Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Frozen

The secret villain

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Note: This post alludes to a plot point from Pixar’s Coco.

A few years ago, after Frozen was first released, The Atlantic ran an essay by Gina Dalfonzo complaining about the moment—fair warning for a spoiler—when Prince Hans was revealed to be the film’s true villain. Dalfonzo wrote:

That moment would have wrecked me if I’d seen it as a child, and the makers of Frozen couldn’t have picked a more surefire way to unsettle its young audience members…There is something uniquely horrifying about finding out that a person—even a fictional person—who’s won you over is, in fact, rotten to the core. And it’s that much more traumatizing when you’re six or seven years old. Children will, in their lifetimes, necessarily learn that not everyone who looks or seems trustworthy is trustworthy—but Frozen’s big twist is a needlessly upsetting way to teach that lesson.

Whatever you might think of her argument, it’s obvious that Disney didn’t buy it. In fact, the twist in question—in which a seemingly innocuous supporting character is exposed in the third act as the real bad guy—has appeared so monotonously in the studio’s recent movies that I was already complaining about it a year and a half ago. By my count, the films that fall back on his convention include not just Frozen, but Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and now the excellent Coco, which implies that the formula is spilling over from its parent studio to Pixar. (To be fair, it goes at least as far back as Toy Story 2, but it didn’t become the equivalent of the house style until about six or seven years ago.)

This might seem like a small point of storytelling, but it interests me, both because we’ve been seeing it so often and because it’s very different from the stock Disney approach of the past, in which the lines between good and evil were clearly demarcated from the opening frame. In some ways, it’s a positive development—among other things, it means that characters are no longer defined primarily by their appearance—and it may just be a natural instance of a studio returning repeatedly to a trick that has worked in the past. But I can’t resist a more sinister reading. All of the examples that I’ve cited come from the period since John Lasseter took over as the chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios, and as we’ve recently learned, he wasn’t entirely what he seemed, either. A Variety article recounts:

For more than twenty years, young women at Pixar Animation Studios have been warned about the behavior of John Lasseter, who just disclosed that he is taking a leave due to inappropriate conduct with women. The company’s cofounder is known as a hugger. Around Pixar’s Emeryville, California, offices, a hug from Lasseter is seen as a mark of approval. But among female employees, there has long been widespread discomfort about Lasseter’s hugs and about the other ways he showers attention on young women…“Just be warned, he likes to hug the pretty girls,” [a former employee] said she was told. “He might try to kiss you on the mouth.” The employee said she was alarmed by how routine the whole thing seemed. “There was kind of a big cult around John,” she says.

And a piece in The Hollywood Reporter adds: “Sources say some women at Pixar knew to turn their heads quickly when encountering him to avoid his kisses. Some used a move they called ‘the Lasseter’ to prevent their boss from putting his hands on their legs.”

Of all the horror stories that have emerged lately about sexual harassment by men in power, this is one of the hardest for me to read, and it raises troubling questions about the culture of a company that I’ve admired for a long time. (Among other things, it sheds a new light on the Pixar motto, as expressed by Andrew Stanton, that I’ve quoted here before: “We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.” But it also goes without saying that it’s far easier to fail repeatedly on your way to success if you’re a white male who fits a certain profile. And these larger cultural issues evidently contributed to the departure from the studio of Rashida Jones and her writing partner.) It also makes me wonder a little about the movies themselves. After the news broke about Lasseter, there were comments online about his resemblance to Lotso in Toy Story 3, who announces jovially: “First thing you gotta know about me—I’m a hugger!” But the more I think about it, the more this seems like a bona fide inside joke about a situation that must have been widely acknowledged. As a recent article in Deadline reveals:

[Lasseter] attended some wrap parties with a handler to ensure he would not engage in inappropriate conduct with women, say two people with direct knowledge of the situation…Two sources recounted Lasseter’s obsession with the young character actresses portraying Disney’s Fairies, a product line built around the character of Tinker Bell. At the animator’s insistence, Disney flew the women to a New York event. One Pixar employee became the designated escort as Lasseter took the young women out drinking one night, and to a party the following evening. “He was inappropriate with the fairies,” said the former Pixar executive, referring to physical contact that included long hugs. “We had to have someone make sure he wasn’t alone with them.”

Whether or not the reference in Toy Story 3 was deliberate—the script is credited to Michael Arndt, based on a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, and presumably with contributions from many other hands—it must have inspired a few uneasy smiles of recognition at Pixar. And its emphasis on seemingly benign figures who reveal an unexpected dark side, including Lotso himself, can easily be read as an expression, conscious or otherwise, of the tensions between Lasseter’s public image and his long history of misbehavior. (I’ve been thinking along similar lines about Kevin Spacey, whose “sheer meretriciousness” I identified a long time ago as one of his most appealing qualities as an actor, and of whom I once wrote here: “Spacey always seems to be impersonating someone else, and he does the best impersonation of a great actor that I’ve ever seen.” And it seems now that this calculated form of pretending amounted to a way of life.) Lasseter’s influence over Pixar and Disney is so profound that it doesn’t seem farfetched to see its films both as an expression of his internal divisions and of the reactions of those around him, and you don’t need to look far for parallel examples. My daughter, as it happens, knows exactly who Lasseter is—he’s the big guy in the Hawaiian shirt who appears at the beginning of all of her Hayao Miyazaki movies, talking about how much he loves the film that we’re about to see. I don’t doubt that he does. But not only do Miyazaki’s greatest films lack villains entirely, but the twist generally runs in the opposite direction, in which a character who initially seems forbidding or frightening is revealed to be kinder than you think. Simply on the level of storytelling, I know which version I prefer. Under Lasseter, Disney and Pixar have produced some of the best films of recent decades, but they also have their limits. And it only stands to reason that these limitations might have something to do with the man who was more responsible than anyone else for bringing these movies to life.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2017 at 8:27 am

The point of counterpoint

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If you’re a certain kind of musical theater fan, you can’t resist a good counterpoint song. You know the sort of number I mean: it usually occurs at an act break or another hinge moment in the story, and it involves at least two singers—and often a bunch more—singing different melodies at the same time. The effect, when properly executed, is one of convergence and multiple levels of simultaneous action, and it can give us the sense of characters on a collision course, as the themes that the musical has developed separately clash and combine into a larger pattern. “Tonight Quintet” from West Side Story is maybe the definitive example, and its use of counterpoint and quodlibet to push forward numerous subplots is topped only by “One Day More” from Les Misérables, which is both the trope’s high point and a ripe target for parody. And a stunning utilization of counterpoint is one of the most striking aspects of the best numbers in Hamilton. In songs like “My Shot,” “The Schuyler Sisters,” “Non-Stop,” and “Take a Break,” Lin-Manuel Miranda seamlessly stitches together multiple characters and trains of thought, until counterpoint comes to symbolize the deepest themes of the musical itself. America, it implies, is a notion that emerged out of the interactions of diverse needs, agendas, and points of view, and it has a synergistic complexity and resonance that isn’t there when any of the threads is separated from the others. It’s a political value system embedded in the structure of the songs themselves, which I think is a pretty neat trick.

It’s also a virtuoso technical accomplishment, to the point where it occasionally pulls us out of the narrative. (“Take a Break,” for example, is an eminently cuttable song—Miranda says that he was advised by at least one trusted advisor to remove it—that winds up seeming indispensable, thanks mostly to a bravura display of counterpoint.) Whenever I listen to the soundtrack, I find myself wondering how just one man could make all these pieces come together. And I got my answer, unexpectedly, from Hamilton: The Revolution, the very good coffee table book that was published earlier this year as a companion to the show. In a note about the climax of “My Shot,” Miranda writes:

So how do you build an ending like this? Endless conversations with [director Thomas Kail], [orchestrator] Alex Lacamoire, and [choreographer] Andy Blankenbuchler. Seriously, so many versions of different counterpoints to build to just the right finish. In these meetings, I find I’m more the editor than the writer—Alex will have fifty musical ideas, Andy will have fifty staging ideas, and Tommy and I will sift them in the middle. It’s like this for most of the buttons in the show.

He says much the same thing about “Non-Stop,” the climactic number of the first act:

This all-skate came from tons of trial and error between me, Andy, Tommy, and Lacamoire. Take pieces from five different puzzles and make something new, that sets us sailing into intermission: that’s what’s at play here. As the guy who gets to play Hamilton, let me also say, it’s a helluva view from the center of it.


I love this for a lot of reasons. First, it’s a reminder of how long it takes to figure out this kind of thing, and that countless other versions that had to be tried and discarded along the way to get it right. Miranda has spoken of how it took years to write certain verses in “Hamilton,” and he recently tweeted out a picture of his notebooks with the comment: “Songs take time.” It’s also noteworthy that these overwhelming effects are usually the product of more than one person’s contributions. (Unless you’re Bach, an ambitious counterpoint piece is probably too complex to hold in your head at once, which leaves you with two alternatives. Either you figure it out in pieces over time, collaborating with your past and future selves and keeping good notes to bridge the gap, or you bring in a few trusted collaborators to work on it together. And in practice, you tend to combine the two, aided by software tools like Logic Pro that allow you to manipulate the result.) There’s also the important point—as Miranda’s mention of Kail, Lacamoire, and Blankenbuchler implies—that what seems at first like a problem of composition is really one of direction, orchestration, and choreography. It’s easier to conceive of a number like this when you’re already dealing with a healthy number of moving parts onstage. Miranda originally envisioned Hamilton as a concept album, complete with a guest reading of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense by the rapper formerly known as Common Sense, but there’s no question that there are also elements that never would have occurred to him without the input of real actors interacting with one another in front of a live audience.

And the punchline, of course, is that this is true of everything in musical theater. A counterpoint number impresses us because it’s clearly the outcome of months of hard work compressed into something like two minutes—but that’s equally the case with any two minutes in a well-constructed musical. It’s just more obvious here: in counterpoint, all those invisible interactions come to the surface to invite our admiration. When properly done, this can seem miraculous, but it’s a little dangerous, too. If overused, it can overwhelm or exhaust the audience, which is why composers generally save it for act breaks or other big moments. (Hamilton deliberately pushes the envelope here, as it does in so many other respects, as to how much counterpoint the listener’s ears can handle.) But at its best, it becomes an emblem for the enterprise of theater itself, which weaves the extended engagement of its author and the contributions of its collaborators into a tapestry that we can deconstruct into its component parts or enjoy as a whole. Writing about a similar moment in the movie Frozen, I said: “It amounts to a fantastic structural trick that moves us before we even know why.” That’s true of Hamilton, too. I’ve loved this musical since I first heard it, but I was also inclined to underrate its emotional power because of its sheer technical facility: “It’s written from the head, more than from the heart,” I once wrote, “and its emotional impact, which is undeniable, is more the result of impeccable musical theater than of an experience that Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to have lived through for himself.” After repeated listens, I’ve come to realize that the two things are really the same: Hamilton is both by and about a team of rivals grouped around a single charismatic figure, working in counterpoint toward a common dream. And it’s all the more powerful because of it.

Written by nevalalee

September 12, 2016 at 9:43 am

Elsa and the two Ilsas

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Last weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see Disney on Ice, about a third of which was devoted to a Cliffs Notes version of Frozen. Hearing those familiar songs again in an arena with a raucous family audience, I was struck once more by how that film’s spectacular success emerged from the intersection of two peerless bags of tricks: the musical and the animated cartoon. Disney has taken cues from Broadway for a long time, of course, but in Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, they found a creative duo that understood those stage conventions inside and out, and the movie runs off their knowledge like a battery. Lopez, in particular, emerged as such a fluent ventriloquist of the Sesame Street style in Avenue Q that I remember talking to an acquaintance of his—a member of the same musical theater circles—who assumed that he could do nothing else. In fact, as it soon became clear, he can do just about anything. He reminds me at times of a less cynical version of Stephin Merritt, a master of formulas who has imbibed the grammar and, yes, the clichés of his medium so completely that he can deploy them almost without thinking. And what sets Lopez apart is that he’s both totally aware of how manipulative that framework can be and willing to use it in the service of what feels like genuine, unfaked emotion.

When you watch Frozen through that lens, you start to notice how many of its most memorable effects are achieved by an ingenious rearrangement of those basic components. In “For the First Time in Forever,” for instance, when the movie cuts away from Anna—who takes the song up a half-step with every verse—to Elsa singing the emotional counterpoint of “Let it Go,” and then begins to cut between them, it amounts to a fantastic structural trick that moves us before we even know why. During the reprise at the ice palace, Anna sings in major key, Elsa in minor, and it culminates in a miniature quodlibet that somehow evokes all of Les Misérables in less than a minute. Most famous of all, of course, is “Let It Go” itself, which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, seems to have recentered the entire movie as soon as it was written. And the really revealing point is that the Lopezes began with certain stock elements without worrying too much about where they fit into the script. “For the First Time in Forever” is a classic “I want” number, which is often ironically reprised later in the story, and “Let It Go” was known as “Elsa’s badass song” in the outline before it became something closer to “Defying Gravity.” (Idina Menzel was cast before any of the music had been written, so they were clearly writing with her strengths in mind.) And once the song was in place, the whole movie was reshaped around it, like the tail wagging the dog. As Lopez-Anderson has said: “If it weren’t framed by the right story, [the song] wouldn’t connect with people.”

Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

And musicals aren’t the only genre in which a compelling character can result from the spaces left by the manipulation of big blocks of narrative. In an interview about the writing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie said:

The…question for me was figuring out the structure of the movie, and we decided to just start with the action—we thought about what kinds of action set pieces we always wanted to do, and then we put them into some semblance of an order to try and figure out what journey that would put our characters on…I rearranged two sequences and changed one specific detail. I took the underwater sequence and the motorcycle chase and put them back to back, creating one monster action set piece in the middle of the movie. When I did that, it created a great relentless set piece, but I blew up the movie—suddenly, characters’ motives that made sense in the previous draft didn’t work anymore. If Ilsa is running from both Ethan and Lane, where is she running to? Figuring that out necessitated the creation of act one and the introduction of British intelligence into the movie, and that in turn led us to all the consequences in the third act. So action really drove story.

Critics have long noted that the action and musical genres have a lot in common, but I’m not sure if anyone has ever noticed how both can recombine stock elements to generate information about a character. In this case, it resulted in Ilsa Faust, who—with apologies to Imperator Furiosa, with whom she shares her initials—is the most interesting woman in an action movie in years.

And it applies to other genres as well. At the risk of stretching the argument, I’d argue that the most famous fictional Ilsa of all—as played by Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca—benefits from the same kind of narrative recombination. Casablanca is a kind of musical already, both because of its memorable songs and in the way its great set pieces play like solos or duets of unforgettable dialogue. And if much of Bergman’s appeal comes from her real confusion on the set about which man she was supposed to love the most, with her scenes being constantly rewritten on the fly, that embodies a kind of musical logic, too: director Michael Curtiz and his team of screenwriters seem to have chosen sequences based on how well they played in the moment, with Ilsa’s motivations evolving based on the emotional logic that the scenes imposed, rather than the other way around. If the result works so well, that’s a tribute to Bergman’s performance, which provides a connective thread between inconsistent conceptions of Ilsa’s character: the scene in which she pulls a gun on Rick to get the letters of transit doesn’t have much to do with anything else, but because of Bergman, we buy it, at least for as long as it takes to get us to the next moment. Umberto Eco famously said that Casablanca is made up of memories of other movies, but the intersection of all those incompatible elements resulted in a character that no one can ever forget. Ilsa and her two namesakes have that much in common: they emerge, as if by icy magic, when you set the right pieces side by side.

Totoro and I

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My Neighbor Totoro

A few months ago, in a post about the movies I’ve watched the most often, I made the following prediction about my daughter:

Once Beatrix is old enough, she’ll start watching movies, too, and if she’s anything like most kids I know, she’ll want to watch the same videos over and over. I fully expect to see My Neighbor Totoro or the Toy Story films several hundred times over the next few years—at least if all goes according to plan.

As it turns out, I was half right. Extrapolating from recent trends, I’ll definitely end up watching Totoro a hundred times or more—but it will only take a few months. I broke it out for the first time this week, as Beatrix and I were both getting over a cold, which, combined with a chilly week in Oak Park, kept both of us mostly inside. When I hit the play button, I wasn’t sure how she’d respond. But she sat transfixed for eighty minutes. Since then, she’s watched it at least ten times all the way through, to the point where I’ve had to negotiate a limit of one viewing per day. And although I couldn’t be happier, and I can’t imagine another movie I’d be more willing to watch over and over again, I occasionally stop to wonder what I’ve awakened.

Screen time for children can be a touchy subject, but after holding out for more than two years, we’re finally allowing Beatrix to watch videos on a regular basis. Along with her daily Totoro fix, she’ll spend half an hour on her mommy’s phone in the morning, usually taking in Sesame Street or Frozen clips on YouTube. (As a parenting tip, I’d also recommend investing in an inexpensive portable DVD player, like the sturdy one I recently picked up by Sylvania. It’s better than a phone, since it allows for a degree of parental control and resists restless skipping from one video to the next, and unlike a television, it can be tucked out of sight when you’re done, which cuts down on the number of demands.) Whenever possible, I like to sit with her while we’re watching, asking her to comment on the action or to tell me what she sees. And Totoro, in particular, has awakened her imagination: she’s already pretending to gather acorns around the house, and she identifies strongly with the two little girls. For my part, I feel the same way about the father, who may be the best parent in any animated film, and whenever I find myself at a loss, I’ve started to ask myself: “What would the dad in Totoro do?”

Totoro in Toy Story 3

And while it’s possible that Beatrix would have latched onto whatever I decided to show her, I’d like to think that there’s something about Totoro that makes it the right movie at the right time. As I’ve noted before, its appeal can be hard to explain. Pixar’s brand of storytelling can be distilled into a set of rules—I’ve said elsewhere that its movies, as wonderful as they can be, feel like the work of a corporation willing itself into the mind of a child—and we’ve seen fine facsimiles in recent years from DreamWorks and Disney Animation. But Miyazaki remains indefinable. The wonder of Totoro is that Totoro himself only appears for maybe five minutes: the rest is a gentle, fundamentally realistic look at the lives of two small children, and up until the last act, whatever magic we see could easily be a daydream or fantasy. Yet it’s riveting all the way through, and its attention to detail rewards multiple viewings. Every aspect of life in the satoyama, or the Japanese countryside, is lovingly rendered, and there are tiny touches in every frame to tickle a child’s curiosity, or an adult’s. It’s a vision of the world that I want to believe, and it feels like a gift to my daughter, who I can only hope will grow up to be as brave as Mei and as kind as Satsuki.

Best of all, at a time when most children’s movies are insistently busy, it provides plenty of room for the imagination to breathe. In fact, its plot is so minimal—there are maybe six story beats, generously spaced—that I’m tempted to define the totoro as the basic unit of meaningful narrative for children. A movie like Ponyo is about 1.5 totoros; Spirited Away is 2; and Frozen or most of the recent Pixar films push it all the way up to 3. There’s nothing wrong with telling a complicated plot for kids, and one of the pleasures of the Toy Story films is how expertly they handle their dense storylines and enormous cast. But movement and color can also be used to cover up something hollow at the heart, until a film like Brave leaves you feeling as if you’ve been the victim of an elaborate confidence game. Totoro’s simplicity leaves no room for error, and even Miyazaki, who is as great a filmmaker as ever lived, was only able to do it once. (I still think that his masterpiece is Spirited Away, but its logic is more visible, a riot of invention and incident that provides a counterpoint to Totoro‘s sublime serenity.) If other films entice you with their surfaces, Totoro is an invitation to come out and play. And its spell lingers long after you’ve put away the movie itself.

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2015 at 9:06 am

The billion-dollar song

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As I write this post, it’s just before nine in the morning, and I’ve already played or sung some version of “Let It Go” approximately twenty times. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? My daughter certainly has, and although she’s only fifteen months old, she’s already capable of singing along, as well as of demanding it by name whenever I buckle her into her high chair. In the five short months since Frozen was released, “Let It Go” has reached a level of cultural ubiquity that we haven’t seen from a song in years, to the point where it seems to be running on a constant loop in my head, your head, and Patton Oswalt’s. It’s one of those quintessential show tunes that both plays a crucial role within the story itself and resonates beyond it, and the story behind it is equally compelling. Robert Lopez—who has been one of my musical heroes ever since Avenue Q—and his wife and writing partner Kristen Anderson-Lopez set out to write a number known in the story outline only as “Elsa’s Badass Song.” It wasn’t hard to imagine how it might sound; the likes of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Be Prepared” have long been a part of the Disney playbook. In this case, however, the result was more surprising. Anderson-Lopez tells the rest:

We went for a walk in Prospect Park and threw phrases at each other. What does it feel like to be the perfect exalted person, but only because you’ve held back this secret? Bobby came up with “kingdom of isolation,” and it worked.

After that, the process took less than a day, with the couple improvising melodies on the piano and lyrics on the whiteboard. It was fairly clear early on that they’d written the showstopper they needed, but its ultimate consequences were even more profound, to the point where this stroll through Park Slope had an enormous impact on both the movie itself and its eventual success. Frozen is an excellent movie in many respects—it’s cleverly plotted, funny, and visually astonishing—but there’s no question that audiences have responded so strongly to it largely because of the relationship between the two sisters at its heart. It seems obvious now, but the decision to make Elsa and Anna sisters at all appears to have come very late in the process, and the transformation of Elsa into a conflicted protagonist occurred even more belatedly. Up to that point, Elsa had been more of a conventional villain, rooted in the original conception of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” but “Let It Go” pointed at something more interesting. As the film’s co-director Jennifer Lee says: “The minute we heard the song the first time, I knew that I had to rewrite the whole movie.”

Disney's Frozen

In particular, it meant that much of the movie’s first act, as well as its central relationship, had to be reconceived to build up to the moment that Lopez and Anderson-Lopez had provided. The result recentered the entire film. And if the changes that “Let It Go” inspired are even partially responsible for the film’s outsized success, the amount that Disney owes this song is probably incalculable, which won’t stop me from trying to calculate it. The closest comparable movie is clearly Tangled, which grossed just short of six hundred million dollars worldwide in its theatrical release alone. Frozen seems likely to double this amount, and when you factor in home video, a potential sequel, merchandising—there’s a nationwide shortage of Elsa dresses—and the inevitable Broadway musical and ice show, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we’re talking a billion dollars or more. How much of that additional revenue can be attributed to “Let It Go” and the emotional thread it introduced? It’s hard to say, but it’s considerable. And it’s a reminder that however industrialized the process of producing content on a global scale has become, it all comes down to a few moments of quiet inspiration.

I’m not the first one to make this argument, of course. It’s forcefully advanced by the television writer Jeffrey Stepakoff’s memoir Billion-Dollar Kiss, which claims that the kiss of the title, shared by Pacey and Joey of Dawson’s Creek, was singlehandedly responsible for saving the series and propelling it into six seasons and syndication. There’s a tendency, to be sure, for writers in Hollywood to overvalue what they do, perhaps because they have so little power in other respects. But there’s a germ of truth here. I’d like to believe that Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, or A.A. Milne would be flabbergasted by the extent to which their solitary work sustains entire industries: Pooh merchandise alone accounts for five billion dollars of Disney’s bottom line, which makes it hard to look at the Hundred Acre Wood in quite the same way. It’s what makes the business of film simultaneously so exhilarating and so terrifying. Disney has marketing down to a science, and a tentpole movie like Frozen is released across the world with the precision of a military campaign. But the pivot on which that massive machine turns is an infinitesimal one, and although it takes many different forms, it often looks like nothing more than a piano, a whiteboard, and a day in Prospect Park.

Written by nevalalee

April 14, 2014 at 9:45 am

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