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.

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.

Canto-Pop Madness!

Canto-Pop Madness!

Teddy Robin Kwan performing in Alex Cheung’s New Wave cinema classic Cops and Robbers:

“To maintain peace, exterminate evil.” Awesomeness.

Sam Hui’s working-class anthem from his 1976 film The Private Eyes:

And finally, my favorite Hong Kong song of all-time, Diana Chang’s nineteen-fifty-something version of “Mambo Italiano,” re-worked as an ode to steamed pork buns:

Jia Zhangke, The Man With His Fingers on the Pulse of China

I was first introduced to Jia Zhangke a few years ago when I chanced to purchase a quasi-legit dvd of his 2013 film A Touch of Sin (天注定 tiān zhù dìng) from one of the street shops in Dongmen Plaza.  I’ve seen quite a few Chinese movies in my four years here in Shenzhen, and for the most part I’ve been unimpressed – with an honorable exception going to the Hong Kong cinema of the 1970s and 80s, which I absolutely love, though for very different reasons.

A Touch of Sin is the Taxi Driver of Chinese cinema, which would make Jia Zhangke its Martin Scorcese.  If that seems like high praise, it might actually not be high enough.  In his heyday, Scorcese had his fingers on the pulse of New York City – Jia has his fingers on the pulse of his entire country.

Most of Chinese cinema is marked by fantastic unreality.  That’s not necessarily a problem, and in fact, can even be a virtue.  If I have to choose between cheesy heroism with a nationalist subtext, and the nihilistic, vapid degeneracy of much of contemporary American cinema, I’ll take the former, thank you very much.  But one can only take so much superpower kung fu and Japan-bashing at one time.

By contrast, A Touch of Sin, and pretty much all of Jia’s other films, are almost straight cinéma vérité. I have never seen the look and feel of 21st century China, both its urban environments and its countrysides, captured better than in Jia’s films.  His characters – none of whom are played by established actors, though some have become more well-known because of his films – are entirely realistic, and their life stories mirror the lives of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people in this rapidly-changing country.

The four stories woven together in A Touch of Sin were all inspired by real people and events.  Most will be unknown to Westerners, with the possible exception of the suicides at Foxconn, where iPhones are made – but that won’t matter.  The characters and stories are emblematic of deep problems in Chinese society, such as the systemic corruption which President Xi Jinping has targeted in recent years.  Also dealt with are the problems of migrant workers from the countryside who come into China’s cities and must struggle to earn their living and survive in an unfamiliar environment.  Finally, the film also touches on relations between men and women in a society in which concubinage and prostitution are both long-standing traditions.

Jia’s most recent film is 2015’s Mountains May Depart (山河故人 shānhé gùrén).  While its reviews have not been quite as favorable as A Touch of Sin‘s, I frankly fail to see why.  It is every bit as thoughtful and thought-provoking, and every bit as relevant to a discussion of the complexities of life in contemporary China.  Though lacking the violence of its predecessor, the problem it addresses is arguably even more fundamental than those in A Touch of Sin – the dissolution of the family.

Mountains May Depart tells the story of one Chinese family, in three different blocks of time.  In the first, which takes place in 1999, the main character, played by Jia’s muse and wife Zhao Tao, faces an archetypal choice between love and money.  In the second and third acts, she must live with the consequences of her choice.

Divorce, once a rarity in Chinese society due to the ancient cult of the family, has become increasingly commonplace, especially among the wealthy and middle-class, for whom it seems to be simply another aspect of being modern and cosmopolitan.  But the material abundance being enjoyed by the nouveaux riche isn’t always able to act as a buffer against the consequences of dehumanized behavior in a world devoid of values.

Another problem that China faces is the number of its wealthy citizens who are leaving, or who want to.  I recall a conversation between two Chinese people that I was privy to.  One, a young woman, had just returned from her first trip to America, while the other, an older woman, had been there several times in the past.  The older woman said to the younger, “Doesn’t it make you feel like we live in a garbage dump?”  She was in the process of sending her daughter off to school in Canada, and was making plans to expatriate her entire family to there or the U.S.

The third act of the film is set in 2025 and contains some interesting speculations about the future.  It is set in Australia, where a part of the family has relocated, as indeed many Chinese already have.

While Jia’s films are distinctly Chinese, as is their subject matter, it is precisely in their intimate specificity that they transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries and become deeply meaningful stories that anyone can relate to.

In English, “to have one’s finger on the pulse” of something means to have a good understanding of it, or be aware of its most recent developments as they happen.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, pulse diagnosis is a fine art which allows a skilled practitioner to diagnose the ills of the entire body, by simply feeling the pulse of the radial artery at the wrist.  I have experienced this myself, and can verify that someone skilled in the art can have remarkable insight into a person’s state of health.

New Yorker film critic Richard Brody called Jia Zhangke simply “one of the best and most important directors in the world” today.  He’s not wrong.

Jia’s other films include:

The Pickpocket (小武 xiǎo wǔ) 1997
Platform (站台 zhàntái) 2000
Unknown Pleasures (任逍遙 rèn xiāo yáo) 2002
The World (世界 shìjiè) 2004
Still Life (三峡好人 sānxiá hǎorén) 2006
24 City (二十四城记 èr shí sì chéng jì) 2008

The JFK Assassination, 52 Years On

John_F_Kennedy_Official_PortraitToday is the 52nd anniversary of the murder of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. I’ve had in interest in “the case,” as it’s called by the afflicted, for over twenty years now, ever since I saw Oliver Stone’s film as a teenager. And though I haven’t been actively pursuing this obsession for quite a while, every year around this time my interest gets piqued by some new book or article or tv special, and I hear that radio man’s voice, trapped in time repeating endlessly like Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence:

It appears as though something has happened in the motorcade route. Something, I repeat, HAS HAPPENED in the motorcade route.

There have been thousands of books written about the case, and there will probably be thousands more in just the next few years, since self-publishing technology seems to be a perfect fit for the kind of guy who wants to propound a theory about the Kennedy assassination. I myself have probably read over a hundred books on the subject. I don’t know what it is – I guess you have to be the sort of person who’s drawn to puzzles. When I saw David Fincher’s Zodiac, I started tracking down books about that case as well, so maybe it’s just in the genes.

It would be impossible to give anything like a comprehensive overview of all the mysteries, disputed facts and competing theories in the case. And I could easily write a tongue-in-cheek article profiling all the ridiculous theories that have been put forth over the years, such as that the limo driver turned around and shot JFK in the head with a revolver, or that the man holding the umbrella on the roadside was actually holding a CIA dart gun which he used to inflict Kennedy’s throat wound. But the problem with laughing at the nonsense conspiracy theories is that it tends to carry over into a blanket dismissal of the more credible evidence that something more than just one lone nut with a rifle killed the President that day.

One’s interpretation of what evidence is credible and what evidence is not is inevitably subjective, to a degree. This is compounded by two other factors. First, the crime was never properly investigated. One of the earliest and most tenacious researchers, the late Harold Weisberg, made this point again and again: all the institutions that should have functioned to either prevent or properly investigate a crime like this failed. All of them. We now know that, within hours of the killing, federal authorities were dealing with rumors and stories suggestive of a communist conspiracy involving either Cuba or the Soviet Union. Lyndon Johnson made the decision – either in good faith or bad – that this event should not be the beginning of an all-out nuclear war, and so the official story should be that Oswald did it alone with no help from anyone, regardless of what the truth may be.

But we also now know that most of the early evidence suggesting a communist conspiracy was bogus. Some of it was made up post facto by anti-Castro people trying to use the assassination for their own political purposes. Much more nefariously, some of it was placed in Oswald’s CIA file only weeks before the assassination, so that it would be there waiting when the time came.

The second problem we encounter in trying to evaluate all the conflicting data in the JFK case is that we are dealing with the world of espionage, i.e., lying. I can’t recall where I read it, but a researcher was talking to an intelligence guy about the case, and the agent said, “The problem with people like you is that you believe what you read in government documents.”  The “craft of intelligence,” as Allen Dulles called it, is a world of smoke and mirrors, of deceit and dissimulation.  The notion that everything which appears in CIA files should be taken at face value is beyond ridiculous.  When the Warren Commission asked CIA director John McCone if Lee Harvey Oswald had ever had any relationship with the agency, McCone said something like, ‘Well, we checked all our files and we have no record of any such thing.’  Well, then, that clears that up, now doesn’t it?

A lot of conspiracy theories focus on the actual shooting, and argue that there had to be more than one rifleman.  Defenders of the lone assassin theory have responded with some pretty impressive rebuttals of those theories.  It would seem that either the evidence we have is legit and Oswald really did shoot Kennedy all by himself, or else a lot of that evidence is fake, in which case who the hell knows what really happened.  But regardless of which scenario is the truthful one, the strongest evidence for conspiracy has not come from a ballistics analysis, but from an analysis of the person of Lee Harvey Oswald.

For a twenty-four year old loser and loner, the guy sure got around.  He joined the Marine Corps at age 17.  While serving, he learned to speak and read Russian.  Then he ostensibly left the Marines and defected to the Soviet Union.  Incidentally (and this gives me a way to make this post somehow relevant to a blog that’s supposed to be about China) I was reading the recent book by China expert Michael Pillsbury called The Hundred-Year Marathon and came across this passage:

From 1960 to 1962, thousands of pages of classified Soviet documents had been secretly photographed with a Minox camera in a series of operations that the CIA called IRON BARK.

It just so happens that this is the exact time period that Oswald was in Russia, and it just so happens that a Minox spy camera was among his possessions after the assassination.  That’s not proof, but it is suggestive.

When Oswald came back from Russia, he risked being prosecuted as a traitor.  But he wasn’t.  The State Department allowed him to bring back his new Russian bride (this was back before you could order them through the mail, though you could order firearms that way, as Oswald is alleged to have done) and they even lent them traveling money.  The only way this makes sense is in one of the following scenarios: Either Oswald wasn’t a real defector and so his handlers made sure he wasn’t prosecuted; or he was a real defector, and so either the FBI or the CIA decided to hold that over his head and use him for their own purposes after his return.

Some of the most important evidence to emerge in recent years concerns the Cuban groups that Oswald was involved with before the assassination and their relationships with the FBI and CIA.  In the summer of 1963, Oswald was running around in New Orleans making a big scene with his one-man Fair Play for Cuba Committee.  Professor David Kaiser argues that this may have been part of a COINTELPRO operation designed to discredit the FPCC, which it certainly did whether Oswald intended to or not.

At the same time, Oswald was also involved with an anti-Castro group called the DRE – Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil.  One of the most important pieces of evidence to emerge in recent years concerns the CIA agent who was in charge of the DRE, his role in the assassination investigation, and possibly his role in the assassination itself.  Journalist Jefferson Morley should have gotten high honors for his work on this story.  But it’s a curious truth of the world of journalism that anyone who goes near the JFK assassination gets decanted from polite society.

Another strong piece of evidence pointing to a conspiracy is the testimony of Antonio Veciana, the leader of another anti-Castro group, which was also directed by the CIA.  Veciana testified that he saw Oswald in September, 1963 meeting with Veciana’s CIA handler, whom he knew by the name of Maurice Bishop.  Investigator Gaeton Fonzi – who recently had the distinction of being posthumously ripped off by Bill O’Reilly – looked into Veciana’s story and developed a very strong suspicion that “Maurice Bishop” was none other than CIA agent David Atlee Phillips.  Veciana, perhaps out of fear or perhaps out of respect for his former ally, wouldn’t confirm the identification – until last year.  In another story that should have gotten way more attention than it did – which was none – Veciana made an extensive statement on the case, which can be seen here.  The late Mr. Fonzi’s memoir of his experience working for the House Select Committee on Assassinations is essential reading.

If you’ve come this far, then you seem to have some interest in “the case.”  Maybe you had it before, or maybe I’m the one that’s got you started.  Regardless, I’ll close this post with a list of recommended reading and viewing, in addition to what’s already been mentioned.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Not In Your Lifetime by Anthony Summers – Probably the single best overview of the case, which admirably balances skepticism and open-mindedness.

Oswald and the CIA by John Newman – An exhaustive study of Oswald’s CIA files and an exploration of his possible relationship with the agency, written by a former military intelligence analyst who knows his way around the National Archives.  Newman eventually concluded that James Jesus Angleton – a fascinating character who was brilliantly portrayed by Michael Keaton – was very likely responsible for manipulating Oswald’s CIA file in the weeks before the assassination.

Deep Politics and the Death of JFK by Peter Dale Scott – A serious, scholarly study that is not for beginners.  Professor Scott is the master of exploring the web of connections that exists below the surface of the everyday divisions between the government, organized crime, corporate power, paramilitary groups, and others whose actions have a definite impact on American and global politics.  Kevin Costner playing Jim Garrison in JFK says that to study the Kennedy assassination is to go “through the looking glass,” where black is white and white is black.  There is probably no better guide to that weird world of espionage and intrigue than Professor Scott.

JFK by Oliver Stone – The key to appreciating Stone’s film for what it is lies in his statement that he was engaging in myth-making, creating a counter-myth to the lone assassin myth.  The film can be criticized for taking liberties with the facts of the case, or for making a hero of controversial figure Jim Garrison, but its great strength is its portrayal of the assassination and Garrison’s ill-fated investigation as a Shakepearean tragedy, which touched a very deep nerve in the American people, and left a wound which arguably has never really healed.