Quentin Tarantino has Kill Bill in theaters now and is impressing audiences with his hollow-but-dynamic high/low-budget aesthetics. And from time to time, shock and awe is what we look for in the movies. But Hollywood's obsession with hollow pleasures can also feel suffocating, leaving movie lovers clinging to any crumbs of substance they find. It makes one nostalgic for the movies of the 1970s, when substance was all there was, and directors like Coppola, Scorsese and Woody Allen were operating at full power. There was a raw energy that's still visible in the films from that era, even if the technical details of the films haven't aged well.
One of the lesser but still well-respected directors of that generation was Brian De Palma. He bravely covered Sissy Spacek with blood in Carrie, and got Margot Kidder to stuff a corpse into a sofa in Sisters. But no one was prepared for the extremity of his 1983 film Scarface (Rated R), which is now out in a new DVD edition.
Working from a stylish script by Oliver Stone, De Palma told the story of a Cuban immigrant named Tony Montana (Al Pacino), whose lust for power (and the cocaine he sells), leads to an overwhelmingly violent ending.
Blood, bad language, drugs and gunfights characterize everything that happens in Scarface, and the film's excesses were shocking at the time. De Palma was shooting depravity as though it were high opera, and turning violence into an emotional roller coaster. The film's tone galvanized even moviegoers who had survived the '70s, and pop culture took one major step toward where it is today.
The new DVD edition includes a documentary examining the ways that Scarface influenced hip hop attitudes, but the film's impact goes far beyond that. Tony Montana may be a criminal, but he's also the main character of the movie... and he's Cuban. Giving a Latino character the lead, and making him complex, is still relatively rare. Explicit drug use is common onscreen today; De Palma's frank presentation of it at the time, however, was edgy. The energy that breaking these taboos must have created for De Palma and Pacino still drives the film. And it shows that pyrotechnic filmmaking doesn't need to be as empty as Tarantino makes it look. Sometimes, as is the case in Scarface, it serves as a violent mask for a violent topic. It's sound and fury, signifying everything.