Monday, October 28, 2013

Dead Birds: Insert Scary Thing Here

Scary movies inspire a lot of different emotions - horror, terror, tension, dread, disgust, anxiety, sadness, take your pick - and can work in any number of different ways, which is part of why I think the distinction between horror movies and thrillers is sort of artificial and I keep just tacking toward using the term "scary movies" instead. Often they do this by getting us engaged in the story as it's presented - whether it's through identification with or sympathy for the protagonists, interest in the specifics of the situation in which they find themselves and a desire to know how they got there and what's going to happen, or just imagery plucking at the nightmare, lizard-brain depths of the subconscious with no regard for logic - we want to watch, and we feel things, and this experience tells us something about ourselves or the world that we might not know otherwise. Scary movies are really good at this because they can get at things that aren't safe, that may be uncomfortable.

Dead Birds, on the other hand, inspires little more than indifference, or maybe curiosity as to why this story was told at all.

The setting is the Civil War-era American South, and a detachment of Confederate soldiers has just made a deposit of gold at a small-town bank when they are rudely interrupted (read: gunned down in a welter of cartoonish gore) by a group of six irregulars intent on taking the gold for themselves. As they ride out of town, they make for an abandoned plantation house one of their fellow soldiers told them about before dying of his wounds. It's made clear early on that they shouldn't be riding out toward "the old Hollister place" - an itinerant preacher tells them there's no such place and they should turn back, they seem to ride through the forest for ages without any landmarks, and when they do get there, it's a big old place set back in a sea of dead corn. The scarecrow gives them the creeps (and we know this because one of them tells us that the scarecrow gives them the creeps), and a bizarre-looking beast one of them compares to a hairless mountain lion gets shot as it comes running at them through the corn. It's a pale, veiny thing that looks absolutely nothing like a mountain lion, but it doesn't seem to bother them that much.

Once they get to the house, they begin to search it to make sure they're the only ones there. And like you do after a heist, one guy starts enlisting another guy to screw the others out of their shares, we see that there's a bit of a love triangle between two of the men and the woman in their crew, and there's a freed slave who seems pretty acutely aware that they're as likely to shoot him and take his share as anything because hey, Civil War-era South. As they explore, odd things start happening - one person hears children's voices, another thinks someone else is in the house with them, there's a door to the basement they can't get open, and then they find a book…

…a book with instructions for raising the dead.

And then night falls, and a storm traps them in the house with something else.

Horror set during the historical past is a dicey proposition - not only do you need to get the audience to believe that the terrible things you depict are happening to people we should care about to some degree, but also get them to overlook the additional layer of artifice imposed by things like period settings, costumes, and dialogue. It's hard to scare people when they're acutely aware that they're just watching a movie, and nothing says "you're just watching a movie" like locations that look like sets instead of places, clothes that look like costumes instead of what people wear, and dialogue that sounds like a bad imitation instead of words that are actually said by people. These don't seem like Confederate irregulars - they're too clean, too healthy, and they talk like modern people who are trying to talk like they imagined people did in the 1800s, which means every now and then someone inserts a "I reckon" or "for true?" into the sort of shit people say now. (I'm not even sure people actually said "for true" in the 1800s, for that matter.) We're not at all transported back into the Civil War - the artificiality of the conceit never goes away.

Apart from believing them as people from another time, it's hard to care about these people at all. They're thieves, so they're unsympathetic, they're ready to turn on each other, so they're unsympathetic, and they're all taciturn and seem completely unfazed by pretty weird shit (until the third act, when the hysterics get turned up like someone said "okay, be scared…now"), which deadens any opportunity to establish a mood. Why should we care about these people?  They're barely people - they're ciphers with maybe one trait each (the leader, the woman, the kid, the asshole, the black guy, and the one who isn't any of these other things), and all of their communication is in grunts and monosyllables. A large part of the first act of this movie is people wandering around this huge house alone or in pairs, occasionally trading sentences to minimal response, reacting to nothing. I enjoy a good slow burn, but usually it's a good idea to use the time when nothing's happening to establish who these people are, so that when things do start happening, we identify or connect with the characters enough that their experiences resonate with us. The only thing we know about these people by the time the first act is done is that the leader and the woman are a couple, the kid has a crush on the woman, and the asshole wants to screw the black guy (and maybe everyone else) out of their share of the gold. Small foundation upon which to build any engagement or goodwill on the part of the audience.

Case in point: When they find the strange book - full of anatomical diagrams, arcane writing, and things drawn in what appears to be blood, someone recognizes it as a ritual for raising the dead and says so. The others basically say "huh," and keeping searching the house. Any mystery that book could provide falls dead, not just because it would make sense in context that the character who knows this might not want to share that tidbit with the others, but also because this unpleasant bit of information elicits no real reaction. This isn't some tactical realism complaint, though you'd think given some of the other stuff they've just seen by this point, it should at least make them uncomfortable that a book like this is just lying around. More importantly, it's just dropped in our laps as the audience, with no build-up, no context, and no sense that it's affecting the people on the screen. They don't care, so why should we?

This passiveness and inertia extends to the structure of the film itself. There's no sense of pacing - in the first act, barely anything happens to the protagonists, and barely anything indicates that there's any real reason for them (or us) to be worried. They're in more danger of turning on each other than anything else, but this too is communicated through monotone, mumbling conversations between people with little discernable personality, so there's no tension at all. In the second act, when weird stuff starts happening, it happens in isolation to everything else going on around the protagonists, so we see a thing happen, but nobody apart from the person affected reacts or responds to it right away, so it doesn't feel like it really matters. It's not a natural progression of events, it's just a series of scary things that have been inserted into the movie because scary things have to happen in scary movies.

This almost mechanical approach extends to the horror elements (and they really do feel like elements, rather than an organic outgrowth of these people in this place at this time) as well - unnaturally pale children appear from nowhere and suddenly turn into hideous creatures, mysterious beasts roam the corn outside the house, there's a scarecrow that creeps everyone out, people hear voices, there's the aforementioned book, and basement door that mysteriously won't open (until it does). They don't emerge from exploration or discovery or a sense that something is escalating, they just sort of happen at intervals, the characters maybe say something about them (or if it's a more direct encounter, we don't see them again for a bit, if at all), and then things continue as they did before. These moments have all of the verve and intensity of a title card insert that says "A scary thing happens now."

This tendency is ratcheted up in the third act, when the scary things are piled on fast and thick (without any real increase in tension) with a lot of exposition mixed in to tell us (rather than show us) that bad things happened here. No, really -  at two different points, a character actually stands at the foot of someone's bed and tells them what happened in this house.  And this sort of has to happen because the horrible events that are supposed to serve as the engine of evil in this place are sort of incoherent - there's some internal logic to what happens, but it still feels less like an organic series of events and more like a bunch of images and set pieces that someone thought would look cool and then worked backward to create a story that would justify inclusion of all these things. There are a number of loose ends and unexplained inconsistencies, and although I think leaving some things unexplained is generally a good thing in horror movies, here it feels less like they're being left deliberately ambiguous and more like somebody just forgot that this stuff happened after it served its purpose in whatever scene it was featured.

In the end, people die (or don't, or do) and by the time the sun rises everything is resolved (or is it…? Oooohhhh, spooky!), and we're sort of left wondering what the point was of any of it. And no, it's never clear why the film is called Dead Birds, though it's just as inert and unremarkable as one, so yay for giving me a chance to make a cheap title joke, I guess?

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Chained: Child Is Father To The Man

As I've said before, horror movies generally don't get serial killers right. You can't treat them like you would fictional monsters, because serial killers are real, and making them into nigh-indestructible criminal geniuses with a flair for the theatrical cheapens and trivializes the real pain and suffering they cause to people. But that's inevitably what happens: They're bugfuck crazy, dress up in costumes, stage all of their murders as elaborately as possible, taunt their pursuers, and make sure to monologue long enough for the good guy/final girl to get the drop on them (until they return to kill again - franchisability is the name of the game, after all).

And what turns these people into sex-crime supervillains? If there's an explanation (there isn't always one, all the better to make them as close to an unknowable monster as possible), invariably it's an abusive parent, usually (though not always) the mother. This goes all the way back to Norman Bates, and then you've got Thomas Harris' Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill, both of whom have serious, serious mommy issues. In Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween, Michael Myers' mother is a stripper with terrible taste in boyfriends, and in Friday the 13th, the mother is the one doing the murdering. What would Freud say about that? Even the recent remake of Maniac, which does a lot right, features a coke-addled slattern of a mother figuring heavily into Frank's fractured psyche.

All of this is just to say that Chained - a movie very much about a serial killer and warped ideas of family - ends up largely being a very pleasant surprise.

We open on a kitchen, shot from a medium distance, almost like a play. There's a boy in the kitchen, and when he hears a buzzer, he rushes to open a door for whoever's on the other side. In comes a man, dragging a screaming, sobbing woman behind him. They go through the kitchen to somewhere off-camera. Then the real screaming begins, and the boy hides under the kitchen table, covering his ears in vain.

The boy's name is Tim, but the man (himself named Bob) calls him Rabbit. Tim/Rabbit and his mother were unfortunate enough to get into Bob's cab one day, and instead of taking them home, Bob took them to his house, out in the middle of nowhere. Bob killed Tim's mother, and decided to keep Tim as his own. A new name, a bed in the kitchen, chores to do (make breakfast, keep the house tidy, make scrapbooks of missing-persons articles, clean up the blood when Bob is done with his latest victim), and books to read (anatomy texts). Bob has decided that he's going to raise Rabbit to carry on the family business, so Rabbit needs to  know the human body inside and out. And because Rabbit tries to run (as rabbits do), he keeps Rabbit on a long, long chain. Long enough to reach to the crawlspace, so Rabbit can dig graves for the bodies Bob buries there.

When it begins, Rabbit is only nine.

With one nicely done cut, we follow Rabbit from his first two weeks of captivity forward in time to his eighth or ninth year in Bob's house. The little boy has grown up, and we get a sense of the warped reflection of domesticity the two have established. Rabbit keeps the house clean, Bob hunts. Rabbit and Bob watch TV in the evenings. Rabbit and Bob play cards - after a fashion, it's a sick memory game using the driver's licenses of all the women Bob has killed - and Rabbit and Bob discuss Rabbit's future. After all, Bob knows Rabbit doesn't want to spend his whole life chained up in the house, and Bob wants Rabbit to carry on in his footsteps. Bob thinks he's teaching Rabbit how to be a man. As is usually the case, the teenaged Rabbit has very different ideas from his "father" about what he wants to do. It is this battle of wills that dominates the second half of the movie, as we learn more about who Bob is and how Rabbit feels about his captivity after all this time.

A lot could have gone wrong with this movie - the idea of serial killer as mentor or father figure is hackneyed enough to make my teeth itch  - but by and large, Chained is a restrained, surefooted examination of the relationship between fathers and sons. The violence occurs largely in the background until the final act, Bob's predations largely observed in their aftermath. Much attention is paid to small details: The plastic safety scissors Rabbit uses to clip newspaper articles for Bob's scrapbooks, the variety of tools hanging up in Bob's garage, alongside two or three freezers and rolls of plastic tarp, mutely awful in their implications. The jar for money, the cigar box for driver's licenses. All just set dressing, but important in sketching out the limits of Rabbit's tiny little world. And the carefully observed human scale of this movie means that we feel just how tiny Rabbit's world is - so much of the movie takes place in Bob's house that the moments that don't feel like as much of a breath of fresh air to us as they would to Rabbit. The colors and light of the outside world gleam and pop compared to the squalid murk of Bob's house, and after long stretches of the same interior shots over and over, new scenery - any new scenery - just serves to sharpen the claustrophobia of the rest of the movie.

Bob is a serial killer done right - he's not clever or creative, he's a crude, fumbling, inarticulate lump of a man, all damage and violence and pain and confusion. His lack of self-awareness makes his past a prison, and though he isn't exactly sympathetic, he's not a caricature or a villain either. He's not a monster, but he does monstrous things, has had monstrous things done to him. We get flashes of his past, and they tell us how Bob became who he is, why he does what he does. Rabbit grows into someone spooky and feral, as confused and damaged as Bob, the interplay between his learned helplessness and rage and grief at his captivity palpable on his face and in every action. When Rabbit rebels, it's not an assertion of decency and humanity, it's the petulance of the boy who doesn't want to be like his father - a warped, mocking, travesty of father-son relationships.

There are no elaborately staged kills or bizarre rituals or taunting clues here. Just a man so emotionally and socially crippled that he's incapable of seeing women as anything more than whores, incapable of interacting with them except through rape, and in his own mind, left with no choice as a result but to murder. His attempts to be a father to Rabbit are equally stunted by his inability to connect or communicate in any terms other than those of violence. Bob so desperately wants to do better for Rabbit than was done for him, but the lessons he learned from his own father damn him, The story's resolution requires us to reconsider what we've seen in what at first seems like a sudden upsetting reversal, but really was there all along, built as deeply into the story's beginning as a man is built into the boy from whom he will grow.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

American Mary: Cut Deeper

One of the things scary movies do well is explore uncomfortable ideas and ask uncomfortable questions about justice, fairness, safety, good and evil, human frailty, the nature of life and death, stuff like that. All of our most cherished ideas about how the world works are capable of being put under the microscope, of going under the knife. They cut open our understanding of how everything is supposed to be and reveal the squirming guts within.

Okay, so that got more pretentious than I would have liked, but the point stands. Horror at its best often doesn't let us have the safety or sanctity of our illusions, and American Mary is a movie poised to dig deep into taboos about the body, only to shrink back from the real, frightening thing it could express. It has the knife in its hand, and flinches.

Mary Mason is a medical student, and a bright, promising one at that. She wants to become a surgeon - a demanding discipline in a demanding profession. Her teachers are assholes, but what's the old joke? "What's the difference between a surgeon and God?" "God doesn't think he's a surgeon." She's working hard, and she's broke. Medical school isn't cheap, and she's behind in her bills. In a moment of desperation, she answers an ad for some non-sex modeling/fetish/photography work. She puts on her sexiest lingerie and a long coat to go to her "job interview."

It's just as creepy and sad as you'd think. Show the club owner the goods, turn around so he can get a good look at her ass, give the club owner a massage. You can see the doubt, uncertainty, and discomfort on her face. But just as it's about to get sadder and creepier, someone barges into the room - there's a problem downstairs. It turns out someone's gotten hurt, and hurt badly, though it's never specified how. Mary's a medical student, and the club owner tells her that if she can fix this guy up, he'll give her $5000 and she won't have to show him her tits. What a deal. Mary keeps the guy from dying, takes the money, and runs home to throw up and freak out at what she just did. And then the next day, she gets a phone call from Beatress. Beatress works at the club, and heard about what Mary did. Beatress needs someone discreet, with medical training. Money is no object. Beatress has a friend who wants some surgery done.

Some very…unorthodox…surgery. Something surgeons won't do.

So Mary has a certain set of skills, and needs money. There are people who require those skills, and will pay a premium to get things done to them that the modern medical community won't do. Mary really needs the money, and that need takes her places she never thought she'd go.

It's as promising a premise as I'd want. I'm a sucker for hidden-subculture movies, where shit you'd never think existed not only exists, but there are entire economies built up around it, and are lurking behind any door, down any basement, on secret websites. The realities about illegal cosmetic surgery are horrifying enough that a horror take on them could make for a vividly disturbing movie, a look under some very real rocks at what squirms beneath them. Unfortunately, there are enough problems with American Mary that the possibilities largely go squandered.

One of the biggest problems is how tonally jarring this movie is - there are moments of real menace and discomfort, to be sure, but they're often juxtaposed with dialogue that's glib almost to the point of being goofy. Sometimes it works, helping to ground Mary as someone not in need of rescue - for good or ill, she knows what she's doing, and doesn't have a lot of patience for fools. It's especially effective when she's talking to someone she has horribly disfigured in the cool, even tones of a doctor providing post-op assessment and care, and there's a conversation scene at a party that's bizarre enough that it feels like an outtake from David Lynch's Lost Highway. Instances like those are good, helping to sell a feeling of increasing disorientation, disconnection, and unreality. But other times it completely undercuts the mood that has built up - I think it's meant to be blackly funny, but instead it yanks you out of the moment.

This disconnect spills over to the type of story the movie wants to tell as well - is it an account of one woman's moral and mental disintegration? Is it a journey into the depths of a bizarre, secret subculture? Is it a revenge story? It touches on all of these, but doesn't really earn any of them.

In the beginning, you get the sense that this is going to be the story of how Mary, initially desperate to fund her education, starts compromising her principles in ways that become increasingly horrific, except that after a couple of brief episodes of shock and revulsion, Mary is shown embracing what she does enthusiastically to the point of becoming something of a prima donna. It's not really about the increasingly bizarre things people are willing to do to their body, either, because very little of what's presented is really that outre anymore, and the most shocking things we're going to see are some of the first things we see. There's no journey from "odd, but what harm could it do?" to "really? Well, I need the money" to "oh holy shit what the fuck is this?" It gets weird early  and everything after that is going to be shocking at best to people with no previous exposure to the idea of body modification. On the other hand, if you've spent any time on the Internet or watching weird documentaries on TLC, much of this will not be anything new, and - at least in my case, as someone who's had a copy of Modern Primitives on his bookshelf for about 20 years now - not that shocking at all. There's definitely a revenge story to be told here, and the ideas and events related to it are some of the most effective parts of the movie, when it really hits a nerve with a feeling of casual disregard, almost contempt for the privacy and autonomy of someone's body.

But that's wrapped up by the end of the first act. The second act flounders, sort of poking at each of these different stories (and still at its best when it's focusing on the revenge aspect) to see what will work, but doing so without a sense of pacing or continuity. The third act loses the plot entirely, ending the film on a note so anticlimactic and unearned it felt like the filmmakers genuinely weren't sure where to go with their story and just decided to end it instead.

This is all the more disappointing because there's some real promise here - there's a great, varied visual palette at work, ranging from grimy, shadowy callbacks to the basement dungeons of Hostel to cool, gleaming operating theaters to airy loft apartments and warm, sensual penthouses. Some of the best-composed shots let their most important information happen in the background without calling extra attention to what's going on, often making what we see even worse, and there's both cleverness and restraint in how gratuitous gore is avoided - for a movie ostensibly about illicit surgery, we don't see a lot. Although the acting and dialogue don't work as often as they should, when they do connect well with the material, it lends a bracing acerbity to the darkest parts of the movie. And the basic idea is really sound, and between Mary's customers and her teachers, with her in between, there's a lot of room to explore the intersection of body image, consent, technology, power, and biology. But this movie doesn't dive in - it shrinks back, not just from spraying blood and guts everywhere, which is a good thing, but it shrinks back from the ideas as well.

The more I think about it, that restraint really does end up being the movie's undoing. I was really looking forward to a journey down the rabbit hole as Mary finds herself in a position to fulfill the needs of people with increasingly stranger and more specific desires, pushing the limits of what our body can and was meant to do, and coming out the other end completely transformed by her own transformative work, as monstrous as the monsters she makes. Instead, we got a Lifetime Movie of the Week about the extremes of cosmetic surgery, complete with an angry husband. There's no real interrogation of the ideas that technology makes our flesh malleable, and that desire can make the shapes it takes increasingly strange. There's no real, legitimate cost to Mary in what she is doing that we can see after the first 30 minutes or so. There's a germ of an idea that legitimate surgeons are just as morally corrupt as Mary, but that entire question is settled early and not revisited often enough to make it a source of tension or suspense, and in some moments when we should be experiencing real fear or disgust, goofy character moments distance and disengage us from sincere experience. For a movie about illegal surgery, it just doesn't cut deeply enough.

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A Note About American Horror Story

So I've had plenty to say about the first two seasons of American Horror Story, a show that's been responsible for some of the most daring and horrific stuff I've seen on any TV ever. Unfortunately, the third season has started and where I am right now, I don't have cable or an Internet connection strong enough to support streaming video as of yet. (As it is, it takes me a good 30-45 minutes just to upload a single post.) So I haven't been able to watch the third season, and I'm trying to avoid as much information about it as I can so that I'm not spoiled for when I do watch it. I'm disappointed that I won't be able to follow along with it right now, but I wanted to put this out here so anyone who has read my comments on previous seasons doesn't wonder why I stopped talking about it.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Resolution: Story Ghosts

Ghosts are generally portrayed as spirits stuck in a particular place, often doomed to reenact the behaviors that led to their undead state. Sometimes the ghost is malevolent, sometimes it' s sympathetic, but either way, something needs to happen to free them from the cycle in which they're trapped. So ghost stories are as much about the ghost's story as about the ghost itself. It's a wonderfully flexible conceit, because you can use it to create monsters (the mad doctor in the remake of The House on Haunted Hill), tragedies (the little girl poisoned in The Sixth Sense), or neat little flips from one to the other (Samara in the remake of The Ring).

Resolution does something really cool by making the story itself into the ghost.

Mike is on his way into a rural part of (presumably) the Pacific Northwest after receiving a video file from his friend Chris. The file shows Chris having a grand old time, living out in the woods with a dog companion, shooting at birds, shooting at cans and bottles, shooting at nothing, talking to empty air, smoking a whole lot of crack (or crystal meth, it's never really made clear), and sitting in the middle of a field, screaming at nothing.

So Mike's come to help Chris get clean, whether he wants it or not. Chris insists he doesn't want help, doesn't need help, and would prefer to die of his own excesses in his squalid shack out in the woods. Chris has pretty much alienated everyone else in his life, and Mike's pretty close, but he's willing to make this one last attempt to rescue his friend and his friendship. There are some complications - a couple of drug dealers insist that Chris has a stash of their drugs, and they want it back. Chris doesn't know where it is, and assumes he smoked it all. It also turns out that Chris is squatting on tribal land and is about to be in a lot of trouble. Mike has 5 days to dry Chris out and bring him back to civilization to go into rehab. So it's all pretty tense. In the middle of managing everything, Mike discovers a box of really old photographs under the house, photographs that seem to chronicle the death of two people. Even stranger, the last photo directs Mike to a nearby shack, where he finds an old phonograph record that again seems to be an audio recording of someone's death.

And this leads to another recording, which leads to another recording…

Resolution really skirts the edges of what you'd typically call a horror movie. For the first half of its runtime, it's pretty much just the story of two friends, one of whom is going down for the third time, the other willing to stick out his hand yet again. The threats are drug dealers, sketchy tribal property owners, other assorted misfits and castoffs who live in the woods, and Chris' own worst impulses. The weirdness takes awhile to build, and it happens in the background, without fanfare, eliciting the same sort of deadpan creepiness as the similarly low-budget and rural Yellowbrickroad, but with the supernatural elements pushed as far into the background as they were pushed to the fore in Yellowbrickroad. The tension begins as a natural extension of the situation in which the protagonists find themselves, and then slowly starts to spill over into something much stranger. The woods are filled with stories, told in photographs, journals, slides, 8mm film, VHS, records, and none of them end well. Instead of ghosts, the woods are haunted by the stories themselves, the stories the ghosts would typically tell. It's hard to talk about this movie without giving away too much, because it isn't really clear what's happening until the absolute end of the film, and everything sort of coheres once everything has happened that's going to happen. It's such a low-key, understated approach that I was still putting pieces together well into the credits - it wasn't so much a shock of realization as realization settling in, like sediment sinking to the bottom of a pond.

It also reminds me of the movie Monsters, in that it's as much about the relationship between the two protagonists as the circumstances in which they find themselves, and that attention to the characters, their history, and their relationship is a tremendous asset to the film. These feel like two real people who have known each other a very long time and have had as many bad times as good, and are now at a point where they have to examine that relationship and who they are as people. It's well-realized enough that we don't really notice how strange things are becoming - even considering a whole cast of oddballs, from UFO cultists to escapees from a mental hospital to oily, predatory house-flippers, all of whom sort of pop up out of nowhere - until it's right on top of us, and Chris and Mike are swallowed whole by their circumstances.

Ghosts have stories to tell, and these stories serve an audience. You'd be excused if you thought you were the audience for these stories, but you aren't. There are a lot of weird people in the woods, and there are a bunch of reasons why they could be there, just as there are a bunch of reasons why what's happening to Mike and Chris is happening, but the reasons aren't really the point - the reasons are sort of a necessary part of something much bigger and ancient, and very, very hungry. Resolution takes its sweet time, putting all of the pieces in place, and when the penny finally drops, you realize that every little quirky diversion throughout, every odd occurrence, they were all pointing to something meaningful and monstrous the whole time.

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