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by Thomas Hauner

29 Dec 2008

As intimate venues go, the Blue Note in New York City’s Greenwich Village certainly qualifies. Reaching up and high-fiving the lead guitarist after a solo is doable, if not downright tempting. And it’s dinner theatre-style seating instantly makes a set a communal experience. (The mirror and leather-padded striped walls suggest a more wanton environment though.)

So when Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, traversing the crowd in order to take the stage, mingled through, their larger than life abilities seemed quite ordinary—if only for a moment.

The occasion, a holiday tour in support of their latest release, the festive Jingle All the Way, found the band even more relaxed and in their element than usual. It also makes one wonder how long the above album really took to record. With such incredible pitch, listening abilities and virtuosic skill, the album seems like a jocular seasonal exercise evolving into a record ex-post. Without abandoning the melodies that have made them seasonal standards the record is more or less deconstructed Christmas carols.

They lead off with “Medley”, a densely packed six minutes including “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas”, “My Favorite Things”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The Little Drummer Boy”.

Only getting started, “Silent Night” and “Sleigh Ride” quickly followed. At one point saxophonist Jeff Coffin played both alto and tenor saxophone, simultaneously harmonizing and performing on the two instruments—an awesome party trick.

Percussionist and inventor Future Man (Roy Wooten) dressed like a pirate, as is his custom. He regularly ignites the crowd with his singularly unique synthaxe drumitar instrument, tapping and fingering intricately delicate rhythms. With his younger brother, Victor Wooten, on bass, they continually created a coolly swinging rhythm section, particularly on “Sleigh Ride” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. They possess an intangible rhythmic connection, manifesting itself in an effortlessly perpetual swing. It plants the quartet’s sound into a jazzy context whenever they need such a feel.

Béla Fleck jokingly told the crowd, “Hey guys, keep it down. Vic’s playing”. The crowd ceased murmuring even though Fleck said it teasingly and it was inconceivable for such an appreciative audience to ignore Wooten’s solo, but quiet, playing. And from his extended solo he segued into the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, only to trip over a transition and start over with the crowd’s encouragement. He obviously should have practiced more. Redeeming himself, he then played a solo version of “The Christmas Song” with everyone in the room looking on in a mix of admiration, astonishment, and apathy (the latter referring to the wait staff).

In a season replete with circus albums, the Flecktones’ contribution came by way of a juggling act: Performing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” using a different key and time signature for each day. It was dizzying to listen to, let alone keep track of.

And with the melodies so familiar, the group so relaxed and the playing mostly effortless, it was easy to forget how masterful the Flecktones really are.

by Rob Horning

29 Dec 2008

In Shifting Involvements, Albert Hirschman takes a prolonged look at the ways that disappointment is built in to consumerism. Drawing on Tibor Scitovsky’s The Joyless Economy, Hirschman argues that what is pleasurable is not merely the use value of the goods and services we buy, but the process of their taking us from dissatisfaction to satisfaction. That move is what we register as pleasure, not the fact of being in the satisfied state itself. If we merely remain satisfied on account of something we’ve purchased, then we experience no joy. From this point of view, pleasure hinges on our capacity to be dissatisfied.

This may be in part why needs turn out to be such slippery things, in that we often think we want thing until we have it, whereupon we discover that we really want something else. This movement to disappointment may be less a matter of fussiness than a protective move to guard our capacity for pleasure. Hirschman points out that “we never operate in terms of a comprehensive hierarchy of wants established by some psychologist surveying the multifarious pursuits and ‘needs’ of mankind.” In other words, the hierarchy is always in flux, always in the process of being articulated through our life activities—in consumer society, predominantly through shopping. We discover who we are and what we want in the process of shopping for ourselves. Shopping becomes the end in itself and the acquired goods mere souvenirs of the pleasure process. (This is the “experience economy” that zealous marketers frequently champion.) But at the same time, we have an innate tendency to be disappointed with what we buy, to preserve the capacity to renew our expectations for surprise, for a repeat of the satisfaction-seeking process. When shopping and identity are conflated, as they are in a consumer society, the result is an inherent, structural tendency for us to be continually disappointed in who we think we are, accompanied with an increasing tendency to try to solve that problem through acquiring more stuff. Journeys of self-discovery launched in the mall are almost by definition never-ending. There are good reasons for our identities to be somewhat fluid and open-ended, but anchoring them to consumer goods subjects them to a distorted set of criteria that undermine any sense of stable accomplishment. Our self-concept gets linked instead to the vagaries of the fashion cycle rather than to our own rhythm of personal growth. We become alienated from our own development and start to feel like we harbor multiple personalities, all of them shallow and fickle.

A similar paradox adheres to our efforts to customize consumer goods. These efforts seem to make the product more durable and less prone to dissatisfy in that it is reshaped to express and suit our needs, and in that we remain actively engaged with it, remaking it afresh. But the customization process may in fact reflect a dissatisfaction with the good’s durable usefulness—we want to distract ourselves from its humdrum utility and render it more exciting, though this excitement can only be short-lived, more so than its utility in most cases. Hirschman points out that in many durable items, we long for a “certain amount of ‘built-in obsolescence,’ ” since this makes for a “radical shift in the pleasure-comfort balance.” Replacing a good gives pleasure; getting more use out of something we already have merely supplies unrecognized comfort. By customizing something, and tying it to an expression of identity in a particular moment, we can build in an object’s obsolescence by ourselves, without having to rely on the thoughtfulness of manufacturers making goods shoddy for us. By foregrounding a good’s ephemeral function of articulating an ever-fleeting sense of self, we undermine its lasting quality of being prosaically useful and make it far more likely that we will want to replace it before it’s entirely kaputt. By fusing our personal fashion whims to a durable item, we make its depreciation more recognizable; it becomes something that more evidently falls out of date. It becomes something that gets used up rather than being merely useful. Customization, then, is a matter of adapting useful things to disposability.

by Bill Gibron

28 Dec 2008

DVD has been a godsend for filmmakers desperate for distribution. Thanks to the advances in technology, the accessibility of an available audience (otherwise known as the Internet) and a definitive DIY stance, more movies are available than ever before. Finding them is another issue all together. Most of your noted B&M retail and rental outlets don’t touch ‘unknown’ quantities helmed by unproven talent with a tendency to believe their own hype. Instead, they fill their shelves with standard operating hackwork, the latest (and usually lamest) efforts from Tinsel Town’s crap factory - and its varying direct to digital run-offs. In order to find the truly obscure titles, one must do a lot of research and think outside the Netflix envelope, so to speak. As part of our blog prerogative, that’s exactly what Short Ends and Leader tries to do.

Of course, as with any year end list, a few consideration parameters have to be laid down. First and foremost, it’s important to note that the films themselves do not have to be made in, or originally released during 2008. After all, some outsider cinema takes years in legal or logistical limbo before making it out via some manner of viewable state. In addition, there is no need for an Oscar like NY to LA preview schedule. As long as the film made it out on DVD during this year (originally or in an update) SE&L considered it. Finally, we don’t discriminate against those who self distribute. As long as it passed over our critical transom, we considered it, no matter how it first got there. About the only consistent element is worth - if the movie wasn’t something really special, we just didn’t consider it in our final overview.

With that being said, 2008 was a sparse year in undiscovered gems. Messageboard nation loves to champion the underdog, and a lot of films that would normally make the list - Let the Right One In, Hunger - are seeing major studio support. Still, the ten titles here mark the cream of the independent crop, movies that find there way onto screens around the world thanks to one significant reason - they’re damn good. So without further ado, let’s begin our discussion with: 

#10 - Cordoba Nights
Ohio filmmakers Andy and Luke Campbell have a reputation for being the purveyors of the homemade horror hybrid. With films like The Red Skulls (gang vs. zombies), Demon Summer (coming of age vs. otherworldly terror), and Midnight Skater (splatter comedy), it seemed like they would never branch out beyond the standard scary formulas. This amazing movie proves otherwise. Following the adventures of a pizza man who gets mixed up with a crime boss’s gal pal, the duo deliver a neo-noir slice of slacker life that’s filled with clever direction, insightful characterization, and bravura creativity. As a stepping stone to other interests, it’s outstanding.



#9 - Giuseppe Andrews’ Orzo
Giuseppe Andrews always has humor in his films. In between the pathos and the grotesqueries, his trailer park paradigm is laced with a laidback wit. But with this tale of Toggle Switch, a little person locked in her own insular world of weirdness, he’s made his first true consistently laugh out loud burlesque. Working within the same surreal strategies that make David Lynch’s dream logic experiments so satisfying, actor turned auteur Andrews has an inherent way with oddities. Here, he makes a sex toy bandit, a hyper-skinny exercise guru, and the endless travails of a ditzy dwarf into something staggering - and very funny.



#8 - Mil Mascaras: Resurrection
He’s a sensation South of the Border, one of many famed Luchadores who translated his square circle fame into motion picture popularity. But after his 1990 effort La Llave Mortal, wrestler Mil Mascaras stepped out of the celluloid limelight - until now. Created by scholar and fan Jeffrey Ulhmann as a tribute/reboot for the legendary actor/athlete, Resurrection brings back the villainous Aztec Mummy, a collection of Lucha libre cameos, and enough classic camp kitsch value to make even the sourest puss smile with guileless guilty pleasure. Anyone who wonders why these “characters” remain popular in the new millennium needs look no further than this fabulous throwback. 



#7 - Hell’s Ground
Pakistan is in the news a lot lately - and most of the time, the reporting is rife with religious and political turmoil. With its constant struggles between fundamentalist ideology and sovereign state concerns, any unusual artistic expression (especially via an ‘80s slasher film style) would seem like social insanity. So imagine the chutzpah of Internet café owner Omar Khan when he decided to make a blood and guts slice and dice. The Islamic backdrop is incredibly compelling, giving the teens something extra sinister to be afraid of. Sure, the gore is incredibly tame by Western standards, but the overall experience is unnerving. 



#6 - Cyxork 7
With a wonderful cast perfectly in tune with his tirade, and a subtext that suggests the chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out aspects of celebrity, Cyxork 7 is quite unexpected. While Troma can treat us to movies that are entertaining and unusual, ‘thoughtful’ isn’t a word often used in connection with Lloyd Kaufman and company. This tale of a failing film franchise and the radical manner in which the cast and crew decide to breathe new life into it stands as something wicked and exceedingly inventive. A fabulous F-you to everything that makes Hollywood fraudulent - and phony - and fabulous.



#5 - Ils
While it may sound like gushing, one thing is crystal clear - Ils (Them) is one of the finest, more ferocious suspense films of the last ten years. It argues for the aptitude of the twosome behind the lens (David Moreau and Xavier Palud), as well as proving that their bitter Hollywood take on J-Horror’s The Eye was merely a fluke of paycheck cashing proportions. As a motion picture, it’s almost flawless. There is atmosphere to spare, and an attention to cinematic standards that’s hard to escape. We except buckets of blood and gratuity abounding in the post-modern genre. This is, instead, an effort worthy of Hitchcock himself.



#4 - Poison Sweethearts
With its exploitation derived framework and silly chauvinistic sheen, Poison Sweethearts truly marks the moment when Andy and Luke Campbell completely shed their homemade horror mantle and become real directors. This is not to say that their previous efforts represent lesser behind the lens mannerisms. But with Sweethearts, the boys branch out into good old fashioned grindhouse territory, and inside such a conceit they find a wonderfully wicked, homage heavy masterpiece. Indeed, the boys deliver enough recognizable references to the forgotten genre that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino should be ashamed for the supposed take on the material. This is the real revisionist deal.



#3 - Inside
Wow! The French have really figured this out. From Haute Tension to Ils, France has forged a new wave of nastiness that has redefined the genres and styles of their continental countrymen. Inside is no different. Like watching the ultimate collaboration between Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (with some nauseating originality thrown in for good measure) this sluice-filled sensation is one of the sickest, most gratifying gross out efforts in quite a while. Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury have combined the visceral nature of childbirth with the mandates of the slasher film to forge a brilliant, ballsy bloodbath.



#2 - Storm
At its core, Storm is a time traveling take on personal pain and the memories we stridently store away told in a manner that is a great deal more spiritual, complicated, and open ended than its obvious Matrix inspiration. It may not have the Wachowski’s level of visual sophistication, but in its own unique way, this film by the Swedish directorial team of Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein is just as powerful and approachable. Storm is not just about a battle between good and evil - it’s a war fought on a landscape both cosmic and highly insular. Together, they make even the most mundane situations resonate with meaning.





#1 - [REC]
[REC] is ridiculously good. It’s a show-stopping terror trip through something that really shouldn’t work all that well. But thanks to the talent of directors Jaume Balagueró (the main man in charge) and Paco Plaza (our witness with the handycam), the visceral nature of the first person POV approach avoids any such issues. Like Cloverfield, this unique take of the genre (we aren’t quite sure what has infected the residents of this apartment complex) suggests a zombie stomp ala George Romero’s Diary of the Dead. But thanks to the single setting, the impressive acting, and a finale that will literally scare your socks off, this is a fine film that stands as a soon to be classic. Too bad Hollywood already hobbled its legacy by making the interesting if inconsequential Quarantine.

by Bill Gibron

25 Dec 2008

David Fincher is a god. Not a lesser deity, mind you, or some manner of false filmmaking prophet. No, this inside outsider may have gotten his start in music videos, and suffered at the hands of a disgruntled studio while making his directorial debut (the oft debated Alien3), but since those uneasy early days, he’s been nothing short of sensational. With a creative output claiming one masterwork (Se7en, The Game) after another (Fight Club, Zodiac), only mainstream commercial acceptance has truly alluded him (unless you count Panic Room). All that might change with his Brad Pitt vehicle The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Loosely based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this may look like a blatant attempt to grab awards season consideration. Instead, it’s another notable notch in the man’s amazing auteur oeuvre. 

Born into a turn of the century New Orleans, orphaned Benjamin Button is blessed/cursed with an unusual malady. As an infant, he looks nearly 90 years old. As a toddler, he’s in his ‘80s. As he gets older, his body ages in reverse, decades dropping off as the experiences pile up. While living in a nursing home with his caregiver mother Queenie, he meets the granddaughter of another resident. Her name is Daisy, and Benjamin is instantly smitten. As time moves along, he holds onto his flame, even as he joins the merchant marines, aids in World War II, has an affair with a British woman (who wants to swim the English Channel), and returns home to Louisiana where he reconnects with his dying father. Yet all along, all Benjamin can think about is Daisy. Her career as a ballerina cut short and her options limited, she soon finds herself drawn into her new partner’s curious case. It will be a relationship that inspires many wonderful memories, a lot of adventure, a few heartaches, and some significant deathbed secrets.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a movie made for a single viewing. At nearly three hours in length, its detail and depth become distant and unclear. There are times when it looks like director Fincher is operating under a delusion of self-indulgence, basic camera tricks and CG deception taking over where narrative drive and clear characterization would suffice. But then the premise kicks in, an idea so novel and yet so simple that it often threatens to spin out of control. But this is where Fincher shines - bringing the outrageous and the outsized back into scale with the rest of his vision. As a result, Benjamin Button stands as the kind of filmmaking achievement that formidable French auteur theory was meant to celebrate. Without Fincher behind the scenes, this would be an occasionally interesting, often irritating trifle. With him, it’s some manner of masterpiece.

It also helps to have amazing actors inhabit this world, and you can’t get much better than Pitt (as the title entity), Cate Blanchett (as lifetime love Daisy), Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin’s adopted momma, and Julia Ormond as bookend offspring Caroline. Interspersed amongst the main threads are remarkable moments from Jared Harris, Tilda Swinton, and Elias Koteas. Each one accents Fincher’s amazing images with their own unique take on humanity and honesty. At its center, Benjamin Button is about the truth - the truth about living, the truth about dying, the truth about who you are, and the truth about who others find us to be. All throughout the film, secrets and stories are revealed, each one clarifying the people who populate them. At the end, the denouements build to a shattering emotional epiphany that ties everything together magnificently.

Certainly, the screenplay by Eric Roth mirrors his Oscar winning adaptation of Forrest Gump, even down to a central symbol for birth/resurrection. But unlike that Robert Zemeckis fable, spun out of Southern comforting and a great deal of Tom Hanks definitive drawl, Fincher finds the darker side to this material. After all, when was the last time you saw a mainstream movie deal with the impending death of an infant. Remember, Benjamin ages backwards, so the very youthful biology the industry tends to senseless celebrate actually becomes the harbinger for the arriving Grim Reaper. This is juxtaposed against Blanchett’s aged façade, holed up in a New Orleans hospital as Katrina is about to hit. The concept of placing the plot within the horrific events of 2005 may be locational happenstance, but it does work to underline the overall theme of life’s fascinating fragility.

In fact, the physical elements of Benjamin Button stand out as the film’s creative finest achievement. The early stages of Pitt’s “elderly” youth have an eerie provocation, while his last act teen façade is achingly Adonis-like in look. Blanchett gets an equally effective make-over, her turn as an adolescent ballerina and ‘50s fashion plate remarkable in their picture perfect, almost porcelain purity. Fincher forces the audience to rethink their previous notions of age and vitality all throughout the film. When Benjamin visits a brothel for the first time, it’s not as some dirty old man. Instead, Pitt plays the moment just right, using raging teen hormones to accent his character’s withered looks. With the movie set inside a nursing home, there’s a lot of jokes made at the expense of the infirmed and enfeebled (one man gets seven silent movie slapstick sequences, illustrating the number of times he’s been hit by lightning). But there is plenty of dignity here as well, times when what we become throughout the decades is discussed and redefined.

Yet in the end, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is really about celebrating your existence. It’s a statement on how life lived - in any order - can be taken for granted and gone in an instant. As they move through the years, trying to connect and complete their unending love, Benjamin and Daisy discover something even more shocking about their interpersonal emotions: they can survive anything. Only time treats the couple like an interchangeable pair of enigmas, each owning their own unusual approach to being and being together. The wistful qualities of the narrative, matched with Fincher’s frighteningly magnificent direction, turns something gimmicky into something grand. When the word ‘epic’ is tossed around, it’s an effort like that of those of all involved in Benjamin Button that supply a perfect illustration. Destined to grow in critical acclaim as the year’s go by, this represents Fincher at his finest - and gods rarely find a way to top themselves.

by Rob Horning

25 Dec 2008

This is not a bah-humbug post about errant Christmas gifts. Rather I have started to read Albert Hirschman’s Shifting Involvements, which offers a theory for why societies cycle between focusing on private consumption for satisfaction (a la 1950s) to becoming more involved in social action and political organization and public issues (a la 1960s). (Hirschman, however, does make this heartwarming observation about disappointment: “The ‘cost’ of disappointments may well be less than the ‘benefit’ yielded by man’s ability to entertain over and over again the idea of bliss and happiness, disappointment-bound though it may be.” Disappointment is the price we pay for all that holiday-spirit-style anticipation leading up to today. So cherish your disgruntlement!)

An analysis of how we shift from public engagement to self-involvement seems pertinent to proclamations that because of Obama’s election, as Joshua Errett writes in Now Toronto, “Hipsters essentially became hopesters.” (Barf.) Virtually every statement in the article strikes me as dubious—from the genesis of hipsters to the source of their resiliency to their evolution in response to political change. Hipsterism is not a trend so much as it is a disguise term for consumerist ideology. A hipster is a consumer, period. The term helps affiliate consumerism with youth trends, which are actually independent, subject to the fashion cycle. But consumerism, hipsterism, cannot go out of fashion. They describe the prevailing social relations, which will only change with a massive shift in underlying economic relations and ideological assumptions. If hipsterism is to disappear, it would involve a massive economic reorganization, not a change in youth fashions.

Perhaps the depth of the current recession may be sufficient to trigger such a change—though in Shifting Involvements Hirschman is eager to prove that such changes in consumer orientation are periodic and actually endogenous, that is they require no triggering events but fashion their own triggers through the inherent contradictions in collective social behavior under capitalism. Events don’t come as shocks but as culminations. His example for this dialectic is World War I, which trigger massive changes in people’s orientation toward satisfaction seeking, but was in itself, to a degree, a consequence of a widespread attitude of boredom with bourgeois prosperity. War was going to cleanse the world of decadence and bring back the time of heroes.It seems a stretch to say that the recession has been welcomed, prompted, as a wonderful return of volatility and market chaos and creative destruction after the so-called Great Moderation, but certainly some commentators take that tack when railing against bank bailouts and how they are preventing the system purge that history seems to be demanding. The resistance to Keynesian economics relates to this—as these quotes from Krugman gathered by Mark Thoma suggest. Keynes wanted us to stop regarding macroeconomics as a morality play, and recessions as something we deserve for some ideological deviation or another. I’m afflicted by this tendency when I want to regard the recession as our just deserts for consumerist myopia.

Anyway, Hirschman’s argument pertains to the question of whether this recession can prompt a lasting reevaluation of the consumerist way of life, or if it’s just another moment in a continual cycle that has already proven its resiliency. Hirschman’s chief point revolves around the contextual nature of disappointment and how it varies.

Acts of consumption, as well as acts of participation in public affairs, which are undertaken because they are expected to yield satisfaction, also yield disappointment and dissatisfaction. They do so for different reasons, in different ways, and to different degrees, but to the extent that the disappointment is not wholly eliminated by an instantaneous downward adjustment of expectations, any pattern of consumption or of time use carries within itself…“the seeds of its own destruction.”

Basically, consumption provides diminishing returns of satisfaction, and with durable goods that are not frequently consumed, the disappointment can’t be rechanneled into a purchase of a replacement. So we learn that buying a house is the ultimate reward in life, we do it, it inevitably disappoints, we stave that off for as long as we can and then we refinance and buy a bigger house. But that becomes unsustainable, with the outcome we are now seeing, which is a material expression of the escalating disappointment with a life centered around consuming housing as an end in itself. We tried bigger houses, but that reached its limit. Now we need a new option. Is it plausible to hope that it could take the form of greater public involvement with solving a collective problem like global warming. Will that disappointment be channeled into a green bubble, as we try to derive moral satisfaction from environmentally conscientious behavior?

The problem, though, as Robert Frank points out in his introduction to the new edition of Shifting Involvements, is that treating moral behavior as a consumption good, pursued for personal satisfaction, is that our motivation then weakens as the context changes.The moral satisfaction that we derive from behavior is relative to what everyone else is doing. When we are first on the blick with our Prius, our moral satisfaction is great and palpable. But when everyone already has a Prius, we get less satisfaction from buying one, as we will garner less recognition for our distinctive commitment to doing the right thing. As Frank writes, “the problem may not be that people are disappointed with the concrete results of their involvement”—the Prius still conserves fossil fuels—“or that the costs of involvement are high”—if everyone is buying Priuses, they should become cheaper—“rather, it just may be that it becomes increasingly difficult for participants to earn moral credit. Once the imbalance between effort and reward becomes sufficiently high, people’s attention shifts to alternative pursuits.” Hence there may be an endogenous limit to things like recycling, if we presume that people are participating for self-centered moral satisfaction and recognition. Such behaviors need to be removed from the sphere of pursuing satisfactions—i.e. they can’t be seen as part of satisfying personal wants and needs. They must regarded socially as being non-economic duties, a perception that ideology must produce. Hirschman points out that such things as “worship, mourning, family visits ...  are not compared with income-producing or consumption activities” thanks to certain “social arrangements.” He adds, in a crisp piece of econspeak, that “a good portion of our social arrangements is meant to prevent that equalization-at-the-margin of the satisfactions derived from our various activities which is the crux of the economic model.” What is dangerous then, when we extend a consumerist model of buying satisfaction in the marketplace and displaying our identities as though they are competing products on a social market, is that these activities protected by being considered noneconomic will be obliterated. When people fret about the commercialization of Christmas, they are targeting this tendency for economic thinking to come to govern social duties once exempt. There are no especially good economic incentives to make the trip over the river and through the wood to grandmother’s house.

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Independent Film Festival Boston 2016: 'The Anthropologist'

// Short Ends and Leader

"Spry and crisp, The Anthropologist is a solid documentary that avoids bearing the weight of the austere pessimism surrounding climate change.

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