Vintage Cable Box: Scarface, 1983

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“I always tell the truth, even when I lie.”

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Scarface, 1983 (Al Pacino), MCA/Universal

Let’s get the history out of the way first. Between April and October of 1980, 125,000 Cubans emigrated to the United States. Not knowing whether these Cubans represented their nation’s best and brightest, or if they were common criminals discarded by Castro’s regime, our government housed them in prison-like Little Havana communities, while they awaited vetting, processing, and eventual naturalization. Fictitious Tony Montana (electrifying Al Pacino) is one of these detainees. He and his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) are given green cards after executing a former high-ranking Cuban politician. Tony lectures his friend about the “American dream”, which boils down to money, power, and respect.

Scarface’s narrative is fairly straight-forward from there. Tony rises to power as a drug kingpin. Unlike his cronies, he possesses a sense of honor. He refuses to bow to notions of mindless revenge. He will not kill innocent people (i.e. women and children). He is fiercely protective of (as well as harboring incestuous desires for) his young sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). When his friend, Angel, is killed in a drug burn, he suspects his employers, sleazy Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham) and Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). Suarez is killed by cocaine supplier Sosa, and when Tony starts making deals without Lopez’s approval, Lopez tries to kill him. Tony kills Lopez, marries Lopez’s girl, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), and takes over the business.

From there (and with the help of montage), Tony Montana becomes the go-to-guy for cocaine. Growing increasingly paranoid from his own cocaine usage, he builds a custom state-of-the-art counter-surveillance system, and his mansion is built like a fortress. He alienates his friend, Manny, and berates his wife for her own burgeoning cocaine addiction. Don’t get high on your own supply, Elvira. When Tony is threatened with jail time for money laundering and tax evasion, Sosa steps in to offer him a solution, if only he will have an influential journalist killed. Tony refuses when he sees he is required to kill the man’s wife and children. Sosa retaliates, sending hit squads to his mansion.

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Scarface was unfairly marginalized during it’s initial release. Critics believed the film to be a glorification of excessive violence, while advocacy groups protested the film’s depiction of Cubans (prompting a hastily-added disclaimer at the end of the picture). The MPAA certified Scarface for an X rating three times before cuts were made to the infamous chainsaw scene, although to hear director Brian De Palma tell the story, he made very few edits to the scene, which was played and photographed more for tone than explicit violence. Over the years, Scarface has attained an enormous cult following. Pacino’s Montana character struck a chord with disenfranchised hispanic and black youth, as well as becoming a huge influence on most crime-drama films being made today.

Coming out at a time when it did, Scarface was not quite a transitional piece for De Palma. A year later, he would make Body Double, still absorbed in “Hitchcockian” motifs and themes while retaining his talent for individuality as a filmmaker. His “Hitchcockian” period had started in 1973 with Sisters, as well as directing occasional studio projects such as Carrie and The Fury. Watching Scarface, one can sense the bending (if not breaking) of the chains of style. De Palma utilizes shots and cinematography evoking Hitchcock (the use of cranes and back projection), bold primary colors and fascinating fashion choices meant to make his characters stand out in eloquent composition. Watching the movie (for the umpteenth time) with my wife, I was instantly reminded of scenes from Frenzy and Torn Curtain.

Scarface originally premiered on The Movie Channel in 1984 as part of a Brian De Palma retrospective, which included Carrie, Home Movies (a personal favorite), Get To Know Your Rabbit, Phantom of the Paradise, and Dressed to Kill. A few of these films will pop up in Vintage Cable Box. In addition, The Movie Channel ran the original 1932 Scarface with Paul Muni for comparison.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Repo Man, 1984

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“The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”

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Repo Man, 1984 (Emilio Estevez), MCA/Universal

A state trooper pulls over a ’64 Chevy Malibu, and asks the bizarre driver what’s in the trunk.  The driver tells him, “You don’t wanna know.”  The trooper opens the trunk and is instantly disintegrated, and all that is left is a pair of smoking boots.  This opening bit sets the tone for what is to come.  The dystopic contemporary depiction of a Los Angeles in the grip of poverty, writer-director Alex Cox’s Repo Man is a landscape of smashed windows and busted televisions, of manipulative evangelists, and UFO nuts.  Emilio Estevez is not quite a punk. more of a poser (the kind of person who admires the lifestyle, but really wants a house in the sticks with a 2-car garage – I know many people like this), because he holds down a steady job (until he loses his cool) in a supermarket, and while he joins his friends for nightly “mosh” sessions, he has more on his mind than getting wasted.

One day, he hooks up with Harry Dean Stanton (always a joy to watch in any film), who asks him to hot-wire a car for $10 because he “lost the keys, and his sister is pregnant.”  Estevez agrees, but wonders why a Mexican man is trying to stop him as he does it.  He drives off with the car, and Stanton leads him to a junkyard, where the car is impounded.  Estevez’s Otto isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he comes to the conclusion he just repossessed a vehicle.  Stanton offers him a job; good money and benefits, but Estevez hates these people, and I can understand why.  They repossess cars (a kind of legal version of theft) when the owners don’t make their payments, or for other reasons (say they’re late on house payments or utilities).  To Otto, they contribute to the downfall of a schizophrenic economy and the cultural wasteland.

When Otto discovers his parents have given his college money (See? Not a real punk!) away to a televangelist, he reluctantly takes up Stanton on his offer, and soon he’s lifting cars at an impressive rate.  He gets to know and bond with the denizens of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation.  He listens to crazy theories about alien spacecraft and time travel, life and money, and, inexplicably John Wayne’s sexual orientation.  Otto’s life is turning around, and a schism develops between him and his punk friends (one of them bears a striking resemblance to my buddy, Noah).  He gets a kooky girlfriend, who is obsessed with the UFO culture, and he finds he’s been cased by spooks and weird chicks with mohawks.

The Malibu is making the rounds and a bounty goes out on the vehicle.  $20,000 to the person (or persons) who can repossess the vehicle.  It makes sense the vehicle would be hot (figuratively as well as literally), and Stanton is locked in a battle of wits with the Rodriguez Brothers, the only other hacks in the game as bad-ass as Stanton’s Helping Hand cronies.  You have an unusual convergence of like-minded nitwits in skid-row: car repossessers, alien abduction nuts, Feds, and religious fanatics all coming together to unlock the power of this vehicle.  In the mish-mash of social commentary littered about the grounds of Cox’s narrative, what we see are emerging trends.  Cox’s worldview is not unlike that of a punk.  There are forces out to control you, and none to liberate you.  That makes a whole Hell-of-a-lot of sense if you consider yourself disenfranchised.

The Malibu changes drivers a few times when the Rodriguez Brothers lift the car, which is then stolen by a couple of Otto’s friends.  The original, crazed driver taunts them into opening the trunk, and they get zapped.  He takes back possession of the car, picks up Otto hitchhiking, and promptly dies behind the wheel, after confessing to him that he had a partial lobotomy in order to negotiate the heavy stress of driving this beast.  As government agents, priest, rabbis, and UFO enthusiasts swarm on the vehicle, it emits lightning and fire, and only Otto and his co-worker, Miller (who told him earlier he refuses to drive and does all his thinking on a bus), can get behind the wheel.  The Malibu ascends into the air and flies into space.  We never really settle on what is inside the trunk.  The crazy driver tells Otto it’s a neutron bomb.  Otto’s girlfriend tell him it’s the corpses of two aliens that emanate dangerous radiation.  I’m guessing it’s a MacGuffin, merely to keep up our interest in the movie, but it doesn’t matter.  This is such an interesting and entertaining film populated with incredible characters that it doesn’t need this device (or vehicle, as the case the may be) to tell the story.

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For this movie to come out when it did, March of 1984, in the middle of the sex comedy and slasher film explosion, and the beginnings of the opening weekend mindset of Hollywood, Repo Man initiated a major smack-in-the-face to the conventions of filmmaking.  Similar in style to something like Jim Sheridan’s Breathless, but with a story and characters we give a crap for, Repo Man is a cultural send-up of science fiction, crime-drama, and tales of government paranoia.  It shows a side of Los Angeles we aren’t used to seeing.  An extraordinarily bold and gifted filmmaker, Alex Cox would follow-up Repo Man with Sid & Nancy, and the much-maligned (although I liked it) Straight To Hell.

Sourced from a VHS tape recorded off the Independent Film Channel (IFC), extended play, circa 2002-2003.  This was back when IFC ran uninterrupted films with no commercials.  Also on the tape were Harmony Korine’s 1997 oddity, Gummo, and the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers starring Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and Brooke Adams.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.