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Dave's Ebertfest Diary

The mighty Warren York, at the helm of the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Virginia Theatre
by David Cornelius

This was my first trip to the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival (2005 marked the seventh year of the fest, in which Ebert handpicks twelve titles to present to an audience looking for something different in their movies), and so I thought I’d keep tabs of my thoughts. Each night, I’d write down my random thoughts of the day. Here, then, is my Ebertfest diary. Enjoy.

Day One: “The Heart of the World,” “Playtime.”

They tell me it always rains this much on opening night. And by “they,” I mean the kind folks who braved the pouring rain with me, standing in line, chatting up the small talk. It’s here, in line, that I learned a lot about the kind of people who would come to such a festival - and, by extension, about myself.

You see, most festivals have a hipster quality to them: Come to Sundance! See the new films before the studios get ’em! Hobknob with Natalie Portman and/or Ashton Kutcher! To attend Sundance, or Cannes, or Toronto, or any major fest built on premiering soon-to-be bigtime flicks, well, that’s pretty damn hip.

On the other hand, there’s Ebertfest. Twelve films that (with the rare exception) you can pick up at your neighborhood video store, or, at least, from Netflix. Why spend so much time and money to see these available-elsewhere pictures?

If you know the answer to this, then you’re a prime candidate for the line for Ebertfest. I met college kids and out-of-towners tonight, like the one couple who drove all the way from Louisville, Kentucky (topping my own interstate journey by over an hour). These folks, like me, came here as a pilgrimage of sorts - here’s a chance to embrace the movies, with people who share the same celluloid obsessions. On the big screen, the way nature intended. In a renovated larger-than-life old time movie palace, too. (Heck, my heart went all a-flutter when I heard and then saw the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, the sign of a genuine motion picture place of worship.)

And while us film buffs can catch any old movie in our various local movie houses, here’s a chance to see works seldom showcased in a theater. If you build it, they will come, indeed; tell me I have a chance to catch the 1925 “Phantom of the Opera” on a massive screen with live orchestral accompaniment, and I’ll make the journey.

But there’s something more, too. Something the kind woman from Louisville mentioned in passing. Discussing her trip to last year’s fest, and comparing it to this year’s, she said something along the lines of “he sure picked a good lineup this year.” “He” being Roger Ebert.

Which is to say, “we have such faith in this man that we will design a vacation around a bunch of movies that he’s told us are worth it.” How trusting is that? This man, whom none of us in line know personally, whom many of us have perhaps never even met at all, whom most of us probably only know from his writings and television appearances, has convinced over a thousand people to travel to a college town in the middle of Illinois to watch movies, just because he says they’re good.

And I’m one of those people. Which is odd, considering there are plenty of times his tastes run wildly different than my own - he gave thumbs up to “Garfield,” let us never forget - and yet he’s one of my teachers. I’ve trusted him for almost my entire life to teach me about movies. I’ve studied his “Great Movies” series, eagerly awaited his “Answer Man” columns, used his past reviews as reference guides. I’ll disagree with him on countless new releases, but when he tells me we’re about to talk about the essentials, the classics, the absolute musts, I sit up. I pay attention. And this year, I wind up standing in the rain outside a restored movie palace in Illinois, talking to people from Kentucky. Funny how things work out.

This was a prelude to what I will modestly and with all due restraint call one of the greatest movie experiences of my life. Not just for the short film, Guy Maddin’s deliciously offbeat and wholly indescribable “The Heart of the World” (which I did not think would play until tomorrow, although it was such bizarre fun that I can’t wait to see it again), but for the main course, Jacques Tati’s “Playtime.”

I had seen Tati’s comic adventure “M. Hulot’s Holiday” before, but ages ago and not even in its entirety. I mention this because Tati made movies unlike anyone else on the planet, and the only way to know what to expect from a Tati film is to have seen another Tati film. And even then, with the memories of Hulot’s first tale cloudy and fading, “Playtime” came off as a complete revelation.

The film begins with a full hour of awkward silences, unfortunate coincidences, and a general sense of social disconnect that, despite being at times wildly funny, actually hurts at the core. This is a dark, dark movie, dressed up like a quaint ball of fluff. And then, somewhere around the halfway mark, the disconnect breaks down and all humanity breaks loose. The second half of this film could best be described as an explosion of joy. It’s an ever-growing frenzy that builds and builds with every joke, only to blossom into a finale that showers the audience with warmth. It’s a movie built to make you feel great - and I haven’t felt this great in far too long.

But it is more than that. It’s also a colossal achievement of filmmaking, from the knowledge of comedy at its purest (the Hulot films play pretty much as silent pictures; there is a soundtrack, but it is incidental) to the massive undertaking of set design (an entire city was built from scratch, and just about everything you see on the screen is a set) to the genius of chaos control (Tati fills his screen with far more than one can handle in one sitting, yet every inch of frame has been delicately prepared).

I’m glad - honored, even - that my first visit with this movie was on a screen as large as the Virginia Theatre’s, in a format as clear and crisp as 70mm, so that I could soak in everything Tati had to offer. To see this on television, even in the digital clarity of DVD, could not possibly match the experience of catching it here, on the biggest of big screens. And yes, I even got to see it from the balcony, my first balcony movie encounter since childhood. (I had forgotten how exhilarating balconies can be for cinema. Just one more thing the multiplexes can never duplicate…)

After the movie, Ebert confessed to guest speaker Jonathan Rosenbaum (the critic who hailed “Playtime” as his favorite film) that when the film ended, with the music that keeps going after the picture has faded away, he kinda wanted it to start all over again. I know how he feels. There’s an overwhelming joy to be found in Tati’s masterpiece. Who wouldn’t want to capture that joy again and again and again?

Day Two: “Murderball,” “The Heart of the World,” “The Saddest Music In the World,” “After Dark, My Sweet.”

Rained again. And with many folks, like myself, caught off guard (and, like myself, leaving our umbrellas back in our hotel rooms), the merchandise booth at the Virginia Theatre managed to sell plenty of Ebertfest umbrellas.

After a night filled with dreams of movies (and as I rarely, if ever, dream of movies, something special must be in the air here in Champaign-Urbana), I trotted off to this morning’s panel discussion. They called it “Making Movies Outside the Matrix,” but it could have been more simply, “General, Random Discussion on Independent Moviemaking.” No cohesive agenda, just a sampling of speeches and ideas from the various festival guests - it’s fitting with the fest’s casual attitude. Just shootin’ the breeze.

Following a quick lunch, I joined up with my wife for her only day of Ebertfest filmgoing. We both loved “Murderball,” the documentary on quad rugby (a sport played by quadriplegics in decked-out wheelchairs). It’s a brilliant film, another welcome addition to the documentary renaissance of the past few years; when it opens wide in July, it’s bound to shake off any “overlooked” status its appearance this festival may imply. (Granted, Ebert has a fine way of manipulating the term to make any movie he wants to show fit, so I doubt it’s actually “overlooked” in the traditional sense even now. Still, if you miss this one when it hits wide release, you’re missing a top contender for many a year-end best-of list.)

Following “Murderball,” I got a notion that maybe I should see every movie from a different seat in the house, and it was time to leave the balcony and head down to the main floor. Turns out to have been the wrong choice: most pass holders stake out their seats early, and hold on to them all day long. Which left me struggling to find a good seat for the missus and myself. Found one close up and off to the left, not so great for movie watching, as it gives a cocked-eyed view of the massive screen, but pretty damn good for a view of the on-stage post-movie discussion.

Cock-eyed, it seems, was a reasonable way to catch the next two works, both from out-there filmmaker Guy Maddin. We got a repeat of the gloriously absurd short “The Heart of the World,” then the main attraction, his recent feature, “The Saddest Music In the World.”

Now, I’d heard “Saddest Music” described as both a work of genius and one of the worst movies ever made, so the best way to describe it is to say it’s a love-it-or-hate-it creation unlike anything you’d catch in the mainstream. While I found its gimmicky retro attitude to wear thin after a full 99 minutes, I was so impressed with it visually that I’d put myself on the “love it” side (or, more appropriately, “like it”). My wife, on the other hand, was squarely of the “hate it” mindset. And when my wife hates something, she won’t just get up and leave. No, ma’am, she’ll stick around and remind you how much she hates it. Which is to say, our differing views on the film added with a nasty, cold, unexpected, umbrella-less rainstorm made the dinner break a wee stressful. For me more than her, since she can kick my ass ten ways to Sunday.

Tensions cooled for the last show of the day, the modern noir “After Dark, My Sweet.” The film’s slow pace and penchant for moody silence didn’t remedy the fact that all that rain and cold outside was playing up my seasonal affectiveness and seducing me to come to Dreamland. Fortunately, the movie was good enough to keep me awake - not a great modern noir, and not even one of director James Foley’s better works (he’s also made “At Close Range,” “Glengarry Glenn Ross,” and “Confidence”), but an interesting experiment nonetheless. Its final few scenes are so expertly made that one does leave satisfied.

It was odd, by the way, after having an near-wordless French absurdist comedy/drama, a documentary about wheelchair sports, and an insane musical designed to recreate the look of a long lost silent epic, to have this, a “normal” movie. Actual video store/late night TV fare. How strange it felt to be thrown for a loop simply by finally getting to see a movie that isn’t really a loop-thrower.

The rain kept coming down (doesn’t it always seem that the clouds wait for you personally to head outside before letting loose?), but they tell me it’s the last rain of the week.

Day Three: “Yesterday,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Baadasssss!”

Either the wake up call never came this morning, or, more likely, we both slept right through it. Following last night’s tiredness, my sleep was so deep I’d probably miss a marching band walking by.

I did wake up in time to catch the man himself being interviewed live for a local radio show, followed by a book signing - the only way I, a person who shies away from just about anything and everything, would get to meet him this week, considering I’d never be as ballsy as all those people here who just walk right up in the theater and say hello.

(I did, however, be so ballsy as to walk right up to organist Warren York and say hello later in the day, because that’s how my mind works. Roger Ebert, too famous to be bothered; York, a volunteer musician just ordinary enough to be harassed by some yutz from Ohio. Then again, I’ve been having such a great time catching his fantastic work on the Mighty Wurlitzer, especially since the only movie house in Cincy to feature an old-timey organ has been closed down for years, causing me to build quite the Wurlitzer jones. Had to share my appreciation with the man, who turned out to be as nice and inviting as he is talented.)

Catching the book signing meant I had to skip this morning’s panel discussion, “Women In Film.” Which means that while all the people who are truly interested in challenging themselves to study and debate as much as they possibly can on all aspects of cinema, I’m just one of those yokels who wants an autograph to take home. Dopey bastard.

Learning a lesson from yesterday’s seat hopping, I decided to find a good spot early and keep it. My seat of choice: front row balcony, far right. It turned out to be a dandy of a spot, especially during “Phantom,” as it provided both a stunning view of the Virginia’s massive screen and a nice peek into the orchestra pit, where the three-man act known as the Alloy Orchestra could be seen working their magic.

But first, there was “Yesterday.” A wallop of a doozy of a knockout of a film - and, right next to “Murderball,” a prime contender for upcoming best-of lists. (It did manage a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination earlier this year, losing to “The Sea Inside.”) This is a film that hits hard, yet has an innocent simplicity to it - not the simplicity of a movie too dumb to be bothered with depth, as Ebert and writer/director Darrell James Roodt discussed afterward, but the simplicity of a movie so swimming in truth that it has no need for anything else. (I should say that I’m paraphrasing Ebert here, and that such words of wisdom are not my own. It’s too accurate a description to pass up, though.)

The great thing about the post-film discussion, by the way, is that one expected Roodt, the director of such important, serious pictures as “Sarafina!” and “Cry, the Beloved Country,” to be somber, morose, perhaps even pompous: look at me, I make Important Works of Cinema. But no. Roodt was a bundle of energy, self-effacing, whimsical, even a bit jittery. He talked a mile a minute, and to think of this man, this rabid motormouth of a man, creating “Yesterday,” with its long moments of intense quiet and sorrow, brought a smile to my face. He makes solemn art, yet refuses to be solemn himself.

Here’s as good a spot as any to take to go way, way off track a sec and discuss that somebody around me was drenched in Patchouli. And when I say “drenched,” I do not mean that he or she has applied slightly more fragrance upon his or her body than recommended. I mean that this person has apparently filled a hot tub with the stuff and soaked in it for, oh, I dunno, about a month. As a public service, I offer a note to those Patchouli wearers out there: we get it. You’re a hippie. Fine. So lay off, man. At such doses, it’s not a pleasant smell, and it does not hide your lack of bathing habits (in fact, it accentuates them). Patchouli will not make you hip. It will not make you cool. Patchouli’s sole reason for being, now, in 2005, is to alert those around you that you are, in fact, an asshole. And maybe an idiot.

OK. Sorry about that rant. Where was I? Ah, yes.

The second feature was the 1925 silent gem “The Phantom of the Opera.” Of all the “Phantom” adaptations, this first one remains, to me, the big one, the important one, the great one. And to see it finally on the big screen after years of home video was a revelation. Yes, it’s campy and riddled with plot holes and just downright silly. But it’s great stuff, a wild chunk of entertainment in the grandest of Grand Guignol. And to finally get to see it on a screen this size, where it can overwhelm you… what a wonderful, wonderful time.

The presence of the Alloy gang, of course, only made it better. Here’s a trio that breathes new life into silent pictures, writing new scores for old works. Yeah, sometimes I’ll prefer to listen to the more traditional scores (the marvel of DVD allows many silents to feature multiple audio tracks, and so companies such as Image will include both a modern score from a group like Alloy as well as a more familiar-sounding “old fashioned” score), but Alloy makes such great music that seeing them and hearing them live, well, superlatives elude me at this point. Let’s just say that if you are, like I am, a movie music junkie, then not only are the Alloy boys for you, but you can understand my excitement at seeing a score performed live, right there in front of you.

In between films, I learned an important lesson: Ebertfest umbrellas, while handy in downpours, are ultimately no match for Cornelius incompetence. Last night’s weather was not, despite my being promised otherwise, the “last rain of the week.” And so returning from dinner in a particularly Illinois-esque mix of rain and wind, my newly purchased umbrella turned inside-out several times. No problem, except I had forgotten that most beverage containers - say, the kind provided by the fine people of Burger King - do not continue to contain their beverages when you turn them upside-down in an effort to return your umbrella to its intended shape. In the ensuing scramble, I somehow bent the handle of the damn thing (the umbrella, not the cup, natch), which then caused its automatic opening device to assume that the umbrella was always in “open” mode and should therefore not be allowed back into “close” mode. So while I could refold it, I could not return it to its original, smaller form.

Worse still, later in the evening, while preparing to drive back to the hotel, I shut the van door, only to hear a loud crack - I had slammed the door on the umbrella, shattering what had remained of the handle into several pieces and leaving me with a fifteen dollar handleless, slightly unclosable umbrella. My life, once again, has turned out to be a Tati film.

Anyway. The final film of the evening, the one sandwiched in between almost-broken umbrella and completely-broken umbrella, was Mario Van Peebles’ “Baadasssss!” It’s one of only two films at this fest that I had seen before (the other, if you’ve been paying attention and taking notes, was “Phantom”), and when I first saw it last fall, I liked it but did not love it. This time out, I loved it.

This may be because the vibe at Ebertfest is one of pure excitement - there’s a love for movies hanging in the air that gets under your skin, makes you eager to enjoy everything more than you ever thought you would. Or it could be that seeing a movie on the big screen, as opposed to at home, on television, courtesy DVD, is an experience more able to win one over. Or it could be that I just liked it better this time.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s the telling of how Van Peebles’ father, Melvin Van Peebles, made “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” considered one of the most important and influential independent movies ever produced. The gimmick is that Van Peebles Junior plays Van Peebles Senior, although to call this film a gimmick is to insult it, really; it’s a bold exercise in filmmaking and storytelling that’s downright electric. How good is this movie? Both times I’ve seen it, I’ve gotten the itch to rent “Sweetback” - even though I really don’t like that movie.

Plus, it’s a movie that lets you say the word “baadasssss” a lot.

A final thought for the night: all of the festival guests have in one way or another been interesting, fun, entertaining… but nobody’s been nearly as cool as Mario Van Peebles. His post-film chat with Ebert (which included the showing of a homemade movie by Van Peebles called “Baadasssss! Grandkids,” in which he and his family poke fun at themselves) was hilarious and intelligent and endlessly fascinating, and between the movie and the interview, I’m now convinced that it’s time for Mario Van Peebles to return to the spotlight and share the coolness.

Day Four: “The Secret of Roan Inish,” “Primer,” portion of “Map of the Human Heart.”

In the battle of health and cinemania, health won out today.

My body’s been out of whack for the past week - it turns out the best thing to do after just shaking off a nasty springtime cold is probably not to walk around in the rain and/or sit in a dark theater for twelve hours a day. I’ve spent too much time longing for a warm bed, yet also longing for a good movie. Last night, my body told me to rest, yet my mind, racing a million miles an hour, kept me awake, well, let’s just say long past my bedtime. (This is not uncommon for me, who lists frequent, poorly timed insomnia among my many faults. Oh, and while I’m in parentheses here, let me add that I spent my unwanted late night awakeness snooping around online, where I discovered that the Criterion DVD of “Playtime” is out of print, very rare, and fetching an asking price of $250 from collectors. Damn. Double damn, even. Just when I was getting excited about showing the movie to my daughter, whom I know would love it. Hmm. Anyway, end of parentheses.)

Needless to say, I woke up too late to catch Roger Ebert’s interview/discussion with Jean Picker Firstenberg, director of the American Film Institute. I did, however, wake up in time to join the early birds in line and nab my balcony seat. Cold and tired, I kept thinking, “maybe I could skip today.” But I wanted to stick it out.

Glad I did, at least for a while. The free family matinee, a Saturday tradition at Ebertfest, was John Sayles’ “The Secret of Roan Inish,” one of those mandatory gems that I always felt slightly embarrassed for never having seen. Well, now I’ve seen it, and of course I love it. It’s every bit as magical as you’ve heard (and if you haven’t heard: it’s magical), a whimsical bit of folk tale fantasy that’s smart enough to treat the younger viewers as the intelligent, imaginative creatures they are. Most movies made for children believe they need to dumb things down; the best kid/family fare, of course, ignores this misconception.

I should mention that while it was a real treat to see Sayles and his producing partner Maggie Renzi following the feature (these two are responsible for some of the best indie titles of the past two decades), I was slightly heartbroken that the Q&A session was intended for the children in the audience, yet a time crunch and a very talkative Sayles left too many kids with their hands raised and questions unanswered. How I wish the grown ups in the audience would have not been allowed to ask questions themselves, that more time could have been spent with the anxious youngsters.

Moving on. With time tight, there was not much room for stretching one’s legs or getting a bit of fresh air. Fortunately, the second movie of the day, Shane Carruth’s low budget sci-fi braintwister “Primer,” was brilliant enough to get me through. Just as “Roan Inish” works because it treats its audience with intelligence and respect, so too does “Primer.” Finally, a piece of science fiction filmmaking that’s eager to get the viewer thinking.

And while Carruth should be commended for so success in so many different areas - he directed, starred, edited, produced, even composed the soundtrack - his major accomplishment is his screenplay. It’s a script that works on two levels: there’s the twisty, what-the-hell-happened level that gets you eager to see it a dozen times in a row, just so you can sort out all of the various complexities of the story; and there’s the character-driven level, which grounds the film in a remarkable reality.

I could understand Ebert’s gushing afterward. The post-film discussion was less a discussion and more a parade of what one audience member called “ass kissing.” I’ve seen countless low budget productions, some of them good, many of them not, but rarely have I seen something on this level (it’s practically a homemade job) that transcends its budget in a way “Primer” does. Chalk this up as the third year-end best-of contender I’ve seen this week. (Just don’t tell Carruth, who sat there humble, unsure of how to react to the praise. How lucky he is, it would seem, to not yet realize what a genius he is. He’s keeping the ego at bay for now, which only makes him cooler.)

Following a dinner break (due to bad planning, it was the first meal of the day for me, not counting popcorn and Milky Way), I had hoped the late afternoon air would snap me back into some sort of usable condition. It was not to be. Shortly after the start of “The Map of the Human Heart,” I realized I was feeling worse with each passing minute. I snuck out, I dunno, ten minutes into the thing, heading back to the hotel, kicking myself for missing the chat with Jason Scott Lee and director Vincent Ward, not to mention the 9:30 screening of the Sundance favorite “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” which I desperately want to see (and now will not for quite some time, as it’s brand new).

But I also desperately want sleep, and after several days of not listening to my body, my body’s started yelling. So good night for now, and I’m hoping a long, long rest will be just what I need. After all, tomorrow sees the arrival of a three-hour Bollywood musical. Yeah, I’ll need some rest first.

Day Five: “Taal.”

Brush with greatness: while standing at the men’s room urinal during the intermission of the Bollywood extravaganza “Taal,” finishing my urinarial duties of shaking off and zipping up, I hear a voice from behind. “Sorry, have to pull rank on you.” It was the voice of Ebert himself, talking to everyone in line, cutting in front, and, it turns out, snagging my urinal.

Now, the first impulse I had was to say something to him. After all, several of the chaps in line were comically grumbling, and I thought, hey, a well-placed snarky joke would be welcome here. Then I remembered by good friend and fellow critic Criminy Pete, who has shared many a story of disastrous celebrity meetings. Once, for example, a run-in with Eddie Izzard outside a bathroom led Izzard to believe that Pete was propositioning him; this is a standard Criminy Pete Tale of Accidental Embarrassment. Taking a cue from my pal, I realized I should just keep my yap shut and move out, before whatever half-assed joke I could come up with gets taken the wrong way, and I am forever remembered by Roger Ebert as that asshole from the restroom.

Anyway. You can probably guess that yes, I got plenty of rest, as I woke up bright and early to snag my prime balcony seat for the final film of the festival. “The Heart of the World” was planned for yet another encore showing today, except that Guy Maddin had left the festival early - and took the movie with him, as it was his own personal print. A shame, as I’d have loved to see it on the Virginia’s screen one last time. Still, twice was enough, I think, to satisfy. Besides, today’s main attraction offered more than enough movie to cover the loss.

“Taal” is a three-hour romantic musical comic melodrama, which is to say, it is a movie from India. I’m still getting used to the Bollywood style myself, and the part of me that draws back from such overplayed melodrama keeps wanting to tell me that this was only a good, not great, movie - that it was a whole lot of fun, but a whole lot of cheese, too. But then I look at the work that went in to the film: the sets, the photography, the costuming, the choreography, the songwriting. And I can tell myself that even if I refuse to be convinced that this is great filmmaking, at least it is impressive filmmaking.

Either way, the main phrase in the above paragraph should be “a whole lot of fun.” The audience today laughed, and cried, and applauded, and just really dug the whole thing. Ebert’s choice was a bold one - I’d have picked something like “Lagaan,” which was designed specifically with Western audiences in mind, and therefore makes for a softer, easier introduction into modern Indian cinema. But no, Roger picked the movie that flat-out defines Bollywood, with its sheer, unapologetic over-the-top attitudes. Luckily, the crowd went for it, and I honestly don’t care if “Taal” is great or good or whatever. The point of the film was that it was crafted to provide a great time, and boy howdy, did it ever.

Subhash Gai, the director/producer of the film (and a man so successful on his side of the globe that he was introduced as “the Steven Spielberg of Bollywood”), and Gerson da Cunha, an expert on Indian cinema and a friend of Ebert’s, both appeared on stage for the post-film discussion, and if “Taal” was the introduction to Bollywood for a good portion of the audience, the chat the followed was the kicker that got everyone eager to hunt down more. (If they didn’t get this feeling after listening to Gai and da Cunha, they either left early or fell asleep.) The conversation was sparkling and stimulating, and once again, I left the theater hungry for more.

And that’s the point of the Overlooked Film Festival. It brings us new things in such an exciting way that one can’t help but want more and more and more. It reminds those who keep only to the multiplexes that there’s a whole other world of movies out there, and it’s time to start exploring. And to those who are aware of that world already, it shines lights in the dark corners, reminding us to never stop looking for new surprises. As I left the Virginia for the last time, my faith in the movies was more than restored; it was overflowing. I’m reminded why I love the movies, and why I’ll never stop myself from trying something new, something different.

Oh, and if you’re in the Champaign-Urbana area any time soon, do check out the Virginia. Not only does it boast a screen far more impressive than anything I’ve seen lately, it has a Mighty Wurlitzer, too.

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originally posted: 04/25/05 12:45:08
last updated: 05/01/05 04:46:11
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