The Scent Of Pacino

published in Senses of Cinema issue 6, Melbourne, 2000

People like humanism in the cinema because they are sexually repressed. To see a human on the screen – brimful of life, vim, vigour – is to want to fuck it in some way. This is actually good. It’s a form of modern parafilia which has not yet been adequately defined or catalogued. People should consensually fuck anything in anyway whenever they want. If it comes down to watching arthouse movies with an occasional young thing in some semi-sensual situation – fine.

I like to do my fucking outside of the cinema. I leave the cult of humanism for those addicted to emotional pornography. For me, the cinema is only attractive when death is on the screen. Pathetically yet undeniably, when someone is dying on the screen, I feel most alive. Not because “there but for the grace of god go I”, but because I know that when I die every death scene in the cinema will flash by – simultaneously, deafeningly, overwhelmingly. I have no problem with this whatsoever.

Films that start with someone dying are the best films. Those films state openly and defiantly that their story is well and truly over. They leave you nowhere to go except to trace the events which will fatefully and fatally return you to the film’s beginning. Like a morbid virtual-loop from Brain Storm (Douglas Trumbull, 1983), you watch the film to die and die again.

When Al Pacino is dying at the beginning of Carlito’s Way, I feel giddy, exhilarated, impassioned. For it is Al Pacino dying again – not Carlito. Al Pacino is the gracefully impassive face of death. His visage haunts the cinema as a morbid mask doomed to die again and again. His breath is the whisper of ghost. His skin has the tactility to engross a mortician. His hair is like the world’s most perfect wig. He is sexy, heaving, funky, dark – like a doll of dreadful desire from Necropolis. He ain’t no Latin lover, baby. He’s El Morte.

Carlito’s Way is one of Pacino’s best chapters in the cinematic road movie that is his eternal death. Upside down, in slow motion, colour-drained, across Central Station, fixated on a garish, tacky Caribbean billboard. He looks into it and sees the same fantasy world which drew him to the USA from Cuba in Scarface over a decade ago. In Scarface he went out in a blaze of operatic death – a spectacular demise in neon, disco and velvet. In Carlito’s Way he goes out in fluorescent, strings and vinyl.

Pacino is best when he is drained, is draining, is being drained. His is the living corpse of exhaustion, and the cinema loves him for this. Everytime his leather jacket squeaks in Donnie Brasco it is the sound of his bones calcifying. Everytime he sniffs in A Scent Of A Woman it is the sound of a sheet being pulled across his face. Even in Heat, he withers as he stalks Robert De Niro, giving himself heart palpitations as he chases what might be his own shadow, his own mirror image, his own echo across LA. And in Looking For Richard, he passionately revives mouldy old Shakespeare – not because the bard is alive and well, but because Pacino knows the grave repository of psychoses that lines Shakespeare’s tomb with figures of maddened men.

To prove his effectiveness as death, Pacino also gives us the most vital signs of life. His body is a motion machine: it dances, sways, dives, surges with delicate denouement and dynamic drive. In Carlito’s Way, he defines the art of sitting at a marble club table; waiting in well-upholstered V-8 cars; walking across busy downtown traffic. He merges and blends effortlessly in the land of the living. De Niro is a face – a granite block so compacted that when it is in close-up you can hear the atoms humming. Pacino is a complete body that can be performed on and fragmented in so many ways. There are few actors who you can smell on the screen. Pacino is one of them.

Carlito’s Way is sublime because of its rendering of Pacino. It captures him in a palpable holographic frieze and allows him to breathe, spit, curse, dance, drive, shoot and run. And best of all, it allows him to die. That is what Al Pacino does best. That is what the cinema does best.

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © Universal Pictures.