Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: De Palma Blog-A-Thon: Scarface (1983) and Carlito's Way (1993)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

De Palma Blog-A-Thon: Scarface (1983) and Carlito's Way (1993)

by Tony Dayoub

...Cuba y Puerto Rico son
de un pájaro las dos alas,
reciben flores y balas
sobre el mismo corazón...


...Cuba and Puerto Rico are
a dove's two wings,
receiving flowers or bullets
over the same heart...

-from the poem "A Cuba" by Lola Rodriguez de Tió

I find it difficult to address two of Brian De Palma's most atypical movies, Scarface and Carlito's Way, because of how closely I, a Cuban American, identify with them. Like the Puerto Rican Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) I grew up going to school in an Hispanic neighborhood in the late seventies. Miami, back then, was mostly populated by retirees and snowbirds, and the school I went to near Coral Way had a diverse group of students, some from the barrio called Little Havana. While I never faced the kind of violence Carlito experienced in his own barrio firsthand, it was not unheard of. Friends of friends belonged to the local gang, the Latin Kings. Seeing a knife pulled out in a fight was not unusual back then. And there were always rumors of someone who owned a gun.

A lot changed in 1980, with the arrival of those we called the Marielitos. My elementary school's student demographic changed overnight. The once diverse cross-section of students I was familiar with gave way to a huge new subculture of immigrant Cubans, many of them poor, and feeling dislocated. I, who grew up watching The Six Million Dollar Man and Starsky and Hutch, found it difficult to understand why some had never even owned a TV. And though I was fluent in Spanish (indeed, it was my first language), I could never hold, much less keep up a conversation with those that came in the Mariel boatlift. They simply spoke too fast, threw too many puzzling expressions out for me to ever get on the same wavelength. It was all a bit alienating.

Crime went up. Race riots became frequent in some of the poorer neighborhoods (not strictly Cuban ones, I should point out). Drugs became a vehicle for quick and easy monetary success in a society for proud immigrants that wanted to work, yet faced many obstacles in assimilating quickly into society. In retrospect, my school was one of the safer ones facing these problems because of its relative distance from these neighborhoods. But you still saw some of it. My seventh-grade friend Neal, was five years older than all his other peers, because he had been let out of juvie (where he was incarcerated for car theft) on the condition he attend school again. His legs were covered with scars, from dog bites and barbed wire from his attempts to escape detention... or so he told me. Who knew? I was a kid, fascinated by dangerous looking big talkers because of my own deficiencies when it came to defending myself. Neal knew I could help him get in good graces with this pretty young friend of mine, Judy, who everybody had a crush on. And even though I was unsuccessful in my attempts to get them together, he never forgot that I tried. His loyalty, his reputation, and his friendship, were like an invisible shield that helped protect me from getting bullied, and in fact, helped me get along with some of his friends in the Kings. So I've always had sympathy for people like Tony Montana (also Al Pacino) and Carlito Brigante.

You didn't see too many Puerto Ricans in Miami, though. They had immigrated much earlier to New York, where they assimilated much faster than the Cubans ever did in Miami. Nuyoricans, though, were responsible for paving the way for Cubans here in the U.S. Musicians like the Fania All-Stars supplied the soundtrack to our lives, showcasing such stars like the Cuban Celia Cruz and the Puerto Rican Hector Lavoe. Puerto Ricans shared something with us Cubans that the rest of Latin America didn't. They were from the Caribbean. They ate the same food as we did (tacos and nachos are absent in those cultures, where black beans and rice are the staple). Where most of the rest of Latin America was proud of their Native American roots, the Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans were the product of a culture where Spaniards had eradicated nearly all the Indians and instead integrated with their African slaves. Our music, dance, and even a religion, Santería, grew out of these African roots that were alien to the rest of Latin America. So Puerto Rico and Cuba, it can be said, are a dove's two wings.


De Palma is always prone to symmetry in his work, often bookending his films with similar visual or thematic concerns: the menstrual blood at the beginning of Carrie (1976) with the pig's blood in its climax; the sexually violent shower dream that opens Dressed to Kill (1980) and the one that ends it; the way an empty gun helps Carlito escape during a shootout at the start of Carlito's Way, and seals his lawyer Kleinfeld's (Sean Penn) fate as the movie wraps up. But with the release of Carlito's Way, De Palma provided not so much an apology, as some have said—for his negative depiction of a Latin gangster in Scarface—as much as he provided a doppelganger, a symmetrical counterpoint to the earlier film that gives it some unexpected depth.

De Palma helped to create the association by surrounding Pacino with characters, situations and backdrops that serve as mirrors between the two films. Tony and Carlito each have Anglo lovers—Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), respectively—that serve to illustrate the men's cultural disconnect with the American path to success. Elvira, no innocent herself, can't understand Tony's excesses, why he stagnates when he isn't reaching for more, more, more. Gail, can't understand why Carlito is locked on his path to failure by his loyalty to a code that repeatedly betrays him.

To lend some authenticity to the film, De Palma cast real life Hispanic entertainers in the roles of Pacino's associates in each film. Steven Bauer was already well known in the Miami exile community as Rocky Echevarría, star of a locally produced "Spanglish" sitcom called ¿Que Pasa USA? before he played Manny in Scarface. Argentinian star Jorge Porcel who played Saso in Carlito's Way was also well known in Miami as the star of the bawdy variety show, A la cama con Porcel. He also brought back three actors from Scarface for cameos in Carlito's Way—Ángel Salazar, Al Israel, and Michael P. Moran (casting Steven Bauer as Lalín instead of Viggo Mortensen would have made the parallels perfect)—cementing the bond between both films.

Both films have a gripping scene of explosive violence that sets the tone for each: in Scarface, it is the "chainsaw" drug buy where his associate Angel (Pepe Serna) is executed; and in Carlito's Way, it is the drug buy where he reluctantly accompanies his cousin Guajiro (John Ortíz).

Each film has one of De Palma's trademark sets and in this case, they are both clubs. Much of the action in Scarface takes place at the mirror-walled Club Babylon which comes to represent the splintered mind of the coke-addled Tony Montana. While in Carlito's Way, a lot of it occurs in El Paraiso, the chrome-walled cruise ship-themed club that symbolizes Carlito's ever present mindfulness of his dream escape to the Caribbean and rent cars.

The most obvious of the affinities between the two movies lie in the casting of their respective protagonists. Al Pacino plays both the Cuban gangster, Tony Montana, and Puerto Rican ex-con, Carlito Brigante. A decade long gulf separates Pacino's performances and the characters. Curiously, Pacino chews the scenery as Montana at a point in time when he hadn't yet become the butt of jokes for his over-the-top histrionics. As Montana, Pacino was not only paying tribute to the operatic interpretation of his predecessor, Paul Muni, in the original Scarface (1932), he was also capturing the flashy, loudmouthed characteristics of the stereotypical Miami Cuban: proud, independent to a fault, and full of braggadocio. Montana tries to create what he deems to be the perfect life, but his overblown sense of self causes him to impose his will and his mark on everything in it, as seen in his monogrammed mansion with the oversized painting of him overlooking a fountain that has a towering globe with the words "The World is Yours" surrounding it in neon.

Pacino's Carlito is Montana ten years later, humiliated by his stint in prison yet still respectful to the code of the streets. The white-suited Tony now gives way to the haunted black-suited Carlito. And it is curious again, that in 1993, when Pacino is constantly criticized for his exaggerated turns, he underplays the doomed Carlito. This man is quiet more often than not; taking in his surroundings with his eyes; guarded without being paranoid; wise enough to realize that he won't last long if he returns to the street life so instead he chooses to pursue the most humble of dreams, to rent cars outside of the country which he was born in, but has always felt excluded from. The character of Carlito is almost but not quite the elder statesman Tony could have grown into had he outlived his impetuous youth. This knowledge contributes to the elegiac tone of Carlito's Way, aided of course by the foreknowledge that Carlito will die at the film's conclusion.

Tony Montana's death is chaotic and magnificent. Carlito Brigante's is nondescript and neat. Each death is a fitting one considering the way each man lived his life. And in this way, too, Tony and Carlito are like a dove's two wings.


Geoff said...

Great essay, Tony-- not only the comparisons between the two films, but your personal perspective is priceless.

Joel Bocko said...

This is such a perfect conclusion to the blog-a-thon and maybe the best piece I've read from you - it combines all your strengths, from the fascinating personal perspective to the penchant for laying out historical context (I had no idea about any of those character actors or locations) and especially for quietly and observantly noting parallels within a director's works, and more importantly, just what those parallels say.

I just watched Carlito's Way again the other night, so this is great timing (though I can't really say it's a coincidence). And I'm looking forward to watching Scarface again - still my favorite De Palma film, period.

Great piece, and great blog-a-thon. I'm glad I could participate.

Ratnakar Sadasyula said...

Perfect perfect conclusion to the Blog-A-Thon, i always wanted to hear what some one of a Hispanic background felt about Scarface and Carlito's Way, and you have fulfilled that wish Tony.

For me though i still feel Carlito's Way is a better movie than Scarface, more restrained, more mature, and more importantly, the characters are better developed. Scarface was Tony Montana all the way, Carlito's Way apart from Carlito, the character of Dave, Pachanga were well developed also. I should rate this as one of Sean Penn's best performances, i have seen him play the angtsy, pyschotic kinda roles, but watching him slip totally into a role of a sleazy, slimebag lawyer, was something else, in fact for quite some time it was hard for me to make it out was him. And to think that Penn acted in this movie, only because he wanted to raise funds for his directorial venture, The Crossing Guard.

Again while the heroines are White, blonde in both movies, Elvira is more of a cold hearted bitchy kind, she tags along with whoever has the money, first it was Frank, and then Tony. Gail on the other hand, was more of the "strip bar dancer" with a heart of gold kind, who sincerely loves Carlito, and wants be with him. But again bit of a weak link i felt, Penelope Ann Miller, somehow did not fit into the role, she is more the sweet, girl next door kind. Pfeiffer on the other hand, was a perfect fit into the "ice cold opportunistic gold digger" bitch kinda role.

Ratnakar Sadasyula said...

Also i felt that Carlito's Way was not as violent as Scarface, the pool room shootout though was one of the best action set pieces, the way De Palma builds up the tension, his setting it up.

Both Scarface and Carlito's Way are tragic, but in Scarface, you can see the tragic end coming from a long shot, Tony Montana was a character doomed, no way such an incredibly hot headed, insecure, neurotic person could ever survive, so when he dies its like something you were expecting all along. Carlito on the other hand is the person whom you empathize with, you want to give him a chance, you actually like him, want him and Gail to be happily ever after, and thats why the tragedy is more heart breaking there.

Also some elements of Mean Streets here, where the hero is let down constantly by his own friend, whom he keeps trying to bail out, and everytime it recoils on him.

Thanks a tonne Tony, for this wonderful Blog A Thon, and giving me a chance to participate. And also giving me an opportunity to meet some really passionate movie lovers.

--- Ratnakar

Unknown said...

I would certainly echo every one else's comments that was a great way to end the De Palma Blog-A-Thon. The personal spin you put on your analysis of SCARFACE and CARLITO'S WAY is fantastic and makes me look at them in a new way. I've been itching to revisit CW and this post has certainly put me in the mood. Great, great stuff. I think that this might be my fave post of yours that I've read to date.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks to all of my readers and fellow bloggers for their support during this exciting event. You guys took this to another level by bringing your most intelligent commentary to the party and making this a great place to debate the strehgths AND weaknesses of one of my favorite directors.

Also, thanks for the compliments on my piece. It was a tough one to write because of how personal it was. And especially because of my having to contend with everyone in my family (including myself) falling ill to the H1N1 virus at some point during the Blog-A-Thon. Everyone is A-OK now, but boy, that one sure takes it out of you.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Brian De Palma for giving us such wonderful fodder for this event. Hope your best films are still ahead of you, sir. And I hope someone made you aware of all the love the blogosphere has for your films.

This event was so fun, I'm thinking I'll make it an annual Labor Day tradition. What do you think? Wait until you see who the subject is next year.

Christian said...

Thanks for the blog-a-thon. My only disappointment was the lack of a "Casualties of War" piece (did I miss it?). I'll rectify that in the not too distant future at my own blog.

Buck Turgidson said...

The personal narrative that introduces your post is wonderful. Shame that it's so detached from the remainder of the piece. It would make the otherwise pedestrian and forced comparisons in the rest of the text far more compelling.

Tony Dayoub said...

Everyone's a critic.

Stuart Kerr said...

Agree with Geoff here - your perspective ads an otherwise over-looked perspective: it's too easy to enjoy, critique and analyse the movie as a gangster flick first and foremost, a comment on drug culture second and a story of love and redemption third. Now I want to watch it again with my cultural historian hat on!

Tiffany Perez-King said...

TD! Great post!!!i really really loved it. This one really does bring in all the good stuff. Carlitos Way Is my fave DePalma.
I never thought about SB as Lalin, that would have been awesome! He's perfect for that part. I'd bet that he'd wanted him, but couldn't get him cast for some reason. He's always been such a champion of Bauer's (casting him in Raising Cain, etc) - so perhaps he may have wanted to - it would have made the mirror version perfect. Manolo's loyalty contrasted with Lalin's betrayal.
Great blog-Athlon man.