December 11, 1983 [Scarface]

Visiting Cuban relatives last summer, we stayed in a hotel on Key Biscayne--pretty swell, but no ocean view; instead, we faced the Key. Had the relatives up in the room for a little party, and my cousin Tomás and I stood on the balcony, the night still hot--August in Miami is a kind of test--and you not only do not want to take it, you don't know what it's for. Hell? I've always thought of it as having a dry heat, like Arizona. Maybe in case you want to live in a sauna, one where you can get a sunburn in the shade.

But the nightlife on Key Biscayne didn't mind the heat. As we stood there, a long line of cop cars streamed south on Crandon, heading for the tip of the Key in a definite hurry to get there. My cousin turned to me. "Drugs," he said--my Spanish is non-existent, his English is on the way. We watched them yell and flash for a while, then went inside and I ate a pastelito de guayaba. Maybe carne. Both are good--you know how you say, "I can still taste it"--whatever "it" was? Well, a pastelito's got that down pat.

Brian DePalma's remake of Scarface made me grimace--I'd seen Miami grow in the '70s--as friend Jim points out, if you want to revitalize an American city or neighborhood, fill it with refugees from a dictatorship. The Cubans in Miami are red-blooded Castro-haters, standing to the bitter end with their ally Nixon (I was down there when he resigned--and promptly flew down to the last friendly territory he'd see for a while)--and they got to Miami by hook or crook--my aunt and uncle on a little boat, my grandmother and her son and family, including Tomás, on a Freedom Flight--and they set up camp, little Havana springing up overnight in the city's Southwest district, Calle Ocho a clamoring Main St., the Versailles restaurant (that's "ber-sigh-yez" if you're asking directions) always filled, tourists getting the same salty-sweet-savory heaven as the locals--although a nicely trimmed black mustache and coppery skin-tone get you more easily into the high-ceiling'd mirrored room.

And then the Mariel boatlift in '80 pulled a fast one: Plenty of willing refugees, but also a dumping-off opportunity for Castro to free up a little space in his prisons. I don't think the boatlift was as bad as the blame Carter had to endure, but there's no doubt things have gotten a little more hysterical in Miami-Dade County. Scarface mirrors that hysteria in every frame, from its white-hot color palette to its rub-your-nose-in-it Freudianisms--Tony Montana a little too much in love with his sister. It reminded me of Sweet Smell of Success--and more than the discomfort of the love story I thought of Burt Lancaster, his performance arch and clipped, extravagant in a strained way.

Pacino disdains any reserve Lancaster may have shown and gives Tony's mad love--of sister Gina, of money and fame, most of all of himself--unbridled freedom. And he remolds himself, from his accent--always sounding like he's eating something up--to his faux-chic moptop haircut to his eyes, round as a silent-movie villain's, bright lumps of coal burning with the promise of success. It's quite a thing to watch, Pacino without restraint--joining DePalma, who happily feeds Tony's pride a mountain of cocaine and one gory challenge after another, Montana's American Dream hellishly dead-on, the world his--just long enough for it to sneak up on him and cut him in half, a wound like Crandon Blvd. opening up to let the bright red flow past.


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