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Category Archives: Essays

The Possibility of Parallel Realities in TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN

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Almost everyone I know who is closely watching the astonishing third season of Twin Peaks agrees by now that the chronology of the scenes set in the town of Twin Peaks itself is far more scrambled than the chronology of the show’s other narratives set outside of Twin Peaks (see my updated timeline for examples). A lot of commentators, including me, believe that this non-linearity is deliberate on the part of the show’s creators, David Lynch and Mark Frost, and that it relates to their desire to further explore the kind of time/space paradoxes that have always been central to both the show and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Annie Blackburn appearing to Laura Palmer in a dream and conveying information about Dale Cooper before his arrival in town being perhaps the most prominent example). While puzzling over the current season’s tricky chronology – specifically the way two different episodes depict separate scenes of Bobby Briggs that appear to be occurring in the Double R Diner on what seems like the same night (one involving him interacting with Shelly and Becky, the other involving him interacting with Big Ed and Norma) – an idea struck me: what if, instead of a jumbled timeline, the town of Twin Peaks and its residents exist simultaneously in two separate realities? And what if David Lynch is freely cutting back and forth between these parallel realities without giving viewers any clear or comforting indication of when we are seeing what I’ll call “Reality A” vs. when we are seeing what I’ll call “Reality B?”

The most solid evidence in favor of this theory can be found at the end of Part Seven. In one of the show’s most baffling moments to date, a young man identified in the credits as “Bing” bursts into the Double R Diner and excitedly blurts out the question “Has anybody seen Billy?” before turning and running back outside. This action happens over a series of wide shots taken from the back of the diner that are interrupted by medium shots of Norma sitting in a booth and looking up from her paperwork, seemingly in response to the commotion caused by Bing. Interestingly, the dozens of customers populating the diner are completely different from one wide shot to the next – even though no time appears to elapse over the straight cuts that separate them. Some cynical viewers have suggested that the use of shots featuring different extras is a mere “continuity error.” Others think the sense of temporal dislocation imparted by these cuts is intentional on Lynch’s part but cannot agree on the purpose of this bizarre editing scheme. Could it be that this scene is the key to understanding that Lynch is explicitly juxtaposing two different realities – where waitresses Shelly and Heidi are working the same shift but where their customers are totally different in each? Adding to the confusion, the scene ends with Bing, who we already saw exit the diner, walk up to the cash register to pay his tab. So, let’s say that in Reality A, a man named Billy is missing in the town of Twin Peaks and that his friend Bing is frantically looking for him. In Reality B, Billy is not missing and his friend Bing is enjoying a leisurely meal at the Double R Diner. You can watch the scene in its entirety here.

In Parts 12 and 13, the beloved character Audrey Horne made her long awaited reappearance on the show in two exceptionally dreamlike scenes. In both, she bitterly argues with her husband, Charlie, about the fact that her boyfriend, Billy, has been missing for two days. Audrey begs Charlie to escort her to the Roadhouse in order to help her look for Billy but both scenes end on a curious note of irresolution as Audrey seems almost physically incapable of leaving her home. Many viewers have speculated that the “real” Audrey is either still in a coma (caused by the bank explosion at the end of season two) and that these scenes are her dreams as she lies unconscious in a hospital bed, or that Audrey is inside some kind of mental hospital and that her “husband” in these scenes is actually a psychiatrist engaging her in a form of therapeutic role play. Both of these theories make sense: there is no technology in Charlie’s home office more recent than 1989 (when Audrey went into a coma) and, in a line of dialogue reminiscent of something Ben Kingsley says at the end of Shutter Island, Charlie at one point ominously threatens to “end” Audrey’s “story.” The problem with these theories, however, is that Audrey seems to have knowledge of events taking place in town that we have seen independently of her (e.g., the fact that someone named Billy has been missing for “two days,” and, if we are to further assume that Billy is the “farmer” interviewed by Deputy Andy in Part 7, that his truck was both stolen and returned prior to his disappearance).

The possibility of multiple realities reconciles this contradiction somewhat: could it be that Audrey is stuck in a loveless marriage to Charlie and having an affair with Billy in Reality A but that she is in a coma in Calhoun Memorial Hospital in Reality B? Could the empathetic Audrey of Reality A somehow sense that another version of herself is in a coma in a parallel reality? This would explain why, distraught, she tells Charlie that she feels like she’s “someone else” and “somewhere else.” Could this also be why Big Ed seems to react to the fact that his reflection in a window at the end of Part 13 is out of synch with his actions? Could the Big Ed of one reality be glimpsing a version of himself in another reality? Could the weirdness in Sarah Palmer’s home, including the strange looping of a boxing match on her television set near the end of Part 13, indicate that she is somehow trapped “between two worlds?” Finally, might this theory also explain the discrepancies between Mark Frost’s Secret History of Twin Peaks novel and the events of the show’s first two seasons (notably concerning the death of Norma’s mother and the fact that there are two different Miss Twin Peaks pageant winners)? While I’m not 100% sold on this idea, I find it intriguing to think about. Future episodes (and further close viewing) should bring clarity.

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The Organization of Space in The Conjuring 2, Three and Green Room

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It’s a bit too long and I never again want to see a horror movie that climaxes with “demonologists” wielding crucifixes and reciting bible verses in Latin but I still enjoyed the hell out of The Conjuring 2, a sequel that is far better than it has any right to be. Not as terrifying as the first (there is nothing to match the creepiness of that film’s Annabelle prologue nor the instant-classic “clap scene”), it nonetheless strikes an appealing balance between the goofy and the scary. The best sequence is the one in which Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) croons Elvis’ version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to a group of children while accompanying himself on finger-picked acoustic guitar. It may be the least essential scene on the level of story but it makes me indescribably happy because it’s so old-fashioned and so much like something out of a (non-musical) Hollywood movie of the 1940s or 1950s. As with similar moments involving Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo or the Sons of the Pioneers in John Ford’s Rio Grande, the narrative here stops completely cold so that someone can simply sing a song — in its entirety. It’s also the scene that best exemplifies the surprisingly warm-hearted tone of The Conjuring 2, an ostensible horror/thriller that, much more than its predecessor, makes the unusual decision to foreground the love story between its married protagonists. This, and the urban, working-class London setting — so different from the rural Rhode Island farmhouse of the first movie — ensure that director James Wan is able to produce something that feels aesthetically fresh even while he sticks closely to a familiar narrative playbook.

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The mostly respectful reviews of The Conjuring 2 have predictably focused on the literary virtues of story and character, with the odd stray remark praising the movie’s elaborate displays of “moving camera.” While the camera movement is indeed masterful, I’d argue that it’s Wan’s mise-en-scene (that slippery term denoting how a director stages events for the camera) that truly impresses. No matter how silly his scripts might be (and this is the first feature on which Wan has taken a co-writing credit), this motherfucker knows how to organize space: he always takes great care to visually lay out the interiors of his locations — usually through tracking shots and crane shots in which the camera prowls, cat-like, through hallways and up and down staircases — so that viewers completely understand where each room is in relation to every other room. Wan then uses the viewer’s knowledge of the architectural layout of the space to build anticipation and tighten the narrative screws. A case in point is a scene involving a tent made out of blankets that is ominously positioned at the end of a long hallway. Wan puts the camera in a child’s bedroom and keeps the tent in frame but out-of-focus through an open door in the background, generating an incredible amount of suspense over what purpose the tent may hold within the narrative. Even better, he composes this shot, Polanski-like, so that only half of the tent can be seen in the frame. At the screening I attended, viewers were visibly trying to crane their necks around the frame of the bedroom door onscreen. Wan, an Australian director of Malaysian-Chinese descent, is arguably the only director making Hollywood genre movies today who possesses this level of visual mastery and it’s high time he was recognized for the being the auteur that he is.

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The old-fashioned virtues of mise-en-scene can, of course, be readily found in contemporary genre films made outside of the U.S. — notably in Asian genre fare such as Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing from South Korea and Johnnie To’s Three from Hong Kong. The latter film, a thriller set entirely in a hospital, recently had an under-publicized and too-brief run in a few major U.S. cities (including in Chicago at the AMC River East) and viewers who caught it on the big screen should consider themselves lucky — it reaffirms why To is the best at what he does. The plot centers on a crime boss, Shun (Wallace Chung), who has shot himself in the head during a police standoff before the movie’s narrative proper begins. In spite of the seriousness of his injury, Shun, handcuffed to a gurney, refuses surgery in the hospital’s Emergency Room in hopes that his minions will soon show up to rescue him. Again shades of Rio Bravo abound, not only in terms of plot (a criminal under police supervision waits to be sprung by accomplices while being holed up in a claustrophobic location) but also in terms of theme. Three is a virtual essay on how professional duty and moral responsibility intersect and sometimes come into conflict; the Cop (Louis Koo) watching over Shun and the Doctor (Zhao Wei) in whose care he’s been placed repeatedly clash heads in a location that is at once semi-public and semi-private, and over which neither has complete dominion. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, probably the most astute critic of To in the English language, memorably describes how the use of curtains to cordon off hospital beds “create proscenium arches for intrigue and misdirection.” No matter that Three falls apart in an over-the-top climactic shootout that involves dodgy CGI; To, like Wan, knows how to use location as character and the expressive theatricality of his sets is exhilarating to behold for most of the film’s running time.

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In spite of near-unanimous praise, Jeremy Saulnier’s indie thriller Green Room is a movie that spectacularly fails to capitalize on the cinematic possibilities inherent in its central location: a punk-rock club under siege. The conventional wisdom regarding Green Room is that it’s a throwback to “early John Carpenter” but this analogy only makes sense when one considers the film in terms of narrative and genre elements, not in terms of actual filmmaking technique (i.e., mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing). Carpenter’s breakthrough film Assault on Precinct 13 (itself an unofficial remake of, you guessed it, Rio Bravo) involved a Los Angeles police station besieged by gang members. But what often makes the Carpenter of Assault, and its follow-up Halloween, so great is the director’s masterful use of the widescreen frame. Carpenter’s 2.35:1 compositions cleverly use foreground and background elements to create tension and build suspense (think of Michael Meyers repeatedly popping up in the background of the frame in the early sections of Halloween). Saulnier, by contrast, treats his ‘Scope compositions as if he were shooting in the square Academy ratio — close-ups might as well be long shots and vice-versa. Worse, he’s incapable of, or unwilling to, coherently lay out the space of his central location like Wan or To. In shots that are often under-lit, murky and ugly, his musician heroes (R.I.P. Anton Yelchin!) attempt to battle their way past their neo-Nazi tormentors and out of the club towards freedom, but viewers are frequently unsure of where these characters are in relation to one other. This ensures that Saulnier is only capable of generating surprise — in the form of out-of-the-blue bursts of violence — as opposed to good old-fashioned suspense (to borrow a distinction that Alfred Hitchcock liked to make). Is it effective on a visceral level? Sure. But Cinema it ain’t.


Filmmaker of the Year: Alain Resnais

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In February, 2014, mere weeks before his death, I told a film class at Oakton Community College that I considered Alain Resnais to be one of the world’s five best living filmmakers. The occasion was a screening of Last Year at Marienbad, which I introduced half-jokingly as the “arthouse version of Groundhog Day.” When Resnais died later that month, I elaborated on his considerable influence on narrative cinema on this very blog by writing: “Indeed, it is impossible for me to imagine what the past half-century of cinema would have looked like without him — the hotel-corridor tracking shots in The Shining; the nonlinear structures of early Tarantino; the narratives doubling back on themselves in Run Lola Run and Too Many Ways to Be Number One; the backwards storytelling of Peppermint Candy, Memento and Irreversible; the Cubist editing schemes of Upstream Color; and the entire filmography of Wong Kar-Wai, with its obsessive focus on the themes of time and memory. Would any of these things have been quite the same had Resnais’s formally innovative and groundbreaking films not come along first to provide a shining example?”

While it’s obviously true that the movies in general would not look quite the way they do today without Resnais’s enormous influence, I also suppose that my desire to chart that influence with so many specific examples from commercial films that were more popular than those made by Resnais himself showed a little defensiveness on my part. I felt it was unfortunate that Resnais’s movies seemed to be more read about than actually experienced and that he had accrued an unfair reputation, especially in America, for being a “cerebral” and “intellectual” filmmaker. Resnais had a great sense of humor and a love of pop culture that often went ignored in critical discussions of his work, which too often tended to focus only on his work in the 1960s, when he was affiliated with the “Left Bank” branch of the French New Wave. It is perhaps not surprising then that a newfound appreciation of Resnais’s work has materialized since his passing. The most obvious manifestation of this is the fact that a whopping five of the master director’s features, including the very first and very last, received their Blu-ray debuts in 2015:

Hiroshima Mon Amour (originally released 1959, Criterion Blu-ray released July 14, 2015)
Je t’aime, je t’aime (originally released 1968, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray released November 10, 2015)
Life is a Bed of Roses (originally released 1983, Cohen Media Blu-ray released July 21, 2015)
Love Unto Death (originally released 1984, Cohen Media Blu-ray released July 21, 2015)
Life of Riley (originally released 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray released March 10, 2015)

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To watch all five of these substantial movies in quick succession is to understand the evolution of Resnais’s career in miniature: Hiroshima Mon Amour, out now in a jaw-dropping new transfer from Criterion, was not only Resnais’s first feature but also one of the key early films of the French New Wave and arguably the birth of cinematic modernism. Based on a script by Marguerite Duras (one of the finest ever written), it begins with one of the most daring montages in all of cinema: Resnais cuts between close-ups of the sweat-soaked, naked bodies of two lovers entwined in bed with images of the atomic devastation in Hiroshima and its aftermath. The extensive use of first-person voice-over narration that accompanies these jarring juxtapositions immediately established Resnais as a filmmaker of uncommon subjectivity. Watching early Resnais is like wandering around inside of his characters’ brains — even if one is unsure of exactly which character that might be at any given moment. Are these indelible images of Hiroshima, for instance, objective flashbacks or are they the memories of the Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who serves as the male lead? Or are they what the French actress (Emanuelle Riva), his lover, imagines happened inspired by the stories that he’s told her? Or is it some combination of all of these things? This profound ambiguity would be even more greatly elaborated on in Resnais’s next two features (Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel).

Je t’aime, je t’aime was, until recently, tragically difficult to see. I was therefore particularly grateful for Kino/Lorber’s splendid new Blu-ray release, which should allow Resnais’s fascinating excursion into the science-fiction genre to find the wider viewership it deserves. Ingeniously, Je t’aime, je t’aime uses a time-travel scenario as a potent metaphor for the situation of a brokenhearted and suicidal man (Claude Rich), the guinea pig of a scientific experiment a la La Jetee, who is sifting through his memories and wondering where his most significant romantic relationship went wrong. The masterstroke of Jacques Sternberg’s original screenplay was to have the time-travel machine in which this anti-hero is ensconced literally malfunction, a conceit that then allows Resnais to indulge in what might be the most complex non-linear editing schemes of his career. Of course, a film that is this narratively fragmented is ideally suited to Blu-ray, a format that Resnais practically predicted/invented given how the concept of “chapter stops” enables one to freely skip around, freeze and revisit individual moments at will.

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Life is a Bed of Roses and Love Unto Death are lesser-known, but by no means lesser, Resnais works and are happily coupled together in a single Blu-ray package from Cohen Media Group. Coming in the middle of his career as a feature filmmaker, they were both scripted by Jean Gruault and mark Resnais’s first two collaborations with the great actress Sabine Azema who would remain the director’s muse (and eventually become his wife) for the remainder of his career. Life is a Bed of Roses, the earlier of the two, is an ambitious, big-budget comedy/fantasy/musical that juggles three separate narratives — all of which are set in different eras but revolve around the same castle setting. Love Unto Death, made one year later, is a darker, more austere affair centering on two couples (comprised of four actors from the previous film: Azema, Pierre Arditi, Fanny Ardant and Andre Dussollier) grappling with questions pertaining to love and (im)mortality. Devoid of Resnais’s usual humor, Love Unto Death probably looks more interesting today than when it came out; the film’s considerable formal interest includes an ominous score by Hans Werner Henze that is only heard during non-narrative interludes consisting of shots depicting a strange substance (snow? ashes?) falling from the night sky.

Life of Riley was Resnais’s final film, his third adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play, and an excellent example of the artificial, deliberately “theatrical” style of his late period. It tells the story of three couples (a gaggle of Resnais regulars including Azema, Dussollier, Sandrine Kiberlain, Hippolyte Girardot, Caroline Silhol and Michel Vuillermoz), all amateur stage performers, who learn of the impending death by cancer of their close friend George Riley. Riley, who at one time or another was the object of affection of all three female leads, is a crucial character who remains offscreen throughout — one of several subtle but daringly surreal and death-haunted touches that belies the film’s otherwise lighthearted and fun exterior. Resnais died three weeks after Life of Riley‘s world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it deservedly won two awards, and it is hard to imagine another movie functioning as a more fitting epitaph to the career of this giant of cinema. Among the extras on Kino/Lorber’s stellar Blu-ray are interviews with the six principal cast members whose obvious love for their director is palpable and infectious.

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2014: The Year of the JLG

“I think what (Godard’s) talking about — and this is one of the reasons the dog Roxy is very prominent in the film — is that he’s trying to get people to look at the world in a kind of an unspoiled way. There are hints throughout the film that animal consciousness is kind of closer to the world than we are, that language sets up a barrier or filter or screen between us and what’s really there. And although the film is full of language, talk, printed text and so on, nevertheless I think there’s a sense he wants the viewer to scrape away a lot of the ordinary conceptions we have about how we communicate and look at the world afresh.”

— David Bordwell, interviewed on NPR

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When I started my annual tradition, in December of 2010, of writing a blog post that anointed a certain director as White City Cinema’s “Filmmaker of the Year,” I thought I was doing so with an impish sense of humor: I wanted to give these “awards” to the directors whose films I had spent the most time watching and thinking about over the course of the calendar year, knowing full well that the directors in question, whose work would be extremely relevant to me personally, would also most likely be dead or have their best-known work decades behind them. (Hence, Fritz Lang, on the strength of the “Complete Metropolis” restoration, was my inaugural winner, followed by Orson Welles in 2011, Alfred Hitchcock in 2012 and John Ford in 2013.) I’m happy to announce that this year my Filmmaker of the Year award goes to the soon-to-be 84-year-old Jean-Luc Godard but not on the basis of past glories — although I certainly could have done that if only to celebrate the occasion of Rialto Pictures’ digital restoration and theatrical re-release of Alphaville, which arguably looks more prescient today than in 1965, and Cohen Media Group’s essential, extras-stacked Blu-rays of two of Godard’s best latter-day films: Hail Mary (1984) and For Ever Mozart (1996). No, JLG is, for me, the filmmaker of 2014 solely because of his revolutionary new 3D film, Goodbye to Language, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May and which I was extremely fortunate to see in its sole Wisconsin screening on the evening of November 13th (a benefit fundraiser for the University of Wisconsin’s Cinematheque). I concur completely with film scholar David Bordwell, who introduced the screening I attended, when he said that it is both the best new film he has seen all year as well as the best 3D film he has ever seen.

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While Godard has been a restless innovator for over half a century, his first foray into 3D feature filmmaking has been uncommonly fruitful, resulting in one of his most visually exciting movies. In an interview with the Canon camera company earlier this year, Godard spoke about his attraction to the 3D format by saying, “It is still a place where there are no rules.” In Goodbye to Language, Godard puts his money where his mouth is by intentionally breaking what little 3D rules there are (i.e., one should not allow too much separation between background and foreground objects, one should not allow more than six centimeters between the two cameras being used, etc.). As a result, Godard’s film is as far away as possible from the kind of banal and limited-in-conception 3D effects that one sees in contemporary Hollywood movies with 100 million dollar-plus budgets (where the actors frequently appear superimposed over flat-looking CGI backdrops). Instead, Godard and his cinematographer Fabrice Aragno use stereoscopic cinematography the way one imagines Orson Welles might have — to enhance the natural depth of field of an already deep-focus image; in some of the breathtaking seascape shots, for instance, the horizon appears to stretch out to infinity. But Goodbye to Language‘s most revelatory moment is one that so profoundly merges form and content that it has inspired spontaneous applause and laughter at many of the film’s screenings to date (including the Cannes premiere and the Madison show I attended): a 3D image of three characters splits apart to create two separate 2D images when one of the cameras in Godard’s homemade 3-D camera rig pans to follow two of the characters as they walk towards a lake while the other camera remains trained on the man who stays behind. The two separate images then resolve themselves back into a single 3D image when the three characters are reunited. To witness this retina-bursting shot on a theater screen is to witness the language of cinema expanding before one’s very eyes. It also renders utterly meaningless the possibility of watching a 2D version of the film, which takes the act of seeing and the concept of borders — whether linguistic, geographical or artistic — as its primary subjects.

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Like most of Godard’s long-form work from the 1980s onwards, Goodbye to Language had an unusually long gestation period and grew out of other projects. Several ideas seem to stem from Film Socialisme, including the earlier film’s throwaway line “And when it comes time to talk about equality, I’ll tell you about crap,” which is greatly elaborated on here as a visual joke invoking Rodin’s “Thinker.” More substantially, Goodbye to Language has its origins in a 2006 museum exhibit entitled Voyage(s) en utopie, Godard, 1946-2006, for which the director wrote a “statement of purpose” that read, in part, “In the ‘I think, therefore I am,’ is the ‘I’ of ‘I am’ no longer the same as the ‘I’ of ‘I think’ and why?” (a Cartesian inquiry that itself has roots in Film Socialisme). Goodbye to Language recycles this question and also seeks to answer it with a resounding “no” by offering a philosophical meditation on the fractured nature of identity in our era of mass communication. Godard pointedly shows, through an impossibly rich tapestry of stereoscopic images and sounds, how language and technology have conspired to create barriers that separate humans not only from each other but also from themselves. I say “humans” because, although the film uses a bifurcated structure to tell the stories of two crumbling romantic relationships (represented by actors Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli in the first half and Richard Chevallier and Zoé Bruneau in the second), the real “star” of Goodbye to Language is Godard’s mixed-breed dog Roxy, who is frequently depicted frolicking in nature, commanding both the most screen time and serving as the subject of some of the film’s most dazzling 3D effects. The shots of Roxy’s handsome snout in the maw of Godard’s camera, which convey an overwhelming feeling of love for the animal on the part of his owner/director, are so rapturously beautiful that they may make you want to cry. The film ends by juxtaposing the sounds of a dog barking with that of a baby wailing on the soundtrack, thus linking Roxy not only to nature but, implicitly, to a state of unspoiled innocence that humans possess only prior to learning to speak.

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The main idea that I took away from this dense and allusive film — at least on first viewing — is that Godard believes the cinema itself has become a language that imprisons viewers through its technological inflexibility and over-reliance on traditional narrative structure. At one point, a female says, “In Russian, Kamera means prison,” a line that is complimented by a recurring shot of Ivitch (Bruneau’s character) standing behind a grate of metal bars with a lake in the background behind her. Ivitch grips the bars with her hand, which, thanks to Godard’s 3D camera, seems almost impossibly far in front of her. A man’s hand soon appears in the frame, gripping the bars on the other side of the grate. This image of imprisonment plays out like the negative version of the “empty hands” shots that recur throughout Nouvelle Vague (1990). But Goodbye to Language is thankfully much more than a movie about watching movies; it is also, as David Bordwell suggests, about how to see the world. In another incredibly striking shot, a little boy and a little girl run through a green grassy field beneath a hyper-saturated blue sky. A female voice tells us in voice-over that when she was a girl she “saw dogs all over” while her lover saw “the clouds and the sky.” The implication is that children look at nature with a sense of wonderment that adults lack (an idea the film shares with Pascale Ferran’s delightful Bird People). By contrast, the lead adult characters, all of whom are introduced in a prologue in an open-air book market, are depicted reading aloud texts from various books and an iPhone — locked into self-imposed isolation and not listening to each other. Later, one of the couples contemplates salvaging their relationship, and presumably regaining a sense of wonder, through the act of having a child or adopting a dog. If Goodbye to Language feels more optimistic than Godard’s other recent work, in spite of some disturbing asides about political and domestic violence, this is undoubtedly because the possibilities of 3D have allowed him to see the world afresh.

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Apart from its artistic quality, Goodbye to Language has also established itself as something of a zeitgeist movie (at least for those of us who care passionately about cinema) through the mere fact of its existence. It is yet one more example, and perhaps the most profound such instance since 1987’s King Lear, of Godard throwing a wrench into the cinematic apparatus by making a movie that demands to be seen while simultaneously resisting easy commodification. It is Godard’s highest-profile film in quite some time — it won the Jury Prize at Cannes and has earned rave reviews from many mainstream American critics, including Manohla Dargis in the New York Times and Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune). During its first weekend alone, playing on only two screens in New York City, it won the “specialty box office” and made more money than Godard’s previous feature, Film Socialisme, did in its entire 20-week run. Yet in spite of the fact that Goodbye to Language has a U.S. distributor, the always-enterprising Kino/Lorber, and despite there being many U.S. theaters that would like to show it, the film is proving hard to see; so few American “arthouses” are equipped with 3D projectors that Kino/Lorber’s patchwork theatrical release schedule, which as of this writing still omits major markets like Chicago, has been the source of several hand-wringing editorials (see here, here and here). In an era when independent American and foreign-language movies are receiving ever-quicker assignments to the “Video On Demand” graveyard, Goodbye to Language feels like a form of protest (whether conscious on the director’s part or not). By creating an “art film” that can only be properly experienced in palaces devoted to mainstream “entertainment,” Godard has exposed the increasingly large gulf between such silly concepts and made a movie whose true viewership would seem to be some imaginary but more enlightened audience of the future.

Goodbye to Language rating: 10

My personal top 10 favorite Jean-Luc Godard films (in chronological order):

1. Vivre sa vie [My Life to Live] (1962)
2. Le Mepris [Contempt] (1963)
3. Alphaville (1965)
4. Pierrot le fou (1965)
5. Weekend (1967)
6. Prenom Carmen [First Name: Carmen] (1983)
7. Hail Mary (1984)
8. Nouvelle Vague [New Wave] (1990)
9. Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1998)
10. Adieu au langage [Goodbye to Language] (2014)

You can watch Kino/Lorber’s Goodbye to Language trailer via YouTube below:


William Faulkner and “Parallel Editing”

“But the days themselves were unchanged—the same stationary recapitulation of golden interval between dawn and sunset, the long quiet identical day, the immaculate monotonous hierarchy of noons filled with the sun’s hot honey, through which the waning year drifted in red-and-yellow retrograde of hardwood leaves sourceless and going nowhere.”

— William Faulkner, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem

williamWilliam Faulkner on the cover of Time magazine in 1939, the year The Wild Palms was published

Ever since I discovered his novels in the mid-1990s, when I was a college student in my early 20s, William Faulkner has been my favorite American author. I have always been a fan of formally innovative literature and I was immediately taken with Faulkner’s singular use of long, flowing sentences, multiple narrators, “stream-of-consciousness” interior monologues and, in the case of Absalom, Absalom! (my favorite of his works), the audacious juxtaposition of two separate narratives taking place many decades apart. Last month, for my recently formed “cigar and book club,” I had the good fortune to read for the first time If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, the celebrated novel that Faulkner originally published under the title The Wild Palms in 1939. If I Forget Thee, Jerusaelm was published just three years after Absalom, Absalom! and similarly alternates between two different narratives and sets of characters; being a relatively short novel that is told entirely in the third person, however, arguably makes Jersualem more accessible than its epic predecessor. Rediscovering Faulkner’s unique manner of juxtaposing multiple narrative threads got me wondering to what extent his sense of narrative structure, and that of the other “jazz age” American writers who rose to prominence in the 1920s, may have been influenced by the movies, even if only subconsciously. The cinema, the language of which had become incredibly sophisticated by the end of the silent era, must have seemed to possess an almost-magical ability to instantaneously zap viewers not only from one location to another but from one timeframe to another — in a way that had no precedent in the other narrative arts.

wildSex sells books too, folks.

“Parallel editing,” also known as cross-cutting, is a technique where filmmakers cut back and forth between scenes occurring in different locations, usually to suggest simultaneous action. Although instances of the technique can be found as early as in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery from 1903, parallel editing did not become widespread until D.W. Griffith popularized it in the mid-1910s by using it to generate suspense during climactic chase/rescue scenes (the deplorable climax of The Birth of a Nation [1915], where the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue of white characters holed up in a cabin besieged by a black militia, is a good example). Griffith took the technique to greater and more ambitious poetic heights the following year with Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages by freely intercutting between four separate stories taking place at different times throughout history: ancient Egypt during the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Golgotha, the massacre of the Huguenots in 16th century France, and a contemporary American story about a man wrongfully convicted of murder. Griffith’s provocative idea, so ahead of its time that it alienated contemporary audiences and resulted in costly financial failure from which the maverick director never recovered, was for viewers to infer thematic connections between the different stories based upon their juxtaposition. It is in a similar manner that Faulkner uses parallel editing in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem a novel whose stories and characters may be unrelated on a narrative level (unlike those in Absalom, Absalom!) but are profoundly related on a thematic level.

intoleranceThe fall of Babylon in Intolerance

According to Faulkner expert Noel Polk: “Faulkner began work on (If I Forget Thee, Jersualem) in 1937 at first as a short story entitled ‘Wild Palms’ that was set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Perceiving that there was material here for a longer work, he did not sell the story but began work on the novel and completed it in 1938. The typescripts and manuscripts in the Alderman Library demonstrate that Faulkner did not take two separate stories and interleave the, but rather wrote, in alternating stints, first a ‘Wild Palms’ section, then an ‘Old Man’ section. He invented the story of the ‘tall convict,’ he later said, as a counterpoint to the story of Harry and Charlotte, in an effort to maintain the intensity of the latter story without allowing it to become shrill.” Counterpoint is the operative word, for the “Old Man” sections, set in 1927, both mirror and are the polar opposite of “The Wild Palms” chapters, set a decade later. Among the points of comparison and contrast between the two stories:

— Both are about the relationship between a man and a pregnant woman (in “The Wild Palms,” the main characters, Harry and Charlotte, are romantically involved, in “The Old Man” the main characters, identified only as “the tall convict” and “the woman,” are strangers thrown together by chance).

— “The Wild Palms” begins in Louisiana before Harry and Charlotte travel out-of-state, eventually ending up in Mississippi. In “The Old Man,” the tall convict and the woman start off in Mississippi and wind up in Louisiana.

— Both stories deal with the themes of imprisonment, escape, sacrifice and redemption. In “The Wild Palms” Harry and Charlotte deliberately flee from the conformity of mainstream society and its constricting social roles (Charlotte leaves behind her husband and two young children). In “The Old Man,” the tall convict is a literal prisoner who is granted temporary freedom in order to rescue the pregnant woman who has been stranded at home by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

— “The Wild Palms” begins in the present, where Charlotte is on her deathbed from the abortion Harry has performed on her, before “flashing back” to tell the story of how they met and the events that led to this tragedy. “The Old Man” begins in the past, where the tall convict is temporarily released from captivity in order to help victims of the flood; but the narrative continually “flashes forward” into the future where the convict has returned to prison and is being questioned about his story by another prisoner, “the plump convict.”

— The protagonists have very different narrative arcs that nonetheless lead them to the same fate: a lengthy prison sentence. Harry is middle-class and well-educated (he nearly completed medical school) but has let his potential go to waste. He brings about the ruin of a family, and causes the deaths of his lover and unborn child. The tall convict, by contrast, is a blue-collar criminal who has “greatness thrust upon him”: he’s in jail for trying to rob a train but performs heroically in rescuing the pregnant woman, helping her give birth and delivering her to safety. He is repaid for his efforts by having 10 more years added on to his sentence.

breathless

Postscript: The most famous movie reference to If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem occurs in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless when Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) quotes to Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) what she claims is the novel’s last line: “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” This isn’t quite true: it’s actually the last line of the penultimate chapter. The true last line of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, however, would have been a perfect last line for Michel: “‘Women, shit,’ the tall convict said.”

Works Cited

Faulkner, William, and Noel Polk. If I forget thee, Jerusalem: the wild palms. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.


Is the Pizza Cold?: The Slumber Party Massacre as Subversive Feminist Parody

The Slumber Party Massacre will be released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory tomorrow. The following essay is adapted from a lecture I gave about this disreputable film at Facets Multimedia in 2012.

The Slumber Party Massacre, produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1982 during the height of the original “slasher movie” boom, has developed a well-deserved cult following over the past three decades. In the words of the critic Dave Kehr, the film seems “fascinatingly conflicted” because of the way it seems to simultaneously, and perhaps hypocritically, fulfill and critique the dubious conventions of the slasher subgenre. Some commentators have dismissed it as just another low-budget horror quickie, while many fans enjoy it as a “so bad it’s good” B-film. Still others see it as an intelligent deconstruction of the slasher, while some — including director Amy Holden Jones — view it not as a horror movie at all but rather as a comedy instead. Through tracing the lineage of the slasher film and providing a close examination of what exactly Jones does with its conventions, I hope to illuminate why The Slumber Party Massacre should be taken seriously even while simultaneously being appreciated for the hoot that it is.

Released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was the big bang of the slasher, the first horror movie to feature a sexually frustrated homicidal maniac killing young women with a butcher knife. Although other important slashers were made throughout the ’60s and early ’70s (most notably Bob Clark’s underrated Black Christmas), it wasn’t until John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, which itself owed a huge debt to Psycho, that the modern-day slasher was born. A lean, masterfully made thriller, Halloween was the most profitable independent film of any kind made up to that point and it spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of imitations in the years that immediately followed. All of these knock-offs, however, which tended to ramp up the gore while falling far short of Carpenter’s craftsmanship, were inferior to the original. Over the years, the conventions of the genre eventually crystallized into universally recognized rules: the mentally disturbed male killer picking off a group of attractive young women one by one over the course of a long night or weekend, an isolated and/or claustrophobic setting, the one-dimensional victim characters (the funny girl, the slut, the token minority, etc.) all of whom make stupid decisions (separating instead of sticking together, running upstairs or hiding in the basement instead of fleeing through the front door) and, of course, the lone survivor, who has by now come to be known in unofficial critical parlance as “the final girl.” I will argue that The Slumber Party Massacre was the first movie to come along and not just parody these conventions but subvert their disturbing ideological underpinnings from a feminist perspective.

Two of the more dubious conventions of the slasher genre are the use of subjective shots from the killer’s point-of-view and the sometimes related trope of not showing the killer’s face until the very end of the movie (if at all). Halloween begins with a legendary tracking shot of epically disturbing proportions as the viewer is asked to peer through the eyes of a character who breaks into a house, steals a butcher knife from the kitchen, puts a mask over his face and then stabs a young naked woman to death immediately after her boyfriend has departed the house post-coitus. It is not until Michael Myers, the character whose point-of-view viewers are privy to, leaves the house that the audience is presented with the first objective shot: the camera reveals that this killer is in fact a six-year-old boy. It should be noted that this opening scene is the only time in the entire movie that viewers are asked to see through the killer’s eyes and, even then, a big part of the reason why is the shock factor of revealing the character’s young age at the end of the scene. For the rest of the film, the audience is firmly on the side of the victims and not the killer (who, after flashing forward 15 years into the future, has escaped from a mental institution and returned to his old neighborhood to finish what he started). Because Myers wears a mask, we also never see his face as an adult until the end of the movie. Unfortunately, many of the exploitation merchants who ripped off Halloween took the “killer P.O.V.” concept from the film’s opening and decided to extend it to their entire movies. The end result, as in Friday the 13th (to name one prominent example), was that viewers were asked to primarily identify with the killer instead of the victims. Some critics, including Gene Siskel, in the classic Siskel and Ebert At the Movies episode titled “Women in Danger,” have persuasively posited that the slasher was a reaction against the rise of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

Both of the above conventions receive a refreshingly original workout in The Slumber Party Massacre, the original screenplay of which was written by feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown before being rewritten by Amy Jones. The Slumber Party Massacre certainly starts off like a typical slasher: Trish, a popular high-school girl, decides to throw a slumber party after being left home alone for the weekend by her parents. The party attendees soon find themselves being terrorized by the splendidly named “Russ Thorn,” a mass murderer who has recently escaped from prison and whose weapon of choice is a large power drill. Atypical for the genre, Jones makes it a point to show Thorn’s face in the movie early on and he comes across as a pathetic, middle-aged sad sack, thus arguably robbing him of the near God-like powers imbued in most movie serial killers. Jones also studiously avoids killer P.O.V. shots — although there are many “false scares” throughout the movie that involve what the viewer assumes is the killer’s P.O.V. but which turns out to be that of an innocuous character instead. While such false scares are, of course, ubiquitous in modern horror, Jones piles them on top of one another in such creative ways (my favorite involves the creation of a peephole in a door) and to such an absurd degree that they end up becoming the film’s strongest parodic element.

The barely concealed subtext of most slasher films is that the mysterious, faceless killer is sexually frustrated at best and impotent at worst; the idea is that he can only achieve release through the act of murder, which most often involves the employment of a big phallic knife. The murder scenes can thus be seen as a symbolic form of rape as it is frequently the promiscuous female characters who tend to die first after inflaming the killer’s sense of sexual frustration through their “provocative” behavior. This often leads to the unfortunate and reactionary moral that these young women have in fact been “asking for it” and that it is precisely their sexual promiscuity that has led to their untimely deaths. The Slumber Party Massacre humorously makes this subtext explicitly clear and then promptly subverts it: in the most infamous shot of the film (and one that inspired the equally notorious poster art), Thorn is seen from behind, his large drill dangling between his legs while a female victim cowers in fear in front of him. When viewers finally hear Thorn speak at the end of the film, he actually says, “You know you want it” to another potential victim. Shortly thereafter, when the women band together and finally decide to fight back, Thorn is killed only after being symbolically (and fittingly) castrated when one of them chops his drill bit in half with a machete. If I’m making this sound “academic,” believe me, it’s not. When seen with a group of people, this climactic scene never fails to produce screams of both fear and laughter.

While most discerning viewers will “get” Brown and Jones’ feminist angle, they still might be put off by the stilted acting and paper-thin characterization. I would argue however that any attempts to make the characters more “three dimensional” would only make the film resemble the bad horror movies it is deftly sending up (and who really wants to see a movie like this running any longer than its refreshingly fleet 78 minutes anyway?). The filmmakers’ approach to characterization is to take the typical female victim characters of the genre and have them behave more like how we’re used to seeing young men portrayed: these girls play basketball, are obsessed with baseball scores and statistics, look at pornography and repeatedly dominate their weak and ineffectual male counterparts both physically and intellectually. But because The Slumber Party Massacre was produced by Roger Corman, there is also a certain quotient of nudity, another staple of the genre, that must be met. Even in this area, though, Jones arguably succeeds in subverting the convention by making it transparently obvious that she does have a quota to fill. Early on there is a requisite post-basketball-practice shower scene in which Jones’ camera tracks alongside her female characters as they engage in superficial dialogue. At one point, Jones egregiously and hilariously tilts the camera down to show off a character’s nicely shaped ass. It’s as if she’s saying “Okay, this is what I have to do and therefore I’m going to be as obvious as possible in how I go about it.” (Jean-Luc Godard essentially did the same thing with a nude Brigitte Bardot in the opening of Le Mepris.) Similarly, in a scene where two teenage boys spy on the slumber partyers as they change into their pajamas, Jones essentially retards the inherent titillation factor by having the boys speak and act in such a childish manner throughout (“I don’t think we’ve been giving Kim the attention she deserves!”) that it seems as if she is chiding an assumed male viewer.

The Slumber Party Massacre is a fascinating relic of a bygone era, the era of my own vanished youth. Although, like most Corman-produced movies of its time, its initial theatrical release was extremely limited, the film gained new life on home video. At the dawn of the VHS era, when horror movies lived and died by their video box art, the clever VHS-cover artwork for The Slumber Party Massacre soon made the film a cult hit. Although I was a young horror movie aficionado in the mid-1980s and remember the VHS cover very well, I somehow never managed to see the film itself until a couple years ago when it was released as part of a triple-disc DVD set from Shout! Factory (alongside of its inevitable and inferior sequels). I immediately recognized it as the very best of the post-Halloween slashers, not only for its feminist critique but for its goofy humor and warmth as well. Unlike most movies of its kind, The Slumber Party Massacre refuses to have contempt for its characters and portrays them as a group of fun and likable girls instead. This is epitomized by my favorite scene in the film: the hapless heroines, expecting a pizza delivery, open the front door of Trish’s home only to find the delivery boy standing there, dead, with his eyes drilled out. A few minutes later, one of the girls touches his lifeless corpse and remarks that it’s cold. “But is the pizza?” asks another, who then promptly opens the cardboard box and begins to enjoy a slice. Every time I watch the film I feel something like a sense of love for both that character (I would’ve done the same thing, sister!) as well as the women who created her.


Book Review: Shell Shock Cinema

Shell Shock Cinema by Anton Kaes
Princeton University Press, 2010

shellshockcinema

As someone who teaches film studies at the college level, I’m sorry to say that I think a lot of academic film writing is garbage. Too much of what passes for “serious” film writing is nothing more than literary theory — particularly as it relates to Freud and/or Marx — imported wholesale by academics who lack a thorough knowledge of film history and aesthetics. For some classes I am, unfortunately, forced to teach from such books from time to time. (If I have a say in the matter, I always use Film Art or Film History by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, two keen analytical writers and true cinephiles whose work straddles the line between academic and mainstream film criticism.) I mention all of this because I recently read a terrific film studies book that I could not recommend more highly: Shell Shock Cinema by Anton Kaes. Not only is this academic study an impeccably researched work of scholarship, it also offers penetrating and new insights into its subject matter — the massively influential and already much-written about movies of Germany’s Weimar era. More specifically, Kaes persuasively argues that several key works of what is often-termed “German Expressionist cinema,” a phrase the author barely uses, can be seen as coded responses to the first World War. This reverses the trend of most academic writing about silent German film, which, following the lead of the critic Siegfried Kracauer, has tended to view the masterpieces of Expressionism as harbingers of the rise of Nazism. Kaes’ view that Weimar-era movies were looking back rather than forward makes so much sense that one wonders why it took 80-odd years for someone to mount such an argument.

caligari The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Kaes’ book is structured around a close reading of four movies: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927). Proceeding in chronological order, Kaes shows how each of these films can be seen as “entities that arise from and exist in concrete historical moments; that supply aesthetic responses to economic, social, political, ideological and institutional determinants; and that still resonate with us today.” Kaes makes good on this claim by specifically analyzing how all four films feature characters who seem to be exhibiting the symptoms of “shell shock,” a then-new and controversial neurological disorder occurring in soldiers who had participated in the first “technological war.” Many German government officials apparently felt that shell-shocked soldiers were mere “malingerers” who were faking psychological illnesses as a means of avoiding having to serve in the front lines. “War psychiatrists” were then brought in to essentially debunk the shell shock phenomenon, sometimes administering electroshock therapy to its sufferers — not so much to “cure” them than to scare them into agreeing to return to active duty. Is it any wonder then, Kaes asks, that the villain of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the evil director of a mental hospital who may be crazy himself? Or that the protagonist is a patient suffering from hallucinations induced by some unspoken trauma? If there is one flaw in Shell Shock Cinema it’s that this first provocative analysis is the most revelatory one in the book.

nosferatu Nosferatu

In Kaes’ primary reading of Nosferatu, the mysterious title vampire — a character continually associated with the plague — and his apocalyptic arrival in the small (fictional) German town of Wisborg is analogous to the mass death that swept across the country during the Great War. Kaes sees real-estate agent Thomas Hutter’s voyage to Castle Orlock as representing a soldier’s journey to the “eastern” front, and his wife Ellen’s adventures back home as standing in for the homefront experiences of a typical soldier’s wife. But Kaes also wisely refuses to limit his analysis to this single interpretation and also considers that the plot may be read as a disturbing anti-Semitic metaphor for then-contemporary fears about the migration of Jews from Eastern Europe. (I personally don’t buy this interpretation but am glad the author chose to include it.) Kaes then moves on to Die Nibelungen, analyzing its two parts as a reflection of changing German attitudes towards the concept of wartime heroism (i.e., the first part, Siegfired, valorizes fallen soldiers and arguably glorifies war while the second, Kriemhild’s Revenge, offers a somewhat surprising corrective in that it underlines the pointlessness and insanity of revenge). But Fritz Lang’s mythical period epic is also the film that seems to offer the most coded response to World War I and is therefore the book’s least interesting passage. Things pick back up with Kaes’ climactic discussion of Metropolis, a notorious commercial flop on its initial release, which many historians see as representing the final nail in the coffin of German Expressionism. Here, Kaes invokes Karl Marx — in a manner wholly appropriate — in his analysis of Metropolis‘ class struggle as a kind of “industrial battle” in which the members of the working class are seen as human fodder for an insatiable war god.

nibelungen Die Nibelungen

The analysis of this quartet of movies is followed by a swift conclusion that illustrates the connection between Weimar-era German cinema and American film noir, and a discussion of how the lessons of Expressionism remain relevant today. While Kaes could have undoubtedly viewed many other silent German movies through his shell-shocked lens — I think Murnau’s Faust, in particular, would’ve benefitted from the treatment — I applaud his decision to offer his theory as a primer rather than anything more exhaustive; not including the endnotes and bibliography, the entire text runs a succinct and imminently readable 216 pages. The fact that all four of the films under discussion are widely available on home video should only enhance the accessibility of Shell Shock Cinema: Die Nibelungen, Nosferatu and Metropolis have all been restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation and are available in splendid-quality Blu-ray editions (and Caligari, already available in a good quality DVD, will be released on Blu-ray following a new Murnau Foundation restoration later this year). As someone who devotes at least one class to teaching German Expressionism every semester, I am eternally grateful to Kaes and plan on using this text in future classes. Shell Shock Cinema is an ideal book for anyone — novices and experts alike — interested in one of the richest and most exciting periods in cinema’s history.

Thanks to David Hanley for making me aware of this book. Shell Shock Cinema can be ordered from Amazon here: http://tinyurl.com/mlcs7us

Six clips from the Murnau Foundation’s new restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed here: http://diastor.ch/2014/01/27/six-videos-of-new-caligari-restoration-now-online/

metropolis1 Metropolis


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