“Scarface was a good movie to watch, I watched it like 2 times after the first time I saw it, that’s how good it was to me. I think I might watch it again.”
–Korin, online user review of Scarface (1983)
When I sit down in front of the television at night, I’m looking for a little consolation. There’s some consolation in old movies, and that’s a reason to be pleased that television has become, improbably, a museum of mass culture. People used to say that movies and TV shows were ephemeral—that they flickered onto the screen, briefly, then disappeared. Now we are learning that some of them don’t go away. Endlessly replayed, all through the night, they meet new receptions, new seekers of consolation. They might never die.
Think about Scarface. I don’t mean the old noir. I mean the one you’re thinking about, the one with Al Pacino as Tony Montana, the Cuban refugee who becomes a cocaine kingpin down in Miami. Scarface was written by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian De Palma, and it was released thirty years ago, in 1983. It was only a moderate success at the box office, and it wasn’t a critical darling. Six months after it was released, you might have predicted that nobody would ever think of it again. But something else happened. Surf through the upper cable channels on any weekday night, and there’s a good chance that you’ll find Scarface there, still blazing away. Wander around your city, cruise around the Internet, and you’ll see traces of it everywhere. There’s a whole book about its weird, improbable afterlives. I guess I’ve seen Scarface three or four times. When I watched it again, last week, I found myself asking, for the first time: could this movie outlive The Godfather?
The proposition might seem stupid or perverse. I mean, everybody loves The Godfather, right? I’ve heard grown men say that Coppola’s 1972 epic is the closest thing they’ve got to a religion. I’ve seen strangers in restaurants share an intimate encounter by playing out one of its scenes. “Try the veal. It’s the best in the city.” I’ve read a book where one of my favorite teachers, Tom Ferraro, attends—tenderly, lovingly—to its sociology of honor and its poetry of blood.
It was like this from the start. I’ve looked up the original New York Times review. The author, Vincent Canby, calls The Godfather “one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment.” Now this review, like many others, is a tiny autobiography. Our man is telling us a story about how he was brutalized and moved. And maybe he was a little surprised, too, when he found out that such affective intensities were possible “within the limits of popular entertainment.” You might get the impression that the cinema critic for the New York Times is the kind of guy who would prefer to be reading the classics. When he slums it with the masses, he is delighted to discover anything as operatic as The Godfather.
Midway through, the reviewer pauses to admire Pacino’s performance as Michael Corleone, “the college-educated son who takes over the family business and becomes, in the process, an actor worthy to have Brando as his father.” This praise was perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the movie—which, after all, is the spirit of patriarchal melancholy. The Godfather makes you want to say nostalgia like an Italian, in four syllables. Released in the era of Attica and Watergate, it recalled the Old World of Sicilian honor codes and the Old New York of white ethnic tribalism. When it turned its eyes toward the present, it saw a lot of sun-drenched squalor: dissipation in Las Vegas, swindles in Florida, bland idiocy in California. You remember the scene where the movie director wakes up, and his silk sheets are soaked with blood? The severed head of his prized horse is resting next to him. Not many Hollywood movies have been so nasty toward the culture that made them.
But this was part of The Godfather’s charm: the way it mingled scandalous violence with a backward-looking love for a disappearing world. And this is what made another of my favorite teachers, Fredric Jameson, so skeptical: While the capitalists were shutting down factories and weakening organized labor, while the government was murdering activists and waging war in Vietnam, The Godfather was inviting Americans to wring their hands about the sorry state of young men’s morals. There is no love in The Godfather like the love for the patriarch, who spends most of the movie dying. In Michael Corleone—the World War II vet who marries a respectable American girl but who receives his real education, violent and erotic, in the Sicilian countryside—it gave its audience the fantasy of a worthy son.
Naturally, they were disappointed by Scarface. From the moment it was released, the critics measured it against Pacino’s first great movie. Scarface, said the Boston Globe, “plays like a crude Godfather parody.” Over at the New York Times, Mr. Canby put it like this: “Where the Coppola film worked on our emotions in unexpected ways, discovering the loves and loyalties that operated within one old Mafia don’s extended family, Scarface is a relentlessly bitter, satirical tale of greed.” The Godfather was a work of high art with a sacramental dignity. Scarface was impious, iconoclastic and dirty. It snorted a bunch of coke and laughed in your face.
Scarface asks for these comparisons, I guess. The plot is loosely based on Howard Hawks’s 1932 film of the same title, which took some cues from the life of Al Capone. In the opening scene, Tony Montana tells federal immigration agents that he learned English by watching old American gangster movies. And of course it is none other than Pacino, The Godfather’s worthy son, who plays the punk in Scarface. The movie itself is an archive-machine, exhuming other movies from the vaults and reassembling their parts into something new.
But here’s the thing: even though it gestures toward the history of crime cinema, even though it winks at Bogart and Cagney, everybody knows that Scarface isn’t really interested in the past. It’s about the beginning of a new age. This is the true difference between the two Pacino films. The Godfather chronicles the end of a line; it is an elegy for an obsolescent era of blood and ritual. It is that paradoxical commodity, a Hollywood movie that pretends to despise our postmodern consumer society. Scarface doesn’t traffic in that brand of nostalgia. It’s not a parody or a satire. It’s a fun-house mirror, turned toward the future that has become our present.
In the opening scenes, Tony Montana floats into the United States on the wreckage of the Cold War. The authorities throw him into a makeshift detention center in a patch of concrete under Interstate 95. It’s a zone of captivity and immobility, and it’s hidden in plain sight along one of the principal avenues of Atlantic circulation. Inside, the inmates are rioting, rattling their cage for better conditions. But Tony stands aloof from the crowd. He wants no part in the collective struggle. He’s not interested in such antiquated notions as solidarity and rights. He’s a neoliberal tough guy, looking for his own way out.
Pretty soon, he finds it. Somebody is willing to fix his immigration status. In exchange, he is asked to kill another refugee, purportedly an ex-official under Castro. “I kill a communist for fun,” Tony tells the messenger. “For a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.” Scarface hit the screens two years into the Reagan presidency. It recognized the intimacy between right-wing politics and ruthless self-interest. It knew that the murdering, backstabbing drug dealer was the anticommunist businessman, unchained.
In The Godfather, the blurring of the line between crime and the “legitimate” economy can still seem shocking. In Scarface, the distinction seems quaintly naïve. In The Godfather, Don Vito almost loses everything over his refusal to deal in heroin. In Scarface, Tony Montana knows that coke is just another commodity in a boom economy. Michael Corleone marries the wispy, drooping Kate Adams to give his enterprise some old-fashioned, WASP class. When Tony Montana takes possession of the coked-up bombshell called Elvira Hancock, he is filling his waterbed with cash, not class. Even more excruciatingly, Scarface tells us these truths without any self-righteousness, without the consoling promise that manly discipline can save America from its fate. In the moral economy of this movie, the terms of critique have become indistinguishable from the terms of affirmation. “You know what capitalism is?” Tony answers his own question: “Getting fucked.”
In the closing scene, Pacino’s Scarface stands his ground in the middle of his Florida castle, grabs his machine gun, and delivers the most famous of all his lines: “Say hello to my little friend!” He gets shot down, and he ascends to his immortality. This is what leaves me with the feeling that Scarface matters more, today, than The Godfather. It’s not a consolation, but it seems true: The 1980s are not over. They might never end.
Caleb Smith: Working on a Solo Project.