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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/29/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 26, Whole Number 1367
Table of Contents
Minor Film Industry Announcement (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Producers of the next "Rin Tin Tin" film have decided to postpone their holiday release. With films already in release called THE GOOD SHEPHERD and THE GOOD GERMAN, they decided timing might not be right to release THE GOOD GERMAN SHEPHERD. [-mrl]
Notes on the Films THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and THE PAPER CHASE (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA gave me the impression of being essentially a remake of THE PAPER CHASE. Instead of it being a male going through the rigors of beginning Harvard Law School, it is about a female going through the rigors of the fashion industry. I think the fashion industry was chosen because ticket-buyers would find it less intellectually taxing than Harvard Law School. In both cases the person has to please an implacable giant in the respective field. In THE PAPER CHASE the tyrant is Kingsford (played by John Houseman). In THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA it is Miranda Priestly, the editor of a very important fashion magazine. She is played by Meryl Streep. Two major differences are apparent, however. One feels that Kingsford's demanding nature is at least something that is good for the students who are being forced to think on a very high level. It is a bitter pill, but it does some good. As Kingsford describes the process, "You come in with a brain full of mush, and you leave thinking like a lawyer." Priestly's demands are purely selfish and generally fatuous. She demands with just a few hours notice that innocent Andy Sachs (played by Anne Hathaway) obtain a copy of a manuscript for a soon-to-be published Harry Potter novel just because Priestly's spoiled daughters want to read it on a train trip. She then complains that Sachs did not make two copies. There is some nobility in Kingsford, but there is none in Priestly. Pleasing Kingsford would be an impressive intellectual accomplishment. Pleasing Priestly is merely placating power. Also, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA has Priestly so impressed that she actually shows appreciation in the end. Houseman's Kingsford is more like a windstorm. You can stand up to him, but you cannot change him or get an acknowledgment. Watching THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA in scene after scene I was reminded of plot that could have been inspired by similar scenes in THE PAPER CHASE. Of the two films, you can tell which I recommend. [-mrl]
http://greatsfandf.com/: Titled "Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works--science-fiction & fantasy literature: a critical list with discussions". This is an amazingly complete site, with a master list, author pages, book pages, preferred editions pages, and so on.
http://pulprack.com/arch/2002/12/h_bedfordjones.html: An interesting article about a writer who used to be "The King of the Pulps", but now is largely forgotten.
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/sixwords.html: As "Wired" itself (themselves?) says, "We'll be brief: Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn.") and is said to have called it his best work. So we asked sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writers from the realms of books, TV, movies, and games to take a shot themselves." Almost a hundred stories here--all *extremely* eligible for the Best Short Story Hugo. (Just think about it--if all the nominees came from this set, you could actually have time to read them all. :-) )
http://www.jacksonpollock.org/: Paint your own Jackson Pollack. Clicking on the mouse changes the color. I have no idea how one stops it, though. [-ecl]
Where Hitchcock Got it Wrong (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This comment really came out of my discussion last week of problems I saw in, among other things, Hitchcock films. I had said there were holes in the plot of what is probably Hitchcock's most respected film, VERTIGO. Nobody commented on that. However Dan Kimmel, friend and eminent film critic, did comment on what I considered a flaw in one of his favorite films, NORTH BY NORTHWEST.
You do not find too many people who are willing to criticize the films of Alfred Hitchcock. He is one of the accepted geniuses of cinema and one of the most esteemed film directors of all time. It takes a bit of chutzpah to criticize Hitchcock. But then when I reviewed Stephen Hawking's A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME I criticized Hawking's scientific reasoning. Once you have criticized Hawking's science, criticizing Hitchcock's filmmaking comes easy. I will tell that story at the end of this article. I should point out that it is Hitchcock's theory that what everybody is trying to get, the prize, is not all that relevant to the storytelling. What is important is that everybody is trying to get it. It may be industrial diamonds, a strip of microfilm, a Lector Decoder. Whatever. Hitchcock calls this generic prize "the MacGuffin."
Dan said, "If you're focusing on the MacGuffin in a Hitchcock film, Mark, you're missing the point of the enterprise. What is James Mason smuggling in NORTH BY NORTHWEST? The only explanation we ever get about the microfilm is that the contain 'government secrets.' It's like the uranium in the wine bottles in NOTORIOUS. That's not what those movies are about, any more than THE 39 STEPS is about the secret organization Richard Hannay seems to have stumbled over. It's like coming out of THE BIRDS and complaining that they never explained WHY the birds are attacking people. It's beside the point. The movies work because we care about the people in the story."
With due respect to both Dan and Mr. Hitchcock, knowing that a virtue of a Hitchcock film is in keeping with the filmmaker's theories that may increase the appreciation of that virtue. If, however, the film has a fault, no amount of the director's film theory will turn it into a virtue.
In NORTH BY NORTHWEST I find myself as invested in the situation as I am in the people. For me the situation is what drives the film. Through a small coincidence the main character, played by Cary Grant, is drawn into the world of spies and international intrigue. It is like the floor opens up under Grant and this rather dull man is suddenly fighting for his life. It seems like it could happen to any of us. If anything the comic character that Cary Grant plays detracts from the ride the film gives us, though the comedy may be fun it itself. It separated me from the character and makes him harder to identify with. The comic characters and the situation pull in different directions. I like the comedy, but I would have done with less if there could have been more thrill. That is just my taste.
But when I am pulled into this ride I want to know why all this is happening and what is at stake. To Hitchcock the prize is unimportant, but that does not mean that it is unimportant for the viewer. Hitchcock does not satisfy me very much with his answer that what is being chased is just some microfilm with secrets. I am left feeling deprived. (It is sort of like those people who instead of leaving a tip after a meal at a restaurant instead leave a card explaining that they believe tipping is a bad thing.) Hitchcock may feel a good explanation is unimportant, but I still feel a little cheated.
However, if Hitchcock is only going to throw in a line saying that the secret is the blueprints for the new "selenium bomb", he can save himself the effort. We find out what the secret is in THE 39 STEPS and it does not leave us much edified. But it is not hard to find films that have a MacGuffin but make it more emotionally satisfying than Hitchcock does. The first one that comes to mind is John Sturges's THE SATAN BUG (1965), a thriller about germ warfare. It is a chase for a MacGuffin, but knowing what the MacGuffin is really drives the tension in that film. It gives everyone in the audience a personal stake in the outcome. Today the nature of the Satan Bug is would not be so fascinating because it is now an old idea. In the 1960s the tagline was "Since time began man has hunted the ultimate evil . . . now the search is over!" and the film does deliver on that promise of having the ultimate evil. What makes the film interesting is what is being stolen and what it can do.
Dan mentioned THE BIRDS. I accept the unexplained avian motivation in THE BIRDS because that film is in the realm of horror where the unknown and mysterious only heightens the tension. In THE HAUNTING I would not say I have to know what is pushing on that door. It is better left to the imagination. (The same might go for PSYCHO. Knowing the nature of the psychosis does not really make the film better or worse.) But I do not see that not knowing what is being smuggled heightens the anxiety in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. I think that NORTH BY NORTHWEST could only be a better film if we had some emotional investment in Roger Thornhill's goals. It is not by any means a fatal flaw in the film as we know it, but it is still a flaw.
Okay, people who are not fans of physics can leave now. What did I find to criticize in Stephen Hawking's science in his book? He was talking about the idea that at some point the universe would stop expanding and would start to contract again. He once believed that and speculated at the time that much in the universe would reverse at that point. In specific memory would reverse and people would remember the future and not the past. He apparently no longer believes that, but I am surprised that he ever did. Consider a diver jumping up from the end of a diving board. As he is moving upward the system consisting of him and the earth is expanding. In a moment gravity overtakes his upward flight and he begins to fall toward the water. The system has gone from expanding to collapsing. Yet the diver experiences no interesting memory effects (unless perhaps he does a belly flop). The universe is just a system of matter not unlike the man and the Earth. Being in a system going from expanding to collapsing does not create odd memory effects. [-mrl]
THE GOOD SHEPHERD (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Robert De Niro directs a near-epic-film of near-epic-length that nearly works. The subject is the origins and early days of the United States intelligence community. Mark Damon stars as a patrician but lackluster character who is willing to give up his family life and his soul for the sake of his intelligence job. In style and in pedigree this film is closely related to the "Godfather" films. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Borrowing much from the "Godfather" films, THE GOOD SHEPHERD is instead about the machinations and the wheels within wheels in the intelligence community. The film's structure is almost as complex as its subject matter. It follows four threads of time and we switch back and forth among for the course of this 168-minute film. We start with a CSI-like investigation of a fuzzy piece of film the CIA has been given. With the ultra- sophisticated techniques of the CIA, some amazing information can be gleaned from the unpromising connect-the-dots filmstrip. This piece of film is connected in some way with the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion. That is one thread of time. The second thread of plot follows events before, during, and after the invasion. Running the Bay of Pigs show at the CIA is veteran intelligence analyst Ed Wilson (played by Mark Damon).
Ed Wilson is actually not nearly as flamboyant as his name is. He comes off as a dry man lacking in any personality. Even his clothing seems to overpower him and that is just a suit, a raincoat, a hat, and a pair of glasses. The third thread of time follows the career of this Ed Wilson from his induction into Yale's Skull and Bones Society to his tenure as the chief of the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization that he helped found. Even this third thread has a flashback so that we can see some of Wilson's relationship with his father. In spite of his unprepossessing ways, Wilson has a razor-sharp intellect. In this thread he is recruited at Yale to spy on one of his favorite professors (played by the ever-excellent Michael Gambon), who it is feared may be a security risk. Once into the intelligence game, it is hard to get out. (Can this be an echo of THE GODFATHER's Michael Corleone?) Though Wilson has one girl friend, he dates a Senator's daughter, Clover (Angelina Jolie), and gets her pregnant. He marries her without any emotional investment, and then heads off for Europe to work for the Office of Strategic Services for the course of World War II. Clover and their son are all but abandoned by Wilson.
Wilson proves to have an illustrious career in intelligence and a disastrous married life. Like Michael Corleone, he gives his soul for his work at the expense of his family. He does not get to know his son until the son grows up and even there his relationship is stilted. His one concession to humanity is a very revealing hobby. He likes to create boats in bottles, putting intricacy where it should be most difficult to place. The script rarely gives any emotion to the humorless Wilson and leaves his thoughts a matter of conjecture. The viewer must judge this colorless man by what he does rather than how he reacts.
Over time we see Wilson as a young man who spies only out of patriotic fervor seduced into playing the game for its own sake. Wilson transforms from idealistic to completely amoral. He is all too willing to sacrifice his soul and his family life for his job. Toward the end that job is played against his opposite number, the enigmatic Soviet spymaster Ulysses. The more he is pulled into the game, the more of his private life he must wager on the game and the more he finds that Ulysses is several steps ahead of him.
There are two hours of buildup before the plot gets going. The real story of the film is told in perhaps the last three-quarters of an hour. Then the boundaries between Wilson's professional problems and his personal problems begin to break down and each starts to leak into the other. While the rest of the film adds texture and builds up the characters it is only in the final reel that the real emotional action takes place and what has led up to that time begins to pay off. Whether this is too little payoff too late after too much build time will depend on the viewer's interest in the dark world of government intelligence gathering.
Director Robert De Niro has had a long-standing interest in the real world of spies and the intelligence community. THE GOOD SHEPHERD is loosely based on the career of James Jesus Angleton, who rose to be the Chief of Staff of the Central Intelligence Agency. De Niro himself, looking a little like Henry Kissinger, has a small role as General Bill Sullivan (who was instrumental in setting up the OSS and CIA). Sullivan's charter is to make an organization that is the "eyes and ears" of the country "but not heart and soul." We never find out if he believes that both goals were accomplished, but the relevance to the present is obvious.
This is a difficult film to watch for multiple reasons. Perhaps to complement the theme the film is visually dark. It is as dark in look as it is in tone. Much of the film is shot in under-lit sets and with a subdued color palette. Where the period detail can be seen it seems good, but much of that two is concealed in the dark.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD is very much about the real espionage, and that is intriguing. CASINO ROYALE is a lot more fun, but this film has more of a feel of authenticity. Director Robert De Niro may know some first-rate directors, but he is not really one yet himself. Some popular actors like Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford make very good directors. Some like Mel Gibson are better in front of the camera than behind. Robert De Niro probably falls in the latter category. I rate THE GOOD SHEPHERD a very acceptable but still disappointing +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. Some viewers will want to be aware that this film shows some fairly graphic violence and in particular a sequence of torture. [-mrl]
Chili Peppers and Diabetes (letter of comment by George MacLachlan):
In response to Mark's article on chili peppers and diabetes in the 12/22/06 issue of the MT VOID, George MacLachlan writes, "Another interesting side effect of chili peppers was discovered (accidentally) by a friend of mine who began having strange choking-like symptoms about six months ago. He would wake up at night and his throat would seem closed up and unable to breath. He went through the sleep apnea testing and other diagnosis to no effect. It was only after he correlated these breathing problems with those occasional visits to restaurants where he had ordered a particularly spicy (read hot) meal and relayed that information to his physician, that it was determined that these hot peppers triggered laryngeal spasms that closed up his throat. He has since sworn off hot peppers." [-gfm]
[What a nightmare! To think that he might have to give up eating spicy food. I suppose if it happened to me I would try to put up with a moderate degree of choking before I gave up the joys of chili peppers. -mrl]
APOCALYPTO and Shakespeare (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):
In response to Mark's review of APOCALYPTO in the 12/15/06 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:
[WARNING--spoilers ahead -mrl]
A few errors in the Apocalypto review:
[You wrote,] "The film is the story of Jaguar Paw ... an unassuming sort of guy who has mother-in-law problems and little respect from the rest of his tribe." You're mixing up two characters. The one with the mother-in-law problem--because he hasn't given her a grandchild--is the beefy, slow-witted one, on whom the other guys play practical jokes. By contrast, Jaguar Paw seems to be a leader of the younger warriors. And has a son. [-tw]
[It is true I had problems telling the two apart early in the film. When the main character has a son I was not clear if we were flashing forward in time or if it was two different characters. -mrl]"He comes to realize that he is to be a sacrifice to entertain a crowd." The human sacrifices are a reaction to drought and pestilence: to mollify the angry gods. I thought the film made this clear any number of ways; indeed, what saves Jaguar Paw from a quick cardiectomy is that the High Priest announces that the chief god is (temporarily) sated. [-tw]
[I think he was being sacrificed for both reasons. Clearly the crowd was enjoying the sight and it was being done as a sort of show. -mrl]"Unless there are black jaguars that I don't know about, it is actually a panther that has somehow found herself on the wrong continent." According to Wikipedia, about six percent of South American jaguars are black. They're often called "black panthers", but it's actually the same species. [-tw]
[I did leave open that possibility. It actually looked a little meaty for a jaguar. I wonder if they used a panther. -mrl]True, as some reviewers have pointed out, the second half of the film recalls THE NAKED PREY. But almost no one has remarked on the major cinematic influence: John Milius and Oliver Stone's CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), which also begins with a slave raid on a peaceful settlement. Even the music is similar. [-tw]
[I didn't notice the music being similar. And the style of the raid seemed very different. The NAKED PREY analogies seemed much closer to me. I guess similarity is in the eye of the beholder. You are probably right. -mrl]My own view: I liked the movie. It seemed much shorter than its actual running time. And I find I keep thinking about it and rerunning scenes in my head, something I rarely do. [-tw]
[I felt it was extremely exaggerated in ways you do not expect films for adults. Jaguar Paw gets a spear through his body where there were internal organs and then fixes it with a little bark from a tree. This fixes him enough to outrun a jaguar. The filling of the cistern in the rain should have been a good thing for his wife. Pregnant women do float. But they never show her feet leaving the floor. -mrl]Funny that the discussion of Shakespearean anachronisms didn't mention Poul Anderson's A MIDSUMMER TEMPEST (1975), set in a world in which *everything* he wrote was true. The quote is, "Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust." In the Stratford dialect, "golden lads" was a term for dandelion -- and so was "chimney-sweeper"! [-tw]
[Gibson makes a huge show of the accuracy of having the Mayans speak their language and then throws in a really egregious anachronism at the end of the film. He may have confused Mayans and Aztecs. Or he could have been playing with time, making this a science fiction film. Certainly the solar eclipse should have lasted a lot longer than the two minutes it took. That part of the story would have played out differently if the eclipse was two hours rather than two minutes. I think if Gibson had submitted the script to a good technical advisor he would not have had much film left. -mrl]
Sundry Topics (letter of comment by John Purcell):
In response to various items in the 12/22/06 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes:
You know, whenever I read medical studies that show something significantly good or bad, and the research comes from Canada, I can't help but feel really bad for those poor Canadian rats. Geez, they get just about everything thrown at them--and in large doses, too. Saccharine, caffeine, dextrose, and whatever else Canadian scientists can think of; now it's capsaicin. Poor things! What Canadian rats need to do is form a strong union and demand more humane treatment from those evil, twisted Canadian scientists. ("What do we want?" "Fweedom!")
I was just out doing a little Christmas shopping this afternoon (Dec. 22nd) and even with all the college kids gone, it's still a zoo. Shopping just is not my cup of tea in the first place-- can't stand large crowds--and Christmastime is just the pits, as far as I'm concerned. What my wife and I have planned for this year is a repeat of last year: wait until after New Year's and hit the after-Christmas sales. We actually had our main family Christmas present bash on January 6th last year; tons of stuff at a fraction of the pre-Christmas cost. Oh, we still do a small Christmas morning gift giving, and have our main meal that day, but our big gift-giving bash is almost two weeks later. Works for us.
Besides, we can acquire all sorts of goodies for next year's Christmas! The stores down here in SouthCentralEastern Texas try to clear out as much stuff as they possibly can in order to get their summer stocks out on the shelves. When "summer" basically runs late February to early November (as in daily high temperatures from the low 70's to low 100's), this makes perfect sense. Frankly, I doubt if I'll ever get used to that! Don't get me wrong; I certainly don't miss shoveling snow, scraping layers of ice off car windows, defrosting locks, pushing cars out of drifts, et cetera ad nauseum. But sometimes the heat does get to be a bit much when it's in the 90s-plus for four months out of the year.
That link you provided under "Lunch-Time Tales" was hilarious. If anybody ever does make a filmed version of "The Mootrix", I want a copy! Shades of the meadow scene from "Kung Pao: Enter the Fist". Ah, me. Too much fun.
When in the world do you and Evelyn get the time to read so much? [I often wonder about that myself. Of course cheat-reading helps me a little. -mrl] The book reviews are wonderful, but I just don't have the time to read for pleasure during the school year, and during the breaks (like now) I tend to veg out a bit. If you check out my latest issue of "In A Prior Lifetime" (now posted at efanzines.com) you'll see what sort of things I have been reading for fun.
In any event, thank you for the zine. And I gave you folks a plug in IAPL #18. Maybe you'll get more subscribers as a result.
Merry Christmas, and have a happy and prosperous New Year. [-jp]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE SONG OF ROLAND, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers (ISBN 0-140-44075-5), is a classic, and also a classic example of messing around with history. On 15 August 778 the rear-guard of Charlemagne's army was killed in the Pyrenees by a small party of Basque marauders. There were a couple of contemporary reports of this, then nothing until around the end of the 11th century. At that point, right about the time of the First Crusade (1096), the story re-surfaced, with Charlemagne 200 years old rather than the more accurate 38, and with the Saracens rather than the Basques who attack. Oh, and there are about 100,000 of them rather than just a small party (now against 20,000 French). Regarding this tendency toward "historical adjustment", Sayers writes of one character: "[The] historical prototype [of Richard the Old] is Richard I of Normandy, who lived (943-996) later than Charlemagne's time, but has been attracted into the Carolingian cycle by the natural tendency of epic to accumulate famous names regardless of chronology." The whole story has become the Cross versus the Crescent, with Muslims willing to see their own sons killed as hostages in order to defeat the Christians.
The problem (for me, at least) is that Roland appears to refuse to blow his horn and call for reinforcements out of sheer cussedness. He has decided that it is nobler to fight while out-numbered five-to-one than to call for reinforcements, and besides, being Christians of course they will defeat the "paynims". That does not make him a hero--it makes him a dolt. (The latter attitude--that the French are a match for any foreign force--has gotten France into a lot of trouble since then, of course.)
Even the poem acknowledges this. After most of the battle, when there are sixty Frenchmen left and 96,000 Saracens [Lines 1685-1689], Roland cries, "Why aren't you here, O friend and Emperour?/Oliver, brother, what way is to be found?/How send him news of what is come about?" [Lines 1697-1699] And Oliver suddenly does his own about-face as well, saying, "And how should I know how?/I'd rather die than we should lose renown." [Lines 1700-1701] Oliver then goes on to say, in effect, "Look, if you had blown the horn when it might have done some good, that would have been one thing. But now you've lost the battle and are just trying to save yourself." But the Archbishop convinces Roland to blow his horn anyway so that Charlemagne can exact vengeance on the Saracens. Bleh.
If you are looking for early racial stereotypes, how about this description of Ethiopian warriors: "As black as ink from head to foot their hides are,/With nothing white about them but their grinders." (Note the use of "hides" rather than "skins", in addition to the actual description.) And of course, when the French defeat the SaracensMuslims), "Some thousand French search the whole town [of Saragossa], to spy/Synagogues out and mosques and heathen shrines./With heavy hammers and with mallets of iron/They smash the idols, the images they smite." [Lines 3662-3664] So we learn two things from this. One, even though the Jews were not involved in the battle, they get persecuted afterwards. And, two, whoever wrote the "Song of Roland" was seriously confused--synagogues and mosques are notable for their *lack* of images and idols; those are found almost entirely in Catholic churches. Oh, and afterward, any "Paynim" who does not convert to Christianity is killed.
I do not know whether it is the translation or the original, by the way, but both the French and the Saracens seem to have a group called the "Twelve Peers". So Line 1308 says, "Of the Twelve Peers ten already are killed," then later Lines 1511-1512 say, They urge on Roland and Oliver likewise/And the Twelve Peers to flee for all their lives." In the first case, the reference is to the Saracens, in the second, to the French. It is somewhat confusing.
By the way, I just ran across a mention of Roland's Horn elsewhere a week or so previous. The 1936 version of THE MALTESE FALCON, titled SATAN MET A LADY, has the characters from THE MALTESE FALCON (with slightly changed names) chasing after Roland's Horn, supposedly stuffed with gems to keep it from ever being sounded again. Why the jewels could not just be poured out was never made clear, and in any case Roland broke the horn at the end of the battle when he killed a Saracen with it.
SMOKIN' ROCKETS by Patrick Lucanio and Gary Coville (ISBN 0-7764-1233-X) is subtitled "The Romance of Technology in American Film, Radio and Television, 1945-1962". What sets this apart from most other books about technology (and science fiction) in that era is that most other books concentrate on film and television, and almost completely ignore radio. Lucanio and Coville, on the other hand, spend a lot of time on radio, recognizing its centrality to American life leading up to and during much of that period. They do spend a bit too much time, I thought, detailing the plots of some of the films discussed (particularly THE TWONKY).
Regarding subtitles on books, by the way, forty-four of this year's fifty most notable non-fiction books of the "New York Times" have subtitles. [-ecl]
And a thought for the new year: "We are, for example, clever enough to know that a year is a measure of passage, not permanence; we call the seasons spring, summer, autumn, and winter, knowing that they are continually passing one into the other. We are not surprised at this but when we give to seasons of another sort the names Rome, Byzantium, Islam, or Mongol Empire we are astonished to see that each one refuses to remain what it is." [Russell Hoban, PILGERMANN]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers. -- James Thurber
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