Monday, September 12, 2011

Do "Scarface's" fans really "not get" the movie?

Recently, Brian De Palma's 1983 movie "Scarface" (a remake, by the way) was released on Blu-ray. At an event celebrating that release, the film's star, Al Pacino, thanked a specific group of the film's fans for helping its reputation grow in the years since its original box office disappointment:
”The hip hop people and the rappers got together and they made a video and they talked about the movie. I dont think anybody ever talked about it as articulately and clearly. I understood it better having heard them talk about it…I mean they really get it and they understand it and that’s a great thing. They’ve been very supportive all these years and I think that’s helped us tremendously”
It turns out that several "hip hop people and the rappers" consider "Scarface" to be an American classic. Sean "Diddy" "P. Diddy" "Puff Daddy" "Etc" Combs considers it "One of the hottest movies ever made." Tattoo artist Mr. Cartoon says "That movie had a big effect on LA, period... to see Latinos doing it that big on a screen... that was real big for us."

I pulled those quotes from a movie about "Scarface's" influence, titled "Scarface: Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic." You can actually watch that film on YouTube (it's very NSFW, as you probably expect):

I remember seeing the film on VHS not long after its original theatrical release (it wasn't in theaters very long). I thought it was a disturbing, shocking, boring, overlong, hilarious and exciting viewing experience. I enjoyed it, but I've never been motivated to see it again. I thought Tony Montana was both loathsome and admirable, at least until his own drug use took over his life-- then he just became loathsome. For a long time, I was one of only a very few people I knew who'd actually seen the film. Then I moved to LA, and "Scarface" was all over. It had a massive cult following that I had no idea about, and couldn't fully comprehend. It was sort of the urban version of "Star Wars;" I don't know why so many people like those movies, either.

(Full disclosure: My memories of the film "Scarface" are far more favorable than my memories of the "Star Wars" films.)

Anyway, the film has achieved a second life thanks to its effect on its modern fans. But, do these people who admire the film so much "not get it"? A person called Hunter Duesing, writing at the Big Hollywood website, makes just that claim. He begins by writing that when he first saw the film, he "loved it." But:
Now I kind of hate it.

My dislike of Scarface mainly stems from the movie’s obnoxious fan base. There are many movies and bands I enjoy that are cursed with followers that are beyond irritating, yet I refuse to let them poison the enjoyment I get out of whatever it is they love for erroneous reasons. Scarface is different in that the film’s fans are indicative of the movie’s failings as a story and a as a piece of art. It’s a classic case of rabid fans “not getting it.”
So, Mr. Duesing saw and enjoyed a piece of art that he interpreted in a certain way. People who interpret that piece of art differently from him "don't get it." (The "it" in this case is the piece of art in question.) Apparently, he believes that a piece of art can be interpreted in one way, and one way only:
The point of Scarface was to present the dark side of the American dream, giving us the story of an immigrant who gets to the top of the food chain in the most brutal, horrible manner possible, only to lose it all in an explosion of violence.
This gangster yarn seems to be something people are more keen on worshiping and emulating for the wrong reasons, in that Tony Montana is not a role model, yet he is treated as such by the movie’s fan base. I would argue that for this very reason, the movie is a failure when it comes to presenting its themes.
Mr. Duesing plays a semantic game here. He assumes that his own interpretation of the art is the correct -- the only correct -- interpretation. He then says that because people don't see in it what he himself sees, the art is a failure.

In fact, just the opposite is true. "Scarface" is all the more rich for the fact that it is open to interpretation. That two different people, from different walks of life, can look at the same piece of art and respond differently is indicative of its power as art. A person like me, growing up in middle class Middle America, in a town in which the population was over 90% white, is likely to respond differently to a film like "Scarface" than someone who grew up in South Central LA, or Watts. For me, "Scarface" was much more abstract. I was distant from it. For others, based on their own life experiences, it could be much more resonant.

A person should never, ever assume that their own interpretation of a piece of art is the only "proper" one.

"Scarface" is a film about a man who works hard to achieve success in his chosen field. His chosen field is the illegal drug trade which is, obviously, illegal. As such, there are certain rules of conduct by which must abide. It's only until he starts his own slide into drug addiction that he stops abiding by these rules, and he pays the price. But even at the end, he goes out on his own terms, without fear or compromise, and totally defiant. I haven't seen "Scarface" since 1984, but I can still vividly remember "I'm Tony Montana! You f*ck with me, you f*cking with the best!" And of course, "Say hello to my little friend!"

He's about to die, he knows it, and yet he still affects an attitude of anger and defiance. That appeals on a visceral level. Anybody can "get" that.

Being open to interpretation is not a failure of art; it's a strength. The world is full of people from all different backgrounds, with a range of experiences. They're going to naturally have differing points of view. Celebrate that -- don't just assume that your way of seeing something is the only way. And for crying out loud don't let that get in the way of appreciating something for yourself.


A.Jaye said...

I have fond memories of Scarface too. I lived in Nigeria at the time and VHS was just in. Me and my teenage crew lapped it up. Then I went to University and they showed it in the campus cinema. All the kids came out swearing the 'F-bomb'. This was at a time (the 80s) and place when such profanity was viewed with disgust and/or awe.

In the 90s I too chuckled at Hip Hops adoption of the movie. I could see why. From an ocean away I saw it as the American fetish of the outlaw.

The point you make about art and interpretation and of this Mr. Duesing is one made by the screenwriting guru Robert Mckee;

'It is both elitist and racist.'

I wonder if Mr. Duesing loves The Godfather.

Ricky Sprague said...

Yes, it seems to me that "The Godfather" does far more to glamorize the outlaw lifestyle than "Scarface," which actually shows the hero's self-destructive decline, thanks to his drug addiction. I don't know what Mr. Duesing thinks of that particular movie, but in his most recent column, he describes himself as a "lifelong fan" of "Star Wars":

"Star Wars" fans are obnoxious because they just don't see that movie the same way I do: A shameless money-grabbing toy commercial that glorifies war and revels in the destruction of life on a galactic scale. The fact that people can find entertainment in such a thing is a sad commentary on their inability to interpret the film in the proper manner, i.e., the way that I interpret it.

Seamus Sweeney said...

I just came across this post via Google. The blog looks great BTW, I look forward to looking through it.

For reasons I explain here I have created and curate (ahem) a very irregularly updated photo blog on the various unusual manifestations of Montaniana: . I'm no closer to actually seeing the Brian de Palma directed movie , but my appreciation for the protean forms Scarface fandom takes has grown. I try not to judge or theorise, just record. Although, as you write, the oft lauded Godfather films "glorify" gangsterdom far more than Scarface does.