Last Laughs: Exit Through the Gift Shop


Graffiti has come along way since the 70s. Once an art form (or vandalism and public nuisance to some) typified by exotic tags on a canvas of urban decay, experimentalists and pioneers have broken boundaries in both content and medium. Freeform gave way to stencils. Stencils to prints. Prints to three-dimensional forms. And so forth. Graffiti has always been subversive, posing that looming threat of unregulated public voice. But lately, structures of an otherwise tame and guarded environment have been seized for overt politics and amusing mockery as graffiti artists expose, even in the most simplest forms, oppression and contradiction. Unfortunately, as the art becomes simplified and more accessible than the elaborate typography that once dominated, it has become easily co-opted and commercialized. Such is the fate of subversive culture.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a mix of documentary and possible sham, one engineered by the immensely popular, but cleverly elusive  master of public mockery: stencil graffiti artist, Banksy.  The film was supposedly borne out of French shop owner, Thierry Guetta’s obsessive compulsiveness and attraction to the grandiose. Getting his hands on a video camera, he began to record everything, no matter how mundane the event. Orphaned at a young age when his mother died, he claimed the new found hobby satisfied his compulsion to hold on to the life around him. Soon, all this filming leads him to a new objective: a documentary about street artists.

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Quit Bugggin’: Human Centipede


“I’m waiting for them to say ‘we aren’t really showing a movie, we just wanted to see how depraved you all are.'” – Carl

Human Centipede was the latest star of E Street Cinema’s “Midnight Madness.” Something that was advertised as an adults-only affair. This weekend only. And supposedly, it has become the new Internet meme, too!

I first heard about it from The Other AC who posted a trailer to his Facebook page a few weeks ago for an unusually high-quality production about a German surgeon who kidnaps unfortunate strangers to use in his experiment: the Human Centipede.

Oh… so it’s like Rocky Horror but not funny?! (Hint, hint, you movie parodying specialists!).

Technically, the title is a misnomer. This Centipede has nowhere near a hundred legs. Though, who knows… it might by the end of the trilogy.

Oh yes, there’s more!

A few days later, I saw the film poster at E Street during the opening night of The Runaways. It was playing in two weeks. The E Street Cinema’s MC barely plugged it. “Well, I won’t tell you what it’s about. You saw the poster.” We knew what we were in store for. I immediately sent a text to The Other AC. Calendars were engraved in stone.

It was far too weird a movie to even suggest to most of my relatively normal friends to come see it with us. That, and asking them to put up with the additional nuisances of driving  downtown, finding a parking spot, and staying out till what we people nearing 30 call… “the wee hours of the morning.”

The film poster gave away more information than the studio had when Dutch writer/director/AK-47 enthusiast Tom Six made his pitch about a surgeon who sewed people together, not letting on precisely how this fusion takes place. As we waited in the growing line of white, black-clad hipsters for the first of two nights for the midnight screening, I noticed Carl, the host of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society here in DC, and went over to strike up conversation.

Marvel at my casual, but cool introduction…

“You’re the dude from the Psychotronic Film Society!” (I said while pointing at him).

Don’t judge. Carl didn’t.

When you spend 20 years hosting the trashy, gory, bizarre, and just plain bad movies that have made up Psychotronic screening history to DC audiences in bar basements as Carl has, there probably isn’t much that can shock you anymore. Which is why it surprised me when he said he might be watching most of this film with his eyes closed. (See my clever oxymoron? Watching with his eyes closed. Let’s virtually high five!).

Compton bowed out early on after reading about the movie on Wiki and feared that she wouldn’t be able to keep down the dinner we’d have before the show. Even CNN had declared Human Centipede the “Most Disturbing Film Ever Made!” (I presume they’ve overlooked the suffocation-by-boner scene in Body Melt?). Could this movie really be so extreme that audiences would be vomiting in the aisles (or worse, on each other!), or fleeing the theater in horror and disgust like they did when The Exorcist debuted? I had been under the impression that this was just a well-shot schlock, but nothing really all that repulsive. (There was some funny commentary from the row behind us). Plus, I couldn’t imagine this kind of audience being quite that sensitive.

But there was only way to find out! And so, we piled into a row of theater seats with Lyz and the Other AC’s depraved friends and the lights went down…

Well, actually what followed was a sort of disgusting, but mostly disappointing movie.

The Six and Six team (I can’t figure out what relation one of the co-producers, a lady Six, shares with director/writer Tom Six… could you imagine if she is his wife?!) daringly draw a line in the sand and happily step over it. But, really, it’s a small line. And the leap over it is a really tiny one. Years and years of outrageous horror cinema did not suddenly get “outdid” by Human Centipede. I mean, my dear CNN columnist (and similar admonishers!): have you seen some of the crazy shit the Japanese and Koreans made lately?

Let’s take a look, shall we?

BE VEWY QUIET. THAR BE SPOILERS HERE!

As the good doctor explains to his victims with his handy overhead projector, the Human Centipede experiment requires breaking some knee caps and surgically attaching the specimens… ass to mouth. In the end, like a real centipede, they’ll be sharing a single digestive track. Oh, to be the lucky person at front of this train lucky enough to get their nutrients from actual food and not someone else’s doodie!

Shocking… isn’t it?!

But, as the DCist already pointed out, the 90 minute movie is consumed by it’s simple concept (although, maybe the unexplained difference between the First Sequence (part 1) and the upcoming Full Sequence (part 2) is the difference between seeing a buffet and digging in). The doctor finds his victims fairly quickly, since he only needs 3 unfortunate souls for his Centipede rather than, you  know, 50. He didn’t even have to go out and find them all, some came to him.  The expected escape attempt is quashed just as quickly. And, even though the demented doctor is a Hater (bluntly telling his victims, “I don’t like human beings”), he attempts to train the Centipede to be an obedient pet, only to get discouraged and go for a swim. Which is even more frustrating when two detectives with amazing hair show up around this time to investigate suspicious reports from the neighbors in what seems like almost an afterthought of how to end this thing. It’s basically all process.

Actually, a majority of this is as unsettling as it is to sit through because it’s star, Dieter Laser, is a creepy MF! And not in that Norman Bates kind of sociopath bathed in baby-face innocence. Laser is thin and veiny, has remarkably sunken cheeks, a hard square jaw with a permanent frown, and giant black eyes that harkens back to way Donald Pleasance described young Mike Meyers in the first Halloween: “He had the blackest eyes… the Devil’s eyes.”

I wonder though, if there was satire at play in Human Centipede. A German psycho-surgeon. A young, ineffectively defiant Japanese man who occupies the front of the Centipede. And, as punishment for not learning the basics of auto mechanics (changing a tire) — two American girls are placed at the end of this chain, simultaneously taking shit and kissing ass. Frustrating as it may be as an actress, walking around a film set with your face literally buried in someone else’s ass, it’s frustrating that they are permanent mutes. But, if it’s not satirical, then some of the imagery looks as though it was designed to fullfill some sort of kinky fantasy. In the scenes where the conjoined trio are asleep, it looks like an orgy that ran late past everyone’s bedtime. And I don’t think I’ll elaborate that last point any further.

All in all, the first installment survives on a reputation of hype. So what comes next?

Break On Through: The Runaways


A great rock n’ roll movie is the one that gets the blood coursing in your veins. After watching The Runaways, which released this week, the first thing I wanted to do when I left the theater was jam at full volume.

For those of you too young to remember (or never heard about at all), The Runaways were an all-girl teenage rock band that formed in California in 1975. At a time when rock n’ roll was shifting towards faster tempos and amateurish ease, boys in leather jackets and dirty jeans were learning how easy it was to form a band. Meanwhile, their eager counterparts were encouraged to stay put in a hypocritical paradigm. Like Joan Jett’s guitar teacher (Damone!) explained so bluntly in the movie:  “Girls don’t play electric guitar.”

The hell they don’t. Gender bending was already a staple of rock n’ roll. But if guys like David Bowie and the New York Dolls could prance around onstage in women’s clothes, why couldn’t a bunch of sweaty, angry, bad ass girls plug in and go crazy in front of a stack of amps?

And so the defiant Runaways formed in Hollywood when drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve’s part in the movie) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), having each toyed with the idea of starting an all-girl band, were introduced by Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the sleazy record producer who eventually became the band’s sleazy manager. Fowley was a lot like Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (who died of cancer last week) in that The Runaways was a concept band, and the other members — lead guitarist Lita Ford, lead singer Cheri Currie, and a rotating lineup of bassists (due to legal issues, the fictional Robin Robinson represented Jamie Fox) — were recruited more for attitude than ability to play instruments or sing. Although historically labeled “teenage jailbait,” Kim Fowley clarified in the documentary Edgeplay that The Runaways weren’t T & A. These were girls who  just didn’t give a shit (and had no reason to), and they modeled themselves on their rock idols which, aside from Suzie Quatro, were guys.  Bowie, Keith Richards, Gene Simmons, Jeff Beck, and others. And even when Cheri Currie strutted on stage in Japan in a Betty Page corset, she looked ready to dominate, not be dominated.  (Baby-faced Dakota Fanning made it seem more innocent when reenacting this in the film).

And so The Runaways were born. The movie is obviously a limited biopic, which is a shame considering the renewed interest in the band that its likely to generate, especially among young audiences since it’s basically been marketed as That Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning Movie. Because it’s based on Cheri Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel, the focus is primarily on the relationship between she, Joan Jett, and Kim Fowley. But Currie’s career really fizzled out after she left the band, and aside from Joan Jett, guitarist Lita Ford, who teamed up with Sharon and Ozzie Osbourne, achieved some access as a solo artist after The Runaways disbanded.

The Runaways ran the risk of limited release teeny bopper mediocrity, although it surprisingly proved otherwise (and a lot of credit is owed to its leading actors). It’s tricky pulling off a story about a handful of angst-ridden teenage girls in way that doesn’t come off as utterly trite (see Catherine Hardwick’s Thirteen), or drowned in gender politics as it did in say, Lou Adler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (which is probably the closest cinematic kin to The Runaways). While in reality, rock n’ roll was still very much a man’s world in the 70s, The Runaways is just the opposite. Most of the men in the film are either ineffectual (like Steve, the road manager), or utterly vile, like the Currie sisters’ alcoholic father and the band’s manager, Kim Fowley. (Though that’s not to say that even the women in the film can’t disappoint – Currie’s mother was a real flake).

Because it’s a movie based on an American band that formed before the benign (and incredibly boring) Age of Extreme Political Correctness, the movie revisits the grime that’s been lost to recent cultural gentrification. Albeit, it’s a grime of West Coast flavor (rather than say, abysmal New York City in the mid 70s). The Runaways is chock full of dirty clubs, dismal prospects, ambitious sleazebags, absentee parents, booze, drugs, leather, cigarettes, and sex. And to have a handful of angsty teenage girls at the center of this chaotic playground makes it all the more naughty.

The Runaways oozes in ferocious rebellion and blissful sexuality, the very essence of rock n’ roll. Canadian artist/director Floria Sigismondi had the right sensibilities for this kind of material, having come from a background in fashion photography and later, directing music videos for bands like The White Stripes, Interpol, and David Bowie. More than just a band’s tale unfolding in a pristine reconstruction of the 1970s, Sigismondi injects periodic “artsy” display like the ebb and flow of an orchestra – the rich reds and blacks at the height of their decadent fame, stop-and-go action during the big performance scene, the dreamy sequences of excess, and the bleached aftermath. Suddenly the abstract of music has texture, and what better way to reveal rock n’ roll than through a band like The Runaways?


View From Above: The Lovely Bones


It was rather puzzling to learn that Peter Jackson would be directing a film about the rape and murder of a young girl by her neighbor. Wait… I’m not really spoiling anything here. But after all, this is the guy who directed the deranged puppet comedy, Meet the Feebles, and hit major mainstream success with the epic blockbuster trilogy, Lord of the Rings. The starkness of a family tragedy. The pounding suspense of exposing the killer. It just didn’t seem like his kind of material. Most importantly, where would you add the CGI?!

But Alice Sebold’s 2002 bildungsroman novel actually turned out to be an adaptation fit for a knight (see? because Jackson is knighted), because this isn’t your typical tale of murder. This is a story told from the point of view of it’s victim, 14-year old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). Providing the story’s narration, she tells your right away that she’ll be murdered. Will even tell you who her killer is. The name of the game is for the characters onscreen to figure out what the audience already knows. To some extent, her family will get help from Susie herself, who observes life on Earth, witnessing the devastation the brutal murder caused her family, from some fantastic world that exists somewhere between the world of the living, and a sort of heaven (Sebold, in response to religious critics about the secular treatment of the afterlife, said that she didn’t write the book with the traditional sense of heaven in mind). “The in-between” her younger brother calls it. New and unexplored, it’s both driven by the imagination of an innocent pre-teen girl, and also shaped by her reactions to the living world. Vast and visually-reliant, it’s a creation satisfying to the CGI fetishist (which Jackson essentially is), but it’s not a redemptive limbo. Rather, this is the place where Susie must find resolve. She is the story’s hero.

Of course, film critics have lambasted Jackson for nurturing the visuals (or, basically, any part of the film featuring Susie’s after-life world) to the point of creating unnecessary distraction. This world is bubble-gummy —contrary to Jackson’s intentions to avoid being hokey— since it is the fantasy world shaped by a 14-year old girl, the death and its impact on her family not having immediately made her bitter, only unclear as to her purpose. And it seems to go on forever. There are two especially aggravating scenes by the film’s end, where suddenly gripping intensity is abruptly held for dreamy drama, something that tested the patience of audience members who began growling in disgust, realizing how fruitless it was to yell at the characters in the film to JUST GET ON WITH IT! It’s like you’ve discovered a trail of gasoline and then suddenly spotted a man nearby about to light up a cigarette (the old Hitchcock philosophy of showing the viewers certain tidbits of information to rile them up) and before he is about to throw down his match, you’re suddenly thrust into a glassy scene of fuzzy gray kittens.

The material itself was really a challenge for any director as it requires to blend conflicting genres into a consistent film. On the one hand is that extreme discomfort of knowing when Susie is about to be killed, the nail-biting suspense of frequent moments when it looks like the other characters will find realize that Susie’s killer is right under their noses, something that of course, always leads to one of them going into the killer’s house to snoop around, but linger longer than they should. Jackson keeps tight reigns on these, and Stanley Tucci plays the villain well — you know, calm, cool, and mostly collected. On the other hand, there is the dreamy fantasy world that Susie Salmon wanders, almost aimlessly, as she watches over her family on Earth, and at the same time, tries to understand her purpose. As already said, that alternative foreground tends to spill over into the thriller in the Earth-world, destroying that well crafted suspense. Add to that, is also a little bit of comic relief where Susan Sarandon appears as the alcoholic, irresponsible grandmother. But, The Lovely Bones is not pure gut-wrenching tragedy, and if it was, there’d be no need for Susie Salmon, except to question why its taking so long to realize that she died at the hands of her neighbors. Instead, her death simply marks the impetus of an epic coming-of-age tale, strange as that can be where it occurs in the after-life.

Ethereal Contraband: ‘Better Than Sex’ and ‘In Bed’


*Updated 01/03/10

The titles. The promotional posters. They elicit expectation, hinting promise of the pleasures of the pure mechanics of sex, if only at a grade below pornography; something just erotic enough to avoid wandering behind the symbolic “black curtain”. Things are, somewhat, still left to the imagination, in these films which essentially boil down to strangers hooking up for casual sex.

Viewer reaction to this, is rather interesting at times, depending on the severity of the sexual content, which is usually much stronger in foreign productions, and tend to release without official ratings regarding recommended audience age and maturity.

The Realm of the Senses, released with much controversy in the late 1970s (and is oddly included in the recommendations in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) pushed the envelope considerably with unsimulated graphic imagery of things like fellatio and erections. Though probably not quite as envelope pushing anymore, what with the accessibility of the multi-billion dollar porn industry, especially in the form of amateur content circulated on-line, The Realm of the Senses was fictional account of a 1930s incident that involved a prostitute named Sada Abe (click the link if you don’t mind film spoilers). It was this context that lead to considerable debate as to whether the film could be fairly labeled art house, or whether it was just “glorified porn”, as though the distinction made any difference to anyone who wanted to see it. It’s clear within minutes of the opening scene exactly what is in store for the viewer. Viewers intimated an identical debate with director Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 film, 9 Songs. The nine songs refer to the live indie rock performances (featuring the Von Bondies and Franz Ferdinand, among others!) that provide the transitions to a story about a young British man’s fling with a young American girl. Nearly the entire film, save the concert footage and brief interjections about the man’s work in the Arctic, contain some form of unsimulated sex. What difference does it make to debate content labels? Again, within minutes of the film’s beginning, there are no surprises about what is in store for the viewer.

Other films, like the Australian production, Better Than Sex and and its Chilean counterpart, In Bed, push aside this intense mechanical approach as it addresses the topic of casual sex, doing so in a manner that fuses the pure and not-very-erotic mechanics with intelligent discussion, one free of timidity and self-conscious giggling.

A Netflix viewer’s review of Better Than Sex, suggested that the film captures an “evolution in relationships”, a conclusion that seems to support the tow-line observation that younger generations have scoffed traditional commitment, existing comfortably instead in the limbo between physical satisfaction and the avoidance of emotional attachment. But this is nothing new, really. Perhaps we’re too conditioned by American films, which have taught us that a happy ending means not only acceptance of commitment, but also monogamy, and more specifically with an extremely compatible lover.

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The Never Ending Story – Terminator: Salvation


It’s a little heartbreaking when a wonderful, low-budget film is traded for big budget superficiality. When it becomes labeled…(gasp!)… a franchise and bottom-line intentions become clear: this is meant to be a profitable venture. Already starting the transformation with the second film, Judgment Day cost over $100 million to produce in 1991, making it one of the most expensive films of its day (and also one of the highest grossing).

While it’s been six years since the last Terminator film, Terminator Salvation, like The Sarah Connor Chronicles, breaches the lineage as part of a next generation franchise far more than T3: Rise of the Machines. Neither of the film’s originators, James Cameron and William Wisher, were involved. For Salvation, the shift to next gen mode means stylistic obligations such as international casting and plenty of pretty faces, standard battle sequences, and annoyingly referential dialogue. It is, like most every big-budget action movie these days, organized around flashiness. Another revivalist summer blockbuster was guilty of this: Star Trek.

As the first of the Terminator films to be set in the post-Holocaust world that Sarah Connor envisioned, most of the grainy, bleak film looks modeled upon military-themed video games. Immediately thrusting viewers into the action, the opening sequences are riddled with dust-filled clouds and off-screen shouting. As the seemingly hopeless war against the machines continues, Terminator Salvation takes place just before resistance fighter Kyle Reese meets John Connor. Unfortunately, in the chronology of time traveling tales, there’s always the potential for plot holes. The most egregious occurred as early as the first film. There, Kyle Reese of 2029 wants to “meet the Legend” and selflessly volunteers for the kamikaze mission to be transported to 1984 to save Sarah Connor from assassination by a terminator. In that time, Kyle Reese fathers John Connor, the fearless resistance leader who was, paradoxically, his mentor back in the future. Terminator: Salvation, set in 2018, shows the adult John Connor continuously listening to the tapes his mother recorded before he was born, relaying what she’d learned from Reese in the hopes that she can better prepare him, the future warrior. The mentor and the apprentice reversed roles in a way.

But, the life of the future warrior doesn’t seem like one to be desired. John Connor is constantly forced to be on guard against potential assaults not only against himself, but those intended to protect him. While Kyle Reese indirectly protects John Connor’s life, he must now return the favor, because doing so ensures that all prior events still occur, namely protecting Sarah Connor, which suggests that the past is always occurring. If so, then there is always a possibility of altering them, and consequently, anything in the time line that follows. Eventually, the Hunter-Killers flying into the frame will have a “Same Shit Different Day” slapped to the back of it. (Did someone say Wayan’s brother genre parody?!).

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A Kook’s Guide to Skateboarding: Thrashin’


It’s always funny to see an “official” analysis of subculture, or the mainstream trying to interpret the latest subcultural hysteria like punk or text messaging. The Grunge era was indicative of this. Eddie Vedder notoriously made up words when the New York Times asked him to name and define some grunge terminology for their dictionary of young, modern lingo because, as can be interpreted from this, the activity of the youth as seen from the non-youth is just so complex. What it also meant was that a subculture was gaining popular – and in that case it was the underground music scene (and not just in Seattle) – only to be devoured and perverted once it became adopted into the mainstream, inevitably leading to the purist’s accusations of selling out.

Teen markets are the most lucrative, since you tend to get fickle in spending when you start making your own, limited income. In the case of skateboarding, there has been numerous Renaissances and Dark Ages in its more than 50 year old fluctuating history, and “outsiders” to the activity were there at every profitable upturn to hungrily exploit. It isn’t all a Boogie Man’s Tale, and in fact, opportunism led to a lot of much-needed improvements in the device central to the activity: the skateboard itself, among other things. But on the other hand, those decades churned out a lot of nonsense intended to catch the eyes (and dollars) of skaters and non-skaters alike by characterizing and simplifying the scene. By the mid-80s, the meant depicting the skater as misfits and California as their cultural Promised Land (although, California was the cultural promised land to most everything young and hip in the eyes of mid-80s Hollywood… except for those suckers in the fictional landlocked locale of Shermer, Illinois). Suddenly, skating, which managed to survive the bust of the second generation (post-Dogtown), was something worthy paying attention to again. But, as far as mainstream appeal goes, craft and technique wasn’t as important as attitude.

Two more skateboard-themed adventure films emerged during the late 80s — Gleaming the Cube in 1989 (see the earlier Muvika! blog post “Ho Chi Min Doesn’t Skateboard”) and Thrashin in 1986 — that are probably the more oft-cited ones today (because not too many nostalgic film fans are familiar with the 1970s choices of Skateboard: The Movie, where real skaters Tony Alva and Ellen Page play second banana to one very annoying Lief Garret, Freewheelin which was corny enough to be a grade school slide show for a desperate substitute teacher but, with plenty of skate sequences with Stacey Peralta, Paul Constantineau (another Dogtowner), Russell Howell, Tom Sims coming from different backgrounds (surfing, skiing, and even rollerskating) actually made some sense of the never-elaborated suggestions of  “style”, and even the short documentary Skateboard Kings (available on YouTube) which really emphasized the commercial advantages and the marketable misfit personalities of guys like Alva. The skateboarding films that followed in the 90s and beyond weren’t all that much of an improvement – Grind despicably played up an unmitigated obsession with sponsorship; Clark Walker’s little-known Levelland tried to get political in his film of a handful of skater friends making sense of the boredom and hopelessness in a small Texas suburb; and Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown perverted everything Peralta’s wonderful Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary laid on the table (Hardwicke and Peralta both worked on the film, and earlier on, both worked behind the scenes on Thrashin’).

As far the two mid-80s picks go, Gleaming the Cube certainly tried too hard to get spiritual with audiences (though at least thankfully made an attempt) in trying to explain the allure of the activity, but it was at least much more innovative with the plot than most sports-themed films tend to be: a teenage skater avenges his adopted brother’s death in an adventure/action film doused in Cold War politics. Though Christian Slater took the helm and hammed up the screen, pro-skaters (many of them Bones Brigade members at the time) were allowed slightly more camera time especially Tony Hawk and his perfect McSqueeb hair. Even actor Max Perlich (as Yabbo) could actually skate. Plus, the skate sequences were quite good and plentiful (as they should be) with Mike McGill and Rodney Mullen both pretty obviously doing those tricks as a stand in for Slater (who was taught the basics by Tommy Guerro).

But what to say about Thrashin‘? That it was directed by David Winters, the man responsible for the best Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode which riffed on disastrous Space Mutiny? That it had a typical 80s California title song performed by Meatloaf? That the promotional poster featured the nonsensical taglines, “Reckless! Totally Insane!” That is was a knockoff of The West Side Story? Or that it egregiously plucked from its portrayal of skateboarding two of its most appealing features (at the time): the individuality nurtured by an activity completely devoid of rules, and the camaraderie in a sport that really needed that kind of solidarity to survive   the historical slumps.

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