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I had to watch certain scenes of Life Itself (2014) through my picket fence. With my middle and ring fingers touching my forehead and my pinky and index finger on either eyebrow, my hand defensively fences off sections of the television screen when the subject matter makes me squeamish, unconformable, or giddy with anticipation because the call is coming from inside the house. It was during Life Itself’s first close-up shots of Roger Ebert after his many surgeries due to thyroid cancer that my fence flourished, each picket moving closer and closer together. But as I brushed up on Ebert’s early days – a day job of editing followed by nights of drinking, and eventually a career arguing about film with a competitor – my fence began to lower, and the squirming dwindled into the occasional shift. Despite the physical and emotional challenges of Ebert’s later years, to me this man truly lived the dream. Roger Ebert and Lupita Nyong’o who, as she coasted towards the stage to accept an Academy Award, got to hug Liza Minnelli. Yup, those two. THE dream.

Amongst all of the old footage and photos peppering Life Itself, one in particular catapulted out of my screen with the moxie of Captain EO. If truly a candid shot, this image provides us with the tiniest snapshot of a glimpse into the process of a meticulous man, a superior artist who treasured not only the world of film but also the art of writing itself. The iconic image of Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itch (1955) – likely the first to appear in the minds and loins of most when her name is mentioned – towers above Ebert’s computer screen, protected not by one but two Donald Ducks. While Marilyn forever belongs to everyone and no one, a certain level of ownership radiates from this photo, as if Ebert both controls and manipulates the winds of the New York subways at will, that dress floating up for him and him alone. This particular Monroe was his exclusively, or so she would have him believe . . . in the end we all belonged to her.

I have a Monroe of my own who watches over me while I write and edit and rewrite and pace and curse at my apartment walls. A bully of a muse, at times she both possesses and withholds all inspiration, as she teases and challenges and taunts me through the process, daring me to try something new. During moments of peak frustration when the Well of Creativity runs dry, I bark at her a bit, likely frightening the neighbors with my booming “WHAT? Whatcha lookin’ at?” But my tantrums tire me out eventually, and I realize I can’t spend the entire night blaming a portrait . . . a few hours more, yes, but not the entire night. Yes, my Marilyn denies me winks and smiles, and she never whoopsy-daisily shows me her undergarments, but she can pressure me to get back to work with the commanding force of a drill sergeant.

I grinned to no one when I noticed that, after a few hours of scratching down my thoughts on Roger Ebert, the words on my page sprinted with gusto back to Marilyn Monroe. I began to wonder how he would react to such a phenomenon; the idealist in me believes that he would have appreciated such an unsuppressed shift in focus, while the jealous writer on my other shoulder assumes all artists to be equally, if not more jealous and prone to fury when brutally ignored. But no matter; here we see Roger Ebert in the zone; the zone that Life Itself captures and reveals in those moments when we decide to knock down our fences. Ebert said it better; he saw more; he knew more; he lectured; he wrote; he stopped drinking; he married; he argued and won; he argued and lost; he watched some more; he spoke when he had no voice; he lived. To be a film critic so trusted, loved, and hated – only that magical trio of feedback proves to the world that you’ve made it, Ma.

Add Life Itself to your queue.

I’m always tickled when Little Magazine asks me to create a music playlist for them. Given a general theme, I begin compiling an overflowing list of possibilities, eventually seeking guidance from my taskmistress – often at 1am – in reference to the maximum number of songs that she will allow. Yet the stress of choosing and rating and sorting and resorting is a cakewalk compared to the stomach-punching anxiety that comes with permanently deleting a song. Every time I cut a song, a jukebox fairy dies.

The springtime playlist that I composed for Little Magazine provided an opportunity for a thorough review of my library; the hefty number of film and television soundtracks found in my archives was quite a shock to . . . well . . . no one. Typically I stay away from the alcohol when I write, but this lovely glass of Sofia Coppola rosé and I decided today to reveal our top-ten favorite movie soundtracks. Since we’re breaking our “no alcohol” rule, we came up with a few others to compensate:

1) We’re leaving out musical scores – not to be sniffed at, but we’d have to include all of our favorite Disney movies; Hitchcock would be all over the place (minus The Birds, of course); Jaws would have to be included in order for us to post this list guilt free; and Moonstruck . . . oh, Moonstruck.

2) We’re leaving out the musicals – way too easy, and way too hard. You want me to compare A Star Is Born to Cabaret? Too treacherous a road.

3) We’re leaving out words and phrases like “best” and “all-time greatest,” not because we’re ashamed of our choices, but because we’re afraid of you flinging disgusting objects in our direction (yes, I’m looking at you).

4) Sofia and I fought over this one – although not a musical, The Skeleton Twins (2014) may not be included just because of this magical moment:

 

10) O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

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Despite two attempts, the deep, devoted love that so many feel for this Coen brothers film never blossomed in me, but I do find that Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” slips easily into many a playlist. And it must be the banjos of this bluegrass soundtrack that transport me immediately to the first few moments of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.

 

9) The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

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After a binge watching of Ugly Betty, I came to the realization that “Save the Best for Last” should be played at least once a day. No offence to the drag queen hidden in the shadows of the closing credits, but I would have teared up if Vanessa Williams had made an appearance in this wickedly fun film. “Sometimes the snow comes down in June; Sometimes the sun goes round the moon” – poetry at its finest.

 

8) 200 Cigarettes (1999)

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This cinematic masterpiece became the bible of one of my most treasured of friendships. Tunes of the sun-setting 1970s meet those emerging in the early 1980s, and together they skip down the streets of Manhattan on New Year’s Eve. Watch for an Oscar-snubbed Martha Plimpton – she’s ferocious, and she knows just it takes to make a pro blush.

 

7) Mermaids (1990)

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Take it from me, she’s a better catch – outshining the original, Cher’s version of “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” opens this assortment of classics, closing with Jimmy Soul’s “If You Wanna Be Happy.” A matchmaking service for ugly girls could never be played on the PC iStations of today.

 

6) Pulp Fiction (1994)

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Bless Mr. Tarantino’s dark and bloody heart for introducing Dusty Springfield to a generation that may have never had the pleasure.

 

5) Dirty Dancing (1987)

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You’ll find a decent amount of overlapping with the tunes from Mermaids, but seriously, what’s with the music industry? This nostalgic treasury should have launched Patrick Swayze’s singing career. Keep your eye out for one of Mom’s personal favorites – the cover of “You Don’t Own Me” by The Blow Monkeys changes absolutely everything about Lesley Gore’s original.

 

4) Footloose (1984)

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With Sammy Hagar’s “The Girl Gets Around” blasting underneath me, I have no doubt that I could stand between two cars and play chicken with an 18-wheeler . . . and win. Please note that this soundtrack should be played only on cassette tape in a silver boombox and while wearing red boots.

 

3) The Big Chill (1983)

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Speaking of cassette tapes, when we were kids we drew a happy face on the side of the tape we liked and a frowning face on the other. Side “A” of The Big Chill ended with Three Dog Night “Joy to the World,” and Side “B” closed with “Tell Him” by The Exciters. The Big Chill was all smiles on all sides.

 

2) The Graduate (1967)

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“Put it in the pantry with your cupcakes.” I never knew – is that a dirty line? I’ll always take the side of the character in a leopard coat, but when Simon and Garfunkel generate an emotional apathy within Benjamin, my allegiance to Mrs. Robinson begins to crumble.

 

1) Dick Tracy (1990)

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Square jaw; ooo such a handsome face. Madonna’s I’m Breathless album not only blessed the world with the dance floor (and my kitchen floor) classic “Vogue” but also scored Stephen Sondheim an Academy Award for the song “Sooner or Later.”

Beauty’s where you find it:

In the packet sitting on my trunk that also functions as a coffee table, only a single cookie remained. Within five days, I was rejected for not one but two jobs and mutually decided with a very nice gentleman that future dates were no longer necessary. In the face of personal and professional rebuffs, I give myself about 12 hours to slosh around in hopelessness before it’s time to put down the cookies and embrace that backbone we were told comes with “being a man.” At moments like these, when I become desperate for a male role model, usually I turn to Katharine or Bette (Davis or Midler, pick a broad), who taught me more about male strength than any man ever could. But as I wandered towards the DVD shelf, allowing myself no time to browse, my hand seized The Boys in the Band (1970), originally a play that was adapted into a film starring its original cast members. Hiding away that final cookie in the cupboard and instead bringing to the couch a bowl of overly priced blueberries, I was ready to visit the boys once again. But thirty minutes in, I turned them off and decided instead to take a stroll down Elm Street.

A true diehard fan of the Nightmare on Elm Street series knows to queue up the fourth installment when one yearns for not only true campy horror but also the enchanting time period when the 80s became a little grungy before the 90s took hold. At the end of the fourth film, Alice, the young virgin hero of the piece, backflips her way down a church aisle and starts wailing on Freddy Krueger, who, at this point in the franchise, has developed a wicked sense of comic timing. Anger turns to rage in young Alice, but with every ferocious punch she delivers, Freddy meets them all with laughter. It’s a delicious fight scene with a gooey ending that reminds all thirtysomethings of how blessed we once were when we turned on our VCRs.

Following an urban family of friends who gather for one’s birthday, The Boys in the Band transforms quickly from zingy one-liners to the brutality of a truth-telling slumber party game, if all the slumber party guests were downing vodka and smoking weed. Sounds fitting for my particular mood that evening, one could say, at least in the allotted 12-hour period. So what the devil happened that night? First it was a beeline towards The Boys in the Band followed immediately by a second for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)? Was it the campy comparison between the two that kept me from settling in? Perhaps it was the lack of an attention span that plagues us all? An unplanned theme night with characters that focus on proper nail maintenance?

I couldn’t put my unmanicured finger on it until days later when I was watching a documentary about The Boys in the Band. While listening to some of the critics who found both the original play and film offensive and glorifying gay stereotypes, I understood why I went back to Alice’s final showdown with Freddy, and the questions seemed to scroll across my living room wall like the showtimes at a movie theatre (remember those?). Living in a century when everyone is offended by everything, and voicing outrage may get one’s name in the headlines, I began to wonder . . . when should I voice my opposition and march down the streets with signs and petitions, and when should I simply laugh at those who offend me? Is one course more astute, more mature, or more reasonable than the other? Could I one day possess the level of emotional tenacity displayed by Freddy Krueger and laugh in the faces of pain and rejection?

Oh, I was always a Freddy sympathizer – teenagers are monsters.

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While mulling over The Boys in the Band and scribbling down notes about “gay” this and “don’t label me” that, I began to feel stirrings of anger that perhaps mimicked that of the 1970s audiences. While I may not feel the deep anger – and perhaps even deeper fear – that some may have felt at the time, I try to understand it. There were indeed lovers of both the film and the play from all neighborhoods (lines around the block, I hear), and I will forever envy those who saw the original cast perform in New York. But those who give negative reviews tend to roar when they give them, drowning out the courtly tones of those who shower something with praise.

One reaction to the play that stuck with me was that it gives audiences the green light to disrespect gay characters. Okay . . . I see where you’re coming from, sir, and I hear you, but did we have respect for George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Speaking only for myself, I’d have to say no, I didn’t exactly look up to them with respect and admiration. Am I wildly entertained by their drinking and verbal abuse of one another? Oh, absolutely! George and Martha may have shattered the image of the happily married man and woman, but we had to live with that stereotype for years before the world was ready for that earsplitting shatter. And some people, gay and straight, man and woman, liberal and conservative, just didn’t like it. Period. One day I’ll summon the courage to write about why I never cared for Citizen Kane (1941), but here’s the thing – at least I’ve seen Citizen Kane. If you have only heard that The Boys in the Band’s portrayal of gay characters is offensive, full of trigger words, and will cause you loads of distress and hurt feelings, I urge you to be brave enough to see it first and then decide. I’m talking to you, Basic Instinct spoilers. You know who you are!

Ultimately I come away from this film with more questions than conclusions. Why, I wondered, couldn’t those who were offended by The Boys in the Band laugh at it instead? How could they not appreciate the humor and wit of these characters, as they go from loving to hating each other and back again in a matter of drinks and hours? Then I found myself thinking, “Because, you spoiled little so-and-so, you can’t even begin to imagine the fear that festered inside certain members of a 1970s audience.” It’s 2015, and we’re in the early stages of a time when gay neighbors are becoming just neighbors and gay parents are just parents. It wasn’t just a different country when these boys came out; it was a different universe. Timing is everything, and when we take an objective, honest look at humanity, a single fact emerges – no one can be as emotionally mature as Freddy Krueger.

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Add The Boys in the Band to your queue.

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On the tip of my finger where most people have lines that run down to their palms, I have a microscopic circle of dots. Noticeable only to the officer who one day will book and fingerprint me for stalking Miss Minnelli, this tiny cluster is no more than one of those souvenirs that we all collect on our travels through childhood. It is a security blanket of a scar that makes my right arm tingle every time I tap the circle with my thumb.

My family’s first VCR was a beautiful, shiny, clunky piece of silver magic. Miraculous though it was, its true power bubbled inside a smaller device that pulled the videocassette strings. Possessing the remote control transformed any mere mortal into the master or mistress of the galaxy, capable of commanding with minimal finger movement that time moves forward with great speed or backwards with, well, slightly slower speed. Although highly discouraged due to the potential damage it may cause to the universe, time could be paused, but the seasoned VCR puppeteer knew it was prudent to stop time completely. No other period in my life since has granted me the ability to move forward with such ease and thoughtlessness. When I was the maestro of that machine, I could fast-forward and never look back . . . the enhancement of rewinding was still a thing of the future.

Addictive is that power behind the scenes, behind the curtain, above the stage, above the audience, in the wings, or in the editing room. When I managed to gain control of the Kit Kat-sized remote, I sat directly across from the television, prepared to make godlike decisions that came with such a coveted position. On the tip of my (yes, MY) remote control was a half-dome out of which the rays of world domination and channel change came shooting. For hours I would press my fingertip against that dome, my body connecting to and channeling the world of film and television. Over the years, that half-dome of the remote control rearranged the map of my right hand, and forever I will walk this earth with a circle of circles on my index finger where lines ought to be. I have kept the existence of this scar to myself for decades, but now Liza’s handlers will know the distinguishing characteristic by which they can identify me.

This scar came to be with help from Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980), only half of which we had recorded on videocassette. Oddly I never questioned what happened to the rest of film; I accepted the version available as complete and enjoyed it throughout all four seasons of the year. Frequently I have insisted that Network (1976) is the most frightening film ever made, but now it is with embarrassment that I retract . . . without question, Disney’s film adaptation of Pinocchio (1940) should be rated NC-17. When approached delicately, many with whom I have spoken revealed pattern nightmares involving whales and ocean chase scenes. During these discussions, everyone’s face steadfastly maintains the maturity of an adult, while their dewy eyes plead with me to change the subject.

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Indeed Disney’s sequence with Monstro the Whale is petrifying for all ages, but when it comes to film, the most damaging trauma inflicted upon me – or maybe the second most damaging, after Annie’s Miss Hannigan – occurred on Pleasure Island. Oh, the trauma of Pleasure Island. The cries and shrieks of little boys as they watch their hands devolve into donkey hooves . . . my respiratory rate just increased writing those words, hence a spirited need for the tamer, made-for-television Pinocchio’s Christmas. Aired during both the season and year of my birth, the plot of this 50-minute flick is simple, and the frights are minimal: after Papa Geppetto gives young Pinocchio an arithmetic book as an early Christmas present, the little marionette decides to sell his present and use the money to buy something in return for generous caregiver. The fox and the cat, the harebrained villains of the tale, convince Pinocchio to bury the money in the Enchanted Forest, where it will grow into a money tree. Alas! the tree never appears, the money disappears, and Pinocchio sells himself to a puppet show as a live marionette, where he can earn enough money to buy Geppetto the present he deserves. After he steals a female wooden doll from the show and runs away with her, Pinocchio faints in the Enchanted Forest when a mystical blue light comes floating his way. It is here where our VHS cuts off, demanding I go through pre-Internet life pondering this Christmas cliffhanger.

The holidays can be a difficult time for everyone, especially children of the 80s.

Some childhood scars never fade, their deep-rooted impact always at and on our fingertips. But with remedial treatment of Pinocchio’s Christmas, perhaps the donkey tails never sprouted; the donkey ears never developed; the hooves never manifested, and gradually the cries and shrieks of naughty little boys fade away in the distance.

Happy holidays!

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The battle between laugh-lined adults like myself and their inner child with its flawless skin is at its most predictable on October 31st. This unblemished child begs us to play dress-up and try on modified versions of our personalities that otherwise we keep hidden throughout the year. Hardly a day goes by when I’m not tempted to break out my witch hat and wear it around the neighborhood, so I understand the satisfaction garnered from disappearing into another character’s mind and body for 24 hours. I lived in costume for the first decade of my life, so Halloween was never the special green light holiday that is was for everyone else, permitting extravagant wardrobe choices without the fear of judgment (okay, I do judge the “Sexy Mustard Bottle” people, but just a little). Instead Halloween was simply a day that I didn’t get asked, “So who are you today?” I can still hear the pompous tone that dripped from a relative’s voice when he asked me that question at every family function . . . fortunately we were never forced to gather together to celebrate Halloween, or I may have hit him with my broom.

The red makeup of past Halloweens still lingered on my shower curtain. Its glue somehow still had the strength to keep a silver eye jewel posted proudly on my bathroom medicine cabinet. And that black leather tie purchased only for the purposes of a Halloween costume found itself into the regular rotation. Surrounded by this mini-museum of Halloween personalities, my core began to shake. The pressure was building in my toes and advancing towards my eyeballs. Something new was about to erupt, and my lack of control was both frightening and intriguing.

A few party invitations had come my way, but they remained in my Inbox, unopened. As October evolved into a month-long celebration of baseball, Halloween, and public drunkenness, San Francisco overflowed with a sea of pleasure-seeking hooligans. “Throw a stone; hit a Mr. Hyde” became the town motto, while back at my laboratory, it was a poor, suppressed Jekyll striving to burst from within me. The white-collar shirt was pressed; the grey tie with its pale red stripes met the belt of the black trousers; a maroon cardigan and a long, black overcoat guarded against the cold that still hovered after the day’s rain. The most petrifying costume of my years frightened only one person, and he was staring back at me in the mirror – this year I dressed up as an adult for Halloween. At times Dr. Jekylls may feel unwelcome in this city, but no matter; I was taking him to the Symphony.

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The stage was completely bare, save for the tremendous organ that was front and center. Had I looked closer at the website when I purchased my ticket, I would have noticed that the evening’s film was not to be accompanied by the entire San Francisco Symphony but by only one man and his organ. And yes, had I looked closer, I would have used the word “only” with a bit of an eye roll, a disrespectful snafu over which my cheeks redden when I think about it now. Indeed it was but one individual who sat below the movie screen at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco that Halloween night. Who knew that inside one man lurks the mystical power of many? After a grand overture that included “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for the nostalgically rambunctious Giants fans, I sat mesmerized for 80 minutes, as organist Todd Wilson danced alone with John Barrymore.

Music truly functions as the railroad tracks of silent film. The actors may board the train looking impeccable with their black eye makeup and perfectly pursed lips, but without the music, that train would have nowhere to go. First published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, found its way to the large and small screens as well as the stage and radio. In 1932 Fredric March received an Academy Award for his portrayal of the curious doctor; in 2007 James Nesbitt frightened BBC fans in the miniseries adaptation that followed Dr. Jekyll’s only living descendent; and in 1920 John Barrymore stepped into the man’s . . . um, men’s shoes. And goodness, that Barrymore face was a natural treasure. During Jekyll’s first transition into Hyde, the makeup was minimal, relying on the actor’s ability to do his job and do it well. The screen time for both hair and makeup increased as did Hyde’s, and title cards guided those audience members who were less familiar with the story. Surprises were in store for those around me, and I recalled the Symphony’s performance of Psycho (1960), when I found myself gasping at the gasps of the audience. Apparently my Jekyll is a tad snooty when it comes to old movies.

Captivating are Barrymore and his title cards, with their deliciously evil illustrations, but it was the mood swings of the live organ on stage that brought these characters to life. Perfectly timed to the movements of each actor, the ripples and shakes of Mr. Wilson’s organ emerged faultlessly as improvised, allowing every shadow hiding behind every corner the opportunity to jump out at his audience during their most Jekyllish moments. As I sat hypnotized by every moment of the film and its organ escort, perhaps a couple of temporary laugh lines became permanent, as my Jekyll cackled at his escape into the darkness of the theatre, an escape from the Hydes outside dancing down the streets.

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Add Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to your queue.

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Time goes by so slowly . . . at least this week. In a few days one of my closest of the close friends flies in to join me at my beloved San Francisco Symphony. Once again I took the liberty of freelancing for the Symphony’s marketing department and convinced an out-of-towner to join me on my third viewing of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Convinced that someone should write a children’s book about our friendship, my friend and I constantly exchange movie quote texts and articles from The Huffington Post that put a “cheer up, Charlie” spin on our days, hiding the deep sadness that life has put 1,500 miles between our cities of residence. Yes, we measured; we’re that close.

Showing up on my Internet machine recently was an article posted by a publisher that I happen to work with during my nine to fiver. Although I could appreciate both its style and content, deep inside of me was the ornery old businessman who stubbornly kept my mind in the office. This grumbly old man refused to let down the work wall and appreciate a clever little article about Mary Poppins and her former employer. In place of humor, the sight of the publisher’s name only fueled my fury over how habitually they missed deadlines for the selling season on which my team was already working. I began to wonder how on earth I would be able to slot their titles into a Children’s catalog that has already been paginated or how many months it would be until they sent cover images that we could feed to Amazon and Barnes & Noble. From a harmless article sent to me with the best and most loving of intentions, I felt nothing but work frustration – the flower in my lapel had been torn and withered in my coat. My top hat had been punched and placed back on my head. Over time I had let this publisher turn me into Mr. Banks.

Ever close your eyes in an attempt to banish a thought from your mind? It doesn’t work.

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The story of P. L. Travers and her frustrated efforts of transitioning Mary from page to screen have become well known through the film Saving Mr. Banks (2013), for which Emma Thompson should have received an Oscar nomination. Yes, that evening I would have sent Cate Blanchett home with the gold for Blue Jasmine (2013), but a Thompson nomination was deserved and would have been kindhearted of the Academy. Seriously, bring the Kleenex for that ending. I am no expert on the history of Ms. Travers and Mr. Disney’s relationship, so I can’t speak to the film’s accuracy, but for me it provides a broad background for those who are unfamiliar with Disney’s struggle for a film adaptation. An added bonus was Emma Thompson’s Travers finding Tom Hanks as irritating as I do these days, hence my ruffled Oscar feathers. If you have never seen Mary Poppins (1964), first please send me your parents’ phone number so I can have a little chat with them – and don’t give me that “we didn’t rot our brains with television” hogwash – and then please stop reading. The ending of Mary Poppins is an incredibly sensitive subject for those of us who idolized both the character and the actress that sang her to life. You have been given your spoiler alert, and you may now choose for yourself. I’ll be here when you get back, and Mary, who celebrated her 50th anniversary this year, certainly isn’t going anywhere. Why would she leave? What possible reason would Mary have for abandoning us?

Let us begin with the end. Mary Poppins (1964) was the first unhappy ending to crawl across my screen and slap me with the cold, cruel hand of disappointment. Mary arrives gracefully dancing on the wind like she owns it and breathes both life and magic into the Banks household. Successively Mr. Banks becomes a devoted father and husband; his children, with the help of Mary and Bert, come to have a new understanding of their father’s demons; and Mrs. Banks . . . well . . . no major changes for Sister Suffragette, but her daughter’s daughters will adore her. Happiness could not possibly reach greater heights for the Banks clan in the film’s finale, while, only a few blocks away, Mary prepares to open her umbrella and fly over the kites of familial love that decorate the London skies. To rational adults and perhaps the more mature younger viewers, this ending is indeed a happy one, as a family is united, a father’s cold heart is melted, and otherwise ignored children are flooded with the love of now attentive parents. As an inarticulate six-year-old, all I could think is, “Happy shmappy.”

My blue umbrella had a handle that somewhat resembled a cat (or was a squirrel?), and in no way did that shade of 80s blue couple with the purple plastic beach bag in which I placed a scarf, a hand mirror, and Mom’s black pumps with the little bows. I would not have the guts to wear red until I was out of college, so the scarf was a blue that absolutely conflicted with the umbrella, but no matter – I knew what my $1.99 drag queen outfit represented, and with no competition surrounding me, not only was I secure and confident in my Poppins accouterments, I also had no misgivings of Mary’s guaranteed approval, if only she could see me. However strong my devotion to wardrobe and attempt at mimicking the elegant accent of Ms. Julie Andrews, alas I could not change the course of events. A happy family, a mended kite, an outraged umbrella head – this extraordinarily powerful woman who donned the sass of a villain but the hat of a hero had changed the winds and left the Banks children forever. I’m sorry . . . she what?!? I should have dressed up as that umbrella head, since I agreed with his every word. If I had been more athletic, I just may have thrown my cat umbrella handle (good gravy, or was it a squirrel?) at the television. Choosing their parents over the woman who took their hands and jumped into chalk drawings? The woman who led and won a carousel horse race? The woman who chaperoned tea parties on the ceiling and a chimney-sweep dance party on the roofs on London? That’s gratitude for you, but that’s as it should be – those magical people who float into our lives and change us for the better may one day catch the next wind that takes them 1,500 miles away. But if we’re lucky, the very thought of them makes us smile and laugh at inappropriate moments, slaying the grumbly old man inside us.

Only minutes ago, as I watched Michael yell “Now!” while Mr. Banks tossed the mended kite into the sky, I felt the flower in my lapel perk up slightly, perhaps absorbing a tear or two. I can’t say for sure, but it feels like the winds are changing.

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Academy Awards for Mary Poppins (1965): Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Original Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”), Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Special Visual Effects

Add Mary Poppins to your queue.

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“Poor Bogie.” Those were my first thoughts on that gloomy Tuesday afternoon when the Hollywood sign must have lost its balance, if just for a moment. The great Lauren Bacall has died at the age of 89, and despite my love for and devotion to this hypnotic talent and beauty of a woman, I felt immediate heartache for her husband, who died 57 years ago. My benevolent concern for Mr. Humphrey Bogart and his new status as a widower was momentary, and as I realized Bogie was probably okay with the situation, I was able to smile on an afternoon when, frankly, I feared I was about to break my “no crying at work” rule. I’ve trained myself pretty well – the dam was up and held steadily as I gathered together my meager belongings and took off a few minutes early to . . . oh, I don’t know . . . bake a cake for Bogart. I had some leftover matzo ball soup in the fridge that’s always better the next day; maybe he would enjoy that.

A dinner night with me is a surefire way to go home with at least one old movie recommendation. I’m delighted when the next dinner comes around and friends admit to me that they never knew so many lines came from Casablanca (1942). Other text messages arrive during their first viewing of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), shocked and disturbed that a black-and-white film could go to such dark and evil levels of the human psyche. Some are tickled more by “As Time Goes By” than by dead rats on a silver platter; others just the opposite, and I’m grateful for all the schmaltzy saps and sickos who invite me to dine with them.

On many a dinner I’ve made the pitch for Dark Passage (1947) as much I have for The Lion in Winter (1968) or All About Eve (1950), but I don’t believe I’ve succeeded yet in making a sale. I remember watching an interview with someone who described Bogie and Bacall’s third movie together as, “not a great film but a good film.” Perhaps one of the first times a movie audience witnessed a woman rescuing a man (who else but Lauren Bacall?), Dark Passage follows the journey of an escaped convict and those who help him on his odyssey out of San Francisco. True, I’m not holding a grudge against the Academy for ignoring this one, and it’s not a film you want to watch with that person in your life who moans “Oh, yeah right!” (you just thought of a name, didn’t you?). But trust me, a classic doesn’t have to be an upturned nose of a “Claaaaassic,” and if DVDs wear out from being overplayed, soon I’ll have to buy a new copy of this one.

A treacherous little filming technique at the time, the first hour of Dark Passage is shot almost completely from Humphrey Bogart’s point of view, allowing us to see Lauren Bacall just as he sees her. His hands become ours, as we light her cigarette from across the table; we hide behind her in an elevator, just a few inches from her face; when we all wake up after hiking the hills and staircases of the San Francisco streets, her masterpiece of a face is the first to come into focus. Here we enjoy Bacall as we always have and always will, but we’re also granted the privilege of seeing her through Bogie’s eyes, and, if only for a moment, loving her with Bogie’s love. As the fog of sadness began to lift last night, Dark Passage became the very cake and soup that I felt Bogie so desperately needed.

Thank you, Betty Perske. Thank you, Lauren Bacall. We’re so grateful that the two of you met.

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There’s a tarantula that follows me around. When scads of elongated thoughts plague my sleep, I feel it crawling up the sheets of my bed. A looming work deadline that depends on the cooperation of flakey coworkers is when I find that tarantula atop my showerhead, ready to pounce. It scurries behind me on the couch as I wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . for Netflix streaming to load The Lady Eve (1941) so I may continue my Barbara Stanwyck education. Even now, sitting outside at a lovely café in San Francisco on an early summer evening, lending letters and words to this tarantula brings it to life, and I sense its presence on the plant bed behind my table.

This menacing spider doesn’t appear often in the daylight, and it prefers my bed to most environments. Its presence jolts me out of that subconscious state that borders true deep sleep, but like most sanely rational people, I blame The Brady Brunch. If memory serves, despite my attempts to block such horrors, the Bunch once vacationed in Hawaii, where one of them finds a cursed tiki idol. Assumed to be a good luck charm, instead it leads to several close-call catastrophes, one of those being a deadly spider that winds up in someone’s bed. Full disclosure, if I’m off slightly on this storyline – this one of the few times when I absolutely refuse to do any form of online fact checking.  Suppose I stumble upon an image or, heaven forbid, a video of the Brady family and this repulsive creature?  Why on earth would I want feed the beast?

I have no knowledge of the tarantula’s diet, nor will I begin to research such grisly information. I do know that when my company was sold a few weeks ago and the final sliver of job security vanished, my tarantula not only increased in size and speed but also felt the need to up the frequency of bedtime disruptions. Whether it stems from a 1970s family sitcom or a deeper psychological scar, evidently my fear manifests itself in arachnid form. If we need to climb on the therapist’s couch for a moment, perhaps a useful aspect of fear is its scrawny little finger that points us towards the areas of our lives where there is room for growth . . . (insert “blow a raspberry” here). But what about those other nagging fears that told us not to swim out too far from the beach or take deliciously tempting candy from that smiling stranger? If some fears exist solely to keep us from physical and, perhaps, emotional danger, how do we know which fears serve as our friendly lifeguards and which are the stalking tarantulas?

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Horror movies. Suspense flicks. Carol Burnett in Annie (1982). They provide us with the thrill and adrenaline of fear, all without any true physical threat to our person. For decades, filmmakers in the suspense genre have used one single plotline to perturb their audiences, forcing us to shut our eyes or hide under the covers for a few extra seconds – the possibility of offing the children. Director Fritz Lang opens the film M (1931) with a group of children playing a counting elimination game while singing a song in German about a child murderer. More haunting than “One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for You” in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the tune virtually summons the murderer from the shadows, and within minutes, the latest in a series of a young victims is declared missing.

While the petrified town grows suspicious of any single man who so much as glances towards a child, the frustrated murderer whistles his own little tune, as he writes a letter to the newspapers announcing to all that he has not “finished.” A reward of 10,000 Deutsche Marks is advertised immediately following the letter, and soon both the authorities and the farmisht underworld on the trail of the whistling murderer played by the talented and abundantly eyed Peter Lorre (who, it turns out, could not whistle). Marked with an “M” on the back of his coat by one of his trackers, our murderer flees from both the good guys and the bad guys, a welcomed break in cinematic formulas. Gradually the level of suspense shifts; we move away from attempts to predict the actions of this monster and begin to wonder if ever he will be apprehended. It is during that shift orchestrated beautifully by Lang that we began to root for this villain, smashing our moral compasses with the final scene . . . in those unnerving 15 minutes, I took not a single breath.

And my tarantula? Oh, it never watches old movies.

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My apartment is dazzling. Mom was here for a few days and between meals, she relaxed in the best way she knows how – she gave this little home of mine a much-needed deep cleaning. The phrase “deep cleaning” brings back painful memories of sitting in the dentist’s chair over the span of two appointments and having each tooth and gum area poked and scraped and swabbed until my mouth sparkled. True, the blessed nitrous allowed me to meet a certain menacing needle with a temporary smile, but even a drugged grin is no match for the mental image of where, when, and how that needle would penetrate through my body and turn the soundtrack of my world into nails on a chalkboard. No one “likes” going to the dentist, and while the deep cleaning appointments were especially sinister for this guy, in the long run it turns out that they were necessary. Mom felt the same way about my bathtub. It, too, went through a couple of deep cleaning appointments along with the rest of the apartment, and now we all shine brightly having been scrubbed to perfection by experts in the field.

My goal of moving the mountain of books off of the kitchen floor required new bookcases, a purchase long overdue. If there’s anything more loathsome than a trip to the dentist, it’s the frustration that comes with the task of putting together those confounded shelves so they don’t lurch from side to side. In an email that I debated printing out and laminating before her arrival, Mom promised that she would take charge and put the bookcases together. No need for a notary; she stuck to her word, and over the course of two Madonna concerts and one Cher concert playing in the background, the shelves began to take form. As we stood up the first bookcase (yes, with that much, I would help), we saw that the unfinished side of the espresso-toned shelf was facing out. At some point during production, a portion of the shelf had been flipped, resulting in lighter shades of tan running parallel to the dark espresso tones (Target’s description, not mine), and I thought Mom was going to have a stroke.

Taking apart this beast of a bookcase and putting it back together was not an option, nor was my gently delivered “Well, I can live with it” (ooo, you should have seen her face!), so we came up with another solution . . . the shelves would have to be painted. Painted, they were, and they look fabulous. Thanks, Mom. But sometimes it happens that way; sometimes your boat simply isn’t big enough. Complications arise; sometimes they’re devastating beyond repair, and other times they arrive draped in those clever little disguises that blessings often wear. Bookcases that could have been a decorating disaster turned into an original combination of colors that now brighten up the entire room. As soon as the paint had dried and the books placed snuggly in their new home, my mind flashed on one complication in the world of film that ultimately worked out for the best. The most frightening musical scores ever composed resulted from three mechanical sharks that responded unfavorably when they interacted with water.

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All irrational fears may be blamed on composer John Williams. If those mechanical sharks hadn’t malfunctioned to such an extent that the film crew nicknamed the 1975 film “Flaws,” the tunes that announced the musically cloaked great white may have existed only the head of Mr. Williams. The opening scene in which a young lady swimming at night is thrashed around and pulled underwater by an alternating pattern of musical notes is perhaps the most frightening scene in all of film history (all due respect to Baby Jane and Norman Bates). I still love my parents’ pool, the pool of my childhood where I spent hours of my life fantasizing that I was Daryl Hannah from Splash (1984), swimming through the romantic waters of love in search of New York City map. But Daryl Hannah’s ocean was friendlier than Steven Spielberg’s, who, together with John Williams, created a film that made me question whether the deep end of my pool was free from danger and indeed a safe place for recreational swimming. The Pacific Ocean was only 20 minutes away, and there was no reason a great white shark couldn’t swim up on to the beach, into a sewer drain, through the pipes down Interstate 5 (before merging on to Interstate 8), find its way into the lake near the house, transfer to another pipe that led directly to the drain in the deep end of my parents’ pool, and drag me down to my death in its gaping jaws. If that shark in Jaws: The Revenge (1987) could follow Mrs. Brody from New England to the Bahamas, we’re not dealing with any ordinary species here, and thus my childhood fear of pool sharks continues to defy the portrayed logic of adulthood.

Ultimately the flaws led to Jaws, which, in turn, led to an Academy Award for Best Original Score along with two additional Oscars (the young Mr. Spielberg did not receive a directing nomination, but I think he survived). More than 20 years after my first time to Amity Island, Jaws will never lose its grip on me – the terrifying journey of Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper keeps me out of the ocean and in the shallow ends of the pools, where I belong. It’s only a movie, we tell ourselves, but when that growing intensity of the music and the shrieks of its victims are cut off instantly by the silence of still waters, the only sound remaining is the chattering of own my deeply cleaned teeth.

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Academy Awards for Jaws (1976): Best Music (Original Dramatic Score); Best Sound; Best Film Editing

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Life has been brimming with theatre. Both March and April have chaperoned me to plays, films, live concerts, the beautiful pipe organ of the Castro Theatre, and that man on the street attempting to cover “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.” One lesson that I carry with me from a high school drama history course is that when one has nothing else to cheer, one applauds the performers’ courage to walk out on to the stage. My sister and I attended a local production of Evita, a soundtrack and film that we hold near and dear to our hearts. The matinée performance was perfectly fine, but regrettably Evita is cursed, and my ear expects those glorious songs to be performed in a certain way by a certain woman. That stubborn ear of mine triumphed over the logical “give it a try” attempts of my mind, and following the lament, courage was politely applauded . . . goodnight and thank you.

An equal, if not greater, challenge would be straining to hear another woman sing “Cabaret” or “Maybe This Time.” If my friends are unfamiliar with the film Cabaret (1972), fortunately they are familiar with the name “Alan Cumming.” When I sing the praises of Mr. Joel Grey and his Oscar-winning, Godfather-besting performance as the Emcee in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, my body would shut down if I entertained the thought of another man playing that role with such wizardry. And then I think of Alan Cumming – the man whom I would consider stalking if stalking was a tad less creepy and a tad more legal. Cumming has returned to the Kit Kat Klub for a new run of Cabaret, and a few nights ago, I think I convinced a chum of mine to join me on a “Life is a Cabaret” trip to New York City. But again I was thinking, “Who else could possibly play the role of the Emcee? No one could top Joel Grey, not with all the rehearsal time in the world. Oh . . . wait . . . yes, Alan Cumming could do it. Alan Cumming, and maybe Tracey Ullman.”

But Sally Bowles? How could the universe possibly allow room for another Sally Bowles?

On the 28th of March, Fortune decided to smile upon the Bay and brought back the 68-year-old Liza Minnelli to San Francisco. Taking my cue from Fortune, I hopped online and put a dear friend and me in Liza’s second row. I was going to make eye contact with that woman if it killed me. Immediately I prepared the syllabus for my prosperous friend’s Minnelli education, and by sundown a mixed CD was in her hot little hands. Hours before the concert, it warmed my heart when she told me at dinner, “I hope she sings ‘Ring Them Bells’ tonight.” She did. Devoted to her audience, Liza managed to get not one, but two standing ovations after performing “Cabaret” sitting in a chair. No, she was not running around, reaching a bedazzled hand for the skies; Liza was parked comfortably in an extra wide directors chair that she dragged all over the stage. When she finished the hallowed song, predictably the San Francisco audience erupted into applause, many of us unaware that our initial clapping had catapulted us to our feet. When we calmed down to take our seats and our breath, Liza turned to her soul mate of a piano player and asked if she could try that last note again – she knew she could get closer to the bull’s-eye of “Cabaret,” and hit it she did. We were back on our feet and had a divinely decadent evening in that second row of Davies Symphony Hall.

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For years I’ve been trying to get on the San Francisco Symphony’s payroll. Ever since I was first enchanted by their performance of The Wizard of Oz, I have returned for Casablanca, Psycho, and Singin’ in the Rain. Somehow they managed to work The Matrix into their rotation, I imagine in an attempt to attract the younger audiences. They don’t seem to have a problem selling out, but if only the Symphony would give me a phone, a desk, and a laptop (okay, I don’t really need the desk), I guarantee that I can get those young kids in there for the classic films. It is my mission in life to keep these films alive, so, dear Symphony; I insist that you help me help you help me with said mission. Why, it was only last weekend when I helped you fill four seats, two of which were from out of town.

My last three birthdays have been spent somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. My 33rd was celebrated in Seattle with another old friend from college who could whip my derrière in a game of movie trivia. When I gushed over the San Francisco Symphony’s past performances of film scores, she insisted that I let her know when the next performance schedule was posted. In the moment I figured it was one of those times when people say, “Yes, let’s do it!” just to humor me and perhaps soothe my overenthusiasm. A few years ago I underestimated a buddy of mine when discussions led to our taking a road trip to Dollywood, and I underestimated my friend in Seattle just the same. When I discovered that the Symphony was planning to perform Charlie Chaplin’s classic, City Lights (1931), the website link was on its way to an Inbox in Seattle. A couple of months later, a plane carrying my friend and her mother was on its way to San Francisco . . . for underestimating you, dear friend, I apologize.

Each and every experience at the San Francisco Symphony has been nothing short of radiant, but on this windy April night, it was a silent film that left us absolutely speechless. Every February Academy Award winners inundate my Netflix queue, and after the seats for City Lights were safely secured, I rented Wings (1927), the first film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Although a tad lengthy, this historic feature was a new and enjoyable experience for me, as my silent film exposure is pretty limited to the world of Norma Desmond, roaming around her mansion on Sunset Boulevard. It is the music that pilots these films, pulling the strings of the actors’ every movement. When it comes to the magic of City Lights, however, we know there’s only one person back there pulling the strings of the strings.

We join the musicians in saluting Charlie Chaplin – actor, writer, director, composer, genius, control freak. And once again we solute the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, whom we applaud for much more than their courage to walk out on to the stage.

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Clarissa Dickson Wright, right, with Jennifer Paterson

After a brief ride around my blog, oftentimes newcomers ask me to provide a reason why I love old films. A follow-up question revolves around why, for heaven’s sake, I don’t have a job working for Turner Classic Movies. I have no gratifying answer to the latter; it’s all I can muster to respond, “Well I don’t know, but my résumé and I keep tryin’ once a week.” But a single reason why I love old films? One needs only to look at my nightstand to uncover a glaring answer to that multilayered question. Always within eyesight from anywhere in the apartment, I can see on that nightstand my Liza Minnelli concert tickets leaning up against my Cher tickets. A ceramic cat that paces from coaster to candle holder, ensuring the safety of these precious documents, has guarded both ladies staunchly for months. Yes, perhaps that nightstand reveals a few other things about my personality, but trust me, I thought of all those jokes before you did, so let’s settle down, shall we? A friend once asked me, “Is there anyone you like who’s under 50?” A shrug and a half-smile was the best I could do before offering up, “Judy only made it to 47; does that count?”

So why do I love those old films? Simple – because they just don’t make characters like they used to.  Liza’s voice may not reach the heights that it once conquered with ease, but after all these years, she’s still such a character, old chum. Her charm, humor, and, oy, that laugh of hers all shine like her red sequins, allowing her to captivate her audience the second she dazzles herself on to that stage. And Cher . . . well, come on, it’s frickin’ Cher! The rest of the world is unaware that it is, in fact, my father who is responsible for Cher’s long career. One day at the farmers’ market in Los Angeles, Sonny, Cher, and (at the time) Chastity were crossing the road in the parking lot, when Dad almost ran them over. His eyes locked with Cher’s as he slammed on the brakes, and I can only imagine what kind of dirty look her face muscles were able to assemble in those days. Had it not been for Dad’s catlike instincts, the universe may have had a distinctively different entertainment landscape.

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Today we lost another character, quite unlike the glittery ladies mentioned above, but a character just the same. Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the two chefs who made up the dynamic duo on the cooking show, Two Fat Ladies, died this week at the age of 66. Riding in the sidecar of a Triumph Thunderbird motorbike driven by Jennifer Paterson (who passed away in 1999), Clarissa and Jennifer were two of the most entertaining characters a young boy could hope to discover. In its infant days before the reality game shows took over, the Food Network brought Two Fat Ladies into my living room, and immediately I was setting the VCR timer to record as many shows as I could capture. Today the DVD box set occupies a top shelf of mine, also within the ceramic cat’s jurisdiction and watchful eye. While other young men papered their teenage bedroom walls with pictures of thinner but equally buxom women, I was ripping up my Two Fat Ladies calendar and filling an entire wall with 12 hilarious photos of Clarissa and Jennifer, compulsory viewing for all passersby.

As they motored from place to place, often cooking in the U.K.’s most beautiful cities and kitchens, they were hardly shy about offering their personal opinions when it came to the culinary arts. Singing the praises of using real cream in the first episode, Jennifer teaches us, “Yogurt is perfectly fine for your breakfast . . . or if you have a poor tummy . . . or if you’re a vegetarian or something.” Clarissa was equally prepared with humorous zingers about vegetarians, always delivered dryly as she packed her pheasant and pickled walnut terrine with layers of bacon. While preparing her cake pan, Clarissa offered as guidance, “You really want to get it well greased. You know, did you see Last Tango in Paris? Something like that.” In one episode while Clarissa was off camera preparing a Welsh lamb pie, Jennifer took over and prepared a tartine sandwich . . . it was “Be Kind to Vegetarians Week,” as long as they could eat an anchovy. When Clarissa’s pie was ready, she and her lamb shuffled back into the shot, while Jennifer welcomed her with, “Here comes Madam.” The funny bone is not without its curiosities, but by golly, that tiny play-by-play comment of Jennifer’s and the sisterly tone that she lends to the word “Madam”give me the giggles every time. From venison medallions with blackberries to devilled kidneys and lamb in filo pastry, these two characters embraced everything sweet and savory about their lives, both in and out of the kitchen.

Therefore today we say cheers to Clarissa Dickson Wright! Cheers to Jennifer Paterson! And cheers to the characters that have survived all these years with drivers like my father out there on the road.

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