Favorite Movies of 2016

As this past fall was approaching, my impression was that 2016 had been a pretty lousy year for movies, but by the end of the year, looking over all that I’d seen, I realized just how many excellent movies there had been.

Overall, I saw 111 movies this past year.  Fifty-three of them I saw in theaters.  Fifty-one were new (at least to the Twin Cities).

To my surprise, toward the beginning and end of the year, I saw Star Wars movies: Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One.  Both were strong additions to the Star Wars … I can barely bring myself to say the word … franchise, with the rag-tag toughness of Rogue One being especially satisfying.  Still, for all that was familiar in it, The Force Awakens packed an emotional wallop, especially in the scene with Han Solo and Kylo Ren on the bridge that recalled the confrontation between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

I also had the good fortune to see Chimes at Midnight in a theater.  I hadn’t seen it in about thirty years, and while I’ve always had fond memories of it, time had leached the details of the film from my memory.  It is among Orson Welles’ masterpieces.  Speaking of masterpieces, later in the year I saw a beautiful 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Love it or hate it, it’s a visually stunning movie and best seen on the big screen.

the_seventh_fire_Since I ended up seeing so many good movies, I at least want to mention films that almost made it onto my list: Son of Saul, Knight of Cups, Aferim!, In Transit, Where to Invade Next, Wiener-Dog, and The Seventh Fire.  This final film, a documentary about the life of a drug dealer and his protégé on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota , is probably the least-known of the group so I want to give it special notice.  It is gorgeously photographed and is devastating.  It’s highly recommended.

And last but not least, I feel I must mention that I unintentionally saw five Coen Brothers movies  this past year:  Hail, Caesar!; Raising Arizona; The Big Lebowski; No Country for Old Men; and Burn after Reading.  I didn’t even like Burn after Reading when I first saw it in 2008, but I thought I would give it another try, in part because it is my friend Bev’s favorite Coen Brothers film.  To my surprise, I found it to be quite funny.  Everyone in it is great, but John Malkovich and Brad Pitt are spectacular.  And No Country for Old Men is nothing short of masterful.  No wonder I’ve stuck with these guys for so long.

Without further ado, here are my favorite films from last year in the order that I saw them.

anomalisa Anomalisa
Customer service guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis) has a problem, one that gradually becomes clear to viewers once the romance he initiates with Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at a Cincinnati customer service conference begins to transform from something magical into some terrifyingly familiar.  I’ve heard that Anomalisa is the story of a man suffering from Fregoli delusion (that constitutes a spoiler, so you might not want to look it up right now if you haven’t seen the film), but it also can be seen as a keen observation on how it is that we lose interest in life and in others.  If we’re honest, it’s not life but our tedious ideas about it that become so unbearable.  That the film is told with animated puppets deepens the films themes yet doesn’t get in the way of its humanity—Michael’s and Lisa’s date is fraught with vulnerability and tenderness.  It’s probably Charlie Kaufman’s most touching film.

hail-caesarHail, Caesar!
Aglow after having watched the Coen Bros.’ entertaining film set during the final years of the studio system, starring the ever-reliable Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, the fixer at fictional Capitol Studios loosely based on MGM’s fixer of the same name, I announced that the next genre the Coen Bros. needed to tackle was a musical.  After all, Hail, Caesar! has three excellent musical numbers in it, including “No Dames,” the sharply choreographed and funny riff on something you might have seen in On the Town.   Then it dawned on me: maybe Hail, Caesar! was their musical or, rather, quasi-musical.  Regardless, with its casual pace and a loose plot that allows the Coens to peek in on various sound stages to show us scenes from a wealth of fictional movies being filmed, Hail, Caesar! is a paean to the magic of movies, and not very great movies at that.  George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, and Alden Ehrenreich are marvelous—Ehrenreich really shines, impressing me with, of all things, his ability to lasso something with a spaghetti noodle, which I’m guessing is a lot harder to do than it appears.  So many others in the film rise to the Coens’ lunacy that it’s hard to single them out, but Ralph Fiennes has a very funny scene in which he plays a George Cuckor-like director trying to teach diction to Ehrenreich’s irredeemable cowpoke.  Movie lovers will find much to enjoy here.

Happy_HourHappy Hour
Happy Hour
, my favorite movie of the year, tells the story of four close, middle-aged Japanese women whose lives, specifically whose marriages, unravel when one of them divorces her husband because she no longer loves him.   Such a synopsis does not do justice to a movie that, with a running time just over five hours, has an almost novelistic heft to it.  The running time allows for moments to play out deliberately, as in two bravura scenes, one detailing a workshop led by an artist who simply balances things as his art form and the other the reading of a respected up-and-coming writer, that do not so much advance the plot as deepen relationships and themes.  By the end of the film, after all that we have seen and felt, one knows these women with deep sympathy.  The four stars of the film won the “best actress” award at the 2015 Locarno Film Festival for their ensemble work, the only way to celebrate ensemble acting this intimate.

right-nowRight Now, Wrong Then
A charming and funny romance from prolific South Korean filmmaker Sang-soo Hong, Right Now, Wrong Then features a neat structural trick: the film is actually two films—Wrong Now, Right Then and Right Now, Wrong Then—that essentially tell the same story but with slightly different details and very different outcomes.  Jae-yeong Jeong plays Ham Cheon-soo, a famous director visiting a town where a film of his is scheduled to be shown during a film festival.  The day before his film screens, he sees a beautiful young woman enter the grounds of an old palace.  He follows her, striking up a conversation with her.  Discovering that she’s a budding painter, he asks to see her work, and she takes him to her studio.  Their courtship is stumbling, drunk, and funny.  In the first film, Ham is manipulative, trying desperately to win the young woman over, but not succeeding too well.  In the second, film, he proves to be much more difficult to resist as he expresses his feelings simply and directly.  Sang-soo deserves wider renown in the States than he currently has.

the-lobsterThe Lobster
The Lobster
appears to be the most divisive film I’ve seen this past year, though Arrival is a close second.   The Lobster tells the story of David, a sort of schlubby everyman living in a dystopian world not that different from our own, in which society coerces single people to marry.  And so David finds himself checking into a hotel at which he is expected, within forty-five days, to meet the woman he will marry or be turned into an animal—in this case, by his choice, a lobster.  A resistance movement has formed by those who have fled the hotel into the surrounding woods and who have zero tolerance for romance of any kind, maiming and even killing those who show romantic inclinations toward others.  In short, single people in David’s world are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.  The film’s commitment to its nightmarish illogic—and lack of any explanation or apology for it—imbues The Lobster with a sense of the uncanny similar to Kafka’s fiction.

hell-or-high-waterHell or High Water
I saw few movies this past summer—what a fetid swamp summer movies were this year; much worse than usual—but two in a row somehow featured Chris Pine.  This one, however, is not a franchise, but is instead a modern western in the mode of No Country for Old Men.  Coming from the pen of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who wrote last year’s gripping Sicario, Hell or High Water is, not surprisingly, pulpier than No Country for Old Men, not as self-consciously weighty.  Also like Sicario, it is firmly located in place—in this case, West Texas.  Starred Up director David Mackenzie films the landscape beautifully and elicits strong performances from Pine, Jeff Bridges (who, admittedly, is doing a variation of his Rooster Cogburn), and Ben Foster, one of the strongest actors of his generation.  This movie is an excellent action film, recalling days before that meant nauseatingly endless chase and fight sequences.

tells the coming-of-age story of a young black man from Miami named Little (Alex Hibbert) when he was a child, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) when a teenager, and Black (Trevante Rhodes) when a young man, as he struggles to find his place in a world that seems to have no need for him.  His mother, a drug addict, neglects him when she’s not lashing out at him, and his apparent queerness ostracizes him from peers who struggle to find their own identities in their harsh neighborhood.  Little finds some solace in Juan, a local drug dealer who finds Little hiding in one of his crack houses and who acts as a temporary father until Little realizes Juan sells crack to his mother; in Teresa, Juan’s patient and supportive girlfriend; and in his friend Kevin, with whom Chiron shares one of his rare intimate moments, one he desperately wants to recapture as a young man.  Moonlight is a film shot through with beauty and the ache of wanting, needing, to fit in and to be loved, which is thwarted by the defenses thrown up to protect one from an indifferent, too often violent world.  It broke my heart.  Repeatedly.

Amy Adams, in a remarkably heartfelt performance that should have been nominated for an Academy Award, plays linguist Louise Banks, who is brusquely invited by Army Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join a team who are attempting to communicate with aliens inhabiting a spaceship hovering over a mountain valley in Montana, one of twelve ships looking like giant, charcoal Milk Duds that have appeared simultaneously around the globe.  Arrival is a visually striking film that, for its rather unpromising premise, is quite moving in a story about language, cognition, parenthood, time, and a re-orientation toward death that, the film implies, will save humanity.  In that way, I suppose, Arrival is a spiritual film.  The movie threatens to derail in its final third-to-half, as it expands its focus beyond Dr. Banks and her work and reverts to science fiction film tropes so familiar they’re like watching wallpaper and that consign Jeremy Renner to the editing room floor.  Still, as with so many of the great science fiction films, what works in this movie is so good it makes up for the missteps.

certain-womenCertain Women
Based on stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women tells three stories centering on three different women living in Montana (yes, Montana again).  In the first, Laura Dern plays  Laura, a lawyer saddled with a relentless and mentally unstable client, fastidiously played by Jared Harris in a role that I imagine would have been more fearsome in the hands of a more magnetic and less restrained actor.  The second features Michelle Williams as a professional woman obsessed with building a second home in rural Montana, her obsession widening the gap between herself and her family and prodding her to talk a senile old man into selling her some historically significant stone that is piled up in his yard.  The third tells the story of a shy ranch hand played by Lily Gladstone who develops a crush on a Kristen Stewart’s lawyer, who has inadvertently found herself teaching a teacher’s development class on legal issues in the classroom in a town four hours’ drive from Missoula, where she lives and works.  All stories are quietly told with understated humor.  Much is unspoken, and the silent, immense land in which the stories unfold is very much a presence in the drama.  For me, the second segment was the least engaging, and the third, alive with the exquisite pain of unrequited love, was some of the best filmmaking I saw this year.  Director Kelly Reichardt once again proves herself to be one of America’s best directors.

manchesterManchester by the Sea
The premise of Manchester by the Sea is not unfamiliar: a lonely, crushed man—Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck in a bravura performance—whose very body language keeps the world at bay, suddenly finds himself thrust into taking care of somebody against his will, in this case, his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  The film is much more than that familiar premise, though, as is slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks that, so unexpected at the beginning of the movie, seem to knock the timeline of the film askew.  Through them, we eventually learn what haunts Lee, a gaping wound that will never heal, the film dramatizing how one lives in the presence of such trauma.  In spite of the tragedy at its heart, director Kenneth Lonergan stays true to the comedy of everyday life, some of the film’s comic touches resounding uncomfortably in the face of unspeakable pain.  With its sophisticated use of setting and its unsettling rhythms, Manchester by the Sea is an art film accessible to all in its humanity.

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Listen Up! A(nother) Tribute to Prince

princeFirst David Bowie and now Prince.  2016 is turning out to be a bit hard on pop music visionaries.  And what have I got to say about Prince that hasn’t already been said with more eloquence?  I’m not sure.  But my awareness that the question is moot, so far beside the point that it really doesn’t warrant much thought, owes at least a little something to one facet of what made Prince great.

I have been trying to recall what my first exposure to Prince’s music was.  I know it was in 1982, the year that I’d moved from Little Chute, Wisconsin to Minneapolis.  I’m pretty sure it was the song “1999,” on KQRS, the relatively staid album rock station that played  Led Zeppelin’s “Over Hills and Far Away” every, single, day, of, the, week.  Like other songs on KQ, I hardly listened when “1999” came on, knowing that, like the Who’s “Athena” and “Eminence Front” or the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, it didn’t require proper attention because it was sure to be played again and again and again with lobotomizing regularity.

More evocatively I remember the next fall, driving around with a new buddy, Steve (how many friends have I had named Steve, and just what does that say about me if anything other than the fact that every third guy from my age group was named Steve?), certainly one of the coolest people I’d met in my life at that point (sorry, Harold!), perhaps we were on our way to the Philip Glass/Joanne Akalaitis collaboration The Photographer, the day I would have had my first taste of 151 rum, purchased by his father in South America and smuggled into Minnesota, the liquor evaporating on my tongue, leaving the specter of a flavor rather than the full-bodied taste that I would only come to experience and appreciate later in life when I would give it the time and attention it required of me, and he asked me if I knew Prince’s music.  When I said I didn’t, except for snippets of the song “1999,” he told me I would like him, slid the CD 1999 into the player, and blasted it in all its catchy, funky glory.

Prince 2But I didn’t really stop and listen, just listen, to Prince until I first heard “When Doves Cry,” opening with that amazing, hot, slightly middle-eastern sounding guitar lick that is overtaken by a weird synthesizer/vocal part until the texture reduces, skeletal but evocative, to keyboard and percussion, then just percussion and voice.  And the song continues, stark, tuneful, compelling, always making me sorry when it ended with a keyboard part that sounded like it was running up and out of the song.  I had never really heard anything quite like it on the radio before, though it had a kind of pop-aural surrealism to it like other music I was getting into at the time—Peter Gabriel (I later learned that around this time Wendy and Lisa turned Prince on to Security as well as to Mahler, whom the Purple One avidly listened to), Robert Fripp, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Discipline-era King Crimson, and soon Tom Waits—and I knew I was in love.

Now that he’s gone and the well-deserved tributes are rolling in from every corner—they lit the Eiffel Tower purple!—we’re seeing just how many lives were touched by Prince, how many were moved by his music, his example, and his earthquaking, ass-shaking originality.  But for all of his manufactured mystery, some of which seemed like it flowered from a quirky sense of humor more than anything, what made him original wasn’t that his work seemed to spring from nowhere.  Rather, it was that we could see where his musical ideas came from—James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Parliament, Sly, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell—but Prince channeled them, and other less obvious sources, in ways that were wholly unique to Prince.  He didn’t need to be an original by denying the past or pretending it had never happened but rather by doing his own thing with it.  As the great iconoclast playwright and novelist Alfred Jarry once wrote:  “We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well. But the only way I can see of doing that is to use them to put up a lot of fine, well-designed buildings.”

prince 1993And it is that, more than stories of him wandering around Paisley Park in his jammies and slippers nuking microwave popcorn, as fun and human as they might be, that brings Prince nearer to us, for all his virtuosity and talent.  We can all do what he did in the sense that we all can be original, and in fact are original, in same way Prince was, by just being ourselves.  We don’t have to reject or deny anything to do that, though we may have to do that too, there being no end to the choices presented to us in the ever-branching path of our lives.  But it is in the fullness of our embrace of what shows up that we find ourselves, express ourselves.  Prince was original, he was Prince, solely by expressing his joy, his loves, his desires, the best he could.

And that’s what Prince taught us—how to be ourselves—if we really listened.

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The Seen Scene: MSPIFF 2016

For the third year in a row, I attended a fairly sizeable batch of films at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  This year I saw nineteen films, perhaps twenty if this Thursday I make the “best of” screening of the exquisitely titled Garbage Helicopter.  I saw a Kill-me-pleaselot of good films, a few truly excellent films, and one dud, Kill Me Please, that, with a premise mixing the coming of age genre with a slasher film, failed to live up to the edgy, Charles Burns-like discomfort fest it promised.

The breadth of “documentaries” this year stress what a misnomer the category is.  Perhaps they should start calling them “non-fiction films” to better accommodate films that ranged from investigative journalism to biography to cinematic memoir to what might best be called portraiture.  Holy Hell, an account of a man’s twenty year involvement with a New Age cult, was one of the weaker entries I saw in this category, and it still haunted me for days afterward.

The Asian cinema at this year’s festival was especially noteworthy, though the Asian programming is usually pretty good at the MSPIFF, no doubt thanks to the exquisite taste of Asian and international film programmer, Kathie Smith.

My favorites films at the festival this year were:

Happy_HourHappy Hour, a five-hour Japanese drama about four middle-aged women whose lives, especially their marriages, are shaken when one of them divorces her husband, a description that does not come close to conveying the pleasures of watching this near novel of a film.

Kaili Blues, a visually poetic Chinese film about loss and change and regret that, unfortunately, I nodded in and out of, though it was one of the most visually beautiful films I’d seen at the festival—I would jump at the chance to see it again.

Right Now, Wrong Then, the most recent film by Korean director Hong Sang-soo, a funny and sweet comedy in two parts, one, titled Wrong Now, Right Then, in which a director falls for a young woman, doing all the wrong things and coming across as a jerk; and the other, titled Right Now, Wrong Then, retelling the same story in which the director is more open and honest, charming everyone he meets, in spite of an inebriated disrobing at a strangers’ house.

Under Electric Clouds, Aleksey German Jr.’s brooding, apocalyptic film set exactly 100 years after the Russian Revolution that is a meditation on Russia’s future and its troubling relationship with Russia’s past.  It’s a visually stunning and formally complex movie that explores themes that are challenging not only Russia, but the entirety of twenty-first century Europe.

In Transit, Albert Maysle’s final film, a portrait of those riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder that is a testament to America’s underlying humanity—its dreams and longings and shared suffering—that is a welcome tonic in such a toxic election cycle.

AferimAferim!, a darkly comic Romanian film set in the nineteenth century about an officer of the law charged with tracking down and bringing to justice a Gypsy slave who had slept with a nobleman’s wife; shot in rich black and white.

Also noteworthy were Hong Sang-soo’s structurally suggestive 2014 comedy Hill of Freedom; the charmingly shaggy portrait Don’t Blink—Robert Frank by Frank’s longtime assistant Laura Israel; and Aaron Brookner’s memoir Uncle Howard, about his uncle Howard (director of Burroughs: The Movie) that becomes a snapshot of the downtown New York art scene at the end of the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

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Signal to Noise: A Tribute to BLACKSTAR and David Bowie

bowie lazarusIt is impossible to listen to Blackstar, David Bowie’s final album, without thinking of his death, and this, it seems, is as Bowie had intended. The album is shot through with death, not only in obvious ways as in the song “Lazarus,” whose title alone suggests death, even while implying its transcendence, the opening lyrics, slyly, given the timing of the video’s release only days before Bowie’s death, announcing, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”

Or the album’s title track “Blackstar,” a black star not only a dead star—making the lines “I’m a blackstar/I’m not a filmstar/I’m a blackstar/I’m not a popstar” especially resonant—but also, as philosopher Simon Critchley, author of 2014’s Bowie, suggests, the connection between Bowie’s song and an unreleased Elvis Presley track called “Black Star,” whose lyrics are indeed evocative:

Every man has a black star
A black star over his shoulder
And when a man sees his black star
He knows his time, his time has come

Black star don’t shine on me, black star
Black star keep behind me, black star
There’s a lot of livin’ I gotta do
Give me time to make a few dreams come true, black star

Then there are other, less direct, implications of death’s imminence, such as the labored breathing at the opening of “‘Tis Pity She Was a Whore,” or the lyric in the ballad “Dollar Days”:

I’m dying to
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
I’m trying to

When sung, we hear, momentarily, before the remainder of the lyric comes tumbling out, “I’m dying, too … / I’m trying, too …”, a testament, it appears in retrospect, of the making of Bowie’s swan song.

bowie blackstarRegardless, it would be reductive to experience this album solely through knowledge of Bowie’s death. It would rob the songs of their adventurousness and haunting obscurity. Just what is the song “Blackstar” about? Supposedly, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose jazz ensemble contributes much to the success of the album, said that, before recording it, Bowie had mentioned ISIS (the Islamic State) in connection to the song, though according to Spencer Kornhaber, staff writer at The Atlantic, neither drummer Mark Guiliana nor producer Tony Visconti were aware of that association. In fact, Kornhaber goes on to say, “the villa of Ormen,” the setting at the opening of “Blackstar” is a Norse village, hardly the bailiwick of the Islamic State. The whole album Blackstar is as mysteriously compelling and searching as the opening track and should be met in that spirit.

It was Bowie’s propensity for experimentation while being a bona fide superstar that made him, and still makes him, such an anomaly. I marvel that Bowie was as huge as he was. Songs like “Neuköln” on “Heroes” or “Warszawa” on Low are hardly Top 40 fare. Of course, there are the Bowies songs that are comfortable in the Top 40, or at least were in heavy rotation on radio stations like WAPL, the album rock station I listened to in junior high and high school, songs we’re all familiar with, like “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” “Suffragette City,” “Rebel, Rebel,” “Fame,” and “Ashes to Ashes,” to name the most ubiquitous.

bowie ziggyIt was those songs and the sense that he was up to something, not the usual rock star swagger but something more peculiar and, to me, seductive—as in his SNL appearance in 1979—that led me to buy my first Bowie album my freshman year in college. Probably because it contained “Suffragette City,” and for no other reason, the first David Bowie album I bought was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Even before I played it, as I tore the plastic from the cover, I knew I was going to like it when I saw the directive: “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.” It’s a great album, so it wasn’t long afterward that I bought Aladdin Sane and then the brand new, swaggering Let’s Dance.

By that time, Bowie had released so many albums that I didn’t know where to go next, especially given how little money I had to spend on books and music. It was Tonight, which came out the year after Let’s Dance, that finally brought me to a grinding halt. Clearly this was not up to snuff, and by this point I’d started hearing rumblings that Bowie was an uneven artist (what I now think is an unfair assessment, given how many great albums he released and how strong a run he had from Station to Station until Let’s Dance, six really good-to-excellent albums in seven years), so I gave up buying his records until I had a better sense of his career.

It was in those years, while I was still an undergraduate in college, when Bowie’s career seemed to have fallen into confused disarray as he careened from one dubious album to another, scrambling to find his voice again but never quite succeeding, chasing after trends instead of setting them as he once had, that, in friends’ record collections, I discovered what have become my favorite Bowie albums. It began with my friend, and huge Bowie fan, Sarah Taylor’s copy of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). I knew “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion,” but I wasn’t prepared for the exquisitely noisy art pop of the album opener “It’s No Game (No. 1).”

The album was attuned to my strange ears that were, at the time, gravitating toward other art pop artists like Peter Gabriel (Melt and Security), Discipline-era King Crimson, and even Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits, stuff that was off-putting to many of my friends and acquaintances but that seemed to have come not from outside of me but from the depths of my unconscious, much like the feeling I had when I first heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Thelonious Monk. I knew this music, and it knew me, long before I’d ever heard it.

bowie lodger 2And so began my slow fall into the Berlin trilogy and Station to Station, albums that are just bent enough that I was amused but not surprised by a story related by Adrian Belew to Newsweek reporter Zach Schonfeld about his experience recording Lodger with Bowie:

Belew recalls working in a Switzerland studio that he compares to a bunker. He and the rest of the musicians were on a separate floor from Bowie, who had access to a one-way camera—he and collaborator Brian Eno could see the musicians, who could not see them. Things got weirder from there.

“The first thing that Brian [Eno] and David said to me was ‘We think we’re calling this record Planned Accidents, and we want to get your accidental responses to the music,'” Belew says. So the pair had him put on headphones and play along with tracks he’d never heard before. When he asked what key it was in, they’d refuse to answer.

“I would try to figure out as it’s going,” Belew says. “I would get maybe two or three tries. But usually by the third try I would know something. That’s not what they were listening for. Then they would take their tracks, and they would make a composite of their favorite moments of me trying to figure out how to play along with the song.”

It thrills me that an artist who would do that would be mourned by so many, for whom Bowie’s flirtations with surrealism and aleatoric music might be their only exposure to artistic approaches they might otherwise dismiss as nonsense.

bowie finalThat Bowie, the adventurer, stepping into uncharted lands in a blindfold (with buttons sewn on it), encouraging McCaslin and his band to take the music wherever they felt it needed to go, Bowie jumping right in, finding his place, searching, searching, lyrics not always completed even, but standing there in the middle of the band, against standard recording practices of separating the singer for a cleaner vocal track, and singing, digging deep, his energy charging the band, the lyrics, some finally, coming in and refracting, splitting the difference, cutting to the stone of the fruit: “Ride the train I’m far from home/In a season of crime none need atone/I kissed your face.”

This is the gift David Bowie left for us, multifaceted as the diamonds the narrator of “Blackstar” wants in his eyes like those found in the baroque filigree of a sugar skull.

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Favorite Movies of 2015

I saw a lot of good movies in 2015, some were even great. Not all of them were first released this year—for example, Take Up Productions put on brief Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock retrospectives sprinkled across a couple theaters at the same time (sigh) allowing me not only to see Vertigo marnieon the (relatively) big screen again but also to see the keenly weird Marnie, the rag-tag blarney of F for Fake, and the pell mell horror of Macbeth for the first time—but more than a few of the good ones were new. In fact, I saw so many good movies that by November, after agonizing about which films would make my final ten and which had to go, I ended up seeing Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, and my list, for the second time in the past couple of years, expanded to eleven.

Two movies that were on and off my list like the insistent trembling of a moribund fluorescent light were Ex Machina, a smart and compelling science fiction movie and Inside Out, an animated film from Pixar with intelligent jokes, a clever premise, and a warm heart that is another feather in Pixar’s voluminous cinematic cap.

I was smitten by two strange love stories this past year. Amour Fou was the stranger of the two, recounting the months leading up to the moment Heinrich von Kleist killed his lover and himself in an unhealthy realization of Romantic nihilism. The movie is funny in both senses of the word, as evidenced by von Kleist’s pick-up line, which was basically an argument for suicide.

girlThe other was A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night a kind of Iranian hipster vampire movie. Evocative black and white cinematography, relatively static camerawork, and cool emotions recall Jim Jarmusch, which isn’t such a bad thing, but my favorite scene is when the main couple fall for one another in The Girl’s room, lights from a disco ball swirling around the room in a heady delirium.

Finally, I wasn’t sure what to make of Inherent Vice. I like P.T. Anderson’s films quite a bit and I love most of Pynchon’s novels, though admittedly, Inherent Vice may be my least favorite. Despite some excellent acting—Martin Short is brilliant in a brief role—the movie felt kind of flat. I need to see it again, I think.

Without any more fanfare, here are my eleven favorite movies of this past year, arranged in the order in which I saw them:

dukeofburgundyThe Duke of Burgundy
Lepidopterology and lesbian BDSM are at the heart of this strange, erotic love story that draws on the aesthetics of ‘60s and ‘70s sexploitation costume dramas to surprising effect. The film opens with what appears to be a young maid, Evelyn, being humiliated and punished by a cruel matron, Cynthia, but soon after a rather unexpected and severe form of punishment—that, though off-camera, is quite funny and that Evelyn seems to enjoy—turns out to be an erotic scenario imagined by Evelyn. As her fantasies become more complex and extreme, the women’s relationship becomes strained, the film revealing itself to be a perceptive exploration of the power dynamics of love and desire that is at times slyly funny and at others dreamlike and beautiful.

look of silenceThe Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his chilling 2012 documentary The Act of Killing once again turns to the aftermath of the “communist” genocide in Indonesia of the 1960s. However, while The Act of Killing focuses on the imaginaria of those responsible for the genocide, many of whom retain power in Indonesia and brag with graphic detail about the atrocities they’d committed, The Look of Silence forces some of those men to confront the suffering they caused. The film follows 44 year-old optometrist Adi—whose brother Ramli was killed in the genocide two years before Adi was born—while he fits the guilty men for glasses, helping them to see more clearly not only with the lenses he tries on them, but with the pointed questions he asks. The men’s responses, defensive, squirming, angry, sometimes threatening, reveal just what the look of silence is.

mad max 2Mad Max: Fury Road
As far as I’m concerned, The Road Warrior is the greatest action film ever made, and George Miller, who directed it, is one of the genre’s greatest filmmakers. After Miller had devoted the past couple of decades to making children’s movies, I wasn’t sure he had another action film in him. Fury Road proves he did. While it’s not quite as good as The Road Warrior, it’s pretty close. The action is high octane, the humor sharp and satirical, and the visuals arresting. In short, it’s a blast. Miller has gotten so good as a filmmaker that he tells in a single pan across a room what most films would take five minutes of expository dialogue—or worse, voice-over narration—to establish. Refreshingly and surprisingly, Max takes a back seat in the film’s action. Fury Road belongs to Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. The prospect of more Max films, especially if they’re of this caliber, is tantalizing.

hard to be a godHard to be a God
Nothing will quite prepare you for the experience of Aleksei German’s final film. Teeming with incident and texture, Hard to be a God centers on Don Rumata, an Earth scientist sent with about a dozen others to observe the alien planet Arkanar, which, mired in an age resembling medieval Europe, never had its age of Enlightenment. For reasons foggy to me because the profuse life that abounds in each and every moment of the film obscures a coherent plot, Don Rumata is thought to be a demigod, a ruse that I believe was meant to keep him above the fray (much like in Star Trek, the scientists visiting Arkanar are not to interfere with the cultures they encounter), though the narrator tells us that Rumata’s demigodhood was challenged as much as demurred to. And challenged it was. Not only was Don Rumata constantly threatened with violence, but all around and on him, people and animals shit, puked, pissed, spat, farted, blew snot from their noses, sweat, coughed, and bled, as, at times, did Rumata himself. Dazed by the end of the events detailed in the film, much as the audience is, Rumata makes clear just how hard being a god can be.

Pigeon SatA Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Any year featuring a new movie by Roy Andersson is already better than it might have been. A Pigeon … is similar in approach to the other installments of Andersson’s “Living trilogy”—Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living—employing bleak humor, surrealism, an episodic structure, and a distinctive dioramic visual style. Yet, unlike the previous films, A Pigeon … seems to have something resembling protagonists: traveling novelty salesmen Sam and Jonathan. Thoroughly Beckettian characters for whom life is a protracted series of miserable situations, one can’t help but laugh when they stoically announce to potential clients, “We want to help people have fun.” The final section of the film, titled “Homo sapiens,” features two scenes, one involving a lab monkey and the other slaves who are herded into a large copper drum, that are so unvarnished they leave one a bit woozy with horror and disgust.

quinquinLi’l Quinquin
Released as a film in the US, this French mini-series centers on the inept police investigation of a series of gruesome murders perpetrated in a small, coastal town in northern France. The movie is an absurd comedy about humanity’s propensity for darkness and violence, the murders serving to link various events unfolding in the town mainly involving Quinquin (a nickname that means “little child” in the northern French dialect spoken in the town) and his friends or Commandant Van der Weyden, the rumpled, Clouseau-esque detective whose extensive arsenal of facial tics creates an ever-shifting, comical nothingness against which the savage meaninglessness of life is hurled. If the crimes, in which body parts are found inserted inside of cows, suggest almost unbelievable viciousness, so too do the interactions of Quinquin and his friends who cruelly taunt and threaten a couple of Muslim children with devastating consequences.

Jauja 2Jauja
Viggo Mortensen portrays Danish surveyor Gunnar Dinesen in Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s beautiful, surreal film set in the Patagonian Desert of southern Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century during the “Conquest of the Desert,” when Argentine forces killed or displaced 15,000 native inhabitants. It’s clearly not the safest environment for Dinesen’s fourteen-year-old daughter Ingeborg, whom Dinesen has brought with him. He suddenly realizes the enormity of his error when at one point Ingeborg tells him, “I love the desert, the way it fills me,” and then runs off with a young soldier, disappearing with him into the desert where a rogue military officer, Zuluag, is rumored to be marauding the countryside with a band of followers. Armed with his sword and a rifle, Dinesen pursues the young couple, but the farther Dinesen goes, the more lost—physically and psychically—he becomes. After a while, it becomes difficult to figure out which landscape Dinesen traverses, one of the desert or of his increasingly unmoored mind.

diary-of-a-teenage-girl 2The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel/graphic novel of the same name, The Diary of a Teenage Girl tells the story of sexually precocious, fourteen-year-old Minnie who initiates an affair with her mom’s boyfriend Monroe. As Minnie’s sexual explorations expand to others, her relationship with Monroe, much to Minnie’s anguish, lurches back and forth between on and off. Her growing pains are harrowing and funny. In some ways, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an excellent companion to Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, another movie based on a ground-breaking graphic novel about a young woman searching for her identity, adopting various roles and doing stupid things along the way. Both movies eschew sentimentality in favor of dark humor that occasionally dips into gleeful misanthropy, though Marielle Heller’s film is rawer and less ironic than Ghost World.

sicario bodiesSicario
While Sicario recalls Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, Sicario is more willfully pulpy, turning less into an expose of the war on drugs than a taut, brutal revenge drama. Regardless, the movie makes clear how US drug enforcement tactics have helped to transform the war on drugs into something resembling an actual war, as in one of the movie’s most visually stunning sequences, of the many under the masterful eye of longtime Coen Brothers collaborator cinematographer Roger Deakins, when U.S. operatives engage in a nighttime raid wearing heat sensitive and infrared goggles. As this gripping film shows us, when the might of America weighs down on the Mexican drug cartels, the cartels attempt to respond in equal measure, exacerbating a protracted war that rages under the guise of a police action.

Carol other windowCarol
Carol is Todd Haynes’ ravishing film about two women from different classes and generations, who fall in love in the 1950s, one of the most repressive decades for homosexuals in America. The movie is a swoon, the magnetism of stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara sweeping us off our feet and drawing us deeply into their characters’ intense field of attraction for one another. Indeed, if their initial encounter at the department store is charged with desire, it’s downright intoxicating at the martini lunch the women share shortly afterward. Adding to the film’s spell is Carter Burwell’s score, recalling the sensual pulse of Philip Glass’s film work, and Edward Lachman’s sumptuous cinematography, often framing the action of Carol through windows—refracting light, reflecting what lies outside them, clouded with rain or soot, capturing the way that perception is distorted, sometimes voluptuously so, when one is in the throes of love and desire.

assassinThe Assassin
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s strikingly shot wuxia tells the story of Nie Yinniang, who, in 9th-century China, has been trained from about the age of ten to be an assassin whose task is to eliminate corrupt politicians. When her nerve fails her on a particular mission because she shows mercy to her target, her mentor, a kind of martial arts bhikkha, sends her on a difficult mission: she’s to assassinate the man to whom she was once supposed to marry. If she can do it, she joins the rarified ranks of the assassins. If not, she will be barred from their order, banished to an ordinary life. If the story sounds a bit cheesy, it’s not. Hsiao-Hsien has created an intimate film that with its fantastic elements and the grandeur with which it is filmed—design, composition, and editing contribute to the movie’s epic reach—takes on the dimensions of myth.

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Some of My Favorite (Recorded) Things of 2015

Here are records that were released in 2015 (except where noted) that I found myself repeatedly listening to and really enjoying. I can’t vouch that these are the best albums of the year, but I sure like them. In fact, looking at the “best of” lists released so far, I can say once again that I haven’t heard of over half the artists on those lists, let alone their music, so you know that most of what I’m listening to is not culturally significant—at least not in terms of pop culture.

Thank goodness.

D’Angelo, Black Messiah
Released in the middle of December last year, it’s hard to think of this as a 2014 album, so I’m not going to. It’s an amazing record, soulful, funky, melodic, and gorgeously arranged—the song “Really Love,” for example, opens with an ominous low note that opens up into a harmonically d'angelosophisticated string quartet that fades into some nimble classical Spanish guitar work before transforming into loping, jazzy R & B. Then, of course, there are those layers of D’Angelo’s voice that make up so much of the texture of these varied songs. Musically, Black Messiah recalls ‘80s funk as well as classic ‘70s work by Marvin Gaye—especially the more politically charged songs like “1000 Deaths” and “The Charade”—and Al Green. It is a bona fide masterpiece.

Decemberists 2The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Despite the four year gap between the records—when The Decembrists went on hiatus—What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is clearly a follow-up to The King is Dead. As good as The King is Dead is, though, it seems to me that the songs on What a Terrible World… are better, richer, more sophisticated while losing none of their accessibility. Because the band’s songs have become more straightforward, abandoning some of the quirkiness of their earlier music, some listeners have lost interest. But The Decemberists are not watering down their music and selling out. Rather, they’re transforming by opening themselves up, which is always tricky business. As the singer tells us in the opening track “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” “We know, we know, we belong to you / …We had to change some, you know, to belong to you.” And they do it with aplomb.

Wilco, Star Wars
I hadn’t exactly given up on Wilco in recent years, but I haven’t been inspired to spend much time with their past three albums. I expected the same with Star Wars. However, the title and the incongruous cover—an odd painting of an angora cat on a black pillow in front of a vase with three tea roses on a slate gray background—should have been a clue that I was in store for something different. The opening track, “EKG,” a brief wilco-star-wars-album-cover-artinstrumental featuring angular, dissonant guitars and a shifting time signature lives up to the cover’s singular weirdness. Granted, most of the songs following “EKG” probably would have fit comfortably on The Whole Love or Wilco (The Album), but the new songs feel unfinished, exploratory, their edges a bit more jagged, catching the ear more urgently than some of the songs on those other albums. As a whole, Star Wars feels more open to whatever shows up than anything Wilco has done in a long time, if not ever. This is my favorite Wilco album since 2004’s A Ghost is Born.

Joe Jackson, Fast Forward
Fast Forward may be the best album the prolific Joe Jackson has released since the ‘80s. Originally intended to be four EPs of songs recorded in four different cities (New York, Amsterdam, Berlin, and New Orleans), Jackson decided instead to release it as an album featuring four tracks per city. Each section of the album features musicians from the city in which it was recorded, and usually one or two of the songs have some kind of relevance to the city like the lively cover of Television’s “See No Evil” in the New joe_jackson2York section or the references to Germany in the Berlin section. Still, the cities don’t make much of an impact on the sound of the songs except New Orleans, where the rhythms and horn arrangements are unmistakable. A few songs try too hard, most notably “Far Away,” which is ambitious in all the wrong ways, but Jackson tends to undercut his pretensions with his still snotty humor, as in “Keep on Dreaming,” which opens with this little insight: “God must think he’s God or something / Lording it over us / Seems to like to make us feel ridiculous.” It’s nice to hear Jackson in such fine form.

John Zorn, The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons
Is it prog rock, jazz, or metal? Who cares when you have such a group of talented musicians as Zorn has collected here to play his genre-confounding music. The music surges on time signatures that slip around in tectonic shifts, propelled by Kenny Grohowski’s manic drumming and ribotTrevor Dunn’s massive bass, while John Medeski’s organ simmers over the white heat of Matt Hollenberg’s and Marc Ribot’s guitars. It is the aural equivalent of the violent storm that Satanist Dr. Julian Karswell conjures in Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon, the movie from which Zorn has taken his album’s title. This is fun, energetic music meant to be listened to loud.

Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Who would have thought, after a ten year hiatus, Sleater-Kinney would ever return? More to the point, who would have guessed they would sound so good? A number of punk and post-punk bands have reformed in recent years and recorded new albums with varying degrees of success. Sleater-SLEATER_KINNEYKinney, however, has released an album that rivals their best. The fuzz bass on the opening track “Price Tag” is practically perfect, until Janet Weiss’ muscular drumming kicks the song askew, and Corin Tucker’s voice is better than ever, though I’ve joked that at times she sounds like Geddy Lee on testosterone. No Cities to Love is vibrant, sophisticated rock music from what has proven to be one of the best bands to have come out of the ‘90s.

Los Lobos, Gates of Gold
After a cursory listen, Gates of Gold sounded like just another Los Lobos record in the vein they have been tapping, with little variation, since 1999’s This Time. And while it may be that, repeated listenings have also revealed a rich album. Yes, the album is split between the contributions of Cesar Rosas and collaborators Dave Hidalgo/Louis Perez, and, yes, Rosas’ los loboscontributions are traditional forms—blues, cumbia, norteño—while Hidalgo/Perez draw more from modern rock traditions. But within that familiarity there is real soul and some surprises, modest though they might be, like the moody “When We Were Free” or the hypnotic, modal progression of the album-closer “Magdalena.” This is a solid album by a great band. In fact, it’s so good that I’m going to dust off Tin Can Trust and The Town and the City and give them a few more spins. I suspect there’s some gold there, too.

Björk, Vulnicura
Opening an album with the mournful tones of a cello signifies the proceedings are going to be “serious,” which is certainly true of Vulnicura, the album Björk wrote and recorded in the shadow of her breakup with artist Matthew Barney that is dominated by spare string arrangements accompanied by liquid, electronic beats. But Björk’s often breathy, Bjorkconfessional singing—along with her trademark articulation of English, “A jux, ta, po, si, tion in spay, ee, eece”—are so intimate and vulnerable it’s hard not to pay attention. What Björk has wrought is shot through with beauty, an intersection of pop and classical chamber music allowing Björk to showcase her idiosyncratic voice, much as Antony Hergarty does with his band Antony and the Johnsons, so it’s little surprise when he actually makes an appearance late in the album. Somber the album may be, but it is also compelling.

Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night
The premise of Shadows in the Night, almost sounds like a joke: Bob Dylan covering ten songs from the Great American Songbook that had all been recorded by Frank Sinatra. Let’s face it, Dylan is a keen interpreter of song and can be an expressive singer, but he’s not a technically good one, and the songs he records on Shadows in the Night benefit from a singer who can dylanactually negotiate their difficulties.   Maybe that’s what makes Shadows in the Night such a pleasant surprise. Dylan’s strengths as a singer suit him well, but, as with any master performer, he also exploits his weaknesses to clarify his interpretations. Truth be told, the record finds him in good voice too—for Dylan at least. He hasn’t sung this smoothly in years. The arrangements, prominently featuring a haunting steel guitar, are sensitive and minimal, stripping the songs down to their essentials. They evoke the wee small hours of the morning in a way that does these songs—and Sinatra—justice.

Some albums not from 2015 that I spent quality time with this year:
Tom Waits, Alice; Louis Armstrong, Hot Fives & Sevens—Vol. 3; Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti; The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers; Jason Isbell, Southeastern; Thelonious Monk, Underground; Sidney Bechet, [Don’t know the title]; Mel Tormé, Mel Tormé Sings Astaire; Mike Watt, The Secondman’s Middle Stand; Brooklyn Rider, Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass; Rempis/Johnston/Ochs, Spectral; Swans, To Be Kind; Television, Marquee Moon; Nick Lowe, Jesus of Cool

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That Old Time Religion: The Walking Dead and Belief

zombie mobThe zombie apocalypse. By now, we know the drill. Something happened. Something terrible. Because of it, the dead have come back to life—if that’s what you call rotten corpses shambling around in half-comatose states—and they want to eat us. Worse, if they decide they’ve had their fill, leaving us, say, partially eaten and gutless in a sun-baked parking lot, we’ll become one of them, dragging ourselves along the ground in the most abject fashion if that’s what it takes to find a snack, stat.

It is a premise that has been around at least as long as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. For the past six years, AMC has been airing one of the premise’s most successful incarnations, The Walking Dead, a TV series based on the Image comic book that, according to co-creator and writer Robert Kirkman in a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF, was born of Kirkman’s frustration that zombie movies are so self-contained. The heroes are besieged by zombies. A whole bunch of people die and a few survive, successful in having defended their house or fled the shopping mall or whatever it was they were attempting. But then what, Kirkman wondered. How do these people survive another day? How do they negotiate their day-to-day lives in the midst of the Zombie Apocalypse?

The Walking Dead is an attempt to answer those burning questions. As anyone who has seen the show can attest, it’s a mixed bag. At its best, it puts characters into morally ambiguous situations that reveal just how provisional morals can be, or it provides ample opportunities for scores of zombies to be killed in spectacularly gory ways, depending on your frame of mind. At its worst, characters can be less than compelling, the pacing of the show lurches, and the plotting occasionally veers toward the unnecessarily arbitrary. At times characters are killed so offhandedly that rather than suggest the threat imminent in such a world, one feels the writers throw darts at the characters’ names. If one hits, that character’s gone!

zombie ministerOverall, I enjoy the show, but, with all its moral hand-wringing, it is not as deep as it would have you believe. Nowhere is its shallowness more obvious than in its handling of religion. Religious characters have been few and far between, and those who have appeared understandably have had their faith shaken. Even the devout Christian patriarch Hershel Greene, the show’s spiritually richest character, practically throws away his Bible when he understands what he’s really up against.

And that’s all that ever happens to religious characters on the show. If someone believes in God, it will only be a matter of time before they either give up their faith entirely or temper it to some degree—usually to a pretty large degree. It reveals a tepid understanding of religious belief that is indicative of the tin ear our contemporary world has regarding religion. Where, in The Walking Dead, are the zealots, those who revel in the Apocalypse, seeing in it not their damnation but instead joy and salvation?

Believers, true believers, don’t give up as easily as the faithful on The Walking Dead. Rather than be decimated by evidence to the contrary, beliefs of all kinds, religious or not, can be strengthened by it. Having grandma turn into a zombie can easily be seen as evidence of God’s will. After all, how else would something like that happen, and why your grandmother? His ways are mysterious, and nobody told us it would be easy.  On the other hand, if you’re an atheist, it might be proof positive that there is no God at all. Grandma’s a zombie because of the zombie virus, not because of “God,” or, in a more generous, agnostic mode, perhaps, the atheist might argue that even if there were a God, if he’s going after grandma, then believing in him doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans anyway, so why bother? In the end, then, there will be those whose faith in God will be confirmed by the Zombie Apocalypse.

apocalypseAnd that’s to say nothing of those who would not only welcome the Apocalypse but would want to speed it along. This is where our culture really has problems understanding religious belief because it is in such denial of its own dark desires. We might recognize apocalyptic tendencies in others, particularly those we want to demonize, but rarely in ourselves. Those who are religious might say that such eschatological daydreams aren’t part of what they believe, while atheists will probably cluck their tongues while pointing out that such self-destructive nonsense is precisely why they don’t hold any religious beliefs. Following the kind of logic volubly articulated by Richard Dawkins and his ilk, religious belief is toxic.

But when one looks at it, stripping it of narration, explanation, or gnomic, visionary incantation, one sees that the desire for self-annihilation is simply the desire for the cessation of the seemingly endless vexation of life, a wiping away that is peace, stillness, no more horror of this thing, right here, emptying into … God? Eternity? Silence? Nothing? Whatever. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, regardless of your metaphysics, though in a manner that’s so human you want to hug the lot of us out of deep recognition and compassion, we only allow that others desire it, others whom we want to be done with for once and for all so we can finally have some peace and quiet!

Given the universality of this impulse and its protean aspect, hiding, always hiding, even when looking at us dead in the mirror, one can’t help but wonder to what ecstatic heights it might aspire if fueled by a Zombie Apocalypse. We’ll probably never know because, given the nature of the beast, The Walking Dead is bound to get it wrong and turn it into another dead thing that we can stab in the skull when it gets too close.

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