Culture Warrior

Culture WarriorEvery Tuesday, Landon Palmer brings you Culture Warrior: an analysis of film as an art form and an examination of its role within larger trends in culture and society. Integrating media scholarship and film history with a critical eye on popular and contemporary cinema, Culture Warrior combines ongoing conversations in the worlds of academia and online film criticism. Whether looking at big studio franchises or arthouse indies, changing industry practices or new distribution models, every week Culture Warrior brings what you’re seeing in the theater or at home into a whole new light.

Updates Every: Tuesday

Resident+Evil+Afterlife

I’m not entirely certain, but I think I’m late to the conversation about “vulgar auteurism.” While I’m sure I’ve heard the hundred-dollar phrase at some point before, it wasn’t until this weekend that my Twitter feed became overloaded with musings about it (and the inevitable punnery – i.e., “vulgar aneurism”). As far as I can see, more has been written in an attempt to either define or dismiss the phrase (or both) than actually practice it. After reading some pro and con pieces about attempts to assess supposedly “disreputable” films by the likes of Justin Lin, Paul W.S. Anderson, and Neveldine/Taylor, I found myself at a crossroads. I’m not convinced that the term has much (if anything) valuable to offer serious criticism, or constitutes a significant intervention within good ol’ auteurist readings. At the same time, I can’t align myself with its critics, notably their implicit or explicit dismissals of the possibility that Hollywood’s postmodern modes of address have anything to offer serious assessments of film as an art form. Thus, in lieu of taking a side in the admittedly insular “debate” about “vulgar auteurism” (think of it as the revenge of “cultural vegetables”), that this debate is happening at all evidences several important points about both the state of mainstream cinema and the role of the discerning critic within it.

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Arrested Development

The original 3 seasons of Arrested Development that ran from 2003-2006 represent arguably the highest form of situation comedy. The show contrived and constructed a complex web of intersecting situations within each episode that continually developed and overlapped with each other throughout the series. Gags like Tobias’s coming out as a denim-cutoff-donning “never-nude” were briefly hinted at, later explained, then circuitously referenced during the rest of the series as the characters and the ensemble developed through a fast-paced narrative. It’s Arrested Development’s deft balance of many simultaneous situations that made it such a continually rewarding, notably risky, and certainly groundbreaking show for network television: the show remunerates the attentive viewer by returning to gags and referencing situations from past episodes even as present situations rapidly advance. I can’t think of another show before it that successfully and inventively got so much mileage out of individual revisited gags. Rather than simply repeat the same gag, like a catchphrase, Arrested Development laboriously re-contextualized prior jokes with big and small variations on their results (e.g., the many ways Michael forgets who Anne is). Netflix’s new season of Arrested Development is, as reported, comparably ambitious in its approach to the situation comedy. The show makes good on its promise of audacity by replacing its prior experimentation with the situation with an experiment in structure.

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review behind the candelabra

There seems to have been a decisive change in the mainstream biopic recently. Instead of attempting to chronicle a public figure’s emergence into renown from childhood to death, several biopics find their subject in a way that assumes the achievement of fame to be a given from the get-go. Movies like Capote, Invictus, Hitchcock, and Lincoln (not to mention the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks) choose to examine a particular episode in the life of a well-known person instead of justify its subject’s achievement of fame by depicting a summary trajectory of youth to adult achievement. Sure, J. Edgar and The Iron Lady stand out as conspicuous exceptions, as signs that the conventions of the biopic are still alive and well. But this newer approach to the biopic (Invictus excepted) seems to allow a great deal of opportunities that conventional biopics don’t (to the point where they’re arguably no longer biopics): the ability to understand the exceptional individual not through a portrait of their entire life, but through a detailed examination of a more narrative-friendly set of select events and circumstances drawn from a particular point in their life. Such is the same with Steven Soderbergh’s latest (and purportedly last) film, HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. By taking a more modest and focused route to the biopic, Candelabra is a close and fascinating examination of the bizarre phenomenon of fame itself.

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Kickstarter Last Resort

Recently, the act of donating to or promoting a Kickstarter campaign has become a highly politicized and moralized one for movie fans, an act brimming with questions, crises, and conundrums about systemic economic disadvantages normalized by dominant industries of filmmaking. Suspicion has been directed in droves toward legitimate-seeming yet vastly-supported projects like the studio-release Veronica Mars movie or Zach Braff’s directorial follow-up to Garden State, whose constellation of multiple funding sources perhaps says more than we’d like to admit about the complex process of realizing even the most distinctly above-the-line indie projects. While frustration directed at a feature adaptation of a canceled UPN show or Braff’s seemingly boundless ability to produce haterade may appear legitimate when accounting for Kickstarter’s role as the possible final refuge for American alternative filmmaking, fingers should instead be pointed to the reasons that a resource like Kickstarter has become necessary in the first place.

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Warner Bros

In the days leading up to Wednesday, May 1st, Netflix subscribers scrambled to get through numerous titles on their Instant queues that were scheduled to disappear as part of their move to the Warner Archive Instant, easily the highest-profile to-date streaming archive owned and operated exclusively through a particular studio. With an expanding selection of films and television programs that range from classics like When Harry Met Sally to dozens of resurrected B-movies to truly hard-to-find films like Wim Wenders’s forgotten sci-fi epic Until the End of the World, the Warner Archive Instant is a treasure trove for any cinephile invested in the potential of the digital preservation and exhibition.*** Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the Warner Archive Insant is that its potential success should assuage fears about the digital conversion process and studios closing their vaults on repertory prints: here’s an example demonstrating how studios can utilize their back log in a way that caters to film fans and, in effect, looks to future possibilities for cinema’s past. It’s also a nostalgic foray into the most legible qualities of the classical studio system: gathered together in this archive, the monster movies and gangster films of yesteryear exhibit a collective identity that feels particularly Warners. That said, there are some notable and perhaps troubling implications about a streaming service dedicated to and exclusively run by a major studio. Warner Archive Instant resembles a digital equivalent of the exhibition methods practiced by Warners itself during the years in which […]

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Iron Man 3 Iron Patriot

Spoiler warning: There will be spoilers. Since 2008, a great deal of ink (or, at least, the Internet’s equivalent of ink) has been spilled on the political weight of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. From the depiction of post-9/11 trauma and Batman’s Patriot Act-style tactics in The Dark Knight to The Dark Knight Rises’s ideologically incoherent depiction of Gotham’s Occupy-enabled descent into a metropolitan anarchist dystopia, multiple theories and debates have assessed where the Nolanverse lies on the 21st century American political spectrum. The self-serious tone of these superhero films lend themselves to similarly solemn allegorical readings – Nolan’s Batman films are inferred as brimming with meaning and intent by virtue of an auteur director envisioning an alternative vision of America on a mass scale. But most political readings of the Dark Knight films inevitably encounter contradiction – the ambivalence of these films always fails to match their allegorical promise. The Robert Downey, Jr.-led Iron Man series presents itself as lightweight, goofy summer entertainment, a media object designed to be consumed passively rather than interrogated for its layers of meaning. But Iron Man has explored far more legible, richer, and more interesting politics than its darker counterpart. Its two directors (Jon Favreau and Shane Black), while talented, are situated less as auteurs and more as contributors to a collective, synergistic corporate vision. Iron Man’s politics, while often foregrounded narratively, are presented as a set of ideological assumptions rather than an active investigation of contemporary political tensions. And that’s exactly what makes […]

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Florida Movies

“Kim Jong-un doesn’t understand that we aren’t afraid of him. What that guy doesn’t get is that we already have an unstable peninsula that will ultimately bring down America. It’s called Florida.” The above quote comes from Conan O’Brian’s keynote speech at Saturday night’s Whitehouse Correspondents’ Dinner. O’Brien, of course, doesn’t explain the joke. He doesn’t need to. Not because he’s referencing a specific, recent event in Florida, but because the joke taps into a vast catalog of associations with Florida as a whole. It’s hard to pinpoint one adjective that adequately describes the ways in which Florida’s culture appears to the rest of the nation, but The Sunshine State is certainly in a class all its own. On the one hand, Florida made news this past year for its absurd, unjustifiable gun laws, its bureaucratic bulwarks against democratic participation, and even its cannibals. But in less serious terms, Florida is also known for hosting an astonishing number of bizarre petty crimes and a few emerging one-of-a-kind industries. Many lists, articles, editorials, and even a Twitter feed chronicling the life of the worst superhero ever have all taken part in attempting to surmise why, exactly, the Florida is so damned special. But perhaps recent movies that take place (and were shot on location in) Florida provide the real keys to understanding the idiosyncratic culture of Voldemort’s state. Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain is the third of a string of high-profile films to investigate the lives of that routinely exceptional brand […]

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Over at IndieWire, A.D. Jameson has written a compelling article about whether or not GIFs (the bitmap image format known as Graphics Interchange Format) can be considered cinema. The piece is miles from a imminently clickable gimmick made to start an argument – Jameson’s case is intelligently and thoroughly argued, and he trots out everything from Bruce Conner’s A Movie to Charles and Ray Eames’s Atlas to make it. While far from a heated question (as Jameson points out, the question of whether or not gifs are movies presumes an argument that does not, in fact, exist), it’s an important one. With something as seemingly simple and trivial as the gif, we can ask not only what something called cinema means in and for the 21st century, but also how moving image communication in the age of the Internet communicates in particularly cinematic terms. So I offer something of a refutation, or perhaps a clarification: gifs are certainly cinematic, but they are considerably more than cinema.

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Upstream Color

Warning: Though Shane Carruth has referred to his film as “un-spoilable,” this post discusses the ending of Upstream Color at length. It’s been a little over two weeks since I watched Shane Carruth’s ambitious sophomore feature, Upstream Color, and there are still specific images, moments, sounds and feelings that continue to resonate through my mind. Whether it be the sight of a worm moving through the crevices of a human body, the briefly glimpsed drama of an anonymous couple who made a habit out of creating distance and never reconciled before it was too late, or a man’s poetic gesture of quitting his drone job by watching business papers slowly float down several stories in a hermetically sealed, ultra-modern office-tropolis, Upstream Color is as sleek and expertly polished as it is sneakily affecting. A swimmer recites Thoreau’s “Walden” as she gathers pebbles in an indoor pool. A seemingly benevolent farmer herds and feeds a mundane gathering of pigs in a film in which no quotidian imagery is simply that. Blue and white permeate nature as if color itself was a literal material force of its own. Upstream Color is remarkable in its ability to merge the poetic with the concrete, routinely invoking abstract ideas with specific material symbols. The result is one of the most purely cinematic, well-crafted, and earnestly hopeful films released in the first half of 2013. It displays as much faith in audience intelligence as it does in the idea that a sincerely optimistic message will speak […]

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North Korea Movies

This ain’t exactly breaking news, but North Korea is making headlines again for, amongst other things, threatening to re-ignite its ongoing conflict with South Korea as well as send missiles into a strange selection of American cities, including the home of Reject HQ. Just as the unpredictable, inscrutable, hermetically sealed-off dictatorship is characteristically vague in its threats, North Korea’s culture is something of an enigma writ large: very little of it is witnessed by persons outside the country, and even less culture moves into the country itself. In the age of the Internet, we’ve found out about North Korean life through journalists’ state-sanctioned tours, stories from those who were once held captive in the nation, or simply peripheral experiences like North Korea’s one-of-a-kind one-star airline. North Korean culture appears only in a piecemeal fashion to the outside eye – we receive esoteric details here and there, but little of it adds up to a cohesive picture of what North Korean life looks like from the inside. National cinemas have typically provided a shorthand for understanding a foreign culture. With what little we’ve been able to see of North Korean cinema, the nation’s cinematic history is as strange yet one-note as one might expect. But it also represents something of a former era. Whereas ideology permeates implicitly and heterogeneously within much of 21st century global cinema, North Korean cinema maintains a particularly 20th century sensibility in its decisive use of filmmaking for the benefit of the state apparatus.

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2011_the artist

Slightly over a year ago, after Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist came home with a Best Picture win and accomplished the unlikely feat of becoming a $100+ million worldwide hit, observations hit the web (ranging from hopeful to snarky) speculating whether or not the critical and financial success of this film would bring about a trend of new silent filmmaking. That the film’s gimmick seemed anathema to any marketing department’s formula for success stood as a provocation to an ever recycling Hollywood, declaring: if you revisit winning formulas, why not this one? Of course, few genuinely expected such a trend to actually come to fruition.  In February 2012, David Denby wrote: “We should be happy that The Artist exists at all, of course. Even after being nominated for ten Oscars and winning numerous awards from critics’ groups and the guilds, the film still seems arbitrary—one of those freaks of idealism which sometimes occur in the movies.” Even after the seeming silent-throwback double bill of The Artist and Hugo, Denby can only imagine a silent film resurgence happening in repertory form: a new emerging interest in old classics rather than an opportunity for new filmmakers to experiment with older forms of cinematic expression. But silent cinema has made something of a soft but notable and innovative return subsequent to The Artist – it just didn’t quite happen in the way we expected. Both Miguel Gomes’s Tabu from Portugal and Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves from Spain were recognized as their respective countries’ official selections […]

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Where the Boys Are

The American independent cinema that came to form in the 1990s seems to carry fewer and fewer visionaries untainted by the magnetic promises of Hollywood success. Some directors have “used the system” to shell out sequels and remakes in exchange for passion projects, while others have said goodbye to independent production altogether. Love or hate his movies (assuming that watching them falls into either experiential category), Harmony Korine is an uncompromising enfant terrible and a connoisseur of gutter Americana, the likes of which are increasingly rare. Sure, ever since he became famous as a result of the publicity around his Kids screenplay, his personality has largely exceeded any attention it may have generated towards his filmmaking. But that’s part of the point. I won’t go so far as to call Korine’s public persona an “act,” but (genuine or calculated, as if it can’t be both) Korine notably and consistently performs a character that is unique and familiar: a person obsessed with superficial pleasures, who exercises instinct over contemplation, and who lives in a perpetual state of kinetic energy combined with a hazy experience of reality, yet at the same time acutely and perceptively finding aesthetic value in the lowest rungs of American culture. This latter aspect makes Korine an artist, but it’s the combination that makes him an enigma. It’s striking that Korine’s most mainstream work, Spring Breakers, is also one of his most ambiguous. Does the film force a generation built on the exchange of immediate pleasure, automatic celebrity, constant […]

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Margin Call

At the first critical dramatic pivot moment of J.C. Chandor’s solid Margin Call, Zachary Quinto’s Eric stares at his computer screen, carefully removing his earbuds, as the camera slowly cranes downward. The technique demonstrates that Eric has encountered urgent, potentially catastrophic information about the investment bank he is near-anonymously employed at. We never see what Eric sees; instead, the camera – and the audience – occupy the space of the computer itself, as if the information Eric sees should be projected directly on our imaginations. This technique is common amongst recent critically-acclaimed films that use information, math, data, code and the like as major elements in their plots; the information itself, implicitly meaningless and insignificant on its own to mass audiences who likely don’t possess the expertise of characters (or, for that matter, the filmmakers) is only made fleetingly available, if seen at all. Instead, traditional dramatic techniques illustrate the dramatic affect of the information. Films like Margin Call, Moneyball, and The Social Network balance reliable, empathetic experts (i.e., endearing nerds) with naïve everypersons or conventional narrative devices in order to demonstrate the importance of information, largely without exhibiting information itself. This is an interesting yet surprisingly conservative approach to information-grounded films released in the middle of the ostensible Information Age. Rather than paint a democratized landscape of data, these films posit that information is privileged almost exclusively to the intelligent and the young, and then these films contort themselves to speak to audiences outside specialized fields of expertise.

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SCMS

On Sunday morning, I woke up feeling a combination of physical and mental exhaustion along with the exhilaration of having moved through an impossibly packed schedule. I had attended countless panels, talked movies with friends I hadn’t seen in years and whom I encountered at a variety of different points in my life, attempted (sometimes successfully, often not) to make professional contacts, and enjoyed free food and booze at sponsored parties, a never-unappreciated gift for anyone traveling on a budget – all on very little sleep. And no, I’m not part of FSR’s team covering South by Southwest this year. This was my experience of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in Chicago. The conference is run, as its name suggests, by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, an organization (founded in 1959) that “promotes the scholarly study of film, television, and video” (though the emerging disciplines of game studies and various tracks of digital media should probably be included in this description). SCMS publishes the premiere US-based journal in the academic discipline of film studies,”Cinema Journal.” The conference is the largest academic film and media studies conference in the country, spanning over five days, with 2-5 blocks of 105-minute panels per day, each block containing around 25 panels, workshops, meetings and (sometimes) screenings, all of which involve formal or semi-formal presentations by 3-5 persons. (You do the math.) Flipping through the nearly-200 page conference program can feel like mastering the art of futility. Ibuprofen may be […]

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Searching for Sugar Man

Nobody was surprised last week when Daniel-Day Lewis took home the Best Actor Oscar for Lincoln. It was an accomplished performance by an actor working in a league of his own. But another reason the award seemed so very unsurprising is the fact that a well-known actor was rewarded for embodying a familiar real-life figure. Awards ceremonies have made something of a habit out of rewarding actors for portraying famous real-life persons. One of my major gripes about Philip Seymour Hoffman taking home the gold for Capote in 2006 was the fact that Hoffman, who had never been nominated before, had previously lifted so many original characters off the page and gave them incredible depth (of course, I’m referring to Twister). But the face of a known actor embodying another known face functions like a magnet of praise when accomplished convincingly. The opposite can be said of non-fiction filmmaking. The critical and box office success of Searching for Sugar Man marks the culmination of a trend that’s seemingly particular to mainstream documentary filmmaking: the use of the medium to resurrect or elevate a previously under-appreciated or forgotten personality.

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Oscars Zizek

When Seth MacFarlane, creator of The Cleveland Show and director of the “Pitch” segment of Movie 43, had to bow out of his Oscar-hosting duties at the last minute as a result of a mild case of whooping cough, ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences raised eyebrows when they chose Slovenian philosopher Slovoj Zizek at the last minute to sub in as host of the annual ceremony regularly watched by over 40 million Americans. While an obscure name in most American households and an unlikely choice to emcee the 85th Annual Academy Awards, Zizek is a celebrity in academic circles known for his provocative critiques of Marx and Lacan as well as his prolific production of monographs including Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, and The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. The typically abstruse scholar turned out to be one of the most entertaining and downright stressful hosts the Oscars have featured in decades, besting recent standard-bearers like James Franco and Paul Hogan. Zizek avoided typical decorum as he strutted out on the stage to tepid applause, wearing a baggy pair of jeans and a brown T-shirt with a discernible ring of sweat under the neckline. It wouldn’t be until the closing song and dance number with Kristin Chenoweth that he deigned to put on a tux.

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The Last Stand Arnold Schwarzenegger

In the summer of 2002, an action film was released that declared itself a new kind of spy movie. It said goodbye to the archaic days of Pierce Brosnan’s tired, nostalgia-mining James Bond in favor of something more 21st century. And in 2002, that meant a lot of nu-metal and X-Games stunts. That film was the absurd xXx, which turned out to be a minor hit before Vin Diesel’s action star career went into near-permanent stall mode for the better part of that decade. However, it was a much less arrogant film that ended up changing the spy genre. Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity made Matt Damon into the unlikeliest of action heroes. He proved that American action stars didn’t need to look and talk like professional wrestlers. Damon’s lean, agile, reserved, and intelligent character didn’t require obvious quips, unquestioning jingoism, or a money shot of him walking away from a sea of explosions to be a threatening bad ass. As the first three Bourne films were released to an exponentially bigger cult of admirers, the brute action stars of old faded into obsolescence. Arnold was a politician, Sly was nowhere to be seen, and a post-Shyamalan Bruce Willis took seemingly every part he could get his hands on, good or bad, only briefly returning to his action movie roots with a PG-13 muzzle. Then, at the end of the decade, with the release of The Expendables, the brute action hero nostalgia machine kicked into high gear. And promptly went […]

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Spielberg Lucas Coppola

This weekend, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects opened to better-than-okay reviews and less-than-okay box office. With Soderbergh’s prolific output, this release would be altogether unremarkable, yet another strong if not entirely memorable entry by a director who would likely release another film six months later. However, Side Effects is notable as a quiet swan song, the proposed last theatrical film by a director who has reportedly done all he’d like to do in filmmaking. But Soderbergh is simply the latest (and on the younger side) of a group of directors that have made unofficial pronouncements towards making an exit of sorts from the business in which they made their name. George Lucas is currently in the process of overseeing the path of Star Wars’ cinematic future at Disney before officially going into retirement. This is monumental. A filmmaker known for keeping very tight reigns on his creative property is now fully embracing the potential of other directors’ and corporations’ visions toward his subject matter for film. There’s a dynamic shift here that doesn’t end with Lucas or Soderbergh either.

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HOUSE OF CARDS

Television-after-television had to happen at some point. Of course, television-like content that is exclusively available on the Internet isn’t anything new – webisodes have been a thing for quite some time now. What is new about Netflix’s House of Cards is the fact a program under the rubric of “quality television” – a category of prestige televisual entertainment established by HBO, Showtime, AMC, and some broadcast programs – has now been made available exclusively on the Internet. Not only is House of Cards exclusively on the Internet, but it’s only available via a single subscription outlet. Now that it’s premiered, what could its existence (and potential success) imply for the future of both television programming and what’s now expected of audiences? Furthermore, if a program exists independently of televisions altogether, what exactly do we consider to be “television” now? House of Cards has all the trappings of a heavily promoted HBO program. It’s got high production value, a name cast, and a well-known director at the helm. In other words, like anything from Luck to Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards has cinematic credentials: sleek, medium-shot-heavy cinematography, and marquee names like Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and David Fincher. It’s television tailor-made for the age of letterbox HD broadcasts and DVR. It just isn’t on television.

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Dooley Wilson in Casablanca

A few weeks back, Matthew Perpetua of Buzzfeed wrote a post arguing that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should consider an award for “Best Use of an Old Song,” citing the memorable instances of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” in Silver Linings Playbook and Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” in Moonrise Kingdom as possible contenders in this imaginary category. I could not agree more. It’s been a long time since a Best Original Song or Best Original Score winner made a major cultural impact, and the Music Supervisors who find the best existing music (within legal and budgetary constraints) for the greatest effect deserve their day in the spotlight for making us think about old songs in a new memorable audio-visual context or introducing us to great music that we didn’t know was always out there. Here are the reasons why such a category doesn’t already exist.

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