“Scarface…It’s Such a Silly Movie,” and the Wanksta Subculture

September 13, 2008

“Why does everyone like ‘Scarface’ so much? It’s such a silly movie,” David Lapham said in a recent Vertigo Voices column. Lapham, if you’re unfamiliar, is a great comic writer and artist of both indie and mainstream work, notably his creator owned and published Stray Bullets and his new Vertigo series Young Liars. Well, I love most of Lapham’s work and I have an answer for his random question.

Yes, Scarface is pretty silly in many aspects. Pacino’s fake accent and acting aren’t at his greatest, it’s a long movie that can be very slow paced at times. It’s violent and it’s antihero protagonist is shallow and too flawed to even be an admirable noir character. Really though, what amounts to its enduring popularity is the same basic qualities that kept gangsta rap successful during its middle period and much of it successful today as well: the lure of success. My generation heard repeatedly when we were younger the same concept that most past generations of young Americans had heard about: “The American Dream.” The whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ethos that pervaded politics, entertainment and American society for decades was pretty much gospel. A lot of people had always felt this concept to be a bit bogus, and nowadays it feel bogus even for the supposed middle class many times. Hard work, going to college and getting good grades turned out for a lot of young adults to be not enough “do it yourself” work to land them a career. Because in the real world today, there are thousands of people just like you, who work just as hard as you, who have similar backgrounds as you. To be truly successful, ambition and hard work isn’t enough–you have to hold out and hope for luck, chance, opportunity and “knowing the right people”–“networking” and having the right contacts.

And then on the other hand you have the protagonist of Scarface–Tony Montana. He’s an immigrant from Cuba who comes to this country with nothing and is incredibly rich within a year. Sure Tony ends up breaking the only rules he espouses, and he ends up losing his best friend, his sister and his own life due to his poor choices…but that’s near the end. First the audience gets to see him rise from nothing, earn respect and gain power, money, cars, girls and a type of local celebrity status. This type of rise really seems to reflect the supposed “American Dream,” albeit distorted. Tony gets by without education, prior connections and really even without luck. He succeeds by sheer drive and ambition to make if for himself.

A lot of gangsta rap portrays a version of this. Though some Scarface and hip hop fans like the action, stylized fake (therefore “safe”) violence and drug aspects of this story, for many the “drug game” aspect is almost irrelevant. For many, watching or listening to this type of entertainment, they are able to live vicariously “on top,” in an imaginary world where money and power can still be gained by sheer force of will. Admittedly Scarface and much of gangsta rap eventually showcase the downside of the lifestyle and choices, but the aspects that continue to appeal to the kind of people who keep this popular are still the promise of self-fulfilled ambition.

There’s a whole generation of guys in their twenty and thirty somethings today that were raised on hip hop. Some of us listened to it as one of many genres we enjoyed growing up; some listened exclusively to it and nothing else; even those that didn’t listen to it at all were around it in some form or fashion throughout their youth, be it on TV, the radio or the school parking lot. Now as adults, many of us still listen to it, hopefully for most of us by now it’s one of many different choices of music, and hopefully most of us by now also realize there are many different paths hip hop can successfully take, both lyrically and stylistically that eschew “gangsta-ism” altogether (although most of this type of hip hop is considered “indie” or “alternative”). Regardless, a lot of us are still trying to find that level of success we envisioned while growing up. In our real world, the jobs and the lifestyles are usually a far cry from true wealth and power. “When I was growing up…it seems like I had all these dreams and plans…now it feels like I’m just paying rent,” a thirty something character opined in the hip hop film Hustle and Flow. Therein lies the ultimate appeal of the wanksta subculture: for those of us who often feel like our hard work amounts to nothing more than paying rent, an occasional listen to a classic 2pac record or a newer watered down (though often very entertaining) version by someone like Young Jeezy or Lil Wayne, or an occasional viewing of Scarface can cause us to envision living a lifestyle in which we do much more than just “pay rent.”

Okay, that’s all I have about that. As a side-note, “wanksta” as I understand it means “whack gangsta,” aka “fake gangsta.” So, anyone who listens to rap or watches Scarface and vicariously lives the lifestyle is a wanksta–of course, since most of the rappers and entertainers that pretend to be gangsters aren’t really anything of the sort, they to by definition are wanksta’s; so we’re all part of the same wanksta subculture that amounts to nothing more than grown men playing like little boys in a higher level of cops and robbers–if you want to be cynical about it. While writing this article and quoting the line from Hustle and Flow I came to the idea that perhaps everything that has changed about popular hip hop over the past ten years can be determined in a comparison of 8 Mile and Hustle and Flow. Keep your eyes out for an article about that in the near future. One last thing, since a comment by David Lapham sparked the idea for this article I’ll try to urge anyone reading this to pick up his excellent new series Young Liars published by the mature-readers DC comics imprint “Vertigo.” It’s a crazy ride, always shocking and unexpected by full of characters you want to know more about. I would offer a summary of what it’s about, but after reading issue 7 that just shipped last week, I think it may be going in a completely unexpected direction. Check it out.

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