Powder Keg
Leah Churner on Scarface

Last week, at the back of the L train, I spotted a large man in a Tony Montana T-shirt. This was no store-bought merchandise, but a painstakingly rendered airbrush job. Clearly the work of a dedicated specialist. One of a kind. I sat down next to him and as I was struggling to discern the intended meaning of the “Eat Pussy and Die” tattoo in the cascading folds of his neck fat, it hit me: I am a Scarface fan, and this is the company I keep. In all likelihood, a freshly paroled, quasi-skinhead, crank-addled sex offender, and on some bizarre universal plane, this man and I have similar taste.

This raises questions. So does the extensive co-opting of Scarface imagery by gangsta rap. The film’s been around for nearly 24 years, yet you can’t cross four squares of pavement in Manhattan without encountering some artistic rendering of Tony Montana; whether in the form of revamped Starter jackets, park-periphery oil sketches, or cakes in a bakery window, the man is more ubiquitous than Jesus. The zany urge toward slapdash, unofficial merchandizing among Scarface fans is way cooler than gangsta rap’s colonization of the film’s imagery and lingo. Imagine the ninth-grader heaving critical sighs over a clay sculpture of Tony Montana firing an M16 assault rifle he attempted in art class—alas! not good enough!—then compare that to the great army of music-industry lawyers armed to the teeth with copyright documents. I get dizzy thinking about the great media-conglomerate wheel of royalty payments churning away in the name of Scarface: Universal licenses snippets of its dialogue to Def Jam, Def Jam releases a special album in tandem with the “Anniversary Edition” of the DVD, and all the while VH1 tags along at the rear and picks up any stray footage or sound bytes for recycling on “most outrageous moments” countdown shows.

Yes, the film has market appeal, because its script is basically a catalogue of easy-to-sample catchphrases, but surely this is true for other, more recent, more daring films. How did De Palma’s Scarface, a Hollywood extrapolation about minority machismo from 1983, become the apotheosis of gangsta symbolism? In terms of street cred, how do we deal with such problems as, say, Debbie Harry dropping Spanish slang in the soundtrack (at least she’s not rapping again)? And what about all the reflexive racial slurs—it’s really too bad John Travolta didn’t play Tony’s sidekick Manny as originally planned, we could have had more of them. Al Pacino calling Michelle Pfeiffer a “piece of white bread” is one thing, but the “Strangers in the Night” scene, in which Al Pacino guns down a white comic masquerading as a fresh-off-the-boat Cuban in a room of mirrors, is quite another. The little minstrel-show moments may have been hilarious to De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone as they crushed up their drugs behind the camera, but does the line between racial representation and reality really not matter, as long as it sells records? The whole “paradoxical nature of gangsta rap” spiel is nothing new—for too many years, crotchety critics have shit out the same old revelations (homophobic + hypermasculine = fishy!) so I’d rather skip it. What I want to know is, where does it all come together?

I’m assuming everyone has become familiar with the film at this point. Even if you haven’t, you have, elsewhere—guy comes to America, climbs the ladder of organized crime through spunky initiative, gets filthy rich in no time flat, assassinates kingpin and drags bewildered queenpin right out of her satin sheets, marries her, and together they live in a beautiful mansion surrounded by zoo animals, surveillance cameras, and mattress-sized packages of cocaine. It takes all this to teach him a valuable lesson: Mo money, mo problems. A narrative as clichéd as they come, incidentally set in early-Eighties Miami. It’s predictable, improbable, full of flat racial stereotypes, and three hours long—all in all, toxic. So why have I harbored this secret wish to pack it all up, move to Miami, and build a hideous black marble mansion filled with gold furniture, excessive drapery, and blood-red colonnades? Why do I get so excited during the “Take it to the Limit” montage? The sleaze and tackiness and intoxication of Scarface leave me scratching my head in disbelief. Everything Tony Montana purchases—a bathtub with the capacity of a school bus, a pet tiger, a great glass elevator for the living room—is what every nine-year-old would kill to have. It operates on a visceral, wish fulfilling level, and recalls a period of life when the warm membrane of material bliss was a reasonable thing to believe in—Christmas morning.

Ultimately Scarface isn’t really about gangsterism, it’s about drugs. Comparing De Palma’s Scarface to the 1932 original or comparing Pacino’s performance as Tony Montana to his Michael Corleone is pointless; it’s apples to oranges. A better reference point would be a film about the drug trade more sanctioned by pretension, such as Ulli Lommel’s 1979 Cocaine Cowboys. It’s preposterous, too—key ingredients: rock stars on horseback, helicopters, motorcycle chases, private yachts, Long Island, low-flying planes, musical numbers, and Andy Warhol to the rescue. The gist of the coke genre has less to do with its particular worth as drama than its filmmakers’ preoccupation with the stuff. Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote the following in a witty (but sadly prophetic) article in 1980, about a film he never got to make:

"Cocaine will be a film about the kind of experiences that someone has who constantly lives under the influence of the drug. … [It] permits any eccentricity, any willful choice of motifs, of marvelously crazy costumes, and so on…it allows the actors to indulge in a necessary overplaying such as the cocaine user would experience under the influence of the drug.… Cocaine freezes the brain, freeing one’s thoughts of anything inessential…this freezing of the brain will be expressed in the film as follows: everything visible will appear covered in a sort of hoarfrost, glittering ice, whether in winter or summer; glasses and windows will be covered with ice flowers…even in the summertime, the actors’ breath will be visible…"

Sure sounds like the Scarface recipe: its whole mise-en-scene is designed to visually and aurally reproduce the experience of the drug—the fetishistic “hoar-frost” is in the sparkly disco gowns of the lithe leading women, the supersaturated sunsets, the tinny, sleazy music, and Al Pacino’s short-sleeved shirts. All of it reveals De Palma and Stone’s not-so-ambivalent attitude toward cocaine and thus, the film’s distinct and, for some, unclassifiable appeal. In Scarface. Glamour, intrigue, and delusions of grandeur are slowly turned inside out, morphing into paranoia, despair, and aversion to human contact. But these tales aren’t cautionary, they are wish-fulfilling. The requisite unhappy ending (as we see in Cocaine Cowboys, too) is properly glitzy and heroic. Gauche, dry-heaving junkies and old men with delirium tremens need not apply.

If we take Scarface as a cocaine movie, its intoxicating charm starts to make more sense. Could cocaine be a metaphor? I say so. It’s downright American, man: it’s a mirror for our bottomless faith in the warm, rapturous membrane of consumption. We know our mountains of stuff will never truly satisfy us, yet we remain optimistic: all we need to be happy is a little more bling and a little more blow, some new shoes, an 8x10 glossy of Tony Montana and one more cryptic, creepy neck tattoo.