Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Angels in America

Science for the people

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“My immediate reaction was one of intense loss,” Fern MacDougal, a graduate student in ecology, says in the short documentary “Science for the People.” She’s referring to the experience of speaking with the founders of the organization of the same name, which was formed in the late sixties to mobilize scientists and engineers for political change, and which recently returned after a long hiatus. As Rebecca Onion elaborates in an article on Slate:

In some areas—climate, reproductive justice—our situation has become even more perilous now than it was then. Biological determinism has a stubborn way of cropping up again and again in public discourse…Then there’s the sad reality that the very basic twentieth-century concept that science is helpful in public life because it helps us make evidence-based decisions is increasingly threatened under Trump. “It feels as though we’re fighting like heck to defend what would have been ridiculous to think we had to defend, back in those old days,” [biologist Katherine] Yih said. “It was just so obvious that science has that capability to improve the quality of life for people, even if it was often being used for militaristic purposes and so forth. But the notion that we had to defend science against our government was just—it wouldn’t have been imaginable, I think.”

Science for the People has since been revived as a nonprofit organization and an online magazine, and its presence now is necessary and important. But it also feels sad to reflect on the fact that we need it again, nearly half a century after it was originally founded.

In the oral history The World Only Spins Forward, Tony Kushner is asked what he would tell himself at the age of twenty-nine, when he was just commencing work on the play that became Angels in America. His response is both revealing and sobering:

What a tough time to ask that question…I don’t think that I would talk to him. I think it’s better that we don’t know the future. The person that I was at twenty-nine very deeply believed that there would be great progress. I believed back then, with great certainty—I mean I wrote it in the play, “the world only spins forward,” “the time has come,” et cetera, et cetera…Working on all this stuff right after Reagan had been reelected, it felt very dark. I’m glad that I didn’t know back then that at sixty I’d be looking at some of the same fucking fights that I was looking at at twenty-nine.

And one of the great, essential, difficult things about this book is the glimpse it provides of a time that briefly felt like a turning point. One of its most memorable passages is simply a quote from a review by Steven Mikulan of L.A. Weekly: “Tony Kushner’s epic play about the death of the twentieth century has arrived at the very pivot of American history, when the Republican ice age it depicts has begun to melt away.” This was at the end of 1992, when it was still possible to look ahead with relief to the end of the administration of George H.W. Bush.

It’s no longer possible to believe, in other words, that the world only spins forward. The fact that recent events have coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of so many milestones from 1968 may just be a quirk of the calendar, but it also underlines the feeling that history is repeating itself—or rhyming—in the worst possible way. It forces us to contemplate the possibility that any trend in favor of liberal values over the last half century may have been an illusory blip, and that we’re experiencing a correction back to the way human society has nearly always been. (And it isn’t an accident that Francis Fukuyama, who famously proclaimed the end of history and the triumph of western culture in the early nineties, has a new book out that purports to explain what happened instead. Its title is Identity.) But I can think of two possible forms of consolation. The first is that this is a necessary reawakening to the nature of history itself, which we need to acknowledge in order to deal with it. One of the major influences on Angels in America was the work of the philosopher Walter Benjamin, of whom Kushner’s friend and dramaturge Kimberly Flynn observes:

According to Benjamin, “One reason fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm,” a developmental phase on the way to something better. Opposing this notion, Benjamin wrote, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that ‘the state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” This is the insight that should inform the conception of history. This, not incidentally, is the way in which ACT UP, operating in the tradition of the oppressed, understood the emergency of AIDS.

Which brings us to the second source of consolation, which is that we’ve been through many of the same convulsions before, and we can learn from the experiences of our predecessors—which in itself amount to a sort of science for the people. (Alfred Korzybski called it time binding, or the unique ability of the human species to build on the discoveries of earlier generations.) We can apply their lessons to matters of survival, of activism, of staying sane. A few years ago, I would have found it hard to remember that many of the men and women I admire most lived through times in which there was no guarantee that everything would work out, and in which the threat of destruction or reversion hung threateningly over every incremental step forward. Viewers who saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on its original release emerged from the theater into a world that seemed that it might blow apart at any moment. For many of them, it did, just as it did for those who were lost in the emergency that produced Angels in America, whom one character imagines as “souls of the dead, people who had perished,” floating up to heal the hole in the ozone layer. It’s an unforgettable image, and I like to take it as a metaphor for the way in which a culture forged in a crisis can endure for those who come afterward. Many of us are finally learning, in a limited way, how it feels to live with the uncertainty that others have felt for as long as they can remember, and we can all learn from the example of Prior Walter, who says to himself at the end of Millennium Approaches, as he hears the thunder of approaching wings: “My brain is fine, I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure.” It’s true that the world only spins forward. But it can also bring us back around to where we were before.

The dreamlife of angels

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A few weeks ago, I finally got my hands on a copy of The World Only Spins Forward, the oral history of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. The journalists Isaac Butler and Dan Kois have delivered a book that feels indispensable, particularly at this historical moment, and it’s impossible to open it to a random page without being immediately sucked into the narrative. Its most vivid figure, not surprisingly, is Kushner himself, who emerges both as an authentic genius and as an insufferable collaborator. Here, for instance, is the account of his first viewing of Declan Donnellan’s landmark production in London:

Kushner: I typed up my notes on the plane flying back to the United States. I spent the entire flight just typing up notes. There were, like, fifty pages of notes. I hit the send button on the fax machine as soon as I landed, not thinking about what time it was in London.

Donnellan: Nick [Ormerod] and I came home, and I thought we’d been burgled because there was so much paper floating around! It turned out it was all coming from the fax machine.

And the director Oskar Eustis recalls: “The way Tony gives notes on his shows is incredibly difficult for every director he’s ever worked with. There’s a few directors who have essentially turned the room over to Tony and let him do the line-by-line work with the actors. There are directors who have barred Tony from the room and forced him to accept it. But there’s never been the ‘normal’ relationship between playwright and director with Tony. It doesn’t exist.”

Yet as much as I enjoyed Butler and Kois’s book, which should be required reading for anyone interested in politics or theater, it leaves one aspect of the story unexplored. Kushner is present throughout as an activist, an intellectual, a creative force, and a prickly personality, but only rarely as a writer. We hear surprisingly little about the decisions that went into the construction of these two massive plays. As far as the oral version is concerned, it’s as if Kushner took his grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, went away for a while, and came back with Millennium Approaches. Even his struggles with Perestroika, which he has never finished revising, occur mostly offstage. The closest we get to a look at his process is a tantalizing glimpse like this:

Kushner: We made a mistake. When I wrote Perestroika, it was five acts long. We had this play, Millennium Approaches, that everybody was really loving. Oskar and I both felt that Perestroika should replicate it in some way. It was inevitable that we were going to try to squeeze Perestroika into a three-act structure. It doesn’t work in three acts…

Eustis: The thing he did, and it remains the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen a writer do: he took this difficulty of making these characters change and he made it the content of the play.

This is heady stuff, but it just leaves us wanting more. And when Kushner does appear in the book, it’s often in the thankless role of a giver of notes, not that of the artist who somehow set this whole unlikely project into motion in the first place.

The picture that emerges is that of a play shaped profoundly by its cast and directors, which seems fair enough—Kushner wrote many of these roles for the actors who originally performed them in San Francisco. But also points to a weakness of the oral history format itself. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen an explosion in the form, both online and in print, and I’ve devoted entire posts here to similar books about the Creative Artists Agency and Saturday Night Live. And it isn’t difficult to see why they’re so popular. When properly done, they’re compulsively readable, and it’s much easier to envision the average reader plowing through ten thousand words of oral history than a conventional article of the same length. (For me, the ultimate example remains the twelve thousand words that Thrillist devoted to a single scene from The Avengers.) It also has its problems, as The World Only Spins Forward, which is an exemplary model of the genre, makes all too clear. It values the anecdotal over the introspective. The fact that it depends on good stories means that it can overstate how much of a phenomenon took place in public, or overemphasize the importance of elements that lend themselves to retelling. It naturally hinges on the candor and cooperation of the participants, which means that Kushner’s reticence about his own creative process leaves a hole in the narrative, however open he might be on other topics. When you rely entirely on the voices of others, it can lead to insights that wouldn’t emerge in any other way, but it also means that certain subjects receive less attention than they deserve. You can’t write an oral history about how a play was written in private, which would require a combination of memoir, interview, and textual analysis that just isn’t possible in the oral form. And the result serves as a reminder between the difference between history and what another gay icon once called “the bones from which someday a man might make history.”

None of this would matter if Butler and Kois’s book weren’t so good, and its limits only serve to highlight Kushner’s genius. The greatness of Angels in America lies precisely in its ability to orchestrate a range of voices, including ones that had rarely been seen before on the stage, and to fit them into a compelling structure. It demands something more than simple transcription, including weird, intuitive choices of the kind that an oral history can never completely manage. (Kushner’s play also deserves credit for making its viewers uncomfortable. The book compares its cultural impact to that of Hamilton, which is comparatively reluctant to explore the darker aspects of American history. Hamilton isn’t likely to disturb or implicate you unless you’re actually Mike Pence, and I have little doubt that Angels, which inspired protests as well as huge box office, is ultimately the greater work of art.) It’s the kind of play that could only have emerged through much solitary, unglamorous work, and it’s this unspoken element that may end up being the most instructive. We’re living in a time in which private life is under constant threat of being obliterated by the public, which may be another reason why oral history is thriving. At such moments, it can seem hard to justify the creation of imaginative literature, much of which necessarily occurs out of sight. The World Only Spins Forward is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and it provides a crucial perspective as we try to figure out what kind of culture we’re going to get out of this agonized period of regression and rebellion, which has so much in common with the decade that produced Angels in America. But it takes a real effort of the will to keep the silent, lonely, even prophetic figure of the writer alive in the murmur of so many other voices. And that’s where the great work begins.

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 3

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On December 4, 1983, the readers of Parade magazine were treated to the cover story “How to Stay Fit” by President Ronald Reagan. In the article, Reagan, or his ghostwriter, described his fitness and diet regimen, which included “the cutting, hauling, and stacking of the wood” at his ranch, and finished:

I don’t want to be be overbearing about the need for exercise, but I would encourage each of you reading this article to think how you could get a little more physical activity into your life. I guarantee that you will feel better both physically and mentally…The next time they report I’m out riding or chopping or otherwise getting the old circulation going, why don’t you get out there and enjoy some exercise yourself? If all of us do, America will be in better shape, too. I’ll be thinking of you. Good health to you all.

In retrospect, it’s hard to read this without reflecting that it appeared at the exact moment that the Reagan administration was studiously ignoring—if not actively mocking—the AIDS crisis. It must have seemed odd to many people even at the time, and its backstory is even stranger. The attorney Roy Cohn had met with Ed Rollins, Reagan’s campaign manager, who was concerned about public perception of the president’s age and health. Cohn recalls in his own autobiography: “I thought about it, and I said it seemed to me that a well-placed magazine article showing the president’s physical prowess would be the best answer. The obvious magazine was Parade…The article served its purpose. It was widely received and acclaimed.”

Parade was “obvious,” needless to say, because it was published by Cohn’s good friend Si Newhouse, and everyone in the Reagan camp was pleased by the result, including Nancy Reagan, who, according to Roger Stone, “thanked [Cohn] profusely for it. She knew that Roy could get things done, and she respected and used people who could get things done.” Stone, like Ed Rollins, later worked on the Trump campaign, and much of Cohn’s advice, particularly on the media, has been passed down to the current administration. In all of the profiles about Cohn’s relationship with Trump—which often mention Rupert Murdoch, but not Si Newhouse—it’s this aspect that strikes me the most. Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer wrote last summer in the New York Times: “Among the many things Mr. Trump learned from Mr. Cohn during these years was the importance of keeping one’s name in the newspapers. Long before Mr. Trump posed as his own spokesman, passing self-serving tidbits to gossip columnists, Mr. Cohn was known to call in stories about himself to reporters.” And in Vanity Fair, which has seamlessly pivoted to attacking Trump after decades in which it glorified him, Marie Brenner wrote:

Another of Cohn’s tactics was to befriend the town’s top gossip columnists, such as Leonard Lyons and George Sokolsky, who would bring Cohn to the Stork Club. He was irresistible to tabloid writers, always ready with scandal-tinged tales. “Roy would be hired by a divorce client in the morning and be leaking their case in the afternoon,” New Yorker writer Ken Auletta recalled. Columnist Liz Smith said she learned to distrust most items he gave her. A similar reliance on the press would also become a vital component of the young Trump’s playbook.

And when Trump heard of Cohn’s death, according to the Times, he said to himself: “Wow, that’s the end of a generation. That’s the end of an era.”

Roy Cohn would receive his most famous afterlife as the most vivid character in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, in which he dominates the play to an extent that seems to have troubled even his creator. (In an interview with Adam Mars Jones, Kushner said: “I’m a little worried that in the process of figuring [Cohn] out I’ve overdone it and he’s maybe too sympathetic a character.”) It’s a stunning portrait, and it resonates even more deeply today. Reading it over this week, I was most struck by the speech in the first part, Millennium Approaches, that Cohn delivers to his doctor, Henry, as his body is ravaged by AIDS:

Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that…Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows…I have clout. A lot. I can pick up this phone, punch fifteen numbers, and you know who will be on the other end in under five minutes, Henry?

Henry ventures his best guess: “The President.” Roy shoots back at him: “Even better, Henry. His wife.”

This has the ring of authenticity, and the speech itself reflects what Cohn evidently believed about himself. (In a profile written a decade ago by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, Roger Stone said: “Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed.”) Toward the end of Perestroika, the second part of the play, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg says to the dying Cohn:

They beat you. You lost. (Pause). I decided to come here so I could see could I forgive you. You who I have hated so terribly I have borne my hatred for you up into the heavens and made a needlesharp little star in the sky out of it…I came to forgive but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery. Hoping I’d get to see you die more terrible than I did. And you are, ’cause you’re dying in shit, Roy, defeated. And you could kill me, but you couldn’t ever defeat me. You never won. And when you die all anyone will say is: better he had never lived at all.

I don’t know if Kushner ever really believed this—one of Cohn’s last lines in the play is “I win!”—but it doesn’t seem true now. Cohn wasn’t defeated at all, although the extent of his victory took thirty years to become manifest. On the day after the election, Stone told Vanity Fair, Trump mused: “Wouldn’t Roy love to see this moment? Boy, do we miss him.” And when I think of Cohn today, I remember these lines from Kushner, and I know that the play isn’t over:

Roy: I’m immortal, Ethel. (He forces himself to stand) I have forced my way into history. I ain’t never gonna die.
Ethel Rosenberg: (A little laugh, then) History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches.

The better angels

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Tony Kushner

Almost exactly twenty years ago, on April 12, 1995, Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, was honored at an event at Northwestern University. While taking questions from the audience, he was asked whether he thought there was such a thing as nonpolitical theater. His response:

Well, I don’t think there’s anything that’s not political. As they say, the absence of an ideology is an ideology. It’s a conservative ideology. And a politics that seeks to efface its presence is part of the great mythmaking project of bourgeois, capital society…

I feel uncomfortable talking about theater artists. I will say that, for instance, Steven Spielberg is apparently a Democrat. He just gave a big party for Bill Clinton. I guess that means he’s probably idiotic. I feel I can trash people in the film industry and, of course, they read about these terrible things that I say about them and then I’m having a smaller and smaller market in Hollywood as a result. [Laughter.] Forrest Gump is bad reactionary art and Jurassic Park is sublimely good, hideously reactionary art. E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism. They’re fascinating for that reason, because Spielberg is somebody who has just an astonishing ear for the rumblings of reaction, and he just goes right for it and he knows exactly what to do with it.

This wasn’t the first time that Kushner had expressed this opinion: the previous year, in an interview with the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, he described Spielberg as a “front-runner for the Reagan counterrevolution.” What’s astonishing, of course, is that many years later, Kushner went on to become one of Spielberg’s most productive collaborators, writing the screenplays for Munich and Lincoln, with another historical drama in the works as we speak. As far as I know, Kushner—who is more likely to describe Spielberg these days as “one of the great filmmakers of all time”—has never directly addressed the sea change in his feelings, which leaves us free to speculate. It’s possible that Kushner simply mellowed a little with age; or that he was moved, like so many other moviegoers, by the transition in Spielberg’s career after Schindler’s List; or that he realized that working with the most successful director in history would allow him to write scripts that had a decent change of being made, which is something that even a Pulitzer winner can’t take for granted. Really, though, it’s likely that it was some combination of all the above, as well as a recognition that political art is much more effective when executed with peerless technical proficiency. Spielberg is simply the best there is; Kushner, when given the chance to work with him, seemed more than happy to acknowledge this.

Steven Spielberg on the set of Munich

Which gets at a tricky point about political art in general. Writers are often warned against trying to inject particular ideological or social concerns into their stories; we’re told that our themes should arise organically from an extended engagement with plot and character, rather than being imposed from above, and that audiences are haunted the most by works of art in which the conclusions seem to emerge almost against the author’s will. What deserves to be emphasized, though, is that political content in itself isn’t a kind of poison pill that makes for bad art; it simply allows bad art, the kind that ought to be revised into something better, to be tolerated and widely seen in what amounts to draft form. A mediocre play of no particular merit might lie in a drawer forever, but if it embraces a viewpoint that happens to resonate with how its audience already feels about a certain subject, it’s more likely to get a sympathetic reception. When the audience, to use David Mamet’s image, leaves the theater humming its own sense of virtue, it’s likely to forgive a lot of other things. Which means that it’s easier for political art to get away with things like flat characters, muddled storytelling, and stretches of outright boredom—which are the source of its bad reputation.

This doesn’t mean that artists have to avoid politics, but it does mean that they need to try just as hard to live up to their own standards of good storytelling as they would if they were writing a straight comedy or drama. (Even the most talented writers suffer from a streak of laziness, and political art’s one great liability is that it allows us to indulge in it. Politics is a little like pornography; it can be shoddy on every level but still find an audience.) And I suspect that’s why Kushner was ultimately drawn to Spielberg. He understood the difference between art that we politely applaud and the kind that grabs us and doesn’t let go, and he evidently came to see that Spielberg’s relentless focus on craft, which once struck him as reactionary, was a weapon in its own right. What makes a film like Munich so extraordinary—and I think it’s one of the great movies of the last decade—is that it uses all the conventions of the thriller, and every trick Spielberg has acquired in a lifetime of popular moviemaking, to tell a story that implicates all of us in frightening, complicated ways. And Kushner’s unstated acceptance of this is more revealing than any number of his more explicit pronouncements on the subject. There’s a place for politics in art, just as there’s a place for everything else, but only if it refuses to settle for anything less than a Spielberg.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2015 at 10:28 am

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