The Phantom Carriage (1921)

New Year’s Eve is deemed as the one poignant day upon which humankind bestows great introspection and reflection on the past year in perspective of their life thus far. “What have I accomplished?” “How have I changed?” “Am I truly ‘one year older and wiser’?” “What does my future hold?” These are a small sample of the questions we may ponder on this day. Many celebrate the fresh hope and opportunity that arise from self-analysis, while others may unfortunately be left feeling despondent. “The Phantom Carriage” is a 1921 Swedish silent film directed by Victor Sjostrom displaying the extreme ends of this pendulum of thought taking place near the midnight hour of this very fateful day of contemplation.

Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) is a highly benevolent yet naive worker of the Salvation Army who is sadly near death due to tuberculosis. During the greatest depths of her illness on New Year’s Eve, she asks her mother (Concordia Selander) and dear friend Sister Maria (Lisa Lundholm) for a man named David Holm (Victor Sjostrom) to visit her. Before meeting this character, a sentiment of disdain and anger has already cultivated towards him. Upon meeting him, the contempt harboured towards him seems quite justified. He is also completely ignorant to the cautionary tale his friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) had told him about “The Phantom Carriage”. The very last person who dies on New Year’s Eve must drive the carriage, and they must also be at all costs obedient to Death itself. Little did Mr. Holm know that he would meet that fate and be greeted by a dear friend who, as in similar fashion to Jacob Marley, prompts ample pause for the “maturity of the soul” through past events, behaviours, and untimely consequences.

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I would be amiss if I did not discuss the technical brilliance of this film. I cannot imagine that double exposure techniques were frequently developed in film at the time. This is absolutely central in increasing the effectiveness of telling this particular story. Furthermore, I found the tones of the images were interesting with brown being representative of indoor settings and blue of outdoors. Neither colour is particularly warm, potentially symbolizing the false sense of shelter in which Holm has enveloped himself. Furthermore, several images in this film have been highly influential in shaping the structure of “The Seventh Seal” and “The Shining”, two of the most iconic films in cinematic history in my opinion.

“The Phantom Carriage” itself is a burden to the lost spirits who have to carry its weight for a full year. However, it is also a symbol for the spiritual and emotional strain that many drag with them on a daily basis. Many of our actions and thoughts are resultant of fear, contempt, and anger. In other words, they are reactionary to the lack of core vitality and humanity necessary to achieving wholeness and true presence. Decency, kindness, and compassion embody the true human condition. Overall, this film does an exemplary job in reminding viewers of the importance of responsibility, love, and respect as integral aspects of our functioning. Grief for former possibilities can be devastating upon the realization of their potential.

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This post is part of the Happy New Year Blogathon hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog! Please click on the link to check out other posts discussing films which take place on New Year’s Eve!

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Mulholland Drive (2001)

The presence of dreams on one’s life course can fluctuate but it is ever-present. The precise meaning of the word “dream” varies as well. Firstly, our ambitions/dreams create purpose and drive, focusing our attention towards actualizing achievement and hopeful fulfillment. In viewing and experiencing struggles and successes, we experience the unfolding reality of these aspirations. Furthermore, we think of the word in terms of neuronal firings and subsequent image displays of random events that have occurred in our reality while asleep. This combined with yearning daydreams can alter our own perception of the truth, dismissing actualities of our surrounding environment. “Mulholland Drive” is a 2001 psychological thriller directed by David Lynch delving into these fascinating concepts with the ultimate appropriate backdrop – Hollywood.

The tale begins with an impending kidnapping turned car accident on Mulholland Drive. Laura Elena Harring is the sole survivor, fearful for her safety and eventually hiding in a wealthy woman’s townhouse who is coincidentally and thankfully going on a vacation. Meanwhile, Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is a starstruck, wide-eyed, and aspiring actress who comes to Los Angeles from Deep River, Ontario. The very fashionable landlord Coco (the legendary Ann Miller) guides Betty to her Aunt Ruth’s luxurious townhouse. Betty discovers a female unknown to her in the apartment, who happens to be the lady who escaped the automobile accident. She calls herself “Rita” after seeing a movie poster of Gilda in the bathroom, diving into an episode of amnesia. Betty initiates and becomes entangled in a quest to rediscover Rita’s true identity. Further interrelated subplots occur during the story as well. They include a quest to find the dark-haired lady, revelation of a frightening dream in a diner, and threats to control a well-known director’s vision for his upcoming film. These stories culminate in a mind-blowing finale, introducing many more questions than answers.

primary_mulholland-drive-criterion-2015David Lynch is a master of detailed ambiguity. The majority of his films and TV series are filled with hidden gems and facets that are imperative in untangling non-linear screenplays. The beauty of his narratives are that these items and other plot devices are often unclear, as well as the presence of an obscure division between reality and fantasy. We therefore bring our own experiences, values, and beliefs in interpreting his films and creating meaning unique to our lives.

I must also highlight the collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti. His musical contribution to the brilliant Twin Peaks invites us to speculate impending doom yet appreciate beautiful simplicity. In this film, he accomplishes the same feat via minor chords and synthesized sounds. Silence is also key in appreciating moments of intensity and characters’ emotions, and the lack of music in those scenes is essential in accurately conveying those expressions.

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Crucial events in this film begin and end on Mulholland Drive. It is in this location whereby false hopes, shattered dreams, and lost identities unfold. The film industry certainly has its glamour, but it is not without its struggles especially related to control. Many other industries can create a facade of prestige, attracting naive, hopeful youth into their dream factory. This milieu can lead an individual to be swallowed whole by figurative piranhas. Large portions of their individuality, belief system, and personal lives may be sacrificed to mould their new and more amenable selves to the profession which now presides over their every move. Some may unfortunately not have the option to voice their opinions due to potential volatile oppression in these settings. While sometimes extremely difficult, the importance of maintaining our truths and being vocal can help to ensure that our principles are upheld in the face of major power imbalances.

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La Strada (1954)

An allegiance towards a person, group, or larger organization creates a sense of familiarity, grounding, and purpose in one’s destiny. Loyalty can allow an individual to flourish and grow with encouraging and proper supports. It can also perpetuate a sense of fulfillment and community. Conversely, loyalty may lead to subtle suppression of unique traits with authoritarian and dominating persons in one’s inner circle. Attachments, perceived rewards, and dependency are some factors continuing this reinforcing cycle. Various forms of abuse may emerge and propagate from this pattern. The devastatingly beautiful  “La Strada” is a 1954 Italian drama film directed by one of the masters, Federico Fellini, which examines such a relationship between a meek and mild young female and a domineering circus performer.

Gelsomina (Giuletta Mansina) is now the eldest daughter in a family living in poverty following the death of her sister, Rosa. Her mother begs her naive and impressionable daughter to travel with Rosa’s former travelling circus partner, the intimidating and vain strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn), so that the family’s basic needs can be met in the form of 10,000 lire. Gelsomina subsequently embarks upon this journey with her new work partner sometimes posing as a husband due to their living arrangements. Zampano’s expectations of Gelsomina’s abilities as a drummer, trumpeter, and announcer are slowly approved, but she remains subdued by his control. Her meeting and evolving friendship with the talented tightrope walker and rival of Zampano named Il Matto (Richard Basehart) implants an idea of individuality and strength into her innocent mind. Other events, encounters, and themes surrounding guilt, loss, sensitivity, faithfulness, brazenness, tragedy, and dignity additionally shape the course of the characters’ future paths.

The title translated into English means quite literally but also figuratively “the road”. The main characters work and nomadically live out of a tiny trailer attached to a faulty motorbike to earn a living. A great deal of time is spent on “the road” traversing from one community to the next, showcasing Zampano’s chest expansion abilities. However, the title refers to our evolution in our personal growth and relationships with and towards others as we face the ultimate joys, challenges, and sorrows. This is all part of the human experience. It is essential that we learn and nurture one another through this unbelievable and humbling adventure, as positive support systems are necessary for us to achieve our full potential while travelling through our personal highways.

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Yi Yi (2000)

Films transport us through a vast ocean in the spectrum of emotions. Happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, and pure bliss are just some examples. They also convey amplified yet sometimes realistic portrayals of life events which themselves stir the deepest sentiments in viewers. Those very tales may have occurred in the past, present, or are impending in the lives of those who are engulfed in the film’s reality. The beautiful 2000 film “Yi Yi” directed by Edward Yang is one of the greatest examples of everyday characters highly representative of many moviegoers. One of the characters in the film states that “movies give us twice what we get from daily life” by living vicariously through their eyes, hearts, thoughts, and actions.

The story focuses on the intergenerational Jian family from Taipei. Each member faces trials and tribulations that are central within their particular stages of life. The adorable eight-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) is quite the school prankster but is extremely inquisitive in trying to understand life’s truths. His teenage sister Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) is challenged by friendship, loyalty, lust, and loss. Their parents, NJ (Nianzhen Wu) and Min-Min (Elaine Jin), are separately questioning the course of their life trajectories. Their maternal grandmother (Ruyun Tang) suffered a hemorrhagic stroke early in the film, and family members aim to provide care and comfort in her final days on Earth. The film also traverses through a variety of life events, including a wedding, a funeral, a business trip, a Buddhist retreat, and a birth. Many other characters interact through each family member’s storyline and these events, playing integral roles in reflection and personal growth via various interweaving perspectives and differences.

There was one exceptional detail of cinematography that I found quite intriguing in this film – the use of glass and mirrors. Often, there would be two differing scenarios reflected by two sides of glass, usually a windowpane. The simultaneous struggles of two separate individuals were mirrored within the same frame, alluding to humanity’s worldwide daily clashes and endeavours. The use of mirrors would reflect the emotions felt by the characters in a 360-degree realm, a point accentuated by Yang-Yang. He feels as if he needs to look at the back and front of a person to truly appreciate their emotional undercurrents, and this technique allows us as viewers to do the same.

The title “Yi Yi” translates to “A One and a Two”. That particular phrase is commonly used as a brief warm-up signal prior to a musical performance. In relation to the film, NJ reveals to a potential business partner that he ended a romantic relationship secondary to the partner’s lack of appreciation for music. That action impacted his future, just as decisions made within the arrangement of a musical composition can dictate many facets of its performance. Extending beyond that example, there are many within the film warning of probable conflicts. Approaches and compositions in preventing turmoil can be quite different. Every decision we make can have positive or negative consequences, and we must face the outcomes if possible with great composure and consideration. In other words, it is important to manage our roles in life patiently – one step at a time.

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Yojimbo (1961) & Sanjuro (1962): Double Feature

Loyalty is a driving force behind many of our actions. The bonds of friendship, family entanglements, workplace duties, and an overall sense of respect and love for fellow humans motivate a conglomerate of purposeful activities. While our choices are often rooted with positive intentions, they may also be fuelled by fear, dishonesty, and betrayal. Unyielding overarching power may dictate decisions and planning within allegiances, and any moral compass may be tossed aside to feed egos. Themes of this nature are pervasive in the 1961 film “Yojimbo” and the 1962 film “Sanjuro”, directed by one of the masters of cinema, Akira Kurosawa.

Both of these films follow two distinct journeys of a nameless yet impeccably skilled ronin, played by frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune. When asked his name, he reports that his given name is “Sanjuro” (translated means thirty years old, although he claims to be “close to forty”) and his surname references species of nearby plants or vegetation. The stories in each film have different content. In “Yojimbo”, Sanjuro opts to continue his stay in an economically challenged town now overrun with opposing gangs. In the eponymous film, he aids a group of young samurai in challenging a seemingly powerful superintendent who has captured the leader’s morally sound uncle. Our fearless, shrewd, and wearied swordsman consistently champions against corruption. He also “can’t fight on an empty stomach”. Resounding commonalities weaving these stories together include betrayal, loyalty, facades, corruption, and friendship among other themes. Kurosawa’s impeccable cinematography draws us into the samurai world of mid-19th century, permitting us to form strong connections with the endearing and spiteful.

The word “yojimbo”translates into the word “bodyguard” in English. Indeed, that was Sanjuro’s initial goal within the battered Japanese community he encountered in the first film. While being a bodyguard or samurai for another perceivably more powerful individual could bring prestige and nobility, freedom and individuality is lost. Sanjuro uses his intellect to forge fragile alliances, and is completely aware that he must rely on them for survival and for the preservation of social justice. Uncertainty and dread is always palpable, but his autonomy remains of central importance. I feel as if this concept is central to Sanjuro’s character development, as he appears to be more grounded in his knowledge and sense of self in the latter film. I believe that he reminds audiences of the importance of discovering and maintaining an authentic identity in their life course. It is essential to protect this commodity, as individuals themselves can duplicate only their uniqueness. Overall, the process of self-discovery and self-love attunes us towards our passions and talents, which can then be used to protect and advocate for those most vulnerable.

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The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

Divisions and inequities between social classes have plagued the well-being of a multitude of societies for centuries. One major contributor to this boundary has been the wealthy profiting from the hard work of labourers. The truck system once used by merchants and fishermen in the nineteenth century in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada is one example of this exploitation. International demand and poor supply of codfish were important factors in determining the amount of credit that fishermen would receive in a season. However, merchants often engrossingly controlled this credit system. Many fishermen would remain in debt or barely make ends meet despite their arduous and sometimes life-threatening work. This type of working environment and indomitable power created constant fear and poverty. “The Tree of Wooden Clogs”, a 1978 Italian film directed by Ermanno Olmi, explores a similar contentious, fragile relationship between landowners and farmers in nineteenth century Italy.

Many joyous and trying stories envelop this film with bleak yet beautiful cinematography. The lives and alliances of four families harvesting vegetables and livestock are examined with a gradual pace, allowing the tales to humorously and sometimes tragically unfold as nature intended. Their rich landlord profits two thirds of their yearly harvest, a blatant exploitation of his tenants’ patience, talents, intelligence, and fortitude. In spite of this, the families collectively find solace in hope, religion, laughter, and support from one another. The sheer will and strength needed to survive in these often dire conditions is a testament to the mutual affection and respect shared between these families. I feel that a large aspect of the film’s authenticity lies in the actors and actresses originating from the farming province of Bergamo in Italy. This definitely allows for a heightened sense of awareness and connection to the hardships and successes of the types of stories portrayed in the film.

The title of the film refers to one instrumental storyline. Batisti (Luigi Ornaghi) recognizes that his young son Minec (Omar Brignoli) is having difficulty walking the collective eight miles to and from school daily secondary to his dilapidated clogs. He boldly chops down part of a tree on a well-traversed path by the landlord to lovingly construct new clogs for his son, as the family cannot afford to purchase new shoes. Batisti is highly aware of the gravity and potential financial consequences of his deed, but ignores these regulations to momentarily improve the well-being of his son. While his fears echo the utter hypocrisy of maltreatment of the poor, his defiance of “order” demonstrates that love and devotion always extend far beyond petty rules. The type of bravery and gumption that Batisti exercised has been demonstrated worldwide in many seemingly small acts. While some have led to persecution, others have led to the creation of unions and advancement in human rights. While sometimes difficult and resisted, doing what is right is the ultimate victory for humanity as a whole.

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As well, here is a link about the truck credit system: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/economy/truck-system.php

The Tin Drum (1979)

Childhood is a brief moment in human development whereby purity and innocence are the norm. A significant aspect of that time is spent in the depths of imaginative play with the aid of toys bought by well-meaning adults. The presents’ uses in play purposely and inadvertently serve to shield children from the mundane yet cruel world of adults. As time passes, former children decide whether to cling to the naiveties of their past or to embrace a new adult chapter in their lives with fortitude. The polarizing 1979 film “The Tin Drum” directed by Volker Schlondorff and adapted from the 1959 novel by Gunter Grass explores this struggle in the midst of the impending doom of WWII.

Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is introduced into the world with a promise of a tin drum at the age of three. His life leading up to this point is filled with confusion including the true identity of his father as well as the seemingly harsh conundrums adults face. He resolves that he never wants to grow up with the receipt of his tin drum, forcibly falling down a flight of stairs and permanently stunting his growth. Oskar subsequently discovers his talent for shattering glass via high-pierced shrieking, initially using this tool as a means of self-security. However, this aptitude does nothing to protect Oskar against the jarring actualities associated with adultery, death, romance, employment, discrimination, and the inhumanities of the Nazi party. Adulthood is beckoning Oskar; his appearance and his tin drum can no longer shield him.

This film was applauded by critics upon initial release, winning the lauded Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Palme d’Or. It was also met with great controversy regarding the portrayal of underage sex. Some aspects of the film were uncomfortable and difficult to watch. However, a blend of satire, comedy, and the contrast between Oskar’s inner fantasy world and the inevitability of living the full spectrum of life provides a very unique means of telling this dark story. We each experience bleakness in our lives, and use of our own versions of ‘tin drums’ as well as time as temporary shields. We may revert to childlike states in these circumstances. It is therefore vital to use a combination of our emotions and technical skills to face these challenges, helping us to feel accomplished and potentially propelling us into the next chapter of our lives.

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Fox and His Friends (1975)

Financial security is necessary for survival by humans in many jurisdictions of Planet Earth. This is usually achieved via employment, careful budgeting, and sometimes luck. This said luck grandiosely amplifies prior to an individual acquiring a great deal of wealth via other means, such as winning the lottery. However, sudden prosperity can evoke emotional confusion, exploitation, misguided self-worth, and a false sense of hope and stability. The dark side of perceived positive outcomes is an idea which many choose to ignore. “Fox and His Friends”, directed in 1975 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, carefully examines this rollercoaster scenario and somewhat taboo topic.

Franz Bieberkopf a.k.a. “Fox”, played by Fassbinder himself, works as a “talking head” at a local carnival. The employment of all carnival workers is compromised when the owner and partner of Fox, Klaus (Karl Scheydt) is arrested for tax fraud. It is evident that the two share a strong bond, and that the relationship’s forced dissolution could foreshadow a troublesome future. Contrary to these immediate thoughts, Fox wins 500,000 marks in the lottery which seems to be highly prospective in resolving his lack of incoming finances. All must be right in the world in this instance, as he additionally falls into a social circle of prominent, wealthy gay men. Sophistication and self-absorption enamours them, which is quite different from Fox’s original group of friends he more infrequently associates with at a local bar. Ultimately, Fox’s elatedness and naivety fails to dissect the truth of surrounding lies within the new group of “friends”, and a tumultuous journey filled with backstabbing, manipulation, infidelity, greed, dishonesty, and loss of true identity ensues.

I feel as if there is a duality within the title of the film. Fox’s true group of friends remains present as he navigates this new bourgeois way of life. They are also of the same social class as Fox once was, and this creates a common link between them. The title of “friends” for the shinier new assembly is sarcastic and hypocritical, yet Fox is drawn to them as he aspires to bask in their glory and ascend the social class ladder. This facade of bought popularity and love tantalizes many gullible people, especially those who may be in the midst of discovering their true sense of self. Persons in positions of power may swarm to prey upon others to exploit for their own means, as was the case with Fox. Overall, I believe that this film is a strong reminder to the viewers to take quality time to cultivate one’s own personal growth and true relationships. While strong financial planning cannot be underestimated, individual maturation and life experience could potentially assist us to resist the temptation of entering and partaking in a false world.

 

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L’Eclisse (1962)

All relationships in nature have an arc – a beginning, middle, and end. The length of time in said union may vary, and the stories entangling and contributing to each component make them unique. The finality of a relationship may expose a wide discrepancy of emotions based on its journey, including sadness, joy, and indifference. The subsequent avenues of exploration taken after a breakup can therefore be endless. Unlike La Notte, “L’Eclisse”, the final film of Antonioni’s trilogy of love and loss, begins with the end of a relationship and explores the course taken by the lead actress in its aftermath.

Vittoria (Monica Vitti) is a young literary translator who used her knowledge to aid her boyfriend, Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), in his work. The silent tension between them at the beginning of the film indicates impending dissolution, and that happens in the form of Vittoria ending her relationship with him due to lack of happiness. While he continues to occasionally pursue her, Vittoria dabbles in spending time with equally emotionally confused female friends. She also attempts to reconnect with her distant mother (Lilla Brignone), who is a frequent flyer of the Rome Stock Exchange. It is there that she meets Piero (Alain Delon), a young stockbroker obsessed with increasing his monetary wealth. Vittoria and Piero begin to spend time with one another, battling reservations in this budding courtship and surrounding threats, including loss, fear, greed, and anger. However, they are fuelled by the promise of a fresh start and hope.

A solar eclipse is often viewed as an extremely rare phenomenon in outer space, whereby the Moon’s view is temporarily blocked. Contrarily, eclipses occur on a daily basis in terms of human interactions. Certain internal and external events may prevent us from experiencing life at its supreme. One such event is an affair and its impact on a current relationship, both explored in L’Avventura and La Notte. While many are absorbed in the details of ensuring a properly functioning bond with their partner, another eclipse that occurs is the loss of individuality and personal identity. I feel that this is the true common thread linking this beautifully expressed trilogy. As well, the stunning composition and editing of the revered end scene highlights the memories of physical spaces and lost promises of former optimism. “L’Eclisse” is therefore a fitting title to the final chapter.

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Ugetsu (1953)

The spirit world has been a source of polarizing contention throughout human history. The concepts of “spirits” and “ghosts” evoke multiple emotions, including fear, solace, apprehension, and peace. Certain drastic events in history may be associated with spirits, such as the Salem Witch Trials. Depending upon our beliefs, spirits’ presence and aura may serve to aid us in understanding and solidifying our own individual sense of self, as well as our connections with others and our surrounding environment. The Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life explores this idea, as well as the stunning 1953 Japanese medieval fantasy film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi named “Ugetsu Monogatari”.

The black-and-white film is set in the humble village of Nakanogo, where we follow the story of two couples. Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) create and sell beautiful pottery, supporting themselves and their adorable young son, Genichi (Ikio Sawamura). Tobei (Sakae Ozawa) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) operate a farm, whereby Tobei has immeasurable dreams of becoming a samurai. Amidst their perceived tranquility, there is impending and inevitable chaos in their village created by the army of Shibata Katsuie. This consequentially leads to separation, displacement, and abandonment of responsibilities. Tobei becomes relentless on his quest to become that of an oxymoronic figure who damaged his home and relationship, while Genjuro encounters a beautiful, wealthy woman of seeming nobility in the form of Lady Wasaka (Machiko Kyo).

The English translation of the title is “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”, as the ancient East Asian tales from which the story is based revolves around natural elements forewarning humans of the uncontrollable spiritual forces. The film has a splendid mystical quality reflecting the original tales, supported by smooth transitioning between fantasy and reality and occasional hazy cinematography. Furthermore, fairy tales are often disguised cautionary tales to their readers about indulgence, patriarchy, dishonesty, greed, and inevitable destruction if we become highly swept into an imaginary world at the expense of others’ well-beings. This film effortlessly exemplifies and reinforces these themes, additionally resonating with audiences post-WWII in the aftermath of worldwide exploitation of power. “Ugetsu” is a pertinent reminder that our commitment to family, friends, and our communities is the glue which allows us to remain steadfast in the face of outside challenges which threaten our unique essence.

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