SOUND OFF: SCARFACE Onscreen & On Blu-ray
Never more apparent than at this very moment in history, the operatic emotions, over-the-top theatrics and outrageous outspokenness of the 1983 SCARFACE, new on Blu-ray this week, burst forth from screens both large and small - depending on your preferred venue for viewing, of course. And, with the fiery, ferocious fearlessness that Brian DePalma so astutely and assuredly weaves his web of debauchery and demons of the soul, heart and mind with - its apotheosis residing in Al Pacino's legendary essaying of the title role - the world finally seems ready to see SCARFACE for what it really is: a classic American film. No, there are not many modern day classics and there certainly have not been over the last thirty years since its release, but SCARFACE is unquestionably now part of the great pantheon of American films - just as much as CITIZEN KANE, CABSABLANCA and THE GODFATHER before it - and with Fathom's re-release of the film in movie theaters for one night only last week, the impact of the film as felt in its true artistic home was something akin to transcendental. Indeed, I was lucky enough to check out the HD print in a showing in Ithaca, NY, which was also accompanied by an ultra-informative and revealing behind-the-scenes look at the production and subsequent legacy of the near-thirty-year-old film, which is also available to see in an even more expanded form on the new Blu-ray - including new interviews with Brian DePalma, Al Pacino, F. Murray Abraham, Steven Bauer, Robert Loggia, Martin Bregman, as well as comments from fellow filmmakers and fans like Eli Roth (who shares a particularly hilarious anecdote about reciting Lopez's monologue for classmates in sixth grade). The new Blu-ray is packed to the brim with Special Features - including this brand new 40-minute making-of documentary, to go along with the hours of bonuses ported over from many of the prior DVD releases. Yet, above all of these other virtues, the reason you must own SCARFACE on Blu-ray is not just because the HD remastering of the image is virtually pristine, the 7.1 sound is perfect and the Special Features are overwhelmingly enjoyable, but - most of all - it is because SCARFACE is American movie-making at its finest - and most emotionally, visually and outwardly operatic. It sings. And stings. And zings. And, brings it - all. Make way...
The World Is His
From the first booming blasts of Giorgio Moroder's unforgettable synth-heavy score for SCARFACE, you are in another world. It is a world that has a place that may look a lot like Miami and that place may very well have people who dress, act, talk and interrelate with each other a lot like people do in Miami - in 1981 or now. People try to get out of their rut and ascend to a higher social station; women latch on to men they may not love for a chance at a better life; men do things they are not proud of to provide for their families and/or get ahead - it's a dog-eat-dog world. But, who gets to be top dog - and why does he get to be? Yes, this world is like our own in any number of ways except for one major exception: this world is not ours. This world is the world of SCARFACE. The visuals are our brain's synapses; the dialogue is the driving force enlivening us; the music is the blood coursing through our veins and filling every extremity with excess. It is an organic experience. Over the course of the film, we become a part of it. It sucks us up whole - a metaphor for addiction, perhaps? The layers and metaphors and symbolism implicit in SCARFACE run as deep as any gangster film ever made - just as much as Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht's original or Coppola's GODFATHER films or Scorsese's GOODFELLAS and CASINO. Hell, the rich tapestry of this film is as rich as any film ever made. It is so subtle in how it enacts its effect on us that we are not even aware of it as it is happening - we are too caught up in the extreme brutality, beauty, violence, pain and ebullience on display. You could say the same for life - we don't realize what we have experienced until it is all over. If then.
"The world is yours…," the blimp's digital slogan reads as it passes by Frank Lopez's mansion at dawn, just as the new king takes his throne and prepares to announce as much to the dethroned queen - and, she better like it, too; or else. A king of fire and a queen of ice, Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer so embody their roles in this film and make every moment matter as to overshadow everyone else. Not to undercut the brilliant all-around casting of the intentionally garish, lavish and opulent affair, but the Yin and Yang of the film lays in Pacino and Pfeiffer, much as Bauer and Mastrantonio are the subplot foils for each (and all four roles reflect on each other in an illuminating and intimately intrinsic manner like something out of Shakespeare). SCARFACE is so very Shakespearean, in the end. In every single instance of each and every actor - extras to Tony - each role is matched ideally by an individual who can give it grace, gravitas, resonance and manage to imbue it with just enough reality to retain verisimilitude, while still playing it up to the third balcony (and juggling a machine gun). That balancing act is never-ending and the all-white house of cards remains intact throughout the film's three-hour running time - no small feat, in and of itself. Equal parts laugh-out-loud funny and painfully, grotesquely disgusting; heart-rendering and sweet, as well as obscenely cruel and absurdly violent; joyful, exuberant and the very depiction of the lowest depths of depravity and depression. Like any great opera, all of humanity - all of the world - is contained within this microcosm of the human experience. Like the world, it is not always beautiful and not always ugly - but, it is always, always, always something true. This could happen to you - all of it. As Stephen Sondheim wrote, "Wishes come true, not free." And, so it goes for Tony, we see.
For those who are not familiar with the story of SCARFACE, DePalma and Stone's re-imagining of the 1930s Hawks film traces the rise of Tony Montana from petty street criminal to Miami drug kingpin and the toll that that takes on his personal integrity, his family, his goals, his ambitions and his dreams - and, most of all, on himself. It's about what it takes to make it in America through one man's journey - it's the story of that dream. While the action is set largely in Miami in the early 1980s, there are two hugely significant respites from the ocean-side locale in the form of Tony and Suarez's jaunt to world overlord Alexander Sosa's Bolivian cocaine factory, as well as the eleven o'clock sequence in New York City - a paranoid trip from Hell and the botched assassination attempt involved with it. In few films do locations as wide-open and expansive as these vistas, mansions and beaches create such a sense of stifling paranoia and claustrophobia, yet DePalma's precise pacing and jaw-droppingly inventive camerawork makes the experience of SCARFACE more than a little bit like what the journey of the title character himself over the course of the years the film covers must feel like to him. That's both a blessing and a curse and by the final moments we are nearly as exhausted as Tony is enlivened; raging - walking through a wall of bullets on pure cocaine-addled adrenaline. This film brings the audience to that level of euphoria throughout - there are at least ten scenes that simply take your breath away. By the time the final showdown rolls around and we finally see the famous weapon of death and hear Pacino utter the classic "Say hello to my little friend," it is the final act of destiny for a tragic hero as rich and full and alive as any in opera or theatre. Pacino takes the text, magnifies the direction and brings it all to such a level by the end that it really sings out loud with orchestral underscore to match. Indeed, SCARFACE is so very many things, but most of all it is a tragedy in the Greek and Shakespearean sense. There is so much more, though. In an innumerable series of sight gags, dead-serious show-downs and a tone always veering towards camp, SCARFACE is simply its own thing and quite unlike any other film in how it functions. It seems clear to see, feel and experience that DePalma, along with screenwriter Oliver Stone, set out to create a film that calls its own shots every step along the way and dictates its own style, tone and what themes it will explore - and both suceed in making that happen at almost every turn. To say that the film still packs a punch today would be doing a major disservice to the revolutionary work of these two visionaries - SCARFACE is still as terrifying, shocking, shrewd, hilarious and deftly entertaining as it has ever been. Maybe even more. Without question, we need more movies like SCARFACE now. Thank Fathom for bringing it back if only for one night.
Time smiles kindly on some films, while others fall out of favor and, sometimes, sadly, fade away into obscurity completely. That will evidently never happen to SCARFACE. Through the countless popular songs espousing on "The Ten Crack Commandments" and quoting the endless parade of catch-phrases from the film - too many to even count - the film has stayed a part of the pop cultural lexicon in this country since its release and it has only seemed to grow in popularity and people's awareness of it in recent years (as one of the documentaries on the new Blu-ray discusses at length, though the previous Def Jam Presents featurette has regretfully not been included on this release). It would not be an episode of CRIBS on MTV without a SCARFACE poster on a rapper's wall and it would not be popular music without yet another sample from the score/soundtrack somewhere out there. The legacy of the bad guy lives on and will do so indefinitely. The performance of each and every one of the members in this stunning assortment of actors is perfection - chief among them, Academy Award-winners Al Pacino and F. Murray Abraham (who won for AMADEUS), but also Robert Loggia, Steven Bauer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and the aforementioned icy brilliance of Michelle Pfeiffer in one of the film's trickiest roles. Miriam Colon often gets lost in the shuffle when dissecting the various elements of SCARFACE, but her scenes with Tony and Gina are the film's soul and connection to the Cuban world of Tony's youth - and, essential, as they are the only time we ever see Tony let his guard down for even a moment (until he is in the throes of addiction; but, even then, I am not so sure he does). Colon's evenly-measured brittleness and domineering reserve is spot-on in a role that could be such a damper and a downer and otherwise slow the proceedings down to a halt - but, never, ever, a stand-still. You see, SCARFACE runs like a bullet train - but, faster than a machine gun bullet and with every cog and wheel and bolt integral to the overall functioning of a train. It's a delicate and exact machine. SCARFACE could have so easily been butchered in the editing room and DePalma and Martin Bregman should be championed for never swerving in the slightest from their epic vision - not in length, scope, size, theatricality, or, most of all, content. After all, fans of the film know that there's a profanity counter app on the new Blu-ray for a very good reason! History dictates that the film was given an X in its first screening for the MPAA in 1982 and then re-shown a number of other times with cuts made to the most violently gruesome and prurient scenes (the chainsaw death and the hanging being the most censored, as well as the later cocaine mountain scenes in Tony's office with his sister) and it still received an X. It was not until Oliver Stone made a case to the committee - and having just won an Oscar for penning the drug-mule real-life horror story, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, he certainly had ground to stand on at the time - that the decision was reconsidered by the committee and eventually the original cut of the film - the very first one shown to the MPAA and rated X in the first place - is what was shown in cinemas and what exists on home video, DVD and, now, Blu-ray. DePalma and Stone stuck to their guns and we are still reaping the artistic, cultural and entertainment rewards as a result.
In addition to this elemental film in the American canon, the brand new Blu-ray of SCARFACE also has a host of deleted scenes and alternate takes, as well as a side-by-side comparison with the laughable TV edits of the film over the years, making a solid case that some films simply should not be shown on TV if they have to be censored this much. Additionally, there is nothing quite like experiencing a film like this on a big screen and Fathom can be highly commended for making that happen last week - one hopes to see more modern-day classics on screens in cinemas soon thanks to them. THE GODFATHER Part 1 and 2 perhaps? The possibilities are endless.
SCARFACE is not a film that seems fit for the meek of heart, spirit or soul - or, maybe, somehow, it is. If there were any film to inspire you to go out and make a name for yourself, this is the one to do it. It is an inspirational film, in many ways, really, in that respect - despite the tragic conclusion - particularly in that it depicts the American dream as still being attainable to those who seek it out; by any means necessary, and, more often than not, by sheer will and force. But, is that your dream - Tony's world? Is that the world you would want to own, if you can, indeed, have it all? The moral of the story seems to be that the personal price of a life like Tony Montana's is just that - your life. So, make it matter - most.