Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Musings of a cigarette smoking man

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After the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton died earlier this week, Deadspin reprinted a profile by Steve Oney from the early eighties that offers a glimpse of a man whom many of us recognized but few of us knew. It captured Stanton at a moment when he was edging into a kind of stardom, but he was still open about his doubts and struggles: “It was Eastern mysticism that began to help me. Alan Watts’s books on Zen Buddhism were a very strong influence. Taoism and Lao-tse, I read much of, along with the works of Krishnamurti. And I studied tai chi, the martial art, which is all about centering oneself.” Oney continues:

But it was the I Ching (The Book of Changes) in which Stanton found most of his strength. By his bedside he keeps a bundle of sticks wrapped in blue ribbon. Several times every week, he throws them (or a handful of coins) and then turns to the book to search out the meaning of the pattern they made. “I throw them whenever I need input,” he said. “It’s an addendum to my subconscious.” He now does this before almost everything he undertakes—interviews, films, meetings. “It has sustained and nourished me,” he said. “But I’m not qualified to expound on it.”

I was oddly moved by these lines. The I Ching doesn’t tell you what the future will be, but it offers advice on how to behave, which makes it the perfect oracle for a character actor, whose career is inextricably tied up with luck, timing, persistence, and synchronicity.

Stanton, for reasons that even he might have found hard to grasp, became its patron saint. “What he wants is that one magic part, the one they’ll mention in film dictionaries, that will finally make up for all the awful parts from early in his career,” Oney writes. That was thirty years ago, and it never really happened. Most of the entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is devoted to listing Stanton’s gigantic filmography, and its one paragraph of analysis is full of admiration for his surface, not his depths:

He is among the last of the great supporting actors, as unfailing and visually eloquent as Anthony Mann’s trees or “Mexico” in a Peckinpah film. Long ago, a French enthusiastic said that Charlton Heston was “axiomatic.” He might want that pensée back now. But Stanton is at least emblematic of sad films of action and travel. His face is like the road in the West.

This isn’t incorrect, but it’s still incomplete. In Oney’s profile, the young Sean Penn, who adopted Stanton as his mentor, offers the same sort of faint praise: “Behind that rugged old cowboy face, he’s simultaneously a man, a child, a woman—he just has this full range of emotions I really like. He’s a very impressive soul more than he is a mind, and I find that attractive.” I don’t want to discount the love there. But it’s also possible that Stanton never landed the parts that he deserved because his friends never got past that sad, wonderful face, which was a blessing that also obscured his subtle, indefinable talent.

Stanton’s great trick was to seem to sidle almost sideways into the frame, never quite taking over a film but immeasurably enriching it, and he’s been a figure on the edges of my moviegoing life for literally as long as I can remember. He appeared in what I’m pretty sure was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theater, Philip Borsos’s One Magic Christmas, which prompted Roger Ebert to write: “I am not sure exactly what I think about Harry Dean Stanton’s archangel. He is sad-faced and tender, all right, but he looks just like the kind of guy that our parents told us never to talk to.” Stanton got on my radar thanks largely to Ebert, who went so far as to define a general rule: “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” And my memory is seasoned with stray lines and moments delivered in his voice. As the crooked, genial preacher in Uforia: “Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” Or the father in Pretty in Pink, after Molly Ringwald wakes him up at home one morning: “Where am I?” Or Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ, speaking to the aged Jesus: “You know, I’m glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you.” One movie that I haven’t seen mentioned in most retrospectives of his career is Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart, in which Stanton unobtrusively holds his own in the corner of the film that killed Zoetrope Studios. Thomson describes his work as “funny, casual, and quietly disintegrating,” and when the camera pans sideways near the beginning of the film as he asks Frederick Forrest’s character why he keeps buying so much junk, it’s as if he’s talking to Coppola himself.

Most of all, I’ve always loved Stanton’s brief turn as Carl, the owner of the Fat Trout trailer park in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in which he offered the FBI agents “a cup of Good Morning America.” And one of the great pleasures of the revival of Twin Peaks was the last look it gave us of Carl, who informed a younger friend: “I’ve been smoking for seventy-five years—every fuckin’ day.” Cigarettes were curiously central to his mystique, as surely as they shaped his face and voice. Oney writes: “In other words, Stanton is sixty going on twenty-two, a seeker who also likes to drive fast cars, dance all night, and chain-smoke cigarettes with the defiant air of a hood hanging out in the high school boy’s room.” In his last starring role, the upcoming Lucky, he’s described as having “outlived and out-smoked” his contemporaries. And, more poignantly, he said to Esquire a decade ago: “I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive.” Smoking, like casting a hexagam, feels like the quintessential pastime of the character actor—it’s the vice of those who sit and wait. In an interview that he gave a few years ago, Stanton effortlessly linked all of these themes together:

We’re not in charge of our lives and there are no answers to anything. It’s a divine mystery. Buddhism, Taoism, the Jewish Kabbalah—it’s all the same thing, but once it gets organized it’s over. You have to just accept everything. I’m still smoking a pack a day.

If you didn’t believe in the I Ching, there was always smoking, and if you couldn’t believe in either one, you could believe in Stanton. Because everybody’s got to believe in something.

Quote of the Day

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Intuition attracts those who wish to be spiritual without any bother, because it promises a heaven where the intuitions of others can be ignored…The man who believes a thing is true because he feels it in his bones is not really very far removed from the man who believes it on the authority of a policeman’s truncheon.

E.M. Forster, Abinger Harvest

Written by nevalalee

September 22, 2017 at 7:30 am

Talking the Talk

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A few days ago, while reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, I came across the following passage about William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker:

Nowadays Shawn is nearly as famous for his oddities as for his editorial prowess. The catalog of his phobias and behavioral tics, the intrigue (especially his decades-long office romance with Lillian Ross, which was meant to be a deep, deep secret and become, with the passage of time, merely the obvious but unmentionable status quo), the passive-aggressive manipulation of colleagues and contributors, the velvet tenacity of his grip on power…it’s all almost enough to make us forget the astonishing success with which he steered the magazine.

Earlier this week, Lillian Ross passed away at the age of ninety-nine. Her personal life, like Shawn’s, often received more attention than her professional accomplishments, and her obituaries predictably devoted a lot of space to their affair, which might have chagrined but not surprised her. In an era when celebrity journalists like Norman Mailer and Gay Talese were on the ascendant, she cautioned reporters against placing themselves at the center of the story—although she also wrote a late memoir of her life with Shawn, Here But Not Here, that caused a firestorm of controversy within its tiny world when it was released two decades ago. In his New York Times review, Charles McGrath called it “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions,” and it struck many readers as an odd departure for a reporter who had been complimented for her ability to fade into the background. And while its title sounded like a motto for objective reporting, it actually came from something that Shawn—whom Updike later praised for his “disinterested standards”—liked to say about his home life: “I am there, but I am not there.”

But Ross, Shawn, and their magazine entered the inner lives of their readers in ways that transcended the efforts of reporters who asked more insistently for our attention. In her book Reporting, Ross offered her personal rules for conducting journalism:

Reporting is difficult, partly because the writer does not have the leeway to play around with the lives of people, as he does in fiction. There are many other restrictions, too…Your attention at all times should be on your subject, not on you. Do not call attention to yourself. As a reporter, serve your subject, do not yourself. Do not, in effect say, “Look at me. See what a great reporter I am!” Do not, if you want to reveal that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, write, “I am showing that the Emperor is already naked.”

A few more admonitions: do not promote yourself; do not advertise yourself; do not sell yourself. If you have a tendency to do these things, you should go into some line of work that may benefit from your talents as a promoter, a salesman, or an actor. Too many extraneous considerations have been imposed on reporting in recent years, and it is time now to ask writers who would be reporters to report.

Decades later, in speaking of her reputation as a fly on the wall, Ross struck a rather different note: “What craziness! A reporter doing a story can’t pretend to be invisible, let alone a fly; he or she is seen and heard and responded to by the people he or she is writing about. A reporter is always chemically involved in a story.”

Ross might sound like she’s contradicting herself, but I don’t think that she is. It helps to focus on the words “chemically involved,” which makes reporting sound like an industrial process—which, in the hands of Shawn’s writers, including Ross and Updike, is what it became. A recent tribute describes Ross as “an early architect” of the Talk of the Town section, which puts her at the center of a certain way of viewing the world. The Talk of the Town has always been characterized less by any particular subject than by its voice, which Begley capably evokes in an account of one of Updike’s early pieces, in which he visited a lawn care business in Southampton:

The resulting journalistic trifle is mildly amusing and fairly typical of The Talk of the Town, save for the exurban expedition…The reporter (“we,” by hallowed New Yorker convention) gathers a comically copious amount of information about the product, allows its makers to display a comical commercial enthusiasm, and adds to the comedy by appearing (almost) to share that enthusiasm.

In this case, the product was a lawn treatment that dyed the grass green, but The Talk of the Town remains the magazine’s place to accommodate more famous subjects who have something to promote. Its stance toward such material allows its interviewees to plug film or book projects while keeping them at a bemused distance, and a lot of it hinges on that remarkable “we.” (It’s the counterpart of the “you” that appears so often in its movie reviews.) Updike gently mocked it years later: “Who, after all, could that indefatigably fascinated, perpetually peripatetic ‘we’ be but a collection of dazzled farm-boys?” But it’s still our ideal of a certain kind of nonfiction—privileged, lightly ironic, with dashes of surprising insight that don’t prevent you from turning the page.

Ross was one of the inventors of that voice, which was the chemical trick that she used to dissolve herself into a story. It allowed trivial pieces to be rapidly produced, while also allowing for deeper engagement when the opportunity presented itself. (To push the analogy from Updike’s article to the breaking point, it was “the desired combination of a dye that would immediately color the lawn and a fertilizer that would eventually rejuvenate it.”) And much of the success of The New Yorker lay in the values that its readers projected onto that “we.” As Begley describes the characters in Updike’s story “Incest”:

The young couple…are college educated, living in a small, pleasant New York apartment furnished with bamboo chairs, a modernist sofa, a makeshift bed, bookshelves filled with books. They’re familiar with Proust and Freud and the pediatric pronouncements of Dr. Benjamin Spock…Jane sips vermouth after dinner, listening to Bach on the record player while she reads The New Republic—if the story hadn’t been intended for publication in The New Yorker, surely she would have been reading that magazine instead.

Norman Mailer, a New Journalist who actually published a collection titled Advertisements for Myself, was dismissive of the magazine’s hold on its readers: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.” He’s speaking of The Talk of the Town, as refined by Ross and Shawn, and it’s still true today. Updike made fun of that “we” because he could—but for many readers, then and now, the grass on that side was definitely greener.

Quote of the Day

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New ideas are the tools of science, not its end product. They do not guarantee deeper understanding, yet our grasp of nature will be extended only if we are prepared to welcome them and give them a hearing. If at the outset exaggerated claims are made on their behalf, this need not matter. Enthusiasm and deep conviction are necessary if men are to explore all the possibilities of any new idea, and later experience can be relied on either to confirm or to moderate the initial claims—for science flourishes on a double program of speculative liberty and unsparing criticism.

Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Architecture of Matter

Written by nevalalee

September 21, 2017 at 7:30 am

The final problem

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In 1966, Howard L. Applegate, an administrator for the science fiction manuscript collection at Syracuse University, wrote to the editor John W. Campbell to ask if he would be interested in donating his papers. Campbell replied that he no longer possessed most of the original files, and he concluded: “Sorry, but any scholarly would-be biographers are going to have a tough time finding any useful documentation on me! I just didn’t keep the records!” Fortunately for me, this statement wasn’t totally true—I’ve spent the last two years combing through thousands of pages of letters, magazines, and other documents to assemble a picture of Campbell’s life, and if anything, there’s more here than any one person can absorb. I haven’t read it all, but I feel confident that I’ve looked at more of it than anyone else alive, and I often relate to what Robin W. Winks writes in his introduction to the anthology The Historian as Detective:

Historians pose to themselves difficult, even impossibly difficult, questions. Since they are reasonably intelligent and inquiring and since they do not wish to spend their lives upon a single question or line of investigation, they normally impose a time limit upon a given project or book (or the time limit is imposed for them by a “publish or perish” environment). They will invariably encounter numerous unforeseen difficulties because of missing papers, closed collections, new questions, and tangential problems; and the search through the archive, the chase after the single hoped-to-be-vital manuscript, has an excitement of its own, for that dénouement, the discovery, an answer may—one always hopes—lie in the next folio, in the next collection, in the next archive.

My work is more modest in scale than that of most academic historians, but I can understand the importance of a deadline, the hope that the next page that I read will contain a crucial piece of information, and the need for impossible questions. When I first got my hands on the microfilm reels of Campbell’s letters, I felt as if I’d stumbled across a treasure trove, and I found a lot of fascinating material that I never would have discovered otherwise. As I worked my way through the images, one inch at a time, I kept an eye on how much I had left, and as it dwindled, I felt a sinking feeling at the thought that I might never find certain answers. In fact, I never did resolve a few important issues to my satisfaction—although perhaps that wasn’t the right way to approach this particular Nachlass. In his introduction, Winks draws a telling contrast between the American and the European schools of history:

With sufficient diligence American historians can expect to find the answer—or at least an answer—to most factual or non-value questions they may choose to put to themselves. As a result, American researchers tend to begin with the questions they wish to entertain first (Did failed farmers truly move West to begin life anew in the eighteen-forties? Did immigrants reinforce older patterns of life or create new ones?), confident that the data can be found. European historians, on the other hand, are likely to begin with the available source materials first, and then look to see what legitimate questions they might ask of those sources. (Here are the private papers of Joseph Chamberlain, or of Gladstone, or of Disraeli. What do they tell me of British polities? Of Queen Victoria? Of the Jameson Raid? Of the development of British tariff policy? Of Colonial affairs? Of Ireland?)

Winks’s point is that American scholars have the advantage when it comes to sources, since there are vast archives available for every state with materials dating back to their founding. In writing about the history of science fiction, which is its own country of the mind, I’ve found that the situation is closer to what he says about European historiography. I’m far from the first person to explore this material, and I’m astounded by the diligence, depth of experience, and mastery of the facts of the fans I’ve met along the way, who have saved me from countless mistakes. In some areas, I’ve also been fortunate enough to build on the efforts of previous scholars, like Sam Moskowitz, whose book The Immortal Storm was accurately described by the fan historian Harry Warner, Jr.: “If read directly after a history of World War II, it does not seem like an anticlimax.” (I’m similarly grateful for the work of the late William H. Patterson, who did for Heinlein what I’m hoping to do for Campbell, thereby relieving me of much of the necessity of going over the same ground twice.) But there were also times at which I had to start with the available resources and see what they had to offer me. A lot of it was tedious and unrewarding, as detective work undoubtedly is in the real world. As Winks writes:

Much of the historian’s work, then, like that of the insurance investigator, the fingerprint man, or the coroner, may to the outsider seem to consist of deadening routine. Many miles of intellectual shoe leather will be used, for many metaphorical laundry lists, uninformative diaries, blank checkbooks, old telephone directories, and other trivia will stand between the researcher and his answer. Yet the routine must be pursued or the clue may be missed; the apparently false trail must be followed in order to be certain that it is false; the mute witnesses must be asked the reasons for their silence, for the piece of evidence that is missing from where one might reasonably expect to find it is, after all, a form of evidence in itself.

And the real point of asking a question is less the possibility of an answer than the motivation that it provides for you to keep digging. Winks nicely evokes the world in which the historian lives:

Precisely because the historian must turn to all possible witnesses, he is the most bookish of men. For him, no printed statement is without its interest. For him, the destruction of old cookbooks, gazetteers, road maps, Sears Roebuck catalogues, children’s books, railway timetables, or drafts of printed manuscripts, is the loss of potential evidence. Does one wish to know how the mail-order business was operated or how a Nebraska farmer might have dressed in 1930? Look to those catalogues. Does one wish to know whether a man from Washington just might have been in New York on a day in 1861 when it can be proved that he was in the capital on the day before and the day after? The timetables will help tell us of the opportunity.

But it’s only with a specific question in mind that the historian—or biographer—will bother to seek out such arcana at all, and you’re often rewarded with something that has nothing to do with the reasons why you originally looked. (Sometimes you find it on the other side of the page.) Every setback that I’ve encountered in search of a specific piece of information has opened new doors, and a question is simply the story that we tell ourselves to justify the search. The image that I like to use isn’t a private eye, but the anonymous reporter Thompson in Citizen Kane, whose boss, the shadowy Mr. Rawlston, tells him to solve the mystery of Kane’s last words: “See ‘em all! Get in touch with everybody that ever worked for him, whoever loved him, whoever hated his guts. I don’t mean go through the city directory, of course.” But that’s what you wind up doing. And as I near the end of this book, I’m haunted by what Rawlston says just before we cut to the lightning flash that illuminates the face of Susan Alexander: “It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.”

Quote of the Day

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The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where one question grew before. Such is necessarily the case because the postulate of the scientist is that things change consecutively. It is an unproven and unprovable postulate—that is to say, it is a metaphysical preconception—but it gives the outcome that every goal of research is necessarily a point of departure; every term is transitional.

Thorstein VeblenThe Place of Science in Modern Civilization

Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2017 at 7:30 am

Time for the stars

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Last year, the screenwriter Terry Rossio, whose blog is the best online resource I’ve ever seen for advice on survival in Hollywood, posted a long post titled “Time Risk.” How long was it? If published, it could be sold as a short book of a hundred pages or so, and it would probably be acclaimed as one of the two or three most useful works ever written on the business of screenwriting. Rossio has spent more time than any successful writer since William Goldman on sharing his experiences in the industry, and this post is his masterpiece. (It received a flurry of attention earlier this year because of one unflattering anecdote about Johnny Depp, which is a classic instance of missing the forest for the trees.) I don’t know why Rossio invested so much effort into this essay, but I suspect that it was because he realized that he had stumbled across a single powerful idea that explained so much that was otherwise inexplicable, even cruel, about the life of a writer in the movies. It’s the fact that any investment of time presents a risk, which means that there’s an enormous incentive to transfer it to others—and the writer, for better or worse, is where the process ends. As Rossio puts it in an exchange with a producer whom he calls Jake:

At the point of sitting down to write, there was no way for my writer to know whether this particular story was going to work. She set forth on faith alone. So did thousands, tens of thousands of other writers around town, none of them knowing whether their stories would pan out, or even whether they could finish, or whether they could beat out the competition and have their work land on your desk…You [the producer] not only gain the value of the time my writer put at risk, but also the risk of every other writer who sat down to face the blank page around the same time, most of whom came up short. It’s like having everyone play the lotto, then you call the one person with the winning ticket. At the start it’s a giant risk pool, and all that collective risk is represented by this one winning screenplay.

This is a remarkable insight, and it applies to more than just screenwriting. Rossio doesn’t come out and say it, but he strongly implies there’s a fundamental cognitive divide between people who can work on more than one thing at a time and those who mostly can’t. It’s the difference between writers and agents, writers and book editors, writers and producers. The relationship doesn’t need to be adversarial, but it unquestionably creates different incentives, and it can result in situations in which the two players in the room aren’t even speaking the same language. It also lead to apparently paradoxical consequences, as when Rossio describes what he calls “Death by Sale”:

The day you sell your screenplay, you gain a small real chance it will be produced, at the same time almost guaranteeing that it will never be produced. Put another way, the same screenplay, unsold, has a much better chance of reaching the silver screen than it does when purchased by a studio…Selling a screenplay represents the exchange of all future positive outcomes of a project for a single, often unlikely, current scenario. You throw in with a particular set of players, at a particular time and place, with a particular set of restrictions and parameters.

This might sound crazy, but like everything else in Rossio’s post, it’s a logical extension of the principle in the title. If you’re a rational producer, you deal with time risk in the same way that a fund manager deals with investment risk—by diversifying your portfolio. A producer can have twenty or thirty projects in the hopper at any one time, in hopes that one winner will make up for all the losers. Writers don’t have this luxury, but they engage in a kind of simulation of it during the submission process. An unsold script has a virtual portfolio of potential buyers, one of whom might one day pay off. As soon as someone buys it, all those other possibilities disappear, and if it fails, the project might be tainted forever.

So how in the world do you deal with this? Rossio’s advice is simple, but it’s also the exact opposite of the reality that most writers face: “Spend as much time as you can making films, rather than trying to get films made.” Every strategy that he proposes comes down to knowing where to commit your time and how much of it to devote to a given situation. Take what he says about buyers and sellers:

First, understand when you’re in a room with fellow sellers, and temper your excitement accordingly. Second, commit less time risk to fellow sellers—and infinite time risk to an actual buyer. Third, understand the real value of investing time with fellow sellers. The value is not just an eventual project sale. The real value is building your team.

Rossio also advises writers to take cues from the industry players, notably producers, who have learned how to maximize the relationship between risk and return. (In financial terms, they’ve figured out an investment strategy with a good Sharpe ratio.) He quotes the producer Ram Bergman: “I told Rian [Johnson], I simply will not let you sell anything you write…The more we put it together, script, cast, producer, the more effectively we can dictate how it gets made.” If you can be a director or a novelist—or set up an animation studio in your garage, as Rossio repeatedly recommends—that’s even better. But even powerful people need to take what comes. Rossio devotes a considerable amount of space to the travails of his screenplay Déjà Vu, which set and still holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a spec script, only to run into rewrite problems and a reluctant director. When Rossio complained and suggested that they pull out, the producer Jerry Bruckheimer replied: “I have a director, a script, a star, and the studio giving me a green light. It’s not my job to not make movies.” And he was right.

I could keep quoting forever from this essay, which is loaded with throwaway insights that deserve a full post of their own. (Here’s one of my favorites: “Writers and producers often do the majority of their work with the cameras snug in their form-fitting foam cases. Actors get paid when cameras roll. And it’s only when cameras are rolling that power accumulates, and brands are established.” And another: “It’s amusing to listen to film critics assign responsibility for the content of a film exclusively to the screenwriter, the one person on the team with no final authority to insist on any particular story choice.”) But I’ll close with a story about a project in which I take an obvious interest—the adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, on which Rossio worked while the rights to the novel were still held by DreamWorks. Here’s what happened:

The screenplay was completed about a month prior to the rights renewal date, and to be honest, we nailed it. The source material is of course fantastic, one of the top ten science fiction novels of all time, and the draft we turned in would have made an amazing film. The renewal date came and went, with no word from the studio, but a few days later we got a phone call. “We’re going to let the rights expire,” said the executive. “Did you not like the script?” we asked. “I’ll be honest with you,” said the executive, “We’ve been really busy. I’m sure the screenplay is fantastic, you guys always do good work. But we just didn’t have time to read it.”

Rossio concludes: “While this sounds insane from a business perspective—why option the book rights at all, on such a high profile project, or hire screenwriters to do an adaptation—it makes perfect sense from a time risk perspective. If you’re an executive, and you know the project doesn’t fit your production schedule, why expend the time risk to even read the screenplay?” He’s perfectly right, of course. But the real takeaway here is one that he leaves unspoken. In this situation, you don’t want to be Terry Rossio, or the producer, or even the executive on the other end of the phone. You want to be Heinlein.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2017 at 8:51 am

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