Archive for October, 2004

Documentaries and Argument

Inspired by George’s discussion of his planned course for Spring 2005, I’ve begun thinking about what I’ll be teaching next semester in my English 1102 freshman composition classes. Right now, I’m thinking about focusing the class on documentary film. It’s the topic that I’m most passionate about right now, and the topic would certainly lend itself well to paper assignments in that many documentaries structure themselves as argumentative.

I’ve just begun thinking about this topic in earnest, and I haven’t yet decided what the course would look like. I imagine that it would heavily favor contemporary documentaries (films made in the last ten years), but I would also feel the need to teach some foundational docs, too. A tentative list might include:

I’d also be interested in teaching a Maysles Brothers film, and I’d like to include a “rockumentary,” probably Don’t Look Back. My list is heavily tilted towards American political docs, so I’m trying to find ways to either reduce that emphasis or to simply run with it. And with Capturing the Friedmans, I’d love to supplement that discussion with clips from An American Family or something similar (maybe Seven Up?). Because I haven’t quite decided what I want to do with the topic of documentary film, I’m still trying to put together an exact list (given the limitations of the class, I’m guessing I’ll do 6-7 films, tops).

In addition, rather than doing a “group hypertext project,” I’ve considered requiring that groups make a short 5-10 minute (?) documentary film using equipment checked out from Georgia Tech’s library, which they could edit using iMovie, which is available in many of Tech’s computer labs. That idea is pretty tentative right now. I’m not sure how much tech support I would need to provide, and it’s possible that supervising 15 student film projects might be more than I want to take on right now. On the other hand it could be pretty damn cool, especially if 1-2 of the student groups put something cool together. Right now, I’m leaning towards a “more traditional” group hypertext project where students could research a documentary film or filmmaker, although I’m unsure how that would work right now.

The only drawback that I can imagine is that it would be a royal pain to arrange for students to see all of the films I’d like to teach. Some of them aren’t widely available (according to IMDB, Titicut Follies isn’t even on VHS or DVD, so that’s probably out), and if I schedule an evening screening time, I imagine that a significant percentage of my students won’t be able to attend.

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Manhola Dargis ♥’s Huckabees, and So Do I

I’ll have more to say about it later, I think, but Manhola Dargis’s New York Times review is a pretty good explanation for why I ♥ (♥ed?) I ♥ Huckabees (IMDB). Okay, I promise to stop using the heart symbol now, but I did enjoy the film quite a bit, and as Dargis notes, the film deals with post-9/11 “liberal-left despair” with the deft screwball humor that I needed to get me through Election Weekend (yeah, I know I shouldn’t worry so much, but still).

The film’s protagonist is Albert Markovski (Jason Scwartzman), a poet and environmental activist, who has founded the Open Skies Coalition to protect the environment against suburban sprawl. He is countered by Brad Stand (Jude Law in a wonderfully smary performance), an insincere rising executive for Huckabees, a chain store trying to appear eco-friendly, without really being eco-friendly. Brad is sort of in love with Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), Huckabees’ perky, all-American spokesperson. Or at least he’s in love with her image. Because of a series of coincidences, in which he keeps running into the same young African guy (it turns out he’s come to the US to escape genocide in the Sudan), Albert goes to see Jaffe and Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), a pair of existential detectives, to sort out what ails him. Throw into the mix Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter (“but not a hero,” he reminds people) so petroleum-conscious after 9/11 that he bikes to fires rather than riding the truck. Their stories weave together in complicated ways that I’d rather not explain–I don’t want to spoil the fun.

But, as I watched, I found myself thinking about David O. Russell’s previous film, the vastly underappreciated Three Kings, still the best film about the first Gulf War. In fact, Wahlberg’s character seemed to be a virtual extension of the character he played in the previous film. There have been a lot of jokes lately about “liberal outrage fatigue,” and for me, the film seemed to offer some relief from all that, if only through its screwball humor. I’m having a difficult time knowing what to say about Huckabees, other than to say that I enjoyed its comedy and its optimism even in the face of Wal-Marts and SUVs, not to mention the other sorrows (genocide, terrorism) we’ve confronted since September 11. Though Dargis doesn’t find the film quite as comforting as I do, the film’s essential message, that we “keep pushing that rock back uphill,” really worked for me.

In other news, the film has “fake” websites galore, including a blog by the Mark Wahlberg character, Tommy Corn, a website for the Open Skies Coalition, for the Existential Detective Agency, and finally for the eponymous Huckabees Corporation itself.

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Sneak Previews, Fall 2004

While waiting for I ♥ Huckabees (review forthcoming) to start, I caught a preview for an upcoming movie, White Noise (it has nothing to do with DeLillo’s book), a paranormal thriller in which the dead communicate with the living through household recording devices such as audiotape and videotape, a phenomenon described in this website (part of the film? yes? no? maybe?) for the “American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena“. There’s a clear connection here to my essay on The Ring and The Blair Witch Project, which deals with the concept of haunted technologies. What made the the preview interesting was its use of documentary conventions such as talking heads interviews (leading to comaprisons not only with Blair Witch but also with The Last Broadcast). I’m not sure yet what to do with that comparison because I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ll be interested to see what White Noise does with these concepts.

Other films I’m curious to see: Kinsey, with Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) directing Liam Neeson as the famed researcher on human sexuality and Sideways, with Alexander Payne directing Paul Giamatti. That’s all for now.

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“A Little Gift”

The New York Daily News is reporting that Bush campaign workers don’t just consider Osama bin Laden’s recent video message a boost for the President’s flagging re-election campaign. One campaign worker has taken to dsecribing the tape as “a little gift” from the terrorist. Here’s the scoop:

[The tape] refocused the nation on terrorism, which polls show helps Bush. And it reminds voters of their horror on Sept. 11 and Bush’s well-received response, as well as obliterating the recent flood of bad news for Bush.

“We want people to think ‘terrorism’ for the last four days,” said a Bush-Cheney campaign official. “And anything that raises the issue in people’s minds is good for us.”

A senior GOP strategist added, “anything that makes people nervous about their personal safety helps Bush.”

He called it “a little gift,” saying it helps the President but doesn’t guarantee his reelection.

Thanks to Daily Kos for the link. Like Kos, I’m not sure that the tape works in Bush’s favor, especially given a recent Fox News poll showing a decline is support for the struggling Republican candidate, but I’m more disturbed by the cynical treatment of the tape as a political tool and the hope among Bush’s supporters that people will vote solely out of fear, that they will have “terrorism” on their minds this week.

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[Revised slightly for clarity, new observations] Shane Carruth’s Primer (IMDB, see also Primer Ventures–thanks Rachael!) is the most exciting, difficult, and puzzling time travel film I think I’ve ever seen. I feel like I’ll need to see the film again tomorrow night, and that’s about the highest compliment I can give any film. I can’t be sure that I entirely understand all of the film’s narrative turns, and to be honest, I’m struggling to find a way to wrap my head around the film’s take on the nature of time, identity, and scientific inquiry. It’s the kind of film that will provoke endless conversations and repeated viewings, with many critics comparing it to films such as Memento, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Mulholland Drive, a category to which Primer certainly belongs. Reading back over this review, it’s very clear that I’m still grappling with this film, so please bear with this review–it’s all over the place.

I’m not sure where to start, so I’ll begin by noting that the story of the film’s production is itself pretty amazing. Primer was made on a $7,000 budget and filmed in Super 16. Carruth, a sofware engineer-turned filmmaker wrote, directed, and starred in the film, and he also composed the film’s score. Members of the cast also served on the crew. Carruth’s parents provided craft services. The film itself is a testament to the DIY ethos associated with independent cinema. Stylistically, the film powerfully conveys a bland corporate culture, with washed out colors and sparse, modern buildings. I’ll have to see the film again before I can talk fully about the cinematography and mise-en-scene, but many of the film’s shots were beautifully composed, regardless of the film’s budget.

The film opens with a group of researchers who are working nights in a garage on a device that is only vaguely described, but the four men, all wearing what one reviewer called “white collar drag” (whie dress shirts, striped ties) assemble this technology out of spare parts such as a catalytic converter and copper coil (note: one reviewer on this forum notes that the garage is a refernce to HP, the ties, of course recall IBM). The four guys are trying to find someone to invest in their idea so that they no longer have to work for a large company and so they can profit from their own labor. The house, a typical middle-class home in a Dallas suburb, recalls other films that deal with white-collar alienation. As I was watching I was reminded of Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men, in part due to the white collar culture, but also due to the relationship between Aaron and Abe (a point that I’ll try to explain later). One of the men, Abe, discovers that time passes at a different pace inside the box, that they have assembled a time machine. Then he shows Aaron (played by Carruth) that he built a larger version of the time machine inside a U-Haul storage space [some spoilers may follow].

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Please Vote

Via George and Liz, What if you show up to vote next Tuesday and election workers say you are not registered?

  1. Make sure you are at the correct voting precinct. You can check at My Polling Place or call 1-866-OUR-VOTE for assistance.
  2. If you are at the correct polling place and officials claim you are not registered, request a provisional ballot. It’s your right under the law.

I thought about voting early today, but some real life stuff intervened, but you can bet I’ll be going to the polls on Tuesday. I’ll be letting my students leave class early so they can vote (many of them have already voted!), and I’ll be driving out to my polling center after my last class. I’m anticipating (and sort of hoping for) long lines Tuesday afternoon, but it’s cool to see so much excitement about this year’s election! Then Tuesday night, I’ll be attending an election-watching party, keeping my fingers crossed for some good news. Looking forward to hearing other people’s election stories.

Update: Thanks to Jen, here is a link to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office with an easy-to-use poll locator so you know where to vote.

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Kerry After Vietnam

Rude Pundit is right: Senator Kerry’s record after the Vietnam War has been severely underestimated. At great risk to his political future, he spoke out against the Vietnam War. As a first-term senator, he actively pursued the Iran-Contra scandal, taking on one of the most popular presidents in recent memory. As the Rude One notes, Kerry, despite the political risk, stayed on the case

until he revealed that the Reagan administration allowed the Contras to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. in order to fund their CIA-led “war” against the legally-elected Sandanistas in Nicaragua. (And thus helping to cause the crack epidemic.) Kerry was called a conspiracy theorist, said to be interfering with other drug cases, and impugned throughout the media. But the part that rarely got told is that he was right.

Kerry also went after the BCCI, an international criminal bank, and its murderous clients, including one Saddam Hussein. So let’s forget about the thread that Kerry hasn’t done anything since Vietnam. His record of service after the war is at least as admirable as his record during the war. Thanks to Michael Bérubé for the tip!

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Political Polarization

Link for later (I just realized it’s 1:40 AM): Frederick Wasser, a film professor at Brooklyn College CUNY, has an article in the most recent issue of Flow called “Political Polarization and the New Hollywood Blockbuster.” I’ve corresponded with Wasser a few times via email, and he’s a cool guy, so I’m looking forward to the read. Thanks to Green Cine for the tip.

Note: Flow, the project of Christopher Lucas and Avi Santo, looks pretty exciting. I’ll be checking back often.

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Faulkner and Orwell

This is too cool not to blog. The cinetrix reports that in a 1956 interview with the Paris Review, William Faulkner, who wrote the screenplays for To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, was asked if he would like to make another movie. His response?

Yes, I would like to make one of George Orwell’s 1984. I have an idea for an ending which would prove the thesis I’m always hammering at: that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.

Like the cinetrix, I wish I could’ve seen that ending. Back in my previous incarnation as a literary critic, I wrote a master’s thesis on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and he’s still one of my favorite twentieth century novelists, so I’m simply fascinated by this bit of news.

You can now return to the latest election year insanity, in which Tom DeLay engages in a bit of neo-McCarthyism.

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Public Conversations About Voting

Okay, I think I need to embrace the fact that I’m not going to be thinking about anything besides the election for the next few days, so my radio is tuned to Air America, I’m following all the political blogs, and right now, it’s hard not to think about voter suppression/voter registration issues.

These somewhat scattered thoughts were inspired by Kathleen’s decision to post the content of a letter about voting rights, Kari’s comment to that post, and Alex’s assignment to his students that they write about their voting experiences (which I’ve rather freely borrowed), and conversations about voter registration controversies (including people calling voters to tell them their polling location has changed–thanks to bitchphd for the link). For many reasons, I find the act of voting here in the United States to be a rather mysterious process (I can’t think of the right term, but that just about gets it). I think that part of that is due to the act of voting itself. You go to a public place–a church, synagogue, community center, or school, usually–but when you get there, you go to a “private” space, a booth with a lever or, in Georgia’s case, a computer screen, to cast your ballot. I know that one of the goals here is to protect voters from having someone “looking over their shoulder” while they vote. In the past, I’ve experienced the voting booth as communicating that voting is a “private” expression of individual preference for a given candidate or ballot initiative. Once you vote, you give the ballot to a poll worker and it disappears. And with Georgia’s no-paper trail electronic voting, there are no visible, material traces of your vote. Your “ballot” looks exactly like it did when you took it into the booth, just an opaque piece of plastic with a small computer chip.

The result of all this mystery: people don’t really talk that much about voting, a point that Alex makes in his entry on this topic, and I’d imagine that this lack of conversation leads to a lot of the misconceptions that many Americans have about our rights as voters, or about election rules in general. So, I’d like to formalize Kari’s suggestion that voters use their blogs to document their experiences, hopefully making this mysterious process just a little more transparent.

So, this is a call for people to write about their experiences in the voting booth in their blogs or in the comments to this entry. If you write about your voting experiences, link to this entry (or not), but after the election crisis in 2000 in Florida, I think we need more transparency regarding the election process, not less.

Update: If you’re not sure where to vote, check rusty, who voted early, reports on his experience, which included some fairly long lines (a good omen for high voter turnout on election day, I’d imagine).

Update 2: It looks like lots of people here in Georgia are joing the ranks of advance voters. David has a great narrative abot taking his daughters to the polls.

In the comments, Jen mentions that her parents rarely discussed politics with her when she was a child, and I realized that I had a similar experience. My mom, especially, wouldn’t tell me how she voted, and she’s still uncomfortable talking about it. In some sense, I think that silence has probably contributed to my perception of the process as being a mysterious one. Oh, and while I’m linking, here’s Steve’s experience.

Update 3: Via David, Josh Marshall reprints this letter from Florida:

This was one of the most moving, meaningful days of my life.

My job is to get people to the polls and, more importantly, to keep them there. Because they’re crazily jammed. Crazily. No one expected this turnout. For me, it’s been a deeply humbling, deeply gratifying experience. At today’s early vote in the College Hill district of East Tampa — a heavily democratic, 90% African American community — we had 879 voters wait an average of five hours to cast their vote. People were there until four hours after they closed (as long as they’re in line by 5, they can vote).

Here’s what was so moving:

We hardly lost anyone. People stood outside for an hour, in the blazing sun, then inside for another four hours as the line snaked around the library, slowly inching forward. It made Disneyland look like speed-walking. Some waited 6 hours. To cast one vote. And EVERYBODY felt that it was crucial, that their vote was important, and that they were important.

And there were tons of first time voters. Tons.

[…] The best of all was an 80 year old African American man who said to me: “When I first started I wasn’t even allowed to vote. Then, when I did, they was trying to intimidate me. But now I see all these folks here to make sure that my vote counts. This is the first time in my life that I feel like when I cast my vote it’s actually gonna be heard.”

To see people coming out — elderly, disabled, blind, poor; people who have to hitch rides, take buses, etc — and then staying in line for hours and hours and hours… Well, it’s humbling. And it’s awesome. And it’s kind of beautiful.

Great stuff.

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Late Night Insomnia Blogging, Day 2

Or night two. Really productive day all around, at least. I had the chance to workshop my Capturing the Friedmans article with a few colleagues this afternoon, and they had some great suggestions about how to revise it for presentation and eventually for publication. One of my biggest struggles in writing a film paper is knowing how much background I’ll have to offer my audience members, and I’m guessing that with a relatively obscure film (approximately $2 million box office, as I recall), with such a large cast of characters, that some framing/backstory might be needed. Any suggestions on whether or not it would be appropriate to provide my audience members with a cast list or some other handout?

Was reading the most recent issue of Cineaste tonight while watching Monday Night Football when a Wendy’s commercial came on, advertising their new kids’ menu, complete with milk and mandarin oranges. And while there’s obviously no mention of Super Size Me in the publicity material, I have to think that Spurlock’s film might have something to do with Wendy’s decision. It’s also interesting that they’re not talking about the mandarin orange option in terms of health/obesity, but in terms of consumer choice. We see one commercial in which the annoying “unofficial” Wendy’s spokesperson talks to a kid about the fact that back in the day he didn’t get any choices about what came with his kid’s meal.

In other news, I’m glad to see that so many of my fellow bloggers are continuing to hold on during this last week before the election. Rusty offers his endoresments for the races in which he’ll be voting. Rusty adds that Georgia voters will be voting on two possible Amendments to the State Constitution. One of them would write discrimination into the constitution, by prohibiting gay marriage. Such an amendment could make it difficult for gay couples to share some privileges that hetero couples take for granted, including hospital visitation rights. If it wasn’t already clear, I am strongly opposed to this amendemnt.

While I don’t know as much about the second proposed amendment, Jen has the scoop on her blog. David has done a great job of providing further evidence of the Bush administration’s incompetence and arrogance. Meanwhile, Bitch Ph.D. passes along information that “people are getting calls telling them their polling site has changed, calls that are not true and are clearly designed to prevent people from voting” and provides a link to the very useful

Thankfully, tomorrow is a worskhop day for my students….

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Late Night Insomnia Blogging

For some reason, my sleep schedule is out of synch again, so I’m checking email and pretending to be productive while You’ve Got Mail, a slightly better choice than any number of infomercials, plays in the background on TBS, but it’s making me think that I really do need to consider getting cable.

So what’s so interesting at 2 AM? I’d imagine I’m losing a little sleep over the election. David and Bitch PhD (and countless others) have been blogging up a storm on this year’s election, and I haven’t really said much. In part, this is due to the fact that I’m teaching the election course and know that some (if not all) of my students have found this blog (one of my students Googled “Zell Miller” in class and found this), and while I’d imagine they’re smart enough to guess my politics, I don’t want them to think I’m trying to force a political stance on them. The result is that I haven’t been talking about the election nearly as much as I would like. I am pretty worried about what will happen if Bush wins the election, even if I’m somewhat optomistic that won’t happen.

Also, just a quick note: I got an email from another recruit for the “Georgia Super-Highway Patrol.” A la Gauche is blog by a fellow Georgian who has pretty good taste in political parties.

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Primed for Fun

Shane Carruth, director of the indie ($7000 budget) time travel flick, Primer (IMDB), sent an amusing letter to the Landmark Theaters mailing list. Matt Dentler has the details.

Primer is coming to Atlanta next weekend. Based on Rachael’s review and my own enthusiasm for time travel films, I’m pretty excited.

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Ted Leo at the Earl

Just finished a draft of my Capturing the Friedmans paper, so to celebrate, I’m going to see Ted Leo (Lookout Records) in concert this evening at the Earl.

From there, I’ll be able to focus primarily on job applications for the next two weeks before I go on my personal US tour. Here’s my current itinerary:

With all of those plane trips, I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to make lots of single-serving friends.

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Bright Leaves

Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves (IMDB) focuses on his ambivalent relationship to North Carolina’s tobacco industry and his family’s relationship to that history, but it also frequently reminded me of my own family’s connections to the western North Carolina communities where McElwee filmed. The old warehouse where his great-grandfather stored tobacco now converted into a cosmetology academy. The red brick church rising up out of the tobacco fields. These are the images I remember seeing when I attended family reunions in Maiden, a small town just north of Charlotte. It’s probably no surprise that I’m reflecting on my personal and family histories after seeing a McElwee film. After all, he’s one of the masters of personal documentary. But McElwee’s ambivalent relationship to the south and his fascination with cinema as a kind of memory machine resonated with my own experiences.

The film opens with McElwee meeting a second cousin who is a samll town lawyer and a serious cinephile. The cousin shows us his collection of film stills that fill a wall full of file cabinets, his collection of trailers, and finally a letter he had received from a small-time movie star. Finally, we learn the main reason for the visit. McElwee’s cousin has determined that a 1950 Gary Cooper-Patricia Neal-Lauren Bacall film, Bright Leaf, may have been loosely based on their great-grandfather, a tobacco entrepeneur who was run out of business through some shady dealings by the Duke family. This encounter becomes a cinematic palimpsest for thinking about family and cultural history, as well as on documentary cinema itself, on what it means to film something.

The discovery of this connection to a forgotten Hollywood classic inspires McElwee to research his great-grandfather’s story. He briefly imagines his great-grandfather defeating the Duke family, entertaining the idea of inheriting a great tobacco fortune, but also inheriting the guilt of knowing that he would have made a profit on other people’s health. For the most part, the film avoids appearing didactic about tobacco smoking, or even about the people who make a living growing and selling tobacco. When he asks a small-time tobacco farmer how his church’s pastor feels about the tobacco industry, it’s clear that the farmer shares that sense of guilt. When he talks to friends who are trying to quit smoking, we see the visceral appeal of cigarette smoking. It would have been very easy to make a film that focused only on these questions, and I’m glad that McElwee didn’t make that film.

The moments that I loved, the scenes that captured my interest, were the “home movie” scenes, the moments in which McElwee reflects on the nature of documentary film. At one point, he reflects on a scene in Bright Leaf in which Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal kiss. He reminds us that Cooper and Neal had an affair that lasted several years, and while watching the scene, he notices Neal make a tentative, tender gesture with her left arm, briefly touching Cooper’s shoulder while they kiss, before quickly pulling her had away. McElwee speculates that this is a “documentary moment,” a scene in a fictional film in which real life briefly intervenes. In typical McElweean serendipity, Patricia Neal happens to be appearing at a nearby film conference. When he gets a chance to ask her about the scene, she denies his interpretation, but it’s an interesting theory.

These questions constantly inform the film, as McElwee reflects on the role of film and photography in “remembering” the past. He shows us footage of his son as a young boy struggling to tie his shoes. He notes that he doesn’t remember why he filmed this moment, doesn’t remember what happened immediately before or after. Of course, these questions about memory and “home movies” are close to me right now while I finish my Capturing the Friedmans paper (almost done!), and now I have another film where I can revisit the questions I’ve been considering. And while I’m thinking about memory, photography, nd family, I’ve just realized that this building may be the place where my mother’s family held their annual reunions for many years. I’m not entirely sure I’m right, but it looks about right. If I’m not mistaken, there’s a playground with a basketball court just down the street where I would sneak away to play while my parents and grandparents would talk (I also remember watching Villanova beat UNC on a cheap black-and-white TV, cheering the underdog Villanova while all of my cousins rooted for their beloved Tar Heels).

In short, I really enjoyed Bright Leaves. I haven’t said everything I could have about this film because I don’t want to spoil all of surprises the film offers, but I imagine that I will write more about this film at some point. McElwee talks about filming things becoming a narcotic as powerful as tobacco itself, and I’m beginning to think that the addiction to going to the darkened theater and watching the flickering images on the silver screen is a pretty powerful narcotic itself.

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