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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: April 2-April 20, 2008

Tuesday, April 14, 2008:

I continue to fall back into my bad habit of social isolationism. I haven't been returning phone calls or answering e-mails or communicating with people I love, let alone strangers. Human interaction is getting scary again.

To offer an ongoing example, way back on Valentine's Day, Bev was out of town and I went out to see the excellent local band Feel It Robot by myself. Unbeknownst to me, Bev had prepaid for the band to give me a T-shirt and an adorable Feel It Robot felt doll, but I missed them calling my name during the show because the sound was so poor. (It was in a bowling alley.) Ever since, I've made a few aborted attempts to connect with the 'Bots and collect my goodies, but have yet to meet them because I am cowardly. I've gotten as far as their front door, but they were in their studio and apparently couldn't hear me knocking. The woman who lives downstairs encouraged me to really pound on the door, but I blanched at the thought of making myself so noticeable and slunk back down to the street. The band has courteously held off on cashing Bev's check until I pick up my stuff, and I've just been too much of a hermit to make everyone's life easier by actually making an effort to coordinate with them and go downtown and say hi.

What I'm getting at is that I really need to be proactive about socializing again because I fear I'm losing what few skills I have, and I do not want to relive my days as a teen so self-conscious and introverted that I couldn't even bear the thought of making small talk with a cashier who was ringing up my purchase.

So the interest of proactivity, I auditioned for season ten of Big Brother.

On Saturday, Linnehan's car dealership in Bangor hosted a Big Brother casting crew from noon to 4:00. I had no pressing engagements on Saturday, so I decided to go further blur my personal distinction between TV and reality.

Not that I thought I had a chance of being selected. The Linnehan's event is one of 26 casting calls currently listed on CBS's site--and none of the 26 are in L.A. or New York, so I can't think it's an exhaustive list--and from what I can gather, most contestants who ultimately get cast do so on the strength of homemade audition tapes rather than open calls. Those aren't great odds. Furthermore, I am well aware that I am so untelegenic that my appearance on a single Big Brother episode would cause CBS's overall Q Score to plunge to a level below even Brazil's widely reviled Shitting Clowns Network. Needless to say, a big part of the audition's appeal to me was simply to see how such things work, and my expectations for success were low. ("Wow, free balloons for everyone who enters!")

That said, I really did try my best. I didn't go in with a plan to punk the show or anything, like Aaron Song was rumored to have done with Hell's Kitchen. I have no idea whether I'd actually do well on a reality show, but I watch enough of them that I think I'd have a fighting chance as a Rob Cesternino-style schemer. So I made the decision to sincerely go for it. Before leaving the house, in fact, I spent a couple of minutes in honest-to-goodness contemplation of how I should present myself in public, which I haven't done for years. "Unshaven, clean-shaven, or goatee?" Goatee. It's a timeless crowd-pleaser. "Hat or no hat?" No hat. Top Chef's Spike has ruined hats for the season.

The parking lot was full when I arrived at 11:30, so the dealership had arranged for a limo to shuttle applicants from a furniture store's more ample parking lot a quarter-mile up the road. The front of the lot held a miniature revival tent in which Mr. Linnehan had hired a gospel rock band to perform and preach. (Mr. Linnehan has never seen Big Brother, so he can be forgiven for not realizing that it's kind of a godless show.) There were also free donuts and hourly cash giveaways. Around back of the shop, you were given a queue number. I was 85th in line to audition. 150 people ultimately showed up, which I think is far fewer than Linnehan's was expecting. I felt kind of bad that they'd put in so much effort for such a crummy turnout, but 150 was nevertheless about all the casting folks were equipped to handle, since it was nearly 4:00 by the time I finally got to audition.

After being assigned a number, we were made to sit at cafeteria tables set over a drainage grate in a chilly garage and fill out a 12-page application that took me 45 minutes to complete. ("Do you have a temper? How often do you lose your temper? What provokes you?" "What are you most ashamed of, either now or in your past?" "Have you ever been to a nude beach? If so, what was it like?") I think it might have gone quicker had I been less wordy, but I had plenty of time and enjoy filling out surveys, so I wrote a lot.

For instance, one of the final questions was, "Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about yourself and why you think you'd make a great Big Brother participant and housemate?" I wrote, "Reality show contestants always say they expect to be underestimated for one reason or another, so I plan to be the first Big Brother winner to be consistently overestimated throughout the game. My opponents will throw themselves into fits of confusion and fear, worrying about what this Williams boy will do next, while I'll be hobbling hopelessly around with each foot stuck in a wastepaper basket... across the finish line!!!"

I'd brought along my medical transcription textbook, figuring I'd get some studying done as I waited. Instead, though, I made myself be social and spent most of the wait hanging out with a very funny girl named Erin, who looks like Maggie Gyllenhaal and who works as an "equine collection specialist" at Bangor's racetrack. "That means I catch horse piss," she said. She collects urine samples from racehorses and sends them to be analyzed, I guess for evidence of performance-enhancing substances? She told me that the secret to getting a horse to pee is to whistle. I hope to be able to employ this knowledge for practical joke use in the future. Erin was the very first person who got to audition at noon because she'd won a radio contest bumping her to the head of the line. She hung around as moral support for her friend Kim, who was 99th in line. Kim had never watched Big Brother and asked Erin and me, "What's the point of the show?" We weren't sure what to tell her.

Also met a guy who looked so much like Donnie Wahlberg that Erin asked if there was any relation. The guy said there isn't, but he gets it a lot. He was once on a subway and a girl refused to believe that he wasn't Mark Wahlberg, so he signed Mark's name on a napkin to get her to go away.

A woman from a local paper interviewed us about the process and asked if I'd like to make a faux "audition tape" for the paper's video blog, so I'd have a chance to practice selling myself to the camera. I'm thankful for the opportunity, because it gave me a chance to get a thoroughly lame response out of my system. However, I hope she does not use my tape on the website, because I came across like a complete tool. I'd planned on using a poorly-thought-out gag about how guys who look like me generally don't get to be on television unless Judd Apatow or the word "makeover" are involved, har har. It's a dud line, and I botched it on top of that, so my stammering final product made it sound like I wanted to go on the show specifically so I could say snide things about the pretty contestants, like the above-it-all alterna-kids who populate The Amazing Race and whose heads I always want to clonk together.

The weather was cloudy and cold and my nose was drippy, and I did feel typically out-of-place waiting in a garage full of style-conscious pop tarts, so I'm proud of myself for sticking out the four hours and not just saying, "Okay, lark's over," and heading back to my comfy, familiar house. 

The audition numbers were called in batches of 20, and those called were then made to sit in a green room disguised as a smaller garage. As I waited there, a young woman approached me and said, "I just have to tell you: do you know who you reminded me of when I was squinting just now?"

"Weird Al?" I sighed.

"No, the guy from Numb3rs!" (Presumably David Krumholtz, also of Serenity, Addams Family Values, and Slums of Beverly Hills.)

I graciously accepted that.

When my number was finally called, some guy wrote my name on a whiteboard and handed it to me. I was then led into a teensy office in the back of Linnehan's in which chairs and furniture had been pushed aside to make room for a camera and a lighting rig. There was a guy behind the camera whose face I never saw, and a bald dude in his late thirties who was acting as facilitator. He took my paperwork, warmly shook my hand, and told me to hold the whiteboard up to my chest while he took a couple digital pictures, mugshot-style. I let the obvious Mike Boogie jokes drift through the room unspoken.

The facilitator then told me to look right in the camera and say my name, why I want to be on the show, and why I think I'd be a good Big Brother houseguest. After a brief introduction, I said, "I've just been told that I look like the mathematical savant from the CBS program Numb3rs if you kind of squint, so there may be some crossover potential there for viewers who squint." The cameraman and director both laughed. So even if nothing else comes of the experience, I'm glad I got to momentarily brighten their day. Judging from the wordless shrieking I heard from the audition room a few minutes before my turn, by a woman who evidently hypothesized a correlation between decibel level and favorable memorability, I suspect their day needed a little brightening.

Upon leaving the audition space, I wandered back into the holding pen to say goodbye to Erin and Kim. I was immediately mobbed by waiting 21-year-olds who wanted to know all about what happened in there. With terror in his voice, one guy asked, "Were they old and mean?" I don't know who gave this kid the idea that he'd be judged on the spot by, like, Don Rickles and Andy Rooney, but I had to reassure him a couple times that the whole thing was very much the opposite of intimidating.

Strangely, that same kid had been sitting across from me as I filled out my application, and was boasting to his friend about the cocky, fey comments he'd written. In the blank asking for your swimsuit size, for example, he wrote, "Perfect." I was nonplussed to see this mussily-coiffed guy who clearly intended his "hook" to be pseudo-Christian Siriano confidence and cattiness consumed with stage fright in what I considered to be a very casual setting. In fact, there was a tangible feeling among this little cluster of applicants that this--this reality-TV audition being held in a Bangor garage--was their one shot at fame and they daren't blow it. It made me feel a little sorry for them. Maine is a land with so few entertainment choices that cops amuse themselves by tasering each other at parties, so I well understand why these folks want out, but without dumping on their starry-eyed, fluff-brained dreams, it's flat-out delusional to pin all your hopes on a two-minute introductory audition. I realized, as I rode in the limo shuttle back to my car, next to an adrenaline-fueled young man in flip-flops who was chattering breathlessly on his cell about his audition accomplishment, that I do not understand the thirst for fame of the reality contestant hopeful.

We've all seen footage of the fauxhawked throngs that camp out in urban centers for a chance at an American Idol slot. (Oh, you have too.) Given how listless I became waiting a mere four hours, I think a person would have to want that slot desperately to brave crowds that size. Especially for a show like Idol, where you know that your best, most heartfelt effort could wind up as William Hung-lite comic relief on one of their nasty "talent"-search episodes. It's an odd contradiction: on the one hand, you'd have to believe wholeheartedly in your own talent or appeal to expect to stand out among uncountable thousands of applicants. On the other hand, you'd also have to harbor the far sadder belief that appearing on a reality show is your only possible way of showcasing that talent or appeal before the world, or else why wouldn't you strike out on your own path that doesn't require you to eat bugs or submit to the capricious whims of editors or listen to Tyra Banks nattering about Lord knows what? You have to simultaneously think the world of yourself and think very little of yourself, it seems to me.

To put it another way, I saw firsthand this weekend that even the most arrogant, judgmental people I see on reality shows have so little faith in themselves that they live in fear of being judged unworthy to be on reality shows. So I think I'm ready to talk to people again, free from worry about being judged myself.

CURRENT MUSIC: The Power of Pussy by Bongwater. I've become somewhat addicted to this album.
"The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" by The Flaming Lips. It makes her want to hump her blanket. Thankfully, I do not like "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" so will not feel deprived when I never play it ever again.
4:40 p.m.

Doot? | |

Wednesday, April 9, 2008:

The following are excerpts from the children's book Future Communication by Harriette S. Abels, copyright 1980 (part of Crestwood House's Our Future World series). In the future, grammatical scientists will be able to pinpoint the precise sentence in which this text transitions from being amusingly, sweetly naive to being completely heart-shredding in its overestimation of humanity.

Tomorrow's Newspapers

"Communication is going to get better, faster, and cheaper as we get into the twenty-first century. The biggest change in communication will probably be in the newspaper business. One futurist (person who studies the future) thinks the newspaper of tomorrow will be delivered to your home on a twelve-inch video disk. You will put this disk into a slot in your television set. The stories that you read will have not only the printed words, but full-color photographs, moving pictures, and stereo sound effects. When your favorite baseball pitcher pitches a no-hit game and you read about it in your morning newspaper, you will also be able to see that final pitch and the wild excitement of his teammates that follow it."

People and the Media

"Some futurists working in the field of sociology, the study of human society, see us living in a future worldwide 'global village.' They see the electronic media giving us a feeling of friendship for all the people of the world. When it is possible through that medium for a person in New York to meet electronically with a doctor in Africa or a farmer in China, today's problems between people will almost disappear.

"In the field of government, all futurists agree that someday we will be one world with a one-world government. Electronic communication is a big step in that direction. Third-world and emerging nations will be on a more equal footing with our Western countries. National boundaries between countries won't mean as much.

"Town meetings used to be an important part of small community life. In the future the hope is to have electronic town meetings, but with people from around the earth. This will encourage more people to take part in their government, at the local or national level, or even worldwide.

"Cable television and satellites, along with computers and home terminals, will give us an electronic network that can greatly add to everyone's interest and sharing in government."

People to People

"Today we use the telephone as one way of communicating with other parts of the world, relying on operators to put through our calls. In the future, a mother who lives in California will be able to talk to her daughter in Bangkok, Thailand over her ham radio set without having to go through the telephone operator. For closer calls, citizens' band and mobile radios will be even better than they are now.

"It will be possible for a wife in the suburbs to call her husband anywhere in the city to find out what time he will be home for dinner. While his wife is waiting the husband will call traffic control, and when he hears how the traffic is on the highway, or if the electric busses are running on time, he will tell her what time he will be at their front door."


"Because bees have such a highly developed language, it is possible for them to use it in governing themselves. When a hive decides to move to a new location, they start an operation called 'swarming.' Scout bees are sent out to look for a new site in a hollow tree, a hole in the ground, or perhaps a box. They then hold what might be called a nominating convention inside the old hive. Each of the scouts describes her favorite spot. She does this by a special dance, and tells how strongly she feels about the new location by the number of times she repeats the dance. Once the choice is narrowed down to two or three places, the scouts go out again for a final look. Next they meet in a 'high court' session where, by conversation and great discussion, they reach an almost unanimous agreement, and the hive flies to the new home.

"How the study of communication between these creatures will help the human race is not yet clear."

Television and Education

"The big new use of television in the future will be in the field of education. ...

"The TV Screen itself will not be the small twenty-one or twenty-seven inch box that we have today. It will be common to have screens permanently fixed in one or more of the walls in your home. They will cover an area perhaps as big as six feet by six feet. The effects of a TV screen of this size on our minds will be enormous. ...

"This huge TV screen and the speed with which it will bring news and information into our lives should also affect us in other ways. When we see such tragedies as an apartment house fire with its victims, or a terrible automobile accident, perhaps it will teach us to be more careful in all areas of our everyday life. There is a big difference between reading about such things in your daily newspaper, or seeing them on your tiny TV screen of today, and seeing them in life-size images in your living room.

"If there is ever another major war and it is seen on this giant screen in front of our eyes, maybe for the first time in history of man we will all stand up and shout, 'No! No more! Man has grown beyond this type of animal behavior!'

"The TV system of the future can be used for good or for evil. A shouting political leader, with a fascinating way of wrapping his silky words around us, could use this future TV system to rule the whole world. It will be up to all of us to see that this wonderful new tool is used for good, and not for evil, in the centuries ahead."

CURRENT MUSIC: Just a random mix.
Contestant one: "It's self-explanatory." Contestant two, agreeing: "It's very explanatory."
TIME: 3:40 p.m.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008:

Monday, Netflix finally delivered the original, Austrian version of Funny Games, Michael Haneke's mean-spirited home-invasion snuff film that adds insult to injury by explicitly blaming the audience for watching it. The ostensible point of the film is that movie violence--American movie violence--is so whimsical that it undercuts the painful ugliness of violence in reality, and it makes this point via lots of painful ugliness. Violence is bad, you see. Haneke's new shot-for-shot English-language remake of Funny Games, and his attempt to scar a whole new demographic, has been the topic of a lot of debate in the past month or so, even among the personal blogs I read. (Ben wrote a typically thoughtful journal entry on why he won't be seeing Funny Games that Haneke would congratulate himself for prompting. Tasha Robinson came up with the ingenious technique of beating Haneke at his own game by watching the DVD at double speed, reading the subtitles and absorbing the story, but neatly sidestepping the emotional manipulation of the film.) So I watched the old version out of curiosity.

You can go to Rotten Tomatoes and read any number of more competent plot summaries than mine, so I'll just give you an oversimplification of the story: An upper-middle-class couple shows up at their isolated vacation home with their preteen kid and their dog. Two mannerly sociopaths talk their way into the house under the pretext of borrowing eggs and then spend the rest of the film violently torturing the family. Ta-da.

It may be "torture porn," but not in the way you're thinking. The focus is on the emotional torture of violence, so the camera tends to linger on other characters' reactions to seeing hurtful acts that we, the viewers, do not see in progress. We just see their grim aftermath. The "games" of the title are simply the villains' gimmick: they present the pain they inflict as the consequence of the victims losing a series of unwinnable "bets." (It's not a new gimmick, nor is it meant to be, I don't think. Sticking with the "film violence" theme, we can assume the characters themselves stole the idea from, say, Jeremy Irons's riddle-spouting terrorist in Die Hard with a Vengeance.) And the element of the film that's become the most controversial is the way one of the villians keeps turning to the camera and glibly chastising the viewer for his complicity in these "games." Haneke has repeatedly said in interviews that the only people who will make it to the end of Funny Games--and, in the process, be abused, sickened, and scolded into submission--are those who really need his perverse version of tough love in the first place. The correct response is to be horrified and walk out somewhere along the way. That attitude itself is why Funny Games doesn't work at all.

To be fair, I watched Funny Games more than a decade after its original 1997 release. I was in high school when it came out, so I don't have much of a frame of reference for the larger state of cinema at that time. Furthermore, in the years since its debut, dozens of films have been released that will color how newcomers view Funny Games. It's difficult to keep in mind that the original was released in a world that hadn't seen Panic Room or Saw or In the Bedroom or Adaptation or any number of other popular movies that cover similar narrative or thematic ground. Maybe it was a better film back then.

However, given that the new Tim Roth/Naomi Watts Funny Games is evidently so identical to the German version that it could almost be classified as a rerelease, we can assume that Haneke thinks his original vision is timelier than ever. More importantly, he thinks we still desperately need his foul medicine, so I guess I'm not supposed to question whether its relevance to the entertainment landscape has changed. Okay, fine. So I watched, prepared to be taught a lesson.

And you know what? Upon the film's completion, I didn't feel gutted, outraged, or manipulated. It may be that I'm even more reprehensibly nihilistic than Haneke anticipated--beyond his "help," as it were--but I think it's because from the first moment the villain winked into the camera, I wasn't buying. Part of it is my own stuffiness, I suppose, since the "breaking the fourth wall" technique is one of those tricks that I simply can't see as innovative anymore, or even for 1997. It was cute for the title characters on The Monkees and It's Garry Shandling's Show to break the action and comment on the silliness of our collective participation in what we were seeing. Will Smith's constant nattering at the camera in the first couple seasons of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, on the other hand, most likely marks the point at which the technique moved from cheeky to tiresome. By the time Haneke got to the notion of using these asides as a means of directing the viewer's reactions, it mostly comes off as condescending, no different from Spike Lee opening Bamboozled by having Damon Wayans preachily define the word "satire," lest we none-too-savvy viewers miss the boat.

Furthermore--and from here forward, I'm potentially spoiling whatever there is to be spoiled--Funny Games' climax hinges on action that barges in randomly from outside the film's diegetic world, on which I call shenanigans. I don't want to sound like I expect directors to hew to some Dogme 95-style list of creative rules, but if you keep pointing out to me that I'm watching a narrative fiction and that your characters are little more than Sims who can't do anything except go where you tell them to go, it's hard for me to get invested in their fate no matter how powerful the actors' performances may be. Worse still, if you're trying to castigate your audience for their tacit approval of violence by confronting them with its terrible realities, it makes no sense whatsoever to completely divorce your film from its own reality at a crucial point.

At any rate, at Funny Games' conclusion, I just felt like I'd watched another black-hearted "satire" in which a filmmaker wanted to get away with horking a wad of unspeakable cruelty up at the screen without taking any responsibility for what he'd created. Like the lunkheads who think that by saying, "I'm just keeping it real," they are immunizing themselves against any repercussions for whatever antisocial thing they are about to blurt, Haneke says, "I'm just going to swing my arms like this, and if you get hit, it's your own fault." It's a splattery mess, and when it was over, I just sort of rolled my eyes.

What really offended me, though, was the interview with Haneke on the DVD, because he maintains his self-righteous tone of knowing more than his audience while giving completely nonsensical explanations as to his motives on this film. I haven't seen his other films yet, and I hear some of them are magnificent, so I'm not entirely dismissing him as a hack, but in the DVD interview (and those I subsequently read), he seems to be extemporaneously bluffing his way through questions of why he made Funny Games in the first place. For example, he claims that the villains aren't characters as such, but are merely sketched "artifacts." But then he goes on to praise his own insistence upon making all his characters as fully developed and intelligent as they can be (before backpedaling and explaining that this somehow applies to "artifacts" too underdeveloped to qualify as characters.). And he also claims that he'd wanted to explore real-life middle-class psychos he'd read about, who kill just because it makes them feel something, and what happens when social contracts are violated. It's a lot to take on in a film that he also claims is a deconstruction of Hollywood violence.

Another example: In that interview, he claims to be worried that the original DVD's success in America was an indictation that his message was being misunderstood (because, of course, it's so subtle), but in an equally contradictory interview with Entertainment Weekly, he justifies the remake by claiming "the German-language version did not find the English-language audience for which the film was originally meant." So I think he's full of crap from the get-go on this one, but what's really bothersome is his mantra that Funny Games is supposed to act as aversion therapy for the violence addicts who finish it, and will be of no use to anyone else.

It strikes me as very odd to claim that anyone who sticks with Funny Games long enough to be manhandled by its ever-increasing sadism is clearly in it for the sole purpose of enjoying a little of the old vicarious ultraviolence. I can't understand that notion at all. The closest I can come to a sensible translation of Haneke's point would be for him to say, "Once it becomes clear to the viewer that this film is nothing but a celebration of harming helpless people, it's irresponsible for that viewer to continue watching." But I don't think that's something that is clear to the viewer along the way. Funny Games is not a predictable film; in fact, Haneke delights in cruel plot twists. So for all its faults, it's not a film during which a viewer can make the informed decision, "I see where it's going and that's not something I want to be a part of."

To put it another way, if I were to make a film that began with an address to the audience in which I told them I would be spending the next 90 minutes stomping on babies, and then methodically did exactly that, there clearly would be something wrong with anyone who sat all the way through it. (Unless they work in a law enforcement capacity and are watching it as part of an investigation as to how I managed to secure funding to make this film in the first place.) Although Haneke admittedly gives us ample clues as to what's to come, even directly addressing us, he takes such glee in confounding moviegoers' expectations that it's not unreasonable to suspect that this, too, might be a "game." I think viewers who stick around are likely do so out of a desire to hear the end of the story and the humane hope that the family will escape their captors' clutches; not in some sophomoric expectation of action-movie blood and guts that Haneke can then undercut with real inhumanity.

Ultimately, all Haneke makes clear through his evasive, arrogant defensiveness is that his film has nothing useful to say. Ironically, Funny Games isn't nearly as effective at making a point about our desensitization to film violence as last year's Shoot 'Em Up was; in addition to being genuinely witty and enjoyable, that film contains such a surfeit of mayhem and gunplay that it provokes a ho-hum response even as characters are shooting one another while freefalling from a plane. That's a reaction that you can think about if you so choose, and come to whatever conclusion you wish without a guy like Haneke insisting that his is the only right viewpoint.

I certainly hope that people who know me would say I am a peaceful sort. The closest I've ever come to physical violence was taking an ill-advised swing at Scott MacDonald in fifth grade. (I missed, Scott courteously didn't deck me, and all was forgiven in a matter of minutes.) I admit that sometimes, I enjoy movies that are violent. I also sometimes enjoy movies that are not violent. I enjoy movies. Sometimes films are gratuitously violent. Sometimes nonviolent films are gratuitously stupid. Some movies suck. Within the context of a well-made film, though, there is very little subject matter that I refuse to sit through, and even then, I recognize that my personal reactions and sensitivities do not dictate what is appropriate for an artist to put on celluloid in the first place. Moreover, I recognize that there is a big, big difference between the acceptability of depicting something in a work of fiction and its acceptability in real life. Thus, I'm sorry to say that I don't feel guilty and I don't feel that society has been damaged just because I enjoyed, say, No Country for Old Men.

So basically, I sat all the way through Funny Games and yet all I learned about myself is that I think Michael Haneke's kind of a creep for making it.

CURRENT MUSIC: Say No to Being Cool, Say Yes to Being Happy by The Softlightes. (The latest incarnation of The Incredible Moses Leroy. Lightweight, upbeat indie-synth-pop that, as the album title suggests, would rather be friendly than memorable. Might make for good hangover music, to help alleviate the accompanying remorse.)
Slouched and cross-legged.
2:29 p.m.

Doot? | |

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