Monthly Archives: June 2010

It’s Alive, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Killer Baby

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like anxieties over blood ties with a monster baby.]


As I’ve made apparent, I have a fondness for pregnancy/infant/child horror. It’s a kind of horror that is very palpable to me, probably due to my own deeply internalized fears of pregnancy, child birth, and children overall. It’s Alive (1974) is one of the best examples of pregnancy and family anxieties manifesting themselves in a monster child. The film opens up with a happy couple on their way to the hospital; Lenore Davis is pregnant with her second child. They send their son, Chris, to a friend’s to wait the night and head to the hospital for what is supposed to be a beautiful, happy occurrence. The situation quickly devolves into terror when, upon birth, their infant  slaughters the entire room of doctors and nurses before disappearing, causing a city-wide panic. What follows is as much a well-written family drama as it is a horror story.

The movie does an excellent job of presenting motherhood, and even femaleness itself, as a state of Otherness. From the very beginning after the child disappears from the hospital, the doctors and Frank Davis do a great job of continually oppressing Lenore. Frank  makes decisions about the mutant infant’s fate with the doctors without consulting Lenore first; the doctors give her placating drugs and suggest that she not even be downstairs in her own home due to the stress. Their clinically disconnected treatment of Lenore reminds me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, wherein a woman’s neurosis and depression is deemed a feminine psychosomatic condition and she is ‘fixed’ with fresh air, pills and a refusal to let her work, despite what she wants for herself; she eventually goes bat shit insane. A similar fate awaits Lenore Davis.

The men around her- doctors, officers, and even (or most especially) her husband-do not experience the emotional investment that Lenore does in giving birth to an abnormal child who then immediately goes missing and therefore do not take it into account. They do not consider the psychological implications of carrying a pregnancy to term only to have it end with something arguably worse than the worst case scenarios of miscarriage or still-birth. Her increasingly deluded behavior is set on the back-burner in light of the threat facing the innocent citizens and her husband doesn’t have the patience or emotional capacity to deal with his family. He keeps his son, Chris, at a constant distance, refusing to bring him home or tell him what’s actually going on (which leads to deadly disaster later) and he refuses to listen to Lenore, whether she’s ruminating on how their infant came to be or falling quietly into madness.

Frank spends most of the movie struggling with the idea that the blood flowing through the killer infant’s veins links him irrevocably to Frank and his family. He lashes out at the police officers, unprovoked, demanding to know why they look at him as if it’s his child, before desperately denying any feelings for it;  after shooting at the baby, he tells Chris ‘it’s of no relation to us’. He further denounces any relation to the baby by implying to Lenore that Chris is ‘my son’ and asking her ‘see what your baby did…’ after the child kills a family friend.  This attitude reflects societal ideas about family ties; your family and how they act and what they are reflects on you as a person. Many people want to sever some family ties or disown certain members of their families for not living or acting or being a way that they find acceptable (of course, in the case of rampant murdering, the desire to obliterate ties makes sense). In Frank’s case, making Lenore responsible for the feral infant helps alleviate some of his guilt and stress. Frank, as the patriarch, can claim the normal child as his own, whereas Lenore is the bearer of a rotten fruit.

Despite the clear danger the Davis baby presents, Lenore, in her mentally unstable state, attempts to mother the infant; as was the case with Rosemary, blood is thicker than fear and maternal instincts override very real, dangerous realities. It’s Alive presents us with a foreign femininity that is misunderstood and ignored by male professionals; an image of hysterical motherhood that is both stereotype and reality. What mother wouldn’t defend her baby, her child, her flesh? Besides, he’s not ugly….


“I always think that things that are small are more frightening than things that are large.” – Larry Cohen

Babies are supposed to be defenseless. They’re not supposed to attack. But in the world of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive, modernity is toxic. So when the Davis family’s second child (the titular “it”) emerges from its mother’s womb, it can already defend itself, and leaves the delivery room a bloody mess. At its core, though, this isn’t a movie about nurses and joggers being cut down by the infant’s fangs. It’s about one family’s disintegration, and society’s complete failure to put them back together again. It’s about a house whose offspring has been corrupted by forces both inside and outside.

But yes, the starting point for that disintegration is a feral baby on a killing spree. The Davis baby’s unusual physiology gives new meaning to the words “family emergency,” and its parents are totally unable to cope. Frank is a white-collar PR man with a bad temper, and he can’t keep up with the onslaught of pressure from every angle: the unscrupulous media; his smarmy, two-faced boss (“He won’t be coming back”); academics anxious to dissect the monstrosity; and the police, who lack his personal interest in the crisis. Everyone’s eager to personally profit from Frank’s situation, forcing him to isolate himself from all of them, his wife included. “Should’ve known better than to trust anybody,” he mutters after a nurse turns out to be a journalist in disguise. With the Davis family marked as different, the scavengers descend.

Lenore doesn’t fare any better. While Frank runs around, fending off attacks on himself and his family, she’s cooped up in her room as a consequence of medical advice. From her initial protests at the hospital to her screams as she’s being carted away – “What does my baby look like?” – she’s systematically ignored and excluded from the entire medical process. The doctors, supposed experts on matters of the human body, use any excuse to discount her opinion, and what choice does she have? First she’s a hysterical mother giving birth, then she’s drugged, then she’s post-partum, then she’s the mother of a mutant child. Her own experience of her own body is discredited because it’s colored by maternal emotion.

Her only outlet is to go crazy, which she does with aplomb. One moment she’s theorizing out loud that untested pharmaceuticals (foisted on her by the medical establishment) could’ve caused the birth defects; the next, she’s laughing like mad at Looney Tunes. Later, she frantically cleans house as if trying to make her family normal again. It’s Alive is about the horror of a family attempting to survive 20th century industrial society. The baby’s existence tears it parents apart along gendered lines, leading the father out into the public domain (gun in hand) while the mother manages what’s left of the home. The mother reacts by shielding her child; the father flatly denies his parentage… until overcome by the infant’s sobs.

The baby, after all, wants nothing more than to be with its family. It visits its brother Chris’s school, then journeys to the Davis homestead, where it symbolically drains several jars of (its mother’s) milk. It mutilates the family cat, but Chris accepts it as kin. “Don’t worry… don’t be scared,” he reassures the baby. “I’ll protect you.” It’s Alive interrogates the very concept of a “normal family,” especially in such an abnormal, unreliable society. Ultimately, for each member of the family, the most “normal” value is the protection of the newborn son. As Carol J. Clover says in Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Frank is “maternalized” (86), but it’s not just that he accepts a shift in gender role. He also comes to prioritize the unity of his family above external forces of law and order. This decision arrives too late, however, and the film’s bleak conclusion renders its hard-earned exchange of values totally moot.

While last month’s entry in the Final Girl Film Club, City of the Living Dead, worked mostly because it had oodles and oodles of gore, It’s Alive carefully rations out its graphic violence. The baby is only shown in shadows and quick close-ups, easily disappearing into the corners of the school or Chris’s room – environments where a child is more welcome than the police. The film methodically builds up its oppressive atmosphere so that even the act of opening of a fridge is imbued with terror. In another movie, our attention might’ve been fixed on the baby’s bloodied victims, like the milkman or the family friend Charlie. Here, they’re collateral damage to the central tragedy, practically relegated to afterthoughts. The motif of flashing lights, which fill the screen at the beginning and the sewers at the end, configures the outside world as hostile and intrusive, a massive entity that persecutes the Davis family (including its second child).

In its mood and style, It’s Alive barely resembles a “typical” horror movie; it feels more like a tense family drama. It could even be a cousin to John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, another 1974 film about motherhood under assault. Other scenes look more like a Dirty Harry-style cop thriller. One of the keys to It’s Alive’s greatness is its refusal to be pinned down by genre or formula. It even works some dark comedy into its warped approach to childrearing. (For example, the camera lingers momentarily on a glittery sign on the back of a school bus which reads “STOP CHILDREN.”) In this aspect, it’s somewhat like Splice, another parenthood parable I recently reviewed. However, while that movie buried itself in its mad scientist clichés and its yen to go over the top, It’s Alive’s versatile director Larry Cohen keeps the action solidly rooted in the traumas of the Davis family.

Also like Splice, It’s Alive turns to Frankenstein as a metaphor for its conflict. (And as a source for its title, which is no longer Dr. Frankenstein’s “eureka,” but instead a pulpy announcement of impending horror.) During a conversation with a pair of university doctors, Frank ruminates on seeing the Karloff film version as a child, then reading the Shelley novel in high school. “I realized that Frankenstein was the doctor who created him. Somehow the identities get all mixed up, don’t they?” By the end of the film, Frank realizes that maybe being a father isn’t so far removed from being a mad scientist after all. The film’s beautifully menacing final line – “Another one’s been born in Seattle” – furthers indicts all American families as potentially hazardous laboratories. So who knows? Maybe right now there’s a couple at work in a bedroom, accidentally breeding a monster.


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Images of Wild, Wild Planet

I recently entered the 366 Weird Movies June review writing contest; you can check out my review here. However, if you’re more visually-inclined, I have a treat for you: more screenshots from this bastion of Italian sci-fi weirdness, Wild, Wild Planet. Enjoy!

This last image might be my favorite, if only because of the dialogue that immediately follows it:

[The officer on Mike’s right tries to touch the mutant.]

Scientist: No, don’t touch it!

Officer: Why not?

Scientist: I’m not certain, but… don’t touch it.

All this after Mike and the scientist both touch it repeatedly. That planet sure is wild, wild.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Bill Nye and The Magic School Bus

Sorry about last weekend’s lack of a theme song, but this should more than make up for it: a double feature! It’s like chocolate plus vanilla. Or in this case, Bill Nye the Science Guy plus The Magic School Bus. They’re both über-educational PBS shows that got me into science at an early age. Both shows’ main tactic was to prove to kids that, as Nye would say, “science rules!” I’m so grateful to have grown up in an era when educational initiatives were filling the airwaves. Every time I turn on PBS now, it’s nothing but Caillou and Clifford. I have nothing against those shows, but they’re indisputably missing the je ne sais awesome that defined my pre-preschool weekday mornings.

Just look at Bill Nye, for example. The show ran from 1993-98, with a total of 100 episodes, but no amount of Bill Nye could be enough. The man was a born TV personality – wise, trustworthy, and believable – as well as an honest-to-goodness scientist with a BA in engineering from Cornell. He could poke fun at himself, make science-themed song parodies, and point out all of science’s cool everyday applications, but still retain a veneer of serious authority. He coupled funny sound effects with real, repeatable scientific experiments like no one else ever has. The intro, with a theme song by Mike Greene, showed kids all the trappings of science – from telescopes to dinosaurs – before any of them had a chance to change the channel.

The Magic School Bus had a similar mission, to teach kids fun science and real science at the same time. But instead of doing it directly through flashy tutorials and montages, its technique was somewhat more… immersive. I.e., it made its cast of third-graders participate in whatever scientific phenomenon was being discussed. They turned into bats, lizards, and salmon; they traveled across the solar system; they delved quite literally into the specifics of the human digestive system. Basically, MSB was the narrative counterpart to Bill Nye’s didacticism. But the show wasn’t just about learning through magic-enabled experience; it too had an authority figure in the form of Mrs. Frizzle, or “The Frizz,” voiced by the wonderful Lily Tomlin. Eccentric and lovable, she was without a doubt the teacher every kid wanted to have.

I should also mention an awesome recurring feature of The Magic School Bus, in which “The Producer” (voiced by Malcolm Jamal Warner) would field phone calls and admit which parts of the episode were scientifically inaccurate. Not only was the show a fantastic blend of fun and education, but it also pointed out its own inconsistencies! And I could listen to that theme song, performed by the great Little Richard, until I wear out the YouTube video. Both of these shows were perfect introductions to the world of science, using quirky characters to teach kids that science does, in fact, rule. Did you know that? Well, now you know.

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Images of Ossessione

I recently saw Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), a pioneering work of neorealism and proto-noir. It’s based on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and although Visconti’s fugitive lovers are pointedly rooted in the economic upheavals of 1940s Italy, the film still establishes a mood I very much identify with Cain: Gino and Giovanna share desperately erotic moments while fate tightens its steely grip. Visconti merges the doomed romanticism of hard-boiled literature with an eye for the details of everyday village life.

Suffice it to say, it’s both very sexy and very tragic. Instead of writing extensively about it, however, I’ve selected a few stills from the film to show what I’m talking about. What especially interested me was how Gino (Massimo Girotti) is visually represented. He’s often rendered in terms of flesh, whether working as a mechanic for Giovanna’s husband or making love to her behind his back – his body is seen as both an economic and sexual force. In any event, it’s a beautifully photographed film. Any thoughts?

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Sugar, Splice, and Everything Nice

Last Thursday, I went to see Splice. It didn’t sound great, necessarily, but I’d read conflicting reviews of it across the horror blogosphere, so I figured I might as well go check it out. (Besides, in theaters full of mediocre sequels and Marmaduke, it was pretty much the only appealing movie.) As expected, it wasn’t great, but it was food for thought, so I’m writing a review based on the notes I took while watching it. (Yes, I’m that kind of movie nerd.)

As you’ve probably read elsewhere already, Splice is about a pair of genetic engineers who tumble down the slippery slope, watch things spiral out of control, and endure other metaphors for incremental chaos. In short: Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are young, they’re in love, and they clone things. They work for a corporation that pays them to produce special proteins; Elsa – against Clive’s wishes – decides to take their work to the next level, leaving them with a rapidly-growing chimera baby named Dren.

But, well, Elsa gets attached to Dren, then Dren gets attached to Clive, they go to a farmhouse in the countryside, a kitty dies… all the consequences you can easily foresee when you hear the words “mad scientist.” This is clearly co-writer/director Vincenzo Natali’s 21st century take on Frankenstein – the plot, character names, and the line “It’s alive,” constituting one big allusion – and he’s partially successful. The film cultivates many motifs already present in the Frankenstein story relating to the hell of parenthood, yielding a nice mix of black comedy and family melodrama. (Coincidentally enough, this is exactly what I thought of Seed of Chucky, which sustains this mood far better than Splice.)

Unfortunately, these delights are front-loaded, so Splice‘s second half is a lot less funny, clever, or logical – and the characters stop behaving in interesting or sensible ways. Granted, Elsa and Clive conform pretty well to the “absent-minded nerd” stereotype, subsisting on a diet of pizza, ramen, and tic tacs as they work on Dren. But as the film reaches its ickiest moment, science and reasonable decisions take a backseat to plot twists, which pretty much derailed my commitment to the movie. After that, it pretty much falls apart; much unnecessarily convoluted rape and murder ensue. It’s a real shame, because in a more deserving context, the closing scene could really have been powerful.

Focusing just on the first half of the movie, however, there’s a lot to love. The sudden scares and gross-outs you’d expect are pretty seamlessly incorporated alongside the interpersonal conflict. Clive and Elsa’s dispute over whether or not to keep Dren alive gets caught up with Dren’s own accelerating emotional problems, transmuting this little domestic squabble into pure horror. It’s just the right tense atmosphere for a simultaneous lesson in the ethics of science and parenting.

Alas, all of this promise just leads to a dead end. Elsa’s mother was crazy and abusive… but that doesn’t really go anywhere. Clive wants a child, then doesn’t want this child, then really wants this child… but then he and Elsa change their minds altogether. Much of Splice aspires to the cool, perverse genius of David Cronenberg. Between the tiny cast, secluded Canadian settings, and the curious coupling of science and sex, you can tell that Natali studied The Fly, and studied it well. But rather than ending with The Fly‘s controlled tragedy, Splice goes off in a million directions at once, and fails to make characters’ deaths count.

Like Dren, Splice includes many of the right ingredients for success. It has a pair of talented and attractive stars, some great special effects, and an intriguing, if not overly original, premise. But as with Dren, these parts fail to congeal as the experimenters lose sight of their original goals. It’s no masterpiece, but an intriguing mesh of disparate genetic material. Was this ever about cinema?

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One Hour Mark: Sweet Smell of Success

This is a picture of Burt Lancaster from 1:00:00 into Alexander Mackendrick’s caustic masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success (1957). A late entry in the cycle of classical noir, the film is about power plays in the New York press, as agents like Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco make dirty deals with columnists in order to advance their clients. Lancaster stars as J.J. Hunsecker, a bespectacled, all-powerful columnist based on Walter Winchell. By this point in the film, Falco has already made several lurid exchanges and betrayals to curry Hunsecker’s favor. Although this may feel a far cry from the somewhat bloodier material associated with film noir, Sweet Smell treads the same ground of human greed and corruption, and the stakes are just as high.

“He’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster,” is how one prospective victim describes Hunsecker, but it doesn’t quite do him justice. He’s power incarnate, and insists that this fact be acknowledged. He can be angry, panicked, calm, even loving, but every emotion is backed up by the knowledge of his supreme authority. This is a film about a city of lost souls, and in that context, Hunsecker is a god. Here, he’s giving a magnificent performance for his sister Susie (Susan Harrison). Although he’s indirectly responsible for the smear that got her boyfriend’s band fired, he plays the caring older brother to win her over. He may be able to dispatch anyone with a curt dismissal, but with his sister, he takes some tact.

The scene plays out in stages: first, he’s the approachable patriarch. “Now, take it easy, Susie,” he says, “you don’t have to protest with me.” As Susie cuts to the point, he gets indignant and reveals his self-interest, his voice growing sharper: “You’ve had your say, let me have mine!” The authoritarian in him emerges, and by the one hour mark, he has her almost reduced to tears. Then he goes at her from a different angle: “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” J.J. is brother, father, priest, and king all rolled into one. He’s also a master manipulator. Lancaster played a number of roles like this – as Sinclair Lewis’s firebrand preacher in Elmer Gantry, or as a fascist general staging a coup in Seven Days in May – but none so effective and terrifying as J.J.

In these films, Lancaster showed the dark sides of powerful men. J.J. is almost nothing but dark side, power wielded for its own sake. Charles Foster Kane may have wanted love on his own terms, but at least he had lost dreams and forgotten potential. J.J. doesn’t even have a first name to humanize him; there’s nothing but a pair of slick initials. His only weakness is his sister, and as we can see here, he has his own methods for taking care of her. It’s only later in the film, as she falls further out of his orbit, that J.J.’s problems really start… but even then, they’re displaced onto Sidney, the eternal fall guy.

In J.J., Lancaster forges one of the great characters in all of film, a man of stone whose sister is his feet of clay. Lancaster is a monolith, and his glasses look both professorial and razor sharp. For Mackendrick and his cinematographer, the great James Wong Howe, the entire crooked city of New York is extension of J.J.’s perversion and power. J.J.’s apartment is the epicenter from which his corruption radiates. Like J.J., it initially looks welcoming and reliable, but under Howe’s camera, each room becomes menacing and bleak. So in this image, we have two all-American icons of security – the patriarch and the home – mutated into cold, controlling monsters. And that, my friends, is film noir.

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Science and Humanity in The Quiet Earth

Brief autobiographical note: it’s summer and I’m unemployed, so I really have nothing better to do than write movie reviews. Yet my new living quarters (and their lack of wireless Internet) has thrown my film writing tendencies all out of whack. This post is part of my attempt to remedy that and get my criticism groove back. It’s also the beginning of a summer quasi-series in which Ashley and I will discuss sci-fi/horror movies from Australia and New Zealand. Because hey, who doesn’t love cinema from Down Under?

Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth (1985) belongs to that hallowed tradition of “Is there anybody out there?” stories. They’re stories like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and its film adaptations, or the first episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where Is Everybody?” They prey on the human fear of loneliness; they ask, what if you were an island unto yourself? The Quiet Earth’s depressed scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), however, also has to deal with a worsening manmade apocalypse, plus sexual and ethnic tensions.

And just as you couldn’t have The Last Man on Earth without Vincent Price, The Quiet Earth just wouldn’t work if Lawrence wasn’t one hell of an actor. I first saw him as a deranged colonist out for revenge in Murphy’s earlier film Utu. Here, he’s similarly driven off the deep end by a traumatic experience (in this case, thinking he’s the only person alive), but he doesn’t stop at making compound rifles. During the first third of the film, he enjoys wish fulfillment, roleplaying, and cross-dressing, culminating in a press conference (for cardboard cut-outs of world leaders) at which he declares himself president of earth.

Lawrence’s easy slide from lonely desperation to histrionic madness is a good match with the ironic eye of Murphy’s camera, which presents his rapid decline as a function of his empty environment. As it follows Zac’s antics, the film is bipolar, pairing his longing and regret with some dark humor. The mood stabilizes somewhat, however, once the other two characters are introduced: Joanne, a pretty redhead, and Api, a militant Maori. Yes, we have a love triangle, but it doesn’t take over the story; it just complicates matters. As with all of my favorite science fiction, cosmic catastrophes are just a pretense for probing the human psyche, whether in Zac’s psychosis or in his relationships with the others.

Some of the film’s sharpest points are about scientific progress and the potential for disaster. Zac feels guilty for his participation in Operation Flashlight, an international experiment in alternative energy that may have caused “The Effect” and erased most of the earth’s inhabitants. I’m reminded of Lindsay Ellis’s recent post about “playing God” and how “Science Is Bad” in sci-fi movies. While The Quiet Earth’s characters occasionally discuss their situation in these terms, the film’s too smart to just lay out a science = evil equation. In its last third, for example it delves into the interpersonal consequences of Zac’s status as a scientist, both in his culpability and his specialized knowledge, and how it alienates him from Joanne and Api.

By making Zac’s lab a single unit in a broader project headed by a secretive American team, the film also locates its apocalypse within Cold War politics. According to The Quiet Earth, it’s not Zac or science that’s to blame so much as the whole system of West vs. East that makes the clandestine deployment of Operation Flashlight necessary. (I’m reminded of Dr. Strangelove here: “Mr. President, [the Doomsday machine] is not only possible, it is essential.”) During his mental breakdown press conference, Zac proclaims,

I have dedicated all my scientific knowledge and skill to projects which I knew could be put to evil purposes… for the common good, they said.

This isn’t just another disaster movie where a scientist has to hurry and fix what his hubristic experiments fucked up. Embedded in The Quiet Earth’s surface narrative is some very subtle satire about the uses and abuses of science in the mid-’80s. It’s about cost and accountability on personal and national levels. And it’s all the more relevant now in an age of oil spills and global climate change. Murphy, with writer/producer Sam Pillsbury, goes where many other filmmakers wouldn’t, as Joanne and Api observe that the scientific establishment is a boys’ club, and a white boys’ club at that.

This trenchant statement about scientific ethics adds considerably to The Quiet Earth’s power; this is definitely a thinking man’s sci-fi. The structure of the story itself reflects Zac’s desire to understand his situation, as the viewer is fed only enough information to keep them invested in the film, with some facts kept tantalizingly out of reach. Did Operation Flashlight really cause the Effect? If so, how? What does the ending mean? It’s one of those films that has numerous interpretations built into it, because its plot is almost allegorically simple, with the emphasis reserved for smaller, more human moments.

And underlying all of this is Geoff Murphy’s delightful visual sensibility. As you can see, The Quiet Earth is shot in and around ultra-modern ’80s settings; in keeping with the film’s mingling of humor and despair, Murphy foregrounds electronics, mannequins, cars, and other objects that have outlasted their human creators. The city frequently looks like it’s about engulf Zac, who grows paranoid of his silent, motionless surroundings. The fact that the film is set in a land as vast and open as New Zealand only amplifies this effect, which reaches its pinnacle in the film’s final moments. It’s the film’s most famous scene – even used on poster art – but I won’t spoil it here. Go check out The Quiet Earth and experience for yourself that sublime image of the rearranged cosmos.

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