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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, December 11, 2004

entry arrow10:43 AM | The Good Pirate

There was that news on TV, a few months ago, of bulldozers crunching down a mountain of pirated VCDs and DVDs in an orgy of bureaucratic importance. Edu Manzano trying to be a hero. It was, we were told, a "government crackdown" on the evils of modern-day piracy -- not the Black Beard variety we know as staples of our youth's adventure stories, but of a digital sort.

Our modern pirates commander corporate galleons -- movie theaters in this case -- with the steady, unflinching aim of a hidden camera, or the clear digital ripping-off of DVD copying machines. They cart away treasures to appear, in the flea markets of Hong Kong or in that corner shop around your tsiangge, as bootleg copies of the latest Hollywood movies, often even way before its theatrical release in America. It is always amazing how up-to-date this underground can be.

I can tell you now, for example, what I think of Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions. Or Fran├žois Ozon's Swimming Pool. Or Billy Ray's Shattered Glass. Or Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven. Or Lars Von Triers' Dogville. Or Walter Salles' Central Station. Or Akira Kurosawa's Ran. Or Sophia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides. Or Takashi Miike's Audition.

You will not probably see these movies up on the silverscreen any time soon. But I, and so many others, have.

My pirate's hole lies not far from the heart of Dumaguete -- an unassuming little shop that sells, among other things, batik clothes, cellphone accessories, and whatnot. My pirate is a smiling man by the name of Jafar who greets me with the warmest smile, asks me how my week is, and recommends new titles for another weekend of movie-watching. For P90 per title, I have the world of entertainment in my hands.

But why do we insist on renting pirated DVDs? The quality is sometimes bad especially for new releases -- and it actually kills that one necessary ingredient of The Movie Experience: that fidelity and sensual rush of colors and sounds, and that vicarious thrill of being captive in the dark of an actual movie theater. Sometimes what we have come to expect from pirated films are its vocabulary of shaky handling of contraband camcorders, cropped pictures, unwelcome laugh tracks and commentaries of live theater audiences, and silhouettes of heads and bodies trailing unceremoniously across your view, dark dwarfs beneath an imposing bright screen. Piracy has killed suspension of disbelief in the movies, producing the truncated experience of watching a "movie" of a movie. Meta-film viewing, so to speak. (How very postmodern.)

But then again, if you are a movie lover like I am, you settle for crumbs when all that is available are crumbs. This is the only recourse to that other option of not being able to see any film at all. I've never seen Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge on the movie screen, for example. How could I? For a long time, we had no movie theaters in Dumaguete -- and Video City took too long in stocking its shelves. When movies are shown, they also become the centerpiece of everyone's pop cultural conversation. You would want, of course, to contribute to that conversation. "Hey, have you seen Fahrenheit 9/11?" the typical conversation goes. "It's a wonderful film, don't you think? It has given new life to the movie documentary, and shows how George W. Bush is a donkey. So what do you think?" You shudder from the eventual answer of "I have no idea." Ignorance is never bliss.

Sometimes, I still cling to old hopes: I still wait for the Video City "clear copy," firmly believing that Special Effects movies are better seen with their fidelity intact -- if not on the large screen, then at least on a clear, "original" copy.

The best years of my life studying film -- and becoming a film buff -- was in college: these were days spent borrowing pirated videotapes from some place called Good Luck Store. I was constantly amazed by the store's selection of non-commercial films -- obscure titles of cinematic gems such as David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey, Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's Smoke, Kevin Smith's Clerks, Larry Clark's Kids, Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, Steve James's Hoop Dreams, Robert Altman's The Player, Mina Shum's Double Happiness -- in other words, "art films" which nobody else except those in the know, rented. And they were of such excellent quality, too, as laser disc copies usually were. There was also the old Kwikpik Store, once a delightful hole-in-the-wall beside Don Atilano's, which had its own assortment of surprises, from Michael Apted's Moving the Mountain to Roman Polanski's Macbeth to Gregg Araki's The Doom Generation -- great titles now gone because of intellectual property diligence.

About five years ago, however, that blasted Video City came in, and Good Luck soon began selling off or destroying all of its pirated stuff because the owner got tired of the monthly raids. I spent close to P3,000 collecting all the favorite titles I could before they became food for the flames. Now, these films constitute the bulk of titles for my Film Appreciation classes. Without Good Luck, I dread the possibility of having to teach the aesthetics of cinematography or acting using Pretty Woman or Austin Powers.

Meanwhile, Video City flourishes. Is any of their titles any good? Most of the videos are well-made, but you can bet many are also bad knock-offs disguised as "originals." Like their copy of Blake Edwards's Breakfast at Tiffany's, for example, whose picture fidelity was so terrible (the colors became faint sepia) I had to resort to copying a better version of the film from Cinemax for my class on Truman Capote.

I teach Film Appreciation with pirated tapes. There is no other way if one would like to present a credible curriculum. Because where are the "original," rent-able copies of Peque Gallaga's Oro Plata Mata? Ishmael Bernal's Himala? Mike de Leon's Kisapmata? Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang? Can I go to any legit video store and ask the teller if they have Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern? Or Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together? Or Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon?

What I live for now, in the legit world of video renting, are good surprises unworthy of Video City. There are the rare days when I go into the store and get the shock of my life to find such acquisitions as Woody Allen's Sleeper, Gregg Araki's Splendor, Greg Berlanti's The Broken Hearts Club, Zhang Yimou's Not One Less, the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally..., Majid Majidi's The Children of Heaven, Jan Sverak's Kolya -- titles you do not, at all, associate with the predominant masa mentality of Video City. But then again, all too soon they are placed in the netherworld of the Special Interest Section -- and soon become the dinosaurs of the pick. Where, for example, is their copy of John Badham's Saturday Night Fever now? Or Dennis Hoppers's Easy Rider? Or even Ron Howard and George Lucas's Willow? "Gone," one of the clerks told me once. "We decided to put them out of our inventory." What?! Don't they know who John Travolta is?

Meanwhile, there are a thousand copies of another Judy Ann Santos inanity.

Piracy is never really a black and white issue. I abhor piracy when merited (especially when it comes to pirating local music or films -- since these industries, unlike that of Hollywood's, are struggling to stay alive), but I also love its audacity and its democratization of availability. All of us live with it, and probably benefit from it. I write this piece, for example, on a pirated Windows 98 software and a pirated set of Microsoft Office. I cannot afford an update, or a registered version in my hard drive -- not on my teacher's salary.

Following rules should never be a one-way trip. So I think of those government bulldozers again, and I think: You want us to follow rules? Then spruce up your services, you capitalists, and start catering to us with the very last of our demands. Like stocking up good titles on your shelves. Like lowering amusement taxes so we can have our movie theaters back again. Perhaps only then can we ever truly follow rules and laws.

In the meantime, I am going out to rent a pirated version of Jose Javier Reyes's Live Show. It's banned, remember? Absolutely can't rent that in Video City. Pirates have become our demi-gods.

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich