February 2009

Best of the Decade Derby: In the Mood (or not) and 13 ways of looking at Maggie Cheung

<3 = D (t+d)

I jotted down this formula while watching In the Mood for Love the other day, the first time I’d seen it since its theatrical release in New York 8 years ago.  The formula, which I conceived (mind you, physics was my least favorite subject in school) translates as “love = desire multiplied by the sum of time and space”.  It made a lot of sense to me at the time, but now, looking at it, it seems ridiculous.  Which, I’m sad to say, is kind of like the experience I had with re-watching In the Mood for Love. I’m still trying to make sense of it.

I didn’t have terribly strong expectations for revisiting the film. It wasn’t on my top ten for 2000, but I felt I owed it another look it due to its exceptional reputation and ranking – it is, after all, the top ranked film on the TSPDT poll of the best films of the 21st century. But starting into it, I could feel myself being gradually pulled in by the irresistible current of impeccable images flowing through time. Current feels like the right metaphor for the way that the film moves, initially in a tumultuous swirl: the opening sequence where the two potential lovers move into neighboring apartments, their furniture clashing and commingling with each other. The way that people move through narrow hallways and other tight spaces, lingering or hesitating at doorways: this push-pull between being physically close yet hanging on to personal spaces.  The famous slo-mo sequences set to tango emphasize the dance-like movements induced by this social setting, while also fetishizing them as objets d’art.  The way the camera will linger on a wall after Maggie Cheung has placed her hand on it, creating instant nostalgia for a moment that has passed both 4 seconds and 40 years ago.

And that’s where it started to pull the floor from under me: the wall to wall gorgeousness of this movie, where every frame feels like it could be part of a gallery photo exhibit -  Wong is consumed with coming up with new ways of framing and looking at things. One needs only look at thirteen different shots of Maggie Cheung taken over the course of the film to appreciate the visual variety and splendor on display:

and one of Tony Leung for good measure (anyone else think that he’s an Asian dead ringer for Obama?)

Around the 25 minute mark (the third slo-mo tango interlude) is where the film’s pervading sense of loneliness and longing sets in for me. It’s such a seductive, melancholy feeling to be sucked into if you’re receptive to it, and I was.  The anticipation of these two people on the cusp of engendering attraction is, a seductive enough premise, but Wong amplifies the effect by treating his mise-en-scene as an endless landscape to explore, where their looks, their feelings, get framed and reframed, like an anxious lover replaying every moment, squeezing out and soaking in every detail. In this light even the multiple outtakes, the alternate endings, can all be integrated into the totality of this film as a fitting representation of obsessive, unconsummated love: its constant revisitations, revisionings and what-ifs…

That plus the sumptuousness of the camerawork, where the threads of Tony Leung’s hair, the cracked patterns of an bare wall, or the pink fibrous texture of a steak all exude a hyperdetailed texture that you just want to sink your eyes into.

And that’s how it was a for a good hour of my rewatching, until I had to interrupt it to keep an appointment. But the feeling engendered by the film stayed for me the rest of the evening and into the night.

The following day I picked up where I left off with the film. And I was surprised to find the whole thing somewhat empty, even banal, in terms of what this was all for or about.  Back in the day I had a couple of heated arguments about way the last 25 minutes of the film play out – some of my friends just couldn’t handle the abrupt, seemingly pointless Angkor Wat sequence, especially the use of piss-poor archival video footage which disrupts the visual splendor that precedes it.  My argument back then – which I still believe – was that this disruption is the point; it’s an unspooling of the spell that the film has cast on its audience, mirroring the spell of love that the circumstances of life are in the ruthless process of dissipating. So on a formal level, the film is brilliant from start to finish.

But my problem with the last third of the film, which casts back on the film overall, can be summed up by Rick Blaine in Casablanca: “The problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Something about re-entering the film 2/3 of the way through gave me a new, sober(?) context, an awareness of how much fetishizing Wong was lavishing on this narrative. It hints at a terminal state of self-absorption, an emotional wound that not only never heals, but that the film never wants to heal. There’s something in me that finds this disturbing. And despite all I’ve said about the film as this seemingly endless visual and emotional landscape to explore and soak in, there’s something about it that feels small and enclosed, in terms of its scope of the world, and of life.

In the end, I think we’re left with a paradox of a movie, one that conveys and achieves so much intensity of cinema and emotion within an experience of love that’s ephemeral, even extravagant, and leaves us wondering what it really was about. I suppose that the degree to which one finds this meaningful depends on one’s convictions of cinema as an end in itself – or one’s own valuation of fleeting love.

956 (98). Lucifer Rising (1972, Kenneth Anger)

screened Sunday February 22 on Google Video and fileshare .avi en route to New York City

TSPDT rank #900 IMDb

Despite having its copious array of montage and staging techniques pilfered by hundreds of music videos and commercials over the years, Kenneth Anger’s incantatory envisioning of a sacred rite spanning the world retains a hypnotic spell untouched by its imitators.  Unabashedly sexy and hypnotic as hell, the film joyously embraces its libidinal energies and demonic inspirations, channeling an arcane series of references to Egyptology and the occult practices of Aleister Crowley and expressing their power in purely cinematic terms. Summoning Lucifer as the bringer of light, the film celebrates that same light and its infusion into a rich, sumptuous cinema of opulent color schemes and geometries of clairvoyant precision.  Superimpositions, associative flash cuts, venetian wipes, seesaw tracking shots, a complex, oddly moving rock score by Bobby Beausoleil, and the special effect known as Marianne Faithfull (aka the saddest eyes in the world) are all woven into an effortlessly lucid stream of violence, sex, death and cosmic consummation.  As far as mythic worldmaking goes, Anger’s work conveys a richer imagination and mystic wonder – never mind cinematic resourcefulness – in 30 minutes than the entire Star Wars and Lord of the Rings series combined.

WATCH LUCIFER RISING via Google Video

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955 (97). Hitler – ein Film aus Deutschland / Our Hitler / Hitler: a Film from Germany (1977, Hans Jurgen Syberberg)

screened February 4-14 on Facets DVD en route to, during, and back from the Berlin Film Festival

IMDb Wiki

Lauded by the likes of Susan Sontag as one of the greatest works of 20th century art, while reviled by many both in Germany and abroad as a work of depraved reactionary nostalgia, Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s epic rumination of Germany’s Nazi past remains as troubling and troublesome today as it was thirty years ago. (Two top German critics I met in Berlin admitted to not having been able to sit through the film.)  Syberberg takes the old adage of confronting the mistakes of the past lest they be repeated and puts it to an extreme test, immersing its audience in seven-plus hours of Naziana drawn out to such length and breadth that it suggests a morbidly intractable fixation with its subject.

A historical zombie movie for intellectuals, the film fixes an unwavering gaze on reanimated Nazi figures like Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler (whose obsession with a mythic Germany Syberberg seems to share), Hitler’s personal valet, and Hitler himself, toga-clad and rising from Richard Wagner’s tomb, as they deliver endless monologues amidst a landscape of kitschy Third Reich paraphernalia and atmospheric dry ice fog.  The film itself creeps like a mist, heavily influenced by a Wagnerian aesthetic of total immersion and seductive stasis whose registers of portentous yearning shift gradually from one motif to the next.  Other monologues delivered by contemporary performers often teeter into tedious, sermonizing self-absorption and effete irony (as if to counterpoint the passionate conviction of Nazi orators), bringing out an anti-cinematic element that denies pleasure and resists rapture.  The film comments on cinema itself through a series of rear projections of paintings, newsreel footage and other iconic imagery.  Sets cluttered with stuffed animals and uniformed mannequins suggest the basement of a Neo-Nazi taxidermist, the detritus of the past splayed out haphazardly yet betraying a precision of design, and an overall funkiness that becomes perversely appealing.

Also telling is the film’s dual attributions of Nazism as both a precursor and an antidote to the 20th century American capitalism that, according to Syberberg, threatens the freedoms of the world. It’s an argument often waged on the battleground of cinema, with Hitler posited as the greatest filmmaker of all time, and Syberberg actively deconstructing the “movie” that was the Third Reich, that massive production that was able, however temporarily, to break capitalist Hollywood’s industrial and cultural stranglehold on world cinema. This thorough disenchantment with contemporary film culture is what has Syberberg reaching for his Nazi revolver, loading it with the ammunition of mythic enthrallment and redemptive cultural pride – and yet not quite willing to pull the trigger. It’s a deeply ambivalent work, both longing to return to the lost Eden of a Germanic ideal while cautious of the consequences that such an impulse has already wrought on the world.

You can watch the entirety of Hitler: a Film from Germany (in German orEnglish, with or without subtitles) at Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s website

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Video Essays for La roue (1922, Abel Gance) and Variety (1925, E.A. Dupont) featuring commentary by Kristin Thompson

For the first video essays I’ve published since the YouTube fiasco, I am honored to have Kristin Thompson as guest commentator. Not only is she the author of The Frodo Franchise and co-author with David Bordwell of those ubiquitous textbooks Film Art: An Introduction and Film History: An Introduction, she is also author of the first report on the fair use of film frames, sponsored by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Read her invaluable article on the use of film frames in scholarship.

These videos are published in conjunction with Kristin’s illustrated entry on La roue, which can be found on her and David’s blog.

SCHOLARS AND STUDENTS: If referencing these videos for scholarship, please cite as “Kristin Thompson and Kevin B. Lee. Shooting Down Pictures video essay on Abel Gance’s La roue / E.A. Dupont’s Variety.” and attach either the url for this page or the YouTube links.

La roue (view original entry and webliography)

Variety (view original entry and webliography)

Video Essays as a teaching tool: a testimonial

In arguing for the right to produce critical video essays as those featured on this site, I don’t think it takes much to see their potential as educational resources. But one doesn’t fully appreciate this point until one starts to learn how they are being used as educational tools.

Based on a couple of comments to some of the video essays on YouTube, I’ve learned that there are students who refer to these videos for their papers or class work. I only hope that they are properly citing the source; lest there be any confusion on the matter, copying soundbites from a video to one’s own scholarship without citing the source amounts to plagiarism just as much as if one were cribbing from a written text.

But just recently I have learned of an instance where a teacher actually used one of my video essays in a classroom, and the way they did so is quite illuminating. I received this message from Misa Oyama, a former lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley (Go Bears!):

I just taught a senior seminar called “Modern Horror” (19 students) for UC Berkeley’s English Department, and we spent one week on “Zodiac.” I asked a student to hook her laptop to the classroom projector (Berkeley classrooms have wireless access), so that we could watch your YouTube video essay on “The Vanishing”/”Zodiac”. It was probably the most effective illustration of film criticism the students saw all semester, because students could see the shots and scenes simultaneously with your commentary, rather than just reading descriptions of the scenes like they do with conventional film criticism. I used your essay in conjunction with Manohla Dargis’s review of Zodiac, to show how different viewers could do close readings of scenes from the same film to support their own interpretations. What I think students really liked about your video essay was its accessibility; it’s a rich, complex reading of Fincher’s work but presented in a personal, sometimes informal (the line “fuck-it-all” for Fight Club got a big laugh) way. After reading lots of academic film essays, the students seemed to find this refreshing. One of my students said it inspired her to want to make her own short video essays about her own reactions to films. I think it also made some students want to see “The Vanishing,” because they asked me about it afterwards (and I made sure to tell them to see the original, not the remake).

Before showing the video in class, I put the YouTube link in my bSpace website for this class, so that students could comment on it. However, not all the students have high-speeed internet access at home, so I got the feeling that most students were seeing it for the first time in the classroom.

It’s weird that Big Corporate Media would have a problem with your work, because you’re obviously not trying to pass these films off as your own, and you’re encouraging people to look deeper at films they might not know about. I’m not sure if it was because of your video, but one student got so obsessed with the Zodiac story that she bought the Zodiac DVD.

I hope you continue making these kinds of films, because there is definitely an audience for them.

It’s exciting to think that the use of this video essay in class was a valuable supplement (not a replacement) to more traditional forms of classroom “texts,” and furthermore, that it may inspire students to try out this form of scholarship on their own. I’m still fairly surprised that this form still isn’t as prevalent as it could be.

Here’s the video essay on The Vanishing and Zodiac:

What I Watched at the Berlin Film Festival (while others were too busy complaining to be bothered)

Here’s my summary report for Spout. The reports elsewhere of the festival’s crappiness were somewhat exaggerated, and symptomatic of complacency on the part of several unintrepid critics and journalists. Really, why waste readers’ time by saying that the festival was a waste of your time? Like you expect us to feel that much pity about you being flown out, put up and paid to write about your awful experience? And what does that say about you that you, a professional film watcher, can’t be bothered to go out and find the good stuff? Personally, it really wasn’t that out of the way to discover some great films. Even with the not-so great films, there were interesting things to be said of them.

To that point, here are capsules on all 30 films I watched in Berlin, spread over three entries on The Auteurs Notebook, and ranked within each. Vive la cinema!

http://www.theauteurs.com/notebook/posts/549
http://www.theauteurs.com/notebook/posts/540
http://www.theauteurs.com/notebook/posts/531

Interview with Soumitra Chatterjee, Satyajit Ray’s main actor, on Days and Nights in the Forest

An interview with the legendary SOUMITRA CHATTERJEE about working with SATYAJIT RAY, his career and their masterpiece Days and Nights in the Forest. The phone interview was conducted by me and filmmaker Preston Miller in August of 2008. Here’s a link to the main entry on the film, and two previous video essays that Preston and I produced.

Thanks to Preston for editing the interview to clips from the film!

Best of the Decade Derby: Four English Language Films from 2000

I should mention the results of the poll conducted last week both on this blog and on the IMDb Classic Film Board, where I invited everyone to recommend one title that most deserved to belong on a top ten of the decade. Over 50 people contributed their opinions, a pretty healthy turnout for this modest exercise. The overall winner of the poll was: Almost Famous. Close behind was Wonder Boys, and tied for third were The House of Mirth and American Psycho. Dancer in the Dark and Traffic rounded out the top finishers. You Can Count on Me, which has the highest rank among any English-language 2000 release according to The Shoot Pictures’ survey of the greatest films of the 21st century, placed a disappointing 7th.

I was able to watch Almost Famous, The House of MIrth and Wonder Boys over the past few days, even as I travelled to Berlin where I am now situated for the Film Festival. Additionally, I revisited another title that I forgot was a 2000 release until a couple of folks on this blog kindly notified me: Esther Kahn. Sadly I don’t have time to go as deep into each film as I did with Yi Yi and the Hou Hsiao Hsien films I’ve covered earlier. But let me offer some brief reflections and if anyone wants to take the conversation further, I’ll push it along as far as I can…

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Getting to the question that prompted all this re-watching in the first place: Do any of these films have a shot at my top ten?  Each film has a legitimate claim to greatness and if they were to show up on anyone’s list I would applaud. I could spin rationalizations for each film’s case into perpetuity, so to best resolve the issue I revert back to the old standby question: how much do I wish that I could have made this film?

Looking at these four films, the one whose concept and story I most wish I could have made would be Almost Famous. It’s such an ambitious and personal story that manages to entertain, spin a rousing yarn, and also encompass multiple layers of meaning and reality: a mythical lifestyle that a generation aspires to enact, and the fierce struggle to uphold the spirit of the myth, a struggle that’s embedded in Crowe’s own romantic – and romanticizing – approach to filmmaking. The thing that bugs me now as much as when I first saw this film is its candy-coating that polishes everything in a warm, idealized hue; from one perspective it’s kind of one-dimensional and misleading. The dialogue often relies too much on snappy sitcom timing that often threatens to compromise the authenticity of what’s represented under a Hollywood veneer. The thing that bugs me most about this movie is Crowe’s reliance on deadpan reaction shots to drive the comic punch line of a moment with sledgehammer subtlety.

BUT — this time around I was able to accept all of this as the idiom Crowe uses to make his story accessible to a mainstream audience. Once you get past his characteristic cutesiness (which, as in all his films starts with the casting and characterizations; Hayao Miyazaki’s creations have more dangerous than these Disney creations), the film has a tremendous amount of thought put into it, especially in acknowledging the roles that each member of this microcosm has to play in maintaining this mythical lifestyle. As with Jerry Maguire, Crowe starts out with social types (geek rock writer, mystical groupie, mysterious rock star) and works steadily towards bringing out their distinctly personal human characteristics, primarily by playing them off each other and having them discover themselves in the process. This leads to a tremendous payoff in the end after they’ve all fallen out with each other, and one character’s attempt to reconnect with another gets craftily deflected towards the third party, but in a way that makes peace between all three of them.

Finally, I have to admit that 10 years of becoming increasingly immersed in the world of film criticism has given me shocks of recognition with certain moments in this film, namely the scenes with Lester Bangs, played lovably by Philip Seymour Hoffmann. the first encounter between Russell (Patrick Fugit) and Lester echoes with about half a dozen encounters I’ve had with my favorite filmmakers and critics over the past several years: people who are rock stars in the eyes of probably only a few dozen people in the world, including mine, which is all that matters. Hoffmann’s portrayal of Bangs, in its own way, seems to tease at an even deeper, more intimate movie that could have been made around him, a life devoted mostly in self-directed isolation to the mad pursuit of an impossible ideal of art and life expressed with unyielding passion and conviction, one that 99% of the world can’t possibly relate to. It’s an uncompromising attitude towards one’s object of affection that the terminally affable Crowe, despite his own astute passion for his subject, can’t approach.

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The virtues of Wonder Boys may lie chiefly in the source novel by Michael Chabon and the fulsome characterizations and dramatic situations issued from its pages, leading to a domino effect of excellence: a razor smart script by Steve Kloves, competent if unobstrusive helming by the elusive Curtis Hanson, and wonderful ensemble work by just about everyone in the cast. Whatever the case, this is a wonderful film, sort of an antecedent to the shaggy stoner comedies of Judd Apatow and company – and perhaps if the film centered around a harried 20-something charmingly unemployed pothead instead of a 50-something washed up campus author trying earnestly to save multiple aspects of his life at once, it wouldn’t have been a commercial disappointment. But the way that the film steadily accumulates a hurricane of chaos around its beleagured protagonist is a work of ragged glory, held together by the sparks between its characters. Imagine John Wayne as a pothead professor and Rio Bravo a college town, and you get a sense of what this film accomplishes in weaving together a lively environment for its characters to give and take.  The only real disappointment lies in something Mike D’Angelo pointed out in his original review, that the film ultimately capitulates its delightful, deceptively disheveled state for the sake of a happy ending through rehabilitation. Maybe that makes for a better life for poor Michael Douglas, but probably a more boring one as well.

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Thanks to Keith Uhlich, I was able to revisit The House of Mirth on a gorgeous Sony Pictures Classics DVD. Of the four films I rewatched, my opinion was raised highest with this one. Maybe I was burned out on costume dramas when this came out – this time around what I realized was that the real action in this film is in its use of light.  And a mastery of scene transitions few films can touch – most notably the opening of the Riviera vacation sequence, which lingers on the hollow interiors of vacated New York homes, fading into the abstract patterns formed by rain splashing against a pond outside one of the homes, which then fades into the glistening surface of a sunlight ocean upon which the immaculate white crest of a cruise ship sails towards an impossibly golden Mediterranean shore.  This is a great film about the surfaces of opulence, and the oceans of desperation and cruelty lying underneath them.

(Sequence starts at 5:00)

Gillian Anderson is a perfect mis-fit of perfectly pitched mis-acting. her pseudo-modern brazenness breaking through her best efforts to remain civil throughout a series of miscalculated social maneuvers and verbal sparrings with would be users and abusers.  This is perhaps the only film of the decade worthy of being compared to the great works of Mizoguchi; in fact, I prefer this film over The Life of Oharu, because unlike Mizoguchi, Davies doesn’t turn his woman into a fetish object for the noble suffering of all womankind; she’s a flesh-and-blood human who as often pisses one off for her lack of good judgment as she ultimately earns great empathy for her struggle to settle upon a set of personal rules for which she her conduct can finally be judged fairly.
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Another great period piece about a misfit woman’s coming to self-realization, Esther Kahn may look historical but the way it moves through its environment gives it a live wire now-ness.  This is one weird movie, possibly my favorite Desplechin film, even though it hasn’t received nearly as much acclaim as Kings and Queens or A Christmas Tale. This is mostly due to the problematic performance of Summer Phoenix in the title role, a performance that doesn’t convey much of the charisma that one would expect of an ingenue actress who ultimately is given no less prestigious a role as that of Hedda Gabler (while nearly sabotaging the entire production with an extended fit of bad behavior).  I’m not sure I’m fully resolved with Desplechin’s handling of the character by the end. At best I can say it serves to demonstrate the maxim offered by Ian Holm’s two-bit actor to Esther about the secret to good acting: “Every step you take has to be more unbelievable than the one before… Each step has to stretch like a rope in the audience’s mind until they can’t bear it anymore and they want to cry out, ‘Careful you’re going to break it.’” That’s what this film is – a journey in search of one’s limits: for Esther as an actress, i.e. a collector and performer of emotions; for Desplechin, the limits to whatever in his art can hold together historical, dramatic and emotional credulity.

I don’t know if I fully accept the climactic sequence, the way it elides Esther’s acting on stage after the film has spent so much time on the issue of how Esther is trying to become a better actress; it seems perverse to spend so much time setting up the crisis only to withhold the payoff, instead resorting to copious voiceover to assure us that she’s giving the performance of her life. Also, there are some moments when I feel the film owes more than a little to Truffaut’s Two English Girls (some use of Novelle Vague devices – elaborate dissolves, direct addresses to the camera – to advance and compress the narrative), but the films couldn’t be more different in their outcome. Truffaut embalms its characters in a sense of fate; Desplechin liberates his.  Taking an overall look at where this film takes me, I stand in awe. While Almost Famous is the movie I most wished I could have made in my own way, Esther Kahn is a film with a daring that I couldn’t possibly conceive, perhaps not even now. Of these four films, it’s the one most liberated from convention. It’s a film that, despite its frustrations, perhaps even deep flaws, answers to no one other than its own inspired instincts.

Interview with Michel Ciment – Positif on American Cinema

954 (96). Starship Troopers (1997, Paul Verhoeven)

Screened January 30 2009 on Crackle

TSPDT rank #898 IMDb Wiki

A commercial and critical flop upon its release, the virtues of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical take on Robert Heinlein’s Cold War sci-fi novel are stunningly clear in the context of 9-11 and the Iraq War. Few recent films tap into the underlying forces shaping today’s world as piercingly as Verhoeven’s vision of a thoroughly Americanized global civilization that exploits media and youth culture to wage endless war against an appointed enemy. With perverse, knowing affection, Verhoeven mashes cliched elements from 1940s war movies (“Come on you apes, you wanna live forever?”) and 1990s teen soap opera (football game, senior prom) and splashes them with a futuristic paint job in an effort to link together the past, present and future of youth cultural propaganda. Most prescient is the framing device of an internet-type visual console that bombards the viewer with requests of “Would you like to know more?”, paving a perpetual rabbit hole of Information Age captivity.

Verhoeven’s Hollywood career can be divided between his wildly successful early half (RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct) and a wildly misunderstood second half (Showgirls, Starship Troopers, Hollow Man). Each successive effort found increasingly outrageous ways to subvert the sex-and-violence tropes simultaneously being exploited for entertainment profit, that is until the box office failure of Starship Troopers collapsed this ill-advised project of cultural signal jamming. Many critics (see Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin’s reviews below, among others) counted Starship Troopers as endemic of Hollywood crassness, oblivious of the ways the war and teen movie genres were being inverted into critical reflections of themselves.  One might abjectively dismiss Verhoeven’s send-up as another case of Hollywood having its cake and selling it. Further complicating the issue of satire, Verhoeven isn’t adopting a scorched-earth approach to his subject matter; instead there’s an odd, loving attention paid to the innovative special effects and the straight-faced execution of ersatz melodrama.  Reflecting a more complicated – and honest – fascination with Hollywood genres, Verhoeven interrogates both the seductive fantasy surfaces and the horrific real world outcomes of its mythmaking. In other words, this may be one of the few Hollywood blockbusters that functions as a work of film criticism as art.

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