"Capitalism too has to keep moving, keep expanding, or it dies. And because logarithmic growth is in its DNA, it can only grow on the basis of ever-increasing levels of consumption." - John Sanbonmatsu
For French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, our era of post-modernity eradicates the traditional logic of model and copy, sign and referent. Signs now refer only to other signs, images to other images, and the world itself becomes a kind of hyper-real orgy, an inextricable landscape of simulations and simulacra.
Brian De Palma's "Scarface" is a 1983 remake of Howard Hawks' 1932 gangster classic. Unlike Hawks' film, however, De Palma's aesthetic is resolutely postmodern. It is also a film which is explicitly about a postmodern culture, specifically one which is ruled by desire, production and which thrives on the constant and insatiable circulation of money, drugs, images and objects. Unlike other gangster films, the look of "Scarface" is thus aggressively pop, more akin to "A Clockwork Orange" (itself a future world in which all art, actions and objects are rendered impotent) than the more provincial world of "The Godfather".
De Palma's aesthetic therefore contributes to a general "derealization" of the world, in which there seems no clear distinction between reality and artifice. Consider the way the various sunsets in the film - outdoors, on indoor murals, on our hero, Tony Montana's shirts (Al Pacino), on giant billboards etc - seem equally unreal. Miami and the "billboard" Miami, are all part of a single simulacrum. Throw in countless references to the original "Scarface", and early gangster flicks like "Little Ceasar" and "The Public Enemy", and you have a film that is obsessed with its own artifice. Where then, do these characters exist?
Midway in the film, during a montage sequence, De Palma traces Tony's rise to the top of his own criminal empire whilst the song "Push it to the limit" plays over images of whirring money-counting machines. It's a cheesy scene, but the film's point is clear. There is no anchor to Tony's inflationary economy, no limit, no equivalence between labour and profit. In a reversal of his "Get To Know Your Rabbit", De Palma has cocaine highs echo the fantasy of capitalism; a perpetual money machine, without limits, ends or consequences, that spits out cash faster than eyes can count.
But capitalism also functions like cocaine, in that it is an all consuming "substance" that engenders narcissism, egomania, delusional paranoia, pleasure and, of course, inescapable addictions which induce a need for more and more. Cocaine, in short, is capital, a point that is reinforced when Tony's cocaine addiction becomes inseparable from his limitless desire for "the world and everything in it".
More than any other gangster movie, "Scarface" thus captures a totally madcap world; an almost Baudrillardian simulation obsessed with desire and production. Everywhere capital, power and desire form boundless circuits which dissolve previous social codes and reterritorialize them in simulations of traditional codes, observing no law but that of limitless excess. The "look" of the film is thus not only the look of the cocaine experience, but the "look" of late capitalism itself.
Because it is mired in this tacky shamelessness, people have labelled "Scarface" a sort of inferior "junk food" sibling to supposedly more "authentic" and "real" films like "Goodfellas". But it is the very falsity of "Scarface" that makes it real. A huge generational shift took place during the 1980s (the "shame free" enjoyment of pornography, of Bling, of video game mega violence etc) and one of the reasons "Scarface" was so critically unpopular at the time was that it went against the Reaganite grain. Here is your American Dream, it said, and feel how tawdry, how plastic, how criminal it is at its base. "The World is Yours", but what a hollow world it is.
"Scarface" is thus the first Bling Film, grotesque in its glitzy 80s materialism. But it is Bling as purgatory. You can buy the stuff, snort the cocaine, get the woman, live in the mansion, but nothing will fill that existential lack. When Tony growls, "Is this it? fking sucking, snorting?", it is not just the American Dream rendered cynical, it approaches Sartre in its existential ennui: "Is this it? Breathing, eating, defecating?"
With its Tarantino-styled chainsaw scene, pre-"Miami Vice" art design and shameless vulgarity, "Scarface" also marks the point at which the old gangster paradigm was superseded. "Scarface" intuits a future landscape of video game hyper-reality and violence as always excessive. It posits crime as incessant, paranoid and vengeful (revenge against destiny, competitors, class beginnings, genetic identity etc) and is one of the few gangster films to equate violence with castration, pleasure with self-abuse and action with male-impotency.
Note too that "Scarface" opens, not in garish overdrive, but with newsreel footage of Cubans being expelled for disobeying the "spirit of communism". Birthed in the jails of Castro's Cuba, Tony's path to psycho-pathology is the result of ideological rejection; his excesses are the mirror image of the communist ethos. With Tony sitting in his lair like a paranoid President ("Is this it? Snorting? Vote rigging? Executing?"), fretfully protecting his expanding empire, surrounded by banks and banks of security cameras and a weapon's cache that would formally only have been in possession by a military, the film's bloodbath finale now reads like a pessimistic take on modern America, quaintly convinced that it can take on everyone at its own ultra violent video game.
8.9/10 - An awful future, slowly dreaming itself awake.