Panamanians and Piracy
So, after a little less than 4 years I finally worked up the stamina to take out a Blockbuster Video membership card. It might be a dying horse in the States but over here it’s still alive and kickin’… at least for the time-being. The reason why I decided to fold at the feet of the video rental corporations? Key-K gave me the tip many a month ago of one Blockbuster Video that was different than the others… one where I would find treasures I never thought would exist inside a family-friendly establishment dedicated to home release cinematic endeavors. He hyped the living cojones out of me so I decided to go an by Pai Mei’s beard, I almost fell on my ass when I saw it: a whole corner of the place dedicated exclusively to independent film. And I’m not talking about the mainstream, crowd-pleasing, Napoleon Dynamite fuckers either but stuff like the Criterion Collection editions of Akira Kurosawa movies. The entire catalog of Alfred Hitchcock. Spanish films, French films, German films, really out-there en vanguarde shit that only people who are worth half their weight in knowledge would possibly know about. They had Infernal Affairs. Brazil. Fuck, they had God damn AKIRA. I was sold, I wanted to take the corner home right there and then…. but upon going to the less-than-amused clerk I wanted to sign up to the establishment so I could rent myself some Kurosawa goodness then the restrictions came. I’ve been told that in Canada, for example, all you need to do to get a video rental membership is ask. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is a whole other story: first, I need to have with me the most recent water/light/phone bill. Having a credit card is always a plus, as well as 4 numbers where I could be localized. They’ll check at least the home phone right then and there, even asking me to call and tell whoever’s there to pick up the home phone because Blockbuster Video is going to call to check that there are people living there… yes, the logic of this escapes me as well. After all of this they’d type in your info and then maybe, perhaps who knows when you’ll get the membership card and will be able to rent the latest in movies on home video. That whole process kind of turned me off for months (years, actually) until last night, when I set myself the goal to suck it up and go over there (the Blockbuster Video I speak of is the one in Calle 50, for those in the know) so I can get my membership and start doing some serious movie watching. I picked out the light bill from the fridge magnet and went off at 10PM, knowing that they close at 11PM as part of my strategy to see if I could use the clerks primal desire to go home in order for me to get my membership a lot sooner than I actually anticipated… I was prepared for the worst though. I was ready… mind and soul in unison, brought together by the common threat of idiotic paperwork. I was out of there 40 minutes in, and if it weren’t for 2SXC keeping me company I would’ve surely punched somebody and/or would have bought a DVD from the semi-used titles isle.
The business of video sales/rentals has been booming these past few years and I’m absolutely glad that so many new places are opening that are brining new, innovative stuff to the table (I’m looking at you, Panama DVD) and what’s best of the whole thing is that if there’s one thing we as Panamanians aren’t anal about is our movie watching habits. Of course, there’s still the larger group in the pie chart that likes their movies for the same reason they like the things they do and that’s because someone else told them it was cool and they, in fact, have no opinion of they’re own but now there’s a whole load full of other options for people like me who are looking for more challenging stories on celluloid… and thank Marley that electronics stores are aware of it. I have a Region Free DVD player that plays both XVID and DIVX, bought in one of the country’s most famous electronics stores (that would be Multimax) for $49.99. 50 bucks and I can watch all of the Regions and downloaded anime/porn/shows I want. The player has all the bells and whistles too, and if I were to fork 50 bucks more I’d have home theater speakers blowing the socks off my feet… one of the selling point of Panamanian electronic stores is the ability of the players they sell of being able to play DVDs from all corners of the globe but most people don’t care since what they usually want to watch is the popular stuff you find at your mainstream retail chains and what not; that’s fine and dandy, but when you’re someone like me who likes a Korean movie 10 times more than most American ones then you have to pay attention to such things. It’s not every day that you run into a Region 3 DVD at Costco though, so the advertisements on the feature are downplayed since it doesn’t mean much to most people anyway… Panamanians are like most people that way, in the sense that they don’t want to understand why or how something works as long as it does, and I attribute it to the Panamanian’s uncanny ability to be lazy and conformist not only refusing to document himself on a matter that can either bring benefits or disgrace, and no matter what choice is made the Panamanian will just go ahead and take it up the ass, complaining how he doesn’t deserved to get fucked in the first place. Upon reading that last statement and realizing that he brings it all up on himself, though… yes, Panamanian, you do in fact deserved to be fucked up the ass for it.
So, back in 1997 I got myself a PlayStation. There was a booming video game market rearing it’s 32-bit head and since I’m a game whore I wanted Sony’s new innovation which in just a little over two years dethroned Nintendo as the industry leader. I was perplexed, confused and downright serious as to what this frickin’ thing could do. There will be some of you who will remember this place if you’ve lived in Panama long enough but there was an Asian fellow who had started this video game store/play place called “Game Universe.” It was in Plaza Concordia for those who know where that is, and to throw you even farther back into the loop I remember that Laser Shots was still open there… go figure. Anyway, I went there because Smoth had told me that they sold special PlayStations with 2 controllers and a game of my choice for $200 and at first I thought it was somewhat of a wad of cash (even though I didn’t manage currency back then since I was 12, but my dad was and still is a technology whore and even though he won’t admit it he was almost as curious as I was over this thing) so I was somewhat hesitant; this is the part in the story-within-a-story that the pebble of wisdom rained down my top-heavy: this was a magic PlayStation. With this PlayStation, I could go to Game Universe and buy any game I wanted, from the ones I drooled over when I read PSM: The PlayStation Magazine to crazy Japanese ones I had never heard of for $10 dollars each. Ten. Dollars. Each. When most of my active-gamer life was spent going to the best toy store at the time (Felix B. Maduro, named after what I can only assume is Felix the Cat’s Latin American cousin) and buy Genesis and SNES cartridges for $80-$100 and looking at the new PlayStations at $300 and the “next gen games” such as “WipeOut,” “Twisted Metal” and “TohShinDen” going for 50 bucks a pop, the proposition felt a lot more enticing so that Saturday morning after Summer School my dad and I bought my one-and-only PlayStation, with “Rival Schools” as my first game. I absolutely loved that game, an arcade style fighter from Capcom, the people famous for practically inventing the fighting game genre as we know with a little title called “Street Fighter.” Maybe you’ve heard of it. When I punched the living shit out of Rival Schools I saved up my recently granted allowance money and bought another fighter, looking for the most Japanese, whacked out games I could find… all of them for 10 bucks. So who cares if the games didn’t come with instruction booklets and didn’t have DVD cases, opting instead for clear plastic CD cases? Hell I didn’t even care that the covers to the case where the cover and back art looked like they were printed with my 5 year old printer and that the readable parts of the discs didn’t have the copy-protection black color, instead a dubious clear green one? They were 10 bucks, man. My life was bliss for years to come, setting in stone what my policy for entertainment media: if I like it enough, I’ll buy a legit copy. If not, then hell… it was only 10 bucks anyway. From what I understand the business is still going strong, passing over to the now-at-the-end-of-its-rope current generation of XBoxes and PlayStation 2’s. After my discovery of how much stuff you can do and get over the Internet I never looked back to retail so I wouldn’t be able to tell you how things are over on that front, yet I do remember that they were busted for selling pirated goods when they garnered enough notoriety for their business model, a new one in Panama. $1.50 an hour to play the PSOne, Dreamcast, N64 or other system with the game of your choice, and if you liked it enough it could be yours for $10 bucks if you bought your system with them… if not, it was $50. This wasn’t only with games, though; my video rental place at the time (yes, I did use to have a video store I went to but it went belly-up after it was discovered that some of the movies they had weren’t necessarily legit) was also in on it, and with the discovery of the life-altering MP3 and Napster people would be burning downloaded songs off the Internet left and right. When I got in on the piracy soul train I realized what all the fuss with Game Universe was about and rather than reject it, I accepted it; truth is that stuff is too expensive. It was expensive then, and it sure as hell is expensive now. Games for 60 bucks, with no returns? Hell, talk about a leap of faith, there. I’d say the same thing about movies but that’s not really a problem here since a normal movie ticket is $3.99 and $2 on Wednesdays no matter where you go, with all the bells and whistles of theater chains in the U.S… yet when you’re at a traffic light street vendors will not only try to sell you candy, prepaid cell phone cards and whatever else they can get their hands on but they’ll also sell you pirated movies, straight from the Internet to the palm of your hand for 5 bucks or so. Hell, they even have porn. If I were to give you ladies and gentlemen a word of advice on these movies they try to sell you on the street, it would be to not get them. That’s sacrilege: even if bootleg movie technology has come a long way in terms of making the picture and sound quality better so that the difference between a legit DVD copy and theirs is as seamless as possible there’s nothing like going with a crowd and enjoying a good movie, let alone and buying a DVD full of extras and insight. Music, though? Another story entirely.
I have a t-shirt that, if we’ve hung out long enough you might’ve seen before. It’s black and it reads in very clear letters: “I steal music from the Internet.” Whenever there’s a concert I go to I make sure I take it. It’s not so much a Panama thing as it is a global thing now, and since the lines of what’s right or wrong are still blurry and what’s worse, that I have to fork out $17 of a music artist or band whose 1 song I like only to be disappointed by the utter shit that came along with it are just a couple of reasons why I haven’t payed for an album in years. Come get me, assholes. Even iTunes is overtly restrictive, and since Panama is always at least 3 years behind on everything trendy there hasn’t been that Internet boom yet to warrant a service such as iTunes or whatever to take wing. I’d love it if there was a system set up where I could buy music without feeling like I’m getting a prostate exam, but if in America it hasn’t happened yet it’ll start to snow in Panama before that happens… the concept of the “mall” as we currently know it was introduced 3 years ago, for crying out loud! But of course, we have Panamanian sensibilities thrown into that mix just like we like to do with every foreign influence we receive just so that we can call it ours and that, sadly, is where the connecting thread between malls and piracy is exposed… the knock-offs.
At the moment there are 3 major malls in Panama: Albrook Mall, Multicentro and Multiplaza. You can find cheap goods in all three, even Multiplaza which looks like the epitome of industrialism, kind of like the mall in either “Dawn of the Dead.” Of course, the knockoffs in Multiplaza are a little more masked but in Multicentro they’re easier to spot… the mecca is Albrook Mall though, and not surprisingly is also the most visited during the weekends… why? Because with $20 you can come out of there with a whole new wardrobe. I’m talking pants, tees, buttoned shirts, underwear, shoes… you name it. I’ve bought awesome pants at $2 dollars there. Shirts at $3 or so. It’s ridiculous, and even though they’re not as durable as say Kenneth Cole or whatever’s trendy it establishes the theory that in Panama nobody really gives a shit what you wear as long as it looks good on you and I can live with that shallow realization just fine. A lot of Panamanians are the type that want to give out an image of something they really aren’t, and if they can save a few bucks while doing then it’s by all means welcomed… and I can tell you first-hand that the quality of the clothes is above average; I’ve bought buttoned shirts from Albrook almost 3 years ago and I can still wear them no sweat. This can be said about most pirate goods that can be obtained quite easily in Panama for an affordable price and, in most cases, the quality is so unbelievable that you won’t know the difference until you notice there’s an extra “M” in the Puma track pants you have bought there for $5.99.