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Sorok pervyy (1927)
Three artists telling the same story, contemplating it differently
25 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
It's during the Russian Civil War; she is a sniper in the Red Army; he is an officer at the Whites and her prisoner; she must shoot him is he to escape; these are the orders; suddenly a storm leaves them alone on a deserted island; the two fall in love (you'd say it's kind of Stockholm syndrome avant la lettre, somehow turned upside-down, whatever); the occasion for him to escape arrives, will she follow her orders or rather her heart? add to this his uncanny gift of retelling the story of Robinson; add to this the strange magic of the Karakum desert - blue sky infinite over yellow sand infinite - and of the Aral sea - yellow sun infinite over blue sea infinite; all this magic can make you falling madly in love, or simply falling mad. Boris Lavrenev wrote this story in 1924; it was published in Zvezda (a literary magazine led by that time by Ivan Maisky, who would later become one of the most outstanding Soviet diplomats of the epoch); in 1927 Yakov Protazanov adapted the story to film; Grigori Chukhrai made a remake in 1956. I took contact with the three oeuvres in reverse order. Firstly I saw the movie of Chukhrai, sometime by the 1960's. I had already watched his Ballad of a Soldier and Clear Skies and I was very impressed by his his way of telling the stories, distancing from the official artistic dogmas, being simply natural. Obviously I was interested to see also The Forty-First, made earlier than the other two. I wanted to make a comparison, to see if his attitude towards life had been free at the same degree. As for the movie of Protazanov, it was impossible to find it. The memory of Chukhrai's movie came to my mind recently, and I watched it again, on youTube. A great director, a great cinematographer (Sergey Urusevskyi) producing hallucinatory imagery. And Oleg Strizhenov was unforgettably telling the story of Robinson, setting with it the frame for the magic. This time I watched immediately also the movie of Protazanov on youTube. Another great director, another great cinematographer (Pyotr Yermolov, I did not know much about him). Ivan Koval-Samborsky was in the role of the White officer, an actor with a dramatic biography. Surely I wanted to go further, to the original story. I found a very well written summary on the web, then I ordered an English translation of the book on Amazon. I read it in one day. Though I knew now the plot very well, the book could not be left up to the last page. Lavrenev, Protazanov and Chukhrai, three artists telling the same story, while contemplating it differently. Let's begin with the movie created by Chukhrai. It was his first movie, made in 1956. The Soviet society was beginning a painful process of freeing itself from the Stalinist referential, of opening the windows toward fresh air. Though this process was tightly controlled and had very strict limits, for many people living in those years the effort was genuine. And the movie of Chukhrai was trying just that: to find out what was beyond the political datum. The director set the story under a deep humanist credo: Soviet musts could not be absolute - beyond them life was claiming its rights to exist. The story of love, yes, that was absolute, and it was tragic, because the political chains could not be broken. The tone of the story seemed very personal: the effort of the love story to liberate itself from the political realities was the same with the effort of Chukhrai to go beyond the dogmas of the regime. Lavrenev's story (and Protazanov's film) had a different tonality: a fact of life observed from afar and told with a good dose of detachment. This time the political realities constituted the absolute, with their two totally separated universes, the Reds and the Whites. Anything that appeared beyond, like the story of love, was just absurd. But this meant that life in general was absurd, which ultimately implied even the political reality. The two universes were not only hostile, each one was perceiving the other without any correspondence in the reality. It was not clear at all (to use Anthony Loyd's way of telling things) whether they were fighting the good cause for the wrong reason or the wrong cause for the good reason. His Holiness the Paradox seemed to be in control of the whole circus. There is in Lavrenev's story (well reproduced by Protazanov's movie) a subtle sense of Swiftian irony. But all this irony is greatly balanced by a feeling of empathy for each personage and each fact. From the story author, as well as from the movie director. As absurd as they could be these facts and these people, everything is observed with a great science of the human - human naivete, weaknesses, illusions, absurdity - the whole is wrapped by something like a charm. And actually this charm links all three artists, Lavrenev, Protazanov and Chukhrai, beyond their different tonalities in telling the story. The magic of the infinite dialog of the sun with the sky, the desert, the sea. Paradox at Lavrenev/Protazanov, tragedy at Chukhrai, it is beyond the same magic, following its unknown laws, maybe unaware of our struggles, however sending us, through these artists and their books and movies, discrete signals of sympathy.
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Traveling on a Time Machine
12 August 2016
I saw this movie in my teen years and I enjoyed it enormously. I was an enthusiast of Italian opera, and here was an unbelievable pageantry with all the great names of the nineteenth century belcanto from Rossini to Puccini passing through Verdi, impersonated by actors like Marcello Mastroianni and Micheline Presle, Paolo Stoppa and Danièle Delorme, Roland Alexandre and Märta Torén, Maurice Ronet and Myriam Bru, Andrea Checchi (to name just a very few from a huge cast), supported by such golden voices as Mario Del Monaco or Renata Tebaldi. It was a blockbuster, and I was young and this was what I loved, such a great spectacle with great historical names, great cast, great colors and great music. A bit of humor now and then, a bit of melodrama here and there, love permeating everything .... and glorious belcanto. And Carmine Galone, the director, knew how to make a blockbuster.

I kept the memory of this movie through the years, and I wanted to watch it again. I had this possibility today. Traveling on a time machine to see how it was everything on your past, your universe of those times, and your own selfie. To see it with your eyes from now. Of course it shows its age this Casa Ricordi from 1954, and I am showing my age, too. But I watched it with joy, a very old friend from sixty years ago.
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Enthusiasm (1931)
Sic transit gloria mundi
8 August 2016
Some see Vertov's Enthusiasm as a masterpiece. Many others consider it a failure. I think that even as a failure Enthusiasm is a great experiment, one of the greatest in cinema history. It was Vertov's first sound film. And he tried with the soundtrack to do the impossible. In Человек с Киноаппаратом, the camera had been the main actor (maybe the only actor), constructing the film in front of the spectators' eyes. Here in Энтузиазм, the sound was the only actor, controlling an insane counterpoint of ballets on industrial themes, radio and railroad infrastructure, political meetings, huge demonstrations, coal exploitation, steelmaking, kolkhoz with tractors and stuff; all these seamlessly metamorphosing one into another, becoming the avatars of a unique reality. And as a symbol of sound supremacy, the power of the radio.

This movie is a perfect demonstration of конструктивизм: the old culture (religion and alcohol - here Vertov was the most orthodox avant-gardist) replaced by a new culture, where the art (of course, Constructivist) is generating the whole new society: policies, infrastructure, industry, agriculture, and above all, Stalinist enthusiasm. A huge difference from the actual reality, which also meant forced labor, Голодомо́р, repressions (even one of the political leaders of the epoch, showed in the movie at a demonstration, Stanislav Kosian, the infamous organizer of the Ukrainian famine in the thirties, would become himself a victim of the Stalinist purges, in 1939). Carloss James Chamberlin is right: Vertov believed in his own reality, based on his filmic montage, always looking through his camera and at his strips of film. But that's the way the history goes, with the Avant-garde of the cinema: all of them, Eisenstein and Vertov among others (and also Riefenstahl by the way, on the other side) were politically very committed, for better or worse.

And as an irony of history this ultra-Communist film was not agreed by the Soviet officials either: the epoch of Socialist Realism was beginning, and Constructivist art had become to be viewed as a bit too formal, a bit too decadent, definitely too unhealthy, in one word too bourgeois. Sic transit gloria mundi.
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Salesman (1969)
A Quiet Desperation At a Subliminal Level
12 March 2015
An almost hallucinatory piece of cinéma vérité that needs a second watch to get its message and everything. And that is because Salesman is subtly but unbearably depressing. A quiet desperation is pervasive throughout the movie, almost at a subliminal level. A group of four door to door salesmen is followed in their daily business. A business implying a network of bosses, salesmen, prospects. A network where nobody's innocent: the prospects struggle to find reasons to reject the offer, the salesmen push relentlessly to perfect the sales, the bosses press the salesmen to get results. And all this takes place in the Catholic universe: they try to sell expensive Catholic editions of the Bible to lower income families of Catholic parishioners. Spirituality and business interlaced, or rather business pushing aside spirituality. Under the spiritual skin a Darwinian struggle, where the weak ones are eliminated: aging parishioners cannot find any more the energy to reject the offers, aging salesmen cannot find the energy to place their Bibles any more. One of the salesmen, the eldest of them, is on the brink of loosing the battle: for those who fail the American Dream shows its nightmarish truth.

Paradoxically this depressing movie carries also something like a charm: a time capsule bringing the today's viewer back to a bygone era, the wonderful 1960's, when we were so young, ladies were wearing their curlers with genuineness and gentlemen were playing cards with open pleasure, sales were made door to door, the Internet wasn't yet born, you talked with your sweetie via a phone operator, people were not afraid to invite strangers inside the house, faith was still a thing people cared about, the convertibles were so big and Gosh, so vintage! And everybody smoked, everybody, all the time! You can guess I watched it twice.
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El infierno (2010)
Calls in mind the movies of Berlanga
1 November 2014
Warning: Spoilers

Benny Garcia had left Mexico as a young fellow to find his fortune in US. What happened with Benny during his stay in US nobody told us, maybe it was good, maybe it was not so good, suffice it to say that after twenty years they deported the guy back to Mexico. To be again home after so many years had its charm, there were the guitars and sombreros, and all the good stuff, plus Benny had the gringo experience, which meant he was able to ride on both worlds. Not exactly, as the gringo experience proved kind of confusing in what he found home. His younger brother had been killed and he had to find the authors and take revenge, actually killings looked very common, the brother's girlfriend, Guadelupe by name, was making ends meet as a prostitute at Café México, her son was rising up as a loose cannon, plus Benny was irresistibly attracted by Guadelupe (who was terribly hot, no question about). Was that the hell or what? A childhood friend helped him adjust. The hell was rather a paradise, provided you were in the gang of Don Reyes. El Infierno was El Paradiso, more exactly El Narco (that was the definition of paradise: being in the narcotic business). All you had to do was to execute the orders of Don Reyes (including to kill now and then), and you had plenty of money, plenty of drinks, a big car, any women you wanted, the order you had them was your choice. Wasn't that splendid? Everybody, the mayor, the police, the priest, all the others, were under the authority of Don Reyes. Well, it was also the rival gang, of Don Pancho, the two bosses were actually brothers, and the war between them had ups and downs, sometimes it was hot, with mutual killings and disfigurement of victims, some other times the war was put on hold. All this was keeping the men in that village very busy. The kids dreamed to enter one of the two gangs, as for the women and old men, it was another story, they weren't living in the paradise, rather in limbo, and sometimes they were unexpectedly shot for unknown reasons, because also the limbo had its rules.

And pretty soon Benny found out that the paradise was just a stage to hell, nobody could remain in the cards for too long, for each one the bell was ringing and the turn was coming to be tortured, disfigured, then killed. Hell and paradise mocking each other, playing a common black farce, for what was life other than a black farce? The movie stirred extremely controversial reactions in Mexico, for obvious reasons. As the whole movie had not been enough, by the end Benny was shown coming to the Mexican Bicentennial celebration and killing everybody from the official tribune (Don Reyes surrounded by all authorities of the village). Thus many protested against El Infierno saying it was profoundly unjust and unfair to depict their country as a grotesque caricature. Luis Estrada (director, writer and producer) defended his movie, saying that, firstly, a caricature was just a caricature, secondly, a caricature was a very legitimate artistic approach, like all other legitimate artistic approaches, thirdly, he agreed that obviously not all Mexican society was made of drug dealers and corrupt politicians, while this Mexican society had to be aware about the serious problem of having so much criminality and corruption in their country, all these leading to the conclusion that a grotesque caricature was sometimes necessary for its cathartic effect.

I'm just wondering how would I react against a movie depicting in this way my own country. Honestly I wouldn't take it easy at all, but my reaction against it would prove the power of the message. An artist has the duty to say the truth he believes in, with all risks, even with the risk of stirring ardent passions against him. Luis Estrada is politically intense and his movies cannot be but politically intense. His extreme sarcasm calls in mind the movies of Berlanga, and generally the Spanish and Hispanic-American movies are often very tough.

I would add to all this that the value of a movie cannot stand only in what it speaks to its country; it should go beyond and transmit something universal. I think this is the case with El Infierno. It's the drama of returning to your home after many years and realizing that for everybody there you look like an ostrich joke, because that's what you are. It's the tragedy of having illusions till you realize that your life is just a black farce. It's a parable saying that our whole world became a hell in all respects.
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The Special Charm of the Vintage
29 October 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Bert Williams is director, writer and star. The cinematographer is Billy Bitzer. Both of them are known today mostly by guys passionate for vintage movies and vintage records: they were great names in their times.

A group of black gentlemen, organized in some sort of fraternity or lodge whatever, meets regularly in the back room of a bar to discuss matters of interest, their reunions ending in drinking or gambling or both. However gambling seems to be forbidden those days, so the guys have to be careful not to be discovered by the police. Among them the Honorable Bert Williams, kind of a walking delegate, which means big mouth and vague duties, always in debt and in need of money, always trying to cheat for the pleasure of game, always loosing. On the wall a torn-out image of President Lincoln, like a Deus Otiosus no longer interested in the daily operation of this rapidly decaying world, while seemingly taking pleasure in watching this very movie (he from the wall where's hanging, we from this other side of the screen). Watching this movie is like visiting a nostalgia shop: each scene looks like an incredible memorabilia.

Of course the police discovers the gamblers and brings them in front of the judge. The only one put in jail is (you gotcha) no other than our main hero (only for ten days, it's a comedy, not a drama). While in prison, he plays imaginary poker games, where he keeps on loosing: his pantomime is genial.

The movie comes with all racial stereotypes of the epoch: the rule by then was that the interpret of a black personage had to do minstreling, which meant to shoe-black his face and whiten his lips for the contrast; the inter titles followed another rule, to spell the fractured English supposed to be the blacks' parlance; and many other things like that. No wonder, the movie was made in 1916. It looks now completely anti-PC, but in those days the political correctness was just the opposite.
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Mother (1926)
Demonstrating a Paradigm
26 October 2014
Five movies were made based on Gorky's novel: in 1920 by Aleksandr Razumnyi, in 1926 by Vsevolod Pudovkin, in 1941 by Leonid Lukov, in 1956 by Mark Donskoy (starring Aleksey Batalov as Pavel Vlassov), and in 1990 by Gleb Panfilov. Also Bertolt Brecht put the novel on stage in 1932. Hanns Eisler created, based on the novel, a cantata for chorus, solo voices and two pianos in 1935.

From all this list, undoubtedly impressive by number and persons implied, I was able to watch only the silent made in 1926 by Vsevolod Pudovkin. Politics aside, it is a masterpiece. He was one of the greatest Soviet filmmakers of the 1920's avant-garde (in the same line with Kuleshov, Eisenstein, and all the others), and this movie proves it brilliantly.

Pudovkin's movie has an architecture that is radically different from that of the novel. One is talking about very recent events, the other is framing the facts and personages into a paradigm. Both are strongly motivated politically, but the two political moments are very different: the novel is made in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, it's real time life, while the movie comes in the first years of Soviet power, preoccupied to build the official history of the revolution, in other words the founding mythology. While Gorky tells us a story of life flowing naturally, with personages of flesh and bones, Pudovkin demonstrates a paradigm, deals with a myth in the making. And in any myth the facts and personages are no more just facts and personages like anything else from real life: they are prototypes aiming to convey a sense. I'll give you only one example: the bridge over the river separating factory and the neighborhood. At Gorky it's just a bridge, nothing else. At Pudovkin it is a path you take to leave your submissive life and enter the revolutionary struggle. So it becomes a prototype within a paradigm, conveying a metaphysical significance.

Gorky's novel inaugurates the Socialist Realism: it means its approach is realist to the bone, so its style is traditional (following the traditional Realism of the 19th century, that were to be observed by all Socialist Realist artists). Does also the movie belong to the Socialist Realist style? I don't think so. I would say that by the contrary it belongs hundred percent to the avant-garde of the twenties, so it rejects totally the tradition. It is a Constructivist oeuvre, calling in mind maybe the Expressionist movies made in Germany in the same epoch. These artists of the twenties, totally committed politically, while thinking to build the new society based on their radically new form of art and throwing over the board all that was old, traditional, classic, Realism included. The thirties would stop them forcefully, they would have to obey to the party dogmas or go to hell (the first circle or beyond).

A few words about the cast: Vera Baranovskaya made a remarkable performance in the role of the mother; she would play one year later in the following movie made by Pudovkin, The End of St. Petersburg; Nikolai Batalov (1899-1937), who played in the role of the son, was also Soldier Gusev in Aelita (a fine role in a fine movie); it seems that he was not related to Aleksey Batalov, who played Pavel Vlassov in the movie of Mark Donskoy from 1956; and last but not least, Pudovkin himself in the role of a police officer- the guy really enjoyed the negative roles
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21 October 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Ana Luisa is single and runs a hairdressing shop, arranged in her living-room, she's done it for all her life. Maybe it has seen better days, this shop, but that was long time ago, so long that nobody can remember. She got old, Ana Luisa, and her shop is now just a poor old thing. There is a worker, Tato, a woman maybe ten years younger, maybe less, already old anyway, but still looking at the future with some kind of humor and fatality. The patrons are rare, most of them just the same age, coming there more for small talk. Young patrons also come, now and then, and you never know how they'll leave: their age or a bit older, a bit run-down? Most of the time nobody's there, only the two old friends, Ana Luisa and Tato. Someone comes with an unexpected piece of advice, why not distribute fliers to attract customers? Would it be good to have new clients? Who knows what they can do? Outside the neighborhood is changing its face, people are younger, their language and their ways are maybe too quick, too direct, but here inside the old shop, the old world is still present, in a washed-out version.

And still, there are moments when Ana Luisa tries a lipstick and goes out to feed the street dog that everybody else ignores.

Sad? Yes, but also warm, a strange mix, I agree: it smells like good old Santiago, with the afternoon tea and buttered bread, "onces y pan tostado con mantequilla" (as a commenter put it). Great work! It's Maite Alberdi, and Israel Pimentel, both wrote the screenplay, both directed the film, as for the actors, they are just Ana Luisa and Toda, and the others from that "barrio Brasil" in Santiago, all playing their life.
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A Bit of Nostalgia
24 September 2014
Warning: Spoilers
A French movie from 1950, it came to Bucharest sometime in the second half of the fifties. I was eleven or twelve and I liked it. Clowns always speak the language of children. Plus it was a French movie, with that special flavor only French movies from that epoch were having. It's more to say on this, about the epoch, and about the flavor, maybe some other time I'll try to do it. Add to this I was a Parisian by birth, and any French movie was for me a window open there. Meaning also a bit of nostalgia.

Grock (1880-1959) had been a famous clown of the first half of the last century. Born in Switzerland, speaking several languages, familiar with any conceivable musical instrument, adored by kids from Berlin to Paris to Madrid to London, with a very long career, the king of the clowns. And I remained with the memory of this movie about him. Not all details of course, most of them got erased throughout the years, but one scene at the end never left my film universe. It's the last performance of the great clown, he is saying goodbye to the public, and an old friend approaches him, my boy wants to become a clown, please tell him not to do that. Grock takes the boy aside, parents never understand, look, I leave today the world of circus, and it's marvelous. I'll give it to you.

It was a movie I would have liked to watch it again sometime. I did it today. A movie that you enjoyed in your childhood is an old friend, who never betrays you, who's always faithful to you, and who keeps a full bag of memories from long time ago. Of course, I could see now that this movie is far from perfect (to put it mildly). It's essentially a film made by Grock, for Grock. But I don't want to be a judge, because it's a movie talking to the kids of the forties and fifties, not to an old man from the twenty-first century.And it brought to the old man that I am now, something very precious: a window open to the age that I had in the fifties, to the boy that I was then. Meaning also a bit of nostalgia.
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His First Movie
13 September 2014
Lev Kuleshov was only nineteen in 1918, when he directed his first movie, The Project of Engineer Prite. The whole film is no more available, only a partial reconstruction of 30 minutes: disparate scenes, just glimpses in what the original looked like. The action takes place in America, the land of buoyant industry and daring projects, also of big companies led by big shots who kill any idea that does not serve their interests. Kuleshov was from the very beginning a pro-American enthusiast, so no wonder his first movie takes place in the country of his dreams, and anyway in 1918 Soviet Russia was taking industrial America as model, but the big bourgeoisie. Ironically this movie from 1918 offers a paradigm for today's gap between the American society at large and the multinational companies. The main hero is a young engineer (Mack Pright or Prite, whatever) who has developed a revolutionary project that would make electrical energy very cheap: turbines running entirely on peat - simply, reliable, and above all echo-friendly, this film was way ahead its time, isn't it? A power plant is built based on his project and it is about to start functioning. Naturally this would come against the interests of a huge oil company, which leads to intrigue, espionage, sabotage, all that stuff. There is also a bit of love story, as the daughter of oil company's boss is attracted by the young and handsome engineer.

So, we have here a cocktail of political propaganda, enthusiast industrial projects, villain multinational crocks, sabotage, espionage, thriller, love, what else? well, above all it breathes of Kuleshov's enthusiasm for all things American, it shows Kuleshov entirely, his daring cinematic techniques are here in nuce, his further movies can be guessed. He was one of the greatest, and he had an unjust destiny. His apprentices, Eisenstein among them, took over his genial ideas (what else is Eisenstein's intellectual montage other than Kuleshov Effect?) and went further making celebrated films, while Kuleshov, after making some fine movies in the twenties, took low profile and remained a pedagogue for the rest of his life. And decades after, he was rediscovered.
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Kuleshov at his best
13 September 2014
American ignorance based on stereotypes was in 1924 as big as today. As well as Soviet propaganda. Only this is a very good film, in many respects. Lev Kuleshov at his best. Think at the famous Kuleshov Effect and all that staff, you'll find it in this movie. By the way, Kuleshov was known by his friends as openly pro-American and quietly anti-Soviet (not that it would matter; anyway he passed through the great purges of Stalin by keeping low-key). One of the roles (the chief of crocks) was played by Vsevolod Pudovkin (who also co-signed the scenario). A last hint: in the final scene of military parade, you will see for only one instant the figure of Trotsky (as the film was made in 1924, Stalin was not yet in full control).
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Elegy for a vanishing paradise
19 August 2014
"Families have lived there for generations, making their livings on the surrounding waters. Time moves more slowly there, and a person's sense of home, family and community is deep-rooted." (NY Times)

Isle de Jean Charles is a tiny place deep in the bayous of South Louisiana. From the beginnings it has been an incredible realm of biodiversity. It is now a vanishing island, the scene of an ecological drama. Each hurricane brings narrower the moment when this island will be swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. The effects of climate change are disastrous everywhere. Here they are just obvious.

An op-doc published in NY Times explores the dramatic realities of this island. The text is along with a ten minute movie. I would name it a great cinematic experience: an elegy for a disappearing paradise, told with dignity and restraint by its inhabitants.
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Buñuel on the steroids
13 August 2014
I didn't know anything about this movie when a friend of mine recommended it in the most enthusiastic way. The guy is a a very young movie buff, with a keen interest in quality movies (experimental, avant-garde, new wave, independent, iconoclast, unorthodox, stuff like that). I share his interests (despite my old age), and any discussion we have is real brainstorming. Two days ago he told me about planning to organize kind of jam-session with friends of his age to watch a battery of movies (I declined the invitation: No Country for Old Men). "Funeral Procession of Roses" was mentioned in this context.

Back home I found references about the movie on the web, then a copy of the film on you Tube, with Spanish subtitles. I stayed long in night to watch the movie. Really a great cinematic experience. As I said, I didn't know anything about it, nor about director Toshio Matsumoto. A movie from 1969, belonging to the "Nuberu Bagu", the Japanese New Wave, recalling all I knew about that period in the history of Nippon cinema, first of all bringing back to my memory the four or five movies by Oshima that I had the chance to watch.

You say "Nuberu Bagu", you say Buñuel on the steroids; and the film of Matsumoto is no exception: the ending scene of "Funeral Procession of Roses" is a direct reference to the beginning of "Un Chien Andalou": tribute paid to the famous scene from Buñuel, also creative re-enactment, also shifting the sense of it toward new territory, toward Buñuel encountering Aeschylus and Sophocles on a street in Tokyo among busy passers-by.

It's not a movie for the sissies, this "Funeral Procession of Roses". It acts on multiple strata, and each strata is challenging. A movie solidly placed in the underground culture, exploring the gay universe - a night club of sorts with two drag queens in bitter conflict, the club owner trying to keep the balance between them. All this approached with a raw Neorealist eye, à la Fellini, à la Juan Antonio Bardem. Over the plot comes a documentary, every now and then the action is stopped and one or other of the actors is interviewed: a movie about trans genders, played by trans genders, how do they view their sexual condition, how do they relate with the movie they play in. Is it a documentary about a gay movie on the making? Is it just a documentary about the LGBT condition, using feature sequences to emphasize some points? Actually everything in the movie is left in an indeterminate state, and this is on purpose. Is it a feature or a documentary? Are the actors playing actors, a movie within a movie? Are those guys trans genders, or girls impersonating trans genders, or what? Is the paradigm of Oedipus (re-enacted in the movie in a quirky way) just what we know it is? Is this a supremely iconoclastic interpretation of Augusto Monterosso's "La cucaracha soñadora" - moved in a Tokyo gay bar of the sixties? ("There was a cockroach named Gregor Samsa who was dreaming he was a cockroach named Franz Kafka who was dreaming he was an author writing some story about a clerk named Gregor Samsa who was dreaming he was a cockroach"). Gosh, no!

And I think this is the ultimate meaning of the Funeral Procession of Roses: it speaks us about the frailty of our certitudes: be it reality versus illusion of reality, be it gender strict determination, be it our ultimate identity. "Mis circunstancias son como las suyas. Ésa es una de las razones"... Yep, not for the sissies.
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Lyudmila Gyrchenko, like always larger than life
13 August 2014
Warning: Spoilers
She is 39, divorced, with a daughter in high school. A mysterious Gavrilov has sent her the a note, wait for me tomorrow at ten in front of the city office, I will come to marry you.

She comes to the city office, to wait for the guy. The guy is not there. One hour passes, then another hour, the one more, then a day and a night. Moments of hope and of despair are following in a crazy succession, meanwhile life goes on around in Odessa, and there are some admirers who would be interested in her, but she still hopes. Is waiting for Gavrilov like waiting for Godot? Maybe, but there is something there: while she is hopeful and is desperate, and hopeful and desperate, she still has the empathy for what's around, for all those guys who happen to pass by, with their problems, big and small, serious and ridiculous, and she is in, in each of those moments that happen around her, while she is still waiting, loosing her faith, getting it again.

And Gavrilov comes in the very end, he spent the day and night at the police station, seemingly it was a mistake, just the wrong guy at the wrong moment... but he is now there in front of her, and the day is beautiful again.

She is Lyudmila Gurchenko, like always larger than life.

Just a few words about director Pyotr Todorovsky. His approach in observing the everyday calls in mind the movies of Berlanga.
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Yi jiu si er (2012)
The epic of a disaster
13 August 2014
Warning: Spoilers
The epic of a disaster: a whole province in central China caught by drought, the people having no choice but leaving their households, taking the large road toward unknown, toward some illusory place where they could find food. Winter 1942-43, war, the army looting the refugees, the enemy bombing army and civilians together, the mass of refugees becoming a mob, all moral values forgotten, episodes of cannibalism, the political leaders caught in a cobweb of petty politics, corruption, and ineffectiveness... the death toll being somewhere between one and three million.

Other stories of war and famine will keep coming, repeating the same script, endlessly, going on nowadays and forever... and as always people around turning a deaf ear, pretending unawareness, if not taking advantage:

The story of the Honan famine rolled into Chungking like tumbleweeds blown by the wind. "I heard from a man who was there …" "I saw in a letter from Loyang …" "In Sian they say that …" (Theodore H. White quoted in a site of the San Jose Stae Univ.)

A survivor's grandchild would tell the story, and based on his novel this movie was made in 2012. A movie with epic breathe, shifting from the mob of refugees to the regional leaders to the national level, up to Generalissimo (Chang Kai-Shek), coming back to the victims, one of the heroes repeating the story of Job, among all atrocities around, nobody's innocent, nobody's evil, it's just our human condition here, it's about us, humans, in one of our worst moments.
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The drama and miracle of everyday
13 August 2014
What makes this story so great? The answer is not that simple. Take the social level of the story. You'd say it is no more relevant. You'd say a bike (the crux of the story in this movie) is nowadays just a bike, nothing else. Actually the social level of the story goes beyond the relevance of the bike. Let's translate it in nowadays language: it's about our ambition to be middle class, the craziness of our ambition to be middle class, our impossibility to be middle class. "Once a picaro, always a picaro" (would say Alarcón). Once a no-have, always a no-have. The bike is but a myth, says the movie: the middle class is but a myth.

And the story goes beyond its social level: it's the personal drama of a no-have guy against a universe of no-haves (like him) completely indifferent to his drama. Nobody's innocent in this story, while nobody's guilty: everyone fights to make ends meet, everyone is indifferent to the large picture.

And above all these, it is the eye of Vittorio de Sica, his extraordinary empathy for this universe of no-haves (a lesson learned from the movies of Chaplin). A universe of a superb picaresque quality: so real, so everyday, while every now and then exploding in surreal!

And Enzo Staiola, the kid always standing by his father, against all odds. And the lesson the kid gets in the end: your father is not a hero, rather somewhere between hero and jerk like everyone else, nevertheless he is your father. Great lesson!
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The Profound Poetry of That Universe
30 August 2013
Movies are like books. They live their lives, with dreams and expectations, waiting for that moment giving them their full sense. And I think this is true for any work of art, literature or music, visual or performing art. Sometimes such a life is flowing along your own life, even if you are not aware. It sends you signals now and then, waiting patiently for the moment when you make the connection: the moment for which it has lived its whole life. Aisareru isshun ga watashi no subete ni naru - the moment you feel you are loved is a kernel squeezing your entire life.

I was a child when I heard first time about Maria Candelaria. I knew vaguely that it was a movie with a beautiful woman and a dramatic story of love, as Mexican movies always were. I cannot remember, maybe I have read a few lines about it in some cinema magazine, or maybe I saw once the movie poster, anyway I didn't have the chance to watch it. The name remained in my memory, sometimes coming at the surface and raising my curiosity: Maria Candelaria! Years were passing, nobody mentioned this movie anymore, as new films were coming and old movies were forgotten, I was no more a child, then I realized that I was getting old, the name was coming to me very rarely, like in a brief dream: Maria Candelaria! I didn't know who had starred in the movie. I thought that Pedro Armendáriz should have been the male lead, like in so many other Mexican movies of that epoch. What about the woman? Was she Maria Félix? It took many decades till I started to look for information. No, it was not Maria Félix. The heroine of the movie was another great Mexican actress, Dolores del Rio.

And then I found the movie on youTube. Was it, for Maria Candelaria, that moment? Aisareru isshun ga watashi no subete ni naru? A movie so far in time and space, isn't it too outdated? Or simply irrelevant? Xochimilco, the place where the story unfolds, is now an international tourist attraction, with its trajineras flowing over the myriad of canals, along the chinampas. What was in 1909 a harsh environment inhabited by primitive fold is now space of rich folklore. Still, there are people living there like in 1909, overwhelmed by poverty and by the lack of any comfort. Living on those chinampas, surrounded by canals, lacking the running water and the drainage. Maybe they are no more hating the women whose mothers happened to have been prostitutes, but, look: all over the world, people still hate those who happen to be different. Difference of skin color, origin, religion, sexual orientation, and so many others.

Coming back to this movie made in 1943 and telling a story from 1909, I think the plot is consistent, the action is well led toward its outcome, but there is another merit that I believe is more important: the film director (Emilio Fernández) knew how to look beyond the harshness and injustices of that life, beyond the casual villainy of those primitive people: he knew how to discover the profound poetry of that universe, with nature and humans sharing the same identity, molded by legends and traditions, by the good and the bad.
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Nezralé maliny (1980 TV Movie)
A Little Gem
24 April 2013
Warning: Spoilers
I watched this movie on TV sometime in the 80's. I was in Bucharest. It was a Saturday night, I was visiting some friends - the movie was on a Bulgarian channel, so it was dubbed in Bulgarian. The original soundtrack was still audible, Czech and Bulgarian words were flowing together. None of us knew Czech or Bulgarian, only a bit of Russian, which could have helped, maybe. Fortunately for us, there were English subtitles.

It is about a group of very old people, living in a small town - they prepare the celebration of 50 or 60 years since high school graduation. As they are very old, there are all kind of comic situations. Four of them prepare a piece of chamber music for the event, only each one has his own habits, his own ideas... One of these folks is a difficult person, always giving hard time to the others.

Actually he hopes to meet at the celebration his love from the high school years. He had got married with another girl - and life went on, not particularly bad, while not particularly happy, either. And he would like to see his old girlfriend - he does not know very well what he would say to her, but he hopes somehow that a kind of miracle would take place, and his life would find suddenly a sense.

The day of the event comes - only the old flame is no more - she had died a couple of months ago.

Our fellow leaves the party, as he does not want his tears to be seen. One of the other classmates comes and hugs him:

  • Let's have some fun - let's dance and sing in the park, barefoot.

  • But the militiaman can give us a fine!

  • He will not, come on. Let's do it!

And, yes, the miracle takes place - the old nasty guy starts to smile.
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Main Street (1956)
Operates on multiple levels
25 January 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Like Death of a Cyclist, the other movie of Bardem that I watched, also The Lovemaker operates on multiple levels.

The most obvious is the neorealist level. A province town in the Spain of the 1950's, where time has died. The main street, the Calle Mayor, like an attempt of this place to claim an identity. Pathetic and vain. There is a church, there is a sordid café (or a brothel, whichever), there is a town library (under the billiards parlor), and there are the arcades, beautiful while not enough to demonstrate life deserves to be lived. People light candles at home and go to church on Sundays. The Civil War is still there in family wounds, while already forgotten history. Isabel's father was a colonel in the army of Franco, killed in the war, she is just an old spinster. There is a group of guys making stupid jokes to run away the boredom. Juan (José Suárez, in the best role of his career) will pretend to fall for Isabel, to make her ridicule. She believes him and becomes happy. The story goes on till it is too late. Maybe he falls in love, too, that'd be the natural way. Only nothing can be natural in that place. Anyway, Juan has to chose between the courage to remain with her and to be happy (covert by the ridicule of his friends, and ultimately of the whole town) and the cowardice to just get out. Of course he'll choose cowardice, because that's the way it is.

There is also another level, beyond the neorealist drama. I would name it existential level. It is not only about that particular place in that particular time. It's about a universal experience. The street, the Calle Mayor, where all those people walk frenetically, like to show themselves that they really exist, this street comes in the movie like a dream. A dream in subtle dark tones, with imprecise images. An illusion of life. For several times the movie shows the railroad station, where trains are leaving, while no person is able to get on and escape from the illusion. Juan remains trapped in the town stupidness, Isabel remains trapped, ultimately everybody there is trapped, everybody is a spinster. A place of zombies. The impossibility of life to get off the illusion, to become reality. And the question addressed to us, who are watching the movie: is this real or are we just participants in a dream? Are we really alive?

And beyond all these levels, The Lovemaker (the same as Death of a Cyclist) is a reference to other essential works in the history of cinema. Firstly, Fellini's Vitelloni: more has been said about their similarities. Then, the beginning scene (with the guys making the joke with the coffin) calls in mind Buñuel; also the superb scene at the end, with Isabel beyond a window washed by rain, an accolade for the Meshes of the Afternoon with its leitmotif (Maya Deren beyond a window washed by echos of reality and illusion).
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Mlceti zlato (2010)
A Great Documentary
18 June 2012
A documentary presented at Bucharest Cinepolitica Festival, and it's a pity it will remain virtually unknown for the Romanian public at large, as it tackles an issue of extreme importance for the civil society here. It's a Rosia Montana case from another former socialist country. It's not only about a foreign capitalist company and a group of local compradores, (plus a sympathetic echo-friendly doctor), the number of actors is significantly larger, each one with valid arguments, each one with hidden skeletons. Some keep in their closet a fear deeply learned in old Soviet times, mixed with nostalgia, some others learned in those years how to manage people through fear, and this knowledge is also mixed with nostalgia, some learned how to expect everything or to steal from the Big Brother, be it Soviet Power or Multinational Company, and here also it's nostalgia in the picture - skeletons are of various kinds. And All That Glitters is a superb documentary, relentless while honest: the camera is exploring ruthlessly the facts, while the movie doesn't take sides, leaving to us the judgment.
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Even Prison was Idyllic in a Place so Idyllic
4 May 2012
I remember a story about a young man living in a country where nobody was very happy, nobody was very unhappy either. A friend of him had moved to another country and sent a letter about his new life. Once arrived in the new country he had been put in jail, for some minor offense or so. Well, he had color TV in prison, also plenty of food for breakfast. It seemed a formidable life there: the worst that could happen to you was access to color TV and a huge breakfast in the morning.

This story came to my mind as I was watching Calabuch: a rocket scientist disappears from his research laboratory (where people don't seem to be very happy, not very unhappy either), and goes to a small fishing village where nobody knows him. He is immediately arrested for loitering, but the prison is as idyllic as everything and everybody there. To be frank, there is no color TV (the movie was made in 1956), but otherwise the prison is merely a very convenient bed-and-breakfast. During the day you are free to walk outside. The villagers take the man for an old tramp and everybody sympathizes with him instantly. Prison, people, traditions, church, chess games and phone service, even corrida, all is idyllic.

Maybe the movie is like the story above: too idyllic to be true. Which means that the film director (like the guy who had sent the letter to his friend) intended actually to communicate that life was not that perfect after all.

Or maybe we shouldn't suspect the film director of any hidden intentions, that's also possible: what if he wanted to make just a funny movie? A special note for Edmund Gwenn. It was his last role in a feature film and he was as irresistible as he had been throughout all his long artistic career. Gwenn was 79 by that time.
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The Love for Books and the Way Books Return Your Love
24 March 2012
I found this 15 minutes movie totally by chance, as I was browsing the blog of a Portuguese books lover. I started watching the movie and I was immediately charmed. An old friend of mine came to my mind: a friendship of some sixty years.

I was five or six, he was fifteen or sixteen by that time. An aunt of him was living together with us and he was visiting her very often. I was just opening my eyes to the world, and the world was immense and full of unknowns, so no wonder I had lots of questions. He was taking time to listen to my questions and to give answers. It was about anything one could imagine, about pirates and about explorers, about the North Pole and the South Pole, and about seas and oceans, about hunting exotic animals, and about what job to take when I would grow up.

After two years or so I started going to school, and he entered the University. He began to pass some books of him to me, as I remember it was firstly The Wizard of Oz, then some books by Jules Verne and Nikolay Nosov. A book about volcanoes followed, and then a book written by Sven Hedin about his travels all over the world.

Years have passed, each of us was following his ways, while both sharing the passion for books. Sometimes we were meeting in a used books store, each browsing some old French book, or some album of old photos. Sometimes I was visiting him, some other times he was returning the visit. Each time it was a book that was coming in our discussion. When I left for America we met and he showed me three books he was reading somehow in parallel, about the American ways and about immigrant experience there.

After many years I came back and our friendship was no more the same. Maybe because both of us were old now, maybe because of lack of time, or because of lack of enthusiasm, or a bit of all these. Anyway our last meeting brought the subject of books again, only this time to punctuate disagreements. I was now using intensively the web and the electronic books, while for him only the printed books had sense, nothing else.

This was a couple of years ago. We tried to meet again, but each time it was something impeding it. We called each other by phone several times, then this stopped too. Life went on and electronic books became more and more sophisticated, advancing from desktops and laptops to tablets, while printed books remained the same, more and more forgotten on shabby shelves.

I called him again today, after watching the movie: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore tells a story about printed books, about their pages, full of words and images, about living surrounded by books, dreaming while browsing the pages till you get lost in their stories. It's about love for the printed word, and about the way the printed word returns your love. A movie about the aggressiveness of electronic books, acting like a hurricane, destroying the spirit of words and of images, and about the way to reconstruct the lost spirit. All this in an animation, in the form of a story for kids, a fantasy taking place in an atmosphere reminding sometimes The Wizard of Oz , maybe also a bit Le Ballon Rouge (while the hero somehow resembles Buster Keaton).

Ironically, the story is based on a book that can be read now on laptops and on tablets, browsing the electronic pages and inviting the reader to play interactively.

And I called my friend to tell him about all this, and I said that I would dedicate this text to him and to his love for the printed book, only he wouldn't be able to read it: the text is on the web.
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A Love Poem for Lili Brik?
20 February 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Was this movie a love poem for Lili Brik? Majakovsky wrote the screenplay, co-directed the movie and played in it. The plot follows a story written by Edmondo de Amicis in 1895 (La maestrina degli operai - The Workers' Young Schoolmistress), adapting it to the Russian universe of 1918, and to the universe of Russian avant-garde: the story of de Amicis breathes here of Constructivism; poetry, enthusiasm and a very realist depiction of society, far from the triumphalism of later Soviet movies.

A young schoolmistress comes to a remote village to teach pupils who are between 10 and 50. A bum comes to the school having in mind to seduce her, but he is falling in love. The bum is played, you gotcha, by Mayakovsky himself. The schoolmistress feels terrorized by him, while realizing little by little his true love. The guy will die after a fight in the village, the woman will come to give him a kiss: the first and the last.

Chaplin would have made a very special poem from such a story, delicate like a ballet, but don't think at Chaplin: think at Mayakovsky, at all Constructivists, Vertov or Rodchenko, Klutsis or Lissitzky, whoever comes first. It's love here, while this is just an episode in the construction of the new epoch: the schoolmistress will continue to teach her pupils with ages from 10 to 50, as the new world needs qualified workers. Was Lili Brik okay with such a love poem? Well, I think so: after all she remained in history as the Muse of the Russian Avant-Garde!
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Innocent Charmers
13 December 2011
Niewinni Czarodzieje (Innocent Sorcerers), a movie made in 1960, gathering some of the greatest names of Polish cinema: director was Andrzej Wajda; Jerzy Andrzejewski (the author of Ashes and Diamonds, the novel on which the homonym film was based) created here the screenplay, together with Jerzy Skolimowski (who also had a cameo); the music was composed by Krzysztof Komeda (who also scored some of the first movies of Polanski); you will recognize in the cast Zbigniew Cybulski and Roman Polanski; the lead characters were played by Tadeusz Lomnicki and Krystyna Stypulkowska. It's a feast to see them all, time will go and each one will follow a different path, here they are together, in their young years, these legends of the film universe.

I saw the movie for the first time by the end of the sixties. I was very young, and I liked Polish movies very much. This one took me totally by surprise, as I was expecting something different. I realized it was a movie with heroes of my generation, people in their twenties (now we are the baby-boomers of late sixties). However, the plot came to me as a non-issue. I was a fan of Polish movies, and I loved the films of Wajda and Kawalerowicz. This one was not that kind. And it was directed by Wajda! Actually this movie is stamped Skolimowski! The director was indeed Wajda, but he played faithfully the hand of his scriptwriter. Michael Open (who reviewed the movie for IMDb) says it bluntly: the creative force is here Skolimowski, not Wajda. Innocent Sorcerers is hundred percent New Wave, and by that time I wasn't familiarized at all with this current.

It looks quirky and it looks cynical, because that's the way New Wave looks like. Quirky because it throws away some respected cinematic conventions (and not only cinematic), and cynical, because it doesn't believe in the system, be it political system, be it any other blah-blah system.

I watched again Innocent Sorcerers recently, on youTube. Years have passed and I saw many great movies of the New Wave. This time I understood it, and I had a feeling of nostalgia, just because of that. A movie made when my generation was in the twenties, with heroes of that age, with mentalities of that age, speaking to the person I was at that age, no more to the person I am now.

So the movie made me a bit nostalgic. In the same time, I was charmed. I had been hundred percent wrong when watching it first time. It's far from being a non-issue. This film is perfect, and watching it brings something like organic satisfaction: such an artwork comes as naturally as air or water.

Maybe the title was translated in Romanian more appropriately than it was in English: Inocentii fermecatori, it could mean Innocent Charmers, also Charming Innocents. Charmers is more fit than Sorcerers: this movie is superbly ambiguous beginning with its title. It also is ambiguous beginning with the beginning: the very first scene shows a woman passing the street and leaving behind huge posters of this movie! So, is Niewinni Czarodzieje (Innocent Sorcerers, or Innocent Charmers, whatever) a movie about itself? For Krystyna Stypulkowska, the female lead, it was her first movie. She would play only in two more films. I looked for further information, without success. Well, she played here amazingly, the perfect charmer who never let you tell what's behind the charm, the good and the evil, who never let you know where she came from and where will she go.

The title of the movie comes from a masterpiece of Polish literature: Dziady (Forefathers'Eve), the poetic drama created by Adam Mickiewicz. It's a line in the first part of Dziady that names the niewinni młodzi czarodzieje (innocent young charmers) who własne swe nadzieje (poison their own hopes).

Dziady has four parts, very loosely related, each one created by Mickiewicz in a different period of life. The first part follows the sentimental tribulations of a young couple, confused about the path to take in their relationship: the innocent charmers who burn their own hopes. But it's not only the first part: love comes as an important theme in the whole poem. Dziady is about Polish ethos, both individual and collective. Giving and returning love is viewed by Mickiewicz as essential for the salvation of that ethos: individual and national. While keeping on the innocent charm level will poison hope and ultimately life: personal life and national life.

Coming back to the movie, there is a scene by the end in which the main hero asks someone on the street what is over Faith and Hope. Love, comes the answer. It's a quote from I Corinthians 13, and it gives us the clue: this movie is a replica to the first part of Dziady, played in our epoch. The innocent young charmers must recognize and assume their love, to not burn hope.

The movie was made in 1960. In 1968 Dziady will come once again in the picture: a representation of the poem will be forbidden, which will bring the Polish students on the streets, against the Communist regime.
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When the baby-boomers were teens
10 November 2011
It was a time when today's baby-boomers were teenagers, and they loved to meet in huge groups some place downtown, to start from there cruising the strip all night long. I graduated from high school in 1963, these guys from American Graffiti were about the same age. If you look now at those years, everything seems antique, and what you feel is amusement and nostalgia. But in those remote years everything seemed cool and the mood was enthusiastic. We loved to dance, and on Saturday nights the dance was in the premises of our high school, in the gym or cafeteria. We were trying to impress the girls, usually we were screwing up. The local DJ was a god, the classmates from our band were the best in town. The rock was king, and life was just beginning. I remember I spent with my classmates a whole night at a restaurant, smoking and dancing, and when we left it was that unique moment of predawn, when darkness has just disappeared and light hasn't come yet. Only a couple of seconds, no more. This movie is exactly about that moment, when innocence of teenage makes room to adulthood. It's only once, never again. And you remember it for all your life. We were so young, and our future was looking so great! Why has everything passed so quickly?
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