It’s so hard being a Brian de Palma fan sometimes. I know what kind of great work Brian can do. I’ve seen that he can do pulpy, politically motivated thrills with an experimental edge in Blow Out, I’ve seen him do tight psychodramas like Raising Cain, Sisters, and Obsession, and I’ve seen him make some of the best work ever put to cinema in Carrie and Hi, Mom!. Hi, Mom! being of the most radically inventive and creative films ever made, and Carrie just being a beautifully put together construction of cinema. I even like some of his bigger budget stuff like The Untouchables, Mission to Mars, and Mission: Impossible… Just, god, watching some of his 80s and 90s films is a total crapshoot. I’m not mad in love with Blow Out, I really didn’t care for Body Double, and I have a real distaste for Carlito’s Way. They’re bloated, deal in huge moments of grandeur that I just don’t care about, they’re bloated, they have some strange approaches to women, and they’re bloated.
So, I go into Scarface knowing it’s one of de Palma’s 80s films, it’s one of his gangster films, and it’s like 3 hours long… the signs aren’t looking good… I do try to keep an open mind though because de Palma is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, and when he hits he absolutely hits it out of the park, and it’s got Al Pacino, one of the best actors of all time… how bad can it be..?
Bad. It was very bad.
The frustrating thing about Scarface is the thing that makes all of the de Palma classics that I don’t like frustrating for me. They all contain elements of why I keep going back to the de Palma well. There’ll always be one moment or scene that demonstrates de Palma’s virtuosic understanding of cinema, his b movie sensibilities will shine through, or he’ll do something absolutely bananas with his filmmaking that just works. He’ll have something like the panning shot around the room as we listen to the tape in Blow Out, he’ll have the moment with the escalators in Carlito’s Way, or the home invasion in Body Double. There will be something there that reminds that de Palma, more than almost anyone else, just understands how shots fit together. It’s true of Scarface as well, there are a few setpieces where the problems have absolutely nothing to do with filmmaking. There’s an assassination in a refugee facility early on that’s brilliant, a saw based massacre that’s not only delightfully tense but ridiculously b-movie for such a prestige picture. It’s just, so misjudged in almost every other aspect.
The film does make an interesting and respectable stab at critiquing capitalism, Pacino is thrown out of a communist nation in Cuba and comes to America to be a capitalist, and through this what we see is that through America’s willingness to advertise itself as a paradise, through America’s willingness to advertise Capitalism as a savior to the rest of the world, not only does it hide the darker sides of what it takes to be a good Capitalist, it means that it is telling everyone that what it means to be a good American is to be a criminal. To be a good Capitalist, you have to not care about anyone else, not care about authority and just care about money and wealth. It’s not like this is an arc Pacino has either, he comes to America knowing this, and he finishes the movie knowing this.
It is ultimately a critique worthy of Oliver Stone who wrote the screenplay, it’s aggressive, acerbic, and subversive. It just really falls down when compared to the film’s view of gender, in that the film is so rampantly and uncritically misogynistic it makes me wince. There is a scene where Al Pacino gives flirting tips to his buddy who proceeds to sexually harass a lady, and sure she rejects him but the cinematic language; the camera angle, editing, and whose performance is being highlighted, tells us Pacino is the cooler one, he’s the one in power here. This pays dividends when literally all we see of Pacino’s Montana’s relationship with his future wife before they marry is him, sexually harassing her. The film plays into a lot of other very misogynistic ideas as well, the idea that Pacino’s character should be more sympathetic because he loves innocent women in his family and only them, and that his mother shouldn’t be listened to because she doesn’t understand him. Here’s where that falls down. When you are talking about a philosophy like Capitalism, especially the American Imperialist version, you are talking about a philosophy that is obsessed with taking over. A philosophy that is obsessed with the self, and the projection of the self. Part of what is wrapped up in Stone’s critique of Capitalism as a global virus of an ideology is the idea of unregulated growth that is at the heart of Randian Capitalism. Rand herself demonstrated in her writing and philosophy a huge amount of internalized misogyny in how she basically believed only men could be great Capitalists. It is the Randian idea of Capitalism that Scarface really deals with, after all, if there were no regulations, which is what Rand wanted, then Montana would be able to reign supreme and nobody could get him on any pesky drug charges. It is at the end of the day, an exaggerated version of the Flint water crisis. A company was running a business and did something illegal that hurt millions of people, (like a drug kingpin), but many many people believe nothing should happen because that would mean an increase of state regulation of business. I think Rand would have a lot of respect for Tony Montana. We have talked about how Capitalism is all about a projection of the self, an absorption of the rest for the sake of unregulated growth. What’s Toxic Masculinity then? Fundamentally it refers to the act of engendering the following ideas as inherently male, but Scarface kind of romanticizes them so let’s have a crack at it under the banner of Toxic Masculine engendering anyway. These ideas are; the suppression of negative emotions except for anger, the idea that you have to be a winner no matter what, maleness is defined by aggression. You have to be a winner no matter what, like under Capitalism. You have to suppress negativity just like how under Capitalism you have to focus on continuous exponential growth. You can only show an emotion if it’s anger in the same way Capitalism engenders you to crush opposition without empathy. This is why Rand only wrote men as her Capitalist heroes, because Capitalism is Toxic Masculinity. So, when you’re dealing with Capitalism, and you critique it for all of the tenants that I have just stated mirror Toxic Masculinity, when you critique it for its expansionist ideas, for engendering these ideas in others, and for alienating anyone you’re close to for a lack of empathy, and then you romanticize Toxic Masculinity… you have failed in your critique, and everything just begins to look like a hollow mess, because you have failed to see your own duplicity.
It is interesting that this is the Pacino performance I watched right after catching up with Dog Day Afternoon, in which I was so surprised to see Pacino give a performance as a very small person, an often meek and insecure person. His performance there is so striking in how constantly terrified and weak Pacino looks. Then to go to Scarface where I feel like the direction was only ‘be as much as possible’, it just pales in comparison as a performance and it’s so much less nuanced.
I think where I really come down on Scarface, in the end, is kind of where I come down on films like The Wolf of Wall Street. Yes, on one very surface level they are critiquing these things which they depict, but on another much more insidious level, the filmmaker has allowed themselves to become seduced by the glamour and excess of it all. It’s like how with Body Double debate rages about whether it’s actually critical of its own male gaze or not. This is why it’s so frustrating to be a de Palma fan sometimes. He’ll make a film like Carrie about how being a woman is actually really hard, then shoot the opening credits like that, he’ll make a film like Bridge This Gap about how being a person of color is hard then put Al Pacino in basically Latino Face. Every time I see him fuck up, through something like that or through sheer ill-discipline, it just makes me more furious because I know that he knows better.