Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Scarface (DVD)

On the surface, the unlikely centrality of Brian De Palma's garish Scarface remake in hip-hop culture seems like a whopping misinterpretation, pointing to a breakdown of morality, irony awareness, and good taste. Is it possible that an entire generation of rap stars could misread the rise and fall of Tony Montana, a nouveau riche Cuban drug lord, as a rags-to-riches story about living large and going down in a blaze of glory? In "Origins Of A Hip-Hop Classic," a Def Jam-produced featurette included on the new two-disc Scarface DVD set, virtually every big name in the business sounds off on the film, but their collective response turns out to be more complicated than it seems. Granted, some view Scarface as a how-to manual for success on the streets, casting Montana as a "ghetto superhero" who upends the capitalist system and knows how to throw his money around. But others see it as something closer to a moral fable, bound in themes of honor and loyalty, about an admirably pugnacious rebel who instinctively understands street codes, yet loses his way the moment he stops adhering to them. The filmmakers in Laurent Bouzereau's making-of documentary (also featured among the generous supplements) don't acknowledge the film's underground following, even though the hip-hop nation has all but adopted it. Though De Palma and company could have never predicted the cult phenomenon that developed around Scarface, it actually meshes well with his subversive vision of the remake as a raw, trashy answer to The Godfather, with all that tasteful, burnished décor stripped away. Instead of depicting Al Pacino as the reserved, thoughtful heir to the family business, De Palma casts him as a scrappy, impolite gangster of the people, encouraging him to tackle every overwritten Oliver Stone line as if it were another teeming mountain of cocaine. There are unmistakable shades of The Godfather, Part II in the early scenes, when Pacino's Montana gets his first glimpse of America through the immigration system, and quickly realizes that the land of opportunity will not readily open its doors to him. Fresh off the boat from Cuba, Pacino and right-hand man Steven Bauer are tossed into an internment camp under a Miami overpass, stuck in limbo between two countries that want nothing to do with them. Pacino's desire to get what's coming to him ("the world and everything in it") inspires a few audacious acts of treachery that connect him to powerful figures in the Miami drug underworld, but his ruthlessness reduces them all to puny "cock-a-roaches." Once he's on top, his conspicuous consumption extends to his boss' icy mistress (Michelle Pfeiffer), but all the white suits and gold-plated accessories in the world won't buy him happiness–or get him closer to his own attractive sister, played by a combed-out Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Upon its 1983 release, Scarface was considered De Palma's bid for respectability after a run of sleazy Hitchcockian thrillers, but his bold, irreverent party-crasher of an epic flies in the face of other more stately affairs. After the outrageously bloody finish, it seems almost laughable for De Palma to offer a dedication to director Howard Hawks and writer Ben Hecht, creators of the justly esteemed 1932 original. But at heart, the two versions of Scarface share the view that success, in the gangster world and in America, requires not just canniness or hard-nosed diligence, but raw tenacity and the willingness to circumvent the rules in order to succeed. Or, as Def Jam honcho Russell Simmons puts it, "empowerment at all costs."


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