Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro not only give voice to James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript about his memories of US civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, but it draws attention to the urgency of what Baldwin wrote and spoke about during his lifetime. Peck presents Baldwin as a writer, social critic and activist of extraordinary depth and complexity, and demonstrates how essential Baldwin’s analysis of racial divisions in American is to understanding – and acting on – what is happening in America today.
Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes
Having really enjoyed the 2013 documentary The Battle of the Sexes, about the 1973 exhibition tennis match between retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs and the current women’s champion Billie Jean King, I was tentatively looking forward to Battle of the Sexes, a fictionalised account of the same story. To my delight it exceeded expectations to deliver a nuanced account of the entrenched chauvinism surrounding the event and a thoughtful examination of the motivations behind the actions of the various characters.
Laure Valentinelli as Sarah in Nocturama
Recently added to Netflix, Nocturama begins feeling like a modern spin on The Battle of Algiers as the film follows a group of young people methodically planning a series of terrorists attacks in Paris. But then the second half of the film depicts what happens to the characters as they hide out overnight in a department store. As they indulge in the very luxuries they were seemingly fighting against, they unravel as boredom, paranoia and recklessness take over. Free from their idealogical drive, they revert back to being restless adolescents.
Marion Cotillard as Catherine in It’s Only the End of the World
Having finally seen It’s Only the End of the Worldnow it’s on Stan,I think it is one of Xavier Dolan’s best films. Dolan fully embraces the fact that the film is based on a play and allows the actors to run with theatrically heightened emotional states in order for them to convey the resentment, anger, jealously and bitterness that their characters have for one another. It’s a devastating portrayal of a family consumed with pain and betrayal, and Dolan’s decision to shoot so much of the film in tight close-ups so that the characters appear isolated from each other, is a masterful command of film style.
Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks
I can’t imagine ever writing about television again in these monthly summaries, but I also can’t imagine seeing anything on television that comes close to having the impact on me that Twin Peaks has had. The third series, or The Return, continued to go in unexpected directions throughout all eighteen bewildering and captivating episodes, but the final two episodes delivered the emotional pinnacles and thematic gravitas that I had been really holding out for. It will be some time until I truly make sense of it all, but I did attempt to express a few of my ideas on Part 17 and Part 18 of Twin Peaks The Return: A Season Three Podcast.
Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe Ionescu and Josh O’Connor as Johnny Saxby in God’s Own Country
God’s Own Country is one of those films where I didn’t realise how much I loved it until the end credits began and I became aware of just how moved I was and how well-crafted a film it is. The film begins bleakly on a windswept farm in Yorkshire in northern England, and the protagonist is Josh, a morose and bitter young man whose only outlets from the drudgery of farm life is binge drinking and anonymous sex. Farm life and his personal life are characterised viscerally with dirt, flesh and bodily fluids. When Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe first enters the picture to work with Josh it’s difficult to see what he or the audience will find appealing about his new surroundings and companion. By the end of the film, Yorkshire had become a place of sublime beauty, Josh had convincingly matured and evolved into a character of depth and compassion, and God’s Own Country had become one of the most touching, heartfelt and sincere films that I have seen all year. For a film that seemed impenetrable when it began, I ended up not wanting it to end.
Zoe Kazan as Emily Gardner and Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick
While the title of the America romantic comedy The Big Sick identifies illness as the main source of drama in this based-on-a-true-story film, the real source of the film’s pathos and laughs is how well it navigates cultural clashes in contemporary America. Much of the film’s charm comes from how well it depicts the traditional Pakistani Muslim family that actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani (who plays a version of himself in the film) comes from. The difficulties Kumail faces in rejecting his family’s attempts to arrange a marriage for him with another Pakistani woman, to instead pursue his love for American woman Emily Gardner (played by Zoe Kazan and based on writer Emily V Gordon), is treated with humour, but never derision or condemnation. This is a film about navigating family as much as it is about finding love, and it’s refreshing, nuanced and very funny.
Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z
Since seeing James Gray’s The Lost City of Z I’ve since discovered that there is a lot of debate about the significance of 20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett and the value of his various expeditions into the Amazon rainforest. The extent to which the film may be printing the legend over the facts didn’t really concern me as my interest was how the film worked as a sort of revisionist explorer film that downplayed the heroics and hardships of being in the jungle, and instead presented a critique of the colonialist spirit of conquering and taming supposedly uncivilised parts of the world. The film challenges attitudes towards gender, race and class while still celebrating the spirit of exploration and honouring the ultimate mystery and tragedy of what happened to Fawcett.
Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks
With only two episodes to go, the new series of Twin Peaks has continued to be continuously inventive, delightful, dark, hilarious, strange and brilliant. For the most part it has avoided indulging in nostalgia or fan service, often by referencing the original series only in ways that are completely unexpected. But that moment in episode 16 was executed brilliantly and completely worth the wait.
Graduation is about the hypocrisy of well-meaning people doing the wrong thing. In the case of Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a Romanian doctor living in a small town, he resorts to corruption to help his daughter pursue a better quality of life. Like many critics, I was astonished by filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s tense and confronting 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but I think Graduation is even better. Despite the film’s grim beginning, it is not an ordeal and it even offers a glimmer of hope that the younger generation may break the cycle of cynicism, opportunism and self-interest that the older generation have taught them. Not unlike the films of The Salesman filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, there are no overly bad people in Graduation, just a range of characters with different breaking points and limitations.
Kim Ok-bin as Sook-hee in The Villainess
‘Kinetic’ and ‘visceral’ are two words I sometimes worry I over use, but I can’t think of anything better to describe the delirious and thrilling action sequences in The Villainess. The gleefully convoluted tale of revenge, a secret assassins’ agency and double-crossings contain many familiar themes and plot points from films such as La Femme Nikita and Kill Bill, but it is the superb ultra-violent action choreography and cinematography that makes The Villainess stand out. While the film’s gritty yet slick aesthetic has seen it compared to things like The Raid and some of the more intense moments in Park Chan-wook’s films, I also thought of Gaspar Noé and the way he manages to float the camera through scenes in a dreamlike and often seemingly impossible way.
Annette Bening as Dorothea Fields and Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie Fields in 20th Century Women
I’m not sure when exactly, but at some point while watching 20th Century WomenI became aware of just how much I was loving being in the company of the five main characters. Inspired by writer/director Mike Mills’s own childhood, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is at the centre of the narrative, but the film really belongs to his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who lives in the same boarding house, as well as William (Billy Crudup). They are a fascinating, likeable and vulnerable ensemble of characters trying to make sense of the complexities of family, love, mortality and aging against the backdrop of the sexual revolution, the emergence of punk and the impending presidency of Ronald Reagan. While tinged with melancholy, this is ultimately a warm and embracing film about how experiences and relationships shape us.
An Seo Hyun as Mija in Okja
Bong Joon-ho has always excelled in his ability to mash-up genres and perform radical tonal shifts within a single film, and Okjais no different. It starts like a kids film (but with more swearing) focusing on Mija, a young girl wanting to be reunited with her beloved super pig. Okja then shifts gear into camp and comedic action when Mija falls in with a group of animal rights activists, and then finally ends up as a confronting and moving critique of industrialised meat production. Emerging child actor An Seo Hyun gives a grounded performance as Mija, while the manic performances from the supporting cast – which includes Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano – successfully conveys the madness of the world she encounters when she gets caught up in the machinery of capitalism and media hype.
Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman fulfils the potential shown by Man of Steel in 2013 when the DC Extended Universe kicked-off with Superman’s origin story. Both films concern godlike superhero characters with childlike emotional intelligence who have to learn to make sense of the world, especially when it comes to difficult moral choices. Wonder Woman is a far less angst-ridden affair, and it charts Diana Prince’s journey from the secret island of Themyscira where she grew up, to the Western Front in Belgium during World War I, where she is convinced she will meet and defeat Ares the god of war. As well as delivering several exhilarating and beautifully choreography action sequences, what gives Wonder Woman its edge is the way is grapples with issues of morality concerning what it means to act for the greater good, and the complicated nature of war where defeating the big super villain won’t sudden bring war to an end overnight.
I’m not sure if you have to be a cat-lover to enjoy the Turkish documentary Kedi, as I feel it does explore broader ideas about the relationship between humans and domesticated animals. On the other hand, as somebody who grew up and continues to live with cats, I’m not the slightest bit objective. I adored this charming, beautiful and surprising soulful film about the thousands of street cats living in Istanbul and the city’s human residents that some of the cats deem worthy of their affection. Kedi showcases a beautiful city from a cat’s perspective, examines the symbiotic bond between people and cats, and muses on deeper questions regarding life, god and love, and how cats fit into all that. Brilliant.
David Lynch in David Lynch: The Art Life
I’ve had the good fortune to attend two exhibitions of David Lynch’s artwork – The Air is on Fire in Paris, France in 2007 and more recently David Lynch: Between Two Worlds in Brisbane, Australia in 2015 – and both demonstrated how Lynch’s art runs parallel to his work as a filmmaker, exploring and expanding on many of the themes in his films. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life is an excellent portrait of Lynch the artist, exploring how his childhood experiences and early influences helped shape his artistic obsessions. I’ve never heard the notoriously secretive director talk so candidly about himself and his work, and the film contains a lot of footage that I (a massive Lynch fan) had never seen before.
And speaking of Lynch, the new series of Twin Peaks continues to soar above and beyond my expectations.
Get Outis a remarkable film that manages to do several things at once. It’s a horror/comedy that is actually both frightening and funny. It is also an effective piece of easily consumed entertainment that still works as a smart commentary on race. It’s not didactic, yet its examination of how middle white America regards African Americans is hardly subtext – it’s the main focus of the film. It engages sympathy and identification from the audience for its black protagonist, while also portraying several uncomfortable observations about how the dominant white culture both condescends towards and fetishises black culture. It’s a significant accomplishment when a film this fun is also so smart, thought-provoking and challenging.
Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks
I’m cheating by including a television series, especially considering that as a rule I don’t engage with television like I do with cinema, but Twin Peaksis a massive exception. The original 1990-1991 series is possibly my favourite piece of visual entertainment/art and as much as there are a number of TV shows I adore, it remains the only series that for me has ever transcended the limitations of television (maybe I could also say the same about some of Dennis Potter’s work, but I’ve never regularly rewatched those show like I have with Twin Peaks). I could not be happier with the four episodes of this new series that have been released so far. There’s enough that is recognisable about this new series to connect it to the original series, but like the brilliant 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, it is very much its own thing, and showcases co-creator David Lynch‘s ongoing creative evolution. It’s got a slow burn intensity that perfectly delivers Lynch’s humour, sense of mystery and darkness. A lot of it is familiar and a lot of it makes me feel way out-of-my depth, and that’s how I like it.
David Lynch in Los Angeles, August 2014. Photograph: Just Loomis.
On Thursday 26 March 2015 at 7pm, I presented a one-hour special on David Lynch and the David Lynch: Between Two Worlds exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. The special was broadcast during the Max Headroom show on radio station Triple R (3RRR 102.7FM). I discussed Lynch’s career as an artist and a filmmaker, played some of the recorded audio of Lynch speaking at the exhibition’s press conference, and played some of the music that Lynch has either helped to create or used in his films.
When David Lynch first heard Bobby Vinton’s 1963 cover of ‘Blue Velvet’ he found it schmaltzy and not his cup of tea. Sometime later he heard it again and that time he saw ‘green lawns, red lips… at night’. Then came the idea of a severed ear. And then ants. This was the genesis of the 1986 film Blue Velvet; the film that for many defines Lynch as a filmmaker, along with the cult television series Twin Peaks, which may or may not return to our screens in 2016. When Blue Velvet premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival Lynch got to dance with Giulietta Masina, the wife and muse of Federico Fellini. Fellini is one the filmmakers, along with Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Tati among others, who Lynch has at some point cited as an influence. Fellini’s nostalgic, surreal, affectionate and satirical vision of Italy certainly makes him something of an artistic predecessor to Lynch whose films cast a similarly fond, but critical and cautionary eye over America.
The image of the green lawn and red lips, the story about dancing with Masina; such anecdotes are often all the information that any interviewer has ever drawn out from Lynch during his 50 year career as a visual artist then filmmaker and more recently musician. Lynch is not being deliberately belligerent or obtuse, he just doesn’t like explaining his art as he told the sold out crowd at the Concert Hall at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane on Saturday 14 March 2015. Making his first and only ever public appearance in Australia in a one hour In Conversation event with film critic David Stratton, Lynch explained that while he thinks it’s beautiful that people analyse and critique his films, he feels it’s not up to him to explain his films because ‘a film should work on its own’. He’s thrilled that his films are so discussed, debated and open to interpretation, saying that ‘When things get abstract… there’s room for many interpretations’.
With perfectly styled silver hair, dressed in a black suit, black tie and white shirt, and making a reference to coffee in the first five minutes of the In Conversation event, Lynch characteristically looked like so many of the characters he has created for the screen, including FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks, a role he played himself. He spoke deliberately and politely, but with the reassuring intensity of a determined schoolteacher who wants nothing more than to share their passion and insight with their students. Often he would squeeze his eyes shut and chop the air with his hands as if he was concentrating on delivering the most honest and pure answers possible. Right before describing the pigeon shit on the set of The Elephant Man he asks the audience to excuse his French.
Lynch was in Brisbane for the opening of the David Lynch: Between Two Worlds exhibition, which is on display at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 7 June 2015. The exhibition consists of paintings, sketches, photography and sculptures by Lynch as well as samples of his work in other media including animation, comic strips, web videos, music videos as well as the film and television projects he is best known for. As the exhibition’s curator José Da Silva explains, the idea behind the exhibition is to introduce audiences to Lynch’s work as an artist and to link his art to his films. Lynch did begin as a painter; he’s been a prolific artist his entire career and before making any films he was a painter. At the GOMA media conference, which was held the day before the In Conversation event, Lynch was asked about his background as a painter and how it all began.
My father would bring home paper from the office that was going to be thrown away, and it had the blank side at the back. And I would draw and I liked to draw knives, guns, airplanes, and my favourite thing was the Browning Automatic Watercooled Submachine gun. And I love to draw, but I had this thought in my mind that when you grew up you couldn’t do those things. I was in the 9th grade in Alexandria, Virginia, on the front lawn of my girlfriend’s house and I met a kid who was going to private school – I met him for the first time that night – and I was talking to him and he said his father was a painter. And at first I thought he might have been a house painter and then he said, no, fine art painter. And a bomb went off in my head and from then on all I wanted to do was be a painter. And I still really basically… all I want to do is paint. But that’s how it started.
In 2007 the exhibition The Air is on Fire at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, France, was the first comprehensive presentation of Lynch as a visual artist and even came with its own custom designed industrial soundscape that visitors could play as they pressed buttons found among the artworks. Between Two Worlds isn’t as exhaustive as The Air is on Fire, but it does contain very carefully chosen pieces, including works done since the Paris exhibition, in order to best represent Lynch’s most prevalent and compelling artistic themes. And rather than having all the artwork arranged chronologically, they are displayed thematically, although the three themes chosen by Da Silva do roughly reveal the chronological development across Lynch’s film career.
The first theme is ‘Man and Machine’ and speaks to Lynch’s fascination with the way that factories and the human body are both in a constant process of creation, transformation and decay. Lynch’s father was a research scientist who worked in agriculture, exposing Lynch to a scientific perspective of decay and disease in the natural world. His mother taught English and encouraged self-expression so at the age of 19 Lynch went to art school in the industrial city of Philadelphia, a city that at the time was in decline and filled with fear, hopelessness, crime and sadness. Lynch has described his time in Philadelphia as terrifying, thrilling and one of the biggest influences on his career.
Philadelphia, I always say, was my biggest inspiration. I went there at the very end of 1965 and I stayed there until 1970 and it was a very sick, corrupt, filthy, fear-ridden city with insanity and fear and negativity in the atmosphere. And at the same time I really loved that city. There was a mood in Philadelphia that I caught and it stayed with me. And it’s a mood of a kind of a factory town. I fell in love with the architecture – these row houses and the proportions of these rooms, and the colours they would use and how it would conjure a mood. And the city really made me dream. It was a beautiful experience.
The intertwining of nature and industry is throughout so much of Lynch’s art and his films. Then there are various works made from food and left to decay as well as pieces such as Chicken Kit (1983) where a dissected chicken is accompanied by instructions on how to reassemble it, as if it were a model aeroplane kit. Included in the exhibition are paintings of factories, selections from his photographic series documenting abandoned factories from around the USA and Europe, not to mention his 2007 lithograph ‘Factory at Night with Nude’. As he tells us during the In Conversation event, ‘I love factories and I love nude women’. Here’s some more from the media conference where Lynch talks a bit further about the things he loves:
I love smoke and fire and machines, and these factory buildings make me dream. I love oil-impregnated earth – I don’t know why, but I love it. So many things I love are not necessarily good for the environment, but they’re beautiful in another way. Now the factories are little, they’re very efficient, all the machines are tiny, and they don’t make the same sorts of sounds. I’m sure they’re more powerful, but they don’t appear to have any power. So it’s a little bit depressing to me. I don’t know what will come of it, but I do get a lot of inspiration from people’s behaviour and the absurdity of the problems we have these days. I kind of like the problems – I don’t like people suffering – it conjures ideas, people’s behaviour.
The blend of nature and machinery is pronounced in Lynch’s early film career when out of a desire to see his paintings move he began making short experimental narrative films. One of these films was The Grandmother in 1970, where the creation of life was represented as being mechanical and plant-based. Then in 1971 Lynch moved to Los Angeles and began working on his first feature film, which he would finish 6 years later in 1977. Inspired by his experiences in Philadelphia and clearly expressing deep anxieties over having recently become a father, Eraserhead is set in an otherworldly space dominated by factories and warehouses where a deformed man pulling giant levers inside a shed represents the creation of life. At the centre of this industrial world in Henry Spencer, a hapless and awkward young man who is not at all adjusting well to the responsibilities of parenthood. Lynch informs the audience that he identifies with Henry, but he is not him. Henry was played by the late Jack Nance, who appeared in nearly every one of Lynch’s films until his death in 1996, including playing the much loved Pete ‘She’s Dead, Wrapped In Plastic’ Martell in Twin Peaks.
If Lynch were able to find the most potent nightmares possible within the factory world of Eraserhead, in the mechanised world of London, England, during the Industrial Revolution, he found tremendous beauty in The Elephant Man, the sad and moving film about a man in the 19th century whose extreme deformities were originally exploited by a travelling freak show, before he found his way into the care of the staff at the London Hospital.
As Lynch tells it, he was part of a creative team who were pitching the project to the recently formed production company Brooksfilms, a company created by Mel Brooks to allow him to produce films that wouldn’t be associated with his reputation for comedy. The rest of the team successfully pitched and were hired, but Lynch was an unknown. So a private viewing of Eraserhead was arranged for Brooks with Lynch to wait outside the viewing room until the film was finished. Lynch was sure that would be the end of that, but when the film finished Brooks burst out of the theatrette and said to Lynch, ‘I love you, you’re a mad man’. Lynch would later describe Brooks as ‘an abstract thinker’, which of course is the highest compliment possible coming from Lynch.
Lynch describes working on The Elephant Man as a ‘baptism of fire’, but recounts that once he stood in the setting among the old hospital beds and imagined himself present in 19th Century London, he was able to feel complete ownership over the material and that confidence made the film possible.
Lynch has been a practitioner and advocate of Transcendental Meditation for the past 40 years, using it to travel deep within himself to tap into a pure consciousness that will deliver true happiness and a treasury of ideas. The deeper a person can go within themselves, the more powerful, abstract and pure the ideas will be and remaining true to these ideas without restrictions is what drives Lynch artistically. As he says, ‘Any restrictions is a sadness and can kill creativity’. Lynch spoke at length at both the In Conversation event and the media conference, about Transcendental Meditation and its importance to him.
I’ve been doing Transcendental Meditation as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for 41 years. I’ve been meditating twice a day, never missed a meditation in those 41 years. Transcendental Meditation is a mental technique, an ancient form of meditation brought back by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for this time. Transcendental Meditation is not concentration, it’s not contemplation; it’s a unique meditation in that it allows you to dive within – all the way within – and experience the unbounded eternal ocean of pure consciousness, within each one of us human beings. And when you transcend and experience that ocean of consciousness…POW… it’s an incredible experience and every time you experience it you infuse some of that and you really truly start expanding whatever ball of consciousness you had to begins with. Tied to consciousness is intelligence, creativity, happiness, love, energy and peace – all positive within. And you start growing that positivity – those qualities – the side effect is negativity starts to lift away. Stress and traumatic stress, anxieties, tension, depression, hate, anger, fear – all this starts to lift away. And it’s like a huge weight lifting.
So it affects not only your work, but your whole life and all your relationships. It affects everything in a beautiful way. You’ve got more energy – people are so fatigued these days and there’s so much negativity, so much hate in this world. Let them dive within. Another name for that ocean of consciousness within is Ātman, it’s a Vedic word meaning ‘the self’ – know they self – that’s right there. Another name for that deepest level is the Kingdom of Heaven – ‘First seek the Kingdom of Heaven that lies within’. It’s all there within us. And this technique gets you there, first time, every time, and it’s easy and effortless. It’s a beautiful, beautiful blessing this thing. And the answer is, yeah, it really affected my life and my work!
The Elephant Man was Lynch’s first Hollywood studio film. The second and the last studio film was Dune, which he went into knowing that he wouldn’t have final cut, but assuming it would work out okay in the end anyway. It didn’t. Not according to Lynch anyway. When asked during the In Conversation event if he wanted to say anything about Dune, Lynch replied ‘not a lot’.
An adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sprawling cult science-fiction novel, Lynch’s version of Dune actually has considerable merit. Lynch’s realising of the mutated Spacing Guild and the incredibly grotesque scenes involving Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s doctor treating the sores on his face fit into Lynch’s preoccupations with mutable bodies. The production design is stunning and for at least the first half of the film it conveys a lot of the novel’s complex ideas in an engaging and intelligent way. But it is also a film that has been clearly cut up and rearranged by somebody other than Lynch and his frustration with it and desire to simply chalk it up to experience are very much on the record. Later when asked about creative freedom Lynch said, ‘I’ve been free since Dune’.
But Dune should also be credited for starring the then unknown actor Kyle MacLachlan, who would go on to star in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Dune was also produced by Dino de Laurentiis who would then produce Blue Velvet. Despite disagreeing with so many of the choices de Laurentiis made on Dune, Lynch still regarded him as a friend and had a lot of respect for him. But for Blue Velvet, and every film Lynch worked on since, he would insist on having final cut. When asked how he got final cut for Blue Velvet, Lynch answered, ‘I asked for it.’
The second theme explored in the Between Two Worlds exhibition is ‘The extra-ordinary’ where everyday objects and experiences are made strange or beautiful or terrifying or mysterious. This is David Lynch at the GOMA press conference, speaking a bit about dream logic:
I’ve never really gotten many ideas from dreaming – night-time dreaming – but I love daytime dreaming. I love to sit in a chair and dream about things, and go on a daydream and sometimes ideas come when I do that. I always say I love the idea of dream logic – how dreams can go, and how even though they’re very abstract, you can understand them. So this dream logic is something I really like to think about.
The opening sequence of Blue Velvet contains images and scenes direct from how Middle America is idealised to be, before the camera plunges into the dark undergrowth to show a whole other world of insects working away. This was Lynch’s experience as a child; growing up in an idyllic suburban environment in a stable family, but underneath the white picket fences, blue skies and green lawns was a darker underbelly.
The focus on the everyday and small details result in some of the more recent digital experimental works on display in the exhibition, where tiny details from existing photographs and paintings are magnified. But mostly this concept of finding the unusual in what was presumed normal is used by Lynch to exaggerate the mundane to generate droll humour or uncomfortable horror as in both cases the viewer is seeing something recognisable but in a way that is unfamiliar. Within the exhibition are samples from two of the 2002 web series Lynch developed – the crude animation Dumbland and the sitcom/soap opera Rabbits where all the actors are dressed as giant Rabbits. The family unit and the format of the shows are recognisable, and their strangeness provides laughs and uneasiness.
The focus on things not seeming to be the way that they are is most potent in the image of the house that occurs in a lot of Lynch’s artwork with titles such as “Shadow of a Twisted Hand Across My House” (1988), “Someone Is In My House” (2014) and “I Take You To My House (2013), which depicts an aggressive looking man carrying a vulnerable and naked woman. For somebody who is so against explaining his films, many of Lynch’s paintings are surprisingly literal with their overly descriptive titles that are usually painted directly onto the canvass, often with other pieces of explanatory text. However, it seems to be part of the childlike quality he gives to his paintings. The end results suggest the terrified perspective of a child who doesn’t understand what they are witnessing.
The ideals of the happy nuclear family unit and the family home as being somewhere safe are frequently undermined in Lynch’s films often through the way he portrays violence against women. And that violence is predominantly from men and in Blue Velvet and the Twin Peaks television series and film, that violence is portrayed as not external, but from within the community. In Blue Velvet the violence comes from Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), in Twin Peaks it comes from a whole host of members of the community who engage in acts of domestic violence, sexual assault and murder. The truth behind the show’s central mystery of who killed Laura Palmer is so confronting that Lynch was compelled to make the sort-of prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) to explore the issues without the classification restraints of television at the time.
While The Elephant Man was a success, it was Blue Velvet that delivered Lynch mainstream attention. For all its darkness and disturbing subject matter, it is still a film filled with likeable characters, an intriguing mystery and that offbeat, droll and weird quality that became known as Lynchian. It established Kyle MacLachlan as Lynch’s leading man, and it was also the first time Lynch would work with actors Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern. It was also the beginning of Lynch’s musical relationship with composer Angelo Badalamenti and singer Julee Cruise, and all three would soon work together on the soundtrack of Twin Peaks.
During the media conference Lynch was asked what is his favourite collaboration with Badalamenti.
‘Laura Palmer’s theme’, I think. Angelo can write some of the most beautiful, beautiful music, but Angelo also is fairly lazy. I like to think Angelo could go down into his basement to his keyboards and write music everyday, but he doesn’t do that. So he needs some pushing and when we work together I sit next to him – I’ve also told this story a bunch of times – but it’s the way we work. I sit next to him on the piano bench or near him, and I talk to him in words to conjure a mood in him, and he plays my words. And if I don’t like what he’s playing, I change the words. And it just goes along like that. And then he’ll catch something and this one day he… he had an office (he doesn’t have it anymore) he had an office across from Macy’s department store in the centre of New York City. And this office was a small apartment. He had no furniture in it. It was terribly drab. I was a depressing little place. And he just had a Rhodes keyboard and the cheapest little cassette recorder, and he’d sit there and I was talking to him on this day in this little office, and he caught a thing.
He caught a thing and started playing. And I started falling in love immediately, but I didn’t know where it was going to go so I couldn’t fall out. But I didn’t fall out. And it kept getting more and more. And I kept falling deeper in love, and it kept getting more and more. And this thing just flew out of Angelo. It was amazing! It was so beautiful. And I started crying, it was so beautiful. Angelo didn’t really understand. He said, ‘David, what is the deal, I don’t… I don’t… it’s not that special I don’t think.’ I said, ‘Angelo, it is special’ and later he kind of agreed.
After seeing Blue Velvet, television executive Tony Krantz pursued Lynch to get him to work with Hill Street Blues writer Mark Frost to develop a television series. Lynch had no desire to work on television, but as he’d worked with Frost on a couple of projects that never came to fruition he agreed to meet with him. During this meeting they had the image of a dead girl and that’s where it all started. Lynch made the pilot for Twin Peaks like a film and subsequently treated every episode like a mini-film, elevating American television to new heights, not just in thematic complexity, but also in production values. It is difficult to imagine any of the long form adult dramas that are now binge watched and endlessly discussed on lunch breaks, without Twin Peaks paving the way first.
The dead girl that Lynch and Mark Frost came up with was Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) the popular high-school prom queen whose murder attracts the attention of the FBI. Throughout the investigation into her death not only do the dark secrets of the town get exposed, but also the series gradually introduces supernatural themes concerning a shadow place to our world. Combining characters and storylines lifted from soap operas, sit-coms, detective stories, science fiction, and horror, Twin Peaks was initially a huge hit and embraced as the ultimate example of post-modern hipness. Although in hindsight, much of what may have once been considered ironic could possibly have been sincerity all along. Within each episode there are plenty of scenes and situations the express Lynch’s belief in and hope for family, friendship, love and community. Here’s Lynch now, talking about love:
Well, I had a girlfriend in nursery school, but I don’t remember her too well. And in the second grade I had a girlfriend named Alice Bower. On time we went on a school outing. This was in Durham, North Carolina. All he kids in the second grade… We had a teacher named Mrs Crabtree, just like in The Little Rascals, and we rode in the back of a flatbed truck to a dairy and Alice and I held hands. It was so fantastic. At the dairy we got these small bottles – real thick glass with complicated snap-off tops – of thick unbelievably great tasting chocolate milk. That was a wonderful outing.
And as for the 3rd season that was presumed to be happening in 2016, 25 years after the second season was cancelled? Lynch and Frost have been developing the scripts for the past for years, but Lynch wanted to make it clear that there are no guarantees at this point.
During the early 1990s, around the time of Twin Peaks, Lynch was extremely busy, working on Julee Cruise’s first two albums, staging the musical play Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Broken Hearted, with Cruise and Badalamenti’s music, developing other short lived television projects and continually creating visual artwork. He was approached by his producer friend Monty Montgomery, who wanted Lynch to take a look at a novel by American writer Barry Gifford that Montgomery wanted to direct. Lynch soon realised that this was something he wanted to direct so Montgomery became a producer, Lynch cast Laura Dern whom he knew from Blue Velvet and Nicholas Cage who he considers fearless in the lead roles of a wildly in love couple on the run and the result was Wild at Heart. An ultra-stylised road movie filled with black humour, violence and pop-culture references to Elvis and The Wizard of Oz, it is was both booed and applauded when it won the prestigious Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Lynch would later cast Monty Montgomery as the mysterious cowboy in Mulholland Drive as well as arrange and produce a 1988 album by Montgomery’s then girlfriend/now wife Jocelyn Montgomery. Based on the compositions of the 12th century writer, philosopher and mystic Hildegard von Bingen, Lux Vivens: The Music Of Hildegard Von Bingen incorporates Montgomery’s haunting vocals with Lynch’s dark soundscape. Despite producing and writing a lot of the lyrics for the Cruise albums, Lynch regards Lux Vivens as his first major music project that was born out of his collaborations with Badalamenti. Through Badalamenti Lynch got to know musicians and developed a love for being in the studio, so built his own studio and started experimenting with sound. He’s since collaborated with other musicians such as John Neff, Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse, Lykke Li and Chrysta Bell, and in the past few years has released his own solo albums, Crazy Clown Time in 2011 and The Big Dream in 2013. And yet as Lynch tells us while in Brisbane, ‘I am not a musician and I am not a singer, but I do make music and I sing.’
I think a lot of Taoism is right on the money and all throughout time people have talked about this reality, that there is this field within. They may have used different words for whatever for the people they’re talking to at the time, but the reality is that – the truth is that – and many many cultures, many many religions, many many philosophies there have been many many people saying about this through out time.
The final section of the Between Two Worlds exhibition is ‘Psychic Aches’ referring to the shadowy hidden versions of our selves that embody our fear and aggression. It’s an abstracted self that is frequently literalised in Lynch’s work as a dark, sinister and unwelcome figure in both his paintings and his films. This malevolent version of the self is present in paintings such as ‘My Shadow Is A Monster’ (2011), ‘Please Go Away From Here’ (2014) and ‘Bob’s Second Dream (2011), which features severed body parts and a figure saying ‘Everything is fucking broken’. Several of the paintings feature a figure identified as Bob (Frank Silva), including a 2010 painting titled ‘Bob Lights Fires’ where the figure appears to be throwing matches, not unlike the demonic entity Bob from Twin Peaks was reported to have done to Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) when he was a young boy.
The nature of the character Bob in Twin Peaks fits in with the ‘Psychic Aches’ theme since he is the manifestation of ‘the evil that men do’. Rather than suggest that Bob possesses blameless men in Twin Peaks to inflict evil through them, he is a symbol for the collective horrors of male violence. Bob also represents the way that both perpetrators of horrific violence and victims of abuse are know to use forms of dissociation as a coping mechanism where they imagine themselves or their abuser to be somebody else. The idea is explored even further in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which seems designed to convey to the viewer the confusion, terror and betrayal of a family abuse victim. Bob also represents the potential for seemingly good men to also become violent and abusive, an idea that is strongly asserted in the devastating series finale.
The notion of the shadow self is even more pronounced in Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway, written by Wild at Heart author Barry Gifford. While like most of Lynch’s films it is heavily open to interpretation Lost Highway contains three male characters who could all be fragments of the same identity. There’s Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) who is Fred’s idealised or fantasy version of himself and there’s The Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who like Bob in Twin Peaks is the figure who inflicts the violence that Fred doesn’t believe he is capable of.
With Lost Highway beginning what is now referred to as Lynch’s ‘LA Trilogy’ Lynch next took a detour from the types of films people had come to associate him with to make what he describes as his most experimental film. Like Wild at Heart, The Straight Story (1999) is a road movie, but there are not too many similarities beyond that. Based on the true story of an elderly man who travelled across America on a ride-on lawn mower to reconcile with his brother, The Straight Story is family-friendly and nostalgic. It’s the only feature film Lynch hasn’t written himself and he describes it as experimental for him as it was the first time he had to tease the emotional reactions out of the script, rather than his emotions coming first. As much as The Straight Story may seem like an anomaly for Lynch it possesses a strong degree of heartfelt sentiment regarding family, tradition and America, which is something that has been present in previous work.
Despite vowing to never again work in television, Tony Krantz once again convinced Lynch to do so, and the result was the pilot episode of Mulholland Drive. When asked about working with Australian actors Lynch was full of praise for the professionalism of Australian talent and their ability to be ‘straight shooters’. However, the person he seemed most enamoured with was Naomi Watts who got her break in Mulholland Drive playing one of the lead roles. As Lynch explains, at that time big movie stars didn’t do television, as they weren’t able to sign on for the lengthy period of time required to make a television series. As Naomi Watts wasn’t a big star at the time she was part of the pool of actors who Lynch normally didn’t choose from when casting for a film, but was available to him since he was casting for what he thought was going to be a television series.
It’s now well known that Mulholland Drive never became a television series and according to Lynch a big part of the problem was that the person with the power to green light the show, watched the pilot episode at 6am in the morning while standing up and drinking their coffee on the other side of the room to their screen. They hated it and they passed. When approached to turn the pilot into a feature film Lynch confessed to being in a rare terrifying situation of having zero ideas, but after using his Transcendental Meditation training and techniques, the ideas started flowing in and he was able to do the required additional shooting. As at least one year had elapsed between the pilot being made and the reshoots beginning, he had the additional challenges of no longer having many of the sets, costumes and props, not to mention some of the actors were no longer available. Despite Lynch’s claims about working best without restrictions, he worked under extreme restrictions with Mulholland Drive with the result being one of his most highly acclaimed films. It would also be the third film of his, after The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet, which he would pick up an Oscar nomination for Best Director. And it launched the career of Naomi Watts and with a rare hint of pride Lynch states how happy he was to see her go on to do so much other great work and demonstrate that she has ‘the stuff’.
Similar to Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive is non-lineal, constantly blurs the boundaries between fantasy and reality, and is highly open to interpretation. It also features a lead character who is split between two identities, both played by Watts: bright eyed aspiring actor Betty Elms fresh off the bus in Hollywood, and bitter failed actor Diane Selwyn who may or may not have murdered her lover. Lynch’s preoccupation with other worldly character or places that represent humanity’s darkest nature is this time reserved for Hollywood, the greatest illusory world of all that destroys far more souls than it makes dreams.
The fractured identity and Hollywood-as-exploitive-nightmare-factory themes were pushed even further in Inland Empire (2006), Lynch’s final narrative feature film to date, as much as it can be regarded as a narrative film. Lynch reunited with Laura Dern to take the lead role of Nikki Grace, an actor attempting a comeback by appearing in a cursed film. Nikki’s identity increasingly begins to blur with the character she is playing and then a subplot about a Polish girl is introduced. Lynch’s most open-to-interpretation film to date, it’s never too sure who is dreaming of whom. Perhaps most dramatic of all is the extent to which Lynch embraces digital filmmaking for Inland Empire. As the film began as a loose collection of scenes, many of which were originally shot for Lynch’s website on a low-resolution camera, Lynch committed to making the film on digital cameras and wrote scripts daily in response to what had been filmed the day before.
It’s a bold approach for a filmmaker who tells the audience in Brisbane that he doesn’t allow for improvisation and always sticks to the script in order to be true to the ideas that have come to you. Then again, Lynch also values ‘keeping a fresh eye’ and will always try to watch his films with an audience of people not connected to the film to gauge their reaction just by being in the same room with them. He is also open to accidents and surprises, and shares a wonderful anecdote from Blue Velvet concerning the use of the Roy Orbison song ‘In Dreams’. Dennis Hopper was supposed to sing the song in character as Frank Booth, but couldn’t remember the lyrics. So Hopper asks his friend, actor Dean Stockwell, to help him learn the song. They asked Lynch to watch one of their rehearsals where Stockwell lip-synched the lyrics and Hopper attempted to sing. Lynch loved what he saw and ended up changing the entire scene and writing a part for Stockwell in order to recreate that beautiful accident in what has become one of the defining scenes from Blue Velvet.
Inland Empire was ten years ago, but Lynch has continued to make short experimental digital films, visual art and music since then. He even directed a concert film for Duran Duran. And of course, there are those new episodes of Twin Peaks. When asked about how he knows when to finish a film he answers that while ‘nothing is ever really perfect, it is finished’. Given the extent of the work on display in Between Two Worlds it seems like Lynch is far from finished and despite his warning not to get our hopes up too high for a new series of Twin Peaks, it is clear that he’s not done with it yet.
One of the key lines from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is ‘We live inside a dream’ and it’s as good a way as any to understand and explore the dreamlike and mysterious world of David Lynch. Lynch is asked half jokingly if he thinks such a line is somewhat Lynchian and he replies that ‘it’s sort of the truth’. He says this with complete sincerity and commitment to the idea behind it. Now that’s Lynchian.
Yeah, I always say you go where the ideas lead you. So it’s all based on ideas that you fall in love with. You get fired up and you go do those things. So if you’re in love with a cinema idea, you do that and the difference is… films take a long time to make, so during that time you don’t have so many opportunities to paint or work in other mediums, but it’s all these fantastic things called ideas that drive the boat. And love.
My relationship with David Lynch started badly. I would have been maybe 8 or 9-years-old at the time when repeat viewings of the Star Wars films had developed a taste for science fiction and fantasy. Being able to appreciate 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly suggested that I was capable of digesting more serious cinema so my parents and I figured we’d give Dune, Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, a go. Big mistake. I wasn’t so much concerned with its significant narrative flaws and stylistic inconsistencies as I was too busy being horrified at its grotesqueness. In particular, the scene where Baron Vladimir Harkonnen works himself up into an orgasmic frenzy and then rips out some poor attendants heart plug gave me nightmares for weeks
It wasn’t until I was 17 that I would have my next encounter with Lynch and although it was under very dubious circumstances it was a defining moment in my film-going life. I was going through a phase where my growing love for cinema and petty teen rebelliousness meant that I saw as many transgressive and controversial films that I could sneak in to. During this time I was set up on a blind date that involved the poor girl, our mutual friends and me all going out together a couple of times to see films. I used the first occasion to see A Clockwork Orange again and on our second ‘date’ I decided we all had to check out a restored print of this strange cult film I’d been reading about called Eraserhead. Clearly the dates weren’t a success and I never saw that girl again, but seeing Eraserhead for the first time was amazing.
Never before had I experienced a film that was like a dream, or to be more precise – a nightmare that I could not wake up from. The strange acting, industrial wasteland setting, creepy soundtrack, moody cinematography and macabre story about a deformed baby culminated in a genuinely unique experience. It was funny, disgusting and strangely beautiful with a transfixing dream-like power. Most importantly, it felt genuine. At the time of making Eraserhead Lynch was freaking out about becoming a father and the film expresses those anxieties, plus a whole lot more to do with male sexuality, in a way that felt disturbingly familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Eraserhead is not a film that you can necessarily ‘get’ or ‘decode’ on a literal level (although I certainly tried in one or two undergraduate essays) but it is a film you understand on an emotional level.
And that’s the core to what I adore about Lynch – the emotional reality of his films. So very few directors craft their films so lovingly and expertly to generate something that resonates on such an emotional level as David Lynch. This emotional reality will always fulfil me more than any literal reality and films with the ability to generate images and sounds to tap into something subconscious will always impress me over films that attempt to replicate objective reality. It is also for this reason that I get frustrated with the way so many other people respond to Lynch’s films and I find that people who constantly carry on about how weird he is or assume that he must be on drugs are just as irritating as people who think he is being deliberately confusing just to annoy them.
My love affair with Lynch continued about a year later when I finally got around to hiring all the episodes of Twin Peaks on VHS to watch over summer. I was aware of Twin Peaks from when it originally screened on television but never gave it much thought, although I did love that distinctive theme song sung by Julee Cruise. I had never taken television seriously as an art form and with the exception of the various Dennis Potter written miniseries and telemovies that I had seen I regarded television somewhat snobbishly as a lesser medium. That all changed when I watched Twin Peaks, ploughing through episode after episode about the small town asking itself, “Who killed Laura Palmer?”
The incredible blend of soap-opera, melodrama, murder mystery, police thriller, sit-com, horror and science fiction was unlike anything I had ever seen before and honestly unlike anything I have ever seen since. Twin Peaks both conformed to the traditional structure of conventional television narratives and completely messed with them. It was serious television but also parody and through watching Twin Peaks I finally figured out what post-modernism was really all about! But most importantly, it was filled with wonderful characters that I just fell in love with. It was a show that had the ability to terrify me and move me to tears, often in the same episode. The second season did dip in quality midway through but the first season is masterful and the very final episode is still the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen on television.
My love of Twin Peaks led to me seeking out the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lynch’s earlier film the suburban-gothic film noirBlue Velvet, which thematically and stylistically paved the wave for Twin Peaks. Like so many others I loved Blue Velvet and when I had the privilege of interviewing Dennis Hopper I was thrilled to hear him talk about how much he loved playing the primal force that was the Frank Booth character. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was not a film I warmed to right away because it was so different to the television series but after subsequent viewings it has become one of my favourite films by Lynch with its terrifying and upsetting portrayal of sexual violence within the family.
Years later my undergraduate degree culminated in an honours thesis on Lynch, which incorporated all the work I had done on gender in both my Cinema Studies and Political Science majors to conclude that Blue Velvet and the Twin Peaks film and television series were texts that very accurately reflected the horrors and destructiveness of physical and sexual violence within the family, and the social and cultural conditions that allow for such violence to occur. It was a pretty horrible thing to write considering the sort of research I had to read on actual domestic violence but the resulting thesis, titled “Shadow Of A Twisted Hand Across My House”, is still something I am very proud of.
Wild at Heart
Before all this I also caught up on Lynch’s two other feature films to date, The Elephant Man and Wild at Heart. The Elephant Man is still one of the most beautifully sad films I have ever seen and it certainly demonstrates the sincere, sentimental and compassionate side of Lynch that is often overlooked when people focus too heavily on his ‘weird and dark’ side. Lynch would again express this side overtly with the very sweet The Straight Story. Wild at Heart on the other hand is a mixed bag since overall it feels a little bit too self-aware and guilty of “Lynch doing Lynch” but it also contains some of his best work. The strange and sad scene featuring Sherilyn Fenn playing a girl in a car accident, with Chris Isaak’s haunting “Wicked Game” on the soundtrack, is amazing. Sad, dark, violent and beautiful – it is a moment demonstrating Lynch at his best.
The final key film in my love affair with Lynch is Lost Highway; the first film of his I saw in the cinema during its original theatrical release. I saw it on opening day and had already negotiated with one of my lecturers that my finally essay for her film noir course would be on Lost Highway. I can’t remember being more excited at a screening than I was seeing Lost Highway for the first time. Even the people who sat behind me muttering, “Let’s see what misogynist Lynch does this time” didn’t dampen my spirits. (For the record, accusing Lynch of being a misogynist for disturbingly portraying violence against women is like accusing Steven Spielberg of being a Nazi for portraying the Holocaust).
From the opening image of hurtling down a highway at night with David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” on the soundtrack, Lost Highway transfixed me with its mysterious and sexy story about a man whose irrational and destructive jealously makes him literally transform into another person. The resulting essay melded what had become my obsession with Lost Highway with my love of film noir and my recent studies in Lacanian psychoanalysis. “Lost in Darkness and Confusion: Lost Highway, Lacan and film noir” would eventually become the first article that I ever had published.
In later years I have continued to adore David Lynch but probably not so feverishly as I used to. I loved Mulholland Dr. and had a wonderful time when I first saw it, discussing it long into the night with some fellow Lynch enthusiasts whom I’d become firm friends with. I wrote the entry on David Lynch for Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors database, which I titled “The Evil That Men Do”, and after that I decided I had finished writing about him for the time being and I didn’t do so again until I wrote a short review of INLAND EMPIRE.
David Lynch at the Air is on Fire exhibition, Paris, 2007
When I saw INLAND EMPIRE I was living in France and was bemused at how differently people regarded Lynch compared to how they did in Australia. In Australia when I have been asked what sort of films I like I often mention Lynch as my favourite living director. The response I get is either “huh, who’s he?” or “oh, that weird guy who must be on drugs and deliberately makes films nobody understands”. In France when I told people that Lynch was my favourite living director the response was frequently a shrug with the reply that went something like “But of course, everybody who loves cinema loves David Lynch, that is not a very original answer”.
I suspect my passion for David Lynch’s films will never quite reach the same heights as it has in the past and even after spending a day at the outstanding Air is on Fire exhibition during my final week in France, I had a feeling that I was perhaps moving on. I will always love his films and I do revisit them frequently but I’m not expecting to have the same giddy excitement over the release of anything new of his like I used to. But, that’s OK as I will always remember neglecting my date to surrender to the world of Eraserhead at a midnight screening, walking like a man possessed to the local shopping centre to buy the Twin Peaks soundtrack after having my mind blown apart by the final episode and almost bursting into tears at the sheer joy of Lost Highway exceeding every possible expectation that I had for it. So I guess I do still adore David Lynch.
In 1988 David Lynch painted “Shadow of a Twisted Hand Across My House” and in 1990 “Suddenly My House Became a Tree of Sores”. They are simple childlike images painted over a dark background, reflecting the darkness and fear a child can experience within their home. When asked about the recurring theme of the house in his paintings and films, Lynch replied that rather than being concerned with global issues, he is more interested in what happens in the surrounding neighbourhood.He portrays houses so threateningly because “the home is a place where things can go wrong”. (1) Lynch uses surreal, non-traditional narrative, and symbolism, to portray communities that represent a dysfunctional society at large.
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