The Art of Bootleg DVDs

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a real DVD in China. By real, I mean legitimate – one actually produced by the company that owns the film, the sale of which will generate money for all the people involved in making the film according to the provisions of their various contracts.

Ha! That’s a good one.

In the store called Book City, which has three or four locations throughout Shenzhen, there is a DVD section which, presumably, carries official releases. They retail for anywhere from thirty renminbi to upwards of two hundred, which translates to between about five and thirty dollars.

Does anyone actually buy these? Or is it just for show? The selection at the various bootleg outlets – located on neighborhood side streets or in pedestrian malls a step below the fancier malls where Gap and Nike hawk their Chinese-made goods for import prices – is far better than at Book City. They’ve got everything. A few years ago I wrote about seeing The Water Diviner before it was even released in theaters. Subsequently, other leaked films like The Expendables 3 and The Interview (thanks Mr. Kim!) showed up in perfectly legit-looking sleeves, indistinguishable from the other legit-looking sleeves with all manner of alternate cover art and questionable credits.

None of which are actually legit. But perhaps they should be, because I don’t recall ever getting this good of a laugh at Book City, let alone any retail outlet in the U.S.

The bootleggers are pretty good at choosing the right pictures for the DVD sleeves. They also get the names of the stars right most of the time, though matching the actors’ names to the right photos is sometimes too much to ask. When we get to the credits, forget about it. Every other sleeve has some other film’s credits on the back. TITANIC. A Steven Spielberg Film. Starring Harrison Ford and Karen Allen.

And then there are the descriptions. While the Chinese descriptions are probably accurate (I wouldn’t know), the English is often pulled at random from a website and copy-pasted. Sometimes it’s from a good review and it kind of works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Of course, if you don’t want to risk using a negative review because you don’t speak English and don’t know what the writer is saying, you can use Chinglish instead.

Finally, even if you get everything else right, you have to be careful about which font you choose, as with this cover for the 2012 Hong Kong film Love in the (ahem…) Buff.

My Interview on Stark Truth Radio

I had a great conversation with Robert Stark and his co-host Pilleater on Robert’s podcast the other day. We talked about my book Paradise Theater and the background that led to my writing it, as well as different aspects of life in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and comparisons of East and West in culture and philosophy.

Stark Truth Radio is one of the most interesting and eclectic mixes of opinion and information from the fringes of politics, culture, and art, and it was a privilege to be on the show.

Check it out here:

Requiem for Corner Drugstores

Reading a book of interviews with the Beat writer William S. Burroughs. While I find his novels largely unreadable, especially his cut-up experiments of the 1960s, his interviews are often full of interesting observations and insights. For example, this passage from a 1979-1980 New Years Eve discussion in New York City:William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart

I’m well known in the drug store…. They always have anything I want. I wanted to buy a special kind of glue. You wouldn’t think you’d buy it in a drugstore, but they had it: Duco cement. They have a special kind of ball-point pen that only costs 59 cents, the only kind I use; they have stationery; it’s one of those drug-stores that does everything. And his wife is very much of a theatrical Spanish Dolores type, fairly good looking, a middle-aged woman who’s had a lot of sorrow but has dignity and a great presence. She says, ‘Oh, why didn’t you say the usual, Mr. Burroughs?’ Her husband was much older than she was…. He died shortly after that and I never saw him again…. A new pharmacist appeared and what the relation between him and her is at this point I don’t know. He knows everyone in the neighborhood. For example he’ll advise someone: ‘You need glasses. You’re entitled to them on your social security.’ He’s always instructing someone, telling them to do this or that…. It’s also a news exchange. There’d been a mugging and there was a report. Some woman got beaten up and she’s at the counter and they’re all commiserating and saying ‘two black boys.’ And the Patrone, grandiose and sad in a Latin way, experienced woman said, ‘Yes, those are the ones, those are the ones …’

I could easily envision this little pharmacy, because America used to be full of them. In the introduction to my book Paradise Theater, I mentioned Van’s Grocery in West Allis, which also had Van’s Pharmacy located on the other side of the parking lot. They had everything. Whenever we had to go there to fill a prescription, say for Amoxicillin – which I always loved the taste of, and my mom would have to stop me from consuming more than the regular dose – I would try to finagle an extra treat from among the aisles.

There was the toy aisle, with its assortment of toy guns, action figures, and other goodies for backyard playtime. The best thing I ever got from there was a slingshot – yes, those used to be in the toy department, not the adults-only, handle-with-extreme-caution sporting goods store – which mysteriously disappeared from my toy box after I had taken some pot shots at birds and squirrels, which thankfully missed.

Then there were the non-obvious treats, like the eye patch, which was sold for people who really needed one because of eye surgery or whatnot, but which I wanted because, of course, eye patches are just cool and make you look like a pirate or a criminal or something.

Van’s Pharmacy also had a small selection of VHS movie rentals, as many local drug stores and other small businesses did in those days. I can still remember the frightening cover images from 80s horror classics like Silent Night Deadly Night, Basket Case, and the Friday the 13th series, facing out on the shelves, looking out at the stationery aisle across from them.

Van’s closed down for good sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. First the grocery store gave way to the mega Pick N Save store down the road, and then the pharmacy closed a few years later.

At the same time I was going to Van’s as a kid, people in Milwaukee – the BIG CITY compared to Stallis – were going to Oriental Drugs on Farwell Avenue. The Oriental had a large lunch counter that stretched around the front of the building, and was a favorite hangout spot for all different types of people at all different times of day and night. The Violent Femmes supposedly were discovered while busking outside the place. I went there a few times in the late 80s when my father was dating an East Side girl who lived on Prospect Avenue.

Oriental Drugs closed in 1995. But fear not, there is a big Walgreens not far from there now. And another one further up the road. And more of them scattered all over town, and in virtually every other American town. Nowadays when I go home to visit my family, no matter where we are, we can always find a Walgreens nearby. They don’t have videos, but have those red dvd box rental things, at least for now, while some people still aren’t streaming absolutely everything. They probably have eye patches somewhere. But they don’t have a lunch counter like the Oriental had, and they sure as hell don’t have slingshots in the toy aisle.

The dull homogeneity of every single Walgreens I’ve ever been to makes me weep for the old days, when neighborhoods had unique corner drugstores, because they had unique characteristics … because they were real neighborhoods.

McAllister’s Pharmacy. Downtown West Allis, 1971. Photo credit: Milwaukee Public Library

HyperNormalisation and Hyperreality

Continuing our Baudrillardian theme this month, we here present the newest documentary by the BBC’s Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation. If there’s a better documentary filmmaker than Curtis working these days, I don’t know who it is.

HyperNormalisation was released in the fall of 2016, just before the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency. Curtis weaves a complex narrative showing the interconnectedness of, among other things, the rise of cyberspace and suicide bombing, alongside the politics of persuasion that Trump used to such great effectiveness in his campaign.

The Master Persuader

One of the most important commentators on the election has been Scott Adams, who analyzed Trump’s campaign style in terms of what Robert Cialdini calls persuasion. Cialdini literally wrote the book on persuasion back in the 1980s, and it has become a must-read classic among businesspeople and politicians. More recently, he published a kind of sequel, Pre-suasion.

Adams says that Donald Trump is quite simply “the best master persuader I have ever seen.” Adams also noted that Hillary Clinton’s “persuasion game” mysteriously went from nothing to high-grade in a short amount of time, when she suddenly stopped criticizing Trump’s policies in concrete terms and began instead to talk about him as “scary.” In other words, she stopped trying to appeal to the electorate’s rationality (always a questionable approach) and started to appeal to their raw, even subconscious, emotions. Adams wondered whether she hadn’t hired Cialdini as a consultant at this time.

Another author who, like Adams, both predicted Trump’s ascendancy and analyzed his approach in terms of psychology, is Mike Cernovich. His short book MAGA Mindset utilizes Carol Dweck’s concept of “mindset” and deduces Trump’s inner game based Trump’s own writings, as well as those of his early mentor and pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, who pioneered the concept of “positive thinking” in the 1950s.

Few people realize that Trump was raised attending Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, and is thus a product of New Thought, that peculiarly American religion which seems to be always available for repackaging into a new bestselling book every decade or so, from William Walker Atkinson to Peale and on to Rhonda Byrne in more recent times. The gist of the sales pitch – for, as I previously wrote, New Thought seems to be above all else a pyramid scheme – is that people can create their own reality.

Both Adams and Cernovich noted many times that Donald Trump is a master of “reframing” events to make them seem more favorable to himself. There’s no question that this is true, and that one has to understand this in order to understand how Trump succeeded against the combined efforts of the media, Hollywood, the entire Democratic Party, and even much of the Republican Party. However, what allows both Adams and Cernovich to admire Trump as much as they do is that both authors seem to have embraced postmodernism as their way of seeing the world.

The Logic of Simulation and the Vertigo of Interpretation

Scott Adams lays out his worldview in his How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It’s an excellent book, filled with a lot of practical and useful advice about business and life in general. Adams says, echoing William Burroughs, that human beings are basically “moist robots.” We think we have free will and autonomous personalities, but really, we are just programmed by our surroundings. The upside, if it can be called that, is that we can take some of this programming upon ourselves, with psycho-cybernetic tools like affirmations, and biochemical tools like nutritional supplements and controlled diets, and thus, we can control some of our reality.

Mike Cernovich also advocates self-programming in his best-selling Gorilla Mindset, another worthwhile book filled with a lot of good advice about self-improvement and what the ancient Greeks called σωφροσύνη. But whereas Greek philosophy culminated in the Aristotelian view of the real world and the distinction between truth and falsehood, Cernovich, in a profile piece for The New Yorker, said:

“Look, I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative.” He smiled. “I don’t seem like a guy who reads Lacan, do I?”

It would seem that Nietzsche was right, and the future belongs to those who embrace the esoteric message of the legendary Hassan i Sabbah that “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”

That is certainly one of the accusations being leveled at Donald Trump, with his history of making questionable and sensational claims, such as that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.A., or that Ted Cruz’s father may have been involved with Lee Harvey Oswald. But if nothing is true anyway, then why would it not be permissible to make such claims, especially when his opponents operate according to the same principle, using all manner of lies and innuendo to discredit the President? What is the morality of fighting lies with lies? Or, if reality is just a narrative, a mental construct, then are they still lies, or are they just impositions of will upon life, like affirmations?

In 1981’s Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard noted that the ambiguity of events like the terrorist bombings in Italy – which were unsolved crimes, of unknown origin, and thus simultaneously blamed on both the left and the right – allowed them to be interpreted in multiple ways at once.

“Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to discredit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation. That is, we are in the logic of simulation, which no longer has anything to do with a logic of facts and an order of reason.”

As Mike Cernovich said in the aforementioned article, “Logic is pointless.” And indeed, who would argue that he is wrong, when our whole political system demonstrates, each and every day, that logic is powerless against the rising tide of irrational emotion?

I remember watching the debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. Gore was clearly a man with a superior command of facts. Yet Bush was able to get the better of him, not by superior argumentation, but by being more human, more likable. It was like the argument between Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club.

Bender, did you know that without trigonometry, there’d be no engineering?

Without lamps, there’d be no light.

It’s not about who’s right, it’s about who’s cool and who’s just a nerd. A man with too many facts appears “wooden,” as they all said about Gore (lest anyone think that Trump invented the art of the one-word deadly epithet). In earlier times, they might have said “robotic,” when that word still brought to mind the stilted, boxy, metallic beings of old science fiction films. But today, with the advent of artificial intelligence and cyborg chic, it is the new man who is the “moist robot,” the enlightened self-programmer who isn’t concerned with facts but rather with creating his own reality, while those who still cling to notions of truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, right and wrong, reveal themselves to be merely human, all-too-human, antiquated relics of a dead age.

A longtime friend back in the U.S. wrote to me, exasperated, and said, “What does one believe/adhere to anymore?!!? I can’t remember a time when ‘truth’ was so subjective. Have ‘facts’ as we knew them become extinct?”

I wrote back to him with some links to Scott Adams’ articles about Trump’s powers of persuasion and the view of reality that they entail. But it was merely an offering of explanation, and not consolation. While I recognize the value and importance of the insights offered by the persuasionists, I remain skeptical of the greater worldview that they seem to present. My feeling – and perhaps that’s all it is – is that reality, however elusive it may be, is not quite as unreal as adherents of New Thought or psycho-cybernetics would have us believe. And perhaps reality, rather than having “disappeared” as Baudrillard claimed, is merely hiding in wait, plotting its return, or its revenge.