April 2, 2017

SCARFACE (1983): Requiem for a Dumbass

Starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia, Paul Shenar, F. Murray Abraham, Harris Yulin, Miriam Colon. Directed by Brian De Palma. (1983, 170 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON

Drug dealers are, by their very nature, dumbasses.

Perhaps because most drugs dealers are also drug users. That's been my experience, anyway. I've met my fair share back in my more reckless days, when scoring a dimebag on payday took priority over getting caught up with the rent. With rare exception, the dealers I knew were perpetually stoned and lived among empty Domino's Pizza boxes in dark apartments with the blinds closed 24 hours a day. Most couldn't afford their own car and were generally afraid to answer their phone (if they even had one). The guy with whom I did the most business, Ronnie (who sort of resembled Gonzo from The Muppet Show), had nothing but a TV and lawn chairs in his living room. The rest of the place was strictly off-limits to visitors.

A few had other jobs, but most were afraid to leave their apartment for fear of someone breaking in and finding their stash. Based on what I had seen, being a drug dealer meant living in paranoid squalor, with most of their income being used to buy more weed. What the hell kind of life is that? I may have been a lowly convenience store clerk at the time, but at least I didn't piss myself whenever someone knocked on the door, and could still afford to keep real food in my cupboards.

Dimebag Ronnie
Of course, these guys were just small time pot purveyors, nothing like the glamorous kingpins you see in movies like Scarface, starring Al Pacino as Tony Montana, a violent Cuban refugee who eventually becomes Miami's most powerful drug lord. Though it was only a minor hit when released in 1983, Scarface has since become a belated cultural phenomenon, the dialogue part of our vernacular ("Say hello to my little friend!"), its lead character an iconic antihero. For a time in the late 90s-early 2000s, Tony Montana was all over T-shirts & posters, sampled in rap songs and even had his own video game & action figures.

That the character is an object of such widespread admiration (even emulation among the gangsta crowd) continues to amaze me, as does the fact that Tony Montana is the role Al Pacino is most associated with by an entire generation. There have been plenty of worship-worthy antiheroes I've put on a pedestal over the years, like Snake Plissken, the Man with No Name, Mad Max and, of course, Michael Corleone. But the difference is none of those guys are complete dumbasses.

Tony Montana is a dumbass. Sure, it's fun to watch him blow away rivals in the street or bury his face in a mountain of cocaine like motorboating a stripper at a bachelor party, but he's no smarter than Dimebag Ronnie (who eventually visited the Graybar Hotel after deciding that pedaling his product door-to-door was a good idea). Like Ronnie, Montana constantly "gets high on his own supply" (the first rule his mentor tells him not to break). He's flamboyant, hot-headed, kills anybody who crosses him (sometimes in public), flaunts his wealth, takes cash to the bank by the truckload, pisses off everyone close to him and barely hides the fact he's importing enough blow to make Bolivia an economic superpower. At no time does Montana ever display any inherent knack or intelligence in his rise to power; he simply blusters his way from one rung on the ladder to the next.

It doesn't take a genius to know the wise path to becoming a criminal overlord is discretion. Michael Corleone (also Pacino) was able to amass power because he was cunning, kept a relatively low profile and was quietly ruthless, ordering others to eliminate those posing a threat to him or his organization. As antiheroes go, his cold, calculated efficiency was admirable.

Tony Montana redecorates.
Some might argue that Scarface is a cautionary story of one man's rise and fall, and how absolute power (not to mention a significant amount of nose candy) can corrupt a man, ushering his downfall. For such a story to have any meaningful impact, the character needs to be someone we initially empathize with. But Tony Montana is a violent, irredeemable asshole even before too much coke turns him perpetually paranoid. 170 minutes later, only now riddled with more bullets than every shot fired in World War II, he's still a violent, irredeemable asshole. He doesn't change one whit throughout the whole film, treating everyone - cops, competitors, women, underlings, even his best friend - like pure shit and letting his guns do the negotiating. Are these the actions of an ambitious young man in search of the American dream who tragically loses his way, or those of an epic dumbass?

My family and I once lived right next to our own little Tony Montana. Our first house was a charming old cottage-style home with a small yard. It was located on a flag lot, directly behind a rental house with an even smaller yard, on a busy four-lane street in East Portland. Busier than we'd liked, actually, but the house was cute and the price was right, so we tended to ignore the close proximity of the surrounding homes and pretend the constant drone of traffic was ocean waves. For several years, things were just fine and we got along pretty well with our neighbors.

Then this guy and his girlfriend rented the house in front of us. He had a face like a walnut and hair like an Oompa Loompa had attached jumper cables to Willy Wonka's nuts. Though shaped like a soggy pear, he insisted on parading around shirtless most of the time, his epic pot-belly and hairy manboobs jiggling like pasty-white custard. While I'm not exactly chiseled from granite either, at least I've done the world a solid by never leaving the house topless.

We hardly ever saw his girlfriend (though we heard him yell at her a lot), and I assumed she was the one with a job because he never left the house for more than a few hours at a time. He was also a supreme jackass from the get-go, with the audacity to assume our driveway was community property (his house didn't have one), which sometimes blocked my wife's car, keeping her from pulling in. Whenever she'd politely ask him to move his car and quit using our driveway, he'd get belligerent, eventually saying "Bad things would happen" if she didn't leave him alone. He'd also stare at her (and my kids) menacingly through the rickety fence dividing our properties, and verbally berate any of our guests who came to visit, shouting that they had no right to park in our driveway. Most days - and some nights - we were subjected to a lot of Grand Funk Railroad and Bad Company, apparently the only two records he owned.

By now, we'd given him the moniker, Manny McManboobs.

Later, Manny installed motion-sensing lights in his backyard, which were triggered each time we stepped onto our patio. Then he attached video cameras at every corner of his house and covered his side of the fence with a black tarp. He obviously didn't want anyone to know what he was doing back there, and we soon discovered why...

The view from our window.
My youngest daughter's room was on the second floor with a view right into Manny's back yard, where he had commenced growing marijuana. Not just a few plants, either. In Oregon, you're allowed to grow up to four plants for your own personal use. But as they got bigger over the next few months, it looked like half of Panama was growing in the postage stamp that passed for a yard. From one end to the other, he must have had 40 plants, which eventually grew higher than the fence. Every now and then, my daughter said she'd see him shuffling shirtless among the rows, a joint in one hand, a cellphone in the other, taking selfies with his crop. One didn't need to be an FBI agent to know Manny was likely more than just a recreational user.

We could smell that shit every time we opened our windows or went outside, and anyone who happened to walk by on the sidewalk could undoubtedly smell it, too. Yet this guy continued to be a blustery bastard, using our driveway whenever he didn't think we were home, and talking smack to my wife, who was soon too afraid to venture out into her own yard. After awhile, we never saw his girlfriend again, either. I guess she finally got sick of his bullshit. Or maybe she's buried in his yard among the plants.

I don't know about you, but if I were dumb enough to grow ten times the legal limit of weed less than five yards from all my surrounding neighbors, I'd at least be smart enough to make sure said-neighbors never felt compelled to phone the authorities by being the most unassuming, laid-back and congenial tenant who ever dwelled in that house. Mister Rogers would seem like the Neighbor from Hell compared to me.

You might be wondering why we didn't call the police. It crossed my mind several times, but not because he was growing weed. While I personally don't partake in the Oregon flower anymore, I don't begrudge those who do, and what someone discreetly does in the privacy of their own home is their business. I simply wanted to rat him out because he was an stupid fucking asshole. But like Tony Montana, he also was a stupid drug dealer, a potentially dangerous combination. With all that had transpired, even a dumbass could piece together who got him busted.

Since my wife and I had already decided to move months earlier, in the end, that's all we did. Let someone else deal with him. Now, the only thing we hear from our neighbor is a lawnmower, and all we smell is her freshly cut grass. Manny, on the other hand, continued to live in paranoid squalor until he apparently was busted...probably shirtless with a joint in his hand while playing "We're an American Band" too loud for his new neighbors to tolerate.

The only real difference between Manny McManboobs and Tony Montana is Tony dressed better. People that unaware of their own recklessness, stupidity and belligerence always end up alone, in jail, or dead. In the real world, we call those people dumbasses.

Still, Scarface is considered a modern classic, Tony Montana a beloved antihero. A lot of people think it's the greatest gangster film of all time, which frankly staggers me. The film is a lot of disreputable fun, but like its main character, it's a stylish-but-simplistic exercise in excess (reeking of the decade from which it sprang), and a bloated cartoon compared to the likes of The Godfather or Goodfellas. There's been talk over the years of remaking the film, which has apparently upset many fans obviously unaware that their own beloved Scarface is a remake of a 1932 film (telling the same story in half the time). If they really knew their gangster movies, would they still bestow so much admiration on a dumbass like Tony Montana?

1 comment:

BillyWitchDoctor said...

He's flamboyant, hot-headed, kills anybody who crosses him (sometimes in public), flaunts his wealth, takes cash to the bank by the truckload, pisses off everyone close to him and barely hides the fact he's importing enough blow to make Bolivia an economic superpower. At no time does Montana ever display any inherent knack or intelligence in his rise to power; he simply blusters his way from one rung on the ladder to the next.

And as you noted later, he's inexplicably popular among viewers (if only, perhaps, because everyone's waiting excitedly for it all to come crashing down).

...Suddenly I have a slightly better understanding of why we have who we have in the White House.