Class 14: Make Your Own Attractions

Last class! Thank you all for a fun and intellectually stimulating semester. I had a blast.

Today we took on the following topics:

• participation culture

• countergaming

• crowdsourcing

• supercuts/meme-based attractions

We read Henry Jenkins on Convergence Culture, weighed the pros and cons of  his optimistic account of participation culture, and the limits of social, political, and cultural critique within fan-produced online moving images. We also read Alexander Galloway’s essay on “Countergaming,” an analysis of hackers and artists who mod/alter aspects of game play via changes to the game play, the software, or the representational space of the game’s diegesis. While he lauds the glitches and artifacts (and general mayhem) of practitioners such as digital prankster duo Jodi, he ultimately calls for a more politicized “radical gameplay.”

I modeled an approach to unpacking meme-based video via an examination of Veloso’s Irrational Exuberance from 2002:

Irrational Exuberance’s thorny confluence of national and transnational concerns between the U.S. and Japan, delivered in a manner that foregrounds cultural difference, not-so-neatly embodies Robert Stam’s description of the way the esthetics of garbage can produce “gooey distillation of society’s contradictions.”…while Veloso clearly derives pleasure (as do we as viewers) from misunderstanding Japanese vis-a-vis English, he is not doing so in a way that necessarily eradicates meaning or rejects cultural  affinities. By creating a dense associative network of cross-cultural signifiers, rather, the artist seems to be illustrating the ways in which national concerns are inexorably linked to larger global concerns, thus affirming Stam and Shohat’s suggestion that “the constructed, coded nature of artistic discourse hardly precludes all reference to a common social life.” In a sense, Irrational Exuberance traces the way American culture is increasingly informed by cultural production from other countries, where curiosity and confusion generated by cultural difference gives way to appreciation and adoption of previously foreign sensibilities.

A hearty discussion on the appeal and pervasiveness of these densely encoded videos (touched off by Tom McCormack’s recent essay on supercuts), followed, focusing on the cinema of attractions’ return via viral video, the internet’s fostering of no-budget filmmaking, issues of viewer empowerment/superiority, micropolitics, diversion, cultural critique, and the mediated imagery of tyrants, the class descended into Downfall mashups, Winston the Cat videos, and, in the ultimate meme synthesis, Cats That Look Like Hitler.


Yacht Rock, Episode 4: “Rosanna” (JD Ryznar, 2005):

Rich Juzwiak, I’m Not Here to Make Friends (2008):

James Blagden, Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No (2009):

Hitler Plans Burning Man (2008):

Winston Isn’t Normal (fourfour, 2009):


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Class 13: The Digital Revolution

For today’s class, we interrogated the idea of digital attractions—what is the relationship of this new technology to the concept of attractions? How does it (and, does it?) change the way we see and/or understand moving images? How is it used to produce spectacle? Is the nature of that spectacle fundamentally different from what has happened before in cinema? If yes, how and why? How is the digital rewriting/redrawing of images change/complicate our notions of “reality”–both in a film like Miami Vice‘s diegesis, and in our everyday world?

Lev Manovich creates a typology of digital cinema, and asks if the new technology has given rise to a wholly new form of cinema. Manovich mentions various uses of computer imagery in conventional filmmaking, including the use of digital compositing, digital scenery, and digital actors/motion capture performances. He also discusses the possibilities offered by inexpensive digital video (which we explored via an analysis of David Lynch’s Inland Empire), as well as filmmaker’s reactions to changing technologies, either via incorporating video game style narrative or aesthetics, or by repeating showing various computer interfaces throughout a film (the latter being an important feature of Miami Vice, as pointed out by our guest lecturer Leo Goldsmith).

Manovich also writes about how avant-garde aesthetics (cut and paste, superimpositions, reversals, looping) are incorporated into the technology of digital editing programs, and how digital filmmaking incorporates editing into the production practice, whereby “production becomes just the first stage of postproduction.”

We challenged Manovich’s definition of digital cinema as being “a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many elements.” by first looking at what Dick Tomasovic calls an example of “fairground cinema”–Spider-Man 2 (2004):

We discussed the scene in terms of vertigo, color, speed, the appeal of the body in motion; surprise as mode of operation; and how, according to Tomasovic, the viewer’s “gaze is not allowed to linger: it is excited, provoked, exhausted.” Discussion also touched on the organic body vs. the cyborg body, and the larger context of the built environment, the use of sound, and the hailing of the viewer as a consumer, and the necessity of cross-media merchandising to support blockbuster movies.

We then took a look at David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), as an oppositional digital strategy. Lynch made the film without a completed screenplay, wrote it as he went along, and self-distributed the final work. He also shot it with a prosumer handheld camera, Sony DSR-PD150. We discussed how the use of DV here makes the image seem familiar, even as the format’s limitations literally blur the lines of the real, thus sparking a comparison of the “reality effects” used by Raimi and Lynch. We linked Lynch’s formal choices to questions of interiority/subjectivity; dream/reality; alienation; and the complication of spatial and temporal relations.

Finally, we turned our attention to Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (2006). Discussion topics included:

• the use of sound: Mann mixes dialog low. Why? To pull in the viewer, make them “try” to keep up with the narrative. He also has many of the actors speaking languages or with accents that are not their native ones, in order to complicate clear communication.

• the question of identity: of Sonny and Rico as men who barely have identities, who are forced to take on other surface identities, and lose themselves (or have nothing to lose?) in the process. Also, there is the metatext here of the role of the actor…

• surveillance/looking: As Leo pointed out, this is a film where everyone is being watched by one another, over and over again. Surveillance is used for good and evil, is all pervasive, can be confused or circumvented (as in the nifty drug trafficking plane trick), and forces us to understand the world through telecommunication devices and a proliferation of screens. What does Mann let us look at? At what point does he let the camera linger? Why?

• futility/nihilism/escape: is there any end (especially considering the last shot) to the work? to the War on Drugs? Is it worth it, even if Sonny and Rico are good at what they do? Is there any way out?

• spectacle of wealth/spectacle of poverty

And because “you cannot negotiate with gravity,” here’s Jan Hammer going full keytar and synth drum on the MV television theme:

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Class 12: The Blockbuster

Behold, the blockbuster! This week’s class looked at the development of the pre-digital blockbuster and narrative attractions. Topics discussed included:

• The blockbuster as purveyor and developer of new forms of cinematic spectacle

• The work of stop-motion animation master Ray Harryhausen. In particular, we examined the move from B-movie rise to A-level status by dint of their spectacular attractions. Case in point: the climatic skeleton warrior fight scene Harryhausen spent four months animating for Jason and the Argonauts (1963):

• We discussed the differences between computer generated effects and those achieved with models: the attempt at creating a reality effect, questions of mass and movement, and a suspension of disbelief.

• The combination of opaque metaphysics and state-of-the-art special effects in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). We mentioned the director’s work with NASA engineers to come up with realistic and practical ships and devices, Kubrick’s attempt to make an abstract visual cinema that reached viewers on a non- or beyond-verbal level, and his use of sound, especially with regards to the repeated motif of using Ligeti’s haunting Requiem (1963-1965) when the monolith is shown—as in the scene below:

• We analyzed the clip in terms of pacing, sound, the construction of the reality effect through the use of panel controls, charts, and graphs, handheld camera, and various self-referential motifs (the screen, the camera pointed at the viewer, etc.).

• Mentioned, but not seen in class, was 2001‘s famous “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence, which ties together our previous encounters with graphic and psychedelic abstract cinema with narrative cinema. The slit-scan technique here was originally created by John Whitney, Sr., and expanded and refined for the film by by f/x guru Douglas Trumbull:

• How Steven Spielberg and George Lucas produced a technically-proficient cinema that re-established straightforward narrative, myth, and happy endings as a rebuke to the personal filmmaking and fractured storytelling of the New Hollywood. Spielberg and Lucas provided an earnest, hopeful cinema that largely avoided the cynicism associated with the era of Vietnam, the civil rights struggle, and Watergate.

• The diverse influences on Lucas and Star Wars: Jordan Belson, Bruce Conner, television, Flash Gordon serials.

• The question of whether Star Wars functions as a Vietnam allegory or as a reactionary celebration of the exceptional individual.

• The influence of Joseph Campbell and the idea of the hero’s journey.

• The seeds of the digital filmmaking revolution can be seen in Larry Cuba‘s groundbreaking use of CGI wireframe animation:

• The film’s legacy w/r/t: video games, fandom, marketing, merchandising, and franchising (novels, comics, television shows, online properties, etc.).

• The endless “going-back” and tinkering with the film: 1977, 1997, 2004. What compels Lucas to rewrite (and erase) his own history?

• Why there is a dearth of critical literature on the film, save for a few pieces such as artist John Powers’ essay on modernism, minimalism, and SW, and Robin Wood’s  “Papering the Cracks: Fantasy and Ideology in the Reagan Era” (in Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond). Wood discusses Barthes’ idea of rereading, and how blockbusters engender return business by infantilizing the audience, providing them with a childlike sense of wonder and paternal reassurance, even in the face of economic tribulations and the the threat of nuclear annihilation. Along these lines, he also engages with the issues of fascism and parentage that run throughout the films of Lucas and Spielberg. He points out that Lucas appropriates Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934) for SW’s climatic medal ceremony. A filmic in-joke, or something more insidious?

A mashup of both is below:

• George Lucas: “Popcorn pictures have always ruled. Why do people go see them? Why is the public so stupid? That’s not my fault.” So, did Star Wars ruin the movies?

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George Lucas, woman hater

Somebody raised this point in the discussion and it made me think of this video.

From via

How’s that for some scholarly critique?

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Magnificent Attraction: Perspectives in melodrama

Long derided as a “woman’s genre” that was unworthy of serious consideration in the world of film criticism, melodrama experienced a surge in critical popularity in the late 1970s and 1980s.  During this period, classical Hollywood productions like Stella Dallas (1937, dir. King Vidor), Mildred Pierce (1945, dir. Michael Curtiz), Written on the Wind (1956, dir. Douglas Sirk), Imitation of Life (1959, dir. Douglas Sirk), and I Want to Live! (1958, dir. Robert Wise) were re-evaluated by a group of largely feminist film scholars who, inspired by Peter Brooks’ writing on the importance of melodrama in 19th century literature and theater, claimed that melodrama was as foundational to cinema as realism.  In this way, melodrama came to be understood as a cinematic mode in which simplistic narratives and psychologically monopathic characters were overwhelmed by emotional and stylistic excess.  Film scholar Linda Williams elaborates that, broadly, melodrama is “marked by ‘lapses’ in realism, by ‘excesses’ of spectacle and displays of primal, even infantile emotions, and by narratives that seem circular and repetitive” (3).  The attractions of the melodramatic mode are emotionally affective: spectatorial pleasure is not, necessarily, found in the simplistic moral universe and predictable plots of most melodramas, but rather in the excess of the film’s emotional appeals and the richness of its visual register.
In the “woman’s genre,” female characters figure large–or, more specifically, women’s emotional and physical mortification, humiliation, and anguish does.  In what Williams calls “body genres,” female bodily and emotional excess is crucial to generic spectacle and attraction.  In Vidor’s Stella Dallas, Wise’s I Want To Live! and Sirk’s Written on the Wind, the distress of persecuted and repressed women and their “primal” emotion serves as a key attraction.  In each film, the female body, overtaken by the pangs of emotional excess, becomes symbolic of the aesthetic and narrative excesses of the melodramatic mode.  Women become attractions in a voyeuristic and emotionally identificatory way.

Melodramatic excess, with its particular focus on the extremity of female suffering, has proven ripe fodder for later filmmakers and social critics.  Seizing upon the drive to moral order inherent to classical melodrama, John Waters’ work critiques American moralities by utterly subverting the moral hierarchies of classical melodrama while echoing–to an extent–the emotional and visual excess of Sirk, Douglas Ray, and Vincente Minnelli.  Drawing on similar camp traditions and the histories of the avant-garde, Matthias Muller uses found-footage techniques to critique the superficial hysteria and oppressive domesticity of classical melodrama.  Martha Rosler offers a similarly feminist critique of Baby M (1988, dir. James Steven Sadwith), a made-for-ABC movie of the late 1980s which uses melodrama’s conception of motherhood and the trope of women’s suffering in its treatment of a 1988 custody case.  In each of these appropriations and detournements, filmmakers seize upon the recognizable tropes of melodrama–particularly that of women’s spectacular torment–and use its excess as a vehicle for gendered critiques.

Curators:  Eliza Heitzman, Kaela Rae Jensen, Hyunjee Nicole Kim
Williams, Linda.  “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly 44, no. 4: 2-13.
Examining the trope of the woman on trial and its place within the scope of the melodramatic mode, my comparison of I Want to Live! and Female Troubles will center primarily around Waters’ casting of drag queen Divine as the female criminal and the resulting commentary on “gendered” cinema.
-Kaela Rae Jensen
I plan to examine two different critical approaches within the melodramatic genre: those of Douglas Sirk and Matthias Muller. Sirk’s employment of visual and emotional excess in his melodramas–primarily, Written on the Wind–which (as noted by Paul Willemen) contributes to an ironic distance between the work’s surface and its subtext while simultaneously entrancing his audience with superficial spectacle.  The found-footage approach of Matthias Muller’s Home Stories attempts to subvert melodrama’s moral order by visually deconstructing the mode’s gendered tropes.  In both of these films, the spectacular body of the melodramatic heroine (or villain), in ecstasy or torment, becomes an attraction that is to the directors’ critical work.
-Eliza Heitzman
An excerpt from Matthias Muller’s “Home Stories” can be found here.
The “maternal melodrama” becomes a site to explore the psychological relationship between mother and child and the construction and de-construction of morality of women within film.  King Vidor’s Stella Dallas (1937) and James Steven Sadwith’s Baby M (1988) are films that both demonstrate the visual and emotional cues used to delineate “good” versus “evil” in the melodramatic mode.  While Stella Dallas is a literary adaptation and Baby M is an adaptation of a real-life case made for television, both shed light on the attractive nature of the excessive dramatization of the everyday.
-Hyunjee Nicole Kim
A trailer for Stella Dallas can be found here.

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Animated Violence as Attraction

Animation provides a productive outlet for exploring violence removed from the constraints of reality. The distancing effect of the presented images “fascinate because of their illusory power…and exoticism,” (382, Gunning) luring the audience into a world outside their lived experience—propagated by representations of the viciously fantastic. As attraction, animated violence has “an accent on direct stimulation” (385) in its appeal to the subconscious, while simultaneously eliciting audience detachment (in its portrayal of impossible events).

Within our writing endeavors, (Mariann Colonna, Annette Szymala and Stephanie Ang) we will explore the relationship between comedic value and brutality:

Ren and Stimpy and the Happy Tree Friends are infamous for the graphic and twisted acts of violence inflicted upon their outwardly cute and cuddly characters. Violence in animation creates an interesting dichotomy with regards to the expectations viewers have of where they will encounter violence. The animated medium is largely associated with children and lighthearted stories, making the spectator’s encounter with explicit violence considerably more unexpected and eliciting a more powerful response. Many cartoon series use this contrast between the whimsy and fantasy of animation and oftentimes-grotesque violence to elicit a comedic response rather than one of fright—a response that, upon reflection, seems counterintuitive.

the usage of film-text celebrities in the cultural lexicon committing (un)characteristic acts of violence:

This skit from Robot Chicken, “Voorhees at Home” shows the familiar and infamous character from the Friday the 13th franchise out of his element as vengeful serial killer: contrasting his violent behavior with extra-diegetic mundane activities. Conversely, the battle between Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in Celebrity Deathmatch capitalizes on the duo’s prominence as film critics to recontextualize their public rapport within the ring. Stop-motion personalities use violence (and lack thereof) as an outlet, exploiting their personas within the public imagination.

and animation as reflection for understanding trauma:

Violence in animation is not limited to its use as a comedic device. In these clips from the animated films Persepolis (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008), violence enhances the horror of the protagonists’ experiences surviving war. The significance of violence in these films is not to exploit the attraction in order to shock the audience, but to allow the viewer to authenticate the brutality of the characters’ reality.

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When “La Petit Mort” Becomes the Real Death: Similar attractions in horror & porn

Veronika LaRocque, Colin Greten, Francesca York

Two of the earliest and most long-lasting attractions in cinema have been violence and sex. Over time, these types of attractions have evolved into the modern day genres of horror and pornography, respectively, but they have not remained separate entities. The cliché attention and preoccupation paid in pornography to the infamous culminating “moneyshot” is in many ways analogous to the conventions of the horror film such as the anticipated moment of the monster’s reveal or the long-awaited death of a character. The moments of extreme violence, gore, or terror in horror films often serve not only as attractions, but small moments of relief where an amount of the tension and suspense built up by the narrative is released—finally, the audience sees the monster, the maiming, or whatever horrible thing they had until that point only dreaded. Just as no porn video can end without its analogous ultimate attractions.


Beginning with some of the earliest horror films like Nasferatu and Frankenstein, the idea of the horror film monster intertwined with stealing or deviating a young girl’s sexual innocence. This was particularly true in 1980s teen slashers, where the horror “moneyshot” is equal parts sexual and violent reveal. This explicit interconnection between violence and sexual gratification can be read anti-feminist, which parallels some and contrast other pornographies, in that female sexual empowerment is read as dangerous and should be destroyed.

In John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), teenagers Lynda and Bob are fooling around when crazed maniac Michael Myers is on the loose. In this clip, he kills Bob first, before going for Lynda, who mistakes the killer for her boyfriend, only realizing her mistake before it’s too late. Halloween is the quintessential teen slasher flick (even though it predates the 1980s when most of these films were made) in which the promiscuous teens are brutalized for their sexual openness. These two deaths can be compared to porn where a man is the subject and where a woman is the subject. Bob’s death is 40 seconds long and begins immediately as Michael steps out of the closet. In comparison to male subject porn ( NSFW: ), there is no foreplay, and the death is immediate, where the “moneyshot” is immediately presented and focused on. Conversely, Lynda’s death is 2 minutes long, with the first minute and a half focused on a form of foreplay (NSFW:—tiffany-thompson-and-little-caprice-/2645751/ ) where the audience’s anticipation and longing for / fear of Lynda’s death is increasingly growing. When she is finally killed, the focus is on her face, and the camera mimics that of many porns where the viewer feels as though they’re in the room with the scene through the use of a handheld camera.

In Paranormal Activity (2007), a couple, Katie and Micah, have just moved into a new house where strange things begin happening, and Micah, determined to learn what is going on, begins taping his bedroom, the hotbed of the activity, while he and Katie sleep, to learn the cause of the strange events. In this scene, from the end of the movie, Katie is dragged from her bed by the invisible creature, and out of the room. The surveillance type footage of this film very much mirrors the amateur aesthetic of porn, and is even referenced earlier in the film in a joking way. This film has built up tension by only revealing evidence of the invisible monster, and this is the first big proof of his existence. Like the teen horror, Katie is attacked when she is most vulnerable, and when she could be seen as in a pseudo-sexual position. Her writhing around on the floor is reminiscent of one of the death scenes which is very sexual in Nightmare on Elm Street ( ) and evokes that same type of anticipation in the audience.


While horror movies provide many different attractions it the death scenes become the main attraction as they become more vital to grasping viewer interest than the plot itself.

About the first 4 minutes of this clip from Scream (1996):

The “killing” of the character of Billy (Skeet Ulrich) is the excitement in the beginning of the scene. Sydney (Neve Campbell) is almost smiling with the entrance of the killer behind Billy, as she herself seems to be excited to witness a brutal murder first hand. The audiences seeks this pleasure that Sydney feels, yet are underwhelmed by the cameras choice to not show the knife piercing skin but rather just the sound and aftermath of the stabbing. The gore that the audience seeks is teased but not shown. Then as the scene progresses the character, Randy (Jaime Kennedy) is sitting on the coach watching Halloween drunk rambling for Jaime Lee Curtis’ character to “Turn Around! He’s right behind you.” Meanwhile the Ghostface killer sneaks up behind him preparing to strike. The audience’s interest spikes again as they are about to witness the gory death scene that was not shown to them in the death of Billy. However, this is interrupted by Sydney’s scream as the killer goes to find her. Once again the audience is teased into thinking they will get the death scene that they want, and once again they are let down. As Sydney frantically runs around looking for help she finds Eddie a cameraman who is watching a live video feed inside the house. The tape delay allows the characters to watch the same almost death scene. However, once Eddie remembers the delay a look of sheer terror comes across his face as killer rushes him and cuts his throat allowing copious amounts of blood to flow out. After the teasing and almost death the audience is finally rewarded with the graphic death they want. The death itself is the most important part of this scene as the viewer feels rewarded for al the teasing then endured and continues to remain interested as to who will die next and how it will be shown.

This clip from Saw:

While Saw has many memorable gory parts this is the most memorable. The audience has had to watch these two men interact throughout the course of the film waiting patiently for the inevitable torture that awaits them.  As they are both chained to the wall with nothing but a rusty saw to cut with their only option is to cut their own foot off in order to get free. The audience realizes this but at the same time falls into the same trap as the characters in thinking they can escape without amputating their own foot. However, at the same time the audience along with the character Dr Gordon (Cary Elwes) slowly comes to the realization that taking a foot is the only way out. The buildup is intense and just when the camera seems to be ready to cut away the saw digs into Gordon’s flesh releasing blood everywhere as the sound of saw on bone can be heard. The buildup of the entire movie is for this moment, for the moment when the characters accept their fate and do whatever it takes to survive. The audience gets to know these characters by this point and is at the same time relieved that the bloodbath has finally ensued. No more waiting, just cutting.


The horror film capitalizes on the viewer’s fascination with the horrible, gruesome, and terrifying, understanding that the same drive that makes an audience cringe also drives their attraction. This is never more apparent than in films like Antichrist and The Last House on the Left, which take the attraction of the moment of death and transform it into a climactic moment that mirrors that of snuff film.

Antichrist  (NSFW, explicit sex)

In Lars Von Trier’s psychological horror film Antichrist, the two main characters (identified only as “He” and “She”) must grapple with the death of their toddler son, who fell from an open window while He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg)were having sex in another part of the house. This is shown in the film’s opening sequence, shot in slow motion black-and -white. The toddler climbs up to the window ledge and falls to his death at the same moment that She orgasms. From this first sequence, Antichrist establishes sexuality, and particular female sexuality, with death. Wracked with guilt, She spirals out of control and into a violent outburst in which she mutilates both her and her husband’s genitals, before He finally strangles her to death—the moment of her death, like that of any snuff film, is arguably the film’s climax. The film’s graphic depictions of sex and violence are both gruesome and attracting in the way that the violence of any horror film is. However, Von Trier’s focus on graphic sex and its connection with (equally graphic) disfigurement and death graduates the phenomenon from “sex in a horror film” to almost snuff-like fascination.

The Last House on the Left  (NSFW, gore)

One of the most brutal scenes in Dennis Iliadis’s 2009 remake of Wes Craven’s classic The Last House on the Left is when Mari Collingwood is held down by the psychotic Sadie and raped by her boyfriend, Krug. Very little of the scene is left to the imagination, and it is more terrifying in its realism than most of the ensuing gore in the rest of the film. However, it is the necessary set-up for the film’s main attractions: her parents’ revenge on their daughter’s attackers. Each moment of retaliation of Mr. and Mrs. Collingwood against Sadie, Krug, and Frank is met with a jolt of sadistic glee from the viewer, who find themselves drawn in by the satisfaction of their vindictive, vigilante justice. The moment when this shifts from simply the attraction of violence and vengeance to full on snuff is the final scene of the film. Everything is over not when Mari has been avenged and her attackers brutalized in return, but only when Mr. Collingwood paralyzes Krug and places him so his head is inside a microwave—then turns it on until his skull literally explodes. The credits roll, the film’s purpose finally fulfilled once the (now) helpless (now) victim has been killed graphically on screen.

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