In recent years, I’ve noticed that while the garish framed photos of Eminem or Nelly or 50 Cent or The Sopranos — the stuff you see on display in the closeout stores and in front of those mysterious luggage/electronics/who-knows-what storefronts in Chinatown or on commercial strips in outerborough neighborhoods — tend to come and go with the rise and fall of entertainment trends, but images of a sweaty, heavily made-up Al Pacino toting a machine gun in DePalma’s Scarface endure. Why this movie? Why these violent images of his defiant inability to yield to authorities in the midst of his coke-fueled, paranoiac rage? Who identifies with this so strongly that the image has become a staple, as commonplace on the stand of a sidewalk art vendor as images of the World Trade Center?
If the World Trade Center commemorates a unifying moment of national tragedy and signifies a resolve “never to forget” the terrorists’ perfidy, then what core set of values does a tweaked-out Pacino mowing down cops represent? The most obvious theory that presents itself is that the film epitomizes the immigrant experience, and the bloody apotheosis of the imaged framed and sold on street corners represents some trenchant refusal to surrender the American dream in its crudest, most materialistic form. The script, which charts Tony Montana’s rise from Cuban exile to Miami drug kingpin, caters to such an interpretation, emphasizing Montana’s perverse attempts at legitimizing himself. But what seems to have been an obvious critique of American materialism and the complete corruption of the American dream now perhaps survives on as its representative emblem in the minds of those for whom the dream still applies, for those yet to be disillusioned in their quest for it. A case of an audience “producing” rather than consuming, using a cultural product for their own ends over and against the intent of its original makers? Maybe. It seems to suggest that immigrants today feel like they are at war with the culture they are at the same time trying to assimilate with, that violence is an inevitable part of the emigration experience that they may as well embrace rather than fear. Attuned to the xenophobic ravings and close-mindedness of the current administration, they understand that they must lay siege on America to be accepted within it, that brute force and raw, violent power are the only means to achieve respect in this country if you are in a minority group.