Lawrence of Arabia depicts what was nearly the birth of the modern Arab state, but it’s shot like the end of history. The movie is apocalypse-sized; as if it expects to the last one ever filmed. Everything is huge and grand and excessive – the setting, costuming, score, running time, everything. It thunders over the senses like a train.

It’s an epic about TE Lawrence, as interpreted by Peter O’Toole and largely derived from Lawrence’s own prolific writings. It paints a picture of a freak, a misfit, a uniquely-shaped gear who fell into the engine box of history and miraculously slotted into place, allowing world events to turn. I don’t have much interest in its factual accuracy. Movies aren’t Wikipedia articles.

Lawrence of Arabia starts at the end: with Lawrence’s death in 1935. We see a media frenzy around the dead man, a jostling clash of claim and counterclaim. A great hero? An exhibitionist? Everyone’s comparing puzzle pieces of the deceased man, but none of them match. We sense that Lawrence hasn’t left much of himself behind.

Then the film cuts back in time to 1916, with Lawrence a young army lieutenant in the Arab Bureau intelligence unit. He backtalks his superiors, and comes off as pretentious and arrogant. He paints, knows his classics, and deports himself with a certain effeteness. The film can’t explicitly depict him as gay, but the subtext is a brick to the face.

But when he’s dispatched to Arabia (to shadow Prince Faisal, a putative ally of the British in the revolt against the Turks), his alienness becomes an asset. He establishes a rapport with the tribes, and comes up with daring, impossible plans: crossing a desert that can’t be crossed, storming a city that can’t be taken. He stands out – both with his white complexion, and inability to play the game the normal way – and is soon at the center of regional politics.

His handsome face becomes a generic slate onto which various characters project their desires – Prince Faisal’s wish for Arabic independence, Sherif Ali’s personal ambition, Auda Abu Tayi’s lust for plunder, General Edmund Allenby’s desire to entrench Britain’s tactical position against the Ottomans. Like all messiahs, Lawrence is who you need him to be, and like all messiahs, he is disposable.

Virtually no part of this movie could be made now. There are no speaking roles for women. The set of Aqaba was built by Franco’s fascist regime. The idea of British intelligence running the show in Arabia is portrayed as morally neutral or positive. Most of the actors (Omar Sharif excepted) are not Arabic but British or Americans in brownface. Anthony Quinn, who plays Auda Abu Tayi, has a Brooklyn accent and a silly fake nose.

I’m sure most kids now watch this movie for a school report, and write about how it’s a racist old film about how unenlightened Arabs just need a smart British person to whip them into line.

But the point of Lawrence’s character is that he isn’t British, except in a nominal sense. He has no loyalty to his homeland. When he’s praised for his achievements by Allenby and Dryden, their words sound hollow and false. Lawrence never conquers Aqaba out of some “Rule, Britannia!” patriotic impulse. It’s something darker, less explicable, less controllable. In any case, the sympathies he develops for the Arabs soon cause Allenby to suspect he’s gone native.

But what does Lawrence really want? I kept asking this of the film, but director David Lean leaves it unclear. Lawrence is a confusing person: outwardly flashy and flamboyant, but inwardly hollow. He’s more defined by what he doesn’t have than by what he does.

We see a streak of kindness in Lawrence (as well as an unwillingness to get his hands dirty), but also a vanity that almost gets him killed. While spying undercover in an enemy city, he is captured and mocked by a Turkish bey. A real politician would not have risen to the bait, but Lawrence lashes out, and earns himself a beating. Soon it becomes clear that the British will betray the deal they brokered with Faisal, shattering the last of Lawrence’s confidence in himself.

His stated motives for his actions (“I just want my ration of common humanity!”) sound curiously unspecific. It shows the danger of not having a moral center: you get sculpted and distorted by whatever your environment is. He ends up as an existential ghost, haunting the desert like a Dybbuk, detached from the world he thinks he controls. Lawrence reshapes the politics of the Middle East to suit himself, but he’s reshaped by it in turn. Soon this nightmare becomes apparent in his eyes. He’s nothing, and knows it.

Lawrence: I killed two people, I mean two Arabs. One was a boy. That was yesterday. I led him into a quicksand. The other was a man. That was before Aqaba anyway. I had to execute him with my pistol. There was something about it I didn’t like.
Allenby: Well, naturally.
Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: I see. Well that’s all right. Let it be a warning.
Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: What then?
Lawrence: I enjoyed it.

Is this an accurate depiction of Lawrence? I’m doubtful. It occurs to me that most “weirdos” are not actually that weird – they’re non-freakish people who can play the role of oddball on command but are actually fairly normal. David Bowie (who likely took fashion notes from Peter O’Toole in this movie) is a good example.

Imagine if Forbes Magazine ran a “most inspiring poor person” contest – most of the entrants would be crustfunders or fakers or LARPers. Genuine poor people don’t read Forbes Magazine and would never hear about the contest. It takes lots of social cleverness to become famous: a misfit celebrity is something of a contradiction in terms. Genuine freaks are either ignored, or are put in cages to be gawked at. Freakishness is as prone to gentrification as anything.

But even if Lawrence wasn’t like this, the depiction still rings true in a game theory sense. Sometimes it does pay to be an alien dropped out of the sky. Lawrence has no reason to prefer one tribe of Arab over another. He is blind to doctrinal differences, doesn’t care about interpretations of Wahhabism vs Hanafalism. This is his strength. It’s often worse to be a little different than vastly different (other players “neargroup vs fargroup”). Think of how Genghis Khan is popularly regarded in society, vs Hitler. Or how the Tlaxcalans of Mexico allied with the fargroup Spanish agains the neargroup Aztecs.

Lawrence is Genghis Khan to the Arabs. In his first few days in Arabia, he learns a harsh lesson. Upon landing in Arabia, he journeys with a Bedouin guide. The guide drinks from a well owned by Sherif Ali without permission, and is killed by Ali. Lawrence drank too, but is spared. In this land, being a foreigner is like protective armor. He doesn’t yet know about the Islamic principle of amān (safeguard) which likely just saved his life.

Again, Lawrence of Arabia is better off watched as a fantasy film, not as commentary on the geopolitical ramifications of the Sykes-Picot treaty or whatever. Beethoven once said “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.” Real life contains a lot of smallness and silliness and incidence that cannot be used as fodder for a story. Epics, almost by definition, have many wrong notes.

The depictions of Arabs as squabbling idiots who can’t even keep the power on without British help (that’s literally a scene at the end) may come off as racist. But it may have a grain of truth. Certainly, Saudi Arabia was late to the modernisation game. Here’s an interesting anecdote I read on Matt Lakeman’s blog (for which he tragically does not provide a source)

Wahhabis oppose innovation. This is not just an accusation flung from the moral high horse of my modern liberalism, this is how Wahhabis describe themselves. They believe in a strict literalist reading of Islamic texts, hence innovation is deviation from the texts. This mindset expands beyond esoteric theological theory into everyday life. The founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz al Saud, publicly smashed a telegraph to appease his clerics who worried he was using too much modern technology.

That aside, some scenes do overplay their hand, and come off as goofy. The action was as good as it got in 61, but it’s not as visceral and bloody. It’s very “stagey” – punches that clearly miss, men who don’t duck when fired upon, but stand up, so the cheap seats can see them. There’s the obligatory scene where a man gets sucked to his doom by quicksand: it’s supposed to be shocking and horrible, but the fact that it’s quicksand gives it a Roger Corman quality.

We’re meant to watch it on a huge screen (and on 70mm stock) and some scenes don’t really work on a small one. As Lawrence’s men cross the terrible Al-Nafud Desert, the warrior Gasim falls from his camel, and is left behind. When Lawrence discovers this, he goes back to rescue him. It’s an important scene, setting off an IOU that pays off later in the movie…but if you watch it on an 640×480 DVD rip acquired in an extremely legal fashion some shots (such as a distant man walking across the dunes, like a crack piercing the sky) become impossible to understand. The human figures are too small to see. Can you see the man in the picture below? Look closer.

The film has some of the best desert footage ever shot. Lean has a sense of depth and space, and how to make it resound off the screen like an echoing scream. This movie made me feel gravity. At times, I felt vertigo swirling out, as if I might fall forward into the celluloid.

It diminishes the human side of the conflict. Imposes a sense that none of it truly matters much. Whoever prevails in the Arab Revolt, the only winner will be the desert.

Everyone seems tiny in this ocean of sand. The British, the Hashemites, the Bedouins, the Ottomans – are just ants floating in an ocean of sand, slowly dying in a light more blinding than any darkness, hunched double with their thawbs and keffiyehs flapping against blasting wind, hoping that the oasis in front of them actually exists. They might be princelings, warriors, or statesmen, but the desert equalizes them, crushing them all down to nothing. The film achieves an odd effect: the mythic figures look so powerless that they actually become human again.

The film brilliantly portrays the main character’s psychological collapse. Reportedly, Lean’s cameras kept malfunctioning, because they were choked up with sand. Lawrence eventually reaches the same point. He is humiliated, damages, and begins descending into the kind of honor-feud vindictiveness. He learns of the British plot to betray Arab interests, and begins to wonder what it was all ultimately for. A sense of setting sun hangs over everything: the end of history. It’s one of Hollywood’s final great epics.

According to Hollywood lore, the cheapest special effects are bare breasts and dwarves. Lawrence of Arabia has none, but it finds another one: deserts. But the desert’s so big and empty that it projects futility. What can one man ultimately do out here, except lose?

The final time Lawrence meets Auda Abu Tayi, he says “I pray that I may never see the desert again.” To which Abu Tayi says “there is only the desert for you.”

The final shot argues that this is true. He is driving out of Arabia. “‘home, sah!” his driver says. But we see dry dust twisting up into the air behind the car, and it tells another story. The hot, soul-chilling desert is coming out with him, like a shadow that will never leave. He can’t run from who he isn’t. Wherever Lawrence goes, he will find the lone and level sands waiting for him.

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I watched this with some friends – we’d been told it was the sickest, goriest movie ever made.

It wasn’t very good. I don’t know what else to tell you. The tagline is “AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S MORDUM WILL VOMIT ALL OVER YOU AND LEAVE YOU FOR DEAD!” That sounds pretty hardcore. Does it have that effect every time? I’m not sure I’ll rewatch it much. They should have toned it down, so that it only acid-burps in your face and leaves you with a faint sense of despondency.

It’s a fake snuff film – shot in a deliberately amateurish style – about a trio of serial killers, who record their crimes. They have sex with each other, mutilate themselves, go to a crack den, kill someone, and then a fifth event occurs, and then a sixth, and then a seventh. If you like movies with events, you’re in luck! This one has so many of them!

August Underground’s Mordum doesn’t have a story, it has incidents. The scenes could be rearranged in almost any order. The dialog consists of shouting and profanity. The characters have names like “Crusty” and “Maggot”. The cinematography consists of flailing shakycam that made me literally nauseous – surely if there’s one positive trait serial killers possess, it’s calm, steady hands?

It’s artless, boring, and dismaying. The writing is so blandly and forgettably stupid that I fully expected a character to say “As an AI language model, I am programmed to follow ethical guidelines.”

Whiles, Cristie: [cutting herself deeply in the chest with a piece of glass] Do you fucking like it?

Vogel, Fred: Shit yeah I like it!

Whiles, Cristie: Why don’t you jerk off on it, fucker?

No, I don’t know what August Underground’s Mordum means. There’s nobody and nothing called “August Underground” in the movie, and “Mordum” isn’t a word – though, pronounced phonetically, it absolutely becomes a description.

The film has serious Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People energy – it’s trying hard to be the most outrageous thing you’ve ever seen, so much so that it backfires and becomes not shocking at all. The actors are often visibly uncomfortable with what they’re asked to do, which is funny. The climactic final scene involves the character Maggot raping a dead body in a bathtub. He gives it some fake, half-hearted humps, like a frat pledge trying not to look gay. At no point does his pelvis touch anything except air.

The runtime is padded out with pointless crap, like a scene of Maggot getting a septum piercing. There’s actually a term for this: “Shoot the rodeo”. Is your movie too short? Just scrounge around your camera’s SD card for some unrelated footage, and suddenly it’s not. The concluding shot is of a cat eating a mouse.

The thing about August Underground’s Mordum is that you can basically know everything about it just from a single detail. Do I give an in-depth discussion, or can I just mention that it has characters called “Maggot” and “Crusty”? Or that the director fronts a death metal band? Or that the production company is called Toetag Pictures, and their website has a .biz TLD, like all serious big-boy websites?

A toe tag, by the way, is a piece of cardboard that is fitted around a corpse’s toe, providing identifying information to the coroner. Most morgues haven’t used toe tags for a long time – now there’s an ankle bracelet. But it fits the company’s approach to invoke a cliche that’s twenty years out of date.

August Underground’s Mordum seeks to recreate the flat, naturalistic affect of Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, and the gooberish “OMG, is it real??” rubberneck-factor of Cannibal Holocaust or Guinea Pig 2. Those are old movies. And they didn’t seek to be mistaken as real, it happened by accident.

As Dave Kehr noted once, “It is a curious attribute of camp that it can only be found, not made.” You can’t really click your heels and wish your movie into cult status. It has to happen organically, and accidentally. This is exactly one of those try-hard “let me into the canon!” manufacted camp classics that Kehr writes about. There’s a reason The Room will be remembered forever, while the word Sharknado already has no meaning to anyone.

This film is the middle child in a trilogy of films. I briefly considered watching the first or the second, but then I decided to watch HR Pufnstuf instead. That’s a good example of August Underground’s Mordum‘s strike rate: it loses a battle against HR Pufnstuf.

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Let’s talk about a subject that’s near and dear to every Metallica fan: post-traumatic stress disorder.

The hippocampus is a region of the brain (embedded within the temporal lobe) involved in memory consolidation and contextualization. PTSD sufferers have reduced hippocampal volume, which means (neuroscientists conjecture) their brains are less able to instantiate past trauma as a memory, as opposed to an active, ongoing event.

Put more simply: where most people know that bad memories are in the past and cannot harm them, PTSD sufferers don’t. The mind endlessly relives horrors, spiraling around them like a record stuck in a groove. Again and again, the memory breaks free, pouring out of containment like corrosive acid. Fists clench. The breath hitches. The heart thunders in the chest. The blood seems to scream. They cannot move on and heal. According to their damaged temporal lobe, the traumatic event is happening right now.

Why do I mention this? For obvious reasons: it describes Metallica’s career.

All bands have a story – one partly based on facts, and partly based on public perception. But Metallica’s story stopped progressing in 2003. Yes, they kept on doing things. But for many of us, our subconscious image of the band is frozen eternally in 2003, like a PTSD victim’s memory of trauma.

Once, Metallica made sense. Their early career has a narrative arc so sharp and defined that feels almost written, like a Hollywood screenplay (soon it might become one). They exploded out the gate in 1981, four scrappy youngsters with something to prove. They went on a monumental hot streak, releasing four LPs now regarded as some of the finest ever made in heavy metal. They pioneered an exciting new style (Bay Area thrash metal), and broke it to the mainstream.

Tragedy struck in 1986, but they soldiered on (“back to the front!”), reaching still greater heights of mainstream success. The Black Album has sold an astonishing 22.7 million copies. To put that in perspective, if all of those albums were stacked in a pile, it would be a pile 22.7 million albums high.

Then the next arc of their story began: the collapse.

They cut their hair and lost the plot. They released discs of idiotic grunge rock, played said grunge rock with an orchestra, sued fans, went to rehab, almost tore their own band apart with infighting, recorded “Mama Said” and “I Disappear” and several other crimes against humanity, and generally alienated a lot of their old audience. They spent the entirety of 1996-2002 as a self-parody, stepping on rake after rake, becoming a bigger joke by the day.

They hit rock bottom with 2003’s St Anger, an album so profoundly and deeply hated that it’s actually kind of loved. People can step you through St Anger and point out all the terrible parts, moment by moment. There are fan projects on Youtube that “fix” St Anger with guitar solos and better production. I mean, come on. Nobody does that stuff for an album they don’t secretly admire, right?

St Anger was such an incredibly shitty CD that it hit Metallica fans like a hippocampus-shredding trauma event. No matter how many years (and new albums) pass, our collective image of Metallica remains “the band that just released St Anger, and now must redeem themselves.”

Read the Metal-Archives reviews of Death Magnetic or Beyond Magnetic or Hardwired…to Self-Destruct or Lulu. St Anger appears as an endless comparison. It’s become the reference point that all Metallica albums are judged against. In our hearts (if not our heads) Metallica is still a barely-functional clown-car disaster that sues Napster and steps on rakes.

The problem: all that stuff happened at least twenty years ago.

Metallica has existed for forty-two years. Imagine a timeline of their career: all of the classic albums are packed into the first 16.667% of that line. Cliff Burton died at the 11.905% mark. The Black Album came out at the 23.81% mark. Load/Reload came out at the 35.714% mark. St Anger came out at the 52.38% mark.

Doesn’t that hurt your brain? In what universe is Load an early Metallica album? How can St Anger, the definitive example of a shitty late Metallica album, be at the exact middle of their career? Surely it’s not possible that Robert Trujillo has been Metallica’s bassist for longer than Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted combined? It doesn’t make any sense, yet this is the world we live in.

Time is moving on, but the Metallica story isn’t. Nobody can let that 2003 image go. Metallica will forever be the band that made St Anger.

But moving on from trauma requires accepting that it isn’t your fault. If Metallica’s narrative isn’t progressing, that’s on them. They have to give us a reason to actually update it, and so far they haven’t. For twenty years, they’ve offered up ghosts and hints of former glory (and another terrible album in Lulu), but they still haven’t come back.

With that in mind, does 72 Seasons do the job, and finally end the St Anger trauma cycle?

Well, it’s easily the best Metallica album of the decade so far. But since it’s their only album of the decade, it’s also the worst. So maybe that’s a bad angle of analysis.

It has a shitty title, a bad cover, and music that falls well short of expectations a fan of the classic albums might hold. Like Death Magnetic and Hardwired…to Self Destruct, it avoids colossal miscalculations like nu metal or country music, yet it’s still not a return to thrash metal.

Its basic tonal characteristic is “Load, with some thrash riffs and fast songs”. And even if you want that, this is a flawed presentation of that idea. 72 Seasons is basically ruined by three problems.

Problem #1: The songs are far too long

Straight off the jump we get “72 Seasons”, an absolutely killer track. No, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s one of the best things they’ve recorded in decades. The band is simply on fire here. The riffs crush and slash. It’s energetic as hell, and there’s real drama in the dynamics and performance. Even James Hetfield’s vocals are awesome, and I’ll be damned if that’s a sentence I planned on writing in 2023.

…but after it finished at 7:39, my thought was “that song could have been 4 minutes long”.

This was a troubling premonition of things ahead. The whole album has an unedited feel, like a padded student essay. Riffs repeat more times than they need to. Bridges devolve into unfocused jam sessions that nobody seems to know how to end. At least “72 Seasons” is strong enough to survive overexposure. This can’t be said for most of the rest.

Tracks like “Screaming Suicide” and “If Darkness Had a Son” just meander around, getting steadily more lost in vague chuggy gloop. The riffs are unmemorable, and the band has seemingly forgotten how to write a chorus. “Sleepwalk My Life Away” has an interesting intro, full of coiled menace, like a snake about to strike. Then the song starts, and it’s the most complacent, self-satisfied drivel you’ve heard this side of Load. Just bland groovy mainstream rock that goes on for 7:30 and would have been overlong at any length. “You Must Burn!” sounds like “Sad but True”, stretched out on a rack. Seven more minutes of groove riffs.

Then we get “Fixxxer, part II”…or “Inamorata”, as I believe it’s called. Is that chorus worth eleven minutes of your life? Is any of it worth eleven minutes of your life?

Not all the songs are duds. “Too Far Gone?” is a vocal-driven punk rock song akin to Bad Religion, and “Room of Mirrors” is an uptempo thrasher. Both of these songs have solid hooks and strong performances from James, but even here, there’s unnecessary flab. The band is too big to need to edit, but they should have considered it.

Roger Ebert once described a boring movie (I don’t remember which one) as being like waiting for a bus in a part of town where you’re not sure there’s a bus line. That’s a great way to put the album. Sometimes inspired ideas come, other times not, but it’s always a chore waiting for them.

Problem #2: The production is awful

The album disagrees with my ears in a way that’s hard to articulate. It’s clean and polished and technically “good”, but there’s a cheap nastiness to it, too. Trust me: you will get sick of how the album sounds after seventy-seven minutes.

Hetfield’s guitar tone is overprocessed dogshit. Again, it’s hard to explain what’s wrong, but for guitar nerds out there…you know the sound you get when you plug your guitar into a Tubescreamer, set the gain to 0, dime out the tone and level, and plug it into a high-gain amp? Congrats, that’s the 72 Seasons guitar tone. Really thin and dull, with no depth or chunk or sustain to the sound. Has James blown out his hearing? Even the St Anger guitar tone was better than this.

Once again, Lars Ulrich is mixed far too loud, if we are kind enough to assume it’s even him playing (the drums on “Lux Aeterna” are either programmed or so robotically performed that they might as well be). I don’t hate Ulrich as much as some do, but he’s not the kind of musician you want to hang your entire sound around.

He stands out as a particularly insufferable presence on “Inamorata”. The bridge has a nifty talk-and-response interplay between the guitars and Trujillo’s bass (it reminds me of “Orion”‘s bridge), but I can hardly hear what’s happening, because Lars’s hi-hats are mixed so fucking loud.

Most of the blame belongs to Greg Fidelman, one of metal’s biggest hacks. He ruined Slayer’s World Painted Blood, he helped ruin Black Sabbath’s 13, and now he’s here to deep-six Metallica too. A Rick Rubin disciple to the core, his style is smooth, commercial metal with zero edge or balls. I am convinced he a covert K-pop operative on a mission to sabotage as many metal bands as he can, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t succeeding.

Problem #3: the band has no identity anymore.

St Anger was no misunderstood gem, but at least it was bold and decisive. It picked a direction and stuck to it. But 72 Seasons, like Hardwired before it, is very uncertain about what it is.

Thrash metal does not sound good when mixed with modern rock, and when the two styles are combined in one song it almost tears the song in two. The excessive length ruins the fast songs and further deadens the groovy rock tracks. The attempts at going back to their roots are undercut by the shiny modern production. Everything in this album is at war with everything else.

“Lux Aeterna” is a song I’ve avoided discussing at length, because it exhibits the album’s divided character the best. It finds the band in full Diamond Head parody mode. The riffs and energy and speed are beamed straight in from 1980, and it’s thrilling to hear.

…But the old-school style songwriting clashes horribly with Greg Fidelman’s production job. The mix needs to be rough and raw and drenched in reverb, like old-school NWOBMH. But all you can think about is how obnoxiously slick it sounds, and how fake and processed the drums are.

The lyrics are just word salad that sound like they were written by ChatGPT. Once, Metallica’s songs were about things. Even instrumental tracks like “Call of Ktulu” and “To Live is to Die” had little filaments of meaning trailing off them, inviting you into a world beyond the song. Now, it’s just James issuing portentous mumblecore at you. “Traumatic! Dogmatic! Volcanic! Psychotic!” Shut up.

So that’s 72 Seasons. It’s long, it’s a slog, and it’s only occasionally worth the effort.

Metallica is so associated with dramas, scandals and stupidity that they really need to regain some semblance of their former greatness. Makeweight efforts won’t cut it. If they want to retain their title as metal’s biggest band, they can’t merely just be okay.

It’s just a continuation of the two albums before it, and presents a picture of a band floating in limbo, unwilling to commit to a sound or a style. Death Magnetic and Hardwired…to Self-Destruct run for a combined two hours and thirty minutes, and have about eight or nine good songs between them, most of which are still flawed in some way. 72 Seasons adds perhaps three more to the pile. It’s probably the worst of the post-St Anger releases (aside from Lulu), and unlike that album, it lacks even the bravery to be truly and memorably bad. This is just another milquetoast effort, doing what it needs to do – barely.

As future decades roll by, Metallica’s discography will be forgotten in reverse, starting with their later releases, but with some of their earliest albums being the last to disappear from memory (and St Anger, of course.)

This will not make the cut. The band still hasn’t found a way outside its self-inflicted trauma loop. As noted psychologist J. Alan Hetfield astutely observed in his seminal 1997 text, “Fortune fame, mirror vain, gone insane / But the memory remains”.

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