Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 14, 2015

Cenk Batu; Salamander

Filed under: Counterpunch,television — louisproyect @ 2:50 pm

Probing the Deep State — On TV

Back in 2012 James Wolcott told Vanity Fair readers “the action has left the Cineplex and headed for broadcast and cable.” In making the case for television, Wolcott offered up “Downtown Abbey” and “Mad Men” as fare that trounces Cineplex flicks geared to the 14-year-old comic book fan. With all due respect to Wolcott, my preference would have been for the European TV series that I have covered for CounterPunch in the past starting with Swedish Marxist detective stories such as Wallander and more recently Danish shows such as Dicte, which by no means Marxist were certainly superior to anything coming out of Hollywood, including the typical Oscar honoree.

Now moving southerly into Europe, I am once more struck by the artistic superiority of a couple of TV series that thankfully are freely available on the Internet. Hailing from Germany, “Cenk Batu, Undercover Agent” is a police procedural that can be seen on Youtubewhile “Salamander”—a tale of the Belgian Deep State that should appeal to Stieg Larsson fans—is available on DailyMotion, a video sharing website that was launched by a couple of Parisians in 2005.

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July 24, 2015

Dicte; Borgen

Filed under: Counterpunch,television — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 10.32.12 AM

The Female Power of Danish Noir

CounterPunchers, particularly those who watched those Marxist Swedish television detective series I recommended last year, will likely appreciate “Dicte” and “Borgen”, two shows that appeared originally on Danish television. Both feature superb writing and performances even if the artistic teams behind them are not exactly Marxist. As Joe E. Brown said in the final seconds of “Some Like it Hot”, nobody’s perfect.

Whatever they lack politically, they more than make for in storytelling, character development, dialog, and plot—the ABC’s of writing going back to Aristotle. And most of all, they are distinguished by powerful female characters that put American television with its “Astronaut Wives Club” et al to shame.

“Dicte”, which can be seen on Netflix streaming, is the eponymous character–a female crime reporter in her late 30s who has taken a job with a newspaper in Aarhus, which is Denmark’s second largest city and where she grew up. In broad outlines, it has the same sort of plot found in the Swedish series “Annika Bengtzon, Crime Reporter” that was included in the survey referred to above. “Dicte” ends up as an amateur detective in almost every episode, one step ahead of the cops. In researching her articles, she inevitably finds herself being targeted by some bad guy who has decided that she knows too much and must be terminated.

Every time the town’s homicide detective runs into her at a crime scene, he warns her about interfering with an on-going investigation but in the end Dicte proves to be a better sleuth than the cops and finally vindicated.

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May 21, 2015

I said goodbye to Letterman long before he said goodbye to his viewers

Filed under: comedy,television — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

When “Late Night with David Letterman” came on the air at 12:30am in 1982, I became such a fan that I was willing to put up with the early morning grogginess that came with staying up so late. The show came on after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”, something that I had little use for at the time since it was so predictable. I ha no idea at the time that Letterman’s deepest desire was to become the next Johnny Carson and host the same kind of show.

In 1982 I was three years out of the SWP, working for a consulting company called Automated Concepts that was run by an EST devotee named Fred Harris, and working with Peter Camejo on the North Star Network. I watched almost no television at all except for the Letterman show and football games. Most of the time I listened to WBAI, which was probably at one of its high points artistically and politically. Although it is hard to believe, the Letterman show was just as edgy in its own terms as a few clips from the early period should illustrate. They reflect a distinctly “downtown” vibe that was in its way the TV counterpart of the thriving punk rock, performance art, and underground Super-8 movie scene.

Brother Theodore (his last name was Gottlieb) was not just a comic genius; he was a genius period who led an extraordinary life as this Wiki entry should indicate. Can you imagine someone like that being featured on Jimmy Kimmel (not that I have ever watched that show.)

Gottlieb was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Düsseldorf, in the Rhine Province, where his father was a magazine publisher. He attended the University of Cologne. At age 32, under Nazi rule, he was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until he signed over his family’s fortune for one Reichsmark. After being deported for chess hustling from Switzerland he went to Austria where Albert Einstein, a family friend and alleged lover of his mother, helped him escape to the United States.

He worked as a janitor at Stanford University, where he demonstrated his prowess at chess by beating 30 professors simultaneously, and later became a dockworker in San Francisco. He played a bit part in Orson Welles’s 1946 movie The Stranger.

Chris Elliot was the son of Bob Elliot of the radio show “Bob and Ray” fame who certainly inherited his dad’s sense of absurdist comedy. He was a regular on the Letterman show for a number of years and always pushed the envelope. To give you an idea of the affinity that Letterman had with WBAI, long-time early morning show host Larry Josephson curated the Bob and Ray shows for an acclaimed CD reissue.

No commentary is necessary

Sandra Bernhard was a lesbian standup comedian who was by the far the best at making Letterman squirm even though he knew that this was essential for the show’s success.

What can I say? Harvey was my favorite guest on the Letterman show if for no other reason that he expressed exactly what I would have said if I had been on the show myself. Years later when I hooked up with Harvey to do a comic book about my life, I was more excited to be working with him than to be a guest on the Letterman show.

When Letterman moved to the 11:30 slot in 1992, I was happy to be able to watch my favorite show and still get a good night’s sleep. But within a year or so, I realized that it was a different show. It did not happen all at once but it no longer became a place for Brother Theodore but more for some idiot actor or actress to talk about their next film. On top of that, the shtick that remained like the “Top Ten List” grew stale.

What had happened?

I got the answer in Bill Carter’s 1994 book “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night”. Carter explained in convincing detail that Letterman harbored a desire from an early age to be the next Johnny Carson instead of David Letterman. The 11:30 slot allowed him to drop the edgy guests who would have either bored or annoyed the people who expected the standard late night fare.

In August 2001 I posted some comments about Letterman to Marxmail that never made it to my Columbia University website (this was long before I began blogging or when blogs existed for that matter). This is the appropriate time to post them again.

Early in February, top CBS television president Les Moonves and six other top entertainment executives spent several days in Cuba with the approval of the U.S. government. The visit was capped by lunch with Fidel Castro. When news of the trip became public, Late Night host David Letterman began making fun of his boss relentlessly. Among the many rightwing jokes revolved around the “differences” between Moonves and Castro: “On one hand, you have a ruthless dictator surrounded by ‘yes’ men. And on the other, you have Castro.”

Another Late Night show pushed the envelope even further with a sketch titled “Lunch With Fidel.” And one of the entries on a recent Top 10 List was, “Last week, at Castro’s Grammy party, he let me beat a political prisoner.”

This follows a controversy surrounding the guest appearance of radical folk singer Ani DiFranco. Producers canceled her scheduled appearance tonight after the folk singer refused to substitute a more “upbeat” song for one about racism. DiFranco’s manager, Scot Fisher, told The Washington Post that the singer planned to perform “Subdivision” in the show’s final segment. The song begins, “White people are so scared of black people, they bulldoze out to the country.”

One can understand why Letterman would object to such a performance. Mostly what his shtick is about nowadays is projecting an out-of-towner’s fear and loathing of non-white New Yorkers to his dwindling audience. To preserve market share, Letterman makes sure to include at least one racist jibe each night about smelly foreign cab drivers or other aspects of its polyglot culture. The aging Letterman, who lives in Connecticut, is reverting more and more to his nativist Indiana roots. The state was home to the most powerful Ku Klux Klan chapter in the north throughout the 1920s. As the camera pans out to his sycophantic audience each night, you are hard-pressed to find anybody who is neither white, nor overweight for that matter. In his shift to the bland (and now racist) tastes of heartland America, he has attracted the audience he deserves: Corn-fed out-of-towners wearing fanny-packs, knuckle-head frat boys and visiting servicemen.

Letterman is a truly sad story. In the 1980s he was the inventive host of an NBC show that came on after Johnny Carson. Since this time-slot was traditionally (and still is) geared to a more adventurous programming, his bad boy creativity could find full expression. When he wasn’t interviewing quirky writers such as Hunter Thompson, he was skewering the pretensions of show business phonies like Cher. The rest of the show consisted of “found humor” like throwing watermelons off a 12 story building or “stupid pet tricks”.

When he made a bid for Carson’s time-slot after his retirement, NBC executives opted for Jay Leno instead whose conventional humor would satisfy the least common denominator and sell more beer and laxatives in the process. The jilted Letterman took a job with CBS in the same time-slot as Leno and vied for the same audience.

This meant changing his format. Instead of a Hunter Thompson, you would end up with some vapid B-movie actor promoting his or her next film. The conversation would inevitably revolve around how married life was treating them or what they did on their vacation. In other words, the same idle chatter that his audience has over dinner in their split-level homes in East Jesus, Nebraska. Nothing like making overweight white people feel at home. Meanwhile the “found humor” became ever more formulaic, following the same tendency found on Saturday Night Live. If an audience laughs at a sight gag, this becomes an invitation to repeat it every week until it becomes as irritating as a garden rake being dragged across a blackboard.

I suppose that Letterman’s turn to the right was inevitable. If you pander to middle-class fears and loathing about the NYC Casbah, you will naturally find yourself catering to the hysterical tics that define US foreign policy. Poor Letterman, he aspired to be the next Johnny Carson. Instead he has become the next Bob Hope.

February 19, 2015

What the zombies tell us

Filed under: Film,television — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

Below you will see an excerpt from the February 8, 2015 episode of “Walking Dead” on the AMC cable channel. Titled “What Happened and What’s Going On”, it is about the latest futile attempt by the characters to find a safe haven against zombies, in this instance a middle-class gated community that was formerly the home of Noah, an African-American youth who joined the band recently.

Noah is accompanied by Tyreese, the older and powerfully built African-American who we see in the excerpt being attacked by Noah’s brother, who has been transformed into a zombie.

I want to direct your attention to the radios that are shown in Noah’s house as Tyreese lies bleeding on the floor and later on when he is being rushed away in a car driven by Rick, the band’s leader. In both instances Tyreese is hallucinating since radio and television, and all civilized life, has come to an end.

The radios play what sounds like BBC reporters commenting on Boko Haram or ISIS: “Four deadly attacks on the coastal district”. “The marauders continue their campaign of random violence”. “The country’s military forces in disarray”. And so on.

For me, the hallucinatory radio broadcasts came as an epiphany. I have made no effort to track down commentary on this episode but I interpret it as a sidelong glance at the barbaric nature of so-called Islamic radicals, even though they have very little to do with religion. More generally, the writer Scott Gimple is conveying the show’s major theme—that human beings are worse than the dreaded zombies and that civilization is entering a new Dark Age.

Over the past couple of years, the show has honed in on repeated and futile attempts to escape both zombies and predatory human beings. In season four they try to live at peace inside an abandoned prison that is protected by chain link fences from zombie attacks. You of course have to wonder how much difference there is between a prison and Noah’s gated community. Their miniature commune grows its own food and lives by its own fairly civilized standards until they succumb to a combined attack by zombies and human predators, led by “The Governor” who has presided over his own safe haven that in reality is a concentration camp ruled by force.

In season five we see Rick’s band on the move again, this time hoping to become part of Terminus, supposedly another refuge from the zombies. Once they enter through its walls, they discover that the inhabitants are cannibals.

The existential bleakness of “Walking Dead” is clearly a reflection of the mood of despair that is widespread in a society constantly bombarded by news of nonstop war, jihadist terror, looming climate catastrophe, species extinction including our own, and a general sense that there is no alternative to the Dark Age that we live in. The inability of Rick’s band to find any sort of solidarity or mutual aid is ultimately more frightening than any zombie’s teeth.

Zombie tales have only assumed social and political dimensions fairly recently. Before George Romero’s breakthrough “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, the typical zombie flick was something like Jacques Tourneur’s “I Walked with a Zombie” that was set in the Caribbean and involved voodoo ceremonies that brought people back to life. Tourneur also directed “Cat People”, a film much admired by film scholars for its surrealist inflections.

Romero was not interested in making the typical voodoo film. His zombies were on the attack in rural Pennsylvania and their human prey took refuge in a farmhouse whose defense was organized by Ben, an African-American played by Duane Jones. Unlike “Walking Dead”, the zombies were routed by local law enforcement that regarded them not much more than a nuisance like bedbugs or rabid skunks, which is summed up by this priceless exchange in the denouement:

Field Reporter: Chief, if I were surrounded by eight or ten of these things, would I stand a chance with them?

Sheriff McClelland: Well, there’s no problem. If you have a gun, shoot ’em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ’em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ’em or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy.

Rob Kuhn’s documentary “Birth of the Living Dead”, which can be seen on Netflix or Amazon, interviews George Romero and leaves no doubt about his determination to use zombies as a symbol of 1960s chaos and disintegration. In my review of the film, I noted:

Besides Romero, we hear from a number of knowledgeable film critics and scholars including Elvis Mitchell, an African-American who explains the importance of casting an African-American actor—Duane Jones—in the lead role. Jones is an authority figure just as much as the sheriff in “Walking Dead” but nobody ever says a word about not taking orders from a “Negro”. In its way, “Night of the Living Dead” was as much of a breakthrough for Black identity in films as the more obvious bids from directors working in the Blaxploitation genre.

As the seventies, eighties and nineties wore on, the zombie genre took on a bleaker character. If they were a minor inconvenience in Romero’s 1968 film, by 2002 they were a powerful force that had made civilized life impossible—anticipating in their way the message of “Walking Dead”. I speak here of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”, a brilliant film that for the first time depicts human beings as much of a menace as the zombies they supposedly protect mankind from. In the thrilling conclusion to the film, a young British civilian fends off a military unit that is planning to rape his girlfriend.

Three years later George Romero made a new zombie film that is even more of a social commentary than his 1968 original. Titled “Land of the Dead”, it puts a zombie army that is advancing on a gated city that is as brutally class divided as Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai. In my review of this film that can be seen on Amazon streaming, I quoted Romero who was asked about why the film was set in a Pittsburgh of the dystopian future:

When I got there — I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there ever since– the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, “The mills will reopen someday. Don’t worry about it.” It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there’s a little bit of that in this movie too ­ it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the entire country.

Leaving aside the social and political implications of “Walking Dead”, I can recommend it as first-rate entertainment. Like other shows on AMC such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”, the station has a way of putting together dramatic serials that are the equal or superior to anything on the premium channels such as HBO or Showtime. Frank Darabont, who was the screenwriter for a number of Stephen King adaptations, developed the show. It is not too hard to figure out that King’s darker than dark sensibility and supreme story-telling knack had a major influence on Darabont. There’s not much on Darabont in Wikipedia but this is worth citing:

Darabont was born in a refugee camp in 1959 in Montbéliard, Doubs, France. His parents fled Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. When he was still an infant, his family moved to the United States, settling in Chicago. When Darabont was five the family moved to Los Angeles. Darabont was inspired to pursue a career in film after seeing the George Lucas film THX 1138 in his youth. Darabont graduated from Hollywood High School in 1977 and did not attend college. His first jobs after finishing school included working as a forklift operator and as a busboy. He claims he got his writing skills from “endless hours” of writing at a desk on a typewriter in his free time.

Too bad so many screenwriters learned their craft in graduate school than in the way that Darabont did.

Finally, while on the topic of zombie movies or TV shows as entertainment, let me recommend two of my favorites: Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s “Dead Snow”, made in 2009 and the sequel “Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead”. Both films can be seen on Netflix streaming and are brilliant pulp fiction.

In the first film, a weekend skiing trip by Norwegian students turns into a desperate flight from Nazi soldiers who emerge as the walking dead from beneath the snow. It is a splatter film filled with cartoon-like effects of power tools being used as weapons, one of which is used to saw off the arm of Martin, who has been bitten and infected by a Nazi zombie. Yes, I know it sounds idiotic but it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. There are multiple beheadings but none that would give you the kind of feeling of dismay that ISIS gives. Your reaction is to laugh out loud in much the way that a safe being dropped on the coyote’s head in a roadrunner cartoon would.

In the sequel, there is even more merriment. I laughed so loud watching it that I was afraid my neighbors would complain to the doormen downstairs. Martin, who is the sole survivor of the first attack, gets the Nazi battalion commander’s arm that he has chopped off fleeing from the mountaintop reattached to his body in the hospital while he is unconscious. Meanwhile, the Nazi ends up with Martin’s arm. It all leads to inspired farce such as Martin not being able to control the reattached arm that seems to have a mind of its own. If you’ve seen Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove, you’ll get the picture.

The film gets its subtitle from Martin’s raising a battalion of Red Army soldiers who have been buried in Norway since 1945, after a battle with the Nazis now on the rampage. Using the power of his reanimated right arm, he brings them back to life or more accurately allows them to walk among the living. The final scene is a truly inspired gore-fest with intestines being pulled out of the victim’s stomach like a garden hose and dozens of beheadings. If you prefer “The Imitation Game” or “Birdman”, the hell with you.

 

September 12, 2014

Sweden and the Renaissance of Marxist Crime Stories

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,popular culture,Sweden,television — louisproyect @ 2:36 pm

From Beck to Wallander

Sweden and the Renaissance of Marxist Crime Stories

by LOUIS PROYECT

For fans of Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo novels and the film adaptations both American and Swedish it inspired, I have good news about similar crime stories that appeared on Swedish television originally and that can be seen on Netflix, Amazon and on other commonly available sources.

For reasons to be explained momentarily, there are good reasons why Marxists like Larsson decided to write what can arguably be called pulp fiction. Foremost in Larsson’s mind was the need to create a nest egg for his long-time partner who unfortunately has run into conflicts with Larsson’s father and brothers over the author’s estate. (Larsson, who died unexpectedly from a heart attack, did not leave a will.) While there are undoubtedly sharp observations about the dark side of Swedish society in his novels, his main goal was to tell compelling stories with memorable characters. If that is the sort of thing you are looking for in popular culture, then the existence of other Swedish works in this genre should be most welcome.

Full article

 

 

July 28, 2014

Fallen City

Filed under: China,television — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

This shows tonight on WNET in NYC at 10pm. Check your local PBS station to see if it is being screened in your city. This is from the PBS website:

http://www.pbs.org/pov/fallencity/film_description.php

Even for a country historically plagued by earthquakes, the 2008 quake in the Sichuan province was devastating. Nearly 70,000 people were killed and thousands more were missing and never found, making it the deadliest quake in the country in three decades. The old town of Beichuan, home to 20,000 people, was reduced to rubble. Fallen City is a revealing account of contemporary China’s response to the disaster: Within a scant two years, the government built a new and apparently improved town close to the old Beichuan.

Fallen City is the haunting story of the survivors, whose grief over the past and anxiety about the future cannot be resolved in bricks and mortar or erased by cheerful government propaganda about “the new Beichuan.” In today’s China, even the worst disaster can be an occasion for celebrating the country’s achievements and its anticipated great future. Yet in China, as elsewhere—and as movingly captured by Fallen City—suffering in the face of death and displacement follows a path determined more by humanity’s search for meaning than by the politics of the day.

—-

The film is the first directed by Qi Zhao, whose last credit was executive producing “Last Train Home”, about which I wrote:

“Last Train Home” is the latest movie that departs from the globalization-is-wonderful ideology of Thomas Friedman, Jagdish Bhagwati, and other prophets of neoliberalism. Some are fictional, such as “Blind Shaft”, a movie about miners forced to work in virtual slavery. Others are documentaries like “Still Life” that depict the loss of livelihood and ties to the land that the Three Gorges Dam posed.

Directed by a Canadian Lixin Fan, whose last film “Up the Yangtze” explored the same issues as “Still Life”, “Last Train Home” focuses on a single family whose life has been torn apart by China’s rapid industrialization.

Changhua Zhan and his wife Suqin Chen both work on sewing machines in a typical export-oriented factory in the Guangdong province. Each New Year’s holiday, they take a train back to their rural village to see their teenaged daughter Qin Zhang and her younger brother Yang Zhang. This is not as easy as it seems since there are far more people trying to get a ticket than are available. The train station is a sea of humanity with cops and soldiers trying to keep order. Although the film does not comment on why this is the case (it sticks to a cinéma vérité format), it strikes this reviewer as the likely outcome of a society that no longer places much emphasis on public transportation as it once did. (There are signs that this is beginning to change recently, but one doubts that it will have any impact on the poorer migrant workers for a while.)

full: http://louisproyect.org/2010/11/28/last-train-home/

I expect this to be a very important film.

July 25, 2014

Smoking hot soap operas

Filed under: Counterpunch,popular culture,television — louisproyect @ 12:01 pm

Smoking Hot Soap Operas

by LOUIS PROYECT

For most of my life I have remained immune to the dubious charms of the soap opera, either the daytime or evening varieties.

In the 1970s and 80s when shows like “Dynasty” and “Dallas” captivated the nation, I much preferred to listen to the radio. TV held very little interest for me except for football games on Sunday or shows like “All in the Family” that spoke to American social realities.

More recently a couple of evening soaps struck a chord in a way that nothing in the past ever did. I say this even as the creative team behind them would most likely disavow the term soap opera. After making their case to CounterPunch readers looking for some mindless entertainment (god knows how bad that it needed in these horrific times), I want to offer some reflections on why this genre retains such a powerful hold.

A couple of weeks ago, while scraping through the bottom of the Netflix barrel, I came across “Grand Hotel”, a Spanish TV show that has been compared to “Downton Abbey” on the basis of being set in the early 20th century and its preoccupation with class differences. Having seen only the very first episode of “Downton Abbey”, I was left with the impression that it was typical Masterpiece Theater fare, where class distinctions mattered less than costume and architecture.

 

read full article

February 17, 2014

Ed Murrow must be spinning in his grave

Filed under: media,television — louisproyect @ 2:24 am

January 13, 2014

“Girls” promo

Filed under: humor,television — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

September 30, 2013

The cinematography of “Breaking Bad”

Filed under: technology,television — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

After having made 28 videos, most of which were made with a prosumer JVC camera that cost me $3000, I have a pretty good idea of the capabilities of digital video and its limitations.

What you can’t get in the run-of-the-mill videocam is the ability to control depth of field as you would with a SLR camera. In other words if you were recording a baseball game, the catcher and the pitcher would get the same degree of focus. If you are using a film camera or the newer and rather expensive videocams that incorporate Digital SLR, you can manipulate the depth of focus for dramatic effect, such as zeroing in on a character. This image from an article titled “Using Depth of Field For Storytelling” should illustrate the effect:

Last night when I was watching the final episode of “Breaking Bad”, it hit me what made the cinematography of “Breaking Bad” so riveting. It eschewed the narrow depth of focus illustrated in the image above even though it was using film. Instead, this was the typical image:

You’ll notice that everything has the same focus. The effect is usually unsettling since it is basically the perspective of the human eye rather than the camera. Neither the objects in the foreground nor background are emphasized. It gives you the feeling of being a fly on the wall. It also lends itself to the non-judgmental POV that made the show so interesting.

An interview with the cinematographer for “Breaking Bad” makes a series of interesting points. The show avoided the use of hand-held cameras, especially in action scenes. By now, the shaky images meant to convey an excited state are a cliché that every smart cinematographer should avoid. The one who worked on “Breaking Bad” was exceedingly smart.

The other thing noted in the article is the use of natural light. The scenes of the New Mexico desert and the streets of Albuquerque are as important to the show as Bryan Cranston’s facial tics and stammer. If you want to see where he picked up these tricks, just watch Laurence Olivier in “Marathon Man”.

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