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Short Cuts: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // November 16, 2004
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted November 24, 2004 | E-mail the Author
It really is a small world after all. No, not in the saccharine sentiment of that ear-worming Disney jingle, or the six degrees of separation ideal proposed by sociologists and so-called scholars. Like ripples in the water after a single stone has been cast, we clash into and network with the entire population of the planet on a daily basis, we just don't recognize it all the time. Like a kind of personalized chaos theory, what we do in the privacy of our gated communities or 35 story high rise apartments reverberates like sound waves across the whole of humanity, setting standards, changing cultural parameters, undermining associations, in ways we can't see in the short term. The cold hard fact is that, no matter how different we appear, regardless of the amount of prosperity, the color of our skin or the wisdom we feel we carry, there is one undeniable factor that binds us in a manner more basic and belligerent. On this planet of 7 billion people, from the most civilized city dweller to the seemingly illiterate bumpkin, we all constitute the human race, its entire facet, its only known, acknowledged face. Who we are and what we stand for comes directly out of how we move through and influence our domain. Some of us work hard and strive for nothing more than the recognition of a task well done. Other's flaunt their importance and wait for the fame and/or fortune that is supposed to follow. Not everyone takes the same route, but almost everyone expects the same result.

Yet there is another undeniable truth. None of us take the long way home toward happiness. It is in our nature to look for short cuts in this mean-spirited microcosm, and like the fairy tales of old, we ignore the potential pitfalls that could be awaiting us. Robert Altman knows all about these risky roads not taken. His 1993 masterpiece Short Cuts illustrates what happens when people cheat the course of Karma. And as many can confirm, payback is a bitch.

The DVD:
LA – circa 1993. The medfly is decimating the citrus industry and helicopters fly over the city spraying the pesticide Malathion in hopes of controlling the outbreak. Under this fog of suspicious mist live 10 families, each one seeking their own separate identity within the city of Angels, and yet all are somehow interconnected. Howard Finnigan (Bruce Davison) is a local news anchor, a recognizable face in a location filled with celebrities. His wife Ann (Andie McDowell) stays at home, brooding over their precious son Casey. The child will turn nine in a day, and Ann makes preparations, ordering a cake from Mr. Bitkower (Lyle Lovett), the local baker. A proud man, he puts lots of love and attention into his work. On his way to school, Casey is hit by a car. Doreen Piggot (Lily Tomlin), a waitress at a local diner, was behind the wheel, and she feels terrible about the accident. But Casey has been trained to avoid strangers, so he brushes off the incident and heads home. Doreen returns to her trailer that she shares with her alcoholic limo driver husband Earl (Tom Waits). Angry that he's off the wagon again, she warns him that the near-tragedy this morning could be the end of their sedate life.

Neighbor girl Zoe Trainer (Lori Singer) sees the boy return home and wonders why he's not in school. Her jazz singer mother Tess (Annie Ross) couldn't care less. She's too lost in a world of Veggie Marys and bad memories to be concerned. Casey ends up in the hospital, where Dr. Wyman (Matthew Modine) tries his best to help. He is married to Marian (Julianne Moore), a self-centered artist who puts more importance in her weird works than they actually warrant. Her sister, Sherri Shepard (Madeleine Stowe), sometimes poses for her. Sherri is married to a cop named Glen (Tim Robbins) who cheats on her frantically. Glen has recently been bedding with Betty Weathers (Frances McDormand), whose husband Stormy (Peter Gallagher) is one of the pesticide spraying pilots for the government. At one of Zoe's cello concerts, Dr. and Mrs. Wyman meet Stuart and Claire Kane (Fred Ward and Anne Archer). Stuart is unemployed while Claire works as a clown. An uneasy friendship ensues, with the Wymans inviting their newfound pals over for a dinner party. Stuart promises to bring the fish, since he will be going camping with his buddies (Buck Henry and Huey Lewis). While on the trip, the men discover more than trout. There is a dead body in the water near their campsite.

As Casey's condition worsens, Doreen is blissfully ignorant of the consequences of her actions. She tells her daughter Honey (Lili Taylor) about the accident. The young woman feigns concern. To her, mom is just a drunk, and she can't believe that something like this hasn't happened before. Along with her make-up man in training husband Bill (Robert Downey Jr.), Honey hangs out with friends Lois and Jerry Kaiser (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn). He cleans pools for a living – including one's owned by the Finnigans and the Trainers. She is a phone sex operator, spending her days talking dirty to men for money. Jerry is a ball of pent up sexual aggression, but he finds no release, even in his own bed. Bill likes to egg him on, the duo scamming of girls in local parks and parking lots. As the anti-insect vapor settles and soaks in, the city is alive with possibilities. And all the while, the San Andreas fault buckles under the pressure, waiting for the day when it will suddenly dislodge, sending yet another earthquake across the area to remind everyone that nature is still in charge of this cruise, and that the human beings wandering around are just unpaid, unwanted passengers.

The weary world of Short Cuts is a Los Angeles under siege. It is a self-contained, self-referential universe of misery and miracles. It is a precarious place where poison drops from the sky and the earth's mantle shifts and shudders under the ongoing strain of gravity, countless cars and a million mindless feet, all shuffling along the streets and past the storefronts. Even under the most blazing of suns, a thick layer of smog, a combination of a billion failed dreams and a million stolen fantasies, envelopes the terrain like a curtain at the end of a play. It continues the conceit that out on the West Coast, there is a self-contained habitat on insanity at work. And buried somewhere within this snow globe of sin, salvation and the sour smell of defeat, are people, faces upturned to the heavens, wondering aloud why some higher power has chosen to visit such interpersonal plagues upon them. As their voices mingle with the sounds of automobiles and the constant stream of airplanes, the entire cacophony becomes a dirge to despair, a sick sonnet playing faintly in the background, like a whispered banshees wail in the darkest of nights. Between the rain of flies and the fissure that threatens to engulf the stressed sanctuary whole, LA is a place of precariousness and possibilities. It is here where our 10 families gather and function. It is here where our stories begin.

As a film, Robert Altman has perhaps made none better than Short Cuts. It is a masterpiece of expressionism and suggestion, a narrative that leaves out important pieces in its character's lives, relying on the audience to craft the links and flesh out the facades. This is a movie about individual moments, about particular places in the personal time line where life throws the curveball, bestows its riches or avoids responsibility, leaving it to the humans to figure out the next logical step. It is a three-part symphony of isolation, a triptych to life, turmoil and death. All the people who play out their personal dilemmas and delights as part of the plot live in the constant flow of existence, of that place where relationships are forged, struggles rear their unruly head, and the sudden loss of life is a unexpected guest at desperation's dinner table. As a movie, Short Cuts collects 22 divergent individuals, establishes their minimal ties, and then runs them through the miscreant maze of everyday reality, watching as they brave, or buckle, under the usual situational suspects. This is a saga of lives torn apart, of pieces scattered like the backsplash from a dive in the pool, or a chainsaw cutting through a couch. It is a chance to open up the insular realms of these hampered inhabitants as they try to clear away the debris and find some manner of inner glue to clamp the fragments back together again, just like they've done a dozen times before. It is a story filled with hope and heartbreak. It is a narrative laced with irony, humor and pathos. It feels like a novel come to life as it refuses to play by rules both cinematic and literary. It is art as artifice, authenticity as channeled through the hyper-reality of the camera lens.

As with many of Altman's greatest works (Nashville and 3 Women come to mind) Short Cuts is centered on a very humanistic view of the world, specifically with the notion of duality and the facets of face. Everyone is a schizophrenic in an Altman movie, a multiple-personalitied combination of their public and private personas, coupled with occasional glimpses into the secret, special visage that individuals only rarely reveal to themselves, if at all. From the highest levels of the social strata (the Finnigans, with their semi-celebrity place in suburbia) to the trash trolling the trailer parks (for all their effervescence, Earl and Doreen Piggot are alcoholic, amoral louts), putting on airs and stepping outside oneself for the sake of social standards or situations is a glorified given of interaction. Very few of the characters here live their life in one continuous state of sameness, choosing instead to put on the mask required at the moment. From the perfect couple conceit as played out by the Kanes (sadly, there seems to be nothing beneath their earthy surface except more soil) to the matrimony as classification of the Wymans, everyone here is pretending, either to be something else, or that things are not as dreadful as they appear. The sole exception is jazz singer Tess Trainer a lonely lost lady who lives in her gin-soaked torch song circumstances from morning to night. But she is the exception that proves the rule. The rest of the mired menagerie is so busy developing new personas that they've mostly forgotten who they really are.

Short Cuts argues that people are inherently absentminded. They tend to overlook that their actions have repercussions, that connections made and the most minor of interrelating, leads to strong, even seismic, reverberations. Naturally, some of these realities are obvious. When Doreen haphazardly hits Casey Finnigan with her car, her ongoing life remains relatively worry-free (a nice highball several times a day seems to help with the healing). But Casey's coma, followed by his ever-worsening fate, exposes familial fault lines in the Finnegan's world. It brings Howard's wayward father out of the shadows of the past and face-to-face with his dispassionate son for the first time in decades. It leads the baker, Mr. Bitkower, to explore the darkest reaches of his merchant mindset, taking out his obvious disgust with the 'know-it-all', 'want-it-now' customers that make demands and devalue his efforts. Casey's fate even pushes Tess's daughter, the depressed cellist Zoe, to finally confront her own suicidal leanings. Like a strange situational Newton's law, Short Cuts shows that for every action, there is an equal, and sometimes completely complimentary reaction. Sherri Sheppard takes her husband's infidelity in stride, knowing that she has the upper hand both in the family and in his frightened man-child facade. Betty Weathers continues her wanton ways, believing her ex-husband Stormy won't (and since the divorce, really can't) reciprocate. But what both women learn is that there can be corollaries, both tactile (Stormy destroys Betty's house) and ethereal (Sherri is trapped with three kids in a basically loveless marriage). Short Cuts is a narrative thriving on the cause and effect of life. It burns such inferences like crass coal in a furnace.

Yet for a film based almost exclusively on the notions of interfacing and backlashes, the lives lived by the players in Short Cuts are also very sheltered and secluded. They exist within themselves, never stretching beyond the instantly gratifying or the immediately needed. The title itself is a twist on the concept that most people, when moving through the world, look for the quickest route possible, the short cut to the conclusion – be it pleasure or pain. Altman argues that the best way to walk through existence is via the hard, long, true path to personal and communal openness. One of the reasons why we feel it is such a small world is that, as people, we tend to leave our aura imprint on individuals and incidents. We put down impressions and manufacture memories for others to siphon off and save. The result is a planet in which no one person is immortal, and yet levels of infinite influence can occur. A newscaster can catch the ear of the people for 22 minutes a day, while a doctor can save or salvage a life. But even the waitress who serves you that first hot cup of coffee, or that bakery who delivers up the most delicious frosting in the valley produces a result that stays with you, long after you've forgotten the particulars.

As with any film about relationships and the ripple effect, Short Cuts's main thematic focus is trust: the belief in fidelity and the loss of hope. Throughout the narrative, we witness minor violations of reliability. The Bushes decide to move into the apartment they are watching for their neighbors breaking the bonds of safety and security placed upon them. Earl swears off liquor, while sneaking a drink or two under the table, since sobriety is a prerequisite to Doreen's continued acceptance of his flawed company. The main manner in which people breach their devotion to each other in Short Cuts is the old fashioned sin of adultery, a vice that has ramifications both old and ongoing. Paul Finnigan, Howard's lost and lonely old father has basically been paying for a single slip into slap and tickle his whole life. The same with Marian Wyman, who's doctor husband is so lost in jealously he can't seem to communicate without hurling harmful human daggers at her. Betty Weathers beds cop Gene Shepard, while simultaneously lying to his face about a wanton weekend with yet another man. The penalty she eventually pays is one that seems antithetical to what she has done. But when a man has nothing left of his previous life, he has nothing better to do than to wipe the slate clean and really start over. Indeed, each violation of trust in Short Cuts comes with a penalty, not necessarily immediate, but definitely served up with cold, considered calculation.

In some ways, LA is viewed as a sun-drenched Sodom in Short Cuts, a place where vice and iniquity run hand in hand with goodness and light. Sin swims in and around the characters in this complex tale, reflecting on and giving depth to everyone involved in the story. From the obvious aspects of cheating to the lesser-known trespasses of moral malaise and ethical ennui, the people populating this film are in desperate need of a principled house cleaning. Stuart and his buddies discover a dead girl floating in their favorite fishing hole, yet they let the gallows humor of the circumstance turn sad when they decide to pull their limit from the stream before reporting the corpse to authorities. For Claire the Clown, her crisis of conscious is much more sedate. Sick of being viewed as lower class (husband out of work, she as sole support eking out a living as a live action cartoon for kid's parties), she sees the budding friendship with Dr. and Mrs. Wyman as a potential pathway to greater social acceptance and grandeur. So unhappy with herself that she hides behind her greasepaint, even during the dinner party with her human status savers, her mortal crime is envy mixed with an illogical sense of inferiority. Lois Kaiser sells her inner sexuality to sad phone callers looking for masturbation fodder, speaking smut even as she changes her toddler's diapers. To her, vice is a victimless crime, a situation in which everyone gets what they need, the moral bankruptcy to her and her family be damned. Sure, there are people paying for obvious offenses in Short Cuts, from the constant bed hopping to the hit and run hobbling of a child. But those flagrant felonies are not as potent as the milder, more mundane psychological wickedness that weaves its way in and out of all their lives.

Indeed, if there is a greater demon in this diorama of despair, it is reliance on alcohol and sex as personal panaceas for the lapses in personal judgment – or lack thereof. Booze is used to supplement and satiate sin, while it can cement or sever relationships. The Piggots' entire life is built on the bottle, from their constant break-up/make-up dynamic to the accusations of molestation hanging over Earl's head (while Earl denies it, Honey Bush – Doreen's daughter – will never let the notion go). Tess Trainer is a woman so lost in the bottle that she's never seen a sober day since her beloved husband died. The Wyman's drink smart cocktails, frozen and frapped, using the cold confections to block out the huge mountain of marital misery that exists between them. Even Stuart's fishing trip is more about the beer and the Jack Daniels than non-erotic male bonding. Those couples not using jiggers of forestalling as part of their patter seem to rely on sex as a salve for what ails them. Betty Weathers does, and finds a similarly excitable partner in Gene Shepard. Using his badge as a means of meet-cute, our lewd law enforcement officer seems to spend more time on the make than pounding a beat. We never once see him take a bite out of crime. But he does stop Claire and ask for her phone number in a seedy exercise in abuse of power. Hoping to lessen the hardship concerning Casey, Howard reaches out to his wife Ann with a gentle touch. Her repulsed, repellant response indicates where the true love and connections lie in their relationship.

Oddly, with all this talk of copulation and co-mingling, there is very little gratuitous nudity in Short Cuts. What is there is presented as part of a personal, not perverted apotheosis. Altman wants to show that these are real couples dealing with private issues inside their own worlds. Naturally, being naked in front of one's partner is part of life. But there is another, deeper meaning to the flashes of flesh in Short Cuts, a chance for us to strip, so to speak, a few of the female characters down to the core issues inside them. When Zoe takes off her clothes and does a dead man's float in her pool, she is signaling an obvious desire to end her life. The depressing, dreary manner in which she disrobes and sinks has nothing to do with arousal and everything to do with self-loathing. Similarly, when Marian drops her skirt to clean a wine stain, her husband is mortified that she is not wearing panties. As she explains a past indiscretion, hoping that honesty will dull or divert his attention, the spouse is still stuck staring at her naked nether regions, acknowledging that the little woman supposedly committed to him is more than happy to prepare her privates for easy access.

True, Marian is also standing open and vulnerable to her partner, an expression of candidness that he, Dr. Ralph, is refusing to relate to outright, but the overriding risqué nature of her imagined mindset permeates the problem. We also catch glimpses of Betty Weathers, confirming her slutty nature as she freely flashes a room she hopes contains someone "masculine", and Sherri even poses for her artist sister, using the freedom of flesh as a way of getting back at her wandering husband. Still, the most potent symbol of the human body in direct contradiction to the circumstances surrounding it comes when Stuart's buddy Vern stands on top of a boulder and relieves himself directly into their fishing stream. Naturally, he doesn't realize that he is urinating over the body of the dead girl, literally pissing on the significance she will have on their future lives. They say the body never lies, and Altman proves that age-old adage throughout Short Cuts – in gestures, in posture and in the way people reveal and respond to the nude form.

The fact that all of these facets can co-exist with absolutely no confusion on the part of the audience is a testament to Robert Altman's power as a filmmaker. A genius of formal structure and a virtuoso of found reality, Short Cuts represents yet another major milestone in a career filled with such emblematic landmarks. Mining some of the same territory he explored in M*A*S*H*, Nashville and 3 Women, as well as drawing on the brilliant, brave work of author Raymond Carver (Short Cuts is based on 9 short stories and a poem by this highly acclaimed Pacific Northwest master of minimalist storytelling), Altman knits his narrative out of flashes and segments, pooling all the potential elements together into a crazy quilt of darkly comic comfort. Short Cuts is a funny film. It is thought provoking and powerful. It never once raises its voice to be heard, yet also keeps ancillary factors from screwing with the storylines. Utilizing the Casey/Car Accident as a clothesline upon which to build and layer his viable vignettes, the veteran maestro of mise-en-scene keeps his pace purring along like a well-tuned engine. This is the fastest feeling three-hour plus film in the history of such titanic undertakings, yet not a single moment could be successfully removed without ruining the whole. Maintaining the delicate balance between truth, entertainment and indulgence, Short Cuts stands as a testament to the immense imagination and overriding richness in Altman's bag of moviemaking tricks.

But direction alone cannot sell such a multi-layered experiment in hidden exposition. No, for a film like Short Cuts to work you need a cast adept at bringing untold and unseen levels of complexity to their caught in mid-crisis and confusion couples. As Doreen Piggot, Lily Tomlin is hard but hopeful, knowing that what fate won't solve, a glass of Scotch will. Tom Wait's turn as Earl Piggot is classic rum-induced defeat, a man with big plans constantly undermined by a thirst he can't control. Tim Robbins is a kooky cock of the walk, his lies leading further down a path towards the pathetic. Madeleine Stowe's Sherri is a calm, conniving cow, a woman who overplays the importance of her womb, while Frances McDormand is the female horndog looking for lust in all the wrong places. At the heart of the segmented story here is the fate befalling the Finnigans, and in Bruce Davison, Andie McDowell and Jack Lemmon, we see three exceptional performances of understated grace and grave humility. Lemmon gets a 9-minute monologue which proves why the late great actor was considered one of our best ever. Davison, looking lost in a situation he could never have prepared for, is brilliant at showing both frustration and fear. But McDowell is the true treasure here, a brittle, broken woman ill-equipped for the blow fate is visiting on her maternity. Like a fragile flower left out in the sun for far too long, we literally watch her shrivel up and die as her baby boy's life hangs in the balance. Along with the rest of the brilliant ensemble (especially Jennifer Jason Leigh who genuinely has the phone sex gift of gab) Short Cuts sums up what's great about American moviemaking, American acting and American life. As time passes, this time capsule to the early 90s will transcend its elements to speak volumes about the people and the place it revolves around. Stellar star power aside, Short Cuts is a great American film, one of the best ever made.

The Video:
Utilizing a flat, basic pallet of natural colors, with occasional flares into the boldly pigmented, Short Cuts looks absolutely amazing in this glorious 2.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from Criterion. The compositions that Altman is so careful about absolutely shimmer with a radiance reserved for the most rarefied of gemstones, and the picture pulsates with razor-sharp contrasts and faultless framing. This is one of the classics house's best DVD presentations ever, as the visuals actually come alive in the home theater experience. From the deep blacks of the LA nights to the sun-drenched sizzle of the streets, this digital presentation is amazing.

The Audio:
Going back to the original negatives (70mm and 35mm) to strike separate soundtracks, both the Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 are simply stunning. The 5.1 is immersive, ambient and spatially staggering, constantly giving us the impression that we are part of the action (especially when those eerie, bug basting helicopters fly by). The 2.0 is equally effective, evocative in spite of making minimal use of the ancillary channels. Of special note is wonderful music crafted specifically for actress/cabaret legend Annie Ross (playing singer Tess Trainer) by such luminaries as Dr. John and Elvis Costello. The mix maximizes the torch song sentiments present, and when Altman reuses the backing tracks as his underscoring, the entire sonic scenario reverberates with ridiculous richness. Matching the video variables bit for bit, the sound on Short Cuts is an equally astounding aspect of this DVD.

The Extras:
Divided up over 2 discs, a pamphlet and a short story collection, the Criterion Collection has created one of their most stellar cinematic packages ever. Disc 2 houses all the bonus material, and the wealth of context is just awe-inspiring. We are treated to two full length documentaries (one on the making of the movie, another covering Carver's life and career) a radio interview with the elusive author, a BBC special on how Carver's fiction was translated onto film, a collection of demos for the Tess Trainer songs, a gallery of marketing material, a walk down memory lane with Altman and Tim Robbins and a trio of deleted scenes from the film. Beginning with the omitted footage, we see how delicate Altman was in the editing of Short Cuts. He only removed material (an extended speech by baker Bitkower, some kids party pandemonium featuring Anne Archer's Claire the Clown) that failed to function as drive for his narrative. Many of these plot peculiarities are discussed in Luck, Trust and Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country a riveting 90 minute overview from Short Cuts's 1993 production. From first day of shooting to final setup for the film, we watch Altman, his creative cast and his exceptional crew interweave the dire, divergent elements into a cohesive whole. Filled with interviews, insight and information (including a great deal of input from Carver's widow, poet Tess Gallagher) this is an exceptional documentary of an equally impressive film.

A sit-down in 2004 between the director and his star is equally enlightening. Having a chance to reflect on the film before meeting with Altman, Robbins regales the auteur with his insights and it's interesting to see how often he hits the target. A 30 minute BBC special entitled Moving Pictures presents a far too brief picture on how the Carver story "Jerry, Molly and Sam" made it into the movie. It is entertaining, but uneventful. The demos show just how important Annie Ross's delivery and persona was to the success of the songs, and the marketing material is an amalgamation of good ideas (a suburbia in decay poster) and bad execution (some relatively lame trailers and TV spots).

The Carver material is extraordinarily detailed, almost obsessive in its depth. The PBS documentary To Write and Keep Kind (from 1992) is the personal and professional retrospective many first-timers to Carver's fiction and flaws will instantly gravitate toward. From his alcohol fueled decline to his love inspired rebirth, this warts and all look inside the man and his mentality is sensational, if not a tad too self-serving (at least we get to listen to Carver, and others, reading his magnificent work). The audio interview adds even more layers to the man's inner complexities, covering his writing style and personal demons with equal flare. But the real resplendent item here is the Short Cuts collection, a compendium volume collecting the 9 stories and single poem Altman used to create his film. The ability to own these amazing works of literary art is a magnificent memento from Criterion, who understands just how permanently linked the movie is to its prose/poetry pieces. Together with an excellent essay on the film by the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington, this is one of the Collections best DVD presentations ever, matching the magnitude of the film in importance and scope.

Final Thoughts:
Nothing is resolved in Short Cuts. There is no sense of closure, no feeling that certain issues are over and done with. Indeed, the wounds remain open and seeping in this sensational film, a sense of continuing pandemonium colors everything we know and feel about the characters. All we are left with are worry and concern. What will happen to the Finnigans and the Piggots? Will they ever meet? Will they ever know the impact they've had on each other's lives? What happened that morning after the Wyman's dinner party with the Kanes was over? How did these divergent couples react to each other once the tequila buzz was gone and the growing reality of their unsettled lives came creeping back in? How do the Bushes and the Kaisers connect, now that Bill knows Jerry's dark, disturbed secret? If there is any comfort in constants, we can rest easy that Gene will continue to cheat, Sherri will store up the emotional ammunition for a future matrimonial war and Betty Weathers will continue to look for the physical escape that her mind won't offer. Tess will probably keep on singing and the juke joint will still smell of stale alcohol and lost causes. Indeed, in the lost LA LA land of Short Cuts, defeat is part of the plan. No one is allowed the perfect life, and happiness can never be found. What we learn from these 10 families in free-fall is that, sometimes, life needs to toss a wrench into the works to help us feel that we're alive. This small world is growing more minuscule every day, and with the shrinkage comes a kind of strangulation – call it emotional ennui. The only way to break out of the funk of failure is to stand up and be an individual. But the conduit to nonconformity is a hard road to hoe. There are no short cuts on this trip.

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