A pirate diary

Pub date December 26, 2006
WriterJason Shimai
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

When I got to Mexico City’s main ceremonial drag, where national parades and military marches are flanked by the art nouveau–style Palacio de Bellas Artes and the most striking Sears department store building you will ever see, it had transformed into a full-on tent city: blue tarp, camping tents, and thousands of political cartoons flowed east for half a mile and filled the Zócalo, the city’s vast central plaza. Just a few days before, Mexico’s highest electoral court had confirmed National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderón as the country’s next president. His opponent Andreas Manuel López Obrador, who challenged the cleanliness of the election that had him losing by a little more than half a percentage point, had asked that his camped-out supporters stay where they were until they could force a vote-by-vote recount. The recount had been denied, and Calderón was now certain to replace outgoing president Vicente Fox, but López Obrador’s supporters were still there in their virtual city within a city.

And then it was gone. The annual military march on Mexican Independence Day saw to that. In its absence, on other streets all over the capital, another tent city continued to function, one that had been there long before the political mess and will be there long after. It shows up in the morning and gets taken down in the evening nearly every day, and it’s a hugely significant part of Mexico’s economy. In his novel Hombre al Agua, Fabrizio Mejía Madrid describes the miles of blue tarp that are the skin of Mexico City street commerce as the closest thing a landlocked resident can hope for in the way of waterfront property. Pirated movies, albums, and software are absolutely everywhere — you could drown.

According to a study conducted by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the star of the recent movie This Film Is Not Yet Rated, and cited by the Los Angeles Times, in 2005 major studios lost more revenue to Mexican street vendors, $483 million, than to those of any other country on this thieving little planet. You can mark me down as responsible for about $200 of that. In my seven months in Mexico, I went to a grand total of one museum, one cathedral, and zero ancient pyramids. Mostly, I just watched movies. And since — as we all secretly believe or at least suspect — watching movies is better than real life anyway, I ended up doing a lot of it on my return visit, with the friends I somehow found the time and opportunity to meet.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger was my first recruit in the great battle between art and intellectual property law. In it Jack Nicholson plays a journalist who switches identities with the black-market arms dealer who’s died in his hotel, kicking off one Sunday drive of a thriller. Surely, there’s no sleepier suspense film. (Antonioni’s Blow-Up doesn’t count, since it’s an artsy fuck you to suspense films, just as Brian De Palma’s Blow Out is a fuck you to artsy fuck yous to suspense films.) Amazingly, though, the pace never dissolves the tension, despite Antonioni’s gallant attempts to try our patience, like introducing love interest Maria Schneider after a full hour of film. A much less successful test of our patience is Nicholson’s bewildered commentary, which does little more than narrate a movie you couldn’t get lost in if you were blindfolded and spun around really fast. I sat through half of it and was rewarded with one semiprecious jewel: Nicholson’s character was wearing the first digital watch ever made, by Tiffany.

After that humble start, the next day I went on a Mexican film–buying binge. Well, I tried to. You’d think the one thing you’d be certain to find in Mexico is Mexican film. You’d be right about half the time, but those are odds I don’t particularly care for. I found Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven (everywhere, in fact) but not his Japón. I found Alejandro Jodorowsky’s riot-causing Fando y Lis and El Topo (not available on DVD in the United States) but not La Montaña Sagrada. I found Los Olvidados and La Jóven but nothing else by Luis Buñuel, and he was a hard worker in Mexico. Rogelio A. González’s El Esqueleto de la Señora Morales, yes. Carlos Velo’s Cinco de Chocolate y Uno de Fresa, no. And so on. But if you like Vicente Fernández or the masked wrestler Santo, which I’m vaguely ashamed to say I do, god help you if you only have one suitcase.

I also had overwhelming success finding Tin Tan, a Mexican comedian and singer who could be described as sort of like Danny Kaye in a zoot suit. His devotees are as wide-ranging as me and the Beatles. (I recently read that he was supposed to be part of the Sergeant Pepper album cover but suggested that Ringo replace him with a Mexican tree.) By the end of the seven months I spent in Mexico City, the most Spanish I’d learned was a sort of raised-by-wolves level of communication that, though I hoped it came off as charming, made it hard for me to fully understand a movie unless I concentrated like an air traffic controller. Tin Tan was always a comfort because his movies are funny even without translation. My favorite of his movies is El Rey del Barrio, about a man in Mexico City who leads a double life as a poor sweet nobody and a ruthless, flamenco-singing street boss. It costars his brother Ramón Valdéz, from the bafflingly adored El Chavo del Ocho, a ’70s Mexican sitcom in which the titular character is a little kid played by an adult.

Which is lot less annoying and creepy than an adult played by a little kid, as Dakota Fanning’s career has demonstrated. Sadistic revenge fantasies like the Mexico City–set Man on Fire have their place in this world and are hard for me to empirically condemn, but the idea that an already irritable man would take 45 minutes of a movie to avenge Fanning’s death is something I’m just not willing to accept. I can almost never sit through her performances, but we watched this movie at the tail end of a long and drunken night, when civic pride had long since overpowered any vestiges of personal pride. (When Denzel Washington buys a Linda Ronstadt album just blocks away from the spot where we’d bought this very movie, we practically cheered.) The commentary track was sprinkled liberally with Fanning annoyingly and creepily naming people on the set who were great to work with. Why doesn’t the MPAA take a stand against mixing children and commentary tracks?

With Denzel and Dakota out of the way, we moved on to happier territory (at least I did; everyone else had fallen asleep). The Barkleys of Broadway was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s Technicolor comeback after a 10-year split, and it was the last film they made together. Ira Gershwin’s lyrics are as winning as ever, but his brother was sorely missed. In other sad news, the proud tradition of the fruity character actor had been abandoned with the exclusion of Eric Blore and Eric Blore’s teeth. Oscar Levant’s piano-playing playboy was more than compensation, though (sorry, Blore). The observation, traced to a Frank and Ernest comic strip, that Rogers had to do everything Astaire had to do but backward and in high heels (Backwards in High Heels, a musical about Rogers, comes out next year) might not even be as important as the fact that she could also act circles around the guy, who always delivered his lines like he was about to sneeze.

A couple of days later, in accidental coincidence with Mexican Independence Day, we celebrated with two classics of civil disobedience. The first, The Wild One, was just as unpleasant to watch this time around as the previous time I saw it. No movie has ever given me more desire to smack Marlon Brando’s pouty little face and send him to his room without supper. Ironically, Rambo: First Blood was the perfect complement to the fireworks exploding around us, reminding us that no tyrant, be it the Spanish crown or Brian Dennehy, stands a chance against an organized and pissed-off society — or Rambo. The next morning we watched Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Fascist fuckfest, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, to break our spirits just enough to keep us showing up for work. I was sad to discover the copy I’d bought on Calle Arcos de Belen for 15 pesos didn’t offer English subtitles — luckily, Pasolini’s nod to the Marquis de Sade speaks the international language of eating human feces.

Next up was Lemon Popsicle, which sounds like a hentai film but turned out to be an Israeli Porky’s with dubbed English dialogue such as "I’d say the brunette’s cherry’s been well busted, for sure." Ignoring their parents’ advice not to get involved with shiksas, the horny heroes spend the whole movie trying to gain comprehensive sexual experience with the pretty girls who don’t go too far, the not-so-pretty girls who go farther, and the crabs-ridden prostitute who’ll take ’em to the moon and back. And somewhere along the way they preside over a monumentally homoerotic penis-measuring contest in the locker room. It’s all so Porky’s I was shocked to discover that it came out a full five years earlier, in 1978, spawning eight sequels and the American remake The Last American Virgin. According to Robert O’Keefe from Wales on imdb.com, Lemon Popsicle is "ONE OF THE BEST FILMS EVER MADE." Considering the emphatic use of caps and that seven out of seven people found his review useful, I have no choice but to defer to him on the matter.

The last thing I saw in Mexico was Woody Allen’s Scoop, which I watched while flying over the northern part of the country. Allen has to work harder for his jokes these days, so it was rough to see the movie’s occasional bull’s-eye apocalyptically mistranslated. Best example: the character originally says, "I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but when I got older I converted to narcissism." This is so quintessentially him that even a translator who spoke no English at all could’ve assembled a more faithful subtitle than "I had Hindu beliefs, but I converted to Christianity." Of the two lines, though, the latter certainly got the bigger laugh out of me — I even woke up the lady in the next seat. In fact, maybe the translator did it on purpose, to give Allen and his movie the little extra push they needed. After all, that’s what the pirated movie industry is all about. People helping people. It’s beautiful, really. Please don’t turn me in. (Jason Shamai)


(1) Battle in Heaven (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico)

(2) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania)

(3) Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, US)

(4) Brick (Rian Johnson, US)

(5) Mongolian Ping Pong (Hao Ning, China)

(6) The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, France/Italy)

(7) Lunacy (Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic/Slovakia)

(8) United 93 (Paul Greengrass, US/UK/France)

(9) Adam’s Apples (Anders Thomas Jensen, Germany/Denmark)

(10) Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico)

For a longer version of this article, go to the Pixel Vision blog at www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision.