'The Fabelmans' is Steven Spielberg's love letter to his family, and the movies : Pop Culture Happy Hour The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg's semi-autobiographical and deeply personal film about a Jewish American boy who dreams of making movies. Growing up he learns to tell stories through his 8mm camera while life-altering events within his family's household significantly affect how he views the world. The cast includes Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, and Judd Hirsch.

'The Fabelmans' is Steven Spielberg's love letter to his family, and the movies

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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

"The Fabelmans" is Steven Spielberg's semi-autobiographical and deeply personal film about a Jewish American boy who dreams of making movies. While growing up, he learns to tell stories through his eight millimeter camera, and life-altering events within his family's household significantly affect how he views the world.

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Michelle Williams and Paul Dano play Sammy's loving but slowly unraveling parents. The film is also an ode to the power of movies and the truths they can reveal. I'm Linda Holmes.

HARRIS: And I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're talking about "The Fabelmans" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining me and Linda today is Weekend Edition producer Danny Hensel. Welcome back, Danny.

DANNY HENSEL, BYLINE: Hey there. Thanks for having me.

HARRIS: And also with us is NPR film critic Bob Mondello. It's great to have you back, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: It's so good to be here.

HARRIS: Well, "The Fabelmans" is set in the '50s and '60s, and it tells the story of Sammy. He's played as a teenager by Gabriel LaBelle. Paul Dano plays his dad Burt, a successful engineer, and Michelle Williams plays his mom Mitzi, a skilled artist whose ambitions of becoming a renowned concert pianist never quite panned out. Now, after Sammy's parents take him to see his first movie, his passion for cinematic storytelling is ignited. He spends much of his time enlisting them, his three sisters and his friends in his creation of these elaborate DIY films that are shot on an eight millimeter camera.

As he hones his filmmaking skills, his family goes through some big life changes, including moves from New Jersey to Arizona to California because of Burt's job. Sammy also learns a disturbing secret that impacts how he views his parents, and he experiences violent anti-Semitism at his new Northern California high school. "The Fabelmans" also features Seth Rogen as Benny, who's a close family friend and Burt's colleague, and Judd Hirsch as Mitzi's uncle Boris. It was directed by Steven Spielberg, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner. And it's now playing in theaters.

Well, Danny, let's start with you. How did you feel about "The Fabelmans"?

HENSEL: Well, I have to say first that I think I'm really in the tank for Steven Spielberg and maybe especially this last decade, in which he's almost become, I think, sort of underrated. And this was no exception. I really enjoyed this movie a lot. I thought it was very compelling. And it felt like sitting in on someone's therapy in the best way because it felt like there's almost the same sense of discovery that he must have felt when he was working through this time in his life and in his memories. And I think it also feels sort of loose for a Spielberg movie. There's a sense of play and fun that reminded me a lot of last year's "Licorice Pizza," which I also loved quite a bit, even while dealing with these tough topics. And so at the end, you know, I just left a very happy customer really enthralled by this latest offering.

HARRIS: It's interesting that you mentioned therapy because, you know, Steven Spielberg did a very interesting interview with A.O. Scott at The New York Times that I highly recommend people check out. And he talks about how he's actually never really done therapy except, like, maybe once in his life. And that was very brief. And so he actually views this exactly as his version of therapy, which some could argue - I don't know if that's always the best thing to do. But clearly what he was trying to do came through to you. So what he's doing was working on some level.

HENSEL: Yeah.

HARRIS: Bob, how about you? What was your reaction to this film?

MONDELLO: Well, because I'm maybe two or three years younger than Spielberg, those early sequences were my own childhood, right? I mean, I went to movies like "Greatest Show On Earth." But the experience of the first decade of his life was so much like, you know, the things I was going through, basically. I thought it was a lovely evocation of period and of somebody who's sort of discovering that there's something he really cares about. I mean, he's told the story of how he went to see "Greatest Show On Earth" and then came back and started playing with model trains and making movies with the model trains. And he's told it a lot of times in interviews. He'd been doing it for - like a couple of decades, he's been telling that story. So seeing it come to life on screen like this is really kind of interesting. But it's clear that this is kind of real for him. And I thought you could feel it all the way through the movie.

HARRIS: Yeah. If there's one common thread that I saw throughout the film, it's that, like, this is clearly made with so much love. And even the way he frames many shots that have this sort of ethereal glow by way of - I don't want to say - the go-to for that era is always someone like Norman Rockwell. But it does have a sort of, like, in some ways, Rockwellian feel to it that I think is really interesting to look at, especially considering Spielberg has often - I think he gets unfairly accused sometimes of being oversentimental. But I do want to come back to that idea of sort of how that plays out throughout this film because it does feel in some ways like there is a lot of reverence and admiration and not as much grist maybe, but we can talk about that later. Linda, what was your reaction to this?

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, sometimes with contemporary Spielberg, I wind up feeling like I admire the films more than I love them, which is sort of the way a lot of people, I think, feel about somebody like Christopher Nolan - something like that. I feel like it's not necessarily a story that completely revved me up. I don't - I mean, I think the performances are terrific. You know, when I saw the promotions for this, Paul Dano and Michelle Williams are two actors who I think are always interesting regardless of the project that they're participating in. So that did a lot for me. I do think it is impossible to separate this film from its Spielbergosity (ph). You know, when we talk on this show about emergencies in pop culture reporting, our shorthand is sometimes, like, if Steven Spielberg dies. And it's because he's so massive in the imagination of pop culture of our era and kind of niches, right? I admired enormously the filmmaking here. There are a bunch of shots here where I just thought, gosh, is that pretty.

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

HOLMES: Like, I kept finding myself thinking, like, that is a glorious composition, or that is glorious lighting. And I think when you've been watching a lot of somewhat underbaked filmmaking, inexpensive sort of stuff, I think when you see somebody who clearly puts love and passion and craft into every single thing - there are couple of shots in this where just the composition of how people are standing - there's a shot where Dano is in the foreground, and Williams is in the background kind of lying on the piano. I just saw that shot and thought, boy, that is so pretty, and it is so interestingly composed. I do think, like, if this weren't about the guy who became Steven Spielberg, would I find this an incredibly moving story? Maybe not. It would probably leave me a little cold.

I also think - as you move particularly into the part where he's in high school, there was a section where I was like, what the heck is going on here? And then I started to realize that that section of the movie is about his high school experience and a little bit of a sendup of high school movies and high school bully movies because there's a section that I thought, this is a really silly presentation of this bully. And there's a part where the bully kind of cracks his neck. And I just thought, it's such an enormous cliche. But then I thought, oh, that's the point, right? He's kind of doing a bit about teenager movies and that kind of thing.

So I do find it interesting to kind of look at what he's doing. I don't know that this is my favorite thing of his. But it's clearly, as you said, made with enormous love and care and passion and technique that is so full of pleasures that the fact that I wasn't that absorbed in the story, you know, between the performances and the other parts of the craft, you know, it's a very pleasurable movie to watch. I admire it enormously, you know?

MONDELLO: I got to say, the thing that - as you're talking about it, I'm realizing that I didn't - this isn't fair to the movie. I didn't care as much about Sammy's growing up as I did about the scenes where he was actually making movies. I was talking at a screening the other day to the mom of one of the costume people for "The Fabelmans," and apparently, her daughter was charged with finding the exact made-up costumes for that war movie he makes in the middle of the movie so they could reproduce the movie he had shot when he was 13 years old with his Boy Scout troop. The idea of doing all of that craft to recreate something that he'd actually done many years ago, I mean, I just got a huge kick out of it.

Also, I mean, I think the idea of burying a stick in the ground with a rock on top of it with a bunch of dirt - you don't have enough money to do little munitions for your war movie. So if a kid running along steps on the stick, then it shoots up a little bit of dirt behind him, and it looks like something's been shot. That's a very clever device, right? And I watched them doing that and thought, (laughter) it's amazing. It's all kind of fascinatingly clever. And so for me, you know - I have to go to a lot of movies - it's interesting to see how you would do this.

HENSEL: Well, I think he also - one thing I loved throughout the movie was how he understands all of the different functions of film because we see film from the beginning as entertainment, and then when he gets his movie camera and he starts filming a train crash over and over again, which scared him when he watched "The Greatest Show On Earth," it - you know, he uses film as a way to conquer his fears. We see all the effects as a way to, you know, combine engineering and coordination and human labor into films. He uses film as comfort when he's making a documentary, you know, for his mother after his grandmother dies. We see movies as documentaries, as evidence. They're political in school, as they sort of settle scores, and they sort of reshuffle his place in school.

I mean, I think there is sort of a heightened quality to everything Spielberg does in this movie but also everything that I think he's done in the last 20 years or so. You know, his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, also helps with that. Everything sort of feels surreal, like a Norman Rockwell painting, and kind of exaggerated. But I think also, there's sort of a blending of his life with movies themselves. And I think maybe in his personal memories, you know, the movies that he watches which teach him about life, you know, become as important as his personal experiences. And so for me, I think it makes sense that there's all this sort of exaggeration and maybe homage to the different film genres that he grew up with and studied from as they find themselves into his life story. To me, that's what made it so compelling because it does feel like a dream. It's not quite realistic, but it also feels so personal and true.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I think I kind of come a little bit more on Linda's side in terms of how I responded to this film. There are two scenes, though, that really stood out to me and were like a gut punch emotionally. And the first was when Sammy's discovering Mitzi's secret, and he's running the film of their camping trip through the editing machine, going back and forth and back and forth. As this is happening, there's a sequence where his mom is playing the piano in their living room, and his dad is listening intently. And it cuts in between him, Sammy, running the film and his parents in the living room. And the camera at one point does, like, this circling, 360 degrees around him a few times, and that moment was just cinema at its finest. Like, I don't even know how else to describe it.

It's the perfect combination of this epiphany that this kid is going to have about what it means to be able to capture things on film and how those things, even the smallest little details, can reveal these giant truths. And on top of that, you just have this really masterful way of conveying that without any words. And to me, that was just Steven Spielberg working at his apex, one of, maybe, the best sequences he's done throughout his entire career. Then the other one is way more simple. But I think it's just because it have a very personal resonance for me, which is when Burt and Mitzi announced that they're going to get separated. And the way the kids react, I was - it just took me back to my own parents, when they told me and my sister that this was happening.

And those were the moments where, I think, for me, even though the rest of the movie didn't always gel for me in terms of connecting the emotional dots, I think - when Mitzi's mother dies, it kind of left me a little cold because we didn't really see her before that. I don't remember seeing her before that. And if we did, it was very short. And so it felt like it kind of came out of nowhere. Because we had built all this emotional investment in this family at this point, those two moments really hooked me in. And I kind of wish the rest of the film had done the same for me, but it didn't.

For me, the movie-making parts also worked the best. And I'm curious what you sort of make of these sort of central questions in this movie, which is this idea of art versus family and practicality versus art. And there's that tug and pull between Burt and Mitzi as well as - we haven't even talked about Judd Hirsch's character as Uncle Boris, who has that big sort of - that's the Oscar scene. That's the - I mean, he's only in, really, like, one part of the movie. But that is the Oscar scene of him talking about how art is our drug. And family is great, but art is what we need or - you know? What did you think of that and how that sort of - that tension plays out throughout the film?

HENSEL: You know, I think the film also sets up this tension between what aspects of his parents he also will come to embrace more. His father is an engineer. His mother is an artist. And it sort of means that his art puts him in the conflicts between his parents as well. And I think the movie kind of comes down on the answer of, these are not mutually exclusive realms of life.

Spielberg's career is one that meshes science and art, family, you know, values and love with practicality. And I think this movie, you know, has that same effect, too, where art for Sammy is extremely personal and is used to, essentially, enhance or support his family life. The way that he relates to his family comes through his art. And so, I mean, I loved Judd Hirsch. But that tension he brings up does not quite land with the same force as a lot of the other movie for me. It felt a little - I don't know. It felt a little forced to me.

MONDELLO: I'm really intrigued, as I'm listening to this, at the way we're picking out moments in it. If the movie were just astonishingly great, you wouldn't be picking moments, right? And I - as much as I like this movie, I think it is - it's a bit of a patchwork. And I think that's partly because he looks back at his life. And - although, Tony Kushner has shaped it in a way, in the screenplay, that makes everything make sense. And, you know, like, it all is driving toward something. And when it gets there at the end, you get a real sort of lift feeling from it.

And so the bits where he's making movies, and the bits when he's relating to his mother and the other bits where, to a surprising extent, I think, he's relating to his father, who - you know, as the movie starts, I was pretty sure the dad was going to end up being sort of the villain. And he doesn't really end up being the villain at all. I think what they've done is crafted a very nice story. But there's a difference between craft and flowing. And, you know, that's - I think that's how I would articulate that.

HOLMES: Yeah. I think, one thing that I noticed - and I think this is related, Bob, to what you're talking about, which is, one reason why I think this movie sometimes seems to not completely hang together for me is that it stops very frequently for somebody to look earnestly into Sammy's eyes and give him life advice.

HARRIS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: And again, like, if anybody's earned this kind of project, it's probably him. What he's trying to communicate is, here are all the important things that I learned, that people told me, that helped me understand my life and my family. And so you get an awful lot of, like - his sister stops and kind of addresses him with wisdom. His father addresses him with wisdom. His mother does. The Judd Hirsch uncle certainly does. At the very end, there's a Hollywood figure who does.

And to me, the movie stops for those things and kind of for the stand and deliver of the wisdom. I think that's one of the reasons why, for me, it pulls me out of the story a little. It may be related to the fact that Kushner is a playwright, you know? I think Kushner is kind of a master of big talk, like, in a good way. And I think it worked really well when he did "Lincoln" with Spielberg, for example...

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Kind of these big, grand moments. But in a little family story like this, it can sometimes kind of break the flow of the family story for me. Even Seth Rogen does it, too.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: I will now deliver a speech to you about how things work. And I think he values all this advice. He values all the things he learned from these people. But it's a little bit donk, donk, donk, donk, donk (ph) at those moments for me.

HARRIS: Yeah. And I think that comes with sort of the territory of this being set when it was. And, you know, Richard Brody, in his sort of essay or review of this film, points out that this is a very insular film in many ways. There's no sort of sense of anything happening politically on the outside of all of this, no sense of the civil rights movement, JFK. And like - and look; I don't know if I necessarily need all of that because how many movies have we seen where it's like, all of a sudden, you see the film reel of MLK at March on Washington? Like, that doesn't always necessarily need to be there. But it does feel like it's kind of at a remove. And those sort of slogans that are constantly being told to this kid do have a tinge of, like, "Leave It To Beaver"-style placement that I don't think necessarily lets it flow in the way that I would love to see something like this flow.

MONDELLO: (Laughter) That's a wonderful observation. I'm just imagining that "Leave It To Beaver" would be regarded, during that period, as sort of documentary realism...

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: ...Because people always came up to you and gave those kinds of little speeches (laughter). I don't remember them from my own childhood, but I assume they happen in everybody else's.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: It's like...

HENSEL: Maybe not written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner.

HARRIS: Yeah (laughter).

MONDELLO: I'm struck by how this relates to other directors who've made films about their childhoods. I mean, not too long ago, we saw "Roma" - right? - which is a really evocative film about the childhood of Alfonso Cuaron. And, you know, it's not every filmmaker who makes a movie about moviemaking as a child. In fact, I'm having trouble coming up with others. It doesn't usually go this way. This is a story that Spielberg can tell that not a lot of other people can. And that's partly because, I mean, until he came along and his generation came along, you didn't have home movie setups that you could do this kind of thing with.

HARRIS: Right.

MONDELLO: This is the Spielberg version of this particular story.

HENSEL: Well, I think about "Lady Bird" often, which is probably my favorite of this genre.

MONDELLO: Sure.

HENSEL: Obviously, it's not also about filmmaking. And there might be more of a departure from Greta Gerwig's biographical life, but a lot of the facts are the same. But that's a movie where I think there's a lot of those not exactly direct-to-camera appeals but, you know, lines that feel kind of like Hallmark cards. But I think those lines have a real verisimilitude. Like, I can remember the line of the head nun at her school saying, don't you think love and attention are the same thing? - that I think about all the time. Leaving "The Fabelmans," I have not really thought about the words of wisdom that his family members impart to him.

HOLMES: Yeah, I think the strength of this film, as in the strength of any autobiographical or even biographical film, is in its specificities. And I think the two specificities that I think were the most welcome for me are, as Bob said, a really tight look at the importance of developing as a creative kid and a filmmaker and then also his experiences in high school with anti-Semitism because I was happy to see the passion that he put into explaining the role of that in his life, which is interesting 'cause it comes in sort of late in the film as an explicit theme. And, you know, I think it feels timely, and it feels, you know, as I said, specific. And I think those are the parts of the film that gave it more texture for me, as opposed to the stuff that's a little bit more general about kind of - you have to be this kind of person, and you have to face your fears and things that felt a bit more common to everybody's experience.

MONDELLO: Yep, yep, yep.

HENSEL: I loved seeing the Jewish home life, too, because, you know, it's nice to see, like, kugel and challah on the table for a holiday and also hear people use, like, Yiddish interjections like (speaking Yiddish), which I have not come across so much since reading, like, Philip Roth. You know, that felt really truthful to me. And, like, middle-class Jewish home life depictions are not as common as we might think. I feel like a lot of Jewish film in the last 50 years has been about the Holocaust and about European life and, even in recent years, has been a lot about, like, Hasidic communities rather than the way I think the majority of American Jews experience their lives.

I mean, I grew up in a very Jewish community, and so I didn't really experience any anti-Semitism at all, really, until college. But my parents - or my - especially my dad, who moved from a pretty Jewish town to Atlanta in 1968, definitely experienced, you know, a lot of the same discrimination and sort of hate speech and all that sort of stuff. And, you know, it felt so truthful. And it feels like something that I can't wait to talk, you know, to my parents about, about what it was like in the '50s and '60s and in different parts of the country that - you know, that I'm not familiar with.

MONDELLO: You can talk to me about that, too.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: I definitely think Steven Spielberg - you usually can't go wrong. You'll at least have a good time, even if it doesn't all necessarily work for you. So tell us what you think about "The Fabelmans." You can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh. Up next - what's making us happy this week.

And now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - what's making us happy. Danny, let's start with you.

HENSEL: Well, I spent the first 22 years of my life in the Midwest, in the Chicago area, and then Michigan in college. And so I have a lot of pride in the region. I also love architecture. It's, like, my first art love. And one thing that keeps both those passions alive is a Twitter account called Midwest Modern. It's run by a guy named Josh Lipnik. That's @joshlipnik on Twitter - L-I-P-N-I-K. He posts mostly photos of buildings but also designs of things from all around the Midwest, both in the big cities and small towns and, of buildings from over the past century and even earlier. I think he has a really great eye, and he sees value and beauty in just about everything. So that's the Twitter account Midwest Modern by Josh Lipnik, bringing the beauty of the Midwest to the internet.

HARRIS: Well, thank you so much, Danny. That sounds really, really fun. I'm going to check that out, for sure. Linda, what is making you happy this week?

HOLMES: This week I want to recommend the podcast "Unclear And Present Danger." It is hosted by Jamelle Bouie and John Ganz. And they talk about '90s post-Cold War thrillers. That's kind of the initial mission. They kind of are expanding it in certain ways, including through their Patreon. But I find it to be a really nice balance of fun but also serious and analytical when it comes to politics. It's just a really smart way to take popular culture and engage with its very specific moment. And they also talk about "The Firm." They talk about "The Fugitive." They talk about, you know, a lot of films that their political content is a little different from kind of something as straightforwardly post-Cold War as something like "The Hunt For Red October." But anyway, again, that is - and, you know, you get the little jest here. It's called "Unclear And Present Danger," a podcast you can find, you know wherever podcasts are. And that is what is making me happy this week.

HARRIS: That's a great pick. I've been a big fan of Jamelle since he and I were colleagues twice in my previous jobs. And also, his - the episode they did on "Deep Cover," the movie starring - the sort of neo noir starring Laurence Fishburne. Really good. It was fun to listen to that. Bob, let us know - what is making you happy?

MONDELLO: Well, I don't know if it's just because we've all been talking about "The Fabelmans," and that's my childhood, or if it's just the season, but I have been thinking about my mom's holiday recipes for a couple of things. I am not a baker. I don't really know how to do it. But I used to love when she would start making these things that she would allow me to stick my hands into and squish dough together and stuff like that. They were just amazing. And so there were two things she always made. One of them was bourbon balls, and the other one is shortbread. And basically, with the shortbread, it only had three ingredients. It had four cups of flour, a cup and a third of sugar and a pound of butter. So it's obviously good for you.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Yes.

MONDELLO: And you basically just take those things, and you squish them all together, and you push them into a glass dish and cook it at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. And then you take it out and cut it right away because otherwise you won't be able to 'cause it will get so hard. And you leave it in the Pyrex dish until it's cool, and then you pop them in your mouth. And they're so good. Anyway, that's shortbread. It's really simple. It's like - I've been finding recipes online that have everything from baking soda to vanilla to salt and all kinds of other things. This is just three ingredients, which I thought was fantastic.

HOLMES: Well, I would use salted butter for that because if you're not adding salt, then I would add...

HARRIS: Yes, yes.

HOLMES: I would use salted butter.

MONDELLO: I was hoping you'd say that because that was my - my mom always bought salted butter.

HENSEL: (Laughter).

HARRIS: You had me at a pound of butter.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: That sounds great. So what's making me happy this week? Well, really, for the last few weeks, I guess, I have discovered Steve Lacy's album "Gemini Rights." It is a, for me, no-skips album. I love "Bad Habit." It doesn't sound like anything else on the radio right now, which I think is partially why it's such a - it's been so successful and has been, for me, such a revelation. So here's a little bit of "Bad Habit."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD HABIT")

STEVE LACY: (Singing) I bite my tongue. It's a bad habit. Kind of mad that I didn't take a stab at it. Thought you were too good for me, my dear. Never gave me time of day, my dear.

HOLMES: It's very roller rink.

HARRIS: Yeah (laughter). Interesting. I hadn't thought about that. But yeah, it kind of feels like that. It's a song about, you know, having a crush on someone and thinking that they weren't into you but then realizing maybe too late that they actually were. And it's like, oh, why didn't I do that? Why didn't I pursue it? And just the whole album overall is so great. My - one of my other favorite songs is "Helmet," which is kind of like Stevie Wonder meets Sly and the Family Stone in the best way possible. So yeah, Steve Lacy, "Gemini Rights." He's been a guitarist and producer with The Internet. And I just think he's making some really, really interesting and fun and just groovy, groovy music that I really love. So...

HOLMES: I love that little real, like, waow-waow-waow-waow (ph).

HARRIS: Yes.

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

HOLMES: That, like, is a good sound.

HARRIS: Yeah. And it's all throughout the album. So yeah, definitely check it out.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: So that's what's making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended, plus some other recommendations, you can sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. That brings us to the end of our show. Linda Holmes, Danny Hensel and Bob Mondello - thanks so much for being here. It was a pleasure.

HENSEL: Thank you.

MONDELLO: Great press.

HOLMES: Woo-hoo (ph). Also, please listen to Aisha's completed series Screening Ourselves...

HENSEL: Yes.

HOLMES: ...Which is three episodes, which are all great and awesome.

MONDELLO: Which is amazing.

HOLMES: And you can find it in our feed.

HARRIS: Thanks so much for sharing that, Linda. This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and edited by Jessica Reedy. Audio engineering was provided by Gilly Moon and Hannah Gluvna. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks so much for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris. We'll see you all next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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