Louis Proyect: Is Kathryn Bigelow our Leni Riefenstahl?

Yves here. I refused to see Zero Dark Thirty based on how obvious a propaganda film it was, so I welcome commentary from readers who did see it. Of course, there is an argument to be made that Western movie-making over the last 15 years has become obviously and deeply slanted, and therefor my refusal to see that Bigelow picture was sanctimonious. Even just watching trailers, the amount of celluloid devoted to depicting torture as necessary or at least routine has skyrocketed. And what sure looks like an effort to normalize heinous conduct is not limited to Bad Guys in the Middle East movies. It’s become common in garden variety action movies’ along with other staples like the celebration of high tech surveillance and (so we are shown) targeting.

By Louis Proyect, who has written for Sozialismus (Germany), Science and Society, New Politics, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Organization and Environment, Cultural Logic, Dark Night Field Notes, Revolutionary History (Great Britain), New Interventions (Great Britain), Canadian Dimension, Revolution Magazine (New Zealand), Swans and Green Left Weekly (Australia). Originally published at Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist



Leni Riefenstahl

kathryn bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow

As a member of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) for over a decade I was not surprised to see Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” named best movie of 2012 since the group had picked “Hurt Locker” as the best for 2009. Among the 36 members there were only two who had problems with this choice–Prairie Miller, a WBAI Arts Magazine host, and me.

Perhaps feeling a bit of peer pressure, I emailed my colleagues: “I actually had no problem voting for this movie in one category or another. Katherine Bigelow is our Leni Riefenstahl, after all.” (I did not bother to explain that my vote might have been for cinematography or film score, but certainly not for screenplay, direction, or best picture.) After Prairie told me that she was surprised by my comment, I began to grapple with the question of reactionary filmmaking, all the more so after reading a passage in Glenn Greenwald’s brilliant take-down of the film:

Ultimately, I really want to know whether the critics who defend this film on the grounds of “art” really believe the principles they are espousing. I raised the Leni Reifenstahl [sic] debate in my first piece not to compare Zero Dark Thirty to Triumph of the Will – or to compare Bigelow to the German director – but because this is the debate that has long been at the heart of the controversy over her career.

Do the defenders of this film believe Riefenstahl has also gotten a bad rap on the ground that she was making art, and political objections (ie, her films glorified Nazism) thus have no place in discussions of her films? I’ve actually always been ambivalent about that debate because, unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Riefenstahl’s films only depicted real events and did not rely on fabrications.

But I always perceived myself in the minority on that question due to that ambivalence. It always seemed to me there was a consensus in the west that Riefenstahl was culpable and her defense of “I was just an artist” unacceptable.

Do defenders of Zero Dark Thirty view Riefenstahl critics as overly ideological heathens who demand that art adhere to their ideology? If the KKK next year produces a superbly executed film devoted to touting the virtues of white supremacy, would it be wrong to object if it wins the Best Picture Oscar on the ground that it promotes repellent ideas?

Before addressing comparisons between Bigelow and Riefenstahl, it would be useful to consider the KKK question. I am willing to bet that Greenwald had D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in mind since that pretty much describes how it is viewed nowadays: an apologia for the night riders. In a Counterpunch article devoted to the Oliver Stone/Peter Kuznick “Untold History” series on Showtime, I mentioned that “Birth of a Nation” was shown in the White House in much the same way as the Obama-friendly films like “Lincoln” or “Zero Dark Thirty” might be shown today:

Wilson even screened D. W. Griffith’s pioneering though notoriously racist film Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915 for cabinet members and their families. In the film, a heroic Ku Klux Klan gallops in just in time to save white southerners, especially helpless women, from the clutches of brutish, lascivious freedmen and their corrupt white allies—a perverse view of history that was then being promulgated in less extreme terms by William Dunning and his students at Columbia University. Upon viewing the film, Wilson commented, “It is like writing history with Lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

In grappling with the problem of reactionary but breakthrough filmmaking, I checked the Wikipedia entry on D.W. Griffith and to my surprise discovered that Charlie Chaplin described him as “The Teacher of Us All”. Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein, two of the greats of Soviet cinema, also revered him.  Orson Welles said “I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.”

But the biggest surprise of all was James Agee’s take on the man who arguably made the most racist film in American history. Agee was the Nation Magazine’s film critic in the 40s and 50s and a powerful voice for the downtrodden. His name is also honored by a group of leftwing film critics that was launched by Prairie Miller, the James Agee Film Society (I suggested Agee’s name as the title of our group.) In a review for the September 4, 1948 edition of the Nation Magazine, Agee wrote:

HE ACHIEVED what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man. We will never realize how good he really was until we have the chance to see his work as often as it deserves to be seen, to examine and enjoy it in detail as exact as his achievement. But even relying, as we mainly have to, on years-old memories, a good deal becomes clear. One crude but unquestionable indication of his greatness was his power to create permanent images. All through his work there are images which are as impossible to forget, once you have seen them, as some of the grandest and simplest passages in music or poetry…

“The Birth of a Nation” is equal with Brady’s photographs, Lincoln’s speeches, Whitman’s war poems; for all its imperfections and absurdities it is equal, in fact, to the best work that has been done in this country. And among moving pictures it is alone, not necessarily as “the greatest”—whatever that means—but as the one great epic, tragic film. (Today, “The Birth of a Nation” is boycotted or shown piecemeal; too many more or less well-meaning people still accuse Griffith of having made it an anti-Negro movie. At best, this is nonsense, and at worst, it is vicious nonsense. Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does.

There are two things that struck me when I read these shocking words. The first was James Agee’s focus on the image. If film is primarily about moving pictures, it should not come as any big surprise that someone like Agee would be fixated on the visual aspects of the film.

But defending the film against NAACP protests is obviously a lot more questionable. What it suggests to me is that racism was so deeply embedded in American society that even a nominally progressive journal like The Nation would be insensitive to the film’s racism. Of course, there is a precedent for this in the magazine’s history as I pointed out to Ricky Kreitner, an intern there, who had written a very good article on Spielberg’s latest movie and the historical background. It turns out that despite its abolitionist reputation, the magazine had little use for Thaddeus Stevens. Consulting the magazine’s archives, Kreitner discovered an obituary on Stevens that described his demand for slave plantations to be confiscated and the land given to ex-slaves as a sign of a “mental defect”.

I wrote Kreitner that this was not the half of it. In an article I wrote for Swans in 2008 on The Early Days of the Nation Magazine, I pointed out that the editor E.L. Godkin wrote an editorial in 1874 that was very much in the spirit of “Birth of a Nation”:

As the 1870s began, Godkin openly broke with the Radicals, assailed carpetbaggers, and called for the restoration of white power in the South. In an 1874 editorial he advised The Nation’s readers that he found the average intelligence of blacks “so low that they are slightly above the level of animals.” He longed for the return of southern conservatives to power in 1877 eagerly, writing Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton and fellow adversary of democratic rule that “I do not see . . . . the negro is ever to be worked into a system of government for which you and I would have much respect.”

Given the self-righteousness of American liberalism, it might be expected that a film that glorified the KKK would pass muster at one of its citadels. However, the critical consensus on Leni Riefenstahl would tend more to the negative since the Nazis were an Official Enemy Number One unlike the Klan, a group that Harry Truman once considered joining (again we are grateful to Stone and Kuznick for pointing this out.)

Suffice it to say that Riefenstahl is usually celebrated in much the same way as Agee celebrated D.W. Griffith, for her mastery of the image rather than for her odious politics. But then again, there was a time and place when those politics seemed not particularly offensive. This is a review of her documentary on the 1936 Olympics from the March 30, 1940 New York Times. Apparently the paper had not yet figured out that the film that opened just 5 blocks from my apartment in the Yorkville neighborhood in Manhattan (a bastion of German-American support for the Nazis at the time) was inimical to all the values we hold dear.

At 86th St. Garden Theatre

After a run of three weeks the first part of “Olympia, Festival of the Nations,” the German celluloid record, directed by Leni Riefenstahl, of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, has made way for the latter half at the Eighty-sixth Street Garden Theatre. While it gets off to a rather slow start, Part II speeds up when the exciting military riding competition hits the screen and continues at a lively pace through the field hockey, polo, soccer and cycling events and the Marathon race to the thrilling finale of the decathelon, where Glen Morris, the American, won the title of the greatest all-around athlete in the world. The photography is always effective and sometimes brilliant. There is an adequate account of the doings spoken in English. H. T. S.

The Wikipedia article on “Olympia, Festival of the Nations” takes note of the technical breakthroughs that wowed the N.Y. Times: “She was one of the first filmmakers to use tracking shots in a documentary, placing a camera on rails to follow the athletes’ movement, and she is noted for the slow motion shots included in the film. Riefenstahl’s work on Olympia has been cited as a major influence in modern sports photography.”

But it added that its pro-Hitler agenda was crystal-clear. This mattered not a whit to Avery Brundage who called the film the greatest ever made about the Olympics or to Walt Disney who gave her the red carpet treatment when she visited Hollywood on a tour. (Then again, few would ever associate Brundage or Disney with liberal causes.)

While I have no doubt that her work was marked by major innovations, I tend to agree with Robert Sklar’s assessment in an April 1994 Cineaste article titled—appropriately enough—“The Devil’s Director”:

It seems incredible the length to which some of Riefenstahl’s defenders–particularly among film scholars in the United States–have gone to endorse her self-proclaimed status as a great artist, regrettably ignorant of politics in her tireless quest for esthetic perfection. The answer perhaps lies in a laudable desire to protect creative persons from political persecution, however unsavory their work. A case might be made for Riefenstahl in spite of herself, rather than the case that has been made, which buys into her every self-aggrandizing claim.

Riefenstahl’s defenders reach a point of absurdity when they compare her with Sergei Eiseinstein. It’s somewhat disingenuous to link the two names as great film artists who were also propagandists for murderous regimes, when Riefenstahl denies that her works are propaganda at all. Eisenstein and other Soviet filmmakers require reassessment over the same issues of political responsibility to which Riefenstahl should be held. But that similarity does not qualify her films to be mentioned in the same sentence with The Battleship Potemkin among the masterpieces of film history.

Words like ‘best,’ ‘great,’ and ‘art’ ought to be resisted when discussing Leni Riefenstahl, just to avoid the cant and obfuscation which have become synonymous with her name. Give her the credit (and blame) that she deserves: she was a pioneer of what might be called mass cinematography, a producer and planner of film spectacles that required dozens of cameras, feats of coordination and logistics, and complex organization of footage for editing. Her films are mixtures of the remarkable–such as the diving scenes in Olympia, which involved splicing reverse action footage into the sequence to heighten the uncanny effect–and the commonplace.

Will Kathryn Bigelow ever be held in such esteem as D.W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl, leaving aside political considerations? Does “Zero Dark Thirty” deserve to be described as a breakthrough at least in narrative, technical, or visual terms? In other words, the sort of criteria that matter at places like the NYU or UCLA film schools?

I have my doubts.

While I may the only person who has made the connection, I find “Zero Dark Thirty” to be highly derivative of another terrorist-manhunt-of-the-century-movie. To paraphrase Christopher Marlowe, that was in another century and besides the terrorist is dead. I am speaking here of Carlos the Jackal who was the Osama bin Laden of his day.

One of the minor characters in “Zero Dark Thirty” is a spook named Larry whose technical expertise and detective work helps the CIA track the cell phone signals that lead to Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, who just happened to play Carlos the Jackal (a Venezuelan by birth) in the 2010 television series “Carlos” that was released in a theatrical version a year later, is cast as Larry. When I recognized Edgar Ramirez, a light bulb went on over my head. Of course, this is the same kind of “get the terrorist fiend” movie but from a different POV. Carlos appears in every scene in the 2010 television movie while bin Laden appears in none in Bigelow’s (assuming that his corpse does not count.)

Carlos the Jackal is a man on a mission. As directed by Olivier Assayas, who counts Guy DeBord as his major intellectual influence, “Carlos” is a film that makes absolutely no effort to probe the psychological depths of an urban guerrilla. He is motivated strictly by his ideology and a willingness to use force in the interests of pursuing his political goals. Both in life and as a character in a movie, he is a compelling figure even if he remains unknowable.

Essentially Boal and Bigelow have replaced the terrorist bogeyman with his pursuers who now occupy center-stage but remain as unknowable as Carlos in the final analysis. The first half hour of the film is devoted to CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) physically and verbally abusing his captives, while Maya, the lead character played by Jessica Chastain, looks on impassively. That, my friends, is exactly what you see in “Carlos” for most of its 330 minutes except that the abuse is meant to alienate a movie audience that has been hard-wired to loathe and fear “terrorists”. When the same kind of abuse is applied to our enemies who are tied up and gagged like Carlos’s captives, then it becomes high-class entertainment–the equivalent of an Eli Roth movie geared to the liberal carriage trade, the kind of people who take a rave review in the New Yorker magazine at face value. If there is one thing Hollywood has learned over the years, it is that torturing people sells popcorn even if it is frequently useless in garnering critical intelligence.

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  1. ewmayer

    While Triumph of th Will is pure Nazi propaganda, I urge anyone interested in cinematic history and the inevitable nexus of sports and nationalistic politics to watch the pair of Olympia films and compare the level of jingoism in the events coverage there to what is now more or less standard in modern times. Let’s just say that I found there to be a whole lot more coverage of ‘the other nation’s athletes’ in there than in a typical modern NBC olympics-o-rama. Only annoyance for me was the somewhat bombastic, stilted German events coverage guy – probably a lot of that is a result of announcers back in those days being ‘tuned’ for the sports medium of that era, radio. My personal favorite section is the marathon (back then only run by the men).

    Anyway, watch it (them) yourselves and decide whether it is ‘inimical to all the values we hold dear’ — perhaps watching portions of it during the commercial breaks in the “USA! USA!” chant-fests of the upcoming Rio Olympics would help put the issue in context. IMO that verbiage is overly tendentious in regard to Olympia.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Much as I dislike modern coverage of the Olympics with the emphasis (in nearly every country) on their own athletes, I think there is a very distinct difference between the mindless jingoism of most sports coverage and outright propaganda. Triumph of the Will and other Riefenstahl films were unquestionably propaganda in aid of the Nazi party. Jingoism is just annoying, unless it strays into the arena of racial superiority (which occasionally it does, as you can often hear stereotypes paraded in ‘analysis’ of football.

      1. LeitrimNYC

        I don’t have exact quotes on hand, but NBC’s coverage of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia was so over the top and heavy handed in its Russia bashing that there is no way it was not a propaganda exercise. During the part of the ceremony where there was a symbolic retelling of Russian history, the commentators were complaining that there was no visual representation of the gulags or Stalin’s purges. I doubt in the same circumstances there would be too much mention of slavery or nuking Japan for a US olympics.

      2. susan the other

        but also too, american and allied propaganda machines in WW2 and the followup – blacklisting… film has been in service to the party since then, never offering anything more than polite criticism

    2. sd

      To be honest, I don’t really understand the comparison of Bigelow to Reifenstahl. Bigelow directed pictures financed by the studios which are large multinational corporations. Riefenstahl directed films financed in part by the German government. Those who control the money, control the content.

      Worth noting that the 1936 Olympics in ‘Olympia’ were held in Berlin.

      1. Cry Shop

        Good to know that corporations don’t do propaganda, nor are they organs for racists.

        It is neither the civilian arm nor the military who control the application of force, rather it’s “Corporatism”. On the domestic front it is for profit jails, parole, debit collecting of criminal fees, pay to stay jails, the list rolls on. On the international front, it’s no surprises that Ike’s Industrial Military Complex has taken over setting the agenda, right Mrs. Hella-ry on earth Clinton?

        Violence not only pays, it pays best.

        Particularly violence against the mind.

        1. sd

          Studios are out to make money. They really don’t care who they hurt along the way as long as they make money. Comparing Bigelow to Reifenstahl was just a cheap gimmick for the author to avoid a far more serious discussion about the entertainment industry and money.

          Tax incentives, foreign kickbacks, deductible “business”expenses, Hollywood accounting that shows no profit, finance sources, money laundering.

          Had the article actually focused on the money end, it would have been far more interesting. For instance: Did ZDT get tax breaks or direct financing of any kind? Did the government pay to travel and house the people Bigelow talked to? Who else is the government paying to market its various wars? For instance, book tours by noted former military….

          Instead, the article took the easy road and invoked Godwins Law.

            1. sd

              Then why didn’t you follow the actual money behind the movie and its marketing? That’s a story worth telling.

          1. Follow The Money

            Studios are just paper and property/capital. No one ever invested in studios just to make money, that’s about as stupid as investing in Broadway shows. Even Disney doesn’t do it just for the money. This tends to apply to every corporation, and not just every government. The nature of the industry and the people in it, the history of it, make and shape policy just as much as the all mighty dollar — look at the stupid investment decisions Trump made.

            The people running them, their biases, are important. After the first 100 million, its just as much about the power, the religion/faith, and other issues as it is the money itself.

      2. diptherio

        No one’s told you that large mult-national corporations (or rather, their executives) run the government??? Well, they do.

        And don’t forget that Obama’s administration was quite keen to assist the ZDT filmmakers:

        In its responsive brief, the government says it wanted to facilitate an accurate movie portrayal of the people involved in the hunt for bin Laden, but it still wishes to keep secret the identities of those individuals who will be accurately portrayed. These desires appear to be mutually exclusive.

        Just as Plaintiff predicted in its opening brief, within the past week the privacy of at least one of these government employees has been eroded by media outlets seeking to satisfy the overwhelming public interest in the making of this critically acclaimed and controversial film. This should have been foreseeable a year ago when the government agreed to allow filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal to interview the men and women behind the search for bin Laden for a quasi-journalistic movie based on their efforts.


      3. diptherio

        And no one is claiming that the ’36 Olympics were anyplace other than Berlin. “Olympia” was the name of the Riefenstahl film about the event.

        After a run of three weeks the first part of “Olympia, Festival of the Nations,” the German celluloid record, directed by Leni Riefenstahl, of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, has made way for the latter half at the Eighty-sixth Street Garden Theatre.

        1. sd

          It was left out of the article. It’s an important detail that explains why Hitler shows up in the film, Olympia. As it reads now, it sounds like Reifenstahl just included Hitler to promote the Nazi party, ignoring the fact he was head of state for Germany.

      4. jrs

        Well I don’t always have a links to prove it but there’s CIA influence in Hollywood then and now, of course with Zero Dark Thirty the CIA links are pretty well known.


        So yes large multinational corporations finance it, but it’s got CIA fingerprints all over it as well. So I don’t see near as much difference between films financed by the government and those financed by large multinational corporations with CIA influence as you do. Besides those large multinationals depend on government for their livelihood, as they’ll have I.P. protections written into all their global trade tyrannies.

        1. MartyH

          @diptherio and @jrs … I think it is more consistent with publicly stated US policy to say that “It is in the National Interest of the United States to support the private interests of its leading businesses.” That is a more polite way of putting the obvious fact that the government of the US has, for well over a hundred years, put the “well-being” of its largest corporations (United Fruit, the Energy firms, the armaments industry, autos, etc.) ahead of concerns for the well-being of its private citizens as individuals and communities. All you can say is that such commitment to “US Firms” is harder to understand given the increasing evidence that those firms no longer reciprocate the support in any meaningful way.

    3. Stephen Rhodes

      There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.
      Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
      Oscar Wilde

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Its interesting how long it can take before people see film propaganda for what it is. I’ve been saddened by the way that, for example, some great Chinese film makers such as Zhang Yimou have increasingly sunk to producing propaganda for the CCP, even though his films are generally just seen as entertainment in the West. Zero Dark Thirty did of course stand out for being an explicit apologia for torture, which makes it (for me) one of the most repulsive films made in recent Hollywood history. I find is shocking that supposedly liberal Hollywood had no problem in giving it so many awards.

    1. James Levy

      I have held for some time that Bigelow is the female De Palma: a brain-dead stylist of significant visual talent in the service of just about no coherent ideas. This has not endeared me to cinephiles (especially the ones who think that film history started with Reservoir Dogs, or perhaps Do The Right Thing) who seem to have a special place in their hearts for such stylists, but I grew up on Bergman and Kubrick. For me, Bigelow is just a very talented hack, not a fascist.

      1. Uahsenaa

        I would disagree: her films have a distinctly nihilist bent, which is why, I think, so many of them have fundamentally bad or ambivalent actors as their protagonists. Especially in Strange Days, The Restless, and Point Break, there’s the clear theme of what polite, capitalist society does with and to its outcasts and the several ways in which they respond to being left at the margins or being left out entirely. Strange Days, one of my favorite films, does an excellent job of portraying the hairball that is the overlap of structural racism, classism, politics, and policing all in the context of a near future SF crime thriller in which how one manipulates surveillance technology is very much an issue.

        What confuses me about Zero Dark Thirty is how unlike the rest of her films (with the possible, though arguable exception, of The Hurt Locker) it is, how triumphalist, how obsessed with institutional forces her other films seem to abhor.

        Then there’s the matter of taking people who lie for a living at their word and simply putting it on screen…

      2. pretzelattack

        i haven’t seen her films, but from what i read there is a coherent agenda to normalize torture: whether she is just using that to get her films made or agrees with i don’t know, but surely she recognizes it.

      3. nycTerrierist

        I respectfully disagree.

        De Palma’s Scarface (1983) remake is brilliant. Stylish, yes, but far from brain-dead.

        Bigelow on the other hand…

      4. Plenue

        De Palma also directed Casualties of War and Redacted, so whatever else he is I don’t think it can really be said he’s an American propagandist.

      5. RMO

        I grew up on Larry Buchanan, Coleman Francis and Hal Warren and even by those standards Bigelow is just a skilled hack.

    2. Plenue

      “I find it shocking that supposedly liberal Hollywood had no problem in giving it so many awards.”

      Liberal =/= leftist.

      This is the same Hollywood that produced a long line of films about how Vietnam made their soldiers feel sad and how it affected the US domestically. Any portrayal of the suffering of the Vietnamese was only ever in relation to the experiences of GIs, eg to explain how various pressures made innocent American boys do horrible things. That they were inundated from boot camp on with disdain and hatred for ‘subhuman gooks’ will seldom if ever be mentioned in a Hollywood film. Raped or killed yellow people are never more than a plot device for character studies of Americans. To my knowledge America has never produced a work of film outside of independently funded documentaries that draws attention to the fact that for every dead US soldier that got a name on the fancy shiny monument in DC, nearly 80 Vietnamese died over a twenty year period.

      America is never, ever, the villain in Hollywood. That’s a portrayal reserved for groups like the Nazis. At absolute worst the United States is shown as well-intentioned but naive or simply inept (but never corrupt, or only corrupt in a few specific instances; a few bad apples who are exposed and excised. Hollywood will never touch the idea that our entire military and civilian apparatus is morally bankrupt from top to bottom).

  3. DakotabornKansan

    D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was the film version of best-selling author Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman. His book The Clansman was the first bestseller in modern publishing. Robert Lincoln, Abe’s son, praised it as “a work that cannot be laid down.” Dixon, the classmate and longtime friend of Woodrow Wilson, had combined his two racist novels – The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman – into the blockbuster play seen throughout the South, Midwest, and Northeast. Dixon defended his play, “God ordained the southern white man to teach the lessons of Aryan supremacy.”

    Mass conscription of Blacks was essential for US participation in WWI. The War Department was desperate for manpower. W.E.B. DuBois saw WWI as a unique opportunity for Blacks to prove themselves in combat. He signed on to the new “social bargain” that acknowledged equality and acceptance as full-fledged citizens in exchange for service in war. Concerned about Blacks success in battle performance and the warm reception by the French public, the Wilson administration and the army did everything it could to undermine and discredit the “social bargain.” Jim Crow and anti-immigration advocates exploited public fears. The French ignored them. After the war, returning Black troops were treated as pariahs. Black leaders exploited anti-immigrant feelings in exchange for industrial jobs. Rather than joining forces, ethnic differences, class conflicts, and labor battles ensued.

    The “social bargain” and its myths were renewed for World War II via Hollywood films.

  4. voteforno6

    Zero Dark Thirty is definitely a propaganda film; I wouldn’t have minded that as much if it was a better made film. For the most part, I’m able to appreciate a well-made film, even if I disagree strongly with the premise (such as with JFK). I can’t totally condemn Bigelow, though. Strange Days is still a really good movie.

  5. timotheus

    ZDT is more appallingly obvious, but The Hurt Locker is also repulsive propaganda. I walked out when the heroic U.S. soldier carries the body of an Iraqi child of his recent acquaintance through the rubble, narrative justification for the revenge to come. This is the cinematic version of naming a new children’s hospital in Baghdad after Laura Bush. Or bringing flowers to your wife after beating the crap out of her.

    1. Lambert Strether

      If you want really repulsive propaganda, try 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Glorifying mercenaries, as opposed to pointy-headed State Department pencil pushers.

      Is there a reason these sociopaths are always “hugging their families”? I notice that trope everywhere. “Go home. Hug your family.” Eew.

      1. diptherio

        “Go home and hug your families…just be sure to clean all the blood off you first.”

      2. Furzy

        I’ve been appalled, for example, by “The Vikings” on H2….History channel…seems to specialize in glorifying violence against women especially…we should institute curricula identifying and analyzing the propaganda machines in all its forms in High Schools and collages…many are aware of this, but it would be excellent to put it out in the open as a subject of study and refutation.

        1. Plenue

          You mean the show where women are shown to make up a third or more of the raiding parties? So, what, you think they should show women warriors but not show them getting killed? It’s a medieval action show, there’s gonna be violence and killing. Complaining that women are shown among those getting killed but not objecting to the killing as such seems wrongheaded. If you don’t like the violence period, okay, but complaining that it being equal opportunity somehow glorifies violence against women makes no sense to me. They can have killing, but killing women in particular is a no-no?

          It glorifies violence, certainly. But then, that’s kind of what vikings did anyway.

            1. Plenue

              Yes, thank you. I’m well aware that the vikings were in large part colonialist explorers. They were still also a highly warrior culture. I do, in fact, know the vikings.

  6. Watt4Bob

    I’m surprised no one has highlighted the central fact as relates to this movie, that Kathryn Bigelow stands the facts on their head in ZDT.

    From what I understand of the hunt for Ben Laden, it was conventional interrogation techniques, i.e. talking, not torture that garnered the information that led to the discovery of his hiding place.

    To go a little further down this path, from what I read, it is a widely held belief among those in the intelligence community that torture is counter-productive.

    In this light, ZDT is a perfect example of the “bright and shining lie”, and Kathryn Bigelow is a liar.

    If an artist isn’t committed to telling the truth, what possible good are they?

    1. diptherio

      Well, in her defense, she was getting her version of events from DOD and the Whitehouse, and Obama has been (and still is, afaik) pushing the “waterboarding led us to Osama” line since they assassinated him and dumped his body at sea. Of course, we can fault Bigelow for not knowing enough to not believe anything DOD or the Whitehouse told her about this stuff.

      FWIW, Seymour Hirsch says that it wasn’t even regular interrogation that led to Obama, but rather a confidential informant/snitch within the Pakistani gov’t. But that wouldn’t make for exciting film (although that’s one I’d actually go see).

      1. susan the other

        and, of course, paul craig roberts says OBL died a decade previous to his capture, from renal failure

        1. RUKidding

          Well Benazir Bhutto said that before Paul Craig Roberts did, so let’s go ask Benazir what she knows…

          Oh wait…

        2. Scthub

          The evidence is good that he’d been dead for years:


          The smeary, terrible videos, with thin OBL, fat OBL (when he’s in renal failure? For a decade+??), grey beard, not-grey beard — it’s a terrible propaganda job, really. Pathetically thin and inconsistent job of marketing for AQ, now rebranded ISIS.

          Which makes Bigelow’s efforts at propaganda so important – well produced, thrilling apologies for torture that also disseminate the official story.

    2. YankeeFrank

      From Seymour Hersh:

      “It began with a walk-in. In August 2010 a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA’s station chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001.”

      And from the paragraph before:

      “The major US source for the account that follows is a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. He also was privy to many aspects of the Seals’ training for the raid, and to the various after-action reports. Two other US sources, who had access to corroborating information, have been longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command.”


    3. RUKidding

      I saw ZDT bc I was with a group of friends who really really really wanted to see it, and then were severely disappointed bc it was just how I said it would be.

      I found it revolting, and yes, in many ways, it was a huge apologia for torture.

      However, what I found interesting was, in fact, in ZDT, itself, it wasn’t the torture that actually led to what is depicted as the killing of ObL. In fact, it was a tip that the CIA (or whomever) got via more conventional methods. It’s been a while since I saw the film, but I think it was some newbie who came onto the scene later and discovered some intel in some older recordings and/or photos (or something of that nature). This led to the team doing some phone taps and also offering someone a bribe, which led to intel about ObL’s alleged compound in Abbotabad.

      Then we got the whole legend of SEAL Team Six taking out ObL… without taking any photos but of course not harming any children. blah de blah…

      But in the stinking craptastic film, itself, the torture itself – lengthily depicted – did NOT, in fact, provide the Intel to “find” ObL.

      I found that rather interesting. But the film sure did SHOW in no uncertain terms torture of various sorts and glorified it and normalized it and justified it, even though, in the film, the torture did not produce the Intel needed to find ObL. I kept my eyes shut a lot. I thought the film was horrible.

      My one Obot friend, who thought this film was going to be all about glorifying her super hero, was taken aback and also found the Abbotabad scenes to be ridiculous.

      I refrained from saying: I told you so.

  7. Ulysses

    “If an artist isn’t committed to telling the truth, what possible good are they?”

    Objectivity, in art, or in any other form of human communication, is really an unattainable ideal. I found it refreshing, many years ago, that the political bias of television in Italy was obvious to everyone. Rai Uno was for Christian Democrats, Rai Due for Socialists and other mushy middle types, Rai Tre for Communists. All the other T.V. was owned by Berlusconi!

    1. clinical wasteman

      Total agreement on the refreshing principle, although by the time Berlusconi was around (even before election to office) the PCI was already half-flushed down the historical toilet that started with Eurocommunism and is now the European Party of Socialists and Democrats. Unsurprisingly there was no RAI channel for the left-of-Eurostalinist left then or now (unless you count ex-Potere Operaio pentiti like Gad Lerner), but the other sort of Italian left was a real force in publishing (don’t laugh, fellow anglophones, the books were/are actually read!) at the time and to some extent still today. The ‘TV channels’ point turns moot when ideological difference between Forza Italia and the Democratic Party (yes really! a sorry merger of ex-PCI and Christian Democrat functionaries, slowly supplanted under Renzi by consultancy types) is zero (Italians use the English phrase “spoils system” for the carve-up of stipends between parties), but especially given that the remnants of the ‘ultraleft’ understand the internet, including video content, way more than minions of SB or De Benedetti ever will.
      Examples of left-of-PCI intellectuals actually influential since the 70s & still now to a degree that (some of us in) the anglosphere could only wish for: Nanni Balestrini, Silvia Federici, Giorgio Agamben, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Wu Ming collective. And Toni Negri I guess, but he was a painful writer from the outset and is mostly an anglo-left fetish as ghostwritten by M. Hardt today. The carmillaonline.com site (Italian only) is a good place to start for for newer names plus some of those above. Otherwise Wu Ming has an English-language mirror site, the great Silvia F. (Zerowork/Midnight Notes & beyond) has written mostly in English for decades, and most of Agamben’s books / some of Balestrini’s exist in English translations ranging from ok (GA’s academic handlers) to fine (such of Balestrini as is out there).

      1. Ulysses

        I do recall how the PCI underwent an existential crisis– as the 80s passed into the 90s. My impression from those days was that Rai Tre was the place to go for the most high-brow stuff!

    2. myshkin

      “Objectivity, in art, or in any other form of human communication, is really an unattainable ideal.”

      -Agree. Art shouldn’t be messing around with claims on staking out the truth, if it does it’s often entering either naively or slavishly the realm of propaganda.

      One way to think of art is as a very successful and adroit lie.

  8. pretzelattack

    fwiw, i’m addicted to mysteries/thrillers; unfortunately that genre seems to be full of books glorifying the military and normalizing torture. maybe people want to read that, but i really wonder how much is market driven. (takes off tinfoil hat)

    1. Ulysses

      Although John Le Carré, ever since the end of the Cold War, has been writing thrillers that strongly challenge the moral legitimacy of the secret states in the U.S., U.K., and NATO countries.

      1. pretzelattack

        yes, he’s one of the good ones. but the shelves are full of the other kind, these days–lee child for instance.

        1. ambrit

          “SS-GB,” where the Germans do invade England, and how the English people do “Carry On.”
          “Only When I Larf,” about confidence tricksters.

  9. Tyler

    Kathryn Bigelow simply got rolled by the CIA. It happens quite often in Hollywood, I suspect. I believe absolutely nothing about our government’s story of how bin Laden died.

    Please google “Operation Northwoods”. You’ll never trust our government again.

    1. diptherio

      Come on now, Northwoods was vetoed by Kennedy: proof that the system works!

      …of course, the guy who proposed it wasn’t fired and Kennedy was assassinated a little while later, so…proof that the system works! (just not for us).

  10. halley

    Bigelow’s entire filmography features torture and mayhem; it’s not surprising she’d seek an historical justification for indulging her passion.

    The claim of great art is, however, preposterous. Mass-market movies are vulgar by necessity; they can’t sustain and they don’t offer the formal satisfactions of pre-industrial art forms. There can be no higher justification for offensive and false claims in a movie; viewers have every right to despise material they find noxious, without apology.

    In Bigelow’s case, she’s a dime a dozen in Hollywood; she could disappear without trace and nobody would ever miss her. And that she’s lackey to official truth and CIA fabulation is unpardonable.

    1. James Levy

      Bigelow is a woman and that will ensure she will be remembered, because there are fewer female Hollywood directors than there are female big-time Economists or Physicists, and that’s saying something. In many ways she’s a female equivalent of a Franklin Schaffner, who made Planet of the Apes, Patton, and Papillion, all very fine visual efforts that were popular in their time but only a real buff would know his name today. But if he had been a woman, especially back then, he would be known today.

  11. ambrit

    I remember a fellow student at University telling me about seeing “Triumph of the Will” in an advertising class. It was shown as a ‘how to do it right’ lesson in commercial advertising technique. From this example I learned early that advertising is commercial propaganda. Wells called advertising ‘legal lying,’ and so, by analogy, is propaganda. The argument for describing our present political system as ‘Corporatism’ fits all too well into this scheme. Now the Government adopts the methods of Business.
    For a lesson in ‘objectivity,’ try Antonionis’ “Blow Up.”

  12. DJG

    One of the threads in the main article that is interesting and telling is how liberals are happy to give up objectivity if they perceive technical innovation. Both Riefenstahl and Griffith were great technical innovators. But then so was Ezra Pound. What this leads to is something across all U.S. film making: U.S. films are invariably technically perfect and, by and large, uncurious, obtuse, and soulless. U.S. film making is daring only if you consider Schindler’s List a daring film.

    As Yves points out up top, Zero Dark Thirty was obvious propaganda at the time. (And let’s not forget The Sniper.) Skippable. Subsequent events have proven that Bigelow and Boal were assisted by the government. This is the same administration that resisted publication of the torture report and exercised Dianne Feinstein, the ultimate plutocratic party loyalist. This is the same president who is presenting Merrick Garland as tough on criminals.

    In short, when you normalize torture, you corrupt everything. The executive branch of the U.S. government is thoroughly corrupted and has lost its moral authority. Hence Hillary Clinton as a viable candidate. Then there’s Trump. The judiciary is corrupt. The arts are just a symptom of the corruption. But don’t worry, There’s some daring new musical coming to Broadway!

  13. myshkin

    I qualify that I have not seen ZDT or Hurt Locker nor do I much watch film or video anymore, the manipulative power of the media and the POV of the industry makes the necessity of suspension of disbelief an impossibility. I have little to offer but this observation. What I think is mooted here is the value or worth of proficiency of technical skill vis a vis intellectual content; syntax vs. semantics.

    Intellectual content can be analyzed (at least) through the sub categories of cultural values, ethical and moral judgement and even a bleed-over back into technical issues, raised as self-referential craft/media, historical nods and winks.

    It seems simple enough to distincly evaluate a work on technical terms and dismiss or haircut whatever value a work stands on technically by it’s depraved messaging whether it be the Clansman or ZDT.

    The gains derived by a simplisic clinical distinction of technical virtuosity and narrative meaning when evaluating the medium are erased when the analysis is integrated into cultural effect on the audience, and if it is a mass audience, such as Hollywood’s, judgement is nuanced and contextualized by the historical moment which evolves generation to generation. Agee’s take on the Clansman is an eye opener for me.

  14. Carolinian

    Perhaps one big difference is that people are still talking about Riefenstahl whereas 20 years from now Bigelow will be largely forgotten. So in that sense the comparison is rather strained.

    As for Agee and Griffith, Agee was a Tennessee boy and was likely not immune to the near universal racial attitudes of that era even if he was a liberal. The vastly popular Gone With the Wind also has a Klan sequence even though they don’t call the vigilantes by name. Times have changed.

  15. Jeff N

    I’ve refused to see ZDT and Argo because I know what their agenda is going to be.

    Despite this, I have a weakness for seeing films that have won Best Picture, and so I watched Hurt Locker.. and I LOVED it. Definitely racist & propaganda’ist, though.

    I had once read that Birth of A Nation wasn’t a cinematic masterpiece on its own, and what makes it special is how it tied together all existing cinematic advances into one work. Surprised that Welles (a true innovator) didn’t notice this?

  16. steelhead23

    Sorry to say, ZDT is a symptom, not a cause. It is a symptom of a broad cultural/spiritual decline in the U.S. Look around. Our police officers have become brutal murderers and abusers. The nightly news entertains us with the latest bit of videotaped violence (also often of the police). Pop entertainers masturbate on stage. A popular candidate for POTUS is a loudmouthed, racist pig. I’m not saying we should go back to Ozzie and Harriet in twin beds, however, our love for freedom of expression, which I fervently support, has been subverted to entertainment, no matter how perverse. In fact, the more perverse the better – for the more eyeballs glued to the screen, the better. Indeed, ZDT is just what the people want. Makes me want to be a hermit.

    1. Lambert Strether

      I remember a horrific incident where an autistic kid went to the movies, I think for his birthday, went to ZDT, and somehow ended up getting whacked by a cop. This is America!

    2. jrs

      No, it makes more sense to see it as the cause, but not just ZDT itself, one film seldom does that, but media propaganda in general (add in biased news, add in bad schools etc. but propaganda plays it’s part). I think those of us who voluntarily remove ourselves from being subjected to most entertainment media and I do (though I consume some music) puzzle over why things are so bad culturally even more (and economics doesn’t explain all of it). How can people say they want torture and get more popular etc.? Trying to figure it out from our personal ivory towers where we aren’t in the stream of entertainment that many people in this society are.

      The current news just makes me hear again and again Roger Waters (oh yea popular culture of a sort) singing Neil Postman’s phrase: this species has Amused Itself To Death. Yep, pretty much …

  17. Andrew Anderson

    Let’s not forget that a major cause of Hitler was the Great Depression and THE cause of the Great Depression was, as Ben Bernanke admitted, the banking cartel.

    It’s hard to believe a government-privileged system for exploiting the poor could be so troublesome but there you have it. /sarc

  18. susan the other

    Sergei Eisenstein was an innovator combining collage with film into memorable images. Nothing left to the imagination maybe. Leni was a top notch technician. And DW Griffith was hilarious. He just didn’t know it. His lunatic epic should have been called The Birth of the Blockbuster: Hubris of a Nation. Or stg. like that. I realize silent films had their limitations, so to parody your very soul without a spoken word is quite a talent. Give that man a lifetime award.

    1. myshkin

      Well, and maybe we mistakenly elevate these camera jockeys to auteur status. Gore Vidal who wrote a lot for Hollywood claimed the writers were far more important than the directors. Terry Southern claimed he talked Kubrick into making Dr. Strangelove a dark comedy from just dark.

      Leni Riefenstahl’s work always struck me as Busby Berkely meets the National Socialists.

      1. craazyman

        Screenwriters? More Important? AYFKM?

        Old Hollywood Joke I Hoid Once . . .

        Q: How dumb was the dumb blonde?
        A: She was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter!

        1. craazyman

          I admit I didn’t see this movie either. It seemed utterly repulsive to me, something like watching a murder as a form of spectacle, something like they would have done once in the Coliseum to a barbarian with swords. People do those things on planet earth all the time. You have to protect yourself from them for sure. OK, but why make a movie about it that only shows the outer surface of the beast itself as if it were amazing? I wonder why that is, why somepeople don’t have an appetitie for manichean dialectical drama, or if they do, at least they have the sense — like me, frankly — to imbibe it in the form of hypertrophic cartoons that distill it magnificently into its most humanly devolved essence with craft and poise and hilarious wit. Something completely out of the imagination, since reality is infinite and you can never touch it with art, you can only extract some very small slice of it, and then only if you’re very very good (or at least pretty good). Something manichean that would be good would be like the spaghetti westerns like, what was it? Oh yeah, High Plains Drifter. That was good. The Roman coliseum wasn’t good. This particular movie seemed, at least from my brief channeling of it, like it was a form of pornography for the soul. But then, since I didn’t see this movie, maybe I’m just bloviating.

          1. myshkin

            “to imbibe it in the form of hypertrophic cartoons that distill it magnificently into its most humanly devolved essence with craft and poise and hilarious wit.”

            -I’m with you man. Where can we get a hold of that sh!t?
            Though, and I’ve only caught bits and pieces, I think High Plains Drifter was a western sandwich with a Hollywood Manichean plot unlike Mama Leone’s Spaghetti menu, the Man with no name trilogy. The Good the Bad and the Ugly and the others are laced with ambiguity, at least compared with Hollywood’s black and white hat set.

            TGtBtU is set incidentally against the bloody backdrop of the American Civil War, the triumvirate of Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach in the foreground are maneuvering each other, the union and the confederacy to recover a wagon load of gold (I think). A four bagger at least.

            1. ambrit

              I believe that Leone admitted that he stole those plots from Kurosawas’ ‘Bodyguard’ films. “A Fistful of Dollars” is amost a remake of Kurosawas’ “Yojimbo.”
              “Seven Samurai” was set against the background of the Japanese Civil Wars, the ‘Warring States’ period. Notice the difference in focus between the two directors. The Kurosawa film explores the tensions between the co-operative farmers, and the conflict oriented samurai. The two slowly shift towards each other.
              Leoni focuses more on the anti heros’ ambiguity. Is he an avenger, or an amoral crook?

      2. clinical wasteman

        Vidal, far as I recall at least, was talking about the 1930s-40s, maybe 50s, in order to make a point about the contrast between a screenwriter/producer-centric model back then (no idea whether true, but yes, pleasant to read) and director/actor auteurdom since. He also talked a lot about live-broadcast TV plays, but not by way of conflating them with the way TV has worked since he used to write for it.

        1. myshkin

          Vidal wrote a series of historical fictions including a work called Hollywood that I think covered some of what you’re talking about. It’s been a while since I’ve read any of his memoirs but I think he continued to work periodically in the industry from the fifties up into the eighties at least.
          One early pic he worked on was Ben Hur, his catty takedown of Charlton Heston is pretty funny; the iron jawed, somewhat thick, matinee idol who didn’t quite understand the sub text of his character, who was, unbeknownst to Heston, involved in a homosexual affair with Stephen Boyd.
          Or was that Spartacus?

          1. clincial wasteman

            No point-scoring intended, myshkin, apologies if it sounded that way. Just meant that the stuff about screenwriters’ Hollywood and live TV plays (late-ish-ly revived as unscreenwritten Reality?) seemed like an account of what was already distant past even when that novel & similar articles were written.
            More to the point: yes! to what you said about the Leone — or Morricone — films. (SL himself actually admits somewhere that the soundtracks were mostly made first and the films built around those.) But maybe even better — & with similar deadpan-explosive history/politics — is the Morricone/Sergio Corbucci double act. Best of all — for Morricone’s hung/drawn/quartered guitars, Klaus Kinski as Klaus Kinski and an ultra-laconic tale of … well, Naked Capitalism really — is Il Grande Silenzio (‘The Great Silence’).

            1. clincial wasteman

              Before the justified ridicule kicks in from all sides, yes that was a stupid thing to say: of course Reality TV is screenwritten too, even if it’s by algorithms rather than auteurs.

              1. ambrit

                No, that’s not silly. Propaganda, which this readership is more attuned to then most, is a method of guiding ‘reality’ through algorithms. In effect, propaganda tries to be the ‘script’ for reality.
                Life imitates art imitates life imitates…..

  19. ekstase

    “The answer perhaps lies in a laudable desire to protect creative persons from political persecution, however unsavory their work. ”

    This is laudable, but a filmmaker who has the backing of armed bullies has already protected themselves, at the expense of the public. As was pointed out above, artists have a duty to tell the truth; it’s a part of their function in a healthy society, and by neccesity, since, if they are any good, they must break new ground for the society. The audience has to be able to trust that the artist was interested in finding out and telling the truth. When an “artist” has broken that trust, they have broken something that is like a lifeblood for the culture. It’s using a very specialized power for a very wrong thing.

    1. Ulysses

      “artists have a duty to tell the truth.”

      Well, any good artist tells a truth, but I have never witnessed an artist tell the truth. No one person knows the whole truth, because we are all limited by our own lived experiences. The honest journalist or historian tries to assemble a number of different truths, and transparently show the bias underlying each one.

      A fictional storyteller, on the other hand, uses all kinds of trickery to promote one particular perspective and obscure other possible perspectives. Umberto Eco, in Baudolino, makes a point of teasing the reader with the fact that there is no way to distinguish lies from fact in his narrative.

  20. Adam Eran

    I’m puzzled by why we single a woman film maker out for criticism when the run of the mill TV schedule is full of torture promotion (24), and noble police striving to find the serial killer under every woodpile (Criminal Minds), and so on.

    This is the very stuff of American entertainment: murder & mayhem, always and forever dominated by the tough police state. It wasn’t always so (Barney Miller! Andy Griffith!). Foreign films and dramas seem to have a very different emphasis…less heartlessness, more attention to nuance and persuasion rather than domination.

  21. The Polemicist

    One of my favorite quotes on aesthetics and politics is one I came upon years ago (cannot remember the source), supposedly from the U. S. Seventh Army interrogation report of Riefenstahl:

    “She has never grasped, and still does not grasp, the fact that she, by dedicating her life to art, has given expression to a gruesome regime and contributed to its glorification.”

    A poignant sentence, written by some anonymous Army officer in 1945, that outdoes many volumes that have been written on the subject.

  22. Lune

    I did see the movie, and I wasn’t impressed. My objections were two-fold:

    1) As art, it isn’t very original. Yes, it was technically well executed (cinematography, etc.) but there was no artistic innovation akin to Birth of a Nation (which truly created the form of cinematic storytelling that we still follow today). So the idea that whatever its political statements, it should be valued as a work of art doesn’t work (for me). Purely as a work of art, it’s no more interesting than your typical summer action movie.

    2) I wouldn’t mind its political implications if it were true. That is, I’m firmly opposed to torture both for moral and practical reasons (it’s abhorrent, and it also doesn’t work in getting useful information). However, if it were true that capturing OBL required torture, then that’s an inconvenient truth that I can’t fault ZDT for exposing. But it wasn’t true. In real-life, the capture of OBL relied on traditional spycraft including quite a bit of luck (if you believe Hersch that their main source just walked up to them, without even requiring any recruitment).

    So what’s the point of a movie that was fiction, and has very little artistic merit beyond a usual action movie?

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