Saturday, September 17, 2016

Climate Change, Capitalism, and Denial

The planet keeps getting warmer--2016 is on pace to be the hottest year on record--but the denial surrounding climate change remains entrenched. As Naomi Klein reported in This Changes Everything, 71 percent of Americans in 2007 believed that continuing to burn fossil fuels would affect the Earth's climate. By 2009--the peak for the Tea Party movement--the number had declined to 51 percent. In 2011, it was only 44%. A Harris poll in 2014--after Superstorm Sandy and so many other "natural" disasters--indicated that still only 45 percent of Americans agreed with the statement regarding climate change that "I believe it exists and humans are the main cause."
It's not hard to understand how this growth of mass denialism happened. The shift in public opinion about climate change should give pause to anyone who doubts the effectiveness of elite-sponsored propaganda. Between 2002 and 2010, anonymous billionaires contributed $120 million to over 100 groups and think tanks who were working to discredit the scientific findings about climate change. Nearly three-quarters of the climate denial books that began appearing en masse during the 1990s were connected to right-wing think tanks. Every single one of the 17 candidates for the 2016 GOP nomination either denied that climate change was being caused by human activity, or denied that it was happening at all. It's been quite a partisan shift from 2008, when Newt Gingrich appeared with Nancy Pelosi in a TV ad on Al Gore's Climate Reality Project to call for action on climate change. By 2011, Gingrich was calling his appearance with Pelosi "the single dumbest thing I've done in years."
It's also not hard to understand why billionaires and the right-wing politicians who serve them are so invested in denying the science of climate change. Many, like the Koch brothers, are directly involved in the fossil fuel industry. But for those who are ideologically invested in the neoliberal ideas of free trade, privatization, and deregulation, the specter of climate change signals the end of the party.  People with individualistic, competitive, and hierarchical worldviews are significantly more likely to deny that climate change is happening. Likewise, it threatens religious conservatives and fundamentalists who believe humans should exercise dominion over the planet and that nature is a gift from God for our consumption. Millions of Americans fervently deny climate change in the same way that they passionately espouse their views about taxes, guns, and abortion.
It's easy to mock these lunatic conspiracy theories of the denialists. Many of them believe that climate change is something like a Trojan horse for some kind of "Green communitarianism" involving the abolition of capitalism. And yet Naomi Klein suggests that they may actually understand the situation more clearly than the liberals and moderates who are searching for market-friendly, technological solutions to climate change. The reality, Klein suggests, is that capitalism and the climate are indeed incompatible, and conservatives understand this better than liberals who are still trying to work within the logic of the market, through carbon trading, offsets, and the like. She writes:
So here's my inconvenient truth: I think these hard-core ideologues understand the significance of climate change better than most of the "warmists" in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don't need to go to war with anybody, including the fossil fuel companies (p. 43).
Karl Marx once wrote that "the bourgeoisie creates its own gravediggers": the internal contradictions of capitalism would lead to its revolutionary overthrow. Marx, of course, assumed that this revolutionary force would be the working class. What Marx could not foresee was how the environment could be a second source of contradiction and limitation for capital. Capitalists have pushed the Earth to the brink of catastrophe, and our only hope for survival may be the end of capitalism and the growth of a more egalitarian, sustainable economy, one that puts people and the planet ahead of profits.



Neoliberalism and Climate Change: The Next Shock Doctrine?

The capitalist class is responding to climate change in a number of ways. There are of course those who deny climate change is happening or that it is caused by human activity, and who spend huge amounts of money in propaganda campaigns to sway public opinion, with much success.  Such propaganda mainly comes from the fossil fuel industries and neoliberal ideologues. On the other hand, there are those, like Michael Bloomberg, who recognize the reality of climate change but conceive of the consequences mostly in monetary terms. Superstorm Sandy revealed how much capital and real estate could be destroyed as a result of a rising sea levels.
But there is also a third group who are planning to profit from climate change, and those who see it as an opportunity for the U.S. to solidify its disintegrating global hegemony. In a 2011 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, right-wing blogger Jim Geraghty articulated this viewpoint in the most callous of terms.  "Despite the doomsday talk," he wrote, "global warming will be a net economic benefit to the United States, in at least the short term and probably for several decades." How's that? Geraghty quotes Thomas Fingar, chairman of the National Intelligence Council: "Most developed nations and countries with rapidly emerging economies are likely to fare better than those in the poorer, developing world, largely because of a greater coping capacity." The rich will be able to hunker down in their sealed fortresses while the poor are left to burn, starve, or drown. And so Geraghty imagines that climate change could be thing to Make America Great Again: "Rather than our doom, climate change could be the centerpiece of ensuring a second consecutive American Century."
The catastrophic impact of climate change presents a number of possibilities. One is that it will push humanity into creating a better, more sensible world with ecologically sustainable economies that benefit communities in an equitable manner. But another possibility is that the world could get a lot worse. It's crucial to remember that as much as climate change threatens to destroy some sectors of capital, capitalism as a system thrives on chaos and catastrophe. Naomi Klein has called it "the shock doctrine":  neoliberal ideologues and capitalist vultures seize upon the opportunities created by disasters to impose their agenda of privatization, deregulation, and austerity in speedy, shocking fashion.  In her most recent book, This Changes Everything, Klein envisions what this dystopian world might look like:
The corporate quest for natural resources will become more rapacious, more violent. Arable land in Africa will continue to be seized to provide food and fuel to the wealthier nations, unleashing a new stage of neocolonial plunder layered on top of the most plundered places on earth (as journalist Christian Parenti documents so well in Tropic of Chaos). When heat stress and vicious storms wipe out small farms and fishing villages, the land will be handed over to large developers for mega-ports, luxury resorts, and industrial farms....In short our culture will do what it is already doing, only with more brutality and barbarism, because that is what our system is built to do. (pp. 48-9)
See: Klein, This Changes Everything, pp. 46-54

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Film Noir, Rear Window (1954), and the Post-War Cult of Domesticity

(Based on lectures in the sociology of film and popular culture)

We're going to use Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window to examine Hollywood movies in period during the 1940s and 1950s and how they fit into the social context of wartime and post-war AmericaThe most important artistic development in filmmaking during the 1940s was in the genre known as “film noir.” Film critics usually bookend the genre somewhere between 1941, when The Maltese Falcon was released, to 1958, with Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil. Film noir also made a comeback in the 1970s, especially with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver. But the heyday of film noir was unquestionably the 1940s, in movies like Double Indemnity (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). 



Film noir were Hollywood movies with low budgets, B-movies which were semi-independent of the bigger studio films of the time, and which were not commercially successful during their own time. The Genre was named “film noir” by French film critics during the early 1950s, because they saw a subset of Hollywood films which stood out because of their pessimism, darkness, and cynicism, naming them “film noir” which in French literally means “black film.” Film noir is typically the story of an average, decent, unassuming man whose life unravels over the course of the movie. He might get mixed up in a crime or underworld dealings, and most often he is the victim of a woman he cannot resist, a woman who uses the allure of sex and money to control and manipulate the man in a way which leads to his downfall. 


This is the basic plot of most film noir, but the genre is distinctive not only for its story line but also for its cinematic technique and mood. Film noir is always set in the city, either a real one or a studio recreation, where the streets are chaotic and crowded and yet the main character is lonely and desolate. Film noir was almost always in black-and-white, and directors used lighting and shadows to convey the sense of impending doom, literally an act of foreshadowing. Scenes were shot in confined spaces and used angles where characters are enclosed within the frame--this was done to convey a sense of claustrophobia and imprisonment, like the characters are trapped, imprisoned within their surroundings. This is especially important in Rear Window. The overall message of film noir is that things are not what they seem, that there is an ugliness and darkness behind the fa├žade of normality, that the reality and order that we take for granted is built on quicksand and threatens to dissolve at any minute. 


There were several artistic sources for film noir. One was the so-called hard-boiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashell Hammett, and James Cain--many of these novels were converted into movies that were among the most important of film noir. Stories typically involve detectives who go to investigate a crime, then discover that crime leads them to a larger conspiracy involving the powerful and corrupt. One of the key features is that the protagonist is a detective, but he typically works alone, not with the police force, because in this fiction there is a general distrust of the powerful, authorities, and social institutions. Another key influence for film noir was German Expressionism, German directors who made dark, moody films in Germany during the 1920s and 30s, who then immigrated to the US after Hitler came to power and continued to make movies in the US. Some of these include the most important directors in cinematic history: Fritz Lang (who directed Metropolis and M), Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot). American directors were then influenced by Germans, taking the genre in new directions: Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai, A Touch of Evil), Nicholas Ray (They Live by Night, Rebel Without a Cause). One additional influence for film noir was the gangster film of the 1930s, especially how directors used the setting of the big city and the depiction of a criminal underworld, using shadows to convey danger and violence. The director of Scarface, Howard Hawks, went on to direct one of the most important film noir, a movie called The Big Sleep, adapted from Raymond Chandler story and starring Humphrey Bogart.  The main difference was that the protagonist of film noir was more likely to be a middle-class WASP, not an ethnic working-class gangster. 


Alfred Hitchcock is not usually considered a noir director by film critics, but many of his best movies from the 1950s certainly borrowed from the style and mood of earlier film noir, including Rear Window but also Strangers on a Train (1951), The Wrong Man (1956), and Vertigo (1958).Rear Window is a movie about photographer (played by Jimmy Stewart) who has a broken leg, and is confined to a wheelchair, who spends his time spying on his neighbors with a camera and binoculars, and then he thinks he sees one his neighbors murder his wife. The entire movie is shot from one point-of-view, with Stewart looking out his window. Hitchcock thus placed Stewart in the same position as the moviegoer, because Stewart is unable to act or move, unable to help when the situation gets dangerous, but because of modern technology he does have the power to watch, he can be a spectator. Hitchcock adds a Freudian element to this, presenting Stewart’s broken leg as a kind of impotence, even castration, because for the whole movie Stewart’s leg is this long, protruding object which is all damaged and bandaged up, preventing him from acting or helping to rescue his woman. He can’t take care of himself or his girl, he can’t even scratch his leg when it itches because it’s in a cast. On the other hand, when he wants to get better a look at his neighbors, he pulls out this ridiculously huge telescopic lens and puts it between his legs, as if it were a phallic substitute. Its clear that that’s where his power comes from. He may be impotent in the sense of having a broken leg and being confined to a wheelchair, but the telescope gives him a surrogate form of power, the power to watch. Also note that when he is attacked, the way Stewart defends himself is by using the blinding flash of his camera. 


So the whole movie is filmed from one place, Stewart’s apartment allegedly in Greenwich Village, and filmed from the perspective of looking into other windows; this is a recurring feature of film noir, “frame within a frame,” where you see one picture within another picture, and so on. Hitchcock uses this to add to the suspense and the mystery: both Stewart and us, the audience, can only see by looking into windows, and thus our view is imperfect, we have to make inferences, educated guesses, about what we can’t see and can’t hear. Rear Window also exemplifies some of the conventions of film noir insofar as it is a story about being confined and trapped, shot in order to convey a sense of claustrophobia. The movie is also filmed in the city, but we only get see one slice of it, between the buildings we can see people and cars rush by, the hustle and bustle of the city.
And Hitchcock also draws on noir conventions, like using shadows to convey a sense of impending doom, or using a rainy night to convey danger and mystery.


The idea of watching your neighbors, the themes of surveillance, vouyerism, paranoia are perfect metaphors for the social context of the 1950s. There were two social factors that contributed to a sense of paranoia and surveillance, the need to watch your neighbors during the 1950s. One was the Cold War. The Cold War was ostensibly a conflict with the Soviet Union, but it also contributed to a sense of paranoia about communists here in the US. Beginning in 1947, an organization called HUAC and Senator Joe McCarthy led an investigation of alleged communists in the US. One of the first places they investigated was the Hollywood film industry: this led to the conviction and imprisonment of a group of screenwriters who became known as the “Hollywood Ten,” as well as the blacklisting of hundreds of actors, directors, screenwriters, including Fritz Lang. One of those led the anti-communist investigation in Hollywood was an actor and former president of the Screen Actors Guild named Ronald Reagan. So the culture of Cold War was that you not only had commies living in Russia and China, but also right here at home, they might live next door and look as “normal” as anyone else, so you had to keep your eye on them. In the 1950s there were movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I Married A Communist, which contributed to that sense of paranoia, the fear that you have to keep an eye on the neighbors, because "you never know."




Another aspect of 1950s American society which depended on people watching their neighbors was the consumer culture. This was watching your neighbors in the sense of “keeping up with the Jonses,” not looking for a conspiracy, but rather to see what they are wearing or driving, to look at their house and appliances. The culture of the 1950s was largely defined by conformity through consumerism. The 1950s was time when millions of middle-class whites were moving to suburbs, buying a new house, new car, new appliances, and it thrived on people wanting to establish social status through acts of consumption, buying the newest, the biggest, the shiniest, the “new and improved.”
Consumerism thrived on people comparing themselves to their neighbors, people making sure that their stuff, their material goods, were just as good or even better than their neighbors. In the 1950s, the reference group for comparison might be real neighbors in the suburbs, or they might be a fictional family on television. 




Television was the most important technological innovation of the 1950s, and it fueled consumerism not only through its advertising and commercials, but also by depicting the suburban family living the American Dream and owning all the best and newest stuff, sending the message that your family could also be this happy if only you drove the newest car or bought the new deluxe refrigerator, just like the one the Cleavers have in their house. This is something interesting to think about with regard to Rear Window and Hitchcock, because Jimmy Stewart is in the same position that the consumer and the television viewer is in: they can look but don’t act, they are spectators rather than participants. The consumer economy depended on people being as impotent and passive as Jimmy Stewart, sitting at home, watching TV, watching and comparing themselves to their suburban neighbors or fictional TV families. 



The other place where Rear Window exemplifies social anxieties has to go with gender, sexuality, masculinity, and marriage. In the typical film noir, there is a fear and mistrust of women: women are temptresses and manipulators who use sex to get what they want, leading to the downfall of the male character. These women are dangerous because they are unattached, independent, powerful, and after money and material gain. This collective anxiety is related to the social context of wartime America, because during World War II women had been called to work in the factories, in the war industries while men went off to war. The U.S. government aggressively tried to recruit women into the workforce, like in the “Rovie the Riveter” campaign. Then after the war, women were asked to leave their jobs and go back to being housewives and baby-makers, it was assumed that those jobs in the factories and industry belonged to men, that they needed them more than women. However, this created a lot of fear and instability about gender roles in the post-war years, because you had a whole generation of women who had gotten a taste of independence by working outside the home, and they were now asked to go back to being barefoot and pregnant. Many critics have analyzed the fear of powerful, independent women in film noir in relation to these events during and after the war, as a reflection of American society’s fear of women who are independent and not in their place. 




Rear Window also depicts a fear of women, but for a different reason: they represent domesticity, because they tie men down and force men to settle into a life of suburbia, working 9-5, monogamy, basically they put an end to fun and adventure. This is a common theme of Hitchcock movies. In Rear Window, Stewart is being pursued by Grace Kelly, it seems unrealistic because she’s throwing herself at him “take me, Jeffrey” and he’s sitting in a wheelchair with a broken leg and he’s still like “I don’t know.” Meanwhile, his nurse, the other woman in the movie, is nagging him to get married and settle down, so she also represents smothering domesticity. Basically, he’s afraid of Grace Kelly because he knows she wants him to marry her, and that would mean giving up his career as photographer and travelling to exotic lands, because she’s too feminine for him to take her. So when Grace Kelly is introduced in the movie, there's this long scene where she literally casts a shadow over his entire face, another instance where Hitchcock uses shadows to convey danger, only this time the danger is a woman who wants to get married.



  
In fact, all the neighbors who Stewart watches inhabit various places on the marriage and family spectrum: a young girl pursued by male suitors, a lonely woman who has an imaginary romance, a newlywed couple who always have shades drawn, a piano player who lives alone, a childless couple with a dog. Hitchcock sets up all sorts of parallels between the neighbors and Stewart as he’s watching them. When we are introduced to the suspected murderer and his wife, it is at the same moment when Stewart is going off on marriage and “nagging wives,” and we see the wife across the street nagging at the husband who’s eventually going to kill her. Critics have suggested that the neighbors are actually supposed to be projections of Stewart’s unconscious, his psyche, his fantasies and imagination, and perhaps by extension even the unconscious fantasy life of us, the audience. Violence against women is a recurring theme in Rear Window, and it seems Stewart always sees it happen when he feels he is being trapped or nagged by the women in his own life. Also interesting is that the women in movie are referred to by their body parts: Miss Torso and also Miss Lonelyhearts, and also some speculative banter about how the murderer has chopped his wife into little pieces. 




Throughout the movie, Stewart tries to distance himself from Grace Kelly, to fight off her seduction, but in the end she wins, she gets her man. In the last scene we see Stewart with not one but two broken legs, which confirms the sense that a broken leg is a metaphor for being trapped and impotent. Then we see Grace Kelly dressed in pants and a man’s shirt, whereas throughout the whole movie she’s been wearing extremely feminine clothing, but in the last scene she’s in men’s clothes, almost as if she’s conquered and overpowered her prey. In the last scene, first we see her reading a book about the Himalayas,  something that would be in line with Stewart’s interest in travel and photography, but then she sees that he’s sleeping, so she puts down the book and picks up a fashion magazine.It's a revealing scene, because throughout the movie Grace Kelly has been made to represent consumerism, vanity, and glamour, she represents those who are the objects of the camera’s gaze. In fact, in the first scene of the movie, we actually see her face on the cover of a magazine, and there are numerous references to her being from Park Ave. and her shopping.Hitchcock is making a statement that the object, the consumer, the glamorous woman eventually triumphs over the man, over those who are the subject of the gaze rather its object. So Hitchcock is making an implicit statement not only about men and women, but also about the age of television and consumerism, and how they will lead to the triumph of objectification, appearances and images, vanity and glamour. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Gangsters, Scarface (1932), and a Brief History of Movies

[Based on lectures in the sociology of film and popular culture]




The history of motion pictures dates back to 1893, to the invention of the kinetoscope by Thomas Edison. From then until about 1905 motion pictures were mostly a novelty: they might be 15 seconds of vaudeville performers or acrobats or dancers, shown as part of the travelling circus. People simply amazed by pictures which moved. 

Beginning in about 1905 and throughout the teens, motion pictures began to be shown in their own places of presentation, the nickelodeon theater. Mostly located in the cities, people would cram into the theaters, which were very crowded and featured poor sanitation and no ventilation. By 1914, there were 18,000 nickelodeon theaters in the US, movie admissions were about 7 million per day, and movies were a $300 million industry. 




Nickoledeon theatres were primarily located in the cities, with 400 to 500 in NYC alone. Thus, the people who frequented them most were working-class, usually immigrants or children of immigrants. The urban working classes were the primary audience in terms of ticket sales, and they were also the most enthusiastic consumers of movies.

In the late teens and 1920s, the movie industry began moving to Hollywood, and the business of movie-making underwent expansion. The industry became dominated by a few large studios: Paramount, Fox, MGM, Universal, Warner Bros. At the time, these companies not only made the movies, but also controlled their distribution and exhibition. Each of them owned hundreds of movie theaters around the US. 



As Hollywood and the movie industry became big business in the 1920s, they started to focus on getting middle-class audiences, in distinction from the working-class immigrants living in the city. But it wasn’t easy at first. People still associated motion pictures with the dirty, crowded nickelodeon theaters in the city. Movie theaters were unsafe places where the immigrants hung out, while movies held the stigma of being lowbrow, cheap entertainment. 

So in trying to reach more affluent audiences, studios began building “movie palaces,” huge and incredibly lavish theaters with 1,000 seats, built to look like opera houses or legitimate theater. Some of them even had orchestra pits. An usher dressed in a suit would take your ticket and show you to your seat. They Did this to put the middle-class at ease, under the pretense of being legitimate culture rather than cheap entertainment. 



New technologies allowed the studios to make longer movies (the 2 hour feature-length film) and make movies which were more expensive to produce. The first of the blockbusters was Birth of a Nation (1915), directed by DW Griffith. It's a movie about Civil War and Reconstruction from the South’s perspective, where KKK are the heroes and deeply racist in its depiction of blacks. The movie was two and half hours long, with incredible re-creation of Civil War battle scenes. It first showed at the White House for Woodrow Wilson. Years later, new technologies also allowed for inclusion of sound in movies, the “talkies.” The first movie with sound was The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson, a musical and a huge hit which made lots of money for Warner Brothers. 

As it became possible to make longer movies and movies with sound, the big 6 strengthened its power over the industry. Movies became more expensive to produce, and this drove out independents who couldn’t compete. Various movie genres developed as studios sought to capitalize on successful formulas: the musical, the western, “screwball” comedy, and the gangster. Genres emerged because when one movie proved popular and profitable, the other studios would rush out to make a movie just like it to draw the same type of audience.   



Three movies in the early 1930s defined the gangster genre. First, Little Caesar in 1930, then The Public Enemy in 1931, and finally Scarface in 1932. One of the key factors that distinguished the gangster was ethnicity, as the gangster was always a working-class son of immigrants living in the big city. Rico in Little Caesar and Tony in Scarface were Italian-Americans, while in the Public Enemy the gangster was Irish. The actors who played them were also ethnic, but ironically not of the same ethnicity, they were mostly Jewish. Edgar G. Robinson (played Rico in Little Caesar) was born Emmanuel Goldenberg, Paul Muni (star of Scarface) was born Friedrich Meyer Muni Weisenfreund. Ethnicity has been constant feature of gangster movies to this day, if we look at the Godfather, Goodfellas, or the Sopranos. When they made a remake of Scarface in early 1980s, Al Pacino was cast to play a Cuban immigrant living in Miami

One of the important things about the gangster movies of the 1930s is that the gangster could talk because of new technologies. This allowed filmmakers to accentuate, emphasize the ethnicity of the gangster, to give the gangster and his friends a noticeable or even exaggerated ethnic accent. It Also meant that they could capture the sounds of the city—the traffic, police sirens, the hustle and bustle—and it allowed them to accentuate the violence of the gunshots in Scarface. 




Another crucial feature of the 1930s gangster film was that it was told from the gangster’s point-of-view. There were gangster movies in the silent era of the 1920s, but they were from the point-of-view of the police and authorities, like "What are we going to do about the immigrant problem?" or "How do we raise immigrants to higher moral standard, turning them into law-abiding Americans?" The gangster film of the 1930s was shot from the perspective of the gangster himself. 

So what is the gangster’s perspective? In one sense, it conforms perfectly to the American Dream, to the Horatio Alger story of going from rags to riches. The gangster craves success, power, material possessions, women (especially white women), and respect from the dominant culture. In one sense, the gangster is like all other immigrants who work hard to try to make it into the middle-class and become accepted into mainstream America.
  


But the gangster also knows that in order to be a success in America, you have to be a capitalist, not a worker. The gangster knows that the straight life, the life of working hard for somebody else, is for suckers. It will get you nowhere, leave you stuck in some dead end job. The gangster wants to be a success, and he knows that in order to be a success in America, you have to be a capitalist, not a worker, but the problem is that the gangster doesn’t have access to legitimate capital. The gangster is never going to own an oil well, or a steel mill, or a bank. The one thing he does have access to is illegal capital: drugs, prostitution, gambling, and during Prohibition, alcohol. Remember that alcohol was illegal in the US beginning in 1920, after passage of the Volstead Act, which instituted Prohibition in America from 1920 to 1933. 

In fact, part of the popularity of the gangster and the gangster film during the early 1930s can be explained by the fact that Prohibition was becoming increasingly unpopular during the Depression. Think about it, if ever you needed a drink it was during the Depression. Prohibition became the focus of a lot of resentment during the Depression, especially because working-class immigrants saw it as WASP America’s attempt to police and control them, and they were right. So the hatred of Prohibition helped make the gangster a sympathetic figure for many audiences, especially working-class immigrants. 



So the gangster is a criminal, but he’s also a perfect capitalist—he succeeds because he meets the demands of his consumers and he crushes the competition. In Scarface, Tony keeps looking out his window and seeing a neon sign that flashes “The World is Yours.” It’s such a powerful message, not only the words “The World is Yours” but also the fact that it is flashing in neon.

The gangster also behaves like the perfect consumer, shows off his success by buying new suits, new cars, cigars and jewelry. And he also tries to acquire white women as the ultimate conquest and status symbol. Yet the gangster continues to be denied legitimacy and respect: he has all the right material possessions, but not the proper taste or culture. There's a funny part in Scarface where Tony is showing off all his material possession to a woman he’s trying to impress, and she remarks that its kind of “gaudy,” meaning that its tacky, tasteless, vulgar and unrefined. Only Tony doesn’t know what the word gaudy means, so he says “glad you like it.” So the gangster finds himself in the gap between two Americas: between the America of economic opportunity where anyone can make it (at least in theory) and the America of WASP elitism, the nativist culture of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.


A final point about censorship. Although cinema was becoming more respectable and reaching middle-class audiences during the 1920s, movies remained controversial. They angered people who were concerned about sexual morality, who worried about what they saw on-screen and the permissiveness associated with Hollywood in general. When the gangster genre came out, they worried about the violence and lawlessness embodied by the gangster. So beginning in the early 1920s, these moralists began campaigning to have the government regulate and possibly censor movies for content.
Scarface is based on the life of a real life gangster, Al Capone, and makes reference to some-life events, like the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. The fear was that the gangster film  romanticized and glamorized the gangster life, and to a certain extent this was true, because it was a story told from the gangster’s p.o.v. and it was tremendously popular with working-class, immigrant audiences.  

So in response the filmmakers had to try to stave off the censors, to provide a “moral lesson” that being a gangster was a bad thing, that crime doesn’t pay, and so on. That’s why the full title of the movie was “Scarface: The Shame of a Nation” and in the beginning we see a message that the gangster is a “problem that must be solved.” This kind of thing was in all the 1930s gangster movies, a kind of disclaimer like “don’t try this at home,” gangsters are bad, but it seems contrived because the actual movie does glamorize the gangster life. Eventually, in 1935, the Production Code Administration issued a moratorium on the production of all gangster films—not only were the studios barred from making gangster films, but the old ones couldn’t be shown in theaters, so for many years Scarface and the others were basically unseen.



In Scarface, there is a very awkward scene midway in the movie, where a police detective and a publisher are going on about gangsters and what the government should do about them. It's a weird scene because the lighting and angles are totally different from the rest of the movie, and the scene doesn’t fit into the plot at all. One of the police detectives points right at the camera and says, “Now, what are YOU going to do about it.” And this Italian stereotype pops out of nowhere and says “Its-a-true, they-a disgrace-a my people.” This scene was added as a response to pressure from the censors. The studio held up the release of the movie until the scene was added, and the reason it’s so awkward is because the director, Howard Hawkes, refused to participate.