Friday, 20 August 2010

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Thirty Three

Bedlam - Part Three

The feminised man - Skelton's dandy
Nell marches across the street and attempts to mount her horse without pause, causing it to shy and nervously skitter away. Her anger affects her judgement and the horse retreats from her with instinctive fear. As we’ve seen, the link between animals and people is strongly and repeatedly made during the film. The Quaker comes to help get a hold of the animal, approaching it with a calm and soothing manner. Standing by and proving of little help is Nell’s valet, played by Lewton regular Skelton Knaggs. He is another feminised man, dandily dressed and immaculately bewigged. His clothes seem to somehow define his shape and dictate his movements, engulfing his small frame. They really do make the man in this case, and this furthers the theme of the abiding attention given to the world of surface appearance. As Nell explains to the Quaker, ‘he can plant a tress or twirl a furbelow quicker than a handywoman, but he has no knack with horses’. If Nell is an adornment for Lord Mortimer to display in public, then Knaggs’ character, Varney, serves much the same purpose for Nell. He is the next one down in the descending chain of authority, and s such is a visible indicator of her status. The Quaker admonishes Nell for striking Sims, pointing out that it will be the powerless inmates who will suffer in her stead. He is aware of the Newtonian rule as acted out on a social level, whereby the force of violence begets a reaction (even if it is not equal and opposite) which is usually directed downwards in the power spectrum.

Flirting with religion
Nell diverts his stern train of thought by indulging in a bit of flirtation, refusing to respond directly to his criticism. She picks up on his archaic language and asks, in a bright tone, ‘are we lovers that you thee and thou me?’ Her valet explains in the kind of mock arisctocratic voice oft-adopted by Irene Handl. ‘He’s a Quaker, Mistress Bowen’. Skelton Knaggs is hilarious here, and his petite dandy is instantly engaging in this scene, and in the few others in which he appears. His air of dreamy self-absorption, which later shades into rueful self-awareness, provides the third in a series of connected characters which he played in Lewton films. There was the dying cockney, fever-dreaming of home comforts in Isle of the Dead; and Finn, the deaf-mute sailor with his ruminative inner voice offering mystical insight in The Ghost Ship. Each of them are caught up in themselves, existing in much the same isolated state that Nell had noted amongst the Bedlamites. All are outsiders in their own particular way. The Quaker now introduces himself to Nell, and by extension to the audience, as William Hannay. Nell reduces the sum of his beliefs to the formula ‘they turn the other cheek’. She says this with much the same disbelieving contempt with which Sims responded to Hannay’s rejection of his bribe. She shares Sims view of the world as a place in which one must be active in pursuing one’s own interests; a place of constant struggle for position and interest. She has no time for what she considers to be a philosophy of passivity and inaction.

Quaker lecture
Hannay provides his own take on Quakerism as being manifested in particular actions and the feelings which inspire them, and attempts to connect her to the core of his beliefs. ‘It is feeling pity for those in there as thee did’, he elucidates. Back out in the world beyond the asylum walls, Nell is defensively haughty and contemptuous of such a display of unguarded emotion, which she equates with weakness. Her reflexive compassion is swiftly withdrawn as she returns to the hard, sharp preoccupation with the surface world of appearances. ‘Do you think I struck him because I felt pity for the loonies?’ she asks with deliberate harshness. She attempts to expunge her violent expression of revulsion of any moral component by claiming that she hit Sims because ‘he is an ugly thing in a pretty world’, and she wishes to preserve the illusion of life as a gilded pageant. Her ‘pretty world’ is an enclosed and exclusive enclave which must be vigorously maintained and ruthlessly policed. Hannay makes the point that ‘there are many ugly things in this pretty world if thee would but see them’. It is a question of unveiling your perception from a willed and convenient blindness. Nell will have nothing of such implied criticism, which seems to assume that she has lived a cosseted and privileged existence. ‘Master Quaker, I did not always wear velvet’, she corrects him. She has risen from a lower social class through the use of her sharp wits. Her harshly individualistic social philosophy is that of the self-made man, or in this case woman. She simply doesn’t wish to confront the ugliness of the world, of which she is well aware, having now managed to attain her position in her gilded and luxuriously furnished cage. Hannay counters such a worldview with an argument grounded in an active religious morality which drives a philosophy of social radicalism. He posits a society which offers protection for its less self-reliant (or less ‘witty’) citizens. A Quaker, a member of a religious group associated with the early days of America, is saying that all men are NOT born equal, either in terms of wealth, social position or natural abilities, or even of that elusive quality of innate character. It is an argument against allowing the ‘natural’ law of survival of the fittest, of social Darwinism, to work itself out. An argument for the moral need of social intervention, in effect.

Equestrian statue
Nell takes up Sims’ tactic of dehumanising the Bedlamites by likening them to animals in order to deny them any such consideration. They are ‘animals without souls’, she says, in true parrot-fashion. Her comment carries religious connotations, placing them on a lower level of the great chain of being, and casts the catatonic woman’s iconically Marian appearance in an even more ironic light. With the pragmatism of hypocritically constituted religious dogma, the denial of a soul allows for a guilt free disassociation from exploitation and abuse which is clearly not in keeping with the fundamentally egalitarian tenets of Christianity. It’s a blatant use of religion to morally excuse a stance of indifferent individualism, a hollow philosophy which Nell adopts to suit her own needs. Hannay tries to re-acquaint her with her own authentic soul; with the self that displayed such fierce anger on behalf of the Bedlamites. ‘That is not thee thought’, he tells her. She invites him to come along to Vauxhall, where Sims’ ‘masque of madness’ will be performed, and where she will prove her indifference and ‘laugh at the loonies’. Again, the derogatory word, with its air of dismissive jollity, robs the inmates of their humanity and diminishes Nell at the same time. Hannay provides a corrective to her terminology, rehumanising them and attempting to do the same for Nell by insisting ‘thee will not laugh at the poor and afflicted’. He thus re-asserts his faith in her. He has cast her as an instant icon of compassion and is determined not to be disappointed in his initial estimation. But for now, she towers above him on her horse, declaring ‘my heart is like a flint, sir’, an adoption of cold-heartedness as a strategy for survival. She is posed like an equestrian statue, aloof and imperious, cast in unassailable stone.

Overture to the feasting
We fade in to the scene at Vauxhall Gardens, which are lit by lanterns and candlelight around a loaded banquet table. The pleasure gardens at Vauxhall had been opened by their owner Jonathan Tyers in 1732 and were an ordered arcadia of arches, bandstands, cascades and freshly fashioned ruins. They were a place to see and to be seen, and the fairly minimal entry charge of a shilling meant that there was a genuine mix of classes, although it excluded the wider mass of the poor. They took their more anarchic pleasures elsewhere, in less regulated open spaces such as Greenwich Park. The link with Hogarth is maintained in that the supper booths which were a feature of the gardens were adorned with works of art, Hogarth’s Four Times of the Day amongst them. Indeed, it may have been Hogarth who suggested the use of the booths as galleries to Tyers. Baroque chamber music completes the scene of studied good taste around the loaded table. The classical order and harmony of the elegant music will find its rough counterpoint in the artless singing which we hear at the end of the scene. The sumptuous feast of over-consumption is a frequently used metaphor for the extreme divisions between top and bottom within society; Marie Antoinnette filling her face with cake while the mob gathers outside. Joni Mitchell’s song Banquet is one such expression. Here, those divisions will be directly juxtaposed, as the Bedlamites, the symbolic representatives of the dejected and destitute, make their appearance as performing spectres at the feast.

Herald of the golden age of reason
The loaded table and the expensive glitter of the surrounding decoration represent the trappings of society to which Nell has pledged herself. Her assurances to Hannay that she will enjoy the banquet and its attendant entertainments to the full make this something of a test, albeit in his absence, of her true assimilation into such circles. It is a test which Sims will play his part in setting, anxious as he is to displace her from Lord Mortimer’s side, whilst at the same time enjoying the opportunity to make redress for her slights and blows. This scene is the moral fulcrum of the film, and the point at which the finely constructed balance of power begins to shift, having been given a well-placed nudge. Sims speaks the introductory preface to his play, referring to the gilded government of ‘our golden age of reason’. A boy with orb and sceptre, standing beneath a small proscenium arch and painted entirely in gold, is its rather obvious symbolic representative. Sims cues him by saying that he ‘will tell you of its brightest adornment, Lord Mortimer’, which occasions a deep bow of unashamed (or perhaps sarcastic) unctuousness. Nell, his Lordship’s brightest adornment, enthusiastically joins in the applause from her position by his side.

Prodding and prompting
The boy attempts to speak, prodded and prompted by Sims, but is filled with painful anxiety. Lord Mortimer leans over to Wilkes, and merrily comments that ‘a mad boy playing reason’ is a ‘Tory joke’, to which this renowned reformer ripostes ‘we Whigs have some concern for the humanities’. Whether this is meant to indicate a concern for his fellow man or an adverse critical appraisal of the artistic offering is left unclear. He certainly doesn’t seem in the least perturbed by the evident suffering of the young man on the stage. Lord Mortimer and John Wilkes belong to another sub-world, one in which their politics is set in a closed loop of verbal sparring, with no outward connection to the wider commonality, to whose fate they remain blandly indifferent. It also doesn’t seem to occur to Lord Mortimer that a ‘mad boy’ declaiming him to be the brightest adornment of the age may in fact be a bitter joke at his expense.

Standing apart from the crowd

The boy speaks his lines in fractured, stuttered bursts, which suggests the fragmentation of both thought and language, and points to a disconnection between the two. It as if the disparity between the world as he experiences it and the myth of classical glory which he is being forced to voice makes the words physically painful for him to articulate. Sims, meanwhile, seems unconcerned by the breakdown of his introductory chorus. The performance piece he has created is many layered and reveals his considerable cunning. Its inherent cruelty acts both as test and taunt. Sims has already witnessed (and been subject to) the flashes of uncontrolled anger which Nell displays, and which give the lie to her façade of indifference and moral affectlessness. The nature of his masque, its very form, will serve to create a division between her and Lord Mortimer and the fashionable demi-monde to which she has gained entry. At the same time it will hold an ironic mirror up to the genuine lack of concern of the fashionable aristocracy. The verse is akin in its effect to the satirical mock classicism of Alexander Pope in his bathetic epic The Rape of the Lock. But if Sims is unconcerned at the loss of his words, it’s because it is the form of the masque which carries its real meaning. A paean of praise delivered by madmen conveys his concealed disgust of Lord Mortimer and his ilk, a contempt masked by being couched as yet another gay amusement for their delectation and distraction. The words which the young man does manage to choke out take on the guise of mockery through their distressed and halting delivery, which gives them an air of uncertainty. They lack the appearance of sincerity granted by the authority which would have been conveyed by a more confident theatrical oration. ‘To this pretty world’, he stutters, a reiteration of Nell’s phrase, which is now reflected back at her in parodic form. ‘To this pretty world…there came…heaven sent…divinely inspired…the blessing of …our age’. The boy’s escalating discomfort makes it clear that this is not a blessing which is exercised on his behalf. Nell stands up, distancing herself from the grinning figure of Lord Mortimer, who is clearly basking in the assumed glory of every complimentary image.

Suffocating words
Sims pokes the boy with his stick, and prompts him with carefree gaiety, seemingly glad to intrude on his own work. He reminds him ‘I spent all morning beating it into your head’, making clear the boy’s status as an animal to be trained through the conditioned fear of pain. On an emblematically wider social scale, this is the attitude of the fashionable and political elite to the control of the populace, and they join in with encouragements to ‘prod him on Sims’, with much accompanying merriment. Wilkes speculates on the necessity of being able to breathe through the pores of the skin, but it is an abstract observation, and he watches with increased interest, as if awaiting the conclusion of an experiment which might bear his theory out. The boy evidently is suffocating, clasping his throat as if to squeeze out his breath, but Sims continues to prod him on. His lines now definitely bearing the Pope-like stamp of rising rhetorical exaggeration for satirical effect. ‘A man…set like a jewel…this prince of men’. We see a close up of the boy’s gasping, gilded face as he utters the words which reveal the identity of the recipient of his tawdry eulogy: ‘this paragon – Lord Mortimer’. There is then a close up of Nell’s concerned features, which creates a sympathetic link between her and the boy. This is the crucial moment of her test, the nodal point at which a moral choice is offered.

Commencing battle
The boy collapses, which causes general amusement, furthered by Sims’ suggestion that they duck him in the river. He is utterly beneath their concern, his suffering a comical sideshow. Nell literally stands up for him, rising once more from Lord Mortimer’s side to accuse Sims of deliberately endangering his patient. He replies with measured words, carefully approaching the anticipated confrontation, which he had perhaps set up right from the start. His taunt has worked, and drawn Nell apart from the evening’s entertainment in a conspicuous fashion. He adopts a coolly analytical manner the better to deflect the anger of his opponent and fan the furnace of her ire, which he knows will leave her judgement at the mercy of her passion. She is, for all her protestations, a romantic in a classic world of cool restraint and cautiously channelled emotion. ‘If I understand you properly’, Sims adduces with subtly directed condescension, as if her meaning was poorly articulated, ‘this boy is dying’. A nod from a footman causes him to make a revision to his tense with scarce a pause, and no alteration in tone, a chilling expression of reflexive indifference to a life deemed less than human. ‘This boy is dead’, he continues, ‘because his pores are clogged by the gilt’. Wilkes has the empirical proof for his scientific speculation. It is a highly symbolic death. He has been killed by the very gilding of the age which he has been painted to represent, his dying words hailing Lord Mortimer as its embodiment. It’s almost as if Sims has planned such a cruel and pointed irony. The maintenance of the glittering demi-monde which those gathered inhabit comes at the expense of such powerless victims. The death is quickly turned into a witticism, as Sims points out that the boy expired ‘of his own exhalations’, from the condition of his life. The enchanted court of wit and gaiety which casts its charm of wilful blindness on the all-pervasive degradation and chaos in which it is set is re-inforced by this communal act of mockery, a denial death and shared humanity. Nell looks around her at the general laughter with a look of hatred and disgust. She has taken sides.

Indulging the fancies of his pet
Nell directs her wrath towards Sims, making a conscious attempt to use her influence to deflate his sense of triumph at the voluble amusement which he has engineered. She declares that she has ‘had enough of that boring, dull man and his cruelty’. The dullness and boredom would be the unforgiveable qualities her, as she well knows, having voiced such sentiments herself on several occasions. Lord Mortimer answers with genuine lack of understanding. ‘But we’re all laughing’ he points out with catch-all QED logic which precludes further argument. Gaiety and amusement are seen as an end in themselves, the means through which they are achieved being of little consequence. Nell attempts to locate their laughter in a moral context, to force Lord Mortimer to recognise and take responsibility for the effects caused by his carefree passage through the world. The content of her speech begins to show definite signs of the influence of Hannay’s ideals, which she had so forcefully and dismissively brushed aside earlier. She makes a summary statement as if addressing a jury, attempting to dispel for a moment the shallow self-absorption of the gathered diners; ‘A boy died tonight – a boy who had no mind to guide his thoughts or deeds’. Indeed, he was the perfect puppet for Sims’ convoluted purposes. It’s a plea for recognition of his humanity, as well as being a startling self-revelation of compassion affirmed, realised through the act of its articulation. Perhaps realising the futility of attempting to penetrate Lord Mortimer’s class armour, she appends a political dimension to her appeal to his emotions. At the same time she invites Wilkes to prove his radical credentials, to justify his popularity amongst the commonality. ‘Perhaps there’ll be some concern about that amongst the Whigs’, she stirs. Only on such an abstracted level, that of Westminster village party bickering and vote bargaining can interest be generated. Lord Mortimer smiles indulgently, the wine glass in his hand indicating where his passions truly lie. He is determined not to let his evening be ruined, and to continue to enjoy reports of his own magnificence. Nell’s words are as easily cast aside as were those of the Quaker Hannay by her own assumption of superiority. They ultimately carry no more weight than the phrases squawked out by her parrot, and we are once more reminded of the parallel between her and her pet. ‘You’ll find they’re laughing too’, Lord Mortimer points out of the Whigs, and indeed they are. All are absorbed in their political to and fro, bandying witticisms and bon mots as if nothing has happened.

Outsider art
Sims introduces the next act in his masqued variety show, an old woman (or perhaps she is worn through the effects of experience more than age) who he introduces as ‘Alfrieda, Queen of the Artichokes’. All pretence at classical form is now cast aside, and the open mockery of the Bedlamites begins. Nell pauses on her way out to listen as the old woman sings a folk tune in a quavering, unsteady voice, sounding frail and emotionally vulnerable. It is a heartbreakingly raw performance and has something of the quality of modern ‘outsider’ artists such as Daniel Johnston, singers whose artless and unaffected music can on occasion convey a direct and unvarnished expression of unguarded emotion. The words of her song hint at opposing poles of innocence and experience, of foolishness and wisdom, and possibly at the recovery of a forgotten past, of a self long lost. They also underline the opposite ends of the social spectrum which are here present. ‘Here’s to the maiden of bashful fifteen’, she sings, ‘here’s to the widow of fifty/Here’s to the flaunting extravagant queen/and here’s to the housewife that’s thrifty’.

A backward look at the life she's leaving
Nell walks off. She has failed in her intent, stated to Hannay, of providing a demonstration of her stony, statuesque indifference to the plight of the ‘loonies’. In his eyes, she has passed the moral test which this banquet has served to provide. As for Sims, he has succeeded in causing a rift between her and Lord Mortimer, whose patronage he seeks to corner for himself. He has once more revealed himself to be a man of considerable cunning. The laughter continues to ring out in the night air at the expense of the woman and her song. The Vauxhall scene is bookended by two very different kinds of music, each of which represent, through their wildly disparate classical and folk forms, the opposite ends of the social spectrum which are present. The folk song which ‘Alfrieda’ sings, the vernacular music of the people, occasions mocking hilarity from the banqueters. It is beneath their contempt, and so is she.

Hogarth's Night
Another Hogarth print is displayed as an intertitle. This is Night, from the series The Four Times of the Day, which had been put up in one of the supper booths in Vauxhall Gardens. It’s an appropriate picture to lead us from that locations to the night-time street scene which we now fade in on. Hogarth set his work in the Charing Cross area, identifiable from the statue in the background. The version which Lewton uses is actually a rather crude copy. The idea of a barber plying his trade with cut throat razor by candlelight on a drunken night is an alarming one, and seems to invite bloody disaster. Hogarth depicts a much more chaotic Night than Lewton is about to unveil, one filled with incipient violence and calamity. There is a fire in the road, the inchoate energy of the street waiting to be fanned into a full-blown blaze. This is the fire which we saw in the opening scenes of the film, in which Nell and Lord Mortimer drove past Bedlam in their carriage. The carriage in Hogarth’s print has crashed and there is much violent dispute surrounding its overturning, with one short fellow waving a stick in the air, a long dagger or possibly even a set square hanging from his belt. A spark from the fire falling into the carriage’s interior is about to make things much worse. The figure in the foreground is a freemason, and he’s just about to receive the contents of someone’s chamber pot on his head. A group of homeless people, akin to the inmates of Bedlam, huddle under a table outside the barber’s. The still point of this hectic composition is the innkeeper, quietly pouring ale into his barrel as he smokes his pipe, such a chaotic melee merely an everyday matter. Once again, as in his Beer Street print, ale is portrayed as a positive force for the social good.

Night recreated
Lewton’s street scene is considerably more quiet, with less of a claustrophobic clutter of detail and activity. We see the rim of a carriage wheel, still upright and intact, and the window of a barber’s, the candles lighting each of its panes reproduced from the Hogarth print. The camera pans along the street from the barber’s until it encounters a group of Quakers leaving their meeting house, hats firmly back on as they leave the presence of God. The meeting house is a place of warmth and communality in the darkness of the night street onto which its doors open. Such comradeship and human society is of immense importance throughout Lewton’s films. It counters the psychological dangers of isolation and self-containment which Nell has noted in the inhabitants of Bedlam, and which we have encountered in a variety of characters, from Irena in Cat People and Jacqueline in The Seventh Victim through Captain Stone in The Ghost Ship to Amy in Curse of the Cat People. Nell’s declaration to Hannay that her ‘heart is like a flint’ indicates that she was on the way to becoming the latest in this lineage.

The Queen of Vauxhall Gardens
As Hannay passes the carriage, Nell emerges from its interior and greets him in a humorously imperious fashion. She descends like a queen in her Vauxhall finery. He lends her a hand as she leaps the gutter onto the pavement, helping her across the abyss which lies between the enclosed, protected world of the carriage, which is in effect still the world of Vauxhall and of Lord Mortimer’s bed chamber, and the pavement upon which she makes her landing. Nell has questions for the Quaker which she brings to him directly from her life-changing experience at the gardens. The urgency of her feelings require an immediate explication and affirmation whilst they are still fresh. The facility with which she reels off her questions suggests that they have been carefully mulled over and formulated during her carriage ride and subsequent wait. She asks him whether he thinks her ‘a woman of kind heart’. He once more reminds her of the look of kindness and compassion he saw in her face in Bedlam. ‘I’ve never seen that in my mirror’, she replies. The mirror is the side-piece of social armoury in which appearance is adjusted and fixed, ready for the next duel in which reputation and social standing are defended and attacked. It reflects the world of surfaces and depthless masks and penetrates no deeper. The very act of looking in the mirror in this manner precludes a more profound level of self-examination. She entertains the idea that she may have experienced pity for the inmates of Bedlam and seeks guidance from Hannay, who she is looking to as some kind of expert in morality; a religious professional. She is wrestling with the recognition of a new and powerfully awakened nature which she does not yet know how to assimilate into her world view. It is a feeling which will in fact profoundly change it.

Crossing the abyss
Hannay is indirect, uncomfortable at being viewed as a figure of unshakeable moral wisdom. He invokes God as a higher authority, evading a direct response and effectively passing the buck. Nell looks troubled, and gives what sounds like a tentative admission put forward in a confessional, awaiting a prompt for further elucidation. ‘I have seen things I have no liking for’, she says. Hannay assures her that ‘thee need not tell me’. He’s not here to be her confessor, nor her interrogator, and offers the option of sparing herself the distress of having to relive painful events which have so recently been experienced. She also need not tell him because he is well aware of the ill-use to which Sims is liable to put his performing ‘loonies’. He re-iterates his concerns for the downtrodden in words which sound like those of the radical, reformist politician which Wilkes claims to be. ‘It’s a bad time for the, and the people suffer, the ones with wit and the ones without’. There is no distinction between the world of Bedlam and the world without its walls. Those walls, and the cages and chains within, are symbolic as well as real. They exist in the world beyond Bedlam, which stands as a representation of the wider mass of the poor, the helpless and the hopeless.

Seeking a confessor
Nell asks Hannay how to act on the feelings aroused by the recognition of injustice and inequality, and the brutality and cruelty by which it is maintained. He says ‘I do what I can – I’m a stonemason’. He makes the best use of the skills which he has, and leads by example through work well done. ‘I build well’ he says, and offers a vision of the shining city, the city on the hill which represented the utopian ideal for early Puritan colonists in the new world of America. It can also be seen, in the light of the time at which Bedlam was made, as a vision for the construction, both physical and ideological, of a new post war world. ‘Let others build as well and soon this city will become a clean and decent habitation’. Hannay’s Quakerism is a religion rooted in communal values, and is completely the opposite of the capitalist cult of diabolism in The Seventh Victim, with its brand logo icon and philosophy of parasitism on the social body. His moral convictions are translated into practical action, driven by a firmly rooted idealism. Nell is less sure of what talents she can offer, however, and suffers a rare moment of self-negation. It is a recognition of the tenuous nature of the position she has managed to manoeuvre herself into in society. ‘I’m only a jester to bring laughter to Lord Mortimer’s dinner table’, she admits, taking a step towards a greater sense of humility.

Coquetry with a Quaker
This uncharacteristic modesty doesn’t last long. Hannay points out that Lord Mortimer is a member of the council which runs Bedlam, and that her influence can be put to use. She is, in effect, in a position to act as a politician. She smiles at him and says, with renewed brightness, ‘good, you’re not such a fool as I thought you’. She turns the exchange around, and with the rhetorical skills in which she has become expert, makes it seem as if she prompted the idea in the first place, like Lord Mortimer laying claim to Sims’ plan for a masque of madness. Her confidence restored, and with a new course of action in mind, she flirts with Hannay again. She smiles as she asks him why he doesn’t take off his hat – ‘do you have no liking for me?’ He reaches to oblige before remembering that they unhat ‘only before God’. Just as she is abandoning her ruthlessly individualistic philosophy to take a few steps towards his religiously-based morality, he is leavening his strict doctrinal code to approach her. Both are drawn to the other by a magnetism which mixes the physical with an attraction of mind and spirit. Nell smiles coquettishly and flutters her fan, and the Quaker looks flustered. He is utterly under her spell, and she knows it. She has recalled where her skills lie.

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