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Friday, January 10, 2014

HISTORY LESSON: Man Enough? Part 3 - Method to Modern Times

Continued from Part One - The Silents and Part Two - The Studio Era


The Wild One was not a fantastic film all considered, but it remains interesting
for its incite into the angst of the youth culture in the 1950s. Brando's line in this
scene summed it all up. As he beats on the juke box, with a contemptuous
eye fixed on his surroundings, he's asked, "Hey, Johnny... What are you
rebelling against?" He replies: "Whaddya got?" Gold.
Guttural actors of passion, guts, and loins have been acting their hearts out in cinema since from its very advent. However, something different started happening as the 1940s transitioned to the 1950s. With World War II over, another battle was inevitable. Mercifully and mercilessly, this one would be “Cold.” Broken by the horrifying glimpse into man’s darkest chasms—the Holocaust, the Devil and/is Adolf Hitler, the American boys coming home in coffins—the United States lost its trust, and the word “united” stopped being aptly descriptive of the nation. The country would be divided, not between North and South, Republican from Democrat, or Caucasian from all others, but instead everyone from everything. This new paranoia naturally led to the red scare—the obsession regarding an impending war that was only theoretical. We sought to identify villains, weed them out, and destroy them before they could strike. Less focus was given to the “Commie Bastards” building missiles on the other side of the globe than to the silent threat hiding among us: the radicals, the divergents, and those threatening the sanctity of our fictional impenetrability. A skeptical eye was turned on every neighbor, and the witch hunts began.
The movies followed, both before and behind the scenes. As the Hollywood Ten were called before the bench of public opinion and hypocrisy, celebrities of the past were forced to confront the HUAC tribunal—The Father (Joseph McCarthy), The Son (Paranoia), and the Scapegoat. Those too proud to beg (Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole) or those too petrified to argue (Elia Kazan, Robert Taylor), became the sacrificial lambs in the nation’s shamefully unfolding history. Most kept their heads down and stayed "polite" and non-political (Gary Cooper), some were scolded for their resistance and then silenced (Humphrey Bogart), but others flew into a rage of protest (John Huston, Gene Kelly), the same vigor within them that had drawn them to art hastening them to protect humanity. This created conflict on the screen; film noir grew even darker and the heightened paranoia punched up storylines. In the meantime, while Hollywood would continue to produce films starring the greats of the past, these men were aging. Audiences held onto them as necessities, guys indivisible from the very name America, but our hold on them was loosening. 


John Garfield, the wronged man in They
Made Me a Criminal.
New actors with fresh perspectives started to emerge. These guys came with a contrasting conscience to their macho forbears. John Garfield is often credited with paving the way for the method actors to come, his art being his lack of art. He was not a superhero, a cowboy, a villain, or a martyr. He was just a man, and he presented himself as such. He mumbled with streetwise, apathetic articulation, and his movements were natural and un-mannered. His prototype of masculine authenticity became a game-changer: each man is his own sinner and saint. Your worst enemy is not he at whom you point your judgmental finger, but the voice you hear in your head-- the one you are often too weak to combat. So, Garfield fell prey to both greed and his desire for Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, played the underdog as the desperate boxer turned puppet in Body and Soul, and represented the wronged minority as the Jewish Dave Goldman in Gentleman’s Agreement.
Kirk Douglas as the unconscionable reporter in Billy Wilder's 
Ace in the Hole, one of his many shades of gray
morality pieces.
Film had always asked moral questions, but it had never penetrated the gauze of hypocrisy that simplified black and white philosophy to ask truly social questions. The distinction was no longer that of "Is this right or is this wrong," but "What does this say about us? What if there is no hero? What if there is no solution?" Hollywood doesn’t like open endings, sad endings, nor any package that is not cleanly wrapped. So, while the monarchs of the past—Gable, Wayne, Cooper—carried the torch of vintage Americana, actors like Garfield, Burt Lancaster, and Kirk Douglas acted as progressive, envelope-pushing phenoms of male complexity and rebellion, slowly paving the way for those others reacting to a changing world. Confinement is not acceptable to the male animal, and while some stayed behind, others would mature with their world, working to untie the knots that they had seen formed even in their own lifetime. Yet, the tug-of-war between the past (a lost era that can never be revisited) and the future (a horrifying but necessary prospect) would begin and end in one word: “Stella!”
Brando's Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named
Desire
. His macrocosm of machismo would
knock the socks off Hollywood.
Marlon Brando killed Tinsel Town. After he ripped off her crown, it was no longer possible for the public to ignore her lies. Every new generation of man has a need to discover the world for himself, and such evolution necessitates demolishing the old images we had once so relied upon. The New Kids, those of the Stanislavsky or the Strasberg or whatever school, lashed out at their parents as all children do. They translated the world as they saw it, maturing into ungovernable, multifaceted anti-heroes performing only accidental heroics. Brando’s appearance as the cave man of humanity’s past in A Streetcar Named Desire unleashed a horridly brutal portrait of those theories of manhood that we had once held sacrosanct. He was a man unmannerly, primitively sexual, alcoholic, abusive, and even sadistic, all of these qualities simultaneously enclosing a scared boy desperately clinging to/rejecting his mother’s breast-- exemplified in the mother of his own child, Stella (Kim Stanley). He desires and is addicted to her earthy appeal, even supplicating himself before it, while shunning the pretense of the past, mercilessly raping false Hollywood’s personification in Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh). He makes her antiquity a joke. It was a savage way to bring us into a new era, but it worked.
Working alongside him were Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Ben Gazzara, James Dean, and Dennis Hopper. These artists in the early method days were like a jolt of adrenaline in the arm of America. While Hollywood tried to package them, they rebuffed the shackles of the star system by doing something different with their performances. They weren't playing to their audiences; they were playing their audiences. Neither enunciation nor dialogue were as important as internal and thus physical authenticity. Brando mumbled and tossed lines away. Clift spoke with his eyes and his body. Dean went to another planet, playing hide and seek with the camera, giving it the proverbial finger while making his audiences search for him and the truth. Newman defied his good looks by wearing a chip on his shoulder and letting his guts hang inside out-- the only man in known history to eat "fifty eggs" to prove a point. Actors suddenly weren't actors, they were people. In a return to the "every man" appeal of the silent days, stars were replaced with standard, every day guys, albeit with a little artistic elevation. 

Monty Clift, post-crash.
With an enthusiasm for the art that eclipsed the drive for celebrity, these actors seemed to resent themselves. Most openly admitted to an embarrassment over their chosen profession. A real man would be the men they pretended to be instead of being imitations. Their ego was hurt by society's definition of them as "pansies." Perhaps their reaction to this was a result of the fact that they were being more emotionally open than actors of the past. Yet, in their unapologetic tears and vulnerability, there was an aggression, a naked abandon, a sense of dissatisfaction and fear, which often revealed itself in moments of poetry. They were flawed men, and as such, they were relatable men. But, they were still men for other men to look up to. They took movie star status and brought it back down to earth. The polish was gone; the anger was still there. Clift perhaps embodied this best, as his great beauty and "movie star looks" were corrupted by his fatal crash. His life as his art, most specifically in A Place in the Sun, thus visually revealed what many instinctively felt-- that the American Dream was broken, and they were left the sons of its still perjuring manipulations. 




McQueen on the move in Bullitt.
Men were not portrayed as valiant fighters of the Flynn or Wayne variety. They were only accidental heroes. Brando's conflicted and bitter character in On the Waterfront had no desire for social glory. His own feelings of social rejection-- the boxer who didn't make it-- have made him disinterested in its salvation, until he finally stands up to the "the Man," Lee J. Cobb, to reclaim his integrity-- the only real thing a man has to hold onto. In keeping, Dean's Jett Rink in Giant starts out a buffoon chasing "the dream" and ends a ruined, despicable tycoon. An audience that understood his desperate rise and fall never withdrew its sympathy. McQueen did everything fast and hard, barely stopping for breath, sleeping his way through every beautiful woman's bed in every movie, rejecting his responsibility to them all in the desperate attempt to make The Great Escape from America's uncertain cobweb. No matter the struggle or his characters' flaws, the existential discontentment that followed him from film to film always made him a victim of circumstance. As in Papillon, he never stops trying to break from imprisonment. 

People needed this carnality. Men particularly were desperate to make such carnal howls. As young men were called to serve in the Vietnam War, their drafts arriving like preordered toe tags, there was plenty to scream about. As women grew more independent and feminism started taking a more assertive stand, the male position in the generally accepted patriarchy started to crumble. As society endured race riots, police brutality, the push toward desegregation, the arrival of the hippie, the metamorphosis of sock-hop rock 'n' roll to the Kinks early premonitions of Heavy Metal, the world seemed to be moving faster than it had since the 1920s without the nonchalance. Men onscreen began to inhabit all facets of the male human conundrum. His desire for love, and his desire to dominate; his quest for order and peace of mind, and his desire to escape the roots of his father. His brute force was supercharged but tempered with an increasing attraction to knowledge. A child of communal hysteria, he questioned the world around him. He defied it, and fell prey to it. The jig was up, and a new game was set: there is no peace on earth. Life is War is Hell, From Here to Eternity.
While Poitier's character in The Defiant Ones
still had to inevitably take a fall for "the
white man,"
Curtis, he also presented a
man morally superior and more
sympathetic than his partner
in crime.
Along with the surprising sensitivity these guys allowed to manifest in their performances-- Clift's jaw dropping and soulful performance in Lonelyhearts, Wallach's vengeful complexity in Baby Doll-- bigger issues were taking place than man's internal conflict. The camera turned outward as the actors turned inward. The world became the stage and its changing geography was mirrored on the screen. There suddenly emerged the minority voice in the person of Sidney Poitier. With the black man’s definition of masculinity on film as yet undefined-- previously only viewed as the segregated, submissive dog to the true, Caucasian male authority figure-- his windy path to absolution on film was yet to come. Sidney’s intelligence, poise, and natural command made him a worthy and acceptable vessel for all audience members to follow, and this initiated their Voyage Out of the deep dark forest of bigotry.  His instant charisma made him likable; the fact that he had the air of a gentleman and spoke in sophisticated "white man's speak" made him nonthreatening. His work-- The Defiant Ones, Porgy and Bess, Raisin in the Sun, Lilies of the Field, Patch of Blue, In the Heat of the Night-- presented him not as a cliche but as a man. While his skin color played a significant part in each role, it was not viewed as an unfortunate handicap that was to be pitied nor one that deserved condescension. He was an American trying to "make it" like any other citizen-- his biology so inconsequential that it made those who tried to use it against him the sorriest of villains. 

Spencer Tracy defends Darwin in
Inherit the Wind.
As this progress was made, the old school veterans tried to keep up.
Spencer Tracy, always an actor with conscience-- a quality that haunted him in his private life-- approached groundbreaking material with his token respectful humility and uncanny intuition into the altercation of man's eternal maturation. In his films, he not only kept up with but outdid the rebel boys riding his coattails in Judgment at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the first of which he acted opposite Clift, the last Poitier. Meanwhile, John Wayne entered darker territory, and as his conservative politics found resistance with the changing world, his characterizations became even more multifaceted than before. He went from tough on the outside, to tough through and through. His work in True Grit and The Shootist did two things. One was to reveal his depths as an actor, which echoed the secret personal frustrations and bitterness as insecurity followed him into old age. The second was to reveal the lingering public need for icons-- the ones who had never let the world down during their Hollywood reign. Society sought that certainty, particularly the older generations, as the world around them became a thing they didn't recognize. Never was there such a clean split between age and beauty on the screen.  

Peck and Mitchum represent exaggerations of
two versions of the battling American male:
the Apple Pie man of morality vs. the
inner, untamed beast. 
As such,
Clark Gable continued drawing fans to theaters to see his work in Mogambo and his wizened, vulnerable, and raw performance in The Misfits. Gary Cooper brought his usual understated pathos to High Noon, then shied away from provocative material to uphold his Mr. Deeds image. Mitchum always worked-- when he wasn't fishing, that is-- all the way into the '90s, performing in everything from The Night of the Hunter (1955) to Dead Man (1995). Gregory Peck held the badge of the eternal man of conscience, representing the soul of what America at least stood for-- or hoped to-- as Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, and wrote his own cinematic doctrine by performing in topical or controversial pieces like On the Beach and The Boys from Brazil. He then proved his merit by pulling off a transition to horror in The Omen-- only a solid man of common sense as trusted as he could pull off the conflict of a reasonable man who comes to fear God through the acceptance of the Devil.
As these heroes died, retired, or were forgotten, the turmoil didn't cease. Men were left without giants and forced to reckon with themselves as cinema delved even deeper into the disturbances of the human psyche, his condition, and the complications of the world around him. The Kent State shootings, Patty Hearst and the SLA, Watergate, the Munich Massacre, Korea, Ted Bundy, the death of Morrison, the death of Hendrix, the death of Joplin, the death of Elvis... All these monumental crises chewed up the "glory, Hallelujah" of life and left man to reinterpret it's National Anthem as one big con. 


The Godfather opens with Vito Corleone almost immediately asking
for his son Michael. "Where's Michael?" He doesn't even share words 
with his son at his his daughter's wedding. Mistrustful of his eldest son 
Sonny,  he seeks the true family anchor to carry on his heavy burdens. 
These actors do not  have a genuine scene together until Pacino comes 
to Brando in the hospital and names him as his father,  stating, 
"I'm with you now."  Inheritance accepted. POETRY.
With the now absolutely dominant presence of television and the quickening informational capacity of the media, America was shrouded in mistrust and was Hell-bent on dismantling any still perpetuated delusions of grandeur. We are men; we are monsters. The method trend continued in two strains-- still real guys-- as activists or anarchists. Thus we witnessed the emergence of Dustin Hoffman's feminism in Tootsie and Kramer vs. Kramer and Robert De Niro's anti-christ in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Heroes were villains as they hadn't been since the '30s, and all were political. Who better to usher in these angst-ridden young men, seeking in vain to establish their misshapen identity than the Don himself-- he who had paved their way? Brando passed the torch to Al Pacino in The Godfather, and what followed on film was a new breed of man, violently tearing himself and his society down so he can build himself, and it, up again.

This anger began to dissipate in the hands of
Ronald Reagan's 1980s optimism. America, in between battles for a time,  was determined to enjoy the economic boom and continue the progress of the '60s and '70s by turning itself into a big enough threat to keep all further mutinies, attacks, and depressions at bay. From the spring-board of the Jewish and Italian actors who populated the masculine screen in the last decade, Captain America was due to return-- our arrogance transforming itself into the muscular, one man heroes that only needed a gun to save the world (a trend started by Charles Bronson in Death Wish, and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, the bridge films to a new era). 




Arnold goes Commando; America is secure.
Regular guys with chips on their shoulders disappeared behind muscular Gods from Mt. Olympus. Stallone: the broken, underdog poet on a mission. Willis: the clown having "a very bad day." Gibson: the loose cannon, crazy enough to do anything. Cruise: the miniature but cocky pretty-boy whose belief in his own invincibility worked better than any firearm. And Schwarzenegger... Where did this human treasure come from? His Austrian accent only enhanced his status as a mythological creature: Conan the American. His unprecedented reign in everything from action to science fiction to comedy made him an unparalleled force in the industry. People loved him. Utterly. His gravity as a performer was never exactly earth-shattering, but his unabashed commitment to whatever battle he was fighting was. Say what you will about the guy-- he always went for it. America was safe under Arnold's watch. He had our back, and we knew we could trust him every time he uttered those eternal words, "I'll be back," and he always did come back again... Up until the new millennium we he found politics and we found iPhones.

Our heroes aged, only reappearing to mock their image or play on their past mammoth status-- mostly thanks to Stallone's still active imagination and business savvy, as evidenced in The Expendables. At the same time, the world was intruded by the world wide web. As the increasing technological forces at our fingertips became our new heroes, our fascination with human representatives diminished. Our art, our introspection, slowly lost its way while we personally downsized to smaller screens in separate universes, wherein we became our own idols. (For more on that subject, visit my past article YouTube Killed the Movie Star). 


Now we find ourselves in search of "men." As a reflection of society at large, where gender equality between men and women has become (arguably) more balanced, more negative/competitive attention is given to the "other-genders": the homosexuals, the transvestites, the transsexuals, and even living dolls. The emergence of these different strains of manhood and the slow acceptance of them has split the previously more "predictable sex" completely asunder. A Man is a Man isn't a Man anymore. Men are expected to be more emotionally mature, to be more participatory and open in relationships, and to make room for women, who have invaded and irreparably altered the work place, changing all pre-programmed existential strategy. Wife, baby, house: they no longer apply. Your girlfriend is working, she's not ready to have kids, and who the Hell can afford a house in this economy?!?!

This economic slight is perhaps the worst. The depression has made our men depressed. The inability of a man to be a provider is the greatest wound to his ego. A provider is the one thing that he historically must be and which has been consistently represented throughout his path on film. A man must earn-- legally or illegally. Now, men are either out of work or working at jobs that torture them at breakneck speeds for far too little compensation. This, in conjunction with media saturation and our current obsession with surface over substance, pressures him to be a body-conscious metro-sexual with a sweet car, (that he can't afford). 



Man is showcased as presentation-- hiding behind cool specs and wearing skinny jeans, because he doesn't know what else to do. At least, that is the way he is portrayed in advertisements or by the baby-faced, interchangeable pseudo-stars of today. "Men" are Zac Efron, Channing Tatum, singer turned "actor" Justin Timberlake, or that other guy from the inexplicable tragedy of Magic Mike... hold on, I have to look up his name... Alex Pettyfer? Whatever. He's so boring that I would rather watch two retarded hippos have sex than see anything he's in. Pretty, pretty presentations... Some of them try so hard to act, to come across with actual guts, but most of them are just nice guys who are nice looking and that's it. When they imitate the strong men they grew up with, it comes across as insincere and a little pathetic. We're far too cynical to take any of them seriously. As such, they have replaced 1940s wartime pin-ups to become our modern bimbos, a total sexism boomerang effect.

Instinctively, contemporary men reject their actors as physical embodiments of their threatened emasculation, and are consequently left without what they deem to be true representatives, which is why they reject the options placed before them. There are some standouts. 
Ryan Gosling gets away with what he does due to his taste for intriguing material and his tendency to keep quiet and underplay. (Is it minimalism, or is it just not acting? At least he keeps things interesting). Ryan Reynolds and Bradley Cooper have genuine chops, but they aren't taken seriously enough to be idols. DiCaprio keeps killing it due to his genuine talent and eagerness to take risks. Still, while men respect him, no one man-crushes on him like they once did Cruise. Mark Wahlberg will always be Marky Mark, with or without his funky bunch. Even Brad Pitt's Fight Club sheen has tarnished behind the public campaign he always seems to be waging to be "Look, I'm the Nicest Guy EVER!"


No.
The amped up versions of masculinity presented in the sorry excuses for action films over the last decade-- which are so nondescript and cliched that I can't really think of one right now-- aren't authentic. We rely on Willis to reappear with Die Hard sequels, or Stallone to pull another Rambo or Rocky out of his back pocket. Yet, today's men aren't bodybuilders, because they are expected to be lean-- and not fighting machines, but sex objects. They also can't relate to Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson or Vin Diesel because they are beefy doofuses. In truth, audiences can only tolerate an action hero when he's a superhero, because these are mutants and real men don't feel that they are capable of superhero-dom right now-- not after what happened to us on 9/11. Real guys walking through fire or being shot to Hell and surviving don't make sense after witnessing bodies dropping from the Twin Towers and subsequently watching the economy bleed. Such fictions insult our intelligence. As such, when good looking guys with empty heads put on the cape (Superman Returns, 2006) we don't care. When an actor with actual ability does and the material is darker, we are more apt to get on board (Man of Steel, 2013). 

In contrast to Bruce Wayne, the Joker dives into
the chaos, as this is what has made him what
he is. His indulgence in it is his antipathy for it,
a fact many could certainly relate to.
In truth, the superhero marathon we're still lazily championing has another effect. Thanks mostly to
Christopher Nolan's work in the latest Batman franchise, the fantasy world of these masked crusaders has become more interesting. Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne is kind of an asshole in reality. He's self-obsessed. He loses the girl. His life is a self-inflicted curse... He has money, but what good does it do him? He consistently has to get out there and fight to defend his honor and save Gotham City, just as men put on their suits or khakis everyday and get out there and try to make a living and save the country from itself. Life sucks. Perhaps that is why people responded to Heath Ledger's joker with such passion... Being a hero isn't glamorous. It stinks. Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man could die at any moment, because of his defunct heart. The Hulk is the biggest loser ever and a bona fide freak. Thor lives on a boring planet that I wouldn't visit on my worst day. 

What is interesting about these films, aside from Captain America-- which didn't catch on because of the pretty boy problem-- is that the commendable acting when mixed with the machismo is what made all of its stars acceptable. Bale was an actor's actor before. People knew him as the guy from American Psycho. He puts on a cape, and suddenly he's the man. Downey became the comeback kid when he got clean and became Iron Man, going from public enemy number one to everyone's favorite movie star. If it weren't for Thor, there would be no Chris Hemsworth. He would have been one of the vanilla, interchangeable, revolving-door-duds on the cover of whatever constitutes today's internet "Tiger Beat." Similarly, everyone thought Matt Damon was a "pussy" until he became Jason Bourne. Men need the personifications of their complexities with a little flexing of muscle. They may not be he-men, but they're still men after all. Whatever "men" means these days...

Zach Galifianakis: modern hero lampooning
the superficiality of an industry that normally
wouldn't have him. Thank God for tough
times...
In truth, the biggest and most celebrated stars of today are the comedians-- coming full circle back to the silent comic days. Their modus operandi is different-- more vulgar and uncouth-- but losers who make us laugh are definitely on top in the industry game. Their masculine ineptitude gives men a cathartic sigh of relief from the pressures of contemporary narcissism and equally gives them permission to be a little screwed up right now. It's nice for them to see dudes just being "dudes." 
The appeal of the "Frat Pack" of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and the Wilson brothers may have died down, but one of the most iconic, oft-quoted, and beloved characters of the current generation is Will Ferrell's Anchorman, Ron Burgandy. Zac Galifianakis is cleaning up with his pot-bellied, pot-smoking, supporting characters-- who coincidentally look like they rarely bathe and sound like they didn't pass the second grade. The new bro-from-another-ho-team of Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and James Franco scored box office gold last year with This is the End

This does feel like the end, doesn't it? Everyone feels totally screwed, and seeing actors playing losers, degenerates, selfish bastards, and social retards reflects the feelings of total disorder that mankind experiences on a daily basis. Every day is like The Hangover. "What happened last night? What happened yesterday morning? The day before? What's happening now?! Where did my life go?!?!" The picket fence, the pie in the sky, the childhood home you grew up in, are all relics of a nonexistent society. The most we can do... is laugh. 

With the return of our modernized Tramps to the forefront, the masculine onscreen presence is as cryptic as it has ever been. The absence of movie stars with the instant accessibility of Netflix streaming has also done some damage, as there is no hugely adored prototype of Americana to latch onto and label as the new "He." We have gifted actors like
Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix who do compelling work every once in awhile; we have Hugh Jackman trying to be Wolverine and Russell Crowe trying to hang tough, but neither pull it off, because we heard them both sing. And "sing."


Jon Hamm has won an equally adoring male and female audience through his
performance as the mysterious and conflicted Don Draper on the "Mad
 Men" 
television series-- TV being much more influential than cinema these days. 
Of course, his character exists in another time, which brings the fascination 
into question. What does the "business man" really look like today? 
Are our working men no better than those portrayed in 
The Wolf of Wall Street?

As man searches for his masculinity in modernity, trying to find that balance between personal, emotional security, intellectual stimulation, and faith in his government, we may be at a point where we have outgrown such distinctive representations of Manliness. We live in a world of big box-office flops and unique, unpopular independent films, which present many interesting stories about the struggle to just hang on. With so many voices trying to be heard, there may be no need for fictional, pinnacle male models to do the heavy lifting for their living brothers. As our world opens up, it too disconnects us. We are all introverts living on Instagram. Our films, therefore, present a myriad of faces and slices of life: individuals not communities. It's a strange sort of limbo. Where it will lead artistically, I don't know. But wherever humanity goes, the cinematic male archetype is certain to follow.

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