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Independence Day (ID4): Text, Subtext, and Social Pressure Points - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Independence Day (ID4): Text, Subtext, and Social Pressure Points
I've been re-reading Stephen King's Danse Macabre, because I always bring re-reads on the commute, so I don't miss my stops wondering what's going to come next, and I do enjoy DM. For those who don't know, it's a nonfiction overview of the horror genre, between 1950 and 1980 (with one chapter going back to honor the roots of modern horror--Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). King talks about radio, television, movies, and books, and gives his thoughts on the morality of horror--it's worth a read, though it's out of print. Interesting stuff.

But I've thought now and again, "Boy, I wish King would do a new edition--I'd love to see The Lost Boys/Buffy/whatever, looked at from the perspective of sets of reality and social pressure points, with the art that's accidentally thrown off like radiation from a reactor core." King, of course, will do no such thing, if for no other reason than because you can't very well look at the genre from 1981 through the present without a big, walloping dose of Stephen King, and while I think an author can look at his own books as social phenomena, it does look a little tacky, and King doesn't need the spare change.

So, what's a girl to do, other than take the same paradigm and write the essays herself?

As it was King's thoughts on The Thing that got me going, applying them to Independence Day, I'll start there.

First, I know that the word "subtext" has acquired a pretty specific meaning in fandom--the "subtextual" hints at relationships. But I'm using it here in its broader sense, of the messages beneath the text about all sorts of things. This is mostly because I'm not feeling creative enough to come up with a whole new word when the old meaning is at least still tenuously attached to an existing one. ;)

Second, I'll begin by quoting King's disclaimer, before I get accused of thinking Devlin and Emmerich were doing conscious social commentary:

If we say "art" is any piece of creative work from which an audience receives more than it gives (a liberal definition of art, sure, but in this field it doesn't pay to be too picky), then I believe that the artistic value the horror movie most frequently offers is its ability to form a liaison between our fantasy fears and our real fears. I've said and will reemphasize here that few horror movies are conceived with "art" in mind; most are conceived only with "profit" in mind. The art is not consciously created but rather thrown off, as an atomic pile throws off radiation. (pg. 129, pb edition).

Okay? So I'm definitely not saying, "Wow, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin were really making this vast statement about the nature of the modern American life experience," and if I try to argue that they actually were doing so consciously, you have my cheerful permission to say STFU. I'm looking at some of the things the movie was whispering under its breath, and what it was that audiences responded to, not trying to analyze the authors.

Independence Day was released in 1996, probably made in 1995 with origins going into the early nineties. It's a product of the Clinton years, at any rate, and it follows Desert Storm and is contemporary with the Oklahoma City bombing (which occurred about a year before it came out; I'd wager it was in some stage of production at the time). We'd seen the fall of the Soviet Union, and a lot of fallout of it in the Balkans. Those of us in young adulthood had early memories of Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis and the retreat from Vietnam as our earliest memories of American military prowess, and I think we were a little surprised by our success in the first Iraq war... and lest we forget, more than a little uneasy about leaving Saddam in power.

Why get into that?

Another DM quote, regarding The Thing in the 1950s:
[G]iven the political temper of the times and the cataclysmic world events which had occurred only a few years before, the viewpoint of [The Thing] is almost preordained. What do you do with a blood-drinking carrot from outer space? Simple. Cut him if he stands and shoot him if he runs. And if you're an Appeasing Scientist like Robert Cornthwaite (with a yellow streak up your back as wide as the no-passing line on a highway, that subtext whispers), you simply get bulldozed under. (pg. 149-150)

It seems to me that Independence Day is very much a product of its times, and that explains quite a lot about why it went through the roof, box-office-wise. (Other factors would include Will Smith hamming it up and good promotion, but good promotion and Will Smith only get you so far *cough*WildWildWest*cough*.)

First things first, just to get it out on the table. ID4 is a rabidly xenophobic movie. It is also ethnocentric. (I imagine every non-American viewer either wincing or losing his or her temper during the scene when the British soldier in the desert tells his superior, "The Americans are putting together an attack" and the superior looks very relieved and says, "It's about bloody time. What are they doing?") Those none-too-attractive mob feelings probably had something to say about its success. It's not necessarily a bad thing--they're natural feelings, but we now only feel comfortable expressing them in the context of fictional aliens who've given serious death threats and already acted on quite a few of them--but it's not an especially good thing, either. It's just the way things are.

Orson Scott Card is on record as saying that he imagines aliens on the homeworld out protesting, but this kind of misses the point. ID4 isn't a science fiction movie in which ideas about aliens are thoughtfully explored--it's a horror movie, and the aliens are perfectly traditional bug-eyed monsters. As BEMs, their job is to be threatening and force the good guys into action. The Cardian point of view is represented by Okin and by the president (not to mention the roof-partiers in Los Angeles), who think that surely, we can communicate with them. Heck, it's even mentioned by Will Smith as Steve Hiller, on the way out of his girlfriend's place, when he says that he's sure they didn't fly millions of light years "just to get all rowdy." The movie is quite clear that yup, that's exactly what they did.

I will point out that other countries are assumed to be acting, and we see the battle at the end that shows they've been gathering their forces as well, and we can presume that their situation is more or less the same as the situation in America, and the only difference is that America leads the attack, and that the aliens are given every chance to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement, but that's disingenuous. The aliens, after all, were written by the same people writing the heroes. And the heroes are all Americans.

But here's the thing--so is every complete moron on the screen. So, in a weird way, are the aliens, which is hardly surprising in the years when the militias were on every news show and portrayed as scary, destructive, alien things who just wanted everyone not-them to die, die, die. The only city to be nuked is Houston, TX. The American government is inept, the American citizens, as often as not, portrayed as complete idiots. ("I know you're not thinking about joining those idiots," the Stripper-With-A-Heart-of-Gold tells her ditzy friend about going to the "welcome party" in Los Angeles, and of course the L.A. newscaster finds it necessary to remind Angelenos to please not fire their guns at the spacecraft as they may "inadvertantly trigger an interstellar incident.") New Yorkers crowd onto their narrow streets and honk their horns at each other, and others move pointlessly up and down the highways. Washington's protest class is up in arms about the military presence in first contact (you can see them out there with picket signs outside the White House) and the politicians are all worrying about how to spin it. Pretty much every segment of society gets smacked across the face... which is also very much in tune with the times, which were deeply cyncical.

The last 24 hours have been really exciting!
Scientists get a thorough skewering in ID4. It's not their interest in science, but their closed little world where they've had access to this stuff forever, have never thought about its implications, and now are more interested in studying the saucer than winning a deadly war. Okin embarasses himself by trying to make jokes, and by not even knowing there was a countdown code (never mind that no one but David Levinson noticed it; it's pointed out that the scientists, who study all sorts of useless things, were totally clueless). He does have the moderately useful information that the aliens are vulnerable and that they seem to communicate telepathically, and he's likeable enough, but ultimately, his only serious use is after he's dead and the alien Will Smith has dragged across the desert uses his mouth to tell the president that there's no peace and no cooperation to be had, and that all they want from humans is for humans to die.

Okin is countered by David Levinson, a brilliant scientist who has randomly chosen to work for cable TV. Levinson, the subtext pretty much shouts, has opted out of the "science establishment." He's beholden to no one and his interests are pure (protecting his ex-wife), and therefore his conclusions are more reliable. This says something about the way we see corporate and government research.

Two words: Plausible deniability
The government comes off even worse than the scientists, particularly in its intelligence divisions. The scientists are weird--they just want to study and don't have practical input. The intelligence agencies are actively craven--they know and believe that this is a real danger and they do nothing. They shut down reports! They build secret labs! They don't even tell the President, let alone the people. They insist on continuing to try fruitless and dangerous strategies (nuking cities) even after they've been proven useless against the targets. Even after it becomes obvious that there's an attack underfoot, they're still trying to keep their secrets. The good-hearted president is ineffective until he fires their representative, in a scene of public humiliation for him and complete repudiation by everyone else. ("He can't do that!" Nimzicki whines, and Constance tells him--along with the audience--"He just did.")

If there is a counter-example to Nimzicki, it's not particularly positive--Russell Casse, the Vietnam vet who's been kidnapped by the aliens for tests, is a drunk and a borderline lunatic whose children are ashamed of him. He talks so much that he's made himself unbelievable.

Go up there and kick E.T.'s ass!
The military is presented relatively sympathetically, but it's toothless and inept in its massive form. Hiller's base is wiped out with barely a fight, and his squadron is destroyed within moments. Only Hiller, who dreams of bigger things (he wants to fly the space shuttle) and who mouths off to his superior officer during a briefing, gets to escape alive, and his role afterward is to be the primal defensive male--he kicks the hell out of an alien after punching it out with an acerbic "Welcome to Earth."

At the end, the military is depleted of its pros, and they have to call in civilians--including the President, taking "hands on leadership" to a new level--to fly the fancy planes. And it is a civilian with no honor--Russell--who makes the ultimate sacrifice when his "smart" plane malfunctions.

What to make of this schizophrenic attitude? I think that we're wildly uncomfortable with the remote conflicts we engage in, and the repeated images of getting one-on-one with the aliens (who also use very remote technology) are one of those social pressure points.

The message has gotten lost
But if there's one social theme that's harped on over and over, it's one that I doubt was even on the radar, and that makes it interesting. Toward the beginning, Constance is muttering about bad press coverage for the president, and she mourns that "the message has gotten lost"--he used to be seen as young and idealistic, but now, it's all politics.

This is where we hit the flip side of the cynicism, and why I think the movie did very well. Over and over, we see the theme of people who've lost their way and find it again. The president gives a schmaltzy political speech toward the end (the perfect political speech, actually, brief, full of stirring declarations, and entirely empty of actual content), but it's followed up by him taking back his role as a fighter pilot, getting right in there and by-God doing something.

In the course of the movie, we also see:

  • A divorce that shouldn't have happened, ending what was apparently a good marriage over what everyone involved agrees by the end were stupid reasons. They just forgot why they were married in the first place, and need a reminder. The two people love one another, want to take care of one another, and therefore reconcile.

  • A marriage that has been postponed for stupid reasons ("They'll never let you fly the space shuttle if you marry a stripper"). Steve may not Dylan's father in actuality, but the subtext is perfectly clear on the matter: Dylan is his son and he's not doing his duty. He wants to marry Jasmine, has even gone so far as to buy her the ring. He knows it's the right thing to do, but he's lost his way and gotten distracted by other things. The message got lost. Of course, there's nothing like aliens destroying the world to get things in perspective, and he of course rectifies the situation before he goes on a life-threatening mission. Dylan is the ring-bearer, and the family stands together while Constance and David hold hands in the background.

  • A father who has allowed his barely-out-of-childhood son to become his caretaker. Russell Casse is an alcoholic ne'er-do-well who dusts the wrong field. His family lives in a rundown motor-home, and his son (gasp) calls him by his first name. His son Miguel is the effective head of the family, chastising Russell for his shortcomings and even attempting to leave him behind at one point. Of course, when the aliens Russell has been talking about all along show up, Russell takes over again, first by handling the younger children responsibly, then by working with Miguel to hook up with the caravan of motor homes, and ultimately by sobering up and taking on a heroic role, dying to save the world, at which point Miguel is incredibly proud of him. (I may be misremembering, but I think Miguel also calls him "Dad" during the battle sequence instead of "Russell.")

  • A man content to drift through his life and make small gestures, rather than really taking control of things. David misses his wife, but makes no move to repair his marriage. He's brilliant and wants to save the world, but doesn't do much more than recycle. David is the first character to "find the message"--he starts applying himself, which ultimately solves everything. David becomes an active force in the world.

  • A man who's turned his back on God in anger. Julius, a retired man who believes in the tabloids and spends an inordinate amount of time orchestrating his son's life, reveals that since his wife's death, he hasn't spoken to God. He points this out casually on the way to getting David to the solution to the problem, but we later see him reciting the Kaddish (EDIT: sjepstein reminded me that it's not the Kaddish, but the Sh'ma Koleinu; not sure why I remembered it as the Kaddish, which doesn't sound remotely like it) and wearing a yarmulke, as well as inviting others (Nimzicki, of all people) to come and pray with him.

  • And of course, the president, who opens the movie down in the polls because he's perceived as asking other people for things, ends the movie a very practical hero, working directly with his people and ignoring the structures of the government. (Never mind that they exist for a reason. This is Hollywood.)

There are things that are engineered as feel-good moments--the Black/Jewish cooperation (which worked well despite being obvious because Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum are just too much fun together), the deliberate melding of different parts of society (which was a bit heavy-handed), and some of the digs at the types mentioned above. But this "message has gotten lost" theme strikes me as one of those toss-off ideas that King refers to as being the most interesting part, simply because they weren't carefully considered. I think all of it is in there purely because they had to have some dialogue, and make a pass at characterization. So what's up? Oh, I dunno. Lotsa people wandering around who get their shit in order. Sound okay to you? Yeah, good. Because that was what was right there, the thing that you find without having to look for it, just grabbing it off a handy mental shelf. That's why I don't think that the xenophobia and ethnocentrism are what made the movie work, idiotic silliness that it is. I think that the major pressure point was the sense that we were wandering around going, "Wait, I know I'm supposed to be doing something right now... what was it again?"

And ID4 gives the answer: Do what you know perfectly well you ought to be doing--get your families in order, protect each other, hang out with God for awhile, and then kick ET's ass.

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28 comments or Leave a comment
hughroe From: hughroe Date: January 20th, 2006 02:36 am (UTC) (Link)
as usual, your little essay left me going "Ya'know, that's right!"

Do what you know perfectly well you ought to be doing--get your families in order, protect each other, hang out with God for awhile, and then kick ET's ass.

Had to laugh at that, so well put.
harriet_wimsey From: harriet_wimsey Date: January 20th, 2006 03:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, ditto.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: January 20th, 2006 03:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Wow. That actually made me feel better about liking movies like ID4.

You're dead on about the overseas reaction to some of the movie's content, too; Hollywood has a habit of assuming that only Americans can save the world. This is most blatant and infuriating in movies like U-571, which depict American sailors doing what still-living British sailors did, but it's common to most disaster and war movies (with the exception, interestingly, of The Day After Tomorrow, also by Roland Emmerich.) Although this does mean that, theoretically, if the world is ever destroyed, the Southern Hemisphere can kick back, have a few beers, and watch the destruction, because we never get blown up or frozen or anything. :P

The science thing is also sadly true. I suspect that this may relate to the popularity of science-fiction, and the world-of-tomorrow view of the fifties and sixties; people were told that science would produce miracles, and see it doing so in fiction. Since in the real world miracles are hard to come by, then they assume the scientists must be sitting on them out of apathy, stupidity, or avarice. Because warp speed's going to be developed in 2063, and the scientists just aren't working (publically) hard enoug on it.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 20th, 2006 05:22 am (UTC) (Link)
That actually made me feel better about liking movies like ID4.

See, I like pop culture 'cause you sort of have to mine it to get essays. No spoon-fed meaning. ;)

Hollywood has a habit of assuming that only Americans can save the world.

I think most Americans assume that the cinema of other countries has them saving the world as well. Hollywood's more or less right about American views there, though, so I won't try to whitewash it. There's definitely a perception that even if we try to sit something out, sooner or later, someone's going to say, "Please, help! Come and clean up this mess!" At which point we roll our eyes, pick up our gear, and head out. Of course, I've never seen that applied to Australia and New Zealand. I think we generally assume you all can handle yourselves just fine and we'd very much like to just kick back and have a beer with you and let everyone else work it out without any of us, except that we're expected to fight and... So on.

True about the scientists as well. Where are all the future things we were promised? (Never mind that we've got plenty of things--like, say, LJ--that no one even hinted at.)
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: January 20th, 2006 06:23 am (UTC) (Link)
f course, I've never seen that applied to Australia and New Zealand. I think we generally assume you all can handle yourselves just fine and we'd very much like to just kick back and have a beer with you and let everyone else work it out without any of us, except that we're expected to fight and... So on.

This is interesting, because down here we're just waking up to the realisation that we can tell Britain/the US/Australia to stuff off if it's a war that doesn't concern us - instead of following the historical pattern of sending most of our young males off to die half a world away. So from our perspective, we're more interested in persuading the US that really, it's OK, we don't need you looking over our shoulders, we're just fine. We just send our army off to peacekeep once the war's done.

The difference, of course, is that we aren't a world superpower, so realistically we don't have to fight. The US, as a superpower, is often going to be dragged in whether they like it or not - because the rest of the world does expect them to intervene. They don't like it, but they expect it, which means the US does it more often, which means the rest of the world likes it less, but expects it more, which...it's a bit of a vicious cycle in some ways.
story645 From: story645 Date: January 20th, 2006 03:29 am (UTC) (Link)
All that from an old action flick? Way cool and makes me want to see it again. And we need a campaign to take back words from the crazy theorists in fandom. I want symbolism to not equal crack anymore, and you can fight for subtext to not equal reaching. ;)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 20th, 2006 05:24 am (UTC) (Link)
I'll join that campaign!

Check out DM sometime. King manages a pretty hefty essay on how The Amityville Horror is all about fear of inflation and economic tension. (All from hearing a woman say "Think of the bills!" when the house is self-destructing.)
story645 From: story645 Date: January 20th, 2006 05:32 am (UTC) (Link)
I avoid horror everything, so I don't know how much of the book I'd even understand.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 20th, 2006 05:34 am (UTC) (Link)
He gives pretty good summaries of everything he's talking about. And he doesn't get into the slasher films much at all (though he's weirdly complimentary to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre... oh, well).
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 20th, 2006 04:27 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah, that's what comes of working from memory. Good catch. I remembered it as the Kaddish, but you're right, it's definitely Sh'ma Koleinu.
story645 From: story645 Date: January 20th, 2006 05:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Isn't Shema Koleinu also from Shemoneh Esrei? (At least there is one in there that functions as the jumping off point for personal requests)
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 22nd, 2006 05:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually it is... Look what you miss when you daven in English... :)

purple_ladybug1 From: purple_ladybug1 Date: January 20th, 2006 03:52 am (UTC) (Link)
I really enjoyed reading this. Basically, Independence Day is one of those films that every time it's on TV, I have to watch it. The speech at the end gives me chills, political or not. I've loved it for many reasons, and I think you articulated many for me.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 20th, 2006 04:52 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I make fun of the speech, but the silly thing gets me every damned time. It's a very effective stupid speech. I honestly do adore this movie.
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 20th, 2006 04:51 am (UTC) (Link)
I think that's also true, and that part of its popularity was a very widespread discomfort with the idea of moral parity--the BEMs were totally unredeemable; their program was not "an alternative viable approach." They were just out to destroy and use up until their was nothing left, and kill anyone who was in their way. They weren't interested in reasoning and saw no reason that they should. (I think if it were made today, they'd probably include the U.N. dithering about whether or not the aliens had the right to use their found resources as they saw fit. At least until the aliens fried the U.N.) It had been... Lord, most of our lives... that we'd been hearing the mantra about how it was all about miscommunications, and if we could all just sit at the table a little longer, it would work out, but by the '90s, we were really starting to sense the idea that there were some problems that weren't going to be talked out, no matter how many concessions we gave.
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 22nd, 2006 05:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I think that the trick is also figuring out which is which. Many conflicts are over concrete things, and can be resolved by treating the parties like children and making the sit down and work it out. Others can't.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 20th, 2006 05:28 am (UTC) (Link)
In fact, I think that's part of the whole "Kick E.T.'s ass" line. There's another one something like, "Now that's a close encounter"--deliberate nasty spins on Spielberg movies about sweet aliens who are misunderstood and only want to love us. Steve Hiller also flips a peace sign and says, "Peace!" as he fires the nuke into the mothership (while David is going on about, "Nothing but love for you!"). It's definitely not a flower-child-friendly movie.
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 22nd, 2006 06:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
OK, so--but didn't the "peace" sign actually come from Churchill's "V for Victory" hand sign? :)

selenak From: selenak Date: January 22nd, 2006 01:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Except the Shadows aren't interested in dialogue, only in war, for war's sake.

However, they don't get defeated by military might. In fact, they don't get defeated at all. Moreover, it turns out that their counterparts, the Vorlons, supposedly "the good guys", are just as morally wrong and ruthless, and the solution for the galaxy's population is to turn their backs on both and NOT fight their ideological war anymore.

Which is about as anti ID4 as it gets.
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 22nd, 2006 05:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
The Vorlons were also a problem. But would they have even gotten to the "talking point" without the support of the Walkers and the other older races and their military strength?

But--better question: What of President Clark?

selenak From: selenak Date: January 22nd, 2006 08:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
President Clark and the entire Earth-turning-fascist storyline was the opposite of the projection of the enemy going on in Alien Invasion movies, too. (Especially as he was presented encouraging xenophobia.) I'm not saying B5 was anti military, of course not, but that the, in lack of a better term, ideology behind it was very different, and the military solution of the Earth Civil War - as opposed to the non-military solution of the Shadow War - as made poignant by the fact Sheridan and Co. were fighting their own people, not "Alien Invaders". A case of "the enemy is us", not "the enemy is them".
sophonax From: sophonax Date: January 20th, 2006 12:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Can't comment too much on the essay, as when ID4 came out I was a slightly crazy thirteen-year-old who identified very strongly with aliens and refused to see it on the grounds that it promoted rabidly negative stereotypes about perfectly normal sentient beings who just happened to live somewhere other than Earth, but I really like the King quote explaining how art happens in pop culture and elsewhere. It's always nice to have something to throw at those English-class wet blankets who say, "Oh, I bet the author didn't really *mean* any of this stuff! She was probably just trying to tell a good story, so none of the boring analysis crap matters. Who cares?"
olympe_maxime From: olympe_maxime Date: January 20th, 2006 04:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is a stupid question, but why're you calling it ID*4*? I think I've seen that short form used elsewhere. Is it because this movie is 4th in a series? I hadn't thought so...

But otherwise, this is a great essay. To echo was someone else said - you got all this from independence day?? Bravo. :)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 20th, 2006 05:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
You know, I don't know how it got that moniker! I think it refers to the 4th of July. But it was always abbreviated that way, even when it was just out.
darkthirty From: darkthirty Date: January 20th, 2006 05:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
I saw this movie for tihe first time 5 days ago, and I hated it utterly and completely. Mostly it was the slithering implications that - presidents are kickass moral guys who decide things according to ireclad principles of fairness and justice - plots bring the heart (Will S) and the intellect (the pres) together with more coincidences than dickens entire works - some labourer holds the key to everything, and just happens to be the ex of the pres's close advisor.....

Why did I even watch it? A friend of ours who is making a video game about aliens recommended it.
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 20th, 2006 07:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Brilliant work, Fern. Very interesting.

Have you written anything exploring why Harry Potter is so wildly popular at this time? I'd like to hear your opinion about that.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 20th, 2006 07:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Nothing specific--I think I write too much about it to be really macro that way!
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: January 21st, 2006 01:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Wow. You mined a fluffy summer action-flick and found gold. Go you!

I like the idea of finding one's focus. It's a theme that has fascinated me, in no small part because I think so many people have lost the meaning. They're so distracted by the petty bits of life that it would take something big to bring their perspective back.

Blockbusters are usual so for a reason. Not because of all the big flashy stuff, but because they said something that needed to be said, either intentionally or not.
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