Skip to comments.'Scarface': Over-The-Top, But Ahead Of Its Time
Posted on 08/26/2011 11:11:00 AM PDT by BorgesEdited on 08/26/2011 11:32:12 AM PDT by Sidebar Moderator. [history]
Back in school, I was always amused to read about classics that were dismissed when they first came out you know, how Moby Dick wrecked Herman Melvilles literary career or how The Wizard of Oz was considered a disappointment when it was first released. I naturally assumed that, had I been around back then, I wouldnt have missed the boat like that.
But that was before I became a critic and discovered that, over the years, you wind up with a pocketful of unused tickets from all the boats you've missed.
Take, for instance, Scarface, the 1983 gangster picture directed by Brian De Palma, written by Oliver Stone, and starring Al Pacino who gives a performance the size of a Caribbean cruise ship. When it first came out, I panned it for taking Howard Hawks's great 1932 movie and remaking it as something trashy, shallow, and excessive to the point of Camp. I wasn't alone. The movie received lots of bad reviews, and even the public wasn't wild about it. It was only the sixteenth biggest box-office draw of 1983, behind such cinematic triumphs as Mr. Mom and Jaws 3-D.
But Scarface didn't vanish like they did. Instead, over the next quarter century, it became a phenomenon. The movie's now so iconic that it doesn't even seem silly that Universal should bring out a fancy, metal-encased Blu-ray version, the Scarface Limited Edition Steelbook, which captures the story in all its lurid glory.
By now, most everyone knows the plot. Pacino stars as Tony Montana, a small-time Cuban exile. Tony arrives in Miami along with his friend Manny Ribera that's Steven Bauer and sets about trying to grab the American Dream the only way he knows how: Crime. Over the course of nearly three hours, Tony rises from being a dishwasher to a drug lord complete with a gold-bedecked mansion, a gorgeous moll played with sly asperity by Michelle Pfeiffer and personal stashes of cocaine the size of the Matterhorn.
I tell the truth, too, and here's an abiding one: If there's any quality that makes a piece of pop culture last, it's energy. And like the chainsaw that dismembers Tony's friend early on, Scarface just roars. It's as indelible as a cartoon, from Pacino's dementedly hammy performance to the bevy of quotable lines, almost none of which are clean enough to be quoted here.
Yet the historical reason Scarface became a touchstone is that De Palma and Stone especially Stone, the most plugged-in Hollywood filmmaker of the '80s were actually ahead of their time. In Tony Montana's gaudy rise and fall, they predicted much of what we've seen in the last quarter century the delirious consumerism, the Reality TV egomania, the sense of getting ahead as a life-or-death struggle. Most strikingly, Scarface anticipates the rise of hip-hop culture, with its celebration of the gangsta life in all its aspiration and tragic sense of doom.
Where a comfortable middle-class white guy like me found Tony's story a preposterous fantasy, rappers like Snoop Dog and Flavor Flav saw it as a mythic version of something real. It captured their sense of what it was like to be an outsider trying to fight your way to the top, grabbing all the women and bling you could because you know it could all quickly come to a violent end. They identified with Tony's braggadocio, his desire to live large, his willingness to fight to the end. And as with so much of hip-hop, this taste for Scarface entered the mainstream. These days, teens of all races quote Tony's lines at you and play the Scarface video game. For them it's a classic.
As for me, watching Scarface again the other night, I still found it comically over-the-top. But with the benefit of hindsight, I also saw that such an aesthetic judgment is only part of the story. You see, when it comes to pop culture, what finally matters is not whether something is "good," but whether it has the power to burn its way into the national psyche. And Scarface undeniably has that power. I never would've believed it, but in 2011, millions of Americans find Tony Montana a figure who's truer and more resonant than Captain Ahab or even The Wizard of Oz.
I left out the opening paragraph! Can you put this in please? Thanks!
“Back in school, I was always amused to read about classics that were dismissed when they first came out you know, how Moby Dick wrecked Herman Melville’s literary career or how The Wizard of Oz was considered a disappointment when it was first released. I naturally assumed that, had I been around back then, I wouldn’t have missed the boat like that.”
What’s an “NPR”?
“Say hello to my lil’ frien’”
Whats an NPR?
I think it’s shorthand web lingo for Nauseating Pablum Radio.
Like Radio Moscow, circa 1985, but slightly to its left, politically speaking.
Scarface was a remake of a 1932 movie!!!
The article states that.
I saw this movie in a theater when it came out. Toward the end there’s a scene I think where he falls face down in a mound of cocaine and I said loudly “I hope he’s dead” and the entire audience burst out laughing. It was a debased vile movie then and I assume it still is since nothing has changed except I’m less tolerant than I used to be but I won’t watch again it to confirm my suspicions.
The French (go figure) have a saying that people like to roll around in the gutter. This is more of the elite rolling around in the gutter and calling it great art.
Al Capone was the original Scarface
There’s a funny music video, called Jack Sparrow, put together between the rap group, The Lonely Island, and Michael Bolton, that has Michael Bolton singing about the movie Scarface and him looking like Tony Montana.
(warning: bad language)
Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction aren’t all that violent. At least not onscreen.
Captain Jack Sparrow...
Heh - I know, I know. Just a little tangent. :)
“...remaking it as something trashy, shallow, and excessive to the point of Camp.”
Sounds like NPR’s coverage of the Tea Party.
“When it first came out, I panned it for taking Howard Hawks’s great 1932 movie and remaking it as something trashy, shallow, and excessive to the point of Camp”
Which is precisely why its popularity grew. Same reason “Rocky Horror” has the longest continuous run in movie history and “Saved By the Bell” has been on the air for 22, or whatever, years. People, especially cultists, like trash.
“Back in school, I was always amused to read about classics that were dismissed when they first came out you know, how Moby Dick wrecked Herman Melvilles literary career”
Sometimes first opinions are better. I tried and failed to get through “Moby Dick” and “Scarface” still sucks.
The whole idea of ‘Camp’ is a ‘So Bad It’s Good’ mentality. It’s an idea that started in the Gay subculture and was popularized in a 1964 Susan Sontag essay.
Moby Dick is the closest 19th century English got to Shakespeare and Milton.
Concur on it being a bad film.
The only thing worse than a film critic, is one that can’t stand by his opinions.
This guy should be proud to have panned it, but I suspect that he is feeling left out of the group think of his lefty pals.
“This is more of the elite rolling around in the gutter and calling it great art.”
To be fair, I don’t think anyone’s calling it great art. It’s more a case of “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and if “Scarface” holds people’s (or vocal minority of people’s) attention 30 years after its release it must have done something right. This article seems to attribute to it actual worth, whereas I wouldn’t put it above “so bad it’s good” or a guilty pleasure (though not for me, as I still genuinely dislike it).
Your point of view can develop over time it’s just that this guy happened to have been right the first time.
Scarface may have been not “ahead of it’s time” but simply a bad example that became popular.
The old “if you build it, they will come”. If you portray slime younger people will be wont to imitate it. (Columbine & Basketball Diaries).
That is why they should not have been made but the Pandora’s box is opened and here we are.
“Basketball Diaries” was a moral parable that wasn’t really violent. Comparing it to Columbine is nuts.
“Toward the end theres a scene I think where he falls face down in a mound of cocaine and I said loudly ‘I hope hes dead’ and the entire audience burst out laughing. It was a debased vile movie then and I assume it still is since nothing has changed”
You’re right, and he was more objectionable even than other cinematic mass-murdering drug kingpins, including Pacino’s own Michael Corleon, who at least valued his family in ways other than wanting to have sex with them. It would be unpleasant but nevertheless purposeful if “Scarface” were a morality tale. For instance “MacBeth,” in which we see how awful is wealth and power in the hands of the illegitimate and depraved. We don’t even get that, however, as Oliver Stone feels the need to add a scene where Scarface informs his fat, rich, lilly-white fellow restaurant patrons that he’s a bad guy because they need him to be one.
Know what, Tony? We don’t need you to be bad. We don’t want anyone to be bad. We wish you were dead, and that’s that.
“Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction arent all that violent. At least not onscreen.”
But they are depressing and mostly depraved.
The youtube video was funny.
Thank you for posting.
That’s four of my favorite movies you listed.
Depressing? Both are highly comic. Especially the latter. RD is a story extremely well told.
I’ll take your advice on that as I never saw Basketball Diaries.
But I know one thing from first-hand experience (Elizabeth Taylor’s “Secret Ceremony” which I was taken to as a 9-10 yr old and imitated Mia’s fate 4 years later to a T tho I survived) - kids imitate what they see on the screen, especially when there are no decent adults in their life guiding them.
I remain convinced that having been made to read Shakespeare is and was child abuse. Same for Silas Marner. Also applies to being forced to read more than one book by Dickens. It wasn’t until the 12th grade that school assigned us to read Clarke’s “The Star.” What a wonder that was. That lead to “Rescue Mission” and then decades of reading sci fi. Finally.
‘Catcher in the Rye’ supposedly influenced a bunch of assassinations. There will always be misguided people who can be set off by just about anything.
That post goes towards explaining your awful film reviews.
I think the naming of Basketball Diaries along with Columbine is because Harris and Kleebold both were inspired to dress and act as they did by a scene in the movie where the lead character kills fellow classmates with a shotgun. So the comparison is valid.
They also quoted Macbeth in the tapes they made so one can throw that in too then.
1) When I viewed it upon its initial release I was disappointed but in hindsight much of that was due to Pacino taking on a very different role, accent, persona, etc. As a period piece I can appreciate it more.
2) ‘Miami Vice’ shamelessly ripped this off yet it’s ‘Vice’ and not ‘Scarface’ that gets touted as the definitive depiction of 80s South Florida (even though both are stylized fantasy).
3) The supporting cast are often overlooked or their roles are viewed as 2-D which they are not. Steven Bauer did some quality work elsewhere (’Thief of Hearts’) but is inextricably linked to this film for good or ill. Michelle Pfeiffer was admittedly perfectly cast as a china-doll arm ornament. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio has always been too much of a scenery chewer for me (see also: ‘Abyss’) and her fiery Latina schtick is unconvincing at times. Finally, let us not forget Robert Loggia’s Falstaffian role which he managed to make a multi-faceted one. It is said that Loggia and Pacino spoke in their Cuban accents round the clock in order to make them more authentic.
4) All the idiot hip-hoppers who love this film and actually admire and envy the characters miss the point intentionally or otherwise despite the very unambiguous ending.
5) The immigration issues raised by the film are being repeated on the Southern border on a much larger scale.
6) Giorgio Moroder had been doing this kind of anodyne electronica for a full decade before this film (as well as launching Donna Summer’s career) but his candyfloss compositions - played on a Fairlight synthesizer which was state of the art at the time - fit perfectly.
7) Cocaine keeps the weight off.
You said: “Catcher in the Rye supposedly influenced a bunch of assassinations. There will always be misguided people who can be set off by just about anything.”
But I’m saying that as a society, mature adults have a responsibility to the next generation, to raise them as best they can and to try and insure “domestic tranquility”.
By “amusing ourselves to death”, by a large portion of a generation or two remaining perpetual teenagers needing to be shocked out of boredom, we have created a scenario that is going to be the end of this great experiment - America.
The flippant attitude is part of the problem.
Most likely. Insane people find inspiration in the most odd places.
“Moby Dick is the closest 19th century English got to Shakespeare and Milton”
People say that, and certainly there’s an attempt at grand tragedy. However, when’s the last time you actually tried to read it? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I metaphorically threw up. I may not fully understand Shakespeare or Milton without careful rereading and footnote checking, but I can buzz through the text without it feeling like a chore.
Other so-called classic literature has big flaws: “Don Quixote” is too hopelessly repetitive to read all at once, and “War and Peace” has mystifying chapter-long digressions on historical philosophy. I don’t argue with their inclusion. “Moby Dick” is of a different kind, its flaws being in my opinion more endemic. The nautical stuff is boring and repetitive. Its digressions, too, are intrusive. That’s not entirely it. Its characters aside from Ahab are disposible, but that’s not it either.
I find it from the first page to the last wholly pretentious. This is not man’s war with nature, God, or himself. The book doesn’t earn such grand dimensions. Put down your essays, academia; it’s about a crazy guy who hates a whale. There, I said it.
Ultimately, though, that’s not it either. It’s nothing more complicated than that the book is so damn boring that I can’t read it. And for the record, it’s not the period or Melville himself, as I got through “Bartleby” and “Billy Budd” just fine.
1. A Clockwork Orange.
OMG, what a piece of crap movie!
2. Reservoir Dogs.
Ok, but really dragged out & not much of a story.
A CLASSIC. GREAT movie! Pacino is fabulous.
4. Pulp Fiction
One of the BEST movies of ALL TIME.
Samuel L. Jackson
I’ve read it more than once and love it. It’s hilarious and a wonderful fairy tale. Interchapter-like digressions had been common in fiction up until the 20th century. They go back to Don Quixote and in English back to Fielding and Sterne. The Whaling interchapters in MD are actually metaphors and the Historical Philosophy chapters in ‘War and Peace’ can easily be skipped.
That stuff has always been there. People read Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther” and killed themselves without realizing that it was a satire. If you remove art about pathology you will still have the pathology...you just won’t have the art.
“Scarface may have been not ‘ahead of its time’”
I can’t see as how we can give “Scarface” any credit for being ahead of its time for being stupid, noisy, and violent. As if no one could have predicted tastes would be coarser in the future. That’s like calling me a visionary for predicting the Super Special Committee to Solve the Debt Crisis (SSCSDC) won’t solve the debt crisis, or that Obama’s secret plan for job creation will involve spending and taxing more.
D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, and George Lucas were visionaries. The powers behind “Scarface” merely added a few more “Boom!”s, chainsaws, bullet holes, and cocaine mountains than usual.
A Clockwork Orange is a good example of the author (Anthony Burgess) seeing the trends in how society deals with youth criminals and gangs, predicts how the society will evolve into one of youth gangs owning the streets and having their way while good people hide inside or become victims of the monsters created by our own permissive attitudes.
It was pretty spot on if you look at how the UK has become and our own problems with youth gangs here in America. It’s a social commentary. The movie was pretty close to the book except that the main character Alex is only 15 in the book and kills a fellow inmate in prison.
The book is a great read too as it has an index that teaches you what the various slang terms mean and their origin.