The Lost World (1925)

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  • directed by Harry Hoyt
  • starring Lloyd Hughes, Wallace Beery, Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Arthur Hoyt, Alma Bennett
  • Maverick scientist Prof. Challenger claims that dinosaurs still exist on a remote Brazilian plateau, and to prove his assertion he leads an expedition up the Amazon. 

“My elephant gun might as well be a bean-shooter! We’d need a cannon for that baby.”

The star of The Lost World and the man most responsible for the film’s enduring, iconic status is not billed in the credits above, nor does his name appear in those of the movie itself. The cast was just fine, effectively conveying all of the adventure-by-numbers beats and individual plot threads. Sure, sure. Harry Hoyt for his part is probably a better writer and thinker than director, but he did oversee a great thrill ride of a movie. OK. The only reason a lot of the roads of cinema lead back to The Lost World, though, is the stop-motion and model animation work of special effects innovator Willis O’Brien.

Before WETA, ILM, Cameron, and Trumbull could advance the ball in the modern era, there was the work of Willis O’Brien in The Lost World. Well, technically not, because in this movie he merely established the work that would be polished and perfected eight years later in his true masterwork, King Kong, but still. If an extra boost to his legacy is needed, which it is not, his stop-motion techniques and principles were carried into the 50s and 60s by a protege, the highly influential Ray Harryhausen.

I would contend that, aside from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it wasn’t until four decades after O’Brien’s work in The Lost World and King Kong that the next bullet point on the timeline of technological breakthroughs in film, was placed with 2001: A Space Odyssey. There were countless narrative, structural, genre, and stylistic leaps in those passing decades, and cinematography and acting went through enormous evolutions. Yet special effects and films that planted a flag in the sand signaling a bold new way took only gradual steps forward. Only a few movies in history seemingly came out of nowhere, technologically speaking. 2001 did thanks to the marriage of Douglas Trumbull’s one of a kind effects and the thoughtful and meticulous direction of Stanley Kubrick. Similarly, the borderline insane scope of James Cameron’s ambition mixed with ILM’s ingenuity helped usher in the age of the modern blockbuster with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. We’re still playing on Cameron’s field two decades later believe it or not. Cases can be made for Star Wars, a good chunk of Spielberg, Toy Story, or The Lord of the Rings, but I see them as standing on the shoulders of the giants before them rather than untethered revolutionary works.

Back to the forefather, The Lost World, something very interesting happens along the way as you watch. The production itself acts as a bridge between two eras of possibilities. In one half you have the team of adventurers reaching the plateau confirming the presence of the dinosaurs. These scenes, I cannot imagine how dazzling to witness in 1925, act more as a showcase of O’Brien’s work than a part of the narrative. There is very little integration between the dinosaurs and the human characters, so instead we see the creatures being observed from afar, grazing, flying solo, or fighting each other to the death as the human characters carry out their human side stories—Paula’s quest to rescue her father, Challenger’s for vindication, and Malone’s to achieve true heroism. The danger of being so close to the beasts is implied but really the biggest threat to the group, as long as they remain semi-intelligent and keep their distance, is a pesky carnivorous ape—a person in an ape costume with an actual chimpanzee sidekick—that is actively trying to kill and eat them.

Somewhere along the course of production, leading to a major shift in the movie, O’Brien develops a way for his animated models to share the same frame as the actual film footage, as opposed to being split side by side. And so we are afforded a great, but more crude version of a Kong-New York City-like rampage of a Brontosaurus let loose onto the streets of London, ruining buildings, crashing his head into a window and interrupting a poker game, and demolishing Tower Bridge, before casually making his way out of the city via the River Thames.

Witnessing the destruction of some of London followed by the quiet path of “the monster” down-river, our human characters, having satisfied all of their romantic and professional pursuits over the course of the journey into and out of the Amazon, are borderline serene and content about such an unexpected end. It was personal fulfillment they were after all along; it just took conquering treacherous elements and a bizarre ape-man, and transporting one of the dinosaurs halfway across the world to realize that.

In the case of The Lost World, the distinct split between narrative and technology makes it easy to attribute who was responsible for what. It was an Arthur Conan Doyle novel changed rather dramatically by screenwriter Marion Fairfax, directed and acted not quite remarkably by Hoyt and his cast, with mesmerizing animation work by Willis O’Brien. It’s all easily compartmentalized on screen and slightly disjointed because of that. For all of its modest strengths outside of the dinosaurs, nobody would talk about it after 1925 without those monsters living, breathing, and inhabiting natural space on the screen.

Number Seventeen (1932)

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  • directed by Alfred Hitchcock
  • starring Leon M. Lion, Anne Grey, John Stuart, Donald Calthrop, Barry Jones, Ann Casson, Henry Caine, Garry Marsh
  • A gang of thieves gather at a safe house following a robbery, but a detective is on their trail.

“Ya don’t have to do nothin’ in this ‘ere house—ya stand still and things happen!”

Several factors, chief among them an incredibly boomy audio track on my DVD and no available subtitles, reduced my experience with this early Hitchcock film to essentially sitting back and looking at it for its 65-minute runtime. I then read about its subpar legacy, the fact that Hitchcock hated the film looking back on it and never wanted to make it in the first place, and I realize that absorbing the atmosphere and taking note of some of the experimentation and craft involved is really the best one can do with Number Seventeen. Hitchcock once said, “if it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” With this film that logic sadly does hold up.

It became clear that actually hearing the dialogue wouldn’t have aided in my comprehension of such a nonsensical story. Even further, there would be no difference if a few of the missing links in the plot had been better connected, or at all. There was no foundation for emotional investment. It was an exercise in lighting and editing full of people, not characters, and a messy pile of moments standing in for a narrative. In that way it reminds me of another blemish on Hitchcock’s early years, Jamaica Inn, but at least that one had Charles Laughton memorably and ruthlessly devouring the scenery. I am astonished to find that of the 62 films of the 1930s that I’ve watched for the blog to date, two Hitchcock films are neck and neck for dead last.

I won’t attempt to go over the story in great detail. There are two sections to the film, that much I know. We begin in a very dark and shadow-laden house where a band of thieves and a detective kind of circle in and out with concerns about a missing necklace. Eventually a latch is opened which reveals an expressionistic staircase that leads to a train yard. Maybe it was an intentional choice, but because of darkness and unintelligible visual storytelling, the nature of this house as it pertains to physical space is something that never becomes clear. The second half of the film is a frantic, near-chaotic chase between bus and runaway train. Anyway, I am barely more capable of summing this up than someone who’s never heard of it before.

As I sat there passively looking, though, a few things did stand out. There were some truly funny moments particularly from Leon M. Lion as Ben. Thankfully Hitchcock wasn’t taking any of this too seriously. Additionally it was interesting to see shadows so prominent that at times they completely swallowed a scene’s main action. Hitchcock’s camera was always close, acting as a member of a group as opposed to pulling back to capture everything, and the house scenes were DARK, with any sources of light pulsing and shadows dancing across the background begging for attention. This would have been good atmosphere in a better film, but instead it all added to the confusion.

I’m happy to sit works like this and Jamaica Inn because it makes me think about the nature of genius in regards to filmmaking. The highs of Hitchcock are so well known that it is somewhat startling to realize that he also made truly abysmal films. There are countless “legendary” directors that made it through an entire career without an undebatably terrible film, albeit not with 60 credits to their name. Maybe it was just Hitchcock being young and green. When he achieves great success, his pacing and audience manipulation strikes me more than anything as resembling a virtuosic performance of music; to pay just as much attention to the whole journey as the smaller moments, to know precisely when to turn it up or not at all. A skill in that sense would certainly require years of practice, something which we may have seen in bits and pieces on screen through the 1920s and 30s. Maybe the missteps get chalked up to unproductive studio relationships or him not caring about the material. As we now know of his later work, the very best tend to feature a director that cares so deeply that he terrorizes everyone involved, including himself and loved ones.

On the upside, things greatly improved in Hitchcock’s career soon after his next film, the musical Waltzes From Vienna, which he would later look back on as something of a rock bottom. He would finish the decade with the Gaumont British Picture Corporation and gather momentum with films like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes, then take a step back again with Jamaica Inn before achieving decades of brilliance in Hollywood.

I Met Him in Paris (1937)

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  • directed by Wesley Ruggles
  • starring Claudette Colbert, Melvyn Douglas, Robert Young, Lee Bowman, Mona Barrie
  • Kay Denham is off for a fling in Paris, where she meets two new suitors, Gene and George.

“You know sometimes I wish I was crazy, too.”

There’s a decent movie trapped somewhere inside of I Met Him in Paris. Along the way, it tries its hand at several different styles of comedy—slapstick, screwball, romantic—but ends up earning few if any of the laughs due to a deeply flawed script.

Exhibit A: Claudette Colbert’s Kay Denham leads a conservative and unsophisticated lifestyle in America. She is not a modern woman. One of the men she meets when arriving in Paris, George Potter (Melvyn Douglas), is a placid, perpetually passed-over novelist who keeps an air of superiority to him even when in the throes of crushing defeat. We know these character traits not through backstory or actions that inform. Instead each of the adjectives above is directly spoken to the characters by each other or by the characters about themselves. On the nose dialogue is in charge of uncovering depth of character. It is a prime example of how a script can torpedo the delight in watching agreeable stars in beautiful scenery take part in unique-to-film activities, such as bobsledding, all while trying to arrive at the love of one’s life. The pieces are there. I was primed to love a romantic comedy with Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas, two favorites. But to my horror, unfortunately it wasn’t even a script that underserved its players, it was one that tried its best to suck the life force right out of them

We meet Kay aboard a Europe-bound ocean liner as she attempts to shake suitor number one, the puppy-like Berk. She is literally and figuratively struggling to push away her old boring life and satisfy a craving for adventure. Berk, god bless him I really did enjoy Lee Bowman’s pathetic portrayal most of all, will resurface later.

Shortly after arriving in Paris she meets numbers two and three, George Potter and Gene Anders. The two men are…friends, I think? They say they are but were acting more like two people who stay near each other and comment on what the other person is doing wrong in life. Anyway, life is a competition for them and it’s all very unclear. After a few intentional misdirections, Anders gets out to quick lead in the Kay-courting game, which leads to probably the biggest flaw of the movie, turning George Potter into an ineffectual curmudgeon.

They all head to Switzerland by train and around this point there might as well have been a flashing, neon arrow over Potter’s head reading “this is the hero, root for him.” But at that same point he was completely neutered beyond any possible romantic possibilities; just a grouch that realizes he’s lost the game and can do nothing but be a wet blanket at all times. Just look at this abomination of a come-on he delivers to Kay at the end of his rope: “I love you. Don’t let it bother you, ‘cause I’ve loved other women and nothing’s ever happened. And don’t feel sorry for me because I also love beautiful pictures and good books, and they don’t love me.” Get out your hand fans, ladies, this is your leading man. Further draining the romance on the screen is Gene Anders, a married playboy who, if you can parse through the thick decorum of 1930’s Hollywood, at the end of the day only wanted a one night stand with Kay. For most of the movie, though, he is presented, and presents himself against his true desires, as a viable candidate for marriage.

After all the death-defying attempts at skiing, bobsledding, and ice skating, the constant one-upmanship of Gene and George, and ultimately the arrival of Gene’s wife, Kay has seen enough and retreats back to the simple life. All three extremely unappealing men, including a dumbstruck Berk fresh from travel, flock to her side to plead their extremely unappealing cases. George has the best case and so that’s your big Hollywood finish.

My complaints have been filed accordingly, but there were a few enjoyable things happening. A romantic comedy, however imperfect, decorated by risky winter sports was a novelty that worked for me. And shooting as much as possible in actual open-air mountain locations went a long way. But spending a bit more time enhancing the characters and propping up the love story than figuring out the logistics of slapstick stunts in the snow would have served I Met Him in Paris immeasurably.

Chess Fever (1925)

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  • directed by V.I. Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky
  • starring Vladimir Fogel, Anna Zemtsova, Jose Raul Capablanca
  • With an international chess tournament in progress, a young man becomes completely obsessed and frustrated with the game.

“Chess has made me hate the world.”

There’s an old quote of Russian director Vsevolod Pudovkin’s that says that the foundation of film art is in the editing. All throughout Chess Fever, my introduction to his work and appropriately his first to be released, I couldn’t help but see those principles in every frame. Through quick cuts, humor, pacing, and score, it was impossible not to get swept away by the rhythm of it all. Nearly every scene of the comedy short did two things: contribute to the overall story and individually build with their own minor beginnings, middles, and ends. In one scene, the boy retreats to the ledge of a bridge after being dumped because of his chess obsession. Pudovkin’s camera and the character’s behavior–throwing his prized game accessories in the water, removing his shoes—suggest suicide, but there is a slow turn that happens throughout the scene, with signals along the way, that tell us that it will instead be a positive turning point for our hero.

Most of the humor and lightheartedness of Chess Fever came from Vladimir Fogel’s performance which borrowed heavily from Hollywood comedy film stars of the time.  He was the doting underdog with eccentric mannerisms and daydreams, or hallucinations, of a world other than his own. Just as funny as our chess-obsessed hero, though, was the director himself. When it comes time for light entertainment, the first place you go to browse for titles may not be the Early Russian Cinema shelf, but in this 28 minutes Pudovkin crams a lot of winks, nods, and all-around cleverness. Notice the checkerboard articles of clothing or the giant chessboard that the boy stumbles through at the height of his mania. The cuts were lightning fast. I would guess that the average shot length was something like four seconds. Pudovkin would show all necessary action yet simultaneously explore elsewhere to show anything—kittens playing, passersby, actual footage of Moscow’s 1925 tournament of chess—that would enhance the narrative and contribute, abstractly or not, to the whole.

One year later Pudovkin began what would be his crowning achievement, his “revolutionary trilogy” of films, consisting of Mother, Storms Over Asia, and The End of St. Petersburg. Those films, of the historical, patriotic, and oftentimes devastating variety, would align a lot closer to the tendencies of Russian film in these years. In 1925 Sergei Eisenstein struck first, utilizing the same lyrical and montage-driven style and putting a deep, dark stamp on the map with Strike and The Battleship Potemkin. For all of its charms, Chess Fever amounts to a minor start to the career of Pudovkin, but still a very valuable one in showcasing the techniques he would soon bring to heftier material.

Judge Priest (1934)

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  • directed by John Ford
  • starring Will Rogers, Tom Brown, Hattie McDaniel, Anita Louise, Henry B. Walthall, David Landau, Berton Churchill, Stepin Fetchit
  • Judge Priest, a proud Confederate veteran, dispenses justice in small town Kentucky.

“Maybe I did have a hankering for the spirit of the law and not the letter.”

Judge Priest is the pre-Monument Valley John Ford as you’ve frequently seen him before—chasing the spirit of America through near-mythological visions of his small-town upbringing. Not a lot of the film worked for me necessarily–I needed more resonance and less broad, slow-to-unwind portraiture–but the more that I think about it I realize that it is pivotal in helping to piece together the director’s vision of the country’s rich past and present.

Like many other Ford works, the film highlights patriotism on an intensely personal level, as if the many trials, stains, and lessons of our country’s history were boiled down into the soul of just one man. This concept translates to his Westerns as well, but aesthetically what Judge Priest brings to mind most is 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln. Both centered on a contentious court case and the leads of each, with their strong convictions and folksy charm, both lead the lonely life of a widow during rapidly changing times. The latter film executed everything better in my view, the script especially, but I suspect that Ford held Judge Priest in higher esteem because in 1953 he revisited the Irvin S. Cobb series of stories for The Sun Shines Bright, on record as Ford’s favorite Ford. Perhaps I would be more forgiving of the film had this been an origin story, the first adaptation of Cobb’s series instead of a standalone piece. There are too few minutes devoted to actual plot and the film takes a lot of time scene-setting, kind of forcing the audience to adopt the lackadaisical, julep-sipping attitude of its geography.

We open with Priest passing down a judgment on Stepin Fetchit’s character, an accused chicken thief. Fetchit was the go-to guy for Hollywood if a script called for a buffoonish cartoon character of an African American. Just as the film’s other black star, Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, was the proud and tuneful Mammy choice of the time. These were deeply stereotypical portrayals, as it was on the other side of the coin–the hootin’ and hollerin, tabacca-chewin’ Confederate Pride folks in the film. There was also Will Rogers’ Colonel Sanders outfit to contend with, as well as a taffy pulling party, which is apparently a thing where people socialize while literally pulling taffy between each other. There should have been no surprise of what was in store from the opening title crawl which placed the film in a small Kentucky town in 1890, but it was indeed the Old South turned up to about a 20 out of 10.

Ford even brought into the fold Henry B. Walthall, one of the more memorable faces from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The veteran actor’s epic scene that closes the film is the typical stuff of Confederate romance novels everywhere, but it is the most visually striking scene of the film, with Walthall’s free-floating head superimposed over great Civil War battle scenes, and his speech is delivered with striking charisma and stoicism.

For all the wince-inducing moments of Judge Priest, I give praise to both Ford and Rogers for the solid undercurrent of tolerance and racial acceptance running through the film. Ford’s reliance on stereotype in this case was not one of ignorance but to draw lines as stark as possible and perhaps heighten the audience’s response in the process. For Rogers’ part, the film definitely clicks best in the scenes which see Priest connecting with Fetchit’s Jeff Poindexter or McDaniel’s Aunt Dilsey on a personal level, whether in song or leisurely jest.

Doctor Bull (1933)

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  • directed by John Ford
  • starring Will Rogers, Vera Allen, Marian Nixon, Howard Lally, Andy Devine, Rochelle Hudson, Elizabeth Patterson
  • Dr. George Bull, a no-nonsense country health officer who has served his community for decades, fights small-town prejudice and provincialism.

“Yes, sir…if I just had some house slippers now, I’d be right at home.”

Somehow I had been oblivious to the existence of circus performer, vaudeville and silent film star, radio man, lecturer, humorist, goodwill ambassador, philosopher, Beverly Hills mayor, and one-time presidential candidate Will Rogers, and consider me surprised if I come across anybody who packed more living into life between the years of 1910 and 1935. Doctor Bull along with Henry King’s State Fair this same year kicked off the final phase of Rogers’ life and, less crucially, career as a good-natured, simple, and wit-smart kind of leading man.

Rogers hand selected his personal favorite director, John Ford, to take the reins on Doctor Bull, along with Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend in the following years. Speaking of the former, though I’m sure this applies to the next two, they were intended most of all as a showcase for Rogers’ extremely popular persona. In his performances, columns, and various other outlets the man did more than most in shepherding the public and culture through the epic shifts of the 20s and 30s. He could connect on a “those were the good old days level,” while also maintaining a progressive edge that said, folks, there’s nothing much terrible about all the NEW that’s been goin’ on.

That’s more or less the entire plot of Doctor Bull. Everything is a scandal in the small town of New Winton, be it a widow being pursued by a new man or a couple of sarcastic quips thrown around to lighten the mood of a sudden death or medical emergency. George Bull is at the center of all of it. He has the manner and appearance of a closed-minded yokel but none of the ignorance and humorlessness. Bull takes his healing and life-saving duties seriously, but is equally at home blowing off appointments to relax with his girl, the widow Cardmaker, or throw back some drinks with the guys. Professionally he is caring and thorough but his background is in “treatin’ cows, not folks.” It reminded me of an old grade-school nurse of mine. Headache? Let’s take your temperature. Sprained ankle? Let’s get that temperature. Hangnail? Let’s take your temperature. For all of Bull’s eccentricities (telling a group of mourners at a graveyard, “why all the tears, did one escape?”), he got the job done, sacrificed himself often, and had New Winton and its people deep in his mind, heart, and soul.

Dr. Bull’s appointment book provides the blueprint for most of the film—a baby delivery here, some vaccinations for schoolchildren there, and then there are the major cases that weigh on him emotionally, such as curing his receptionist’s husband of his paralysis. Little by little as he bounces around helping, the overarching theme of Bull’s struggles with the townspeople and the outright war within himself concerning his limitations begins to take shape.

It was a simple story, but a very pleasant and comfortable one. Kind of an off-brand task for the usually more commanding John Ford, but I’m sure not an unwelcome one to work with the top-grossing star in Hollywood during the peak years of the Great Depression. Ford provided the perfect small town atmosphere and I particularly loved his shot introducing the town of New Winton, with the stationary camera panning widely from one edge of town to the left, arriving all the way right to the church at the other end. With the exception of slight choices by Ford and some truly funny moments arising from Elizabeth Patterson’s outrage and Andy Devine’s persistence, the film’s success relied mainly on the likeability factor of Will Rogers and that was just alright wit’ me.

Le Million (1931)

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  • directed by René Clair
  • starring Annabella, René Lefévre, Vanda Gréville, Jean-Louis Allibert, Paul Ollivier
  • An impoverished painter and his rival engage in a race across Paris to recover a jacket concealing a winning lottery ticket.

“The breeze on this night so fair/ Carries off our coupled sighs/ Far away toward distant skies.”

A down on his luck man hounded by debt collectors beats the odds to win the lottery at exactly the right moment in René Clair’s early sound film Le Million. The victory ends up being the easy part for Michel as a series of incidents places a jacket which holds the ticket in the hands of a couple of criminals before ending up as a tenor’s costume in a production of “Les Bohémiens.”

From that point on, Clair’s music- and joy-filled seemingly endless amount of chase sequences begin in the original apartment building before moving to the streets of Paris and finally the Lyriqué Opera sequence, my favorite of the film, a master class on editing and tone, and the one which really illustrated René Clair’s fixation on music and theater, as well as his conflicted views on the advent of sound. It is in this sequence where we see Michel and Beatrice having a momentous conversation about their love for each other without speaking a word. A full relationship arc full of thoughts, facial expressions, and emotion conveyed only by the lyrics of the opera happening on stage; a neat trick that shows that Clair came armed with sound to play and be clever.

It was very early on when Clair declared that sound would be the death of film and cinema. Le Million was his second sound film after Under the Roofs of Paris, and by that time his feelings had evolved to a place where his intention with the new tool was to use it as an added artistic element to silent film principles as opposed to “killing the camera” with dialogue-heavy productions, as was stated in his 1959 interview with Jim MacAndrew. Silent film was something new and revolutionary, his thoughts continued, and sound and dialogue would fatefully revert the cinema back to the old styles and traditions of live theater.

It makes perfect sense that Clair’s opinion would be cautious, to say the least. His approach to filmmaking around this time was basically a celebration of silent cinema itself as a means of conveying the vibrant energy and beauty of life’s surface. They were a toast to the general joys of life and nary a complexity or double-meaning reared its head. You would be swept away and humming with a pep in your step after watching a Clair film, but what you see is very much what you get. It’s funny to think of how many similarities his work shares with Ernst Lubitsch in my mind–the grandeur, the artificial, highly-stylized sets, the whimsy, the lack of fear when it comes to the corny–but the two come to a very sharp fork in the road when it comes to what’s lying under the surface. Lubitsch films say a hell of a lot of things without directly saying them. Clair’s on the other hand are usually content to say nothing at all.

Many have said that he remained a silent film director in style even into the 1940s, which led to a falling out of favor for his legacy especially as French New Wave pioneers were quick to dismiss his work as safe and too fixated on the mainstream. Luckily I’m the type of film watcher who delights in the smart type of mainstream as much or possibly more than the revolutionary.

Visually, Le Million is like watching a silent film with an audio track added in years later. Though it had more dialogue than I was expecting, you can clearly tell which aspects of sound that Clair was most delighted to employ, for instance his use of bells, whistles, unintelligible crowd noise, and music as decorative accents to the lottery mayhem. Overall though there’s a feeling of disjointedness in watching sound hand in hand with the showy brand of silent film performances. I’ve seen several silent films that look and feel like less of a silent film than Le Million, but that was Clair’s flag to fly and I respect that it comes off as not clinging to the past but as a conviction that the past is important enough to bring along to the future.

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