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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Howard Hawks’ ‘Scarface’

I love movies.  I’ve always wanted to work in the film medium in some way, but have yet to figure out how.  Sure, I’d love to make them, but if that doesn’t happen, what will I do?  “Aha!  I’ll just write about them,” I — and every critic ever — said.  To write about them, I need to actually write.  Therefore, it’s time to stop neglecting this website and start a regular column in which I write about film.  I don’t care if they’re sparkly new 3D releases or scratchy DVD transfers of old classics; I’ll write about whatever strikes me as worth discussion.  I hope you like I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, with today’s inaugural film, Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster picture, Scarface.

Man, gangsters were dapper.

Hawks’ eleventh film in six years (say what you will about Golden Age Hollywood’s assembly-line production style, but prolific is prolific), Scarface opens curiously, as a title card screed rails against gangster culture, claiming how the protagonists of the film are ruining American culture.  “Well, all right,” I said as I registered that counterintuitive way of introducing characters about whose fates I’m supposed to care.

As soon as that anti-crime title card disappears, we’re treated to a visually flashy sequence in which a shadow guns down crime boss “Big” Louis Costillo, top dog of Unnamed-City-But-Really-It’s-a-Thinly-Veiled-Chicago-So-Let’s-Stop-Kidding-Ourselves’s booze racket.  This sets the stage for the new gang in town, led by Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) and his right-hand man, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), the film’s eponymous character.

The film tracks the rise of that gang, and the loose-cannon Tony in particular.  Through a series of fire bombings, hospital hits, and St. Valentine’s Day Massacre-esque tactics in which Tony’s underlings pose as police officers and murder rival gang members, firing squad-style.  Hawks and company aren’t even trying to fool anyone into thinking this is something other than a biography of Al Capone, with Tony’s rubbing out of the men who stand in his way (Lovo, the “North Side” booze runners, et cetera) following Capone’s career arc.

Hawks was a director who inherently knew the importance of entertainment.  He’s famous for working in nearly every genre and doing interesting, if not thrilling, things within each. That includes large sections of Scarface.  However, three key sequences derail Hawks’ otherwise superb pulp tale.

The first we’ve already discussed.  If the film is indeed an indictment of the prevalent criminal activity of the time, then that should be — and having seen the rest of the film, I’d say it succeeds in doing this — apparent by the story and character actions displayed within it.  There should be no need to open the thing with a “No, seriously guys, the stuff in this movie is bad.  VERY BAD INDEED.”  It cheapens what comes after it and plays like what it is: a weak attempt by the producers to appease the censors into allowing them to show the film to audiences.

The second ties directly into the first.  About halfway through the film, someone I assume to be other than Hawks inserts a scene featuring characters not seen at any other point only to expound on the opening title card’s insistence that crime is ruining the nation.  “Give the Deportation Act some teeth!” is one of many strange, overtly xenophobic things shouted in this back room conversation by the WASPiest of WASPs, as if Italians were the only people committing crime in the thirties.  Again, it feels like something done to make the censors happy, by stating in the most on-the-nose manner just how bad this gang activity is.  But I contend marinating in the film’s gangster world would do a much better job of convincing the average Joe not to enter the criminal life; show, don’t tell, and all that.  Instead, what we get is the laziest of soapbox morality, stopping cold all the film’s forward momentum in the process.

The third sequence is the one most likely attributable to Hawks himself.  At the film’s climax — and if you have misgivings about spoilers for a 70-year-old movie, you know where you can shove them — Tony murders his sister’s new husband, and his former associate, for being in the same room as her; big brothers can be overprotective, I guess.  Justifiably, she rats on Tony to the police.  She doesn’t want the cops to get her revenge for her, though.  She beats them to Tony’s compound, gun in hand.  After the cops surround the place, she finds she can’t shoot him out of revenge, and decides out of nowhere to join forces with her brother to shoot at the cops she herself called.  Not the most logical storytelling.  Of course, to give Tony a reason to go totally berserk, she gets shot and killed by police gunfire.  He gets a few shots off before the police toss a tear gas can into his house.  Blinded and bewildered, he heads down the stairs to be greeted by police officers tearing down the front door.  He rushes past them to the street where he’s shot down by a machine gun-wielding cop.  The end.

Obviously, Scarface is a flawed film.  At times, those flaws threaten to overwhelm its good parts.  But those good parts are really good.  Hawks shows off considerable visual flair in the opening scene in which Tony, as the murderous shadow, whistles his way toward his first killing of the film, without a care in the world.  Another segment distills just how cool cinema can be with a bit of creativity: During the montage of Tony’s rise to power, Hawks employs a visual of a Tommy gun shooting the pages off a daily calendar to show the passage of time.  That simple yet elegant trick made me grin ear to ear.

Despite my heavy gripes, I’d say Scarface marginally earns its status as a “film classic.”  It’s probably on the lower end of the Hawks totem pole, but well worth seeing nonetheless.  For a movie shot in the 1930s, its visual ingenuity and violent story represent a dramatic leap forward during a time of strict censorship, something even this film was unable to fully avoid.  Besides, if you’re like me, you get to be “that guy” who has only seen the ORIGINAL Scarface, gangsta lifestyle be damned.

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Rob’s Creative Midterm Paper

I’m 22 years old and still haven’t finished college, so to say I’m a little bored with writing traditional papers would be underselling a bit my feelings on the subject.  I’m sick of never being able to use my own voice, feeling distanced from the material, and checking my passion at the door in order to churn out an auto-piloted version of something that would probably be far more interesting in a different medium.  It is for those reasons I’ve decided to get a little creative for my Social Media class, as this paper’s prompt says, “Social Media has had a profound impact on society and the process of communicating. How have these changes affected the process and what does it mean?” Given the title of the class, I felt writing a Ten Commandments-sized blog post an apt way to complete the assignment.  Instead of regular in-text citations — ones which you know won’t really be checked — I’ll utilize hyperlinks and videos within the body of my text to not only show that I did my research but so you can also check things out for yourselves.  Besides, I don’t know how you can write about films without offering actual footage of them.  So chew on my punk rock aesthetic, college, because I’m totally too cool for school.  And now, without further ado, here is my Social Media midterm paper.


Rob Samuelson

Don Krause

Social Media

2 March 2011

Filmmakers Further Their Careers Using Social Media

The New Crew

That looks familiar, right? You’re somehow acquainted with it, but it’s different from what you know, leaving you with a deja vu sensation which you can’t quite place. That’s probably because you spent the summer of 2009 being inundated with the imagery developed four years earlier in this short, Alive In Joburg, by director Neill Blomkamp and expanded into the feature film District 9.

Blomkamp is among the crop of modern Hollywood success stories who have scrounged for years in film schools and dead end jobs, searching for financial support in order to fund their little passion projects; they are the people who have slickly used social media websites like YouTube to market their skills to Hollywood.  In Blomkamp’s case, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson took notice and originally shepherded him in an attempt to adapt popular video game Halo into a film.

And yet nobody has seen a Halo movie.  Why not?  Because that’s what happens in Hollywood.  Sometimes things don’t work out as expected/hoped/fantasized.

When Halo didn’t pan out, Blomkamp and Jackson refocused their energies on something they knew had potential: Blomkamp’s original Joburg short.  All’s well that ends well, as they completed District 9 on a budget of around $35 million — chump change for a science fiction ‘splosion spectacular such as this — garnering critical praise and earning a cool $115 million in box office receipts. Oh, and it also received four Oscar nominations, including Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published.

Blomkamp has since returned to the viral video well, releasing a minute-long teaser for Wired Magazine that may or may not have anything to do with his upcoming project, Elysium, other than generating interest in his abilities as a filmmaker who can tell a compelling story.  Or maybe he wants his fans to know he’s still around and has not forgotten them.

Blomkamp’s story may be the most complete, but he’s not alone in finding success through YouTube.  Federico Alvarez, an Uruguayan director, has found himself being mentored by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man) based on the merits of his produced-on-the-cheap alien invasion short, Panic Attack!, which was released on YouTube in 2009.

Panic Attack!, which runs less than five minutes, currently has upwards of six million YouTube views, which is no small feat considering how it only cost Alvarez a few hundred dollars to produce.  Now that Raimi’s production company, Ghost House Pictures, has signed Alvarez to develop a “genre” — probably in the science fiction realm — project, Alvarez appears set to reap the rewards of a professional filmmaking career.

This is not a phenomenon which will disappear anytime soon.  Given Hollywood’s obsessive-compulsive need to replicate success, agents, producers, and studio moguls will feel the pressure to find the next Blomkamp or Alvarez, even at the expense of the sanity of parents everywhere.

YouTube: The New Bootleg

Up and coming filmmakers aren’t the only ones benefitting from the exposure YouTube provides. For all intents and purposes, YouTube has replaced typical street vendors at the bootlegging game, providing for the masses things that had only previously been available in rare collections and by illegal means.

Fans of such Oscar winners as Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers can view early work and oddities, and compare those with the filmmakers’ more famous output.

Take Scorsese’s (Goodfellas, Raging Bull) NYU student film, What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This?, for instance.  It’s a surrealist comedy so far removed from his typical subject matter of gangsters and male inadequacy that it’s almost unrecognizable as a Scorsese film. But that is just part of the fun of exploring the depths of what YouTube has to offer.

In startling contrast to Scorsese’s attempt to find himself as an artist, all 30 minutes of noted auteur Paul Thomas Anderson’s (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) short film Cigarettes & Coffee — not to be confused with Jim Jarmusch’s almost identically named Coffee & Cigarettes can also be found on YouTube.  It finds Anderson already with a firm grasp of what kind of storyteller he wants to be, as much of the film was expanded into his first feature, Hard Eight; or Sydney, if you ask Anderson himself.  To the best of my knowledge and research, I cannot find any other form in which this film has been released, and given the cult following the man has developed in his career, this is an important satiating resource for fans to utilize while they await his next film, whenever he makes one.

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, No Country For Old Men), much like Scorsese, would not have the chance for people outside of Region 2 DVD releases to see their section of the film anthology Chacun son cinéma (To Each His Own Cinema), entitled World Cinema.

This short, while a simple oddity filmed during the production of No Country For Old Men, displays a certain playfulness creeping into the collective consciousness of the biggest names in today’s filmmaking.  It’s a feeling that not everything needs to be a sweeping epic in order to excite audiences.  Writers and directors can simply play a little; they can use these shorts and miniature conversations as practice for their larger, more long-term projects.  Whether they’re attempting to create a new visual style for themselves or write in a dialect that’s eluded them thus far, I can’t imagine the creators doing anything other than having a blast working on these things.

Twitter; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Fan Interaction

Jon Favreau.  David Lynch.  Rian Johnson.

It’s all right there in Johnson’s Twitter profile description: “[B]ig time [H]ollywood director.”  That’s what these people are, and they are 140 characters away from interacting with their fans.

The connection of modern artists to their fans is at the highest point it’s ever been, thanks in large part to social media, particularly Twitter.  Instead of fearing about even more of their private lives being exposed, these celebrities act to be even more connected to the people who follow them.

Favreau, a one-time prolific actor now doing mostly big budget directorial work like the Iron Man movies and the upcoming Cowboys & Aliens — a film I absolutely cannot wait to see, but that’s a story for another time — tends to connect to fans the most, utilizing Twitter’s @ function with great regularity to answer questions and voice his thanks for the support he receives.  He also offers updates from first the set and now the editing room of Cowboys & Aliens, providing an insider’s peak into the process of how a massive blockbuster gets made.

Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) does much of the same, although he generally takes a more businesslike approach to selling his film, the currently filming Looper.  He often cross pollinates his promotion by posting to Twitter production photos located on the film’s Tumblr site.  He takes a mysterious approach to doling out information about the film, which follows the lead of recent ad campaigns for films like Cloverfield, which are supposed to be all about the suspense and “what could this possibly be about?” hype.

Lynch tends to take a more relaxed, day-in-the-life approach, as he is not currently producing a film.  Given his tendency toward dark and idiosyncratic filmmaking — to put it lightly — it is surprising to see him writing thoroughly normal things like birthday wishes to actress Laura Dern (Jurassic Park, huzzah!).

These three directors display the symptoms of a phenomenon which is creating an even stronger sense of connection between artists, their art, and the art’s appreciators.  Where these artists take this phenomenon remains to be seen — 140-second short films? — but what can be assured is the presence of social media at every turn.

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