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Movie Loves, Lost and Found

Tuesday 7 March 2017 - Filed under Movies + Writing

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Sometimes I end up watching two movies back-to-back that are not just different, but are polar opposites—that balance each other in such a perfectly bizarre yin/yang juxtaposition that the randomized double-feature shocks me with its illumination and depth, as if some broad truth that runs across the spectrum of art and life has been unexpectedly and shockingly made clear. And when I’m feeling sad or lonely (which is when I end up watching random double-features) this feeling is especially magnified, like I’m a mad scientist in a lonely garrett, rejected by the world and the scientific community, mixing bizarre combinations of chemicals and creating violent new life.

The best example was back during the early Obama years when I received some bad news (technically “heartbreak”) and ended up, since the discs had just arrived from Netflix according to their mysterious availability schedule, seeing Wanted and The Wrestler (both 2008), which, when put side by side, seemed that depressing evening to constitute a definitive statement on sexuality, desire, violence, and loss. The Wrestler is of course brilliant and Wanted is of course ridiculous, but that night it made no difference: they were the two acts of a devastating single story about how men and women try and fail to connect, and how they are destroyed or fulfilled by their (one hesitates to use the phrase) gender roles. The protagonist of Wanted — which is based on a comic book I have not read — is a classic comic-book loser (played by James McAvoy), meant blatantly to stand for the reader: oppressed, cheated on, miserable in his software-company job, “apologiz[ing] too much,” with a missing father (in other words, a poor man’s Neo or Luke Skywalker) whose world is overturned in an instant when a gunslinging Angelina Jolie drops suddenly into his life, turning his drugstore visit into a shooting match which leads to a car chase, and revealing that he’s actually not a loser but is in reality a super-warrior, whom she’s (of course) in love with. Watching this, I kept waiting for the dream or spell to end; for a Walter Mitty/J. Alfred Prufrock awakening, but of course it never came; the story kept escalating and escalating with curving bullets and assassination schemes and naked Jolie bathing in special sci-fi milk that heals her wounds, and gunfights atop moving trains, and Jolie kissing McAvoy in front of his unfaithful girlfriend, and Morgan Freeman, until the whole plot blows up and everyone is dead or has won and McAvoy sneers, “What did you do today?” directly at the camera (I had done nothing except miserably order Chinese food and open two Netflix envelopes.)

And after this came The Wrestler and suddenly Mickey Rourke — beloved Mickey Rourke, from my college days of watching Angel Heart and Diner over and over with roommates — now a destroyed, surgically-mutilated grotesque, shuffled from his trailer park to his supermarket job to his miserable paid appearances in sleazeball gyms, having destroyed his body and soul in order to act out a caricature, a known pantomime, of the same kind of combative, triumphant masculinity that McAvoy effortlessly achieved in the other movie. Angelina Jolie did not drop into his life in a drugstore. Instead, he had a heart attack while trying desperately to connect with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei, whose constant, pained smile — she keeps putting it back on in case the bosses are watching — broke my heart) and with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and ends up weeping in view of the action figures made of him in his prime and then, rather than winning by blowing up enemies, redeeming himself by leaping into offscreen oblivion. Wanted was a young man’s dream of sex and power and The Wrestler was the world revealed in (as Evelyn Waugh described the end of youth) “the bleak light of dawn,” an old man who has also turned himself into an action figure, a comic book character, an adolescent figment of manhood, but is made of soft flesh rather than plastic or printer’s-ink and has collapsed into self-parody and self-loathing. The good-looking woman isn’t a fellow super-warrior aching to save him; she’s just another used-up gender icon, a stripper too old for her collegiate clientele (who openly mock her), an ordinary person trying and failing to be “a sex symbol,” just like him.

Together, that night in 2009, those movies were indelible, unbearable—it seemed that there was no hope for anything in between juvenile dreams and aging decay, and that the only constant between the two was the unforgiving superhuman lure of sex and potency, which, for gunslingers or wrestlers, comic-book warrior babes or cut-rate strippers, always disappoints, always leads into the solitary depths of escapist fantasy or the brutal reality of failure and age.

Today’s serendipitous double-feature was less bleak, but the total effect was not that different (especially given my current mood): watching David Lean and Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter (1945) and then Vincente Minelli’s Oscar-sweeping Lerner and Loewe musical Gigi (1958), I realized I’d accidentally created, or discovered, another fully-realized composite treatise on love and desire, this time more directly in the formalized context of retrograde social expectations and obligations (forgive me, but “gender construction”) and the contrasts and similarities between the turn of the last century, the end of WWII, and today.

David Lean, who would make widescreen epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, started out with intimate, black-and-white, impeccably English material like Brief Encounter, a miniaturist drama about an upper-class London wife and mother (Celia Johnson, nominated for an Oscar) who, during her weekly shopping trip by train, meets a married doctor (Trevor Howard) whom she, in that strange way that seems to happen only once a lifetime or not at all, instantly and mutually falls in love with. As Johnson and Howard — whose “chemistry” (as we now say) is as tender and heartfelt and unglamorous as anything I’ve ever seen or read — rendezvous over successive Thursdays (bookended by Lean’s magnificent black-and-white steam-train imagery) their “relationship” (to use a word the two proper English characters never would—like The Remains of the Day decades later, the movie is, as much as anything, a fond portrait of an upper class forever frozen outside the margins of emotional self-expression) blossoms, not to an affair, but to a desperate, futile bargain; a mutual decision to refuse each other but to delay the moment of refusal for just enough time to grant themselves the joy—and, as they well know, the eventual solitary agony—of a few scattered days spent alone together, as if they were lovers (although they never are). The movie is so good, so rich and honest and well-observed, that I was stupefied by its emotional force (I had only seen it once before, on television, and the digitally-restored Criterion edition I saw today is like a museum gallery of luminous mid-1940s black-and-white urban splendor) and the naked, helpless yearning of the two near-lovers: it isn’t Shakespearean “tragic love” with all that amped-up operatic dimension; it’s the mundane world of coffee spoons and library books and sudden London rainstorms that casts the urgency of Johnson and Howard’s “brief encounter” in such stunning, indelible relief.

Astonished by the tragic power of Lean’s and Coward’s vision, I — in my aforementioned glum state — figured Gigi (which is a deep childhood memory of a vinyl record my parents played over and over, and, later, a movie on TV during my high-school years) would cheer me up, but of course it did no such thing. The shameless Eisenhower-era Belle Époque fantasy (which works by reproducing the look and feel of the most famous Parisian paintings from the post-Impressionist/Toulouse Lautrec/Sem period) starts with Maurice Chavalier’s shamelessly lecherous “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” and keeps going in the same direction: in Paris of 1900, wealthy, handsome Louis Jourdan tires of the endless willing courtesans whom he goes through like Kleenex, until he realizes he’s actually in love with insouciant schoolgirl Gigi, the granddaughter of a working-class acquaintance whose scarlet-walled apartment he frequents for no clear reason. Gigi is made over, Eliza Doolittle style, by her grandmother and other elderly ladies with dollar signs (franc signs?) in their eyes, transforming into a suitably well-gowned and bejeweled fin-de-siècle ornament, fit to ride Jourdan’s tuxedoed arm into Maxim’s and along the Jardin des Tuileries where the movie begins and ends. Jourdan rejects Caron but then accepts her (suddenly recognizing her beauty and charm, which snaps into focus for him in my favorite lyric: “Have I been standing up to close or back too far?”), and they are seen happily married as the music swells and Chevalier, singing directly into the camera, reminds us that “little girls/Grow up in the most delightful way.”

Gigi won nine Oscars (a nomination-to-win record not broken until The Return of the King in 2004) and made millions, despite being described critically as “a meal consisting of cheesecake”: the overwhelming Cecil Beaton design — the epitome of 1950s Technicolor chic — looks as edibly sumptuous on a modern flatscreen as it must have in the big, old theaters of the Capote/Hitchcock era. But after Brief Encounter, all that irresistible, infectious happiness, all the charm and wit of Jourdan and Caron, all the ageless ugly-duckling-into-swan mythology, seemed, somehow, on the edge of tragedy and existential terror. As the old women’s eyes light up with pure greed and vicarious lust at the prospect that their wayward schoolgirl will hit the jackpot that they never got near (although the grandmother and Maurice Chevalier sing a plangent minor-key song that reveals they were almost lovers), I found myself strangely moved by the “happy” ending, not because I envied the characters but because it all seemed, suddenly, so impossible: like James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie decades later, these lovers succeed in finding happiness only in the exact moment that they leave reality behind for good—when their elevation from movie life to that rarefied, transcendent state of the Hollywood ending (like Danny and Sandy flying their car into the sky at the end of Grease) pushes them across the border into Valhalla, away from the earth.

Impossible loves and possible loves; endings both violent and blissful and unbearably tragic (Celia Johnson’s final, tearful embrace with the dull, sweet husband whom she knows for certain is not the love of her life concludes Brief Encounter with a moment of almost unbearable pathos and Aristotelian closure) — four movies in two random pairings that mark out the boundaries of male and female hope, desire, fantasy, joy and loss. Movie love is not real love (and watching romantic movies alone is a kind of addictive masochism), but the truth of art, the prism of cinema across the decades, illuminates the melancholy of a fading evening like every movie screen that ever shone in the darkness.

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2017-03-07  ::  Jordan

The Art of the Sale

Wednesday 1 March 2017 - Filed under Politics

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It worries me that the speech was “a success” because it reminds me of experiences with publicity/promotion types for whom “success” is a non-negotiable perfect attribute, like the speed of light, so that even products that everyone knows became bestsellers because of shrewd advertising or clever placement or well-arranged (or bought) endorsements are, afterwards, used as the metric of “a great product,” from a quality standpoint. In other words, the same people who figure out how to hype a mediocrity so it gets attention and notoriety and sells well, then turn around and characterize it as genuinely worthy (rather than admitting, “It wasn’t very good—we, or people just like us at another company, merely packaged it successfully”).

It’s the same thing with politicians, and it’s much more this way with Republicans than with Democrats because (post-Goldwater) they don’t think the same way about their constituents: they’re not interested in what those constituents actually think or believe or what damage this does — notwithstanding the occasional heroic moment like John McCain, astonishingly, correcting a town hall questioner who called Obama a Muslim — they just want the numbers, the sales, the votes. (My friend, a Trump supporter — for reasons apparently having to do with regulatory agendae and a mistrust of the NATO order and its trade systems, as well as a certain hard-to-define cultural anarchism — was a big fan of Obama; when I say, “You mean the Kenyan Usurper?” he shrugs and says, “That’s politics.”)

So Nixon (at first) and Reagan and Bush II and Trump (not yet but eventually) are elevated to “greatness” because the salesmanship worked well, since each man’s superficial attributes were malleable and compliant enough to fit into the stylistic “President” package (as Trump fit that package last night). And the goal is met; the elections won (just like those products hit their sales goals) and the agendae advanced,* so that eventually this quality itself becomes “greatness”; the operatives can’t tell the difference themselves any more because they’ve devoted their lives to erasing that distinction in the public’s minds.


*Hollywood producer Joel Silver, asked about the artistic merits of Die Hard and his other early hits, famously snapped, “I don’t make art — I buy art!” (meaning, the movies’ success allowed him to expand his personal collection of paintings — and all goals are met).

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2017-03-01  ::  Jordan

Out of Touch

Friday 17 February 2017 - Filed under Politics + Writing

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What’s absolutely infuriating me right now, more than the daily psychic blows of the Trump era, is the way that my own (and others’) expectation that Hillary would win the election is being turned into a blunt-force rhetorical weapon against us—against myself personally and others who think like I do, as recounted everywhere, daily—not just by Trump supporters but by other liberals/progressives. The “surprise” of Trump’s victory is the argumentative wedge that invalidates any critique: what can I claim to know about Americans’ problems if I couldn’t predict his monstrous triumph?

So when I attack Trump, even when agreed with, I am scolded: my critique, I am told, is invalidated by Trump supporters—not by their views or opinions, but merely by their plurality; not because they’re correct about anything but because they exist in greater numbers than anyone thought—the apparatus of democracy itself is turned against us. (Apparently, only good candidates win — performance in office isn’t as decisive as a priori victory, which is why Trump keeps presenting his electoral stats as if they’re policy arguments.) Because we liberals/progressives underestimated the threat, exactly as von Papen and Hindenburg and Chamberlain did in 1933, we must be wrong about what that threat means, where it came from, and what to do about it.

More specifically, I am angry because when I say what’s wrong with Trump, and what horrifying damage he will do to the world, and specifically to the people he gulled into voting for him, I am told not that I’m wrong but that, simply by describing the problem in con-man/victim terms, I’m adopting an unacceptably superior rhetorical stance. When I characterize Trump or his supporters (which is not difficult; none of this is subtle) I am routinely told that I do not understand something that I can see very clearly—we all are—simply because our observations may be wedged into a framework of “condescension” or “naïvité” (which, while inapplicable and misleading and misguided, is, masochistically or not, emotionally satisfying: it feels good to tell liberals — or for liberals to tell themselves — that they’re blind, because we’re the ones evangelizing our views so confidently and intrusively). And it’s absolutely crucial, if we’re to survive this period (and I literally mean “survive”) that these dangerous and incorrect ideas be set straight.

The unpleasant reality that we all must face is that something terrible has been done to a significant portion of the American public, over the decades, that has ruined their thinking ability to such a profound extent that they are now Trump supporters. It didn’t happen fast and it wasn’t easy — it was a confluence of deliberate and accidental factors, emerging from the advertising renaissance of the 1960s (as chronicled in Joe McGuinness’ landmark The Selling of the President 1968 and elsewhere, especially Rick Perlstein’s brilliant work) and incorporating the infamous “Southern Strategy” and other noxious public movements so that the ability of voting Americans to understand politics on a basic level has been fundamentally distorted and wrecked. Natural anti-authoritarian commiseration and anger was deflected away from predatory corporations towards “government.” Unnecessary, calamitous wars were presented as necessary “defenses.” Bigotry was amplified and nurtured. Personalities of politicians were cast in a movie-style framework that favored “folksy” dumbness over knowledge or capability or achievement — we were taught to prefer candidates we “could have a beer with”; those who reminded ourselves, reassuringly, of our own foibled ignorance rather than of any coherent notion of expertise.

Most important, these and other propagandist elements were shrewdly threaded together (with the collusion of a weak and sensationalistic press) into a coherent system of thought that embraced two or three crucial Orwellian inversions of reality: that those amongst us fighting for the underprivileged or the historically disenfranchised, rather than being heroic (as anyone defending the downtrodden is generally regarded in Western culture, starting with Jesus), are actually “the elite” in disguise, sowing unfairness and imbalance; that the qualifications for high office or for any task that one develops in universities or libraries, rather than enhancing one’s capabilities and perception, are actually the foundation of a sort of effete willful blindness; that (as John Updike argued decades ago) the American pioneer spirit, the spirit of rebellion that was the proving ground for our nation and the symbolic basis for the world’s eternal romantic fixation with “cowboys,” somehow means that dumbness is a virtue; that the ignorant are better; that feelings of exclusion or envy (setting aside those that sell movie tickets or sporting events) are not childish whims that must be cultivated into ambition and competitive, aspirational drive but are, instead, the bedrock of a deep hateful truth, a resentful awareness of a profound, uncorrectable “injustice” that must be nurtured over a lifetime into a profound anger: the worst and ugliest kind of anger; the kind based on the deep psychology of jealousy and bafflement, that fuels totalitarian movements.

Just as Scientology shrewdly insulates its followers against psychiatry and the internet (the forces of reason that can tear it down) or Glengarry Glenn Ross real estate sharks “protect” their victims from attorneys, the people who create the sentiments I’m describing work to discredit not just universities and cities and other symbols of civilization and meritocracy, but journalism and constitutional government — the only forces in a modern society that can save it from tyranny — so that, like Scientologists with serious problems who are trained to run away from the doctors and psychotropic drugs that can save them, the public fights against the forces of enlightenment.

How bad is this problem? Look around you—Trump is the President. But we’re not allowed to outline the crisis the way I’m doing here because it’s “condescending” and “out of touch.” Like missionary doctors sent into infected areas with vaccines, we’re rejected as interlopers: the fact that we weren’t aware of the extent of the disease and rot (that, in other words, we were surprised by Trump’s victory) makes us, not more correct in our dire warnings, but, somehow, less correct; more easily dismissible; “proof” that we know nothing and deserve to be disappointed and alarmed. The doctors and their vaccines are expelled from the villages because they know better than the Shamans — yes, they bring penicillin and it provably works, but that’s irrelevant compared to how superior they think they are; the way that they parade their knowledge so insultingly, for which they must be punished.

So I’m tired of being told that I’ve been “living in a bubble” because I expected Hillary to win. I’m tired of being lectured about how the fact that a surprising number of gullible Americans were tricked (by means of historically-proven totalitarian techniques) into voting 100% against their own interests, thanks to a systematic, half-century-old propaganda campaign and a trained aversion to facts and reality, somehow means that I’m confused; in the wrong; naïve; misguided; “elite.” I’m tired of seeing the catastrophe of Trump’s election being held up as “proof” that liberal/progressive solutions “have failed” — which is like arguing that the rise of Naziism “proved” that Jews had failed. (As David Bowie sang, “To be insulted by these Fascists is so degrading.”) I don’t care if it’s “condescending” or not—there is far more at stake than the pride of Trump’s victims (be they tenants, contractors, “university” students or voters). You can’t get the snake oil off the market if you’re afraid to insult the marks who fell for it. Yes, Hillary lost—the cancer is far more advanced than any of us believed. This makes the chemotherapy more necessary, not less. To hide from the truth, to accept that “we lost” and this somehow means that the forces of enlightenment should give up and go home, is to abandon a fundamental patriotic duty.

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2017-02-17  ::  Jordan

Silent Third Panel

Wednesday 1 February 2017 - Filed under Cartoons + Writing

As I look (again) at Peanuts — the entire 50-year-project, and its astonishing achievement — I’m noticing new things. I’ve learned, for example, about how everyone credits Schulz with inventing not just the classic “four-panel gag strip” but the crucial innovation of the “silent” third panel, which Garry Trudeau (whose style I appropriate here) and Bill Watterson (whom I discuss here) and Johnny Hart and so many others have mimicked. (Someone’s got a website just about silent third panels.)

I seized on the below strip because, this time through, I’ve been noticing the sheer force of the characterizations — for example, I’ve come to the conclusion that Lucy is maybe his greatest creation, in terms of depth and complexity (I think somebody else like Jules Feiffer said the same thing) — and I’m realizing anew that what I’ve always loved about Sally is how unabashedly stupid she is. Other characters have moments of slowness or confusion, as manifested (especially) by school problems — Schulz was actually an unusually sharp critic of the now-discredited “new math” teaching system, and, in general, sympathetic to the difficulty of receiving formalized instruction even for the sharpest amongst us — but Sally goes beyond this: she’s a beautiful expression of that sheer, belligerent opacity that only the truly dull-witted have…the refusal to even consider that they might learn or absorb something; the resignation or even contentment in the face of the certain knowledge that they will go through life fundamentally baffled. This strip (June 6th, 1967) seemed, now, like the best example of this I’ve seen:

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But as I kept staring at it, I became puzzled and then fascinated — I realized that I’d been missing something, not just about this strip but about the characterizations and the ideas themselves. The more I focus on the “joke,” the more I realize there’s an entire second-level meaning; a “Fool on the Hill” zen clarity and brilliance to Linus’ question and, especially, Sally’s answer. I don’t just mean the cliché of profundity emerging through the pursuit of seemingly naïve or dumb inquiries (Einstein asking “What would I see if I ran along a beam of light?” which sounds like Rod McKuen but is actually the thread that, when pulled, leads to General Relativity) or Art Linkletter’s treacly “Kids Say the Darndest Things” vaudville (which is, of course, exactly the kind of Family Circus horror that Schulz spent fifty years forcibly eradicating). The contemplation Sally engages with in that third panel is not so much Existential as Phenomenological; there are echoes of Husserl in her probing of her own experiential lexicon and the dissatisfaction that results. But her final question goes further back through intellectual history: it’s not just zen, it’s Socratic. Linus’ Nietzschean desire for an Eternal Return, a triumphant rebirth as enlightened superman, is checkmated by the simplicity of her Classical inquiry (as Leon Kass remarked in my “Genesis” class at Chicago, “Nietzsche can’t escape the clutches of Aristotle”).

And where are Linus and Sally standing and why are they there? It’s a blank, Samuel Beckett landscape, complete with hapless, baffled interlocutors pinned eternally in place: Like Vladamir and Estragon, the Peanuts cast lives outside of time, never aging, with no beginning and no end — Linus can’t start over; his immortality traps him even more than our own (or Schulz’) finite lives. (As Jerry Seinfeld said of Pop-Tarts, “They can’t get stale because they were never fresh.”) The more I think about this strip, the deeper and heavier it gets: an avalanche of meaning in these four minimalist drawings and those 25 words. The towering genius of Charles M. Schulz endures — and the fact that it’s carried forward not in scholarly texts or museums but in newsprint, sweatshirts, beach-towels and mugs makes it all the more impressive and indelible.

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2017-02-01  ::  Jordan

Of Grosse Pointe and David Simon

Thursday 29 December 2016 - Filed under Politics + Writing

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Despite the joy of seeing beloved family members, I returned from Grosse Pointe, MI this week even more depressed than I’d been at any point since the election, since the casual, obscene racism and unthinking Trump support I encountered (among perfectly well-meaning and pleasant well-to-do Americans who sincerely believe themselves to have the best interests of our nation at heart) was so profoundly debilitating — one of my cousins, a very nice person whom I like very much, impressed upon me the significant narrative of some Vietnamese small business owners “who work really hard” (with all the implications of the phrase that Republicans always call forth) and wanted me to understand that these Vietnamese acquaintances have done well for themselves despite their fundamental disadvantage. “Because they’re not white?” I asked. No, my cousin answered—because they’re not black.

My smiling, innocuous, perfectly decent, heart-of-gold cousin spent the next half hour working to discredit Obama’s academic credentials—sure, he was editor of the Harvard Law Review and a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago — a school I know something about, since I went there, which of course meant nothing to my cousin — but who am I to give credence to these rigorous metrics? How do I know whether they’re right? The implication—that this is all “hand-outs” — that the academic rigor of Harvard and Chicago is meaningless when it comes to black people — was not lost on me, although my cousin denied the charge throughout. (A subsequent evening, this cousin, along with another, fervently impressed upon my father — an immigrant and U.S. Marine who remembers Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration’s stickers in his New Jersey windows during the Great Depression — the importance of recognizing the conspiracy between Democrats and African Americans to exchange ill-gotten “free stuff” for votes.)

So, notwithstanding my genuine affection for my extended family, it was with great relief that I returned to my own glorious melting pot of New York City, where the air is not filled with the stultifying deadness of wall-to-wall white people…and, just in the nick of time, to receive my sister’s generous Christmas gift of the complete Blu-ray edition of The Wire. After just two episodes, I could feel the oxygen returning to my soul. My boundless gratitude to David Simon, whose fearless vision of the real America should be remembered for all time. The eternal drama of Baltimore and of all American cities, going back to Ralph Ellison and the IWW and Upton Sinclair, and the black people who so frighten my lily-white, sheltered, beloved extended family with their fantasies of oppression and disadvantage, are immortalized in Simon’s Shakespearean, Dickensian drama, as is a heartwarming reminder of the delicacy and nuance with which some people (Simon was a newspaper journalist, his writing partner a homicide detective) can still perceive the complexity and heroism of American society. Art fights ignorance, as it has since the days of Homer and Chaucer. Entering the frightening new year, I maintain my utopian idealized fantasy that we can still, despite all evidence to the contrary, learn to overcome our base fears and make sense to one another as Americans and survivors. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2016-12-29  ::  Jordan

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