Bed Sheet Poetry – An Interview With A Ghost Story Director David Lowery

Bed Sheet Poetry – An Interview With A Ghost Story Director David Lowery

Here’s a concept that shouldn’t work: a haunting meditation on life, love, death, and time starring Casey Affleck as a ghost in a bed sheet. That’s the film that writer/director David Lowery delivered at this year’s Sundance film festival and somehow ended up being an acclaimed hit of the fest. Lowery isn’t a stranger to taking bizarre premises and turning them into almost inexplicably moving genre flicks. Just last summer he updated the poppy 60’s Disney movie Pete’s Dragon into a tearful ode to childhood imagination. It was a blockbuster that shouldn’t have been nearly as resonant and satisfying, yet somehow Lowery pulled it off. For his follow up, the guy returned to his indie roots and delivered something even more unexpectedly poignant in A Ghost Story.

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A Ghost Story – Directed by David Lowery

The film stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a struggling couple trapped in a dying relationship and a tiny house. One morning, Affleck dies in an accident and returns as a ghost. However, it’s not some glossy Hollywood special effect of a spectre. Nope, it’s the poor man’s Halloween special: a bed sheet with eyeholes. Obviously, that looks ridiculous and Lowery has some fun with the absurdity of his presence. Yet as a the film marches on through it’s poetically haunting images, that sheet ghost doesn’t seem so silly. Affleck’s spectre stands by Mara through her grief, and then continues to haunt the house through new generations. He does the usual poltergeist routine (both spooky and goofy in the costume), and lingers longer to observe lives and time pass through his presence. Shot in a series of beautiful long takes and a nostalgic square shaped aspect ratio, the film sneaks up on viewers to deliver one of the most profound and haunting ghost stories in years—all that with a bed sheet ghost. This Lowery guy is something else.

After a successful bow at Sundance that built hype, A Ghost Story is finally opening on Toronto screens this weekend and audiences can expect to see something that they’ve never seen before in this genre. CGMagazine got a chance to sit down with David Lowery before A Ghost Story’s release to discuss bizarre motivations and techniques behind the project, as well as how he was openly terrified about whether or not he could pull it off. So, please read on for a chat with a man who is quickly becoming one of the most fascinating genre filmmakers of his generation.

CGMagazine: First off, I have to tell you that with A Ghost Story and Pete’s Dragon, you took two images that I couldn’t imagine having a deep emotional connection with and somehow made me cry. So, thanks for that, I think.

David Lowery: *laughs* You’re welcome, I guess. I hope it was a good cry.

CGMagazine: Absolutely. I was curious if both of the movies came from a similar place, in that you took something easy to dismiss as silly and found ways to make it resonate.

David Lowery: No, I wasn’t challenging myself to turn something impersonal into something personal. But I did see the opportunity in both films to do something that mattered a lot to me. They are both personal in different ways, but they are both quite personal. I can’t make a movie unless it’s personal in some way. I think that’s why they resonate with audiences; it’s easy to pick up on that sincerity.

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A Ghost Story – Directed by David Lowery

CGMagazine: Did A Ghost Story start with some sort of personal fascination with an image of a bed sheet ghost and wanting to reclaim it?

David Lowery: Well, I didn’t necessarily want to reclaim it, but I felt that image had a lot of potential. I felt there was a whole lot going on there. I didn’t know how I’d use it, but I always knew I’d make a movie with a bed sheet ghost in it. This was the movie that I ultimately made and I think it was a perfect use of that image. But it was definitely something rattling around in my head for a while.

CGMagazine: Was there something in particular about that image that stuck with you?

David Lowery: I just liked the image, honestly. It made me laugh but also had a naiveté to it that was very sweet and melancholy. I wanted to use that, I just didn’t know how or in what way.  But I knew there was enough there for a movie.

CGMagazine: How did people react when you started sharing that idea?

David Lowery: Everyone got it. The script was only 30 pages—which threw people—but I sent it out with some photos of very simple, beautifully lit locations that I photoshopped a bed sheet ghost into. I included that so that everyone had an idea of what the movie would look like and I think it helped. They got it. You’d see that image and regardless of any practical concerns, they understood the intent.

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A Ghost Story – Directed by David Lowery

CGMagazine: I enjoyed how you played with that image, as well as what the ghost is and what it represents as the film rolls along. It’s hard to predict where you’ll go or how the tone will shift.  Was that a process of experimentation when writing or something that came naturally to you?

David Lowery: It was in the script. I wrote that largely in one sitting, so I can safely say it was all there from the beginning *laughs*. But I didn’t really know what it would be when I started writing. I just kept writing and writing and it took that direction. I’m usually a writer who doesn’t write much. I get paralyzed by my own expectations while writing and will get a word or two out every day and then get stuck. When I find myself in the opposite situation, where the words are flowing out, I just keep going. I don’t want it to stop until the movie is done. In this case, since the script is so short I did it all in one sitting and I didn’t go back to figure it out until it was all there on the page. Very little changed from that first draft to the final film, so it was all pretty much baked in.

CGMagazine: How did Casey Affleck react to spending most of the movie under a sheet? That’s such a weird thing to ask of an actor.

David Lowery: He and I have a relationship at this point where I can just text him and say, “Hey, I’m making a ghost movie in Texas, you want to be in it? You have to wear a bed sheet.” And he said, “Sure.” He found that text recently and showed it to somebody. I pitched it in such a nonchalant way that I doubt if he took it seriously. Then a few weeks later, I sent him the script with the costume. I wouldn’t be surprised if he never read the script until he got to Texas because he just enjoys making movies with me and he trusts me, for better or worse. There was never a moment where I had to sell it to him. He was just down for the cause.

CGMagazine: Did you do ghost movement rehearsal to see how that would work with the sheet?

David Lowery: Yes, but while we were shooting. We threw out a lot of material where it didn’t work. The more that he performed, the less it worked. The solution as you see in the finish filmed was very little movement and the few movements there were had to be very deliberate. Casey, as it turns out, has a very particular walk. You don’t notice on the street, but put a sheet on his head and it stands out. It didn’t feel like a ghost, so we had to plan all of his movements very carefully and subtly.

CGMagazine: I’ve read that every day on set you were petrified that this wasn’t going to work and didn’t feel comfortable until you saw it cut together. What kept you going if you were so worried?

David Lowery: There were little moments here and there that I knew worked. I have to give credit to my producer Toby Halbrooks, who was completely convinced this would work in spite of my own lack of confidence. He kept me going. And people were really dedicated to it. As a director, I had to respect their commitment despite my own doubts. I had to keep persevering because everyone around me was doing their best and I owed it to them. So even though I had my doubts, I kept them private. That’s what you have to do with every movie, but this one was just a little more risky than previous projects. This one had something in the centre of every frame that terrified me because it could have fallen flat on its face—and literally did sometimes. So it was challenging, but if you get deep enough into a project at a certain point you can’t stop.

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A Ghost Story – Directed by David Lowery

CGMagazine: I was pleasantly surprised that you did use humour to acknowledge the absurdity of the whole concept. Was there any concern doing that might prevent you from going to the more serious places that you intended?

David Lowery: Oh I felt that humour was necessary. It’s such an absurd concept that you have to let people laugh at it. So I sprinkled little release valves throughout the film where you could laugh and it was obvious that was the intention. So that wave between the two ghosts was an important bit of comic relief. That was important to me. I think humour is a wonderful gateway that allows you to open up emotionally and facilitates other emotional experiences. That was very important.

CGMagazine: There are some genuinely creepy sequences as well. Do you have any interest in doing a more straightforward horror movie?

David Lowery: Very much so. I get scared very easily. Even whatever Paranormal Activity movie people consider to be the worst made me cover my eyes. I went to see all of them and they terrified me. I love getting scared. I love horror films. I see almost every one of them. I’ve seen all of the recent ones except for Lights Out because the trailer scared me too much. So my goal is to make a horror movie where I would be too scared to sit in on the soundmix. That would be fun. I want to have that experience. That’s on my bucket list.

CGMagazine: It must have been such a relief when this premiered in Sundance and everyone responded so well.

David Lowery: I wasn’t in the room. I can’t sit through my own premieres; it’s too nerve wracking and anxiety inducing. I learned my lesson two films ago and now I just don’t do it anymore.

CGMagazine: Really, I figured it would be the opposite, where being by yourself not knowing what was happening in the screening would get you thinking about all the worst-case scenarios.

David Lowery: Oh I still go through all the worst-case scenarios, don’t worry about that. Watching it is just a worst-case scenario in its own way. Every atom in your body is fully conscious and yet it feels like a dream. I get more out of it to wait in another room than to sit there.

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A Ghost Story – Directed by David Lowery

CGMagazine: Because this was such an experiment, did you have any sequences that you had to cut because they didn’t work?

David Lowery: There are a handful of things that we dropped. We had a few scenes explaining the rules of the world and the way in which the ghost participates in the world around him. We shot lots of scenes of the ghost trying to leave the house and not being able to, running through walls, that sort of thing. Basically, we did our version of that scene in Ghost where Patrick Swayze learns how to pick things up. All of that just ended up feeling redundant. Other than that, it’s pretty close to the script and there weren’t a lot of discoveries along the way. It was a fairly organic and simple process to put the movie together. We had happy accidents but no unexpected discoveries.

CGMagazine: What was your thinking behind the square aspect ratio?

David Lowery: I like that aspect ratio and wanted to use it for a while, but I wanted to wait until I had a project that warranted it so that it didn’t feel like a simple affectation. This film felt appropriate because it was about a character stuck in a box. I felt that I could combine the thematic subject matter with the aspect ratio, and I also just liked the aesthetic of it because it feels like a home movie or an old photograph…

CGMagazine: Or a slide show…

David Lowery: Yeah, that’s actually what I think about the most because slideshows have those curved edges that I had. No one will ever sit through a slideshow again, but for those of us who were forced to sit through our aunt and uncle’s vacation slideshow every holiday, that image will go beyond just being an Instagram feature and feel like something sentimental and nostalgic.

CGMagazine: Were you influenced by Gus Van Sant’s Elephant at all? Because I felt both films had a similar tone as well as the use of that aspect ration and style of shooting.

David Lowery: Yeah, that was the first time that I saw a modern movie in that aspect ratio and I remember him saying in interviews that he liked the way in which that aspect ratio towered over an audience as opposed to enveloping them. That statement stuck with me. I liked the idea that the image could tower over audiences and that was definitely the first time that I ever thought about that aspect ratio and the ways in which I might use it. That was also my introduction to slow cinema. Those movies were very influenced by Bella Tarr and it was only through Van Sant talking about them that I even heard of them. That was a very formative experience as a filmmaker for me.

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A Ghost Story – Directed by David Lowery

CGMagazine: Did you finish your script for Peter Pan?

David Lowery: No, we’re still working on it. I should be working on it right now to be honest *laughs*. It’s taking a back seat to A Ghost Story at the moment and we shot a movie with Robert Redford over the spring. So we had to finish that too. Now that I take a break on all of that over the fall, I’ll be turning my attention back to that and trying to make it work.

CGMagazine: What’s your take on Peter Pan? Because what you did with Pete’s Dragon was so far from what I was expecting, I’m very curious to see what you do.

David Lowery: It’s tough. Pete’s Dragon I had free reign from Disney to do whatever. But with Peter Pan, you can’t really do that. So I’ve got to find a way to make it personal (which I can do because I care about it), fresh (which is hard to do because there are so many versions out there already), and respectful to the original (which is important because there are so many Disney fans out there and ultimately you’re making it for them). So I’ve got to balance all of those things and ultimately that makes it a more challenging project than Pete’s Dragon and there’s a higher risk for failure. But as proved by A Ghost Story, I’m always up for a challenge, so we’ll see what happens.

Kubo And The Two Strings (Movie) Review

Kubo And The Two Strings (Movie) Review

There are few studios around these days as dedicated to the art and craft of animation as Laika. Founded by Henry Selick, and launched with his brilliant adaptation of Coraline, the studio specializes in stop motion. Their films (ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) are for kids, but generally have a horror bent, and tend push the young audiences a bit further than most comfy family entertainment. The company also continues to refine and expand the possibilities of stop motion animation in the digital age. Despite their scale and sheen, there’s a tactile quality to the films they make that’s almost impossible to describe. In their latest feature Kubo And The Two Strings, the company throws a little CG into the mix to deliver an astounding feat of animated artistry that is jaw-droppingly beautiful to behold on a big screen. The story isn’t exactly their best so far, but in the midst of the flurry of gorgeous imagery the animators treat audiences to this round, you might not even notice.

Kubo And The Two Strings (Movie) Review 4As is the Laika way, the movie is about a troubled child. In this case it’s the titular Kubo (Art Parkinson). His father was a great warrior killed in battle, while his mother is essentially catatonic. The boy goes to the local village each day to earn his family’s keep by putting on a music/magic origami show. The only words his mother seems capable of spitting out are warnings to keep away from the village at night to avoid the wrath of the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Obviously Kubo breaks that rule and is quickly attacked by the king’s evil n’ creepy twin daughters (Rooney Mara). In the aftermath, Kubo awakens with a new monkey friend (Charlize Theron), and the two go on a quest to seek out his father’s fabled magic armour and unbreakable sword to defeat the Moon King. Along the way they meet a strange beetle man (Matthew McConaughey). Together the trio build friendships while engaging in a variety of strange battles and challenges.


If the plot sounds strange, that’s because it is. Though based on myth, Kubo And The Two Strings unfolds with a strange dreamlike logic when at it’s best. The film plays like pure cinema, flowing based on the whims of it’s own strange imagery and intoxicating action rather than a forced plot. The weakest parts of the movie are when story and buddy bonding overwhelm the flush of surreal imagery. Sure, the characters are charming with some wonderful movie star vocal performances. However, they feel a little trite when their purposes are revealed, and the old-fashioned “believe in yourself” fairy tale message is a little stale. This is likely Laika’s worst script to date on a pure storytelling perspective. Thankfully, that’s mostly because their standards are so high at that studio, and the gorgeous rush of animation more than makes up for it.

Kubo And The Two Strings (Movie) Review 6Though this is the first Laika production that doesn’t overtly fall into the horror genre, the studio remains unafraid to freak out kiddies with their projects because secretly young viewers like that sort of thing (see all old fairy tales for more details). There are definitely some creepy moments here that director Travis Knight executes rather fearlessly (apologies for the pun, couldn’t resist). However, the film is primarily an action/adventure lark and that’s where Knight really delivers the goods. He pushes the limits of what stop motion can do then adds a light dusting of CGI to push things even farther.

Kubo And The Two Strings delivers one astounding image and set piece after the next. It’s a glorious big screen experience, and proof that even in an age dominated by CGI sheen, traditional animation can be just as impressive and enthralling. Hopefully Kubo And The Two Strings does well. Laika movies traditionally aren’t exactly major hits; yet make enough for the company’s unique output to continue. Their work is definitely too weird to ever turn into a Pixar-sized hit, but that’s just fine. It’s nice that someone is still focusing on oddball artistry in the world of animation. Kids need to have their imaginations stretched, and those who haven’t given up on this art form need to be reminded that there’s still a place for subversion and experimentation in family friendly animation.
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Pan (Movie) Review

Pan (Movie) Review

The latest big screen edition of Peter Pan is, if nothing else, an incredibly strange movie. Directed by Brit Joe Wright (Atonement, Hannah), it seems to be a Peter Pan blockbuster made by people who aren’t particularly interested in Peter Pan. The filmmakers completely re-wrote and altered the original text about the flying boy who won’t grow up and transformed it into a steampunk fantasy blockbuster about a chosen one. Sure, transforming fairy tales into action fantasy epics is a cottage industry now worth billions of dollars. So, I suppose there’s at least a template for how this thing could be commercial. However, Wright’s vision is such a bizarre reinvention that the pleasures the film offers tend to be of the ‘wtf’ variety and it’s hard to imagine the audience willing to fork over cash to see a Peter Pan blockbuster will be seeking that experience.

paninsert3The movie takes place at the height of the London Blitz. Wright’s ever-mobile cameras probe their way through the battle-scarred streets of London to find an abusive orphanage where a little scallywag named Peter (Levi Miller) awaits his mother’s return while dodging some dastardly nuns. One night, a collection of boys (including Peter) are kidnapped by clown pirates on bungee cords. They’ve been sold to slavery by the nuns and soon find themselves trapped on a pirate ship that engages in a dogfight with some WW2 era warplanes. Eventually the ship arrives in Neverland where a gang of evil pirates chant the lyrics to Smells Like Teen Spirit and tell the kidnapped boys that they will now toil in a mountain mine to seek out rocks of fairy dust.

So…yeah…not exactly the normal Peter Pan story, huh? Wait, there’s more. The evil pirate running it all isn’t actually Captain Hook. Nope, it’s Blackbeard (portrayed by Hugh Jackman with campy gusto). James Hook is actually one of the slaves and is played by Garret Hedlund with a bizarre voice that’s somewhere between a John Huston impression and a parody of poorly mimicked American accents. All the slaves whisper that they’ll one day be saved by a chosen boy named Pan who can fly. Apparently he’s a long lost half-fairy/half-human love child from the great pirate/fairy war for Neverland. Don’t worry if you’re lost. The setup doesn’t make that much more sense when played out in full.

It appears that the appeal of Pan to Wright and his collaborators was to throw every bizarre idea and visual concept onto the screen regardless of whether or not it fit into the source material. Working with a massive blockbuster budget for the first time, it’s clear that Wright had an absolutely ball designing the world and staging the set pieces. The design of the film is rather stunning, pitched somewhere between Dickens, steampunk, and Terry Gilliam. The massive 3D action sequences can be rather amazing, especially the flying pirate ship/plane battle over 40s London. As pure eye candy, there’s fun to be had and clearly the filmmakers went wild while bringing to life every bizarre idea that came to their heads. Unfortunately, they never really seemed to settle on a story or come up with a reason why they wanted to transform Pan so dramatically, and that’s a problem.

The ‘chosen one’ hero narrative feels entirely perfunctory and the specifics of the mythology that led to this world are opaque at best. It’s easy to get lost and hard to care about why anything is happening. Hugh Jackman tries his best to deliver an unhinged villain, but the role is so underwritten that it never feels like more than wildly posturing in fancy dress. Admittedly, the young Levi Miller commits to his role as Peter with surprising dramatic weight, but every other actor on screen seems lost. Rooney Mara’s racially questionable casting as Tiger Lily, the leader of a native Neverland tribe, is downright bizarre, and her character seems to have no purpose beyond serving as an exposition delivery system. Hedlund’s performance is absolutely insane and not in a good way, more in a “this is so distracting, please make him stop” way. Everyone else is either lost and wooden or cartoonishly mugging. You can’t really blame any of the actors directly for blowing it, though. With a script this undercooked, they were all grasping at straws, desperate to survive.

paninsert2It’s impossible to call Pan a good movie, and yet it’s also difficult to completely dismiss it outright. Sure, Joe Wright and his collaborators seem to get lost in the midst of their wild ambitions (possibly even due to studio/editorial tampering given all of the awkward ADR, but who knows?), yet the insane and grandiose images they plaster all over the screen in gorgeous 3D are undeniably impressive. The film works as eye candy and as a cinematic ride, just not as a cohesive story and certainly not as a Peter Pan narrative. Pan is a trainwreck, yet kind of a fascinating one worth driving by slowly on the highway to stare all the morbidly intriguing wreckage. (Phil Brown)

Her (Movie) Review

Her (Movie) Review

Like all of the best speculative science fiction, Spike Jonze’s latest flick her is set in the future, but it’s really about right now. The film is one of those “what if” sci-fi tales and one feels a mere software update away from being a reality. Then, of course, with the project being a Spike Jonze joint, it’s also a strange, creepy, funny, beautiful and human story wrapped within an “out there” concept that shouldn’t lend itself to personal filmmaking. It is above all else a striking piece of work filled with concepts that only Jonze could dream up and expand in this specific way. It’s the first time the filmmaker has written a script entirely on his own and based on the results, it hopefully won’t be the last. Charlie Kaufman is going to have to get himself a new collaborator and thankfully, that’s not a bad thing.

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So this concept I keep speaking about in reverential terms… It is a good one, hopefully worthy of my self-indulgent critical drooling. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man as sad and lonely as the mustache he sports on the poster suggests. His job is writing beautiful personalized notes for people incapable of expressing their own emotions. Of course, while Phoenix has no problem cranking those puppies out for others, he’s equally disconnected from his surroundings. He lives in a world where everyone is so hypnotized by their personal computer devices that they find it impossible to tear their eyes away from their screens long enough to make a real human connection (sound familiar?). Then a new product arrives: a sentient operating system that thinks, grows, and cares about its user. Phoenix picks it up immediately and soon the smoky, sexy sounds of Scarlett Johansson are ringing in his ear. She quickly cleans up his hard drive and sets him up on a blind date. But that doesn’t really work out, and as his computer starts to feel for his interpersonal dilemma, they fall in love. That’s right, it’s that old “boy meets computer” chestnut. The weird thing is that everyone in Phoenix’s life (well, his only two friends played by Chris Pratt and Amy Adams anyways) seem ok with this and even stranger, it seems as though human/operating system love is becoming common. The only person freaked out by the whole thing is Phoenix’s recently ex-wife Rooney Mara. She’s disgusted by Phoenix’s inability to connect, the same thing that made her grow out of their relationship. Then Johansson’s operating system starts to evolve at an exponential rate and… well… that’s never a good thing for a relationship, is it?

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As speculative fiction, Her is an undeniably fascinating work. The depiction of technologically hypnotized humans hits chillingly close to home (as it should, for anyone writing or reading a magazine dedicated to videogames, right?). Jonze’s world is carefully designed speak directly to contemporary viewers, and his story could not be more timely. As usual, Jonze never lets the project settle comfortably into any particular genre formula either. It’s always touching, funny, and creepy simultaneously, leaving viewers mesmerized and unsure of where the tale will turn next. Then somewhere about two thirds of the way through, the film stops feeling like a sci-fi think piece and becomes a straight up tragic love story. That Jonze could do that is both a testament to the Phoenix’s heartbreaking performance done almost as a solo and Johansson’s impressive vocal performance that creates a vivid character without a body, as well as the filmmaker’s gifts as an emotional storyteller. Somehow you feel fully for this digital relationship, and as things wrap up the film proves not only to be about the perils of love in the digital age, but also the challenges of opening yourself up to the emotional vulnerability of a relationship and learning how to let go. It’s an incredibly heartfelt and personal, yet flippant piece of work. I suppose you could say that about everything Jonze has done since Being John Malkovich.

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The music video directing veteran of course complements it all with some stunning visuals, especially the clever combination of Los Angeles and Shanghai skylines to create a gorgeously impersonal near future Metropolis. As I’ve made clear through gushing, it’s a wonderful movie, but not a perfect one. The film is too long and weighed down by endless solo dating montages in its saggy middle. It also feels like a story that deserved a harsher and more ironic ending rather that the fuzzy butterflies Jonze chose to wrap things up with. However, these are minor annoyances at worst and don’t detract from the fact that Jonze has created a truly magical movie of the moment that should fill any tech-loving viewer with food for thought as they watch it on their personal device of choice while avoiding contact with the outside world. Between this and Gravity, it’s been a hell of a year for sci-fi fans, providing two contemporary genre classics that could only have emerged from this specific moment in time. It’ll be a while before that happens again, so savor it people.

 

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Movie) Review

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Movie) Review

Though it’s sure to be a blockbuster, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has to be one of the oddest marquee Christmas releases in recent memory. Completely devoid of holiday cheer, this is the rapiest, Naziest movie you’re likely to see this December and a great dark escape from family gatherings if you’re in need of one. It’s a trashy thriller, but with director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, and er The Social Network) calling the shots, at least it’s arty trash.

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