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Friday, December 4, 2015 - 08:00

This is technically a digression from my lesbian movie review series since it’s a new movie, but it fits well within the thematic questions. To recapitulate the series: these are reviews of lesbian-themed movies, originally drawn up in answer to a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions will necessarily involve some spoilers. Although the movie is new, the book it’s based on (The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith) was published in 1952. If you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading, because the nature of my analysis will inherently involve talking about endings.

No buy link this time because it’s not out in video yet.

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Carol is based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt, by suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith (perhaps better known for titles like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley). There were significant autobiographical aspects to The Price of Salt which was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, and which Highsmith did not publicly acknowledge until late in life. Give the date of the book’s publication -- the height of the lesbian pulp era -- what stands out most about the story (and its current film adaptation) is its failure to have a tragic ending. I use that phrasing advisedly given the plot’s set-up, with the title character in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from a controlling and potentially violent man who knows about a prior affair she had with a woman and who is angling to use Carol’s personal life as leverage to get sole custody of their young daughter. (Alternatively, to use his ability to get sole custody as leverage to force Carol to remain in the marriage. He is presented at the type who believes that if everyone will agree to pretend that the marriage is successful and happy, it will become so.) This is a story that telegraphs in bright blinking lights: “This Will End In Tears!” The fact that it doesn’t (and that a story breaking that established trope was published) is revolutionary for its era.

That isn’t to say that this is a happy story. Carol is depressed, isolated, and trapped, in that “what has she got to complain about” way of a wealthy socialite. Her best friend Abby (her former lover) is supportive, but in a closeted, sneaking around sort of way. Then Carol encounters Therese, working at the toy counter in a department store, where Carol is shopping for a Christmas present for her daughter. Therese is drifting through life, as she puts it “saying yes to everyone” from lack of a clear understanding of what she wants. She has a boyfriend she doesn’t want who is badgering her to have sex, to marry him, to travel to Europe with him, or any combination thereof. She never directly tells him she doesn’t want any of those things, but neither does she actually “say yes” to any of them. She has vague artistic aspirations (in the book, as a set designer; in the movie, as a photographer) but lacks to the self-confidence to pursue them. And she’s bleakly contemplating an unending future that’s missing something she can’t even put her finger on.

What the movie depicts clearly is the sparks that fly between the two women at their first encounter. Therese takes advantage of having access to Carol’s mailing address to return a pair of gloves she left at the store, followed by a thank-you meal out where she desperately tries to imitate the sophistication she sees in Carol. Carol certainly knows the nature of her own attraction, but Therese is only slightly behind Carol in self-knowledge. Another thing the movie depicts realistically is the awkward dance of communication of that attraction and knowledge in an era when open lesbian relationships could lose you your job...or custody of your child.

When Carol’s husband puts the screws on her in the lead-up to the divorce settlement, she impulsively invites Therese to accompany her on a cross-country drive -- not so much to go anywhere in particular, but just to get away. What neither of them know is that Carol’s husband has hired a private eye to tail them and gather incontrovertible evidence of Carol’s “deviance” via tape recordings from the motel room next door, the night that the two women finally end up in bed together. When this is discovered, Carol leaves in the middle of the night and flies back to New York to try to do damage control, with BFF Abby flying in to break the news to Therese and drive her back to the city. There are psychiatrists and tense, brittle family get-togethers, and meetings with lawyers.

There are a lot of ways the story could have taken a left turn into tragedy. When Carol is holding a gun on the private eye after confronting him, she could have decided she had nothing to lose. The divorce proceedings could have gone in the most historically-prevalent direction with Carol being forbidden any further contact with her daughter and her life being turned into an open scandal in court. A more traditional lesbian-pulp ending (which often included contractual requirements that the characters be punished or converted) might have involved a suicide or fatal accident, a return by one or the other of the characters to the waiting male partner (probably Therese who plays the role of nearly-innocent ingenue in contrast to Carol’s experienced and world-weary character).

And none of that happens, although we are set up to expect it. This is what I mean by the movie “failing to have a tragic ending”. The mistily ambiguous ending at least strongly suggests that Carol and Therese have decided to return to their relationship, and that Carol may have succeeded in being granted occasional supervised access to her daughter, despite openly refusing to recant or reform. But this isn’t anything you could call a “happy” ending. The characters themselves have little expectation of more than a temporary fling, then moving on to similar affairs once the initial passion has cooled. (When Abby discusses her and Carol’s affair with Therese she says something to the effect of, “And then it changed and we moved on. It always changes.”) They have no models for stable, long-term relationships and absolutely no support from society. Therese has a couple of encounters with other characters that it is suggested are lesbian or bi: a “mannish” couple in a record store, a woman at a party who seems to be meant to ping our gaydar (and possibly to ping Therese's as well). But the characters have an overwhelming sense of being cut off from their social contexts, of needing to keep their romantic interests entirely apart from their day-to-day interactions with friends and co-workers. Because, of course, that was what life was like in the ‘50s if you were queer and were clinging to the illusion of a “respectable” life.

So how does this match up with the review questions? No death. Somewhat surprisingly for the genre, no recanting (though we’re kept on the edge of our seats on this point, particularly in the opening scene before we flash-back to the beginning of the story). I wouldn’t necessarily put this strongly in the category of a coming-out theme. Therese is experiencing her first relationship with a woman, but she accepts her attraction rather easily. (And nobody is technically “coming out” in this context since they're all solidly closeted.) Although the resolution can’t exactly be called “unhappy”, neither can it really be called “happy”. I think I’d have to settle for non-tragically dreary.

As noted above, in taking this route, the original novel was ground-breaking. But this isn’t the ‘50s. And while the movie is a gorgeous period piece of its setting (and one can’t deny that Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara act the hell out of their roles), one has to consider why this particular story was chosen to produce. Who is the audience for this film? What message is it intended to convey? To today's young queer people, it must seem as disconnected from their lives as…well, as a Victorian setting would have been for me. Despite the sympathetic and non-tragic depiction of the characters, it's hard not to see it as a costume-drama for the entertainment of straight audiences in the same way that the sanitized, white-washed Stonewall is. I'd like to have loved this movie, but it doesn't feel like I was the intended audience. That doesn't mean much, I suppose -- I so rarely am.

Friday, November 20, 2015 - 08:00

I’m re-posting (sometimes in expanded form) a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies that I originally drew up in answer to a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions will necessarily involve some spoilers, but since I'm not reviewing any current releases, I think the statute of limitations has expired.

Many of these items are not currently in print. I'll link each to their imdb.com entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

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Mädchen in Uniform (1931, b&w, German, subtitled)

Title translation: "Girls in Uniform"

There has been more than one version of this movie made, and I believe they differ somewhat in the aspects considered under this review series. So this review only applies to the specific version listed here. Trigger warning for (unsuccessful) suicide attempt.

A student at an authoritarian girls school develops a crush on a sympathetic teacher but her public declaration of love triggers an untenable situation when the teacher stands up for the students and is forced to resign. Although she saves the student from tragedy at the end, there is no clear indication of any "happy ending" available for either of them. Nobody dies (barely). It doesn't follow the typical "coming out" plot, as the emotional relationship between the student and teacher is (barely) deniable as "just a schoolgirl crush". Indeed, it's the reactions of those around them that frame it as being more significant than that. But as the lesbian themes are (barely) subtextual, one can't really evaluate the story arc on the "(no) turning straight" axis. Let's sum it up with "no happily ever after."

One of the fascinating aspects of this movie is that it was made at all. Compare this movie--actually made in Germany in the early 1930s, with Cabaret which portrays the same era (although obviously not the same social setting!) from the safe distance of decades later. The suggestion of sexual open-mindedness reflected in different ways in both films are the more poignant for knowing what was to come under Nazi rule (which is explicitly depicted in Cabaret). The lesbian themes in Mädchen are, in some ways, incidental to the message about the need of human beings, and especially children, for loving connections. In the setting of an all-female institution, those connections will necessarily be between female characters. But the authorial choice to use that setting, and therefore to present the message via intense emotional relationships that cannot help being read as "lesbian", is not one that could have been made in many times and places. In 1931, it almost certainly could not have been made in the USA under the Hayes Code.

Friday, November 13, 2015 - 08:00

I’m re-posting (sometimes in expanded form) a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies that I originally drew up in answer to a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions will necessarily involve some spoilers, but since I'm not reviewing any current releases, I think the statute of limitations has expired.

Many of these items are not currently in print. I'll link each to their imdb.com entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

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Bar Girls (1994)

Life in the LA lesbian bar scene in the '90s. The film feels like a bit of an "L Word" precursor of sorts, in the way is focuses on the lives of a group of implausibly glamorous (largely femme) urban women, centering around their shifting relationship dramas. It's much more of a slice-of-life film than one with a clear story arc, although there is one main romance being followed. I confess that even though I've watched it several times, I never come out of it feeling that I knew what the movie was "about". Heck, I generally have a hard time staying awake through it. The ending isn't unhappy, by any means, but if you aren't a "bar scene" sort of person, the overall feel is a bit dreary. Nobody dies. The characters are all long past coming out. No recanting that I can recall.

Friday, August 7, 2015 - 08:00

I’m re-posting (sometimes in expanded form) a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies that I originally drew up in answer to a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions will necessarily involve some spoilers, but since I'm not reviewing any current releases, I think the statute of limitations has expired.

Many of these items are not currently in print. I'll link each to their imdb.com entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

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When Night is Falling (1995)

Uptight college professor Camille, in a fit of uncertainty and confusion about her relationship with her boyfriend, meets free-spirited circus performer Petra for whom it is love at first sight. Petra pursues and Camille succumbs, followed by a hostile confrontation with her (now ex?) boyfriend. But in the end, with the circus leaving town, Camille runs away to join it. (Note that despite the "lesbian" in my review series title, Camille seems rather solidly bi rather than lesbian. I don't recall whether that aspect is directly addressed.)

No lesbians die, but Camille's dog's death is deeply intertwined in the plot’s symbolism. Definitely a coming-out/seduction story. No recanting within the scope of what the movie covers, and implications of happily-ever-after, but you have to have doubts about the stability of the relationship given the mis-match in personalities.

In essence, this is the queer version of the manic pixie dream-girl. As such, while the same-sex twist is refreshing, the story has a bit of a stale feel (even for 1995). The overall tone comes across as a bit dark and angsty, giving the viewer a fair amount of uncertainty over how things will turn out. And the secondary message about women making choices between their careers and their romantic lives isn't exactly progressive. But there are some lovely sensual scenes.

Friday, July 31, 2015 - 08:00

I’m re-posting (sometimes in expanded form) a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies that I originally drew up in answer to a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions will necessarily involve some spoilers, but since I'm not reviewing any current releases, I think the statute of limitations has expired.

Many of these items are not currently in print. I'll link each to their imdb.com entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

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The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love (1995) I cannot possibly express how much of a breath of fresh air this movie was when it debuted. Yes, it's angsty--but it's angsty in a teenage romantic comedy type of way. No death, no recanting, minor transient unhappiness, but very much a coming out story above all else. The movie is positive and light-hearted, but the sort of slapstick "OMG the parents are coming home unexpectedly" comedy typical to any teenage flick. If there is a flaw that I could point to, there is a somewhat heavy-handed nod to dodging class/ethnic stereotypes. But perhaps that, too, it part of the in-your-face refreshing novelty.

This is a movie that could only be made during a particular window of time. Any earlier and the light-hearted tone would have been difficult to sell. Today, the girls would have started from a place of more awareness of the possibilities (and the adults in their life would have as well). If I'm correctly remembering details about the making of the movie, it was one of those "independent director gambles her entire credit balance on the project dearest to her heart" things. You probably still couldn't get a studio to create something this innocently wonderful.

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 08:00

I’m re-posting (sometimes in expanded form) a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies that I originally drew up in answer to a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions will necessarily involve some spoilers, but since I'm not reviewing any current releases, I think the statute of limitations has expired.

Many of these items are not currently in print. I'll link each to their imdb.com entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

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If These Walls Could Talk (2000) A television ... concept, I guess you'd call it, rather than trying to shoehorn it into "series" or "movie" or some such. Each set of shows revolves around the conceit of three different sets of inhabitants of the same location, at three different eras, each dealing with the same social "issue". The topic for the second "set" is lesbians, with stories set in 1961 (depressing and infuriating, no happy ending), 1972 (feminism vs. the Lavender Menace! butch-femme culture vs. crunchy-granola! happy ending!), and 2000 (in the heart of the "gay-by boom", light comedy, happy ending). Refreshingly, none of the stories is a basic "coming out" tale. While the first episode is Not Happy, it's the sort to drive you to march in the streets rather than to mope in the corner, and there isn't the slightest whiff of "punishment for sin" themes. Nobody turns straight or dies (well, technically someone dies but it's before the story opens). The middle episode is very atmospheric for its setting. Sure, it relies on "types" that veer close to being stereotypes, but they are also types that reflect actual significant themes and issues of the day. And the final segment, while still counting as a "period piece" at this point, is a cute snapshot of significant (though not universal) themes of the day. Given that the least positive segment comes first, watching the set as a whole helps wash the bitter taste away.

I don't know how well this triptych stands as "entertainment", but if someone is looking for an emotional understanding of what it meant to be a lesbian in recent generations, this is a useful contribution -- far more so than glamorized shows like The L Word.

Friday, July 3, 2015 - 08:00

Technically, it's Friday already, so let's get the Friday review blog up so I won't forget all about in the chaos of finding Westercon registration in the morning. (The Town & Country Hotel and Convention Center covers 33 acres, as pointed out by the nice man in the golf cart who delivered me from registration to my building. I hope it will be easier to navigate by daylight than it seemed at midnight.) On to the review!

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I’m re-posting (sometimes in expanded form) a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies that I originally drew up in answer to a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions will necessarily involve some spoilers, but since I'm not reviewing any current releases, I think the statute of limitations has expired.

Many of these items are not currently in print. I'll link each to their imdb.com entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

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The Midwife's Tale (1995) A costume-romance set up with a framing story of a lesbian mother telling her daughter a bedtime story about a "medieval knightess". It is absolutely delightful as pure fantasy entertainment. The story-in-a-story is, unfortunately, riddled with clichés common to medievaloid fiction, such as the church persecuting the local wisewoman/midwife. But we have the unhappily pregnant lady of the manor falling in love with the midwife's apprentice, followed by drama and imprisonments in towers and damsels in distress and an eventual daring rescue. There is a happy ending at both levels of the story and no lesbians die. The story-in-a-story is, in effect, a coming-out story but the framing one isn't. Alas, the movie experience suffers a bit from being a very low budget film-school project.

Amusingly, one of the early showings of this movie was at the SF Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on one of those rare occasions when I made it over to the City to catch some of the sessions. So I had a chance to squee at the creator about how much I loved it.

Thursday, July 2, 2015 - 17:45
Alpennia

Some day I'll figure out how to predict how much programming any given con is likely to allot. I guess Westercon balances out the one lone panel I've been assigned for Worldcon. Here's what I'll be doing on the official schedule. Beyond that, I'll be wandering around trying to balance out introvert-overload and the desire to make connections with people.

{C}

Friday, Jul 3, 2015 12:00PM - How Does YOUR Writing Vary in Different Lengths? (Pacific Salon Three)
How does your writing change between, i.e., short story v. novel length? John DeChancie, Buzz Dixon, Heather Rose Jones, Lisa Kessler, David D. Levine, Fred Wiehe

Friday, Jul 3, 2015 4:00PM - Endangered Languages (Sunset in Meeting House)
We worry about endangered species—but 80% of the world's languages will be dead by the century’s end, often with no fossil remains. Should we be concerned? What can be done? H. Paul Honsinger, Heather Rose Jones, Katharine B. Kerr, Will Morton, Jason Vanhee

Saturday, Jul 4, 2015 4:30PM - Heroines as Catalysts (Pacific Salon Seven)
Most genre fiction features male heroes leading doughty groups against the Big Bad, whether it's a futuristic amoral megacorporation or an evil wizard-king. There are a few two-fisted female gun-toters leading the action, but there are far more heroines who act as catalysts for change. Why is that, and how do they do it? Compare catalyst heroines in all genres. Tera Lynn Childs, Dana Fredsti, Jude-Marie Green, Heather Rose Jones, Jenna M. Pitman

Sunday, Jul 5, 2015 1:00PM - Autograph Session: T. Childs, H. Jones, T. McCaffrey (Autographing in the Dealers' Room)
Meet and ask for autographs from Tera Lynn Childs, Heather Rose Jones, and Todd McCaffrey. Tera Lynn Childs, Heather Rose Jones, Todd McCaffrey [Note: well, at least I won't be contributing to any traffic jams. Shall I start a betting pool for whether anyone shows up for me?]

Sunday, Jul 5, 2015 2:00PM - No Time to create? (Sunrise in Meeting House)
You really, really want to write or film or build, but how do you find the time? Heather Rose Jones, Kirsten Imani Kasai, Deirdre Saoirse Moen, Eric Shanower
 

Friday, June 19, 2015 - 08:00

As part of my new blogging schedule, I've designated Friday as "review day". I don't necessarily have enough new material (books, movies, etc.) to post something new every week, but I thought I'd reprise and continue a series I started quite some time ago on lesbian-themed movies (and mini-series). I've collected enough of these in video format that if I were a more socially ept person it would be fun to hold regular movie nights, supplemented by popcorn and thematic analysis. It's definitely interesting to examine the stories through the lesbian motifs discussed in Emma Donoghue's Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature.

Back when I first posted these reviews, it was inspired by a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." As I noted in the first go-round, the standard lesbian pulp fiction plot contractually required either death, unhappiness, or "redemption" of at least one of the characters. And when Hollywood first began moving out of that slough of despond, it was primarily in the form of Standard Coming-Out Plot A.

So the tl;dr version of each review will be the answers to: "Died? Recanted? Unhappy? Came out?" This will necessarily involve some spoilers, but since I'm not reviewing any current releases, I think the statute of limitations has expired. The treatment of lesbian characters and relationships in film is still dire enough in general that I know I want to know what I'm getting into before engaging with a movie.

Many of these items are not currently in print. I'll link each to their imdb.com entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

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Tipping the Velvet (2002, mini-series)

Died? No. Recanted? No. Unhappy? At various points during the story, but eventually happy. Came out? Yes, incidentally, but this is far more expansive than a simple coming-out plot.

A period piece (from the novel by Sarah Waters) about the oyster-seller's daughter who falls in love at the music hall with a male impersonator and runs away to live with her in late Victorian London. Alas, the object of her affection isn't as steadfast and true as she is, and our ingenue goes through many adventures and relationships before making the key choice that leaves her in a happy and stable couple at the end. (Note: lots of sex of all sorts of types. Not a movie for the timid.) The story arc is too expansive to pigeonhole it as a "coming out" story, although that's certainly a theme, especially at the start. No main characters die. The protagonist is happy (although not all the hearts she passes through are). But given the historic setting, the resolution can't be of the sort that a modern viewer would envision for herself.

A very lush treatment with high production values and very faithful to the original material. Definitely a must for Sarah Waters fans, if you can track down a copy.

Thursday, April 30, 2015 - 12:45

I picked this novel to read for a somewhat atypical reason: I'm pre-supporting the bid to bring WorldCon to Helsinki in 2017 and thought it might be a good idea to read some Finnish SFF. Memory of Water was getting some positive buzz so I decided to check it out. The story was written by the author simultaneously in Finnish and English (rather than being an after-the-fact translation) and has a lyrical, dream-like, poetic style. The action takes place in a post-climate-apocalypse Finland where today's geography has been greatly altered by both rising sea levels and shifting political hegemonies that have brought a dictatorial Chinese-origin government to power. Safe, pure drinking water is a scarce and rationed resource and "water crimes" are addressed with ruthless punishment. In a context where sweet water is at a premium, the protagonist Noria's family profession of ceremonial Tea Master (from the Japanese tradition) might seem not merely anachronistic but oddly luxurious. The fact that their clientele include ranking members of the military occupation creates an intersection of privilege and peril. Water is the pervasive theme of the story. In the most obvious terms: the daily struggle of Noria and her neighbors to secure enough water for their needs without overtly overstepping the law. The secret that Noria's family protects that brings her into conflict with both those neighbors and the law. And then there's the mystery of what happened to the water of the past and whether the official story of scarcity should be taken at face value. But more than that, water becomes the metaphor for Noria's path through life. Not, as it turns out, the relentless force of water to wear away mountains and scour valleys, but the flow of water to fill itself into whatever container is presented. For Noria is oddly and unsatisfyingly passive as a protagonist. The ventures she makes with her close friend Sanja to explore the mysteries of the past feel accidental and directionless (and, ultimately, vain). Even that friendship doesn't feel like a driving force in her life (or in Sanja's) but rather something they have flowed into and can flow out of just as easily. Noria rarely seems to act from principle, but rather from habit and tradition and--when pushed to it--from guilt. I fear that in some ways my take on this book is poisoned by the relentless message of U.S. dystopian fiction that lone protagonists should take up direct action against the oppressive regime and make their mark on the world. (And I am concerned that this is such a US-centric take on the genre that I'm not letting the story stand on its own merits.) Noria's story is, perhaps, far more realistic than that one, but realistic stories of ordinary people who bring only ordinary resistance and come to ordinary fates don't make for gripping reading. The language is beautiful. The world-building is vivid and intriguing. But the characters and story...just didn't do it for me. I feel pity for Noria, but not sympathy.

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