Sidewinder’s View: “Scarface” (1983)

There is a difference between practices and behaviors which are legal and those which are not. Capitalism is legal. Crime, obviously, is not. One’s unwillingness or inability to make the distinction does not make the two one and the same. To do so is either rooted in ignorance or intellectual dishonesty.

To paraphrase the great David Mamet, one can be as greedy as one likes; barring luck and crime, one only grows rich by satisfying the needs of others.

Greed isn’t against the law until it leads the individual to engage in criminal behavior. Our courts don’t punish drug kingpins because they’re greedy. Such criminals are punished because they sold narcotics, or engaged in violence, or failed to pay taxes, etc. Not because of their intentions, but because they put those intentions into actions criminalized, for the greater good, by the society in which they reside.

I’ve occasionally heard it said that Scarface, much like any other well-made film about organized crime, is really, at its essence, about capitalism.

Viewing every story through a lens of Marxist deconstruction, one could easily (and lazily) interpret every gangster movie as a Searing Allegory Of Capitalist Ruthlessness And Immorality®.

ScarfaceThe Long Good FridayThe GodfatherKing Of New York, etc…

capitalist-gangster-collage

…take your pick. “One man’s gangster is another man’s capitalist”, right?

I would argue that, if anything, movies about organized crime figures depict, however tenuously, a more glamorous and exciting metaphor for Cronyism, i.e. Crony Capitalism. Not true capitalism, but its shady, lazy, wannabe half-cousin.

Let’s use Scarface as an example: To stay in business, to remain viable and competitive within his industry, Tony Montana has to pay people off and do favors for people he despises in order to continue skirting the law. He has to resort to these measures because what he’s doing is illegal.

Remaining viable and competitive, for Tony Montana, means engaging in crooked dealings with crooked people.

shady-scarface-characters

Why such measures? Because the civil society has rejected Tony Montana’s business of selling cocaine as illegitimate, as it is inherently destructive of the civil society and, as such, in violation of its rule of law.

If Scarface had instead taken as it subject, for example, an enterprising young man who starts a legitimate business…say, selling shoes…then turns it into a wildly successful franchise, becoming rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams…while alienating all those around him by devolving into an extremely materialistic, socially unpleasant and narcissistic, yet law-abiding citizen who eventually winds up ruined, broke and friendless…

shoeface

…then I would say yes, you could make the case that that’s a movie about capitalism.

The dark side of capitalism, sure, but certainly not a movie about growing rich via crime or luck.

Odds are good, also, that, unlike Scarface, no one would remember this movie thirty-some years later.

Scarface isn’t about capitalism. It’s about the sociopathic, destructive mindset of greed, of the criminal actions taken to satisfy that greed, and the wide-ranging havoc it wreaks. A cautionary tale of horrific consequences brought about by an appetite so ravenous and insatiable that societal boundaries of decency and morality (laws) are repeatedly broken or ignored until the choices of the hungry sociopath– yes, he makes choices– produce a lethal reckoning for that character.

Tony Montana and his cinematic gangster ilk may refer to themselves as businessmen. They can indulge in all the delusions of grandeur they like, but it’s not business they’re engaged in. It’s crime.

To consider these sorts of gangster movies as metaphors for capitalism, one would have to be as ill-informed or as delusional as the gangster characters headlining each film.

I realize some fans view Scarface through a peculiar prism of hero worship, but I’ve always viewed the film as a cautionary tale that sought to teach through negative example. Not against capitalism, or making money, but, at its most basic level, against giving in to an all-consuming desire for gain. (*)

(*) And against cocaine. Oliver Stone, who wrote the script, once stated “Cocaine had screwed me so much. It had taken so much of my money that now I needed to take my revenge and so I wrote Scarface. In the past, I’ve talked about Scarface as being a farewell love letter to cocaine, but it’s really me taking my revenge on the drug.”

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