A pirate diary

DVD loot in Mexico City

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.

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