Advance orders for the new double DVD release of Brian De Palma's 1983 Scarface have been announced as two million. That's a record number?the highest ever?yet the mainstream media has dismissed the re-release of this film as a "minority" cultural event. It's hard to think of any other movie release that has so clearly revealed the true class, race and moral divisions of contemporary popular culture.
Face it: Movie-fads like Memento, Fight Club, The Blair Witch Project were primarily white cultural events (and their less-impressive DVD sales reflect the relative "minority" status of their lasting significance). For the past 20 years, the appeal and influence of Scarface has flourished in America as if under the radar of all the movie magazines, buff websites, film festivals and high-profile critics. By ignoring Scarface, they have set themselves up to remain ignorant about the last two decades of changes in American society. It is Scarface's impact on the fantasy lives of urban moviegoers?the subcult that creates the fashions, music, lingo and news fodder for the rest of the country?that has helped extend the greed of the Reagan 80s into the new millennium's social desperation.
On the new DVD, a 20-minute documentary made by music video director Benny Boom lets a platoon of hiphop-culture icons comment on what Scarface has meant to their lives and careers. P. Diddy, Method Man, Geto Boys' Scarface, Eve, Outkast and more express their admiration for Tony Montana, the Castro exile played by Al Pacino who took advantage of the 1980 Mariel boatlift and Miami's Cuban criminal class to enter the drug trade, grasping after the vaunted American dream with brutal tenacity. This drama was the beginning of "gangsta" as an appellation for ruthless bravery. Its seeds were planted by the big-screen vision created from De Palma's extravaganza realization of Oliver Stone's screenplay?a cynical, sociological update of the 1932 Scarface directed by Howard Hawks and written by Ben Hecht. (Def Jam has released a CD of songs by various rap artists influenced by Scarface. It's a funny, melodramatic array, although it omits Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome" in which Flavor Flav imitates Tony's "Who I trust? Me!")
De Palma-Stone's collaboration blended lush, modernist film style with a heightened awareness of America's narcotized principles. Excess from the disco 70s had become institutional in the 80s and that's what swanky, sun-bright Miami made surreal. The film premiered the same year as Grandmaster Flash and the Melle Mel's White Lines, a dazzling-and-chilling hiphop 12-inch that uncannily matched De Palma-Stone's dazzling-and-chilling vision. (The film's actual Giorgio Moroder score updates disco into a near-operatic dirge.) A real-world soundtrack was already in place for the criminal doings most of America was unwilling to face but that pioneering rap enthusiasts were first to record. Scarface may have been the first Hollywood movie to openly discuss how the drug industry and government converged in money-laundering (one of De Palma's more perverse movie references, up-ending a montage from Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers). It was a gangster movie fantasy, but it entered the national bloodstream as only a slightly exaggerated reality.
Seen today, Scarface has ultra-vivid colors photographed by John Alonzo (who shot Chinatown and Sounder) and neon-baroque sets designed by Ferdinando Scarfiotti (Bertolucci's primary art director) that can be understood as altering the typical morality tale into something psychedelic. (Few images in color cinema match the abstract art of Tony's dead body falling into a blue pool but splashing waves of red blood.) Eyes bent. Ethics bent. And so did the aspirations of ghetto youth too-long denied easy access to standard means of achievement?and rarely the criminal route of organized crime as glamorized in The Godfather. For this generation Scarface was just berserk enough to make sense of the world they couldn't make sense of. Tony Montana was a figure closer to the experience of Afro-Caribbean Americans than the movies' overly sentimentalized mafia figures. And he spoke the way Americans actually converse on the street, on the job, in anger or excitement.
This strange authenticity was beyond the ken of most reviewers at the time. Scarface was hammered by critics who routinely made sport of De Palma's movies and a preponderance of reviews complained about the profanity?some actually counting utterances of "the 'F' word." What the fuck kind of criticism was that? It was plain evidence that the constabulary of movie reviewers automatically considered themselves guardians of bourgeois taste?and hypocrisy. They couldn't stretch themselves to see what made Tony Montana recognizable. (Ghetto kids related to him intensely and immediately, including his fetishization of blond Elvira?an emblem of the white world to be appropriated, and still one of Michelle Pfeiffer's two best performances.) Tony Montana was too far from the lives most white critics would admit living, and too far from the kind of identifiable, manageable public enemy that Paul Muni portrayed as Tony Camonte in '32. With his teasing slogan "Say goodbye to the bad guy," Montana spooked those people who weren't sure what to think about the drug war. Those who were sure understood?or misunderstood??that, at last, Hollywood had created a role model they could emulate.
The self-consciousness that De Palma had used to deconstruct and subvert narrative convention in movies like Hi, Mom!, Carrie and The Fury finally found its audience in a media-soaked generation left behind by the U.S. education system but responding to movies and music with their own streetwise instincts. These were the culture mavens?unexpectedly savvy?who reacted to movies that represented the harsh world they knew. They got De Palma's formalist point that most Hollywood genres actually promoted aggression, violence, sex and excess, despite their disingenuous messages. That sad esthetic fact would only become more true as the 80s went on, another sign of Scarface as a cultural harbinger.
Tony Montana's motto "The World Is Yours" wraps around an illuminated globe that sits in the foyer of his mansion. (He first gets the idea for it from a message he read on a Goodyear blimp?an image that was culturally recycled and described in vivid rhyme on Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day.") That globe image is partly satirical, partly sincere. Its ambivalence escaped the consciousness of most rappers (Nas totally misread it on his track "The World is Yours"), which accounts for the dismaying testimonies in the Benny Boom doc. A generation in search of morality was clearly unprepared to grasp the ideological subtleties of an aesthete like De Palma and a preening moralist like Stone who was not yet in full command of his agit-prop. Scarface plays both wild and sincere and teenage viewers ingested its wildness sincerely. Neither De Palma nor Stone is necessarily to blame for that, although Carter, Reagan and Bush (and their supporters) might be.
How people interpret the intricacies of form and theme in movies is a crucial question in contemporary film culture. Scarface's re-release raises the issue of how certain movies appease particular cultural groups simply in the way it offers a key to the changed morality of the past few decades?an insight you won't get from any of the award-winning pictures of that same period.
Standard cult favorites like Memento, Fight Club, The Blair Witch Project, even Pulp Fiction, do not bother to entertain moral or political issues. They represent the devolution of genre movies into nihilism. Scarface was always clear about Tony Montana's goals and the fact that they had a price. It's proof of a basic human quality that youths outside the mainstream were attracted to the essence of that story?even if they didn't catch De Palma's psycho-Shakespearean reference to Kurosawa's Thorne of Blood in the choreography of Tony Montana's demise. Instead of receiving cultural dictates from authority figures, a hungry young film audience defied them and sought their own needs. Scarface is one of the best examples in film history of moviegoers making culture for themselves.