The Great American Novel Project: Absalom, Absalom!

September 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

Absalom, Absalom!

This isn’t my first attempted Faulkner novel. It is my first completed Faulkner novel. (Related: It’s also the book that derailed my Great American Novel Project for the better part of a year and a half.) To me, reading Faulkner is like trying to wade through the most impenetrable swamp in the South for a year and a half straight, and while occasionally there are some cool things during your trek, and the scenery’s great, by the time that year and a half is up, you’re soaked through, miserable, and have been so focused on the task at hand that you’ve completely missed the signposts alongside the swamp telling you a) what’s ahead of you, b) why you’re in the swamp and c) how to get out. Normally I like dense writing–two of my favorite books are Possession and The Secret History–but apparently I’ve come to the outer reaches of my limit, and Faulkner is it.

Thank god for Shreve, Quentin’s roommate at Harvard, the ultimate recipient of the tale the Compsons are weaving in Absalom, Absalom!: his entire purpose in the novel seems to be to repeat back to Quentin what he’s been saying in plainer terms for the benefit of the reader. (There are actual points in the narrative where Shreve interrupts in order to say, “So what you’re saying is . . .?”–so the next time your writing instructor dings you on an As You Know, just tell them that Faulkner did it, too.) When you’re spending all your energy trying to figure out which character Faulkner is even talking about, it’s tough to simultaneously follow his metaphors. To be fair to Faulkner, that’s part of his goal–the obscuration of Absalom‘s events is a necessary part of his exploration of how we attempt to reconstruct the past. As always with Faulkner, the prose is incredible. The plot, once you sort it all out, is compelling. And the broader Southern themes of the novel–slavery as the downfall of the South, the region’s inability to come to grips with its own demise, the myriad versions of Southern history and what they all mean–are fascinating even now that many of them have been well-trod. (At the time Absalom, Absalom! came out and those themes were fresh, this novel–and particularly its closing lines, which are a neat summary of Faulkner and his entire oeuvre for me–must have been thrilling.) Intriguingly enough, Faulkner has said that the “true version” of his characters’ history is there in the pages, between the lines, for any reader conscientious enough to go back and look for it. All the same, I probably won’t be that reader.

Previously: The Great Gatsby
Next: the first book of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, The 42nd Parallel

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It Happened at the World’s Fair

August 18, 2012 § 3 Comments

It Happened at the World’s Fair is where Elvis’s image loses its teeth entirely. Only a handful of years after he was considered a hip-swiveling menace to society, Elvis now spends more of this movie baby-sitting plucky, pig-tailed seven-year-old Sue-Lin than chasing skirts (overachieving, he sometimes manages both at once). Sure, Elvis’s bad-boy sneer had gotten a little softening in movies like G.I. Blues, which also included a bit of baby-sitting–but at least in that movie he was still naughty enough to make a bet about spending the night with his paramour. World’s Fair is a straight-out family film, and the closest Elvis gets to a sleepover is when Sue-Lin falls asleep on his shoulder on the Monorail ride home after an exhausting day at the of Crackerjack-eating and Ferris wheel-riding.

What World’s Fair lacks in teeth, it makes up for in a different department: racial progressiveness. While Elvis was haunted throughout his life by urban legends about his alleged racism–and continues to be even after his death, despite JET debunking the rumors half a century ago–the truth is much more interesting. Childhood neighbors recall him as being on good terms with all races, playing in mixed-race bands and learning gospel songs from African-American church-goers. He was one of the few white artists of his day to regularly cross the color lines of the South, attending the Memphis fair on “colored night” and participating in black radio charity events. And his films commit to showcasing racially progressive views, too. In 1960’s Flaming Star, he plays a half-white, half-Native American character who articulates his frustration over fitting in neither world and the impossibility of choosing one over the other when both continue to attack each other–a plot that Douglas Brode in Elvis Cinema and Popular Culture reads as a pro-integrationist allegory for white-black relations and the Civil Rights movement. In 1961’s Blue Hawaii, Elvis rejects the prejudiced views of his Southern belle mother by choosing to party with his Hawaiian friends and marry his half-Hawaiian girlfriend. In 1963’s Fun in Acapulco, one-third of the obligatory Elvis love triangle is Hispanic actress Elsa Cárdenas.

But It Happened at the World’s Fair is perhaps Elvis’s most racially progressive film, for the fact that so little attention is drawn to race at all. In an era where movie characters were always white unless the plot required them to be otherwise (and let’s not kid ourselves–50 years later, that still basically applies), the fact that Elvis’s seven-year-old playmate is played by Asian-American Vicky Tiu stands out. Both Sue-Lin and her uncle are presented virtually sans stereotype, another rarity for the time. Even the Asian-American girl manning the Chinese food booth is treated exactly like every other woman in the movie (Elvis hits on her, naturally).

Granted, Elvis’s racial track record is by no means spotless. The character of Ping-Pong in Blue Hawaii is an unfortunate racial stereotype from beginning to end, and Elvis’s depictions of American Indians in later movies like Stay Away, Joe were less nuanced than one might have hoped from movies coming out ten years and a Civil Rights movement after Flaming Star. The allegations of Elvis’s appropriation of black music are legit, even if most of his contemporary black musicians, fans and media saw it very differently then than they do today. Back in the day, many African-American musicians credited Elvis as the breakthrough that made their own breakthroughs possible–he was the mechanism that allowed the mainstream press to start taking them seriously and, perhaps more importantly, for the mainstream fans to start making them rich–if never quite as rich as Elvis. And maybe that right there is Elvis’s legacy in a nutshell: a thief and a trail-blazer at the same time. But while people continue to debate the complex racial legacy that Elvis left us with, I’m glad there’s at least one of his movies that stands out as being not just racially ahead of its time, but ahead of ours.

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In the Heat of the Night

February 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I recommitted to my goal of making it through the two AFI Top 100 Movies lists, and one of the most interesting thing about the two lists is how you can see critical tastes changing–especially in regards to race–even in the span of a decade. Movies like Dances with Wolves, Giant, or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner–initially regarded as racially progressive for their intersection-of-two-cultures plots–were now seen as overly sentimental, unrealistic, and heavily imbalanced towards the white side of the story. Movies like In the Heat of the Night and Do the Right Thing–presenting grittier, less rosy-eyed portraits of race relations–replaced them, alongside pictures like The Shawshank Redemption and Spartacus that had subtler themes of identifying with the oppressed. In perhaps the most blatant example, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was almost literally replaced with his later Intolerance, substituting a pro-bigotry message with an anti-bigotry one–and while Intolerance is certainly more palatable from a humanitarian standpoint, and more interesting from a storytelling point of view, it seems a little like cheating to pretend that its technological advances were anything compared to Birth of a Nation‘s. It’s not a fight I’m compelled to go to the mat for, but I do think this kind of historical revisionism ultimately does more harm than good–Birth of a Nation was a great film based around an awful story, period, and removing it from the list doesn’t make people in the early days of the 20th century any less racist than they were. Ultimately, cinematic superlative lists need to decide if they’re grading on technical innovation or artistic achievement (however you define that)–Birth of a Nation shows exactly why it’s so dangerous to grade both simultaneously, as the AFI list purports to do. Otherwise you might come across as tacitly condoning the acts of the Klan when, in reality, all you mean is that you think Griffith’s invention of “close-ups” was really neat.

Before watching, I was familiar with three parts of In the Heat of the Night already: the scene where the police officer arrests Sidney Poitier in the train station and repeatedly refers to him as “boy,” the part where he snaps, “They call me Mister Tibbs,” and the part where an older white man slaps him and he returns the slap full-force. I loved finally seeing them in their proper context; it’s like the experience I had reading Jack Gilbert’s “Michiko Dead” on its own and then reading it in the context of The Great Fires. That poem and those moments seemed less contrived, less trying to prove a point, more trying to tell a story when taken as part of a full work. This will sound ignorant of me, but I didn’t realize that they were making films like this in the 1960s, let alone that films like this were winning multiple Academy Awards–the depiction of racial tensions seemed more realistic to its time than many pictures’ being made today. It helped that the movie was set up as a mystery rather than a “problem picture”; it avoided a lot of the potential derailings into heavy-handedness while still managing to touch on some serious issues. I’m reading Donald Bogle’s wonderful book Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies & Bucks right now, on the history of African-Americans in cinema, and I’m surprised that he gave this film what was essentially a sentence-long review of “Sidney Poitier plays another variation on the perfect black man,” because to me, there were several very transgressive moments in this film–including, but not limited to those I noted above–that pushed the (primarily white) audience to identify with Poitier’s character in the same way that horror movies often force the mostly male audience to identify with a female lead.

My favorite moment of the film occurred right after Poitier returns the rich white man’s slap and stalks out. The white man’s black servant, who’s been sent to the kitchen for a tray of lemonades, returns just in time to witness this exchange, and responds with a small, sad shake of his head. Its meaning is entirely ambiguous: Is he disappointed in Tibbs for stepping out of line? Pleased but knowing he has to play the part of loyal servant? Openly upset with his employer? Annoyed that he got all those lemonades ready for nothing? I’ll admit that I’m not the kind of person who usually notices small details in films like this unless I see them multiple times, but rarely has such a tiny moment been so perfectly played.

Mugabe and the White African

January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

If you’re looking for a villain everybody can agree on, it’s hard to do better than Robert Mugabe. Who’s going to defend somebody who’s publicly claimed Hitler as a role model? Who tortures, rapes, and kills his political opponents? Who ignores unfathomable unemployment, inflation and AIDS rates in his country, Zimbabwe, while amassing a personal fortune rumored to be northward of a billion dollars? And who’s put into place a land appropriation program designed to wrest control, often by bloody, violent force, from white landowners and corporations, and place it into the hands of black Zimbabweans? Well . . .

That last policy is the focus of this documentary, which profiles one of the last remaining “white African”-occupied farms, owned by Michael Campbell and his family, as they attempt to hold their own–in the courts and on the “streets”–against Mugabe and his men. The Campbells are portrayed as salt-of-the-earth, god-fearing folks who came by their small, family-run farm honestly and are now unfairly having it stolen from them. Unfortunately, the film not only leaves out background information about the Campbells and Zimbabwe itself that is vital to understanding Mugabe’s policies, it actively tries to push us to align ourselves with the Campbells. By doing so, they not only managed to silence Mugabe–not a huge loss as far as I’m concerned, although the documentary does suffer for it–but also the native Zimbabweans who are caught in the middle of Mugabe and Campbell. We hear almost nothing from the black farm workers Campbell employs, or the guards who he hires to defend his family–and we hear literally nothing from the black Zimbabweans who have been on the receiving end of Mugabe’s land appropriation, or those starving in the streets as unemployment soars over 50 percent. Those perspectives would have been valuable to have, as would have the story of how colonialism played out in Zimbabwe, and how the Campbells benefited from that. But instead, what we get, over and over again, is the insistence that Mugabe’s policies are “racist” because they discriminate based on skin color–and who wants to risk being labeled a racist by questioning that maybe things are more complicated than that?

Here’s the more complicated truth: The Campbells’ farm is not a small, family-run farm, but a veritable 3000-acre plantation employing over 500 workers. Campbell even owned an adjoining hunting safari. Campbell believed that blacks couldn’t run farms on their own, that they needed whites to show them how to do it, and to be in charge. Campbell bought the farm during Ian Smith’s rule in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia–likely on the cheap, since Smith was an unrepentent racist who sought to keep whites in power and land in their hands. In fact, during Smith’s regime, land was still being taken from black owners and “redistributed” to whites like Campbell. Smith’s policies clearly worked, since on the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, whites–who make up less than one percent of the population in Zimbabwe–owned about half the arable land in the country. It’s extremely frustrating to watch Campbell and his family bemoan the land appropriation and Mugabe’s “racist policies” over and over, when land appropriation and Ian Smith’s racist policies are exactly why they own that farm in the first place.

In fact, Campbell’s historical ignorance is a recurring theme. At one point, he laments the fact that you can be white and American, or white and Australian, but not white and African–why not? Wait–really? The reason you can be white and American, or white and Australian, is because the white settlers in those countries managed to so thoroughly exterminate the native populations that they no longer possessed the numbers to put up a fight over who has the right to call themselves “American” or “Australian.” Surely that’s not what Campbell’s suggesting should have happened in Zimbabwe?

Okay, so Campbell’s a historically naive bigot. Whatever, he’s one character in the film, right? The problem is that he–and his family, who hold similar views–are the only voices we hear. At one point, he questions his workers on their views, in a joking, we’re-all-in-this-together tone, but they simply laugh and nervously eye the camera. Other black Zimbabweans are likewise silent. And the filmmakers only provide the audience with information that confirms Campbell’s views, purposely withholding information about Zimbabwe’s colonial past that might muddy the issue. We’re obviously meant to ignore all that. We’re obviously meant to side with the historically naive bigots, because the only other alternative the filmmakers present is to side with the man who styles himself after Hitler.

And the most frustrating part about all of this is that including that information wouldn’t have done all that much damage to the cause they’re pushing. You’re still up against the guy who wants to be Hitler! All you have to do is take one look at the Campbells after they’ve suffered a brutal attack at the hands of Mugabe’s men–beaten until their brains swell, a hot poker stuffed down the throat of Campbell’s wife–to understand that the way Mugabe is conducting his land appropriation campaign is not okay. Nobody is going to say that this is simple two-wrongs-make-a-right business here. But the filmmakers don’t trust their audience to make that call themselves, God forbid, so they do it for them. The result is a documentary that verges on pushing a pro-colonialist agenda–not exactly what I think they were intending.

The Great American Novel Project: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

December 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

“The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain

When I first started this project, Huck Finn was in the news for reasons you wouldn’t expect: publishers had put out a new copy of the book where all of Twain’s usage of the n-word was replaced by the word “slave.” It reminded me of a 1955 movie made out of the book, where producers, hoping to avoid offense, omitted any references to slavery and turned Jim into a white man. To a modern audience, the problems with that approach are obvious, but apparently the word-replacement approach–just a less egregious version of the same thing–was less overtly troubling, because this isn’t the first time it’s been tried.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer–temperamental about my words, protective of them–that the whole thing sets me off. To a serious writer, the difference between one word and another is big. If Twain used the n-word, that’s because he meant to use the n-word. If he meant “slave,” he would have written “slave.” Don’t think it’s happenstance: Twain used the n-word repeatedly on purpose. He used it to make a statement about the society Huck Finn takes place in, that it’s so racist that even the characters we’re supposed to like use it over and over without regret, right up through the last chapter. Even minor changes to the text of the story can affect the author’s intention, and in the case of Huck Finn, those “minor changes,” the alteration of one word, seriously alter Twain’s intent: it makes Huck less ambiguous than he’s supposed to be, putting more emphasis on the “high-spirited scamp” side of his personality and less on the “product of his society (even though he would claim otherwise)” side. (It also shows that Jim is either patient or oppressed enough to put up with it, both significant aspects of the book.) The fact that Huck considers himself a loner, Dottie, a rebel is a major focus of the book; by changing the n-word to “slave” we significantly undermine the idea that this isn’t strictly true. At the end of the book, Huck claims that he’s planning on heading out west to rid himself of the burden of polite society, but since the ambiguous nature of his character has already been made clear, we can imagine that his future will end up quite a bit differently than he does. By changing just one of Twain’s words to something less offensive, we also change our conception of the book’s setting and characters. It’s not just a minor change.

Yes, Adventures of Huck Finn is a problematic book. Maybe as times change, we should examine the role it plays it the classroom–as a “classic” example of an anti-racist text–and look at other options that could fulfill similar functions. Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, August Wilson and Toni Morrison can cover similar ground and allow black writers to speak for themselves rather than relying on a white author to interpret for them. Maybe because of Huck Finn‘s complexities and controversy and capability to offend, it’s a book that should wait until college, where lit courses are largely optional and everyone in the class is there by choice. And certainly we should think about the way teachers present the novel, how their use of (or their allowing their students to use) the n-word in class can implicitly condone the same prejudices that Twain was hoping we’d react against. But changing an author’s words–their story, their intent–and wiping away a tiny chunk of history is never an acceptable option.

Previously: Moby-Dick

Next: The Great Gatsby

There is no rape scene in Gone with the Wind.

June 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Gone with the Wind is something of a cinematic Rorschach test, and its ability to be all things to all people is a part of its long-lasting appeal. It’s racist, except when it’s not: the horrors of slavery are glossed over, the semi-complexity of the novel’s characters is reduced to stereotypes in the film, and the black actors were treated poorly at the premiere and, on some occasions, on the set–but the film was one of the only ones of its time to actually give black actors something to do besides stand in the background and smile ingratiatingly, and it led to Hattie McDaniel’s famous first Best Supporting Actress win. The film is pro-Southern, except when it’s anti-Southern: the antebellum South is romanticized (knights and ladies fair, a dream remembered, et cetera) but it also very blatantly spells out the fact that the South failed because they were cocky, ignorant bastards who were too wrapped up in their ladies fair and their code of chivalry to see the forest for the trees. It’s sexist, except when it’s not: Scarlett and Melanie are extremely strong female characters in different molds, with Scarlett breaking all the confining conventions to which her gender is held, and the focus on how war affects women was quite revolutionary for its time–but there’s a definite Taming of the Shrew vibe, and demure Melanie is clearly set up as the ideal of Southern womanhood, with even Margaret Mitchell herself expressing wonderment (a little disingenuously, in my opinion) at why Scarlett turned out to be so well-loved by so many. And then there’s the little matter of that rape scene . . .

There’s only one small problem with that: there is no rape scene in Gone with the Wind–and whenever anybody describes the staircase scene as such, I have to fight the urge to tear my hair out, weep, beat my chest, et cetera. To be fair to them, it’s easy to mistake the staircase scene for a rape scene when Rhett carries Scarlett kicking and screaming up the stairs–but to be fair to the movie’s directors, too, there’s not much more they could have done with the source material to make the scene clear, short of slapping a voice-over on it. It’s a scene that essentially requires you to be in the heroine’s head in order to parse what’s going on–and thus it’s one of the few scenes in the book that doesn’t translate well to the screen. Here’s Mitchell in that deliciously purple scene:

“Up the stairs, he went in utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear. He was a mad stranger and this was a black darkness she did not know, darker than death. He was like death, carrying her away in arms that hurt. She screamed, stifled against him and he stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over her and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers. . . . She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her. Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again, a darkness that was soft and swirling and all enveloping.”

And then, of course, the infamous morning after:

“Oh, she should be ashamed, should shrink from the very memory of the hot swirling darkness! A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender. For the first time in her life she had felt alive, felt passion as sweeping and primitive as the fear she had known the night she fled Atlanta, as dizzy sweet as the cold hate when she had shot the Yankee. . . . When she thought of meeting him again, face to face in the sober light of day, a nervous tingling embarrassment that carried with it an exciting pleasure enveloped her.

‘I’m nervous as a bride,’ she thought. ‘And about Rhett!’ And, at the idea she fell to giggling foolishly.”

That’s not a rape. In fact, that this scene is not a rape illustrates the entire point of the 700-page story: that Rhett is Scarlett’s perfect match specifically because he’s the only one that can meet her on her level, beat her at her own game, turn her darkness into light. Does the scene start ugly? Definitely–and the altercation leading up to it, where (in the film), Rhett tells Scarlett to “observe my hands, my dear. I could tear you to pieces with them, and I’d do it if it’d take Ashley out of your mind forever. But it wouldn’t. So I’ll remove him from your mind forever this way. I’ll put my hands so–one on each side of your head–and I’ll smash  your skull between them like a walnut, and that’ll block him out” . . . is, in my opinion, even uglier. But an ugly, nasty scene though it is, it’s not a rape scene. Is Rhett a bastard and a half here? Yes–a drunk, emotionally abusive bastard, but not a rapist. Nobody has sex against their will in this scene. Scarlett is carried up the stairs against her will, but carrying someone up the stairs against their will isn’t rape, and she’s happily succumbed to the idea of sex long before they get to the top step.

While we’re on the subject of forgotten tropes, here’s another one: the forced seduction. While most common in romance novels, it enjoyed its heyday in movies, too, and Gone with the Wind is its prime example. Forced seduction stemmed from the pre-sexual revolution days when Good Girls Didn’t, which, for writers, raised the question of how to get a good girl (or, in Scarlett’s case, a wildly independent one) into bed with the leading man when she had no logical reason to be there. The admittedly imperfect solution they came up with? Have the leading man force himself on her. Of course, he can’t actually force her to have sex, as a real hero, no matter how unchivalrous, would never have to resort to forcing women to have sex with him–so a forced seduction is something that starts as a rape but transforms into consensual sex at some point before penetration. This was intended to take just enough culpability off the woman that her reputation remained undamaged, while still allowing the man to cling to the shards of his respectability–and whatever plot point needed to be fulfilled by the two characters coming together could still play out. This trope became mostly unnecessary after the sexual revolution and basically died off in the film world after that, although–oddly–it lasted well into the 1980s in the realm of romance novels.

I’m certainly not arguing that the story doesn’t showcase sexism in other ways, or even that the staircase scene isn’t plenty sexist in its own right–but it’s not rape. Blindly worshiping Gone with the Wind displays a lack of brain power, but roundly condemning it is just as easy, and often, just as wrong. Margaret Mitchell’s magnum opus, and the movie based on it, are two of the most morally ambiguous pieces of pop culture the 20th century produced. A little deeper digging is in order here.

Race & Hollywood

May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Out of all the special programming that Turner Classic Movies does–Summer Under the Stars, 31 Days of Oscar, war movies over the Memorial Day weekend, Silent Sundays–their annual Race & Hollywood feature has always been my favorite. The channel picks one particular racial or ethnic group to focus on, devotes blocks of programming to both positive and negative portrayals of that race throughout film history, and frames the films with interviews, discussions and documentaries about race. Since I’m both a classic film fan and a history geek, Race & Hollywood is my perfect intersection of the two–and more importantly, the speakers that TCM invites to introduce each movie often have things to say about their culture that normally don’t get heard in mainstream film media. Last year, watching Hanay Geiogamah speak, I realized that that was the first time I’d ever heard a Native American speak about film. Ever. And I wouldn’t have gotten that chance if it weren’t for TCM.

So when May came and went with no sign of Race & Hollywood on the schedule, I was first worried, then annoyed. I tried to figure out why they weren’t doing it this year–I couldn’t be the only one that was interested! Maybe, I decided, after doing blacks, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans, they’d decided they’d run out of races. But that was ridiculous. They could just start over again with blacks–there had to be plenty more performances to discuss, or new things to say about ones that had already aired. Or they could get more specific–I’m certainly not the only one who would be interested in seeing how Afro-Caribbeans had been portrayed in Hollywood, or Polynesians, or the Romani? Or, especially timely, what about Arabs?

It seems TCM has read my mind, because Race & Hollywood has appeared on the schedule again–slated for July, rather than May–with a focus on Arab images. I’m especially looking forward to this installment of Race & Hollywood. The One Thousand and One Nights-inspired film has long been a favorite of mine, and it’ll be interesting to see that deconstructed. Lawrence of Arabia, The Sheik, and The Thief of Bagdad were some of the earliest movies I ever added to my Netflix queue. I’ve been dying to see Kismet for years. And I’ll finally have my chance, because it’s one of the films TCM will be showing in July! A full schedule can be found here.

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