Friday, April 13, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.12: Brian De Palma's Scarface

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 91 (A)

Brian De Palma spent nearly twenty years of his career crafting highly personal films in the forms of iconoclastic comedies (Greetings, Hi Mom!), Hitchcockian thrillers (Sisters, Dressed to Kill), and nutty horror movies (Carrie, The Fury) before creating Blow Out, the ultimate De Palma film. But sometimes it’s important for a director to get away from his pet themes and try something new. That’s what happened with Scarface, a gloriously excessive gangster film that’s become De Palma’s most iconic contribution to cinema, despite it seemingly being one of his least personal films up to that point. It has no split-screens, it isn’t overtly about movies, it’s tied to cheesy 80s synth music, and at first glance it seems more focused on tough guys acting tough than on subversive statements about sex. Add this to the expansive hip hop cult following that surrounds the film, and one might think that it’s all a dumb gangster (or gangsta) epic that glorifies grubby characters.

That’s how I saw Scarface for the longest time. It should be noted, however, that I when I first saw it, I had nothing but contempt for hip hop and saw the genre in a purely reductive fashion. As my appreciation  for hip hop grew over the years, however, I gained a better understanding of the hip hop culture, and learned that there was more to it than glorification of crime. The best albums in the gangsta rap subgenre (Illmatic by Nas, Ready to Die by the Notorious  B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls) show both sides of the thug life- the alluring side of being a criminal and the harsh realities, the draw of making it in America and the cruel, inevitable fall. The best albums of the subgenre tell tales of men who try to win their own way but who are destined to die young (as Biggie and rival Tupac Shakur did). With that in mind, I revisited Scarface and found a far more complex film than I’d originally seen.

Antonio “Tony” Montana (Al Pacino) is a Cuban refugee cast out of his country by Fidel Castro. He and his best friend Manola “Manny” Ribera (Stephen Bauer) work their way up the Miami Cuban-American drug scene, showing adeptness at violent drug jobs. Tony, however, wants to be more than a player for Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) and his right-hand man Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham). He wants what’s coming to him- “the world, and everything in it”; that includes Frank’s girl Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). Little by little, Tony builds up a reputation as a man of his word and of “steel balls” to become the biggest cocaine dealer in Miami. But it’s a dangerous game, and once you reach the top, it’s hard to stay there.

De Palma holds back on the overtly De Palmian (not a word? It is now) touches- split-screens, split-diopters, slow-motion set-pieces- but if there’s one thing one could never call it, it’s “restrained”. The film is jam-packed with balls-to-the-wall stylistic overkill. De Palma makes good use of crane shots to lower us into the crazed environments of Miami- the hellish, slum-like Cuban refugee camp, the garish club scenes, and the infamous chainsaw-motel scene. De Palma frames his characters in each scene with a question- who’s in power now, and what’s the relationship between these characters. Even when Tony’s being bossed around by Frank, he looks more relaxed. Frank is behind the big desk, but it’s almost as if he and Tony have switched places. We get a strong sense of the easy friendship between Tony and Manny, the contentious flirtation between Tony and Elvira, and best of all, Tony’s relationship with his mother and sister. Tony’s adoring sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastratonio) is seated as close to Tony as possible, whereas his mother’s distance and coldness towards her son tells us what she think of her son before she even opens her mouth. De Palma might not be using his usual trademarks, but he’s as masterful a visual storyteller as ever.

De Palma captures Miami (and later Bolivia) in all of its gaudy glory. The clubs are neon-lit discos packed with big-haired beauties, cocaine, and sexual tension. The mansions are stylistic excess embodied, with Tony filling his home with luxurious furniture, tubs, riches, and even a few tigers. $550 dollar champagne bottles and big cigars abound. The beaches are paradise, but there’s artificiality to the paradise- there’s a monstrous criminal underbelly beneath the bright lights and beaches. It’s in stark contrast to the classiness of The Godfather, but it’s a different time and place. There was an elegance to the business and crime class of the past, Coppola proposed, although it hid some terrible people and doings beneath it. There’s no elegance to the 1980s crime scene, however- just cheap (if fun) riches above all the violence. It’s matched by an appropriately cheesy synth songs and score (courtesy of Giorgio Morodor), including the goofball classic “Push it to the Limit”, recently used ironically on South Park. Is it hard to take seriously? Yes, but that’s largely the point. The goofiness belies savage violence.

Speaking of violence- it’s pretty gruesome. De Palma was never one to shy away from graphic violence (Dressed to Kill had to be censored to secure an R rating), but Scarface pushes his sleazy-violence aesthetic further than ever. There’s no Godfather-polish to the shootouts of Scarface- the violence is unapologetically brutal and horrifying, caked in blood and sweat. It’s not the plain-as-day violence of Mean Streets, either- this stuff is fucking sick. Even when we don’t see the graphic violence (the chainsaw scene is mostly offscreen), we feel the effect and imagine the gory aftermath. When F. Murray Abraham’s oily Omar Suarez is executed, he isn’t shot or strangled- he’s hung from a helicopter, and the neck-break has visceral power. An attempted hit on Tony Montana is the polar opposite to an attempted hit on Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II- blood flies everywhere, it’s in a public place, and innocents are killed. And as for the infamous final shoot-out- well, there’s no romance there.

Scarface was written by Oliver Stone, the writer-director whose portrayals of the hyper-masculine are both self-serious and often hysterical (Alexander, Natural Born Killers). De Palma, however, knows how to direct Stone’s overwritten script with just the right combination of dramatic heft, glorious excess, and smart comedy. He has the perfect leading man for the film, too: Pacino was known for reserved, cooly intense roles such as Michael Corleone and Frank Serpico. The Pacino of Scarface more or less says “fuck that shit” (quite literally- the language here is so vulgar it’d make a sailor blush). Even when he’s relatively calm, Tony Montana has a lust for life and color to him that contrasts past Pacino roles. Pacino’s later performances (including his abysmal, inexplicably Oscar-winning role in Scent of a Woman) would show the actor going over-the-top in the most embarrassing self-parody, but he’s in complete control here. Tony knows how to play it cool while still telling his enemies to go fuck themselves. He’s no boy with a silver spoon a la Michael Corleone- he’s a scrappy up-and-comer whose bravado is matched only by his ambition. It’s only when he’s really pushed (‘FUCK THE DIAZ BROTHERS!”) that he first loses it. His outbursts grow more frequent in the film’s third act, but by then he’s in the depths of a cocaine binge, powered by paranoia and raw anger.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves well, too, from Stephen Bauer as Tony’s loyal but sex-addled right-hand man Manny to the wonderfully hammy Abraham as the greasy, untrustworthy, arrogant Omar Suarez to the always entertaining Robert Loggia as Tony’s rich, complacent, unambitious boss Frank. The film is so powered by machismo (once again, an Oliver Stone script) that it’s a wonder that the female roles are as strong as they are. Credit the strength of director De Palma (too often accused of misogyny) and his ability to direct women well, not to mention the performances of Mary Elizabeth Mastratonio and (in a career-making role) Michelle Pfeiffer. They’re both perfect as an angelic innocent corrupted by the American Dream and a bored ice-queen/casual coke-sniffer betrayed by it.

De Palma’s exploration of sex in the 80s drug/crime culture is as fascinating as his past explorations of sexual obsession (Dressed to Kill, Sisters, Obsession). It’s a hyper-masculine world that encourages male promiscuity- Manny hits on every girl he can, to the point that he almost gets Tony killed when he’s distracted by a girl during a drug deal, and when he’s turned down, he accuses a woman of being a lesbian (never mind that he’s doing something pretty gross to hit on her). Tony has a slightly more pure view of sex- he hilariously always insists on taking girls out to get ice cream- if only because he wants to marry and have children with one woman: Elvira (never mind that she’s with Frank and is bored with Tony and everyone else). When their marriage goes sour, however, Tony’s nastiness towards women surfaces, particularly in his revelation that Elvira sniffs so much coke that she can no longer get pregnant.

But the strongest sexual relationship is that of Manny and Tony towards Gina. Manny has pretty blunt views towards women throughout most of the film, but when he first sees Gina, he finally falls in love. Tony’s reaction is venomous- “you stay away from her…she is not for you”. It could be that Tony doesn’t trust the sex-obsessed Manny with his sister, but his best friend’s feelings are more pure than usual. Tony, on the other hand, has creepy subconscious feelings for his sister. He’s obsessed with preserving her purity (hyper-masculinity vs. female sexuality), and by the end of the film De Palma, Stone, Pacino and Mastratonio bring the implications of the relationship to an uneasy peak.

De Palma’s exploration of voyeurism is relatively restrained (though compared to Blow Out, how could it not be?), but Scarface is still a film where who’s watching who and when determines who lives and who dies. Aside from the peek-behind-a-curtain feeling we get from watching these mob dealings, there’s also the infamous chainsaw scene, where Manny’s lack of perspective/attention almost gets his best friend killed; the scenes of Tony watching Gina, paranoid that another man might take her; the first attempted hit on Tony, where the audience sees the hitmen, follow them, and watch as Tony narrowly avoids a grisly end (for the time being); and the grand finale, where Tony is too fucked up on booze, cocaine, and grief to realize in time that he’s surrounded.

Scarface isn’t a commentary on the movies in the same fashion that Blow Out or Dressed to Kill are, although the artificiality of Italian-American Pacino’s Cuban character could be a throwback to Old Hollywood, where movie-ethnicity didn’t give a damn about authenticity. But De Palma still includes overt references to his inspirations throughout the film. The suspense scenes show a man who understands how Hitchcock orchestrated thrillers, while the structure of the film plays like a sleazy nose-thumb at his friend Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies (three-hours long, focused on the rise and inevitable fall of a powerful immigrant man). There’s throwbacks to old gangster films from The Public Enemy to White Heat (with an ending that echoes Cagney’s last stand in that film). And while this Scarface is far more violent and over-the-top than the 1932 Howard Hawks film it’s based on, the films are hardly diametrically opposed. Both were highly controversial for their violence and sexuality (and in this case, vulgarity), both essentially follow the same plot points, both follow hungry, ambitious Americans in the crime world, and both are expertly crafted gangster films.

While the film is not a riff on gangster films, it is a satire of sorts on the movie world. There’s a famous anecdote about when Martin Scorsese saw Scarface: Scorsese turned to Stephen Bauer and said, “You guys are great- but be prepared. They’re going to hate it in Hollywood…because it’s about them.” Scorsese wasn’t wrong. The story of Tony Montana and his friends can be viewed as an allegorical look at the New Hollywood generation. There’s grubby promise to an ambitious upstart like Tony Montana and his friends. Tony throws out the complacent old guard through sheer force of will. But they can’t buck the system forever. After a glorious start, they become addled with ego, excess and drugs (Oliver Stone himself was knee-deep in cocaine addiction) until they inevitably turn on their friends, mess with the wrong powerful man, and finally flame out. When Elvira laments “Look what we’ve become…we’re losers”, she could be speaking for an entire generation of young men and women who conquered the world only to lose it all. They were told that “The World is Yours”, but it comes with a price.

It’s not the only allegory buried within Scarface, however. It’s ultimately a look at the American Dream and how it breaks people down. People like Tony have been promised their “human right” and a chance at an honest living, but they have to break their backs in order to get it. If they want anything more, they have to play a dangerous game. It’s the Corleone story, but it’s also the story of the gangstas who followed. Between living in abject poverty and playing a dirty game, there’s no real choice. There’s some shame to all of this (Tony claims to be a political organizer to his mother), but it’s overpowered by excess. There’s no limit to what they want (“the world is coming to me”) or what they can get (“first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women”). But their success, even extravagant success, is short lived. They’re all doomed to die. It’s the “land of opportunity”, but only for a short amount of time.

It’s no coincidence that all of this takes place during the Reagan years- in the “greed is good” era, there’s plenty of policies against drug trade, but there’s also quite a lot to encourage it, from successful businessmen high on cocaine to politicians and cops with stake in the drug game (they often even have contacts in the South American drug cartels). There’s rank hypocrisy in the condemnation of drug dealers, according to Tony, by the same men who rip off the American public. They “need people like him” as a scapegoat, so they can blame a so-called “bad guy”, but they’re rats all the same. Tony’s no hero, but he voices Stone and De Palma’s sentiment that there’s something wrong with the American capitalistic system in general.

Above all else, there’s a moral tale buried in Scarface: Tony might be a criminal and a murderer, but he has a moral code. He’s loyal to his friends, he doesn’t get involved in the dirtiest side of crime, and he doesn’t “get high on his own supply”. But he betrays his standards- he treats his wife badly, he nearly kills innocent children, and he murders his best friend. Tony feels remorse (De Palma’s sense of Catholic guilt here), but he’s gone too far to go back now. He loses everything that’s important to him- his wife, his best friend, and his sister. He’s not going to go out begging like Frank, but he’s going out all the same, in a flurry of bullets, all while the bitterly ironic phrase “The World Is Yours” shines above him.

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