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Experimental Cinema

David Bowie: The Image photo
David Bowie: The Image

Watch The Image, a 1969 horror short film starring a young David Bowie

At the time, this was rated X
Jun 13
// Hubert Vigilla
David Bowie had a memorable, otherworldly presence on screen. He was a believable strung out alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, a seductive strung out vampire in The Hunger, a dance-happy goblin king in Labyrinth, a proper B...

Nobuhiko Obayashi: The Strange, the Sweet, and the Childlike

Nov 20 // Hubert Vigilla
In Alec's Cult Club piece on Hausu, he hinged some of his observations on the childlike approach to the film. Originally intended as a remake of Jaws, Obayashi went entirely in his own direction, blending his background in experimental filmmaking with the imagery of soap operas, melodramas, youth pictures, and colorful horror films. (I'd still love to see a Jaws remake done in the style of Hausu.) Obayashi turned to his 10-year-old daughter for the film's story, and it feels like the sort of story a 10-year-old would tell. There's a haunted house that eats people, and a bunch of school girls are its prey. Spooky and surreal things happen. And then Noodle Bear. I mentioned last week that Hausu feels like the fever dream of an imaginative child who's really into Scooby-Doo and Mario Bava. The events unfold with the logic of the subconscious, as Obayashi fills the film with his young daughter's fears. It's an anarchic film, a story told without an expectation of adult rules since the film is mostly about young girls fending for themselves and using their own skills and ingenuity to do it. The finished movie is like the work of a child rooting through an upended box of art supplies and being asked to make a pretty picture. And what a pretty picture. What's striking about Hausu is how the movie seems stitched together by the childlike conjunction "and then"--they went to the house and then Mac's head flew around and then the piano ate a girl and then Kung Fu jumpkicked stuff and then the man turned into bananas and then there was a flood. It's a flow of strange ideas, and if a 10-year-old girl told it to you, the stream would only be interrupted for the occasional impish giggle and a brief fit of hyperventilation to catch a breath. I Are You, You Am Me (転校生, Tenkousei) is a much quieter and down-to-earth film adapted from a novel by Hisashi Yamanaka. Sure, almost any film is much quieter and down-to-earth than Hausu, but I get a sense that I Are You is less like a movie told by a 10-year-old and more like a movie made by an adult who's taking a thoughtful look back at what it was like to be 14. I Are You is something of an adolescent minor-masterpiece, a coming-of-age story built on one of the great comedy sub-genres of the 70s and 80s: the body-swap movie. Rather than swap roles of parent and child, I Are You switches the minds of a boy named Kazuo and a girl named Kazumi during the awkward early teen years. Seeing the two child leads "act male" (snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails) and "act female" (sugar and spice and everything nice) is pretty fascinating, particularly given how gender norms have become more fluid over time, but almost all ideas of maleness and femaleness are products of their time and culture, and so the gender norms in the film are no exception. (Tangent: Maybe there's an era-specific nature to the body-swap genre? Decades when the world started to become more interconnected and the earth a little flatter?) I Are You predominantly centers on Kazuo's mind in Kazumi's body, which might be a kind of stand-in for Obayashi himself as he tries to inhabit the world of adolescence again and what it's like to be a young girl. Young actress Satomi Kobayashi has solid body language playing a guy, sort of like Hausu's Kung Fu by way of Tom Sawyer. By contrast, Kazumi's mind in Kazuo's body is meek and out of sorts, with more than a hint of deep depression. Before the body swap happened, Kazumi was a happy transfer student who's new in town. Now she's been unmoored from her own body, and she may have to move away with Kazuo's family. That unanchored, life-in-flux state is part of growing up, but here its given more metaphorical heaviness. Much of I Are You is goofy, but it arrives at a beautiful, wistful tone by the final half hour. Many coming-of-age stories are defined by a lesson that equips a child for the adult world. In I Are You, it's all about the beauty of empathy. Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast (野ゆき山ゆき海べゆき, No Yuki Yama Yuki Umibe Yuki) is also a great film, and also its own animal, which speaks to Obayashi's diverse range as a filmmaker and the concerns he has as a storyteller. It's a period piece set right before World War II, focused predominantly on the lives of the children of a town as a counterpoint to the poisonous nationalism, militarism, and conformity of the adults. It's a type of coming-of-age film about empathy, and yet it's done in a style reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu, with balanced compositions and characters looking right into the camera as they recite their lines. In terms of weirdness, Bound for the Fields splits the difference between Hausu and I Are You, like a break in the child world of experience and the adult world. Obayashi continually finds surreal, fantastical moments to play with and locates that beating human heart in the scene. When a young woman meets with a lover at night to discuss running away--she's going to be sold to a brothel, he's been conscripted into the Japanese military--there's a pair of extras above them at a dock playing with sparklers. As we come in for the two-shot of the couple, the foreground becomes filled with sparks. It's a beautiful bit of romantic dazzle. By focusing on children in Bound for the Fields, Obayashi is able to critique the absurdities and horrors of war and also the underlying creepiness of playing war as a child. As the kids simulate a battle, they chuck rocks at one another. It's fun and games, but as their bodies lay flat to play dead, it can't help but evoke thoughts of the real and forthcoming horrors of WWII; the same goes when watching the kids tied up playing prisoner and tortured enemy combatant. As the factions of children join together to save a boy's sister-in-law from life in a brothel, they come up with a type of game that doubles as a rescue mission. It reminded me of the weird solution that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer have for getting Jim out of his jam. Mark Twain did that rescue as a farce because, as George Saunders mentioned in an essay, the ugly and logical reality of what would have happened to Jim had it not been a farce would be too dark to handle in a comic novel. Obayashi, on the other hand, takes the light and the dark of the situation, blending farce with painful social commentary. As a coming-of-age-story, Bound for the Fields deals with the way children confront the ugliness of the adult world, and also the realization that it's a world they'll eventually join.
Nobuhiko Obayashi photo
Youthful Anarchism vs. The Adult World
The largest retrospective of Nobuhiko Obayashi's work in the United States kicks off tonight at The Japan Society with a screening of House (Hausu). Hausu is Obayashi's best known work in the US, and probably the only one of ...

All Star Wars All at Once photo
All Star Wars All at Once

Watch all six Star Wars movies at the same time and be driven mad

All-out War this palimpsest is!
Jun 18
// Hubert Vigilla
"Have you watched all of the Star Wars movies?" "Yeah, of course, dude." "No, no, no. I mean, have you watched all of the Star Wars movies AT THE SAME TIME?!" Such is Star Wars Wars, created by senior Archer animator Marcus ...

Review: The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

Oct 31 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213180:39102[/embed] The Pervert's Guide to IdeologyDirector: Sophie FiennesRelease Date: November 1, 2013Rating: NR  [Editor's note: The above clip is from The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, not The Pervert's Guide to ideology.] The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is a sequel to Žižek's previous film with director Sophie Fiennes, 2006's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. They take similar forms: Žižek runs through his divergent thoughts over clips of movies, and even becomes integrated into them. In Cinema, for example, Žižek sits down in Morpheus's green-tinted room in The Matrix and drives a motorboat like Tippi Hedren while discussing The Birds. In Ideology, we open in the alleyway from John Carpenter's They Live. Žižek stands in front of a dumpster as if he's watching Roddy Piper and Keith David off camera. Later, Žižek is hanging out in a recreation of Travis Bickle's apartment in Taxi Driver (or as Žižek calls it, "The Taxi Driver"). He has a breather in the Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange. He's in a plane looking out the window at the opening shots of Triumph of the Will; on an airstrip where Joseph Stalin was descending from a plane in some Soviet propaganda film (a narrative one, not a documentary.) He's even in a lifeboat at night in the North Atlantic while talking about Titanic. "What am I doing in a lifeboat?" Žižek asks, as if to say "Why am I out here in the North Atlantic? Let me answer that for you," and "Why the hell am I doing something so ridiculous for this movie?" It's a hilarious question. He's obviously on a set, the sky behind him totally black with bright stars. It's like Žižek in a diorama of Titanic (the movie) commenting on the film which is a melodramatic fiction about a real event. Žižek's own lectures and writings are often filled with jokes, and here, he's telling them and inhabiting them. But jokes have that interesting quality where they reveal the wobbliness of language, the strangeness of everyday life, and the weirdness of our beliefs. Like everything else, jokes are a manifestation of ideology. George Saunders wrote that "humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to," and I think he was onto something. In Astra Taylor's 2005 documentary Žižek!, we got some insight into the way Žižek composes his thought. He jots ideas in flurries and frenzies until they're all down, and then he tries to find the bits that connect them together to form a book. In a way, Žižek's philosophy reminds me of something I once heard music journalist/cultural critic Greil Marcus say about the nature of criticism: it's about letting an idea take hold. There seems like there's some connection there between Žižek's impulses and Marcus's notion. Both have to do with identifying what hooks the mind about an object in culture. For Žižek, he's looking for a path from idea to idea, a back and forth between the object and the culture and vice versa. For Marcus, it's the idea sparked by a cultural object that creates a path toward the writing about that object and the culture that gave rise to it. The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is basically a work of ideological exploration through film criticism -- not the "you should see this, 4 stars" sort of criticism where the value of a work is assessed in a reductive up or down vote, but the "x-movie made me think y-thought" sort of criticism that goes beyond the film and into what it says about the world. (Interestingly, my first encounter with Žižek's work was a piece on Lost Highway he did for some film journal while I was still an undergrad.) Žižek is inside these films because the x-movie/y-thought criticism is about stepping into the film as a cultural artifact and finding real culture in it, and then stepping out of the film back into culture to find film stuff in the world. This may be the prevailing method of lots of contemporary book-length criticism. It's reflective, playful, and at times memoiristic. I'm thinking here of the 33 1/3 music criticism series and the Soft Skull Press movie criticism series Deep Focus (which hopefully isn't defunct). So going back to They Live, it's about what the glasses say about contemporary capitalism and consumerism, and how much it hurts to understand the nature of the veil. Or in The Sound of Music, we're eyeing the sexual tension and fundamental friction of the Catholic structure and what "Climb Every Mountain" is really getting at. In Titanic, what is Žižek doing in that boat? He's calling BS on the idea of Titanic as a romance. If Jack and Rose got to shore alive, they'd have incredible sex for three weeks. After that, Rose would get bored with being lower class and Jack would want to draw someone else, and that would be it. What's Titanic really about to Žižek? It's about a spoiled rich girl who, at a turning point in her life, sucks the vitality out of the lower classes (and James Cameron's idealization of the lower class, no less) in order to reaffirm her own ego. I think he's onto something. Žižek steps outside of film in order to get at a broader look at ideology. He drinks Starbucks and Coca-Cola and talks about slacktivism and Lacanian desire, respectively. There's a fascinating segment about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, particularly the "Ode to Joy" part, and how various cultures and governments relate to it and make it suit their ideological ends. And of course the riots in London, the Arab Spring, and Occupy get explored a bit in the film since those are current reactions to the prevailing ideology of the West. These real cultural moments help underline one of Žižek's most interesting questions in the film: why is it that so many people in the West can imagine an asteroid obliterating planet Earth but can't imagine changes to a capitalist economy? I don't have the intellectual footholds to engage in a critique of Žižek's thought process in this film, at least not right now. Whenever reading dense material, the analytical machinery in my skull only gets working on the second or third read. In the case of The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, it'll take another watch before I can really parse the arguments. The first time through, I just dazzled at the spectacle of ideas. The audacity of Žižek and the playfulness of Fiennes (and the other way around) are a kind of intellectual Rube Goldberg machine: a series of madcap chain reactions -- history as a process, ideology as inescapable, cause and effect and divergence. There's just something so enthralling about watching ideas take hold. You get a grip on it and continue the ascent, upwards, around and slanted, until you've reached the end. These ideas result in a kind of conclusion that solves nothing but remains invigorating. (Philosophy not as a solution to big problems but as a reassessment and reframing of big problems. Solutions not required.) Like the criticism that invigorates me, at the end I find myself on top of something new that allows me to look at all the cultural stuff around me in a different way. Žižek wants you to make like Maria and climb every mountain because the hills are alive with the sound of global capitalism. [embed]213180:39101:0[/embed]
Pervert's Guide Review photo
Slavoj Žižek climbs every mountain and fords every stream
Slavoj Žižek is one of the most popular public intellectuals in the world, though maybe in a "big in Japan" sort of way. (Most public intellectuals who aren't Noam Chomsky or a member of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism have ...

BFF Short Film Roundup 2 photo
BFF Short Film Roundup 2

BFF Short Film Roundup 2

Eight more shorts, one of which was all about butts
Jun 13
// Hubert Vigilla
I didn't get to see as many films at the Brooklyn Film Festival as I'd hoped to due to other obligations and personal matters, but I did get a chance to catch a few more shorts last weekend, two of which preceded the document...
BFF Short Film Roundup 1 photo
BFF Short Film Roundup 1

BFF Short Film Roundup 1

Five different shorts about loss and grief
Jun 04
// Hubert Vigilla
Over the weekend I caught five short films at the Brooklyn Film Festival. One called Good Grief played before the feature-length documentary Furever (review of that later in the week); the other four (Love Letter, The Phantom...

Review: Leviathan

Feb 28 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213047:39002:0[/embed] LeviathanDirectors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena ParavelRating: NRRelease Date: March 1, 2013 (limited) Leviathan is essentially a long day on a fishing boat. At night or early morning, we're on deck covered in spray watching as nets get pulled out from the deep. The camera wobbles on a helmet, obscuring each image into shadows and Crayola blurs with occasional glimpses at the deck. The dialogue is mixed down into a murmur no more articulate than the machinery on the ship. The fish are brought up and slaughtered, their heads kicked around. Rays are sliced up into thirds while their mouths pucker helplessly in death. Scallops are scooped off the deck and then scraped out from their shells. And the great hulking beast of a ship rides on, dumping its waste back into the ocean in a stream of bloody water and flesh. Hungry gulls flap about alongside the ship, and the camera, pitched in different directions and never righted, gives the audience a bizarre sense of vertigo. It's like that, but not as interesting as it sounds, or at least not as interesting given its length. There are admirable qualities about Leviathan. The imagery can be striking, and I was especially moved by one moment in the film where the camera zips through the water behind the ship's belched out waste. Starfish and other bits of detritus shoot by the camera as if we're doing some sort of bizarre interstellar travel. The sound is also pretty interesting at times. I could swear there was an intentional sonic correspondence between the skid of scallop shells on deck to the removal of the scallops in their shell to the abrasive, tinny sound of the camera coming in and out of the water. But even admirable things overstay their welcome, and what begins as an ecstasy of sound and fury becomes an agonizing slog. How long do we linger on a fish head? How long do we dart through the ocean? Why are we shown a fisherman showering? It's all so arbitrary even if the aim is a slice of life. In one scene later in the film, we watch the ship's captain watching television while he slowly fights falling asleep. I think this was the moment that broke the last of my goodwill for Leviathan. I mentioned in my review for Tabu how the depiction of boredom in a book or a movie winds up being more boring than the boredom of real life. Here, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel captured real-life drowsiness and linger on it. For what seems like eight minutes. Signifying what? Just the nature of drowsiness. Drowsy = drowsy, boring = boring. This isn't a moment when we see the ugliness at the end of every dinner fork. This sort of thing is just the evil of banality. The only thing more evil (or more banal) would be to ascribe any sort of existential or intellectual significance to a man just barely awake while his sandwich fixings rest on the table before him. During the New York Film Festival press conference for Leviathan, Castaing-Taylor said that they ideally wanted to make films that say nothing. It was in response to a question about what Leviathan has to say about the nature of the fishing industry. They didn't want to make a film that was reducible to a point that can be easily articulated in language. So really, saying you want to make films that say nothing is disingenuous, especially since he was able to articulate a larger point and hint at others. While crafting his response, Castaing-Taylor made an oblique (and I think intentional) reference to philosopher Martin Heidegger -- the phrase "being in the world" was used -- which hints at some kind of phenomenological aspect to the movie. Perhaps it was an attempt to express the nature of Being without commentary and only through image, immersion, and a film object that is unlike other film objects. (Heidegger wrote several books about the nature of Being and never quite completed his grand philosophical project.) But doing is a kind of saying, and even if you don't want to reduce a film to a simple sociopolitical or aesthetic statement, it seems odd and disingenuous to hide behind the aegis of non-statement. To open a movie with an excerpt from the Book of Job is to say something. To make a movie in which the camera floats free and is never reoriented is to say something. To manipulate sound and color is to say something. Any attempt to divest statements of meaning from a film is still a form of statement, and still an articulation of intent. This might all be a reflection of what I perceive as the film's arbitrariness: it wants to express something intellectual but doesn't want to express something intellectual at the same time; and it wants to be aesthetic and anti-aesthetic at the same time; and it wants to be a cinematic experience while also anti-cinematic. There was a steady stream of walkouts during the screening I was at. There were also walkouts at the public screening for the film. It's unavoidable. The movie is often so interminably boring that it can incapacitate even the sturdiest of cineastes. Part of this may be, at least for me, the difference between admiration for an idea or an intent and admiration for the expression of an idea or intent. There is something rich in Leviathan that's drowned out by its presentation. Like the camera coming up from the water and down again, it's as if the significant portions I glommed onto were just repeatedly dunked and throttled. That's where the idea of venue comes in. Had I seen Leviathan at an art gallery, I probably wouldn't have minded it as much. If it were projected in a darkened room, I'd dip in and admire what I'd seen and then step out to see other pieces on the floor. I wouldn't stay for the whole thing; only long enough to be be fascinated, to have my curiosity sated, and that's it. Maybe in a gallery they'd have the sense to make Leviathan a half-hour short instead of a full-length film. Chop away the excess like the movie was a pathetic stingray, leave a latent fingerprint on the clay of this sculpture. It would turn Leviathan from an unwieldy bulk of a thing into something probably more meaningful and profound. (Maybe that says something about my own taste, like how I can sit through and love Brakhage's short films but can't do a lot of his long ones.) But I wasn't in an art gallery and this wasn't hacked down to its most essential, edible bits. To watch Leviathan in a theater for that long made me feel trapped, lost at sea, frustrated, bored, and agitated. I think of it as an alienating intellectual and aesthetic experience; I think of it as avant-garde water torture. Alec Kubas-Meyer: I hate Leviathan. I really, really hate it. In the past year, I have seen three films at festivals that have completely ruined my mood and my day with their complete and utter failure: Policeman, which showed at last year's New York Film Festival and has put me off of Israeli cinema for at least another few years; Cut, which I felt had absolutely no respect for me as a viewer and legitimately wasted two hours of my life; and Leviathan, which fits snugly in between those two on my list of worst films ever. I wish I had known that Leviathan was an experimental pseudo-documentary about fishing. Not because it would have made me like it any more, but because I would have realized that there was basically no way I could have enjoyed it. It took me about 10 minutes to realize that the film didn't have a narrative, and it took me even longer to realize it was supposed to be documenting an experience. I have talked to people who claim to have enjoyed the film, but I simply cannot fathom their logic. Leviathan is an 87-minute endurance test. Each shot is interesting for 15 seconds and then goes on for another five minutes. Nothing more happens, nothing changes, and the crashing of the waves and the rattling of the wind makes the audio unbearable to sit through. Maybe at one-quarter of the length (or less), Leviathan would be something worth considering. As it is, though, I would sooner recommend playing in traffic. It's an awful, awful film, and nobody should ever see it. Ever. 19 - Atrocious
Leviathan Review photo
Full of sound and fury signifying nothing
Watching Leviathan made me think about how important the venue is for certain movies. The same goes for the difference between idea/intent and the actual work. This experimental documentary presents the stuff that happens on ...


Flix for Short: Tango

An Oscar-winning 1981 animated short by Zbigniew Rybczynski
Dec 07
// Hubert Vigilla
(NOTE: The above video contains some material that's not safe for work.) Amid Amidi had an interesting bit of commentary at Cartoon Brew yesterday. It concerned the way that animation compresses and distorts our perception o...
The Japanese filmmaker behind Hausu is in New York for retrospective screenings
Japanese filmmaker Obayashi Nobuhiko is in New York this week, making a rare appearance overseas. Obayashi is the man behind the incredible 1977 film House (Hausu), which Alec wrote about for The Cult Club a couple months ago...


Flix for Short: Brave New Old

Nov 14
// Hubert Vigilla
Brave New Old by Adam Wells is a compelling and fun work of experimental animation. The story is told without dialogue and through the rotation of a stage/frame. It's as if we're looking into multiple CG dioramas on a Lazy S...

Help Adan Jodorowsky/Asia Argento make a short film

Aug 27
// Hubert Vigilla
Adan Jodorowsky and Asia Argento are probably best known for acting in movies made by their fathers: midnight movie icon Alejandro Jodorowsky and giallo/Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. (Dario's brother Claudio was a pro...

Flix for Short: "Roland I Feel You" by Get Well Soon

Aug 24
// Hubert Vigilla
Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of my favorite filmmakers, and someone whose fingerprints are all over my imagination. On a few occasions I've expressed admiration for his influential handful of cult films (e.g., the Cult Club p...

Review: Beyond the Black Rainbow

May 17 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]210221:38256[/embed] Beyond the Black RainbowDirector: Panos CosmatosRelease Date: May 18, 2012Rating: R There's a certain amount of virtuosity in Beyond the Black Rainbow. It looks great and has this air of artistic cool about it. It has a strong retro vibe, taking place in the not-too-distant future of 1983, the sort of world found only on VHS box art. It's so steeped in pastiche that it's essentially built out of other films. (There's that chic middlebrow blend of high art and low culture, because modern intellectual cool is all about how well you can pass with a bit of knowledge in both; it's also about how many not-too-veiled references you can make for others to find.) The film is all close-ups and pregnant pauses, and in those spaces it's possible to read extra significance. Absence makes the senses grow stronger, or at least that's part of the theory. The film isn't too explicit with its story -- a heavily medicated girl/test subject is held captive by a deranged psychiatrist, mad science ensues -- so the viewer participates in trying to reconstruct the story from what's given. It's a bit like building a skeleton out of a few ribs, fingers, and teeth. I don't really have a problem with that since veiled plots or plotlessness doesn't bother me so long as there are other elements to latch onto. The same goes for non-characters and characterless movies or stories. Sometimes plot and character aren't necessary, especially if a work is primarily concerned with evoking thoughts or feelings rather than doing a straight narrative. I found myself latching onto Panos Cosmatos's visual virtuosity, with those vibrant colors pouring out of the film grain, or that psychedelic flashback in starkly overexposed black and white. I also wound up playing "name that movie" or "name that filmmaker" whenever a moment reminded me something I'd seen before -- everything in the film seems a little too reminiscent of something else. There's one full-color set piece that's especially impressive. It's an undeniably cool explosion of sound and vision, like the finale of 2001 scored by Goblin. But moments like that are few, and they're bookended by the long stretches of non-activity devoid of a sense of impending or importance. It's all voids and sudden interruptions of virtuosity, and virtuosity is rarely enough on its own. Virtuosity is only about the surface -- sounding good, looking good, feeling good, but not necessarily good. I think it was the late experimental writer Raymond Federman who said that in great works of literature, you could feel that it actually hurt the author to write it. That holds true for creative works of all mediums whether they're experimental or conventional since there's lots of personal investment (both emotional and intellectual) in works that matter to someone. That's the difference between works of virtuosity and works of genius. You can hear the difference in fast guitar solos that lack soul or see it in technically proficient paintings without heart or sense it in well-written books without passion. So it sort of surprised me that some people at my screening proclaimed Beyond the Black Rainbow genius. Maybe I missed something (and I eagerly await accusations of philistinism), or maybe we're eager for genius and in its absence virtuosity will suffice. Maybe when presented with relatively blank canvases, some see significance while others see a lack of significance. In particular, I couldn't differentiate purpose from posturing. So many formal choices seem like they were made only to appear cool. Why does the film take place in 1983, for example? Is it because retro futures are timeless futures and the dreamlike ideas of the film needed to be explored in a state of timelessness, or is it because retro futures look cool, full stop? Why is 95% of the movie shot in close-ups? Is it because close-ups make us focus more on composition and activity (or stillness) within a frame, or is it just a mannered choice on Cosmatos's part? And why the slowness and the pregnant pauses when few of them amount to much and convey very little, or is the film plagued by recurrent meaning loss? In one scene, the mad psychiatrist (played by Michael Rogers) lets his phone ring for a while without answering. All I could think was "Why isn't he answering the phone?" and "Answer the phone already." What's funny was that I liked the scenes that reminded of other films and filmmakers, but I liked those scenes more because they reminded me of movies I liked rather than because I liked the scene I was watching. That surreal black and white flashback I mentioned earlier reminded me a little of the E. Elias Merhige movie Begotten. Whether or not this was an intentional visual cue, it made me appreciate the weight and weirdness behind every shot and every moment of Begotten. It's a film without dialogue about a woman and a manchild worshiped and then tortured by hooded figures. (It's been described as a metaphysical splatter movie.) All of it has this sense of symbolic significance and personal force, that every choice has meaning and substance behind it; it operates on the level of the collective unconscious rather than through self-conscious cultural references with film geek cachet. That sense of substance is palpable in the movies that Beyond the Black Rainbow references but not in Beyond the Black Rainbow itself. I've seen a few people make comparisons between Beyond the Black Rainbow and the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and those comparisons seem misguided to me because there is so much heft to every odd moment in a Jodorowsky movie. It's alchemical, in a way, with the raw material of weirdness transformed into this meaningful image. There's a strange something lingering in every symbol, and whether I can discern a meaning from it or not, a Jodorowsky movie is always unlike anything I've seen before. Sure, there's the flavor of Fellini and Buñuel, but it's filtered into something that's fresh and distinctly Jodorowsky. That's another thing about Beyond the Black Rainbow: its images don't ring of newness and rarely spring to life because they're so affected and referential. I want more out things than vapid stylishness and rampant pastiche. One of the reasons I like the art I like is that it exposes me to something I've never seen, heard, or thought about before. If all I'm watching is style-over-substance and reference-over-novelty, it usually falls flat because it doesn't add something that's entirely itself. That said, even certain remixes and mash-ups and spoofs and pastiches work, but only when they bring about something new by combining the familiar -- a collection of disparate ideas accelerated, collided, and then, boom, a new universe is born. And maybe that, in the end, is why Beyond the Black Rainbow felt so inert. It wasn't just the slowness or the silence or the posturing or lack of weight, but just a sense of being weird in a way that seemed too familiar (as odd as that sounds), a weird that was okay because other people had sort of done it before. The idea of a black rainbow got me thinking of the "Whiteness of the Whale" chapter in Moby-Dick. There, Ishmael ponders what it is about the whiteness of things that makes them seem so much more regal and holy in some circumstances and, conversely, so much more appalling and terrifying in others. There are great lines toward the end of the chapter that state that while whiteness seems like the visible absence of color, it's really the concrete combination of all colors. Maybe it's the concentration of all colors that allows such frightening immensities to be conveyed in the whiteness of the whale. So what is it about the blackness of the Rainbow that makes it genius to some and merely virtuosic to others (and just plain awful to others still)? I don't know if it's all just taste since that would be an unsatisfying answer. All I know is that black is the absence of all color, and that once you crack its colorful surface, Beyond the Black Rainbow is very dark and hollow inside.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is a divisive film. A friend of mine who caught the movie a while back said he couldn't make it past the 20-minute mark and just gave up. At the screening I caught not too long ago, there were a handf...

Review: The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye

Mar 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]207381:37906[/embed] The Ballad of Genesis and Lady JayeDirector: Marie LosierRating: NRRelease Date: March 8th, 2012 (NYC); March 9, 2012 (limited) While some documentaries would linger on the strangeness of the pandrogyne project, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye treats it as just another expression of love. It's philosophical and sincere rather than a human oddity, and though it's taken to a literal level, real romances do involve people taking on traits of the people they love. In David Cronenberg's audio commentary for The Fly, he mentions how Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum were a couple at the time and Geena would often mimic Jeff. There's that line in Matthew Sweet's "I've Been Waiting" that expresses an eagerness to become alike in the exclamation "You can wear my clothes" before tumbling into the fawning pre-chorus: "I didn't think I'd find you / Perfect in so many ways." (The song was written for his wife when they were dating.) This expression of the wholeness in a relationship recalls that bit in Plato's The Symposium where Aristophanes talks about the conjoined lovers. That was the take-off point for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is itself a glammed rumination of gender and music and personal connection. My entry point into The Symposium was actually a Clive Barker poem I saw back in a 1999 interview. (One of the hobbyhorses in Barker's work is flesh and transformation, so how fitting.) It was called "Brother Plato" and went: Brother Plato -- right or wrong?Says the tribe where I belong,Is a family of souls in two,Me a half, another -- youLet's stay together, one, tonightAnd prove our brother Plato right. I don't think the poem was ever published, but it stuck with me because of its simple encapsulation of the idea of union, and even ends with a dare: baby, let's get together and make this theory a reality. This is all just a way of saying that we do take on traits of people we're deeply in love with. The pandrogyne was just Genesis's and Jaye's way of doing it. Lady Jaye died in 2007. At that time, Losier had been following Genesis and Jaye for a few years and had formed a close friendship with the couple and their circle of friends. This level of intimacy informs part of her approach to telling the story their love. Watching a lot of the footage in the film reminds me of watching someone else's home movies. There's a spontaneity to the actions of the people on screen that can only be triggered by the proximity and awareness of a running camera. And so there are times when Genesis, Jaye, the members of Psychic TV, and other friends will vamp and mug and dance. We're there with them, watching, in backyards and living rooms and in parks. Rather than using interviews with various talking heads, Losier instead uses some narration by Genesis and archival footage to help bridge gaps in the film. She also stages little scenes or, to use a Burroughs word, routines. Some are restagings of actual events. The recreation of Genesis and Jaye's first meeting is particularly moving, as is one of Genesis's childhood memories of teasing. Other routines are works of sheer artifice: Genesis and Jaye dressed up as fascists, with Genesis delivering a screed against the fascism of gender and lifestyle conformity. The film even opens with such a routine: Genesis dressed as a whistling, tweeting bird. This bouncing back and forth between home movie-style and staged vignettes creates a kind of hybrid documentary. There is still the emotional truth there and the factual stuff, but it's filtered through a friend with a sense of metaphor and strangeness. The collage approach to the story of a cut-up romance makes sense to a large degree: it's that attempt to marry form and content, or maybe in this case, an attempt to fragment form and content and arrange it into a different sort of film essay. The documentary is short at just 72 minutes, and I felt that while there's a power and a beauty to what's presented, there could have been more there. More of Jaye, certainly, who seems to haunt the movie as a ghost or a beautiful memory rather than receive the same level of exploration as Genesis. There could have been more of the routines and the home movie footage as well, and maybe something more -- something I can't name or articulate -- to bring me closer into this world of cut-ups, art, and love. So while The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye made me think of the palpable joys of relationships and home movies, it also made me think about the limitations of home movies and the insularity of such deep intimacy. When you watch another person's home movies or look through another person's family photos, you're struck by the image and what it can communicate to you as an image. And yet, there is something missing in the home movie and the family photo for the outside observer: the full weight of the memories behind the image. The person viewing can get a sense of joy or sadness, but not the same fullness that the people in the image experienced. We can fill in the gaps with our own memories, but I sort of feel that's an imperfect encounter, particularly when it comes to the potency of another person's life and the individuality of that person's love. A certain amount of hand holding and guiding could be there. It's not lacking in The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, but maybe just a bit more holding hands and a few more recollections could have helped me dwell more with these lives. Related to that, home movies and family photos communicate only what is there. What's not there is usually known only to those intimately involved in the image. In other words, what's present in the image is communicated to everyone, but what's not present in the image (the thing that gives the full heft and importance of the image) is known only to a few. It wasn't until I spoke with Genesis and Marie that I realized how much loss was wrapped up in the film -- not just Jaye but the dog and the place they lived in were gone as well. Being close to people you care about -- whether friends or lovers -- results in a sort of private language. Words and images take on new meanings and a certain shorthand for shared memories is developed. I think it was Joseph Campbell who said in one interview that great love brings with it that possibility of the greatest sort of pain. Maybe it's too painful to revisit this sort of loss overtly, and so the shorthand (in this case the presence of the image and the absence it conveys) suffices. And yet it seems like the immensity of that pain could have been explored more in some way, as much as we can sense the depth of the love. But even though I wanted more -- to know more, to see more, to have more revealed ("I want more life, father") -- that's just because Genesis and Jaye have led such fascinating lives. There's the art and avant garde aspect, there's the older New York City with edge aspect, there's the music scene aspect. More than that, there's the bigger implication of their love, which is familiar at its heart but they expressed it differently in the flesh: love can change us. I mentioned Burroughs's assessment of Genesis in the interview yesterday, but I left out the last half of the quotation. It seems right to mention it here: "I was interested in [Genesis] primarily as a character. A phenomena. I was already into the idea that the most important work is the way you live and you should live life as a work and try to make each aspect of it as interesting as you can." And so there it is: an interesting person inspired by fragmentation, in an effort to be wholly himself or herself, fragments, recreates, and tries to become whole with someone very close and very connected in a deep way. The tragedy is that the catalyst to become whole is gone. And yet the changes are still there, and I wonder how much of Jaye is in Genesis, who uses the plural pronoun "we" rather than "I" these days: we went to the store, we played a show in Australia, we learned a lot through cut-ups, we cried, we were in love. I think Plato was right, brother -- I think Plato was right.

One idea that underlies The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye comes courtesy of Beat icon William S. Burroughs and artist Brion Gysin: cut-ups. The cut-up technique involves literally cutting up existing texts and then rearrang...

The Ecstasy of Endurance: Bela Tarr's Satantango

Feb 06 // Hubert Vigilla
A little bit of background: Sátántangó is based on the novel of the same name by László Krasznahorkai, who's collaborated with Tarr (seen above) on four other films. (An English translation of Sátántangó is coming out next week from the good people at New Directions.) It's broken up into 12 non-linear parts that simulate the movement of a tango -- six moves forward, six back. Tarr filmed the movie over the course of three or four years. The screening was held at Lincoln Center at the Walter Reade Theater, and it was a pretty packed house. I was surprised, but maybe I shouldn't have been. Where else but New York would people flock to ascend a misanthropic film mountain like this? There would be two breaks spaced about two-and-a-half hours apart: a 15-minute break first, then a one-hour dinner break. Sitting in the very back the entire time, I only noticed a handful of walkouts. What's surprising is that I never once felt like leaving. I felt like no matter what happened, I had to get to the end, even if just to say that I made it through. Perhaps more surprising, I actually enjoyed Sátántangó, and more than just for its novelty and audacity. In fact, it's absurdly funny at times, though in a really angry way. I have never seen anything quite like Sátántangó, and no one will ever be crazy enough to attempt a movie like it. If you get nauseous at the phrase "European art movie" or at the mention of Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky, then abandon hope all ye who enter here. Yet if you're an art movie snob who's patient, Sátántangó has so much to offer, but you have to surrender to it. This idea of surrender is key. I remember Eric Clapton saying that when he saw Stevie Ray Vaughan play in London, he felt that it was too loud for the first 10 minutes or so. Just six rows away from the stage, it was almost unbearable for him. Yet he finally surrendered to the music and got used to it. That's essentially what happened in the first two shots of Sátántangó. The audience stirred nervously, doing our final shuffles, coughs, and crinkles of paper as the silent credits flashed. We open on a large and decrepit building, possibly a former factory or warehouse, from which cows slowly emerge. They moo over the sound of lonely winds and a distant toll of bells. The cows plod through the mud at a leisurely pace, the camera glacially panning with them. In the theater, a few nervous coughs, a slight yet quiet giggle that was mostly disbelief, and somewhere there was an exasperated exhale that emptied the lungs completely. And then the camera tracks with the cows, slowly, deliberately, past the village. In the foreground, we glide by houses that have seen better days, exposed brick and peeling paint, mud-caked everything; and then in the spaces between the buildings, we see the cows again just loafing around, a bull occasionally trying to mount one of the reluctant heifers with little success. At the end of this almost eight-minute shot, after touring the outskirts of this village and understanding its plight in basic terms, the tracking ends and we see the cows again. They loaf, they linger, and then they depart around another building in the background, possibly leaving the village itself. The cows are just like the villagers we're about to meet: hopelessly dumb animals. After a bit of narration (perhaps taken from Krasznahorkai's book), we have the second shot. It's simply from inside a kitchen with the window as a central point of interest. Bells toll inexplicably even though the closest church's bell tower collapsed years ago during the war, and its sound never carried far enough. For four minutes, we watch a man from behind look out the window with concern as the dawn gradually brightens the entire room. Most of us were silent as we watched the quality of light change. We were somehow mesmerized. It's at this point the surrender, at least for most of us, occurred. ("Mother told me, yes, she told me / That I'd watch films like you / She also told me, 'Stay away / You'll never know what you'll catch'...") There's something to be said about the way a long shot will captivate me. I'll marvel at its duration first. Part of me will wonder why the shot takes so long. I mentioned before that the average shot length in Sátántangó is roughly two-and-a-half minutes. By comparison, the average shot length of a modern Hollywood picture is about 4-6 seconds; it was roughly 8-11 seconds prior to 1960. As I got used to the slowness of the film and the way Tarr was framing his compositions, I noticed that there was usually something of interest going on in each shot. And if it wasn't interesting immediately, there would be something interesting if I was just patient enough. The long takes and slowness made me more attuned to what I was watching and more conscious of how it was being presented. I was reading images like a dense block of modernist text. The slowness also made moments of great activity seem more remarkable. There’s a particularly memorable two-minute shot that opens the second section of Sátántangó. It's just Irimiás and his partner in crime walking through the wind and heavy rain as debris swirls madly around them. It gives these characters a sense of destructive power, and it's coupled with those erosive forces of wind and rain that Tarr seems to like so much. (I joked to a friend that Sátántangó is not like watching paint dry, but more like watching paint age and peel.) The 15-minute break arrived sooner than I expected. My ass was a bit numb from sitting, and I stepped outside for a bit of fresh air. I texted some friends who were curious about the movie. The text: Assessment at first intermission: slow but constantly fascinating. Long shots make 2 hours seem faster -- weird how sense of time is affected by shot length. And it's true. You read that Tarr establishes a certain rhythm to his films, which is an accurate way of putting it, and this rhythm affected my overall perception of time. Yes, it still felt long, but I think since I was perversely fascinated, it didn't seem quite as long. It may also have to do with the concentration I'd invested into the first sections of the film, where deep involvement and attention will stave off boredom. Back in the theater as the break wound down, many of us stretched and stood, and we all engaged in some people watching. You have to wonder who else would do this in a theater, especially since Sátántangó is available on DVD. I'd watched movie marathons with friends in living rooms through the course of a day, but that's a much different atmosphere. We're not watching art movies; instead it's Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Dead Alive, Bad Boys 2, all the Rambo movies, the ALF Christmas special. There are conversations, food runs and beer runs, and we riff over goofy parts. The movie is more like a big bonfire that we gather around in order to form a brief and convivial community. The crowd varied in age and appearance. You had a couple artsy-looking college kids and graduate students in there, which makes sense given the number of young cinephiles who come to New York for school. There were a number of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings, and there were a lot of middle-aged people as well. A woman, maybe in her fifties, claimed to have traveled to a film fest somewhere (I think I heard Toronto) just to watch Sátántangó years before. I noticed an elderly couple who powered through the full showing. What we were doing may have seemed a bit bizarre, but no one seemed so odd to me... though maybe that just says something about the company I keep. My mind began to wander for a bit at the beginning of the fifth section, Coming Unstitched. Part of it may have been the mild hangover I was dealing with. I felt like I should have grabbed some water or some coffee in the lobby during that break, and I was nodding off and getting upset. I pinched myself to stay awake on a few occasions. I have no idea how much time passed, but eventually I became enthralled. It starts out deliberately still, but the inevitable madness is brewing in the quiet moments. The Coming Unstitched section opens with Estike and her older brother Sanyi planting money in the ground in hopes of making a money tree. As soon as she's away, we know Sanyi will take the money for himself. Estike returns home where her mother ignores her, and then the demented little girl proceeds to torture her cat. It's at that moment the movie grabbed me again, and made me feel uncomfortable in the extreme. Sure, Tarr says the cat was fine, but holy crap, it's a difficult scene to watch. All the while, Estike looks blankly into the middle distance without an ability to feel any compassion or reason. She wrestles the screeching animal like some deranged Elmira from Tiny Toon Adventures. Later she poisons it, and she watches the life leave it like steam off a cooling bowl of soup. It's the Coming Unstitched and The Spider's Work II (Devil's Nipples, Satan's Tango) sections that are probably my favorites. While there's nothing but a depressive peril as Estike terrifies her pet cat and descends deeper into insanity, the ensuing section is just a bizarre drunken revelry that is absurd and funny. The cast was apparently really drunk when filming. This segment should be unremarkable: just smashed idiots dancing to repetitive accordion music. Yet I couldn't stop laughing. In the midst of this Hungarian mosh pit in a pub, one of the characters wanders back and forth balancing a loaf of bread on his forehead. Don't ask me why I find this funny because I don't think I can even explain it. Maybe it was just a symptom of absolute surrender. But what's remarkable is the intersection of these two segments. They connect with each other as well as a previous scene involving the village's bumbling doctor. The interest just continued as these awful, bovine people stumbled around a pub, not so much dancing but just colliding and scowling. This bacchanalia ends with such delicacy and beauty. With everyone passed out, our focus becomes the spiders of the pub who have laid delicate threads on such indelicate beasts. While Tarr hates the world, he does find a few things worth admiring. Perhaps he's not the complete nihilist he makes himself out to be. And then it was the dinner break. Text to friends: Hour break update: this movie is f***ing incredible... Or maybe I'm just in awe of its audacity. Another text to a friend: Either it's f***ing phenomenal (if you're into snooty European art movies) or my sanity left me at hour 3. I spent my free hour grabbing snacks for the last segments of the film: gummy bears, a smoothie, some water, and a soda. It was good to stretch my legs and go for a walk. It wasn't too cold, and somehow I didn't feel like I had wasted my day. (Not that I had any plans, I guess.) I took in some fresh air out by the opera and the ballet and just tried to process some of what I'd been watching. Even now I'm parsing the moments and thinking about the film. It's impossible to entirely grasp something so immense. There was an article I remembered in The Atlantic from October last year. It discussed long works of art. The Flaming Lips had just released a six-hour song called "Found a Star on the Ground," and Mike Barthel wondered what the point of a six-hour song was. Barthel also noted the existence of art pieces like Andy Warhol's Empire as well as 10-hour YouTube videos of Nyan Cat and Epic Sax Guy. Barthel's first assertion about the song, which I agree with, was as follows: requiring more effort and more dedication to consume than a normal three-minute pop song, hyperlong works force us to focus on music in a way we usually don't. That separation of music from our everyday existence makes it a kind of sacred space -- not the thing that's going into your ears while you're riding the subway or driving to work, but a special experience you make time for. And, like any good religious experience, the ultimate effect of hyperlong art is to alter your experience of time. He later concludes by saying that hyperlong works also allow you to experience the work however you wish. I could have watched Sátántangó from the comfort of my apartment with breaks as needed, maybe a nap at the four-hour mark. I could even have played it at double time, like some friends and I did with The Next Karate Kid (which, incidentally, still felt longer than Sátántangó). "The point of a six-hour song, in other words, is freedom," Barthel writes. "Freedom for the creators to do what they want, to stretch out and try something new, sure. But it's freedom for us, too. Here is a gift, they say; do whatever you like with it." (At the end of October, The Flaming Lips released a 24-hour song called "7 Skies H3." I sort of wonder what the point of that was.) I walked back to the Walter Reade feeling refreshed and awake. As I entered the theater to secure my seat in the back, I flashed my stub to the ticket taker. "Oh, you don't need to show me that," he said. "You have that Sátántangó look about you." As Sátántangó continued, I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold up. Some friends who've run marathons have told me the last few miles are the most difficult part. Rather than running or jogging, they were reduced to a sort of pathetic shuffle as they crossed the finish line. Almost all of my friends who have run marathons have sworn never to do it again. Similarly, I don't think I'll ever watch Sátántangó again, or at least if I do, I won't do it in a single sitting. It seems better to exercise my freedom with a long work like Barthel mentioned. Though at the same time, I don't regret the experience. The penultimate and shortest section of the film, Just Trouble and Work, is a bitterly funny and angry assessment of each of the villagers. We get to hear Irimiás's true thoughts about this community by way of two government bureaucrats transcribing his report. While I was laughing the entire time (this could have been signs of a manic insanity that was gradually building over the course of the day), I began to wonder if that was how Tarr felt about his characters as well. No one is sympathetic (not that I require sympathetic characters in the things I watch), everyone is a wreck. Even Futaki, the closest thing we have to a hero in the film, is a cripple. Not only are the villagers of Sátántangó a bunch of dumb cows, they're also a bunch of crumbling, barely habitable buildings. They're no longer a community at the end. They are isolated and discarded people, like boxes, paper, and other detritus carried off by hostile wind, pulped into dead earth by a constant rain. You know, it's probably impossible to end a seven-hour movie satisfactorily. After the final section and the appearance of the end credits, I didn't know what I felt. Moved maybe? Or maybe not? Maybe frustrated but not surprised that it ended the way it did. Disappointed probably, but not completely. I didn't feel cheated, though I did feel thoroughly exhausted. I mentioned that it's impossible to entirely grasp something so immense, which is why Scott Tobias's idea about Sátántangó as the Mount Everest of modern cinema seems right. For many people, getting to the summit of Everest is an act of conquering, but I think that misses the importance of the ascent. Sure, there's some ego involved in climbing Mount Sátántangó, but I didn't conquer it. Instead, I felt like I'd reached the top and could view the world a little differently, with a new perspective on the land below. That's what I came away with, at least I'd like to think that. The audience dispersed and murmured on the way out of the theater. I wandered out into the lobby and down the street to the subway. A good friend who's run a marathon noted that after he finished, he had a heightened sense of taste and smell. After long runs, he likes to have a steak, a beer, and some savory soup because they're suddenly more flavorful. He mentioned that after one grueling run, a cutie clementine he ate became one of the best things he'd ever tasted. I suppose that handful of gummy bears I popped into my mouth after the movie tasted a little sweeter. Maybe not. Thing is, after Sátántangó I felt something I couldn't quite articulate and still can't. Maybe I just felt like a cow in the mud. EPILOGUE In the subway. "Hey, excuse me, did you just see Sátántangó?" I nodded. "Yeah," I said. "Jeez, that was something." "Yeah, man. I just feel like I need to talk to someone about it." I recognized him. He was a middle-aged guy sitting a couple rows ahead of me. We talked for maybe 20 minutes while switching trains -- almost two reels, the equivalent of four or five shots in a Béla Tarr movie. We were enthusiastic and confused. We talked about that poor cat. We were surprised that there were so many people. I was surprised that there were so few walkouts. "Well, it's New York," he replied. "So, you know." We wondered how many people would go see Sátántangó on Sunday during the Super Bowl, and what they'd be like. (In case you were wondering, the Super Bowl ended before Sátántangó would have ended.) We talked about other Tarr movies, we talked about Krzysztof Kieślowski and Andrei Tarkovsky. We talked about Werner Herzog and Crazy Horse at Film Forum (the documentary with the naked French women everywhere) and Elias Merhige's Begotten. We talked about living in Brooklyn and trying to do creative stuff for a living. We talked about what we had planned for the Super Bowl. I joked about needing to decompress by watching a Jackie Chan movie before I passed out. We both laughed. We shook hands when I got to my transfer and we wished each other good luck. I felt human again.

Béla Tarr's Sátántangó is a notorious endurance test for even the most seasoned cinephile. Scott Tobias at The AV Club called it "the Mount Everest of modern cinema," and for good reason. This 1994...


Trailer: 1000 Kings

Dec 14
// Hubert Vigilla
1000 Kings is the feature-length debut of Georgian filmmaker Bidzina Kanchaveli, and it looks crazy go nuts in the good way. The imagery reminds me of the cult movies I enjoyed discovering in high school back in the 90s. The...

Underground filmmaker George Kuchar dies at age 69

Sep 07
// Liz Rugg
The underground and experimental cinema community lost one of its great founding members. George Kuchar died last night at the age of 69. Most remembered for his lo-fi yet outrageous films, George, along with his twin brother...

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