In 1981 America was in the middle of an economic recession and the reputation of greed by stockbrokers and real estate moguls superseded the technology and motoring innovations happening for most of the decade. In 1982 the double-digit inflation scares were being mitigated cautiously and so unemployment declined from 11 percent to 8 percent, slowly releasing America from the grips of recession. By 1983 something else would happen, the film Scarface became the greatest crime-mob story to come out of an era that would cement the careers of actors, Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, as well as the vision of Director Robert De Palma. Some may say Scarface was just a typical gangster film that vilified the immigrant story, when it was in fact the essence which made the movie much more palpable. Yet, the excess of the 80s wasn’t sustainable and Scarface proved that through its portrayal of the American Dream.
In retrospect I should have started by declaring my love for the 80s: the music, the fashion and the thick fog of fame that could be smelt through my TV screen. To an old soul like myself, searching for creative kin, I would settle for picturesque memories that even the starring actors had long forgotten about. My flirtation with the ’80s became tolerable simply because I appreciated that nostalgia is a luxury that most people can’t afford. I did try to reign in my imagination as it leapt into the glossy-grained technicolour of ’80s cinematography, to instead regain comfort in reality. Through research, I realised that I’d skimmed over the Aids Epidemic and ‘The War On Drugs’ which weren’t mutually exclusive at the time. Scarface, specifically, unveiled the plague of drugs in the shadow of the real Americana I very much idolised. Yet the film wasn’t suffocated by this, still sprinkling on top the righteous hope of a tropical lifestyle I was so fond of (at least in retrospect).
A beautiful musical score by Giorgio Moroder opens the film, introducing us to the prospective American citizens cramped on boats as they make the journey from Cuba to America in 1980. This included the “dregs” of Cuban society which according to Fidel Castro’s communist regime, expelled anyone who didn’t fit into his idealised version of Cuba. This chaotic visual of pieced together archival videos symbolised the real-life emigration of people but also the merging of ideas, dreams, minds and energies that would manifest itself into the America we see today.
One of the most omnipresent themes present throughout the film was the hunger or quest for power displayed by the main character, Scarface aka Tony Montana. Al Pacino played the character Tony as two-dimensional perhaps eliminating any bevels or rough edges for us to criticise or sympathise with his character. It was therefore interesting to see Tony’s progress throughout the plot as he was able to acquire the bulk of his notoriety through selling Class A narcotics like cocaine. ‘The War on Drugs’ declared by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 which predicated the original sentence in 1971 was a serious issue. Especially when the increase in federal drug agencies meant that anyone caught with just an ounce of marijuana could face imprisonment. These lethal citations affected majority Black and Latino men in states like New York. But crack cocaine, which garnered quite the reputation for being spread throughout 80s society as well as its association with gang violence, explains why its depiction in Scarface was quite raw and frankly alarming.
“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” – Tony Montana
But what makes the American dream itself, the essence of it, and why was I so preoccupied (still am) with this fantasy of the syrupy ’80s? Well, another theme present in Scarface was this elusive idea of freedom where wealth was concerned and how people chose to flaunt their money, once they got it. Why settle for the house with the white-picket-fence when you can have a mansion with a steamy indoor Jacuzzi to admire the ‘Pelicans’ on TV. For me this classic quote (above) spewed by Tony Montana could easily sum up what the American Dream was to people in the 80s. And because Tony was an immigrant from a country where he had a low social standing, coming to America and building himself up from nothing was a more attainable ‘rags to riches’ story. He had nothing to lose and all to gain, or so he thought…
Power and money are very important themes in the film which also parallel what the American dream could have meant for people living in the 80s. Tony’s famous words also referred to “Women” who symbolised the ultimate prize: admiration and desire. This is because what is left to show for the power and money until we have someone to share it with? The aspiration that sometimes fuels a lifetime of societal paranoia. For example, the shiny apple of Tony’s eye, Elvira, was dating his boss Frank Lopez, a drug dealer in Miami. Yet as Tony’s greed fuelled his conquest for her, once they eventually got together, he only wanted to control her. This mirrors well with the ’80s, as marriages were born of people from similar ilk’s, so essentially Elvira didn’t know any better than to go from one drug dealer to another, all in the “business” of love. The benefit was of course the display of power and class but ultimately pending the cycle of fear. To achieve pure freedom, we must let go of control, because nobody is lucid enough to control every part of their dream.
In the tragic end, the money, power and women, procured in that order, was the narrative that we might have aspired to 40 years ago. In this present time of social media facades leading a collective trend in mental fatigue, more than anything, it seems that the case for what will make our generation happy isn’t tangible or even guaranteed at all. With our fixation on numbers equating our worth all of this is semantics for a toxic supercharged ’80s revival. No? In the case of Tony Montana, he could not see past the confines of his ambitions and so his perspective was all jumbled up. His formula for success wasn’t sustainable because when he in fact got what he wanted he still couldn’t see the finish line and wanted to acquire more and more until eventually he had nothing, not even his health or his life. The difference between then and now is that the barriers to success are more flexible than the stiff-collared ’80s painting a grey area between rich and poor; happiness and disillusionment.
I’ll still hold a torch for the ’80s: the fantasy of an All-American life free of inhibitions yet still living in the shadows of inequalities (America now?). 80’s America bred a society enjoying the leisure of limbo whilst feeding the pockets of greed, which explains why the decade swished by so quickly without a peep. Therefore, I’m only now discovering the delusions that existed during a time of “economic bliss”.
The 80s was unforgettable: it felt super positive and colourful but scratch the surface and you will see a different story unfold. The 80s’ to me remains an enigma.
“The eyes Chico, they never lie” – Tony Montana