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November 1-7, 2006

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Cult Leader

The Cult of Scarface: Nothing exceeds like De Palma's excess

By Steve Palopoli

SOMETHING that cracks me up about the Scarface phenomenon is the way everyone now accepts that it's a massive influence on hip-hop culture as if that actually makes sense. No one ever bothers to actually explain why it happened; it's as if we're all supposed to agree that it's the most natural thing in the world for a movie starring an Italian-American badly imitating a Cuban-American to go on to be one of the most iconic films in a predominantly African American gangsta subculture.

Now, I'm not saying Scarface isn't cool. It's Brian De Palma's shining masterpiece of excess, and that's saying a lot for the guy who did Dressed to Kill and Body Double. I want to cradle my copy of the newest, two-disc DVD edition like a baby to protect it from all the trash critics continue to talk about it still—I couldn't believe the ridiculous drubbing it took in John McCarty's recent history of the gangster film, Bullets Over Hollywood.

What I'm saying is that it's worth thinking about how a movie that features disco dancing, pastels and F. Murray Abraham could inspire one of the Geto Boys to take its name in tribute.

There are some knee-jerk answers that don't totally cut it—rappers like a lot of gangster movies, it's true, and Scarface is a particularly intense and violent one. But there's more to it than that. Scarface has a unique connection to hip-hop culture, and the reasons are pretty complex. I'd have to start with the music—Giorgio Moroder's score may very well be the first time a mainstream audience ever heard the gangsta sounds that rappers would be regularly laying under their lyrics 10 years later.

Credit also has to go to Scarface writer Oliver Stone for dialing into a central theme that the smartest gangsta rappers would explore within a few years: the thug as antihero; perp and victim at the same time. By way of illustration, check out how some of the lyrics from one of the best gangsta songs of all time, Ice T's "New Jack Hustler," mirrors the themes of Scarface:

ICE-T: 'All I think about is keys and Gs/Imagine that, me workin at Mickey D's/That's a joke cause I'm never gonna be broke/When I die there'll be bullets and gunsmoke'

SCARFACE: In Act 1, Tony dreams of gang-soldier glory and is too vain to stay in his low-paying restaurant gig ("I didn't come to the United States to break my fucking back"). But his brush with the chain-saw crazies gives us our first glimpse of his death wish.

ICE-T: 'I had nothing, and I wanted it/You had everything, and you flaunted it/Turned the needy into the greedy/With cocaine, my success came speedy'

SCARFACE: Later, Tony covets everything that belongs to his boss Frank—from his money to his woman—and starts cutting coke-smuggling deals behind his back.

ICE-T: 'You gotta deal with this cause there's no way out/Why? Cash money ain't never gonna play out/I got nothin' to lose much to gain/In my brain I got a capitalist migraine'

SCARFACE: In Act 2, Tony seizes control, but success leaves him feeling empty and paranoid, constantly fighting to keep from being taken out by the government, his enemies or—he thinks—his friends.

ICE-T: 'I care nothing 'bout you, and that's evident/All I love's my dope and dead presidents/Sound crazy? Well it isn't/The ends justifies the means, that's the system'

SCARFACE: Numbing himself by dunking his head in piles of coke and having scared off or killed everyone who cared about him, Tony waits for death, and briefly summons up enough fight to take an army out with him when it finally comes.

ICE-T: 'Is this a nightmare? Or the American dream?'

SCARFACE: I think that about says it all.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite 'Scarface' quote here.

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