Photo: ‘Scarface’/Universal Pictures
‘Scarface’: the name says it all, a film that’s beloved by cinephiles, gangsters, frat-bros and everyone in-between and has been since its release in 1983, defining an entire decade, its Reaganite vision of an excellent excess, inexhaustible and undeniable, tracing this vision across sun-soaked images of Miami, Florida, (though filmed in Los Angeles) a beautiful neon-pink paradise on the surface but a paradise that also conceals within it an awful truth: there’s too much; there’s never enough – and this becomes one of the film’s primary concerns.
How could something so beautiful be so violent? How could excess be so lacking? Is violence not just another name for beauty? What’s beautiful that didn’t struggle to be? The flower that climbs through a tangle of vines to reach the light, the man who makes himself from nothing, the lie that becomes the truth. And what would something be if not for nothing? O, but the peak that soars into the sky also reaches down into the depths of what can’t be said to be! Is excess not this soaring, always wanting more? And is wanting, not having, and, is not having, lacking? Why is there so much beauty in excess, in wanting?
My Nietzsche impression aside, this film is important and endures as a classic piece of Cinema, eclipsing the original film by most people’s standards, becoming the ‘Scarface’ movie, because it touches on the most essential aspect of our lives: desire, its dual expression as lack and excess, and the beauty (and violence) there within: what do we want and why? What could be more violent? But what else could be responsible for the greatest beauty?
It’s a question that I’ve been obsessed with for years now, one that I always return to, one that I always find myself writing about (maybe to excess) in the hope that one day maybe I’ll understand that age-old paradox of desire, and it’s funny too because it’s a question that’s been asked and answered a hundred times by hundreds of people over hundreds of years, everyone from philosophers to self-help gurus to filmmakers exploring and opining on that most mysterious of forces. Here we have three masters of cinema, Brian De Palma, the director, and Oliver Stone, the writer, and Al Pacino, playing the now legendary character, Antonio “Tony” Montana, coming together and creating a terrifyingly true portrait of desire, the face of which is imprinted permanently in our minds as ‘Scarface’.
The American Dream or The World Is Yours
There’s no more beautiful an image than thus, an image as elusive and fantastical as it is present and familiar. The American dream is such an essential part of the American mythos that, in the eyes of many, America’s become a dream, a promised land, where anything and everything is possible, able to be had, if only you could be there. But the thing about dreams: they’re real and they’re not. So, if America’s a dream, how do we know what’s real and what’s not? Well, if America’s a dream, then the movies that reflect that dream back at us must give it some sense of reality, right?
An image is always of something, so what does this image of the American dream look like? Then we might be able to answer what the American dream is. For some, the American dream might look like a raft to a safer haven, escaping the violence of an abandoned country; for another, it might look like a green card and a job working a grill after being detained in an immigration detention center, more shanty than center; but, for Tony Montana, Cuban political refugee turned Miami coke-kingpin, it’s bigger than all of that; it has a size and scope of any movie. For him, the American dream is a way of being, a philosophy, and that philosophy is: the world is yours; the world is everything.
What does “the world is yours” look like? It looks like this film: De Palma’s sweeping crane-shot oners, moving down and in on Tony and Tony’s world from an elevated place, the place Tony aspires to reach: the heights of heaven (outlined by a blimp passing overhead) because there can be nothing above or beyond Tony Montana, not even God. It looks like stacks of hundreds and bags after bags full of money, like sandcastle-sized piles of coke and submachine guns, like fast cars and faster women, filling up each frame, expressions of status, power, or beauty, but there’s one image in particular that stands out in the midst of all this world, of all its excess; and it’s relatively banal, as far as images go in the movie, like the fireplace from ‘Citizen Kane’, another film outlining an entanglement of excess and the American dream: after Tony’s reached the height of heights, achieving everything he’s set himself to as a man, he sits, as if on top of the world, in a large jacuzzi tub, placed right in the middle of a bathroom so sprawling in its size, so plum-elegant in its decor, so aloft in excess that it could only represent “the world is yours”, Tony’s idea of the American dream, but, like every dream, the American dream can also become a nightmare.
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The World Is Yours or: Ouroboros
The genius of the film, and De Palma’s composition here, is that this same image simultaneously reflects what’s lacking in that great American ocean of excess, as Tony puts more and more space between himself and those other people that make up his world: his best friend and Cuban compatriot, Manny Ray, played by Steven Bauer, and trophy wife, Elvira Hancock, played by a relatively unknown Michelle Pfeiffer at the time. Tony, like most of us, believes that giant jacuzzi tub represents what’s great about the American dream, and he’s right; and he’s wrong: that tub is the world, but it only fits one.
Of course, Tony can’t see that; he’s always at the center of his own composition, his own target; and as this center pulls more and more into it, the more its gravity desires, the more it wants, because it’s always wanting, the more and more estranged those people and those objects become, the more lacking they become; and then they also become targets to be subsumed into the great monad, objects and people and people becoming like objects, because to have everything and everyone become a part of you so you don’t have to want anymore, so you don’t have to lack anymore, sometimes means total assimilation, even self-cannibalization.
This assimilation is, of course, a violent process, responsible for the most intense violence of the film, and because it’s a violent process, everything that’s beautiful must also be pulled into it as an essential part of its expression, resulting in the destruction of everything that was once beautiful, once innocent, most poignantly expressed in the film through Tony’s relationship with his younger sister, Gina, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. On the surface, their relationship is that of an overprotective older brother and a naive, younger sister, who needs protecting from the world, but, like everything in the film, this surface gives way to a deeper desire, the weight of Tony’s world, its insatiable wanting, and plunges into pseudo-incestuous depths, becoming a sort of self-cannibalization because, for Tony, she’s an extension of his ego; he can’t let her escape his world, even if it means she’ll be consumed along with him.
Both actors play these pseudo-incestuous undertones perfectly as well, subtly at first, letting it unfold as a question until the process reaches its logical conclusion; and there can be no more question; and when it reaches this conclusion, it does with a bang, a bang that’s as much the piercing tone of the film’s score, the haunt of its singularly focused synthesizer, as it is the pull of a trigger. As Tony so eloquently states in the tub: “Capitalism means: get fucked.” Well, if there ever was a capitalist, it’s Tony Montana.
“Say Goodnight to the Bad Guy”
Like so many films about the American dream, Tony makes it and loses it all, so what does that say about the American dream? Is the American dream worth working towards? Stone’s script is so full of insight and great lines, lines that you wish you could have written first as a writer. The line that stood out to me the most when watching the film this time, which Pacino says with such drunken moxie, the charisma of a man that knows he’s in the midst of losing everything, was: “I always tell the truth, even when I lie.” I think the American dream is a lot like this quote: it promises you everything that a dream does, and that’s beautiful; but a dream is just a dream, fleeting, flying away at the first yawn of day. Still, one thing remains in this medley of lack and excess: ‘Scarface’.
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