In other words, when does the personal journey from "rags to riches" become so consuming, so vital, so paramount that it actually destroys the social conrtact, threatens the larger sense of community, and leaves accepted morality shattered, in pieces on the ground?
And -- importantly -- have we reached that point in America yet? Or did we actually reach it decades ago, when Ronald Reagan assumed the Presidency and changed the way an entire nation conducts business? (By this, I mean de-fanging and eliminating business regulation, cutting taxes for the super rich, and reducing social services to a bare minimum).
These still-relevant questions beat restlessly inside the turbulent, angry heart of Brian De Palma's radical, firebrand gangster movie Scarface (1983), a film that today has become virtually synonymous with the excesses of the 1980s and, in particular, the beginning of the "greed is good" era in American culture. This De Palma film continues to be germane in 2009 because -- to a very large and therefor disturbing extent -- we still live in that culture. Only today the Boeskys and Milkens have morphed into Kenneth Lay, Bernard J. Ebbers, and Bernie Madoff.
In surface terms, Scarface is a remake of the beloved 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name (though subtitled "The Shame of a Nation"). Yet De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone have not slavishly re-fashioned a classic film with their 1983 version of the material. Instead, they have created a fiery, subversive, original commentary on their times, the 1980s.
Although their title character is a gangster and drug dealer named Tony Montana (Al Pacino), De Palma and Stone take great pains to contextualize Montana as something else entirely: a modern, 1980s business man. Accordingly, Scarface is virtually brimming with pointed references to capitalism, communism, and the milieu of big business.
With capitalism-gone-wild as their deliberate subtext, De Palma and Stone reveal how excessive greed eventually separates the film's grasping protagonist from his friends, family, and from his culture, even. Tony Montana's excesses become so...excessive, in fact, that his gold-plate home decorations would likely cause even Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski to blush. The neon production design of the film is extraordinary and effective because it strengthens and supports the notion that Tony observes no limits. Not in his personal appetites, not in his material wants, and certainly not in his morality, though, in his defense, he does not allow an innocent child to die late in the film during a bombing mission. Perhaps because that child makes him think of the child he and Elvira have never been able to conceive.
"The Biggest Problem? What To Do With All The Fucking Cash"
Scarface is dominated by allusions and references to capitalism. First, Montana is introduced as a militant political refugee who fought against Castro in Cuba.
After leaving the camp, Montana takes a job as a dish-washer at a small food stand in Miami (underneath a sign for a fancy restaurant called Little Havana). From his perch at the kitchen sink, Tony watches gorgeous women and well-dressed men line up in expensive cars and attend a ritzy club. Right there and then, he settles on a life of crime. He wants the proverbial American Dream and he doesn't want to wait for it. He and Manny thus leave their "honest" but low-paying jobs to work for a cocaine dealer named Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham). In the world of drug dealing, says Omar's Boss, Frankie, the biggest problem is what to do with all the cash. And he's right. Once ensconced as a thug for Frank Lopez, Montana graduates to the glitzy world of 550 dollar suits ("so you can look real sharp") and 40,000 dollar Porsches. His appetites only grow and grow.
In particular, Montana has his eye on Elvira, Frankie's girlfriend (and a 24-hours-a-day coke whore...). But Tony knows he is not yet ready to claim his golden-haired trophy wife. "In this country, you gotta make the money first," he tells Manny. "Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women." That's as terse and accurate a description, perhaps, of the the pathway to success in the contemporary U.S. as has yet been written.
At one point, Montana -- now a murderer for money and a purveyor of soul-stealing drugs -- makes a pilgrimage to the modest home of his honest, work-a-day mother. He brags to her "You son made it, Mama. He's a success." What's important to Tony is clear: his image: the car he drives, the suits he wears, the cash he can throw around (he gives Gina a thousand dollars...); even the fear he can engender in enemies and underlings. Tony knows he is a murderer, but lies to his mother and claims to be a political "organizer." Montana's mom sees through him quickly: "He's a bum. He was a bum then, and he's a bum now."
But Scarface finds its most critical voice of crony capitalism in the quick advancement by Tony to drug lord through --- essentially -- murderous attrition. Omar gets killed, and Tony moves up. Then Tony kills Frank, and he moves up again. All the while, Tony says things like "we gotta expand. The whole operation. Distribution." Or "Here's the Land of Opportunity." He's thus talking legitimate "business jargon" in an illegitimate, murderous business, but that's okay: America gives Tony its tacit permission to keep on climbing the business ladder. After killing Frank, Tony spies the Goodyear Blimp in the sky above. Emblazoned on the side, in huge letters is the legend "The World is Yours." This becomes Tony's mantra; his permission to take his personal quest for power and wealth far beyond "the limits" that most Americans observe. The slogan later appears in Tony's extravagant hall entrance, on a statue.
Amusingly, De Palma even stages a montage of Tony's monetary extravagance to the Paul Engemann-performed tune "Push it to the Limit." Again, that might as well be the mission statement of crony capitalism. Grab whatever you can get now, while the gettin's good. Or, as sung in the lyrics: "Hit the wheel and double the stakes; throttle wide open like a bat out of hell and you crash the gates."
Interestingly, the police do almost nab Montana. Not on murder charges. Not on conspiracy to commit murder. And not on drug running. Nope, they nearly catch him on charges of tax evasion. What is it with some wealthy capitalists that they can't pay their fair share of taxes? It's laughable: the super rich complaining about paying taxes which benefit the community at large. Taxes pay for libraries, roads, social services, unemployment benefits, utilities, schools for children, firefighters and policemen...and for our standing army (support the troops, but not with your wallet!). Yet the super rich like Tony -- who may have acted unscrupulously (like Lay, Ebbers and the others) to get his money-- behave like they earned it merely by "hard work." That's one of the biggest unchallenged lies in the on-going argument for crony capitalism in this country. that rich got there honestly; and that the poor are somehow lazy or undeserving simply because they didn't "push it to the limit" the way execs at Enron did.
Don't Underestimate The Other Guy's Greed: Tony the Tiger
So what does "the limit" look like when you're in the drug-dealing/100-billion-dollar-a-year business? De Palma's Scarface shows us in gaudy, even lurid detal. In the neon and pastel pink Miami of the 1980s, it's a world of golden-plated bedrooms (with bubble baths built right into the floor), monogrammed leather chairs, wall-sized portraits of the happy Montanas...and piles and piles of snow white cocaine on demand.
The tiger is an important symbol in Scarface. Historically, a tiger is s symbol of strength and power, inspiring respect and fear. That's what Tony is...a tiger. That's how he sees himself: Tony the Tiger. Unlike his pet, however, he is not caged or leashed by society's rules. He is the predator loosed in America, free to roam, to feed, to sate his material appetites. He doesn't believe he'll ever go down, but of course, he does. He makes enemies with people who are higher up the ladder than he is.
And there's one shot in Scarface, I believe, that best represents or symbolizes the film: a Colombian drug dealer opens a suitcase, and stashed inside are two bags of coke...next to a chain saw. Drugs and violence, side-by-side.
Grab a mop.