MORIARTY Goes To Visit John Sayles In The SUNSHINE STATE!
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Amelia Island. Plantation Island. The same, but different, one laid over the other like a transparency. It’s a strange sort of echo that carried me from one end of my recent viewing of John Sayles’s masterful new character drama SUNSHINE STATE, due in part to my time spent on the set of the film, and due in part to my time spent in Florida as a child.
I grew up there. Moved from New York when I was three, left when I was ten, then went back when I was fifteen and stayed until I moved here to LA after college. I’ve always been fascinated by films and television shows and novels set in Florida. It’s a very particular state, different than anywhere else I’ve ever lived (Texas, Tennessee, New York, California) or visited. There’s a character not only to the people of the state but to the state itself. It changes people when they move there. Something about the humidity and the near-rabid devotion to the commerce of tourism and the way nature exists only as something to be paved over or hung from a keychain or served in a restaurant. It just saps your energy and turns everything down to slow-motion. I’ve long considered Carl Hiaasen to be the single best writer about the state and the people who live there, but his work really hasn’t translated well to film so far. In the realm of cinema, John Sayles has just declared himself the absolute master in the dissection of what makes Florida tick.
When I visited him onset last year, it was a quick trip. I flew in late one night, spent the full next day on the set, then flew out early the following morning. It was a glimpse at best, but to get even that much access to Sayles while working was something I would have been a fool to pass up. For me, set visits aren’t about meeting celebrities or picking up names I can drop later. They’re about recharging my passion for working in the film industry. I try to learn something on each set I visit, and I always try to pick up tips about filmmaking from the people I admire, whose work I respect.
And when it comes to respect, that word is synonymous with the name “John Sayles” in my mind. As a kid, I adored BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and ALLIGATOR and BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET and THE HOWLING and PIRANHA, and as I got older, I fell in love with films like EIGHT MEN OUT and MATEWAN and LONE STAR and CITY OF HOPE and RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN and THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH and PASSION FISH and LIMBO. Film after film, he manages to either do great work as a writer-for-hire or craft demanding, intelligent adult cinema that pays off for viewers who are willing to take the plunge with him. I respect him because he seems to respect the viewer so much. Who else would actually craft a script called ALLIGATOR or PIRANHA to be sly, knowing genre love letters, successfully ripping off JAWS not once, but twice? Who else would end a film the way he did with LIMBO, giving the audience the hard work to do in the film, trusting them to make the connections and not spoon-feeding them some heavy-handed resolution?
I read the script GOLD COAST (as it was originally called) on my way to Florida last summer. Stepping off the airplane into the moist embrace of a Florida evening, there was no mistaking it for anywhere else. I rented a car and drove from Jacksonville to the tiny Amelia Island, where there was a hotel room waiting for me. In addition to the script by Sayles, I also read the fascinating book AMERICAN BEACH: HOW PROGRESS ROBBED A BLACK TOWN – AND NATION – OF HISTORY, WEALTH AND POWER by Russ Rymer. It’s a remarkably well-researched story about Amelia Island, which was known for having one of the best blacks-only beaches on the East Coast during the days of segregation. The community around the beach was also made up of black homeowners, including some of the wealthiest men in America at the time. Gradually, though, it because profitable for the rest of the island to be parcelled up and sold off, and developers began to push in on the beaches and the black community, trying to buy them out and close them down, and the resultant struggle is still going on now. Despite the fact that anyone can go to any beach in America now, there’s a sense of history that should be preserved on Amelia Island that is slipping away, one country club or golf course or condominium at a time. John Sayles used that inherently human drama as the cornerstone for his film, and the result is rich and textured.
Hell, just standing on American Beach with the film crew, the visual metaphor was blindingly obvious. The beach itself was a stretch of beautiful white sand looking out at the Atlantic. As you face the ocean, there are homes behind you that were owned by black residents all the way back in the 20s. But if you turn your head and look down the beach in either direction, there are new condo projects being built, looming high and casting long shadows over that beach, practically hungry, aching to consume it and erase any trace of it.
For MaVynee Betsch, the struggle to stave off that encroaching development is an every-day battle. She’s striking, a black woman of indeterminate and advanced years, with fingernails so long she has to carry them in a specially-made silk sleeve, her massive braids wrapped in a colorful scarf. Her father, A.L. Lewis, was the founder of The Afro-American Insurance Company, one of the first major black-owned businesses company in America, and was a millionaire back in the ‘20s. He was one of the principal partners (along with Eleanor Roosevelt) who purchased the land that became American Beach, with a vision of a place where blacks from all over the country could come with their families and find themselves welcomed. The company is long since closed, but MaVynee spends every day trying to educate both locals and visitors about the history of American Beach. She was a constant presence on the set of Sayles’s film, and I had a chance to meet her and talk to her during my day there. By the end of the day, Michael Barker (of Sony Pictures Classics) and I both bought t-shirts from her, the proceeds from which went into her American Beach Defense Fund. She’s one of those people who believe in the importance of keeping history alive so that we can understand it.
That’s a major theme in the film, too. There’s a moment where Marly Temple (Edie Falco) says to her ex-husband Steve (Richard Edson) “You can’t live in the past.” It’s part visual joke (you just have to see it in context) and part hard truth. There’s a sense of crushing inevitability to the film, and even as some characters like Francine Pickney (Mary Steenburgen) work tirelessly to create some sort of tradition and generate some sort of pride in the past, others, like the shady Lester (Miguel Ferrer), work tirelessly to purchase and pave over anything and everything they can.
When I first got to the beach location, I was greeted warmly by Maggie Renzi, John’s partner in life and also his producer. The film crew had set up camp at the corner of Lewis and Gregg Streets. Lewis Street, of course, was named for A.L. Lewis, and it’s at the end of that street that American Beach had been transformed for the day into Lincoln Beach. The scenes being shot were for a community barbecue in the film. Here’s how the script reads to set the scene:
EXT. LINCOLN BEACH - AFTERNOON
A BARBECUE in progress, a couple dozen Lincoln Beach RESIDENTS chatting and eating around a large portable grill -
We start on a complicated KNEE BRACE, lots of straps and buckles, then TILT UP to see Flash, playing host at the grill, shifting pork ribs around with tongs and entertaining a group of MEN. Reggie hangs around on the periphery. Some LOCAL BOYS throw a football around in the BG -
Flash Phillips is played by Tom Wright, a longtime Sayles veteran (BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, CITY OF HOPE, MATEWAN and PASSION FISH), and one of those faces you know even if you never knew his name. Reggie Perry is played by James McDaniel, best known to most people for playing Lt. Fancy on NYPD BLUE. He’s been in other films over the years, like ALICE and MALCOLM X, but there’s no forgetting him from his television gig. One of the things that Sayles does so well is give character actors a chance to do that thing that seems so increasingly rare in a world where blockbusters seem to be all that matters: play characters. Reggie’s a little bit in awe of Flash at this barbecue, due in large part to Flash’s time playing high-school and college football. He was nationally known, a great player until a knee injury ended his career before it really began. What makes Reggie uncomfortable, though, tempering that awe, is that Flash has some history with his wife, Desiree Perry, played here by Angela Bassett. Desiree left Lincoln Beach when she was very young and never looked back. The film deals, in part, with her troubled homecoming and the repercussions of finally dealing with her own personal history head-on.
They had already shot the principal part of the barbecue before I got there. What was left to shoot was a private conversation between Desiree and Flash. When I arrived, Bassett and Wright were already in rehearsal with Sayles, so there was no chance for introductions. Instead, Maggie sat me down behind the camera and gave me a pair of headphones. Despite being about 50 yards from where the actors stood huddled with the writer/director, I could hear them clearly. I was impressed by the way Sayles talked with them, giving them choices to make in the scene, leaving key decisions up to them, laying out just the most basic of blocking. He didn’t try to build the entire conversation in advance. Instead, he built a space in which the conversation could unfold in its own way, unforced.
EXT. LINCOLN BEACH – LATE AFTERNOON
Reggie is flipping burgers on the grill now, watching uneasily as Desiree and Flash walk and talk apart from the the others -
You married, Lee?
Two. Don’t see enough of them. Their mother moved down to Miami, married some Cuban guy. Listen, I’m really glad I found you again -
There’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while – something I need to talk to you about.
Here we are.
It’s - it’s about your mother’s property.
Desiree is stunned.
You don’t want to wait too long before – making plans.
For my mother -
What I worry about is that you’ll try to hold on to the house there till it’s too late -
All these new resorts and time-sharing outfits over in Delrona have sent their taxes through the roof.
What’s that got to do with us?
Lincoln Beach is the only unincorporated parcel left on the island. They see us up here sitting on a beautiful stretch of sand, driving over their causeway, using their town services, not pulling our weight -
They never wanted a thing to do with this -
Well they do now. Wouldn’t be the first little community to be dragged kicking and screaming into the bigger town next door.
The scene continues, and there’s a great moment of clarity for Desiree as it occurs to her that Flash doesn’t care about their shared past, and has no interest in dealing with the consequences of what happened between him and Desiree or even knowing why she went away. He’s after her mother’s house. She’s money to him, and that’s all. Watching Bassett perform the dawning realization was amazing. She’s such a precise actress, so in control, and she played it in the slightest, most evocative way. Wright was different in each take, trying different things, but Bassett gave the same measured reaction each time. The dynamic between them was strong, and Sayles would wonder over after a few takes and give them a few small suggestions or maybe just ask a question. After a full morning of watching them shoot the scene, lunch was called, and I got a chance to sit down with Sayles and talk as we ate.
A lot of times, filmmakers put on a sort of an act when they have visitors, and there’s a character they play for reporters, where they’re all about thoughtful answers and important statements. I was pleased to find that Sayles was as unassuming and direct as his films. He was willing to discuss all of his films, not just the “respectable” ones, mainly since he doesn’t look back on his work for Roger Corman or Joe Dante with any regret. He knows that those films hold up incredibly well for what they are. He also spoke about his long-standing reputation as a script doctor for big Hollywood films like APOLLO 13 and how the money he makes doing that allows him to pursue his other interests, his personal films. We talked about THE ALAMO, which he was just beginning at the time, and how he wasn’t writing the film he’d shoot if it were just him, but instead was working to bring Ron Howard’s particular approach to the screen. I asked him if there was ever a story he wanted to make, but just couldn’t raise the budget for.
Remember, SUNSHINE STATE is a $5 million film, all in. That’s the catering bill of something like THE ALAMO, which is going to cost $340 grazillion, according to Harry. Sayles manages to make these films that don’t play by the rules because on a budget like that, with recognizable actors, and with the name recognition that he brings to it as a writer/director, it’s very, very hard for them to lose money. On bigger budgets, control is traded for scale, and Sayles wouldn’t be able to work with the kind of autonomy he’s used to. He was quiet for a moment when I asked him the question, contemplating his answer and enjoying the lunch (which was damn good, as I remember). Finally, he told me about a film, the details of which he asked me to keep private, that is a giant historical action film, but with a focus that we’ve never seen before. It challenges the notion of “good history versus bad history” that was recently espoused to me by a creative executive from a major studio. The exec told me that “good history is anything with a white face in it, because we recognize that and can identify with it. Bad history is everybody else, because, really... who cares?” Well, storytellers like Sayles care, and his idea certainly didn’t sound like the typical PC white-man-enters-a-strange-culture crap that everyone else always makes. But it would be massively expensive by his standards, and even if $75 million or so is nothing to a Michael Bay or a James Cameron, it is something that Sayles would feel responsible for, and something he’s not sure he wants to have to justify.
Speaking of Cameron, one of the films we discussed over lunch is Lightstorm’s production of BROTHER TERMITE, a smart and disturbing SF novel by Patricia Anthony that Sayles did several drafts of. He talked about how important it was to think of budget while writing each scene of that film since the lead character is an alien that would have to be created entirely by special effects, and there’s a whole race of them on Earth that play a key role in the film. I told him some of what I’d heard about the development of the film, and he laughed. “You know more about it than I do,” he said, “and I wrote the thing.”
After lunch, I was joined on the beach by Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, the two guys who make Sony Pictures Classics such a consistently interesting distributor, and who had brought me to the set to begin with.
I’ve had a chance to spend time with Michael since then at this year’s Ebertfest in Champaign-Urbana, but this was my introduction to both men. Talking with them about all the work they’ve done over the years, it was perfectly obvious that these are guys who love movies. They approach distribution as a business, and they have turned down a number of good movies over the years because they didn’t see a market for them or know how to sell them, but when they buy something and get behind it or when they produce something, it’s because they passionately believe that it’s a good film, something that people will want to see and that they should see. They were just coming off the tremendous high of the CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON success when we met in Florida, but they weren’t arrogant about it or gloating. They struck me as pleased, more than anything, that people had gone to see the film and loved it so much. We watched Sayles film a number of inserts of the beach and the houses around it, and then finally called it a day, leaving them to work on their pick-ups so we could go watch some dailies from recent shooting days.
Now, a year later, I am struck by how great a job Sayles did at capturing the character of Amelia Island in his movie. He’s fleshed it out with a rich tapestry of characters and faces and used his location to make the film specific. Desiree’s mother Eunice is played by the incandescent Mary Alice, and Terell, the troubled boy Eunice has taken in, is played by Alexander Lewis, who does nice work in a quiet role. Dr. Lloyd is a community leader who stands in for MaVynee as a crusader to save Lincoln Beach. In addition to Desiree’s storyline, the film also follows Marly, Falco’s character, as she struggles to fend off the advances of developers even as she wrestles with the various relationships in her life. There’s Jack Meadows (a nicely low-key Timothy Hutton), an environmental planner working for the people trying to buy her family’s business. There’s Scotty Duval (Marc Blucas), her much-younger boyfriend, a golf pro who is getting ready to leave town on the PGA circuit. There’s her father Furman (Ralph Waite), who built the family business, a hotel and restaurant that Marly manages since he went blind, and there’s Delia (a wonderful Jane Alexander), her mother, who runs a local community theater and may have a much shrewder head for business than Marly ever suspected. There’s also the always-interesting Edson as her squirelly ex, always hustling, always trying to find a score for himself.
Even the background players are damn good actors here, with Mary Steenburgen and Gordon Clapp giving wonderful performances as Earl and Francine Pickney. She’s so busy with Buccaneer Days, the annual Chamber of Commerce event that Francine tries desperately to shape into a tradition, that she doesn’t notice the almost palpable depression that seems to enshroud her husband like a cloud. He tries to kill himself several times in the film, but he also works to secret some illicit funds away in case he has to flee. It’s like he can’t decide if he can really be the pirate he aches to be, like he’s ashamed of the treasure he’s stolen.
And Sayles makes the pirate motif very clear in the film. I agree with him. Florida is a state that was shaped primarily by pirates, both in the past and in the present day. Sure, there’s nobody with an eyepatch or a bird on the shoulder, but wrapping yourself in a business suit doesn’t change the nature of what you do or how you make your money. Florida is raped daily, and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts made up of Alan King and some other wonderful actors that provides the framework for the whole movie. Eliot Asinof, as Silent Sam, has the last line of the film, and it’s a doozy, as is habit now with Sayles. It floored me just as much as LONE STAR’s unforgettable “Forget the Alamo.”
Technically, the film is very simple. Patrick Cady, the cinematographer of GIRLFIGHT and JUMP TOMORROW, got his start as a camera intern on PASSION FISH, and now he’s done a hell of a job actually shooting a film for Sayles. He’s captured the hazy, languid heat of Florida to the point that you might actually break a sweat sitting in the theater. As always, Sayles has a spare, unobtrusive visual style punctuated by just the right poetic flourishes. This is the way I remember Florida from childhood, and that alone impresses me enormously.
The film opens today in New York and Los Angeles, and it will be platforming slowly around the country. Seek the film out. It won’t have 1/100th the advertising and marketing support of blockbusters like MINORITY REPORT or SCOOBY-DOO, but it’s a film that deserves to be seen and enjoyed by discerning filmgoers who want a real alternative.
My thanks to Maggie Renzi, John Sayles, and all the fine people at Falco Ink and Sony Pictures Classics who allowed me visit the set, and my compliments on the completed film.
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June 21, 2002, 6:20 a.m. CST
...as a fiction writer making novels in the film medium. And this is a good thing. Most everyone else seems to be doing comic books, sitcoms, padded-out TV dramas -- Sayles has really been the only consistent American novelist in recent movies (and of course he's published several actual ones as well, and many short stories). I've seen most everything he's done, though missed the last couple. I have a soft spot for 'Lianna' (made a decade or more before lesbian chic), 'Passion Fish' (textbook example of potential Lifetime, the Network for Women material transcended), 'Eight Men Out' and 'City of Hope,' but they're all fine work. Even when I'm not behind a Sayles film 100% (found 'Matewan' sort of dull, to be honest), he's still working his own side of the street. Where's the Sayles DVD box set(s)? Only a few of the recent ones on disc, almost nothing from his '80s period.
June 21, 2002, 8:14 a.m. CST
Limbo was uneven, but held my interest; The Secret of Roan Innish was a bit too outre - an example of reach exceeding the grasp; Lone Star came close to being a good movie, but became a mess of too many plot points crammed into a single film; Passion Fish did NOT rise above a Lifetime Movie Of The Week; 8 Men Out was an above-average movie but had some really bad acting. Overall, I'd give his movies a 6-7 on a scale of 10, and, to me, that's not enough quality to warrant a big DVD boxset of his movies. Maybe there's a REASON why many of his movies aren't out on DVD yet, eh?
June 21, 2002, 8:39 a.m. CST
... is that the distribution house called back almost all older Sayles films from sellers some months back to get ready for a big re-release on video and DVD. So, yay! I can get Brother From Another Planet on DVD soon! Yipee! Oh, and Sunshine State is a beautiful little slow-moving, drawn-out character story. Very much enjoyed it.
June 21, 2002, 11:15 a.m. CST
Since we're all chiming in on personal faves, mine is BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET. Admittedly, I have not seen the film in years but I still remember vividly the Fisher Stevens card trick story and the way "brother" enhanced the speed of the arcade game for the girl who found life too slow and dull. Man, I love that movie...heh...I think I may have just talked myself into renting it. Strange world.
June 21, 2002, 11:28 a.m. CST
by Cutter's Way
I can't understand why so many so-called film enthusiasts drool over every turd from the latest desperate, flashy television commercial director yet Sayles remains in the arthouse ghetto. Too many people (even his supporters) treat Sayles films as homework. Every review includes some variation of the word "lesson". I feel Sayles goes out of his way to create compelling, HUMOROUS(Sayles fans know of what I speak)narratives that include thoughtful cultural criticisms as a backdrop for characters without being didactic or boring. Sayles films always have some nice combo of guns, intrigue, sex, whip-smart one-liners, and salty language. It's not like he's some mind-numbing professor giving a lecture. Sayles treats his audience with respect and gives them credit for some smarts yet people somehow feel contemptuous towards his stuff. Get your head out of your ass and quit jerking off to Fight Club/Requiem for a Dream and watch a real movie like Sunshine State or City of Hope.
June 21, 2002, 11:58 a.m. CST
With JS, you never know ... Lone Star is one of the best movies I've ever seen. Having lived in South Texas for several years, I can say he captured the area perfectly. Passion Fish, had me counting the hairs on the back of the head of the guy in front of me in the theater. The one in Alaska, on the other hand: brilliant again. I'll be there to see this one. With Sayles, I feel like I'm experiencing the work of an artist, not a factory hand. Even though he occasionally falls short, it seems sometimes that he's the only one out there trying.
June 21, 2002, 11:58 a.m. CST
Well, somebody had to say it, even if it isn't precisely true.
June 21, 2002, 11:59 a.m. CST
No talkback is complete without this post.
June 21, 2002, 12:01 p.m. CST
Two more obligatory messages: All you guys are basement-dwelling losers! (But not me, of course!) and ... No, we're not! Get a life! There, now that those are all out of the way, let's talk about this Sayles movie.
June 21, 2002, 12:05 p.m. CST
by Arthur Bannister
Terrific work, Moriarty. I've really enjoyed your take on films for a while now, so it doesn't surprise me that you seem to like Sayles as much as I do. It sounds like you connected with his take on Florida the way I connected with the way he filmed Texas in Lone Star. Just awesomely dead on. I don't think there's a movie in existence that I like any better than that one. I was a little surprised that when you mentioned Sayles films that you connected with, Men with Guns didn't make the list. I know only about 10 people saw it, but it's one of those that really has stuck with me. That's definitely a DVD I'll buy the day it comes out.
June 21, 2002, 2:15 p.m. CST
The "Alaskan Movie" was called Limbo. Dumbass.
June 21, 2002, 3:15 p.m. CST
by otis von zipper
Been a fan of Sayles work ever since I saw Brother from Another Planet, but his script for The Howling also has a lot to do with it. His films don't always hit me right (Matewan), but I always get excited about his latest project, which I can't really say about Spielberg and some other big names. Another thing, I like the fact that this site promotes these smaller films. All our other major media will only pay attention to the crowd pleasers, so it's great to come here and read about something interesting.
June 21, 2002, 9:40 p.m. CST
by Billy Talent
Gosh, it's just a beautiful movie, one of the very best. I'd love to have a brand spanking pristine new dvd of that.
June 21, 2002, 10:06 p.m. CST
by Cash Bailey
I lose the will to live reading about the mouth-breathers who bitch about it. The true purpose of this ending (for the ignorant who actually boo-ed) is that at that point in the film who was in the airplane was irrelevent. The point was that they decided to stand together, regardless of what would happen next. That was the thematic climax of the picture and a brave, touching conclussion at that. And it also reminds me a bit of SOUTHERN COMFORT's ending, which doesn't hurt.
June 21, 2002, 10:49 p.m. CST
Yeah, whatever. Too many plot points for the feeble-minded to understand I guess. God forbid we'd get anything above cut shots every 2 seconds and stuff blowing up. I don't like every movie he makes but I always respect his efforts, especially considering the budgets he works with. John Sayles is an artist in a land of housepainters.
June 22, 2002, 12:55 p.m. CST
John Sayles is certainly among the most adventurous directors out there. I mean, the man wrote some classic genre scripts (particularly "The Howling"-one of the best werewolf movies ever) to doing his later, complex and entertaining movies. My personal favourites are "Lone Star", "Men with Guns" and "The Secret of Roan Inish". All of these movies are so consistently fascinating and unexpected. They linger in the mind long after the end titles have rolled. The cinema needs people like John Sayles and we need to allow them the chance to put their work in front of as many people as possible.
June 23, 2002, 3:15 p.m. CST
by otis von zipper
The San Fran Chronicle (go to sfgate.com to find the article) did a story on Sayles and his new film today. It's a short but nice piece about how Renzi and Sayles go about making films. @ exciting things are mentioned; 1. Lianna, Matewan, Brother and Secaucus have been restored for a retrospective to be making the rounds. 2. The big epic film Sayles wants to make (and they talk about a budget of $25 mill. still chump change in comparison) partly deals with the Battle of Quebec. By the way, I'd like a T-shirt from the American Beach defense fund. How can a west coast guy get his hands on one? Movie opens Friday, and now I'm very eager to see it.
June 23, 2002, 9:40 p.m. CST
by Tokyo Joe
I loved Lone Star. And I didn't grow up in Texas. Come to think of it I've never been to the USA and claim complete ignorance about all things Texan. But in a film as well made as Lone Star, that doesn't matter. While certainly offering additional insights, historical / geographical knowledge shouldn't be a pre-requisite to enjoying a good well-made film. But so many get labled by studios as "Too foreign" nowadays that they never get seen. The original point of movies was surely escapism, glimpses of distant lands / galaxies. I'd like to beleive that Americans are not as blissfully ignorant or uncaring of the outside world as Hollywood Studios seem to think they are. In the meantime I'm looking forward to Sunshine State, safe in the knowledge that John Sayles story will be good enough to keep me interested in characters from some other place which I know nothing about.
June 24, 2002, 2:34 p.m. CST
I was so impressed with Lonestar-I can't believe it was not nominated for best picture (or was it?)! WTF!? That movie was so well done; I did not feel for a second that I was watching "entertainment". It was an authentic masterpiece of cinema. I didn't grow up in Texas either but I did live in San Diego and am very familiar with TJ(not just the tourist spots) and the differences between Mexicans in Mexico and Mexican-Americans and the attitudes that separate them. John Sayles captured that brilliantly in Lonestar. He is a master story teller and seems to be culturally omniscient. I will definitely add my money to the pile of "Sunshine state".
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