DVD-Arrr! Jason Shamai's Mexico City Pirate Diary...Uncut!

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One highlight of this week's 2006 Film opus is Jason Shamai's tale of DVD buying and watching in Mexico City. Here it is, sans the cuts required for it to fit into the newspaper:

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 (ranging from the dryly satirical to the scatological) flowed east for at least half a mile and filled the Zócalo, the city’s vast central plaza where people had already been camped for weeks. Just a few days before, Mexico’s highest electoral court had confirmed National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon as the country’s next president. His opponent Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who challenged the cleanliness of the election that had him losing by a little over half of a percentage point, had asked that his camped-out supporters stay right where they were until they could force a vote-by-vote recount. The recount had been denied and Calderon was now certain to replace outgoing president Vicente Fox, but AMLO’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 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 and miles of blue tarp which 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.

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Jackie Valenti

According to a study conducted by the Motion Picture Association of America (star of the recent movie This Film Is Not Yet Rated) and cited by the LA 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. (Plus, since some ill-advised street tacos ensured that my trip would much more scatological than dryly satirical, I had to find a nice inside activity for much of the time anyway.) Now, I could spend a lot of time here trying to justify what I’ve done with arguments about Mexican employment and wage statistics, about the effects of NAFTA and that sort of thing, but how much more effective to just list the movies I watched for a fraction of the retail price and let the reader decide whether or not the obvious improvement of my quality of life was worth it.

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Maria Schneider (in the Passenger seat) ponders what Jason has to say about her
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 not really a suspense film but an artsy fuck you to suspense films, just as Brian De Palma’s Blow Out is a fuck you to artsy fuck you’s to suspense films.) In Nicholson’s commentary track he calls it the most adventurous film he’s ever done, by which of course he means the slowest. Amazingly, though, the pace never dissolves the tension, despite Antonioni’s gallant attempts to try our patience, like introducing the love interest (Maria Schneider, reprising her role as sex toy for middle-aged American men in Europe) only 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 about half of it and was rewarded with only one semi-precious 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 still 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 Japan. I found Alejandro Jodorowsky’s riot-causing Fando and Lis and El Topo (not available on DVD in the U.S.), but not The Holy Mountain. I found Los Olvidados and The Young One, but nothing else by Buñuel, and he was a hard worker in Mexico. Rogelio González’s 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.

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Santo leaps upon Jason

I also had overwhelming success finding Tin Tan, a Mexican comedian and singer from the Golden Age who could be described as sort of like Danny Kaye in a zoot suit. His movies are some of the easier to find wherever bootlegs are sold and his devotees are as wide-ranging as me and The Beatles. (I just recently read that he was supposed to be part of the Sgt Pepper's album cover, but for some reason he suggested that Ringo replace him with a Mexican tree.) By the end of the seven months I’d spent in Mexico City the most I’d achieved was a sort of raised-by-wolves level of communication that, though I hoped 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, and sometimes I worry that I might be disappointed if I were ever to find subtitled copies. My favorite of his movies is Rey Del Barrio (King of the Neighborhood), 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, whom insomniac American channel-surfers will recognize as Don Ramón from the bafflingly adored El Chavo del ocho, a Mexican sitcom from the seventies in which the titular character is a little kid played by an adult.

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Tin Tan sings!

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 forty-five minutes of a movie to avenge Dakota 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.) Actually, I sat through Man on Fire against my will, since I’d already seen it when I was living in the city, and at a time when I was so enamored of the place that as soon as the movie ended I watched it again with the commentary track (just in case they mentioned my apartment number or something). It mostly consisted of the director and some other guilty party insisting that the movie wasn’t as bad as the critics said it was, and was sprinkled liberally with Dakota 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?

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Your friendly blog poster's fave photo of Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire!!!

With Denzel and Dakota out of the way, we moved on to happier territory (at least I did, everyone else having fallen asleep). The Barkleys of Broadway was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s Technicolor comeback after a ten-year split, and it was the last film they ever made together. According to the mini-doc included on the DVD, the success of Easter Parade had Astaire and Judy Garland locked in for another moneymaker, but when Garland got sick Rogers hinted that she might be interested in an adrenaline shot to the old career.

What seems like a Thomas Wolfe-ian disaster of an idea actually works really well; in fact, the writing in Barkleys of Broadway seems sharper and the editing a lot less narcoleptic than many of their Depression-era productions. Ira Gershwin’s lyrics are as winning as ever (“Till Mother Nature vetoes/ The bees and the mosquitoes/Mother Nature is no mother of mine”), 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 Eric). And anyway, the gaping hole where the fruitiness should have been was filled by an impressive undercurrent of bitchiness: one wonders how Rogers felt about the movie’s resemblance to the real story of her leaving the duo, and how she felt about an ending that has her character sprinting back to musical comedy where she belongs.

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Ginger Spice, step to this

The observation, traced to a Frank and Ernest comic strip, that Rogers had to do everything Astaire had to do but backwards and in high heels (Backwards in High Heels, a musical about Rogers, comes out next year) might not even have been as important a point to her as the fact that she could also act circles around the guy, who always delivered his lines like he was about to sneeze. She left the team to do more dramatic work, but I always think of her as a comedic actress first, only because Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (where Robert Benchley, an Algonquin Round Tablemate of Levant’s, offers up his famous version of the “slipping into a dry martini” line that first appeared in Mae West’s Every Day’s a Holiday and has made it as far as the hallowed halls of The Simpsons) was the first thing I ever saw her in. As an adult playing a child, she blows El Chavo del ocho out of the water.

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Brando wants a piece of ya, Shamai

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 it was the first time I saw it. No movie is less deserving of having its imagery imprinted on the American consciousness (or the Sgt. Pepper's album, for that matter), and no movie has ever given me more desire to smack Marlon Brando’s pouty little face and send him to his room without supper. It’s a rare glimpse into the way I will no doubt feel when I’m an old man and don’t understand young people. Ironically, the bad taste of incoherent rebelliousness was rocket-launched out of our mouths by an incoherent rebel. Rambo: First Blood was the perfect complement to the fireworks exploding around us, both 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.

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Lucky you, Rambo's got your back

But us little guys didn’t want to get too uppity, so 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 fifteen pesos didn’t offer English subtitles—luckily, Pasolini’s nod to Sade speaks the international language of eating human feces. I ended up watching the movie again alone so that I could pause the screen and follow the Castilian subtitles at my own pace (and not for the other reason to pause this eminently pausable film, dirty birds. That’s what I got the hentai title Sensitive Pornograph for).

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Sweeter than Salo

Lemon Popsicle, which sounds like it should be hentai (they often have names like Candy Heart Sonata or Autumn Pineapple), turned out to be an Israeli Porky’s with dubbed English dialogue like “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 piecemeal, 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 (not that there are penis-measuring contests that aren’t homoerotic). It’s all so Porky’s, I was shocked to discover that it came out a full five years earlier, in 1978. It’s actually something of an institution in other parts of the world, 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.

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In Spanish or even Swiss German, Lemon Popsicle serves up hot buns

Woody Allen’s Scoop was the last thing I watched in Mexico (in the airport, and then flying over the northern half of the country). Allen has to work a helluva a lot harder for his jokes these days (it’s significant that his best movie of the decade so far is not a comedy), 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 Woody that even a translator who spoke no English at all could’ve just assumed 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, now that I think about it, maybe the translator did it on purpose, to give Woody 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.

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