacino did capture the mannerisms of Cuban-Americans with panache but that about all; everything else is overblown and draws laughter instead of awe.
One thing about Scarface which sticks out is its portrayal of Cuban-Americans. Growing up in Miami (I was three or four when Scarface hit theaters) I was surrounded by Cuban culture – most of my neighbors were Cuban (both coming in during Castro’s revolution and during the Mariel boatlift), I ate Cuban food regularly, and many of my school peers were Cuban. I don’t remember any of them going around selling cocaine or shooting up nightclubs. This doesn’t mean that element wasn’t present in Miami – after all, Scarface contains fictitious representations of actual events (the chainsaw scene was taken from a case in Ft. Lauderdale) – but it was a minority; Scarface would have you think it’s the other way around, with almost all the characters being involved in a criminal underworld and only featuring one or two voices representing Cuban-Americans in any other fashion (Montana’s mother, a television news pundit).
This is nothing new from Hollywood. Alec Guinness played Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia, Charlton Heston played a Mexican in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (mentioned in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood as a studio blunder), and there are countless others like Warner Oland, a Swedish-American actor playing the Chinese Charlie Chan. To DePalma’s credit he did hire many Cubans for other roles and even Steven Bauer is Cuban but overall it’s just another in a long line of Americans playing people of other nationalities, imposing American values and ideologies onto the characters. Is it an example of cultural hegemony? Possibly, but that still doesn’t negate my enjoyment of Scarface, or the other films I mentioned above (Charlie Chan films excluded).
To his credit, Al Pacino did play Cuban refugee Tony Montana quite well – minus the cheap accent. When Montana was depressed I believed it, when he was excited I believe him, and when he got that certain psychopathic look in his eyes I could tell something bad was about to happen. His swagger, filled with hyper-arrogance and bravado, was very convincing and Montana’s bravado kept the film moving forward. At some point in Scarface Montana says, “All I have in this world is my balls and my word,” and this defines Montana perfectly – both metaphorically and literally. I find it quite hilarious Montana is almost always sitting with his bulge in plain view, for the world to see. Here’s an example:
See? He’s always reclining with his package presented for all to see. It’s like a wild animal, where the size of one’s testicles determines their status among others and Montana, when you get down to it, is like a wild animal. At times he claims murder is fun and shows very little or no remorse, killing people many times throughout the film. Montana is definitely an Alpha Male but unfortunately he’s really not that intelligent. Omar (F. Murray Abraham – another American actor portraying a Cuban) defines Montana perfectly by saying, “I think he’s a fucking peasant.” Montana, for all his street smarts, is kind of a dullard. He has no formal education and this is reflected in his gaudy tastes.
The picture above, the globe saying “The World is Yours” is but one example of Montana’s lack of taste. He has four separate swimming pools, the living room is painted dark red and trimmed with gold and black, his bathroom is white marble with gold trimmings, and the decorations have no theme or statement (aside from the globe). I can credit Montana with knowing and admitting he isn’t educated – he tells this to Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) during the film’s first act – but he doesn’t try to better himself when he’s sitting on top of the world. Like James Arnold Ross in Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! (later portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood) once you’re in the game there’s really no way out. Ross, a self made oil tycoon during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became so wrapped up in the capitalist game he couldn’t get out; he was sucked in without a chance for exit. When he finally does retire he ends up dying not long afterwards; Montana is similar to Ross in that he starts a game he can’t escape from.
There are actually many similarities between Ross and Montana – they both love family members and are caught in capitalism’s snare – but Montana’s violent streak is less comparable to Sinclair’s character and more similar to P.T. Anderson’s rendition of the character: Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis). Like There Will be Blood over 20 years later, Scarface is a critique of capitalism and excess, ultimately offering a harsh criticism of America’s dominant religion, the black market, and the materialism which accompanies vast riches. Does Montana travel the world, educate himself, or create anything he can hand down to his offspring? Absolutely not. The idea of Tony’s overarching motto, “The world is yours,” is false; instead he’s a slave to the world he’s trying to conquer. He sits in his office, paying attention to his security cameras constantly and trying to control those around him unsuccessfully; he’s always worried about police officers petitioning bribes and whether the IRS will come down on him for having too much money; he’s in a loveless marriage and exudes no real joy. In essence, Montana’s a sad little man and Elvira’s assessment – “You’re boring” – is correct. Tony is a boring person, obsessed only with riches and how to maintain them.
I come from the gutter. I know that. I got no education. But that’s okay. I know the street, and I’m making all the right connections.
Scarface is a skewed version of the rags to riches story, a bastardization of the American Dream. It also suggests there are limits to upward mobility in the United States – that deviation from prescribed lines will cultivate vehemence from both competitors and institutions. Montana deals in cocaine, an illegal substance shrouded in controversy and tainted with negativity…and rightly so. Cocaine is a terrible drug but it’s also surrounded by violence because of its illegality. After all, there would be no black market without prohibition and Montana even believes the American government wants the drug illegal to further the prison-industrial complex and give politicians an enemy. I can’t totally disagree, even with my personal dislike for the notorious white powder.
A publication by two prison advocates, Peter Gelderloos and Patrick Lincoln, titled World Behind Bars discusses America’s stance on illegal drugs (especially in relation America’s penal system). Interviewing a prisoner named Ase the duo discovered, “The U.S. economy would collapse if drugs were legalized,” and continued, “imagine all the cops, prosecutors, judges, prison guards, defense attorneys, and private contractors whose livelihoods depended on people getting locked up for drugs and what would happen to the economy if all those people lost their jobs.” There is some truth to this claim, akin to the statements made in the 2005 documentary Why we Fight, which argues America’s economy is primarily propped up by constant warfare following the Second World War. At the beginning of Montana’s foray into self employment he’s cornered by a Miami narcotics officer and bribed. However, this cop’s not only looking for a payout but for Tony to hand him a few busts along the way; some small time crooks which make him look good. Eventually Tony shoots this cop but requesting busts indicates the American system’s need for arrests and incarceration.
There is so much more to Scarface, even amidst its ridiculousness. It’s a film which has become comical over the years but is also filled with clever and insightful commentary on American’s brand of capitalism and the ideology associated with it. It explores cultural differences and how these play out, especially in relation to economics and crime. The Blu-Ray version, featuring remastered picture and sound, also features a litany of extras. Unfortunately, many of these also appeared on the 20th anniversary DVD edition. My personal favorite is a vignette demonstrating the differences between the theatrical and edited-for-television version. Here it is:
My favorite is changing “This town is like a giant pussy just waiting to be fucked,” to, “This town is like a giant chicken just waiting to be plucked.” It’s not only hilarious but a great example of clever editing. However, unless you’re a purist whose materialism necessitates having countless films on Blu-Ray this version of Scarface isn’t really essential. I’d suggest finding a used copy of the 20th anniversary DVD version and saving your money (and hopefully not for the Star Wars Blu-Ray version hitting stores in less than two weeks).