Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Moana: A Call To Adventure. A Call for Healing.

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I just got back from seeing Moana. I am so blown away by the power and timeliness of this film that I find it difficult to put into words exactly what what I want to say about it. What can I say: I had tears rolling down my face for much of it. It speaks so deeply to what is crying out to be healed today. Two thumbs way up.

My Disney studies mythie partner in crime, Priscilla Hobbs. has already done a lovely discussion of Joseph Campbell’s theories related to this film. I completely agree with everything she said about it. This is Campbell’s hero’s journey through and through, and with Ron Clements and John Musker at the helm, it’s no surprise. You can read Priscilla’s take on it  — here.

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Here’s the story: Moana is the daughter of a chieftain, which technically makes her a princess, kinda, but already sets her up as a different kind of princess, much like Merida. She is in line to become the leader of her people, and again, much like Merida, her family expects her to assume a safe path set out in front of her. At first, she thinks she will take the place her family has set out for her. But she keeps hearing the call of the sea, and the stories of her grandmother beacon her further toward it.

As she assumes the role of leader, a natural disaster begins to develop. The coconut are failing and the fish have disappeared. The island is dying. The people look to their leader, Moana, who looks to her father. In his fear and desire to protect her, he suggests she continue with the conventional ways of doing things. Moana, frustrated, reaches out to her mother. She insists that her father just doesn’t understand her. Her mother replies that he does understand her because he WAS her. She tells Moana about a time when her father went on an adventure of his own and lost a friend in the process. He is afraid that he will lose her too.

Eventually, Moana reaches for an even deeper connection to her family’s woman wisdom. Her grandmother tells her the stories about the ancient chiefs and how they were voyagers. At one time, the people were in harmony with the ocean, and the gods continued to bless them with islands to explore. This all ended when Maui — the shapeshifter, the trickster — stole the heart from Te Fiti. This is a familiar story, much like Prometheus stealing fire to give to the humans in Greek myth. During this process, Maui encounters the lava monster Te Ka. He loses his fish hook, the source of his power and since then, the island of Te Fiti has been cursed.

Moana sets off on a quest to return the heart to Te Fiti, finding and befriending Maui in the process (BRILLIANTLY voiced by the legendary Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).

The film’s themes are clear, and they are ones that Disney has explored in many and varied ways — ecological concerns have become central to Disney films. From live action movies such as Maleficent and The Jungle Book to Disney’s recent string of nature films, it’s become clear that Disney artists are deeply concerned about the state of our ecology. In fact, I’ve always understood the animal sidekicks of the Disney princesses as a reminder that humanity’s heart beats in time with the animal realm. I love that this film calls it out.

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About Maui: The trickster exists in every mythic tradition. Tricksters are complex and basically impossible to define, other than to say that they shape shift. They lie. They destroy things. The reverse human standards. They laugh (mostly at us). They piss us off. They also reveal things that have been buried and then the walk away, often leaving humanity to clean up their mess. Sure, tricksters are jerks, but they are also vital because they break things open that need to be broken and they often aid humanity in our search for knowledge. They insist that the gods share their wisdom with mortals. And they often suffer for it. Without tricksters, the quest for wisdom would never leave the shore.

It’s particularly important to note that Moana doesn’t have a villain in the traditional sense. There is no evil here, simply misunderstanding. Even the trickster isn’t evil, he is just sad, rejected, unloved, and a little misunderstood. And he isn’t just a trickster — he is also a warrior. That warrior part of him is thwarted by his role as a trickster.

Ultimately Moana, another incarnation of Disney’s archetypal maiden, steps forward in bravery, love and acceptance, heals the island, and saves her people. She helps both Maui and the lava monster remember who they are, and in doing so, she becomes a catalyst for healing. She returns balance to the ocean.

This film is a mythic respite of hope in a dark moment when American culture is overrun by the most destructive aspects of both the trickster archetype and the warrior. To me, it feels like a clear calling out of conventional images of masculinity — a come to Jesus moment if you will — as well as a calling out of patriarchal heroism. It reminds us that we can heal, if we want to, but to do that the gentlest among us need to rise up, take the trickster by the ear, and tell him that it’s time to journey across the mighty sea and return the heart he has stolen.

In some ways, Moana is a new kind of Disney heroine, but she is also one that is in line with who Disney heroines have always been — healers who love their families, their people, and especially their fathers. Young women of strength and power who listen to the voice of their elders and do what needs to be done. This film resonates with me a on a deep level. I love it. Thanks Disney!

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Filed under Depth Psychology, Disney/Pixar, Joseph Campbell, Movie Reviews, Walt Disney

Off to the Highlands: Pixar’s Brave and the Allure of Scotland to the American Imagination

Hello dear readers!

Recently, I’ve begun reading the Outlander series (and watching it on TV–its epic…just go read/watch it). This has gotten my thoughts up again about notions of Scottish-ness in the American mythic imagination. The following are some musings that I gave as a paper at a Film and Myth conference in Milwaukee, Wi. back in 2012. It’s a long post. More of an essay than a blog proper. Enjoy!

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Pixar continues to dazzle fans. They are experts in the ability to fuse technology with powerful story. This makes their presence in The Walt Disney Company key to this generation’s renewal of Disney myths. From the animation of America’s favorite toys, to our love affair with cars, Pixar reinterprets American identity from a point of view that is aware of both history and myth. Disney is, arguably, America’s most powerful and influential private sector myth-making enterprise. In the years since their 2006 merger with Disney, Pixar has become the most powerful purveyor of the mythic voice in The Walt Disney Company’s ethos.

Their films reveal—as all myths do—the complexes and collective archetypal base of a culture’s psyche. They craft identity, as folklorist Alan Dundes suggests, they tell stories of how things come to be. They are also specific. They equate a sense of belonging. They are the stories that people tell to say—these are the stories that belong to us. To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the American mythopoetic process—played out in Disney/Pixar’s animated films—is an insistence that because of the diverse social and ethnic background of Americans, the world’s myths ARE America’s myths.

Typically, Pixar has shied away from an appropriation of myths and fairy tales from other cultures, preferring to keep their storytelling safely situated within a specifically American context. With few notable exceptions (Finding Nemo and Ratatouille for example), their fantasies are American fantasies—toys from American toy companies, uniquely American superheroes, a road trip down America’s “Main Street Highway,” and little girls chasing a place that is “like America, but south.” This stands in contrast to the films of The Walt Disney Animation Studio that has generally chosen to reinterpret myths, legends and, most notably, fairy tales from abroad. Pixar’s latest film Brave breaks this pattern. It traverses the fertile ground of Disney fairy tale with an original story, which I’d argue is loosely inspired by Robert San Souci’s Brave Margaret tale. It is set in medieval Scotland, a time a couple of centuries before the legendary and mythic era of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. As an animated film, Brave, is a caricature of myth. It is, however, also a fairy tale.

Although the debate over the primacy of myth over fairy tales is ongoing, I prefer to think of them as complimentary mediums that work in contrasting relationship to each other. In The Feminine in Fairy Tales, Jungian disciple Marie Louise von Franz suggests, “Fairy tales…migrate and cannot be linked up with a national collective consciousness. They rather contain a tremendous amount of compensatory material and usually contradict or compensate collective conscious ideas” (8). If myths are the stories that tell us who we are, fairy tales are the stories that tell us what in the unconscious unites humanity. Fairy tales are purely archetypal, which is why national identity is not central to the genre. Fairy tales are easily appropriated and re-told in any cultural milieu.

This might be why Americans are so quick to meld myth and fairy tale. American myths are often poly-cultural—a key feature of diasporic culture. This is also why it is difficult to define American mythology. This appropriation of fairy tale has created a style of storytelling that is comforting to Americans and mythically potent globally. Brave is an example of archetypal motifs explored through culturalized specificity. It is Scotland through American mythic fairy tale—a Scottish virgin goddess wrapped in an American princess story. The hows and whys of the American archetypal Scot is the focus of the following musings.

From Disney’s live action Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue to Randall Wallace’s screenplay for Braveheart, Scottish characters in American film often represent courage, dogged adherence to individual freedom, and the claim to one’s own fate or destiny. Scotland is a country from which many Americans claim heritage even if, perhaps, it is only an imagined or ideological heritage.

In America, myth-makers often develop their identity through a balance of ideology—land of the free and home of the Brave—and the creation of cultural/national inheritance rather than cultural/national history. Colonialists to the core, it is not simply land and power that we inhabit. Americans are also colonizers of stories. Ideologically speaking, American culture prizes the uniqueness of each perspective. It suggests that what unites us as Americans is our quest for liberty, and that liberty requires that the story of each “clans-member” be heard and respected. This notion of liberty requires Americans to adopt a certain amount of psychological malleability. It is an ideology that—in its best forms—opens the imagination to possibilities for every level of reinvention.

So why Scotland? Why the Scots? What has made this tiny country, which continues to be annexed by Britain and has landmass about the size of the state of Maine so integral to American identity? I would suggest that it is for two central reasons: first-a heritage of political ideology amenable to American myth, and the impact the thinkers of Scotland had on the American Revolution. Second is the cultural appropriation partnership between Scotland and America. The Scots seem to participate in the American appropriation of their mythic cultural heritage, and indeed they often relish the image of “Auld Scotland” and the rugged, indomitable Scot as inextricable from America’s mythic notions of autonomy, freedom, and heroism. It feeds into their sense of their own identity. These mythic images exist in a state of flux, and as well shall see, they provide a backdrop for the exploration of Disney/Pixar’s penultimate girl power princess—Merida, who may be understood as a reiteration of Disney/Pixar’s anima complex—an image of the divine feminine in a generally male dominated studio.

To begin with the historical roots of an American interpretation of the archetypal Scot, it would be safe to suggest that the Scottish people as an ethnic group are central to America’s ideological and political identity. In their book, The Scottish Invention of America: Democracy and Human Rights—The History of Liberty and Freedom from the Ancient Celts to the New Millenium, Alexander Leslie Klieforth and Robert John Munro note that the root of America’s political and ideological relationship with Scotland traces back to the Declaration of Arbroath Abby—signed in 1320—in which the leaders of Scotland issued their declaration of independence from England: “it is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself” (5). This is ideological liberty and a genesis of civil rights in fourteenth century  over four hundred and fifty years before the American Declaration of Independence was conceived. Skip ahead about five hundred years, and the 18th century, saw many referring to Edinburgh as “the Athens of the North”. Scottish philosophy influenced thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Paine, who in turn predicated the American Revolution.

In the American colonies, Scottish philosophy became so entwined with American patriotism that “King George allegedly called The American Revolution a ‘Presbyterian war’” (5), complicated though this relationship with the Scots happened to be.

The Scotch-Irish Intelligentsia: By the 19th century, the Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots represented an image of “Scottishness” which rose to such high prominence that in 1891 a speaker “declared that the synonym for the Scotch-Irish ‘race’ lay in the phrases ‘national freedom, general education, and sound scriptural faith’” (Scazs, 9). By April of 1954, The William and Mary Quarterly had an entire issue dedicated to the links between Scotland and America. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots remained a symbol American affluence.

So what is it that has allowed American filmmakers the narrative leeway to present medieval Scottish characters the way they are often presented today? How did America’s sense of Scottish identity turn from Scotch-Irish Presbyterians to Mel Gibson as William Wallace to Princess Merida and Queen Elinor? In contrast to history, myth allows for the presence of stories filled with sentiment, patriotism, nostalgia, and romance. American mythology in general and, Disney/Pixar storytelling in particular, tends to be deeply nostalgic—a term that is often used to argue against interpreting such stories as being mythic. The term “’nostalgia” comes from the Greek “nostos which means homecoming” and “algia which means severe pain, grief or distress.” Nostalgia as a homecoming of the mind is the crux of American myth. In his book simply titled Myth, Laurence Coupe suggests that it is our mythic expressions regarding home that carry the greatest potential for psychological healing. He writes, “Perhaps mythos, which has the power to release us from the limits of the given logos can restore us to oikos…” (214). In other words, stories have the power to release us from the limits of language and restore us to home.

To the extent that sentiment rules an unconscious drive for nostalgia, romance rules myth. This “romance” of Scottishness creates a longing for the re-creation of an archetypal Scotland of the mind. This romance begins in history, as it becomes a seminal aspect of the American myth of liberty. One might argue that this makes Hollywood—arguably the most potent maker of American myth—the natural choice for a continued dialectic between the mythic imagination and American cultural practices.

Enter what has been called “The Braveheart Effect.” In the last twenty years since Braveheart, practice has grown up around these notions of Scottishness. This includes American movements to reclaim clans-lands in Scotland, a revival of Highland Games/tartans, and perhaps the most powerful piece of the “Braveheart effect,” the image of the “warrior poet” This image has become a standard for masculinity among those engaged in contemporary Neo-Celtic culture.

In large part, it is because of these Hollywood images of that an interest in Neo-Pagan practice, a revival of a largely neglected tartan tradition, tattooing (common in ancient Celtic practice and forbidden for much of Christian history), an affection for the Thistle (Scotland’s national flower) and a revival of the tales of the “wee” folk, or the Scottish Will O’ The Wisps are all part of collective consciousness. The image of the highlander has eclipsed the image of the Scottish gentleman on the golf course, the seminarian, and perhaps even the rough and rugged Westward Ho pioneer.

Team DunBroch—In fact, while crafting Brave, Disney/Pixar participated so deeply in this romance of Scotland that it registered the tartans of the realm of DunBroch with the Scottish National Tartan Registry. By doing this, Brave speaks to the impact the “Braveheart effect” has on the concept of heritage building, creating a mirror image of Braveheart, which intentionally plays into the central Disney maxim for story: It’s gotta have heart.

On November 21, 2010, the Los Angeles Times posted an article suggesting that The Walt Disney Company was closing the book on fairy tales for the present (despite the widely popular Once Upon A Time television series—I’m not sure they are done). In other words, the big wigs at Disney are saying that they will leave Brave, and Merida as their last animated last word on the fairy tale princess until, as Ed Catmull, Pixar fellow and president of Disney Animation Studio suggests, the time comes to reinterpret them again. You may be thinking, yes, yes, this makes sense…but why another princess? And why the Scottish woman?

In August of 2011, I attended the Disney 23 Expo where Disney luminary, Don Hahn, gave a presentation on creativity and its psychological importance. In his presentation, he spoke about C.G. Jung’s concept of the archetypes as the genesis of what we create. He argued that Disney artists, like any artist, intuit and respond to changes in archetypal energies. Beyond any argument (true as it may be) that Disney/Pixar is riding the girl power/archer trend, it is also responding to a deeply felt shift in the feminine aspects of America’s collective psyche. The characters in Brave are part of this feminist shift within the studio, a shift in the anima complex.

The choice of Scotland and Scottish women as a zenith of Disney/Pixar’s animated word on fairy tale women makes sense in regards to a mythic fascination with the archetypal Celtic woman. “The Braveheart effect’s” intensely masculinized image of Scottishness casts the spirited Celtic woman in a supporting, albeit unforgettable role (think Jessica Lange in Rob Roy). This, however, is an unacceptable and inaccurate portrayal of the ancient Celtic woman. Klieforth and Munro remind us that most scholars of ancient Celtic culture agree that women had a remarkably egalitarian role in their society. They fought in battle, were equal to men, and maintained civil rights and property before, during, and after their marriages. Even Julius Caesar, (himself full of distain for the Celtic people) was impressed by the power of the Celtic woman. In contemporary American culture, the image of the Celtic woman often evokes the persona of a woman who refuses to sacrifice position, consequence, community, or heart. Merida and Elinor re-envision the archetypal Celtic woman: a feminine balance and a temper to the prevalence of “The Braveheart effect.” These images remind contemporary neo-Celtic culture devotees that the ancient world was a place where women were prevalent and goddesses were powerful.

Merida’s Brave Feminist Heart ALL stories in the canon of The Walt Disney Company ultimately speak to transformative nature of love and the importance of familial bonds, and Brave is no exception. Despite the gags and spectacular visual effects, Brave is fundamentally the story of a virgin princess who celebrates her own power and comes to learn to balance it. So, who IS Merida? She is an adolescent woman feeling the ennui of being oppressed by an insistence that she become the kind of princess her mother expects her to be. She shuns the idea of marriage, insisting that she has the power to shoot for her own hand as she desperately seeks to maintain her own identity.

The oppression she feels from her mother is made ever more acute by the ineffectual, good-natured barbarism of her father, and the stupidity of the men in power around her—again mirroring the world of Braveheart. She rebels, spouting rhetoric that could have come directly from William Wallace himself, and in her effort to change her mother; she unwittingly sets out on a quest to change herself and all those around her. However, in order to fulfill her desire, she must, like the virgin goddesses of the ancient world, withdraw to wildness of the forest.

This virgin archetype, as explored in Brave, evokes the presence of the Greek archer/bear goddess Artemis and the Celtic bear/warrior goddess Artio. Pixar conflate the two—a fact clearly indicated by the original name of Brenda Chapman’s screenplay for Brave, which was The Bear and the Bow. Toby D. Griffen, professor of German at Southern Illinois University, suggests that a connection between these two may be possible, as they share an etymological origin over 6000 years old, which is further suggests is the root of this names that later became Celtic Goddess Artio, Roman Goddess Diana and the Greek Goddess Artemis. Merida draws from this ancient well, in which the virgin goddess represents independence, ferocity and nature’s balance.

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Greek myth heralds Artemis as an archer, the goddess of the hunt, and twin sister of the god Apollo. She is the daughter of the sky-god Zeus and a mortal woman, Leto. According to the myth, by the age of three Artemis had already asked her father to allow her to remain a virgin. Like Zeus, Merida’s father, King Fergus, takes pride in her skill as an archer. Also, like Artemis, Merida prizes her freedom and individuality among all else. In Pagan Meditations: The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis and Hestia, depth psychologist Ginette Paris suggest that one who wishes to honor Artemis must accept that they may “neither see nor possess her; there is a core in the mysteries of untouched nature and of femininity that must remain virgin…the girl, the virgin, the Amazon, the archer—untamable and undomesticable primitive femininity” (115).

In her retreat to the safety of the Artemesian wild, Merida entreats the help of an archetypal fairy tale witch, as she carelessly plots to change her mother—though unaware what that change will entail. Beyond her abilities as an archer, it is Merida’s “indomesticable” spirit—her ferocity and her fearlessness—that connect her to Artemis. But in a twist on the myths of Artemis, Merida’s transformation, her loyalty and protection for her mother even after she is responsible for transforming her into a bear teaches her that her actions effect more than herself. This is accomplished by use of a fairy tale embedded in the narrative.

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By contrast, the ancient Celtic goddess Artio is also depicted as being connected to the bear. She is a bear totem first and an archer second. There is nothing fiercer in nature than a mother bear protecting her cub. Furthermore, fewer animals hibernate in such an intensely unique way as the bear. The bear goddess protects nature’s balance. She offers a sense that this balance does not require the hand of humanity to sustain it. In Brave, queen Elinor becomes an unwitting image of the bear goddess. Her transformation awakens her primal need to protect her daughter—to give her the unfettered space she deserves. As a bear, she begins to understand Merida’s Artemisian nature, as the highly cultured Elinor begins to lose her human self in her animal self. Merida, the archer with the wild ginger hair is clearly influenced by Artemis, and her mother, queen Elinor, is a symbol of control and duty.

Their relationship is a fascinating twist on the archetype of the Disney princess and on virgin goddess mythology. The early Disney princesses were almost passively communal—Snow White and the dwarves, Sleeping Beauty and the fairies, etc…Since Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, however, this archetypal image has changed dramatically. In preparing for this presentation, I read many reviews of this film. Several reviewers (even Ebert) suggest that Merida is too boyish for a Disney/Pixar princess. Some also suggest that she is, perhaps, a template for new lesbian princess. These critiques, while interesting, effortlessly miss the point of the archetypal images explored in Brave. In dwelling on cultural gender roles and Merida’s sexuality, one misses the archetypal power of Merida’s virginity—that is, a woman who belongs only to herself, and is not a pawn in the sexual games of men. That is, women in relationship to each other, and to the balance of the feminine and the masculine within them both. This film presents Merida as an antithesis to this traditional passivity. In choosing to transform Elinor into the bear, Disney/Pixar reinterprets the nurturing balance of nature as the companion of the virgin, rather than the virgin herself.

In order to break the spell that has turned her mother into a bear, Merida and Elinor must, “mend the bond torn by pride,” an epitaph given to them by the witch. MEND seems to be the focus of this piece. Julie Fowlis’ song, Into the Open Air gets at this message of mending. It plays while Merida and her mother are on their quest to break the spell. “I try to speak to you everyday but each word we spoke, the wind blew away. Could these walls come crumbling down? I want to feel my feet on the ground. And leave behind this prison we share. Step into the open air.” As they begin to listen to each other, they begin to break the spell.

This is consistent with Disney/Pixar’s overarching mythic message. As Douglas Brode suggests in his book, From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created Counterculture, “America, in Disney’s broad view, is not liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, Democrat or Republican. The genius of the system resided in a symbiotic relationship of each complementary opposition–an ever-shifting balance between rugged individualism and commitment to community.” The women in Brave suggest that perhaps the American archetype of Scottishness has become TOO insistently individualistic, too obsessively masculinized. Perhaps Pixar is responding to a cultural need for community building as opposed to rugged-individualism or factionalism. Perhaps it responds to an American weariness with an individualism that precludes community. Either way, this film suggests that balance IS American, Feminist, and EMPOWERING. And perhaps Pixar, whose culture is notably cooperative, is uniquely suited to this type of narrative.

Ultimately, Brave is a love song to the wild, virgin goddess’s role in psychological balance. It advocates that she be respected. However, because it is a Disney/Pixar story, it also advocates for the importance of community and companionship. Brave suggests that dependence and independence are not mutually exclusive, and that weaving these together might require the touch of particularly clan-orientated archetypal women. This is why Scotland…why the Scot…why the Celtic woman. It is precisely because of the American associations with neo-Celticism and the archetypal freedom fighting Scot that this story is possible, and that it is effective.

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Filed under Depth Psychology, Disney/Pixar, Essays, Fairy Tales, Movie Reviews, Walt Disney

50 Shades of Shadow

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Heads up, dear readers. I will soon write a commentary of 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve been resisting it forever. I’ve been told over and over not to read it…that it would kill my brain cells…so I have. HOWEVER, it’s been bothering me. The worldwide phenomena that this series has become has been bothering me…what it is saying about humanity has been bothering me, and (finally) yesterday I figured out what it is mythically that is going on and that bugs me so much. So, rather than make you wait for however long it takes me to finally read the books, research the topic, and write, I thought I’d pass along the epiphany I had.

What caught my mind yesterday as the torrent of Jezebel, MoviePilot, and The Christian Left articles entered my view from left and right on Facebook is that in many ways, 50 Shades is simply a new iteration of the Beauty and the Beast motif. Boiled down to its most basic archetypal ingredients, Beauty and the Beast is about the beautiful aspects of feminine humanity coming to love and nurture what is dark, ugly and in shadow, particularly, what is shadow in the animalistic nature of humanity.

Some of the earliest versions of the motifs of the myths relate this to the archetypes of love (eros) and the soul (psyche), a perfect example of which would be Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, in which he gives the story of Eros and Psyche itself…a tale of love’s affair with the soul that eventually elevates humanity into the realm of the immortals.

Here’s the short version: Psyche is married to Eros as a sacrifice because her the idolatrous worship of her beauty has become an affront of Aphrodite. Psyche has no knowledge of who/what she married (as he always visits her in the dark of night), but finds her husband loving, attentive, and well, hot in bed. In their disbelief and jealously, her sisters convince her that she must find out. So, she visits his chamber at night with a lamp. As she gazes over him, marveling at his beauty, she drips oil out of her lamp onto his shoulder and burns him and his wings. Eros wakes immediately and flies home to Aphrodite, who nurses her wounds. Psyche is heartbroken. How can she return to her god of a husband, as she is only a human being? Aphrodite steps in for the sake of her son (who is also heartbroken), devising a series of labors for psyche (one of which includes a trip to visit Persephone in the underworld-the queen of death). Psyche completes them all and is elevated to Olympus…to immortal status–THIS is the story that Beauty and the Beast grows from. Archetypally, we are talking about the interplay of two central archetypes: love and soul. It is a story about how the relationship between the two develops.

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In contrast to this stands the story of Hades and Persephone, one of a young girl, still in the maidenhood of her development who, while picking a flower one day–a narcissus flower, which is definitely significant as far as self reflection and refusal to move out of maidenhood goes–is dragged down into the underworld and forced (essentially by her father) to marry the Lord of Death, (and her uncle, BAH) Hades. Now, much has been made of the importance of Persephone’s development out of maidenhood, so there is some value to that. The union with Hades forces Persephone to go deeper into the realms of what Jungians would call the unconscious than she ever would on her own, and in fact, some might suggest that without being snatched by Hades, she’s not likely to ever had made the trip at all. Furthermore, there are some details in the myth that support the idea that at least part of Persephone is pleased with the results of her union with Hades. Some might suggest that this is what is going on with 50 Shades…but this is “Western” culture. We are at complete odds with our shadow (the dark, unknown aspects of our soul). And the unconscious aspects of our sexual shadow, particularly female sexuality which has been relegated to the darkest realm of shadow, is millennia long. It seems to me that what is actually going on here is a manifestation of the Jungian shadow in a way that is particularly and insidiously dangerous and difficult to see.

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Many moons ago, I had a class with Dr. Ginette Paris at PGI–seriously, if you don’t know her, google her and read her stuff. She’s faboo. I really can’t remember what class it was, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she said something that stuck in my mind, and continues to make poignant suggestions to me from time to time. Ginette said (wait for it, and I’m paraphrasing…) that TRAGEDY IS A MISALIGNMENT OF ARCHETYPES AT AN INAPPROPRIATE TIME. For example, a story about motherhood can be tragic, if the woman giving birth is still in the maiden stage, completely uninterested in and unprepared for becoming a mother. Make sense?

Ok, so bear with me here. It occurred to me that this is exactly what is going on with 50 Shades. This story, in all of its badly written, mommy porn Twilight fan-fic-ness, is being presented to us as a story that taps the archetypes of love and the soul, when in reality, it is tapping (hehehe–sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) the archetypes of maidenhood and death. Let me say that another way: 50 Shades of Grey sells itself to be a re-telling of the myth of Eros and Psyche, but what it is is the shadow aspects of the myth of Hades and Persephone. And that is what makes it so dangerous. It isn’t that the story itself is tragic on its own, but that the storyteller is giving us the wrong names for the archetypes, and in doing so, she evokes a different story than what the archetypes constellate. It’s not a love story people. There’s nothing authentic of the Aphroditic and Erotic here (Irish hottie Jamie Dornan notwithstanding). But it is sold as if there is. So there you go: my epiphany. Stay tuned readers. I’m on the case to prove this (and possibly write a journal article in the process). In the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day y’all. Now go find some authentic erotic experience. It’s a good thing.

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Filed under Depth Psychology, Just Life, Movie Reviews, Myth

“Sisters…Sisters…there were never more devoted sisters…”

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Frozen is now called the greatest Disney musical since The Lion King…hailing Disney’s return to broadway quality the likes of which we have not seen since the team that gave us The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (Howard Ashman and Alan Menken). I’ll admit it; I bawled like a baby. Pretty much everything about it is spectacular, but I was left thinking about what it is about Disney films that so affect me? When they work for me, WHY do they work? Answer: it’s the heart. For me, when art works it isn’t because of any intellectual exercise; it is because it makes me feel something. Disney has been known for intentionally going for the “feels”, and that’s what this film does. Furthermore, for me, when art works it “speaks” in some way. That is also what this film does. It provides perspective. In its purely archetypal, kaleidoscopic sense, it presents faceted images of the archetypal realm.

Please be advised that there will be **SPOILERS** ahead, so if you aren’t interested in finding out what happens in this film, please pass over this post. Also, in contrast to my other posts that tend to be theoretical, the following review is **PERSONAL**. I’m speaking my truth here.

Frozen is an incredibly loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. And when I say loose, I mean that pretty much the only thing this film and the original fairy tale have in common is some snow. Indeed, as per usual, Disney tends to pick up motifs from the older versions of fairy tales (trolls, royalty, snow, mirror) and re-mythologizes them completely. Andersen’s work is self-consciously moralizing in tone–lovely, but incredibly Victorian. That is not how Disney rolls…particularly since The Little Mermaid. Disney does comedy…caricature. It has always presented fairy tales in the vein of Hollywood standards, but since the late 1980s, (in my opinion the genius brought to the studio by Ashman) they have presented these tales through heart-stirring and powerful broadway style musicals. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the films since Ariel all feature young women with strong, broadway caliber characters and voices. I’ve previously suggested that Disney princesses reflect the anima (or the soul’s feminine aspects) complex of the Disney Studios. They represent facets of feminine consciousness coming to light (hence the “feels”) through the belting ballads of Disney anima-tion.

Frozen features two of these power houses–sisters Elsa and Anna. As usual, Disney focuses on the ways love transforms us all and the importance of sharing bonds of love with family. This film is no exception. Though it is not the first story to focus of the power of relationships between women, it is the first to focus so intensely on the relationship between sisters as a catalyst for magical transformation.

THE PLOT:

Frozen begins with a powerful intro song similar to the opening piece of Beauty and The Beast or The Lion King. It’s a group of “ice harvesters,” singing about the beauty and power of ice and exhorting the audience to “beware the frozen heart.” The story soon turns to joy–two little sisters giggling and playing together in a wintery paradise created by magical powers. Elsa, the older sister, is the one with the magical powers to create ice and snow. Her younger sister, Anna, wakes her sister and begs her to play. “Do you want to build a snowmaaaaan?” An accident occurs as they play, and Anna is wounded by a stray bit of ice that enters her head. Elsa calls for her parents, and the family approaches a local family of trolls for magical advice. The elder troll heals Anna (he tells the family that she is lucky to have been wounded in the head–that the heart is more difficult to change), but also warns Elsa that her power is dangerous. He tells her that fear will be her Achilles heel–that she must master her fear to come into balance of her power. A central condition of Anna’s healing is that she have all her memories of magic erased.

The king and queen set about the business of trying to “control” Elsa’s powers. Between Elsa’s fear that she will hurt the ones she loves and Anna’s memory loss, the relationship between the sisters becomes distant, cold and strained. Elsa becomes more and more anxious about her powers, so anxious in fact that she locks herself away in her room. Anna is confused. She can’t understand why her sister doesn’t want to be with her. She can’t understand the breakdown of their relationship. Then tragedy strikes. While away on a voyage of presumed royal duty, the ship carrying the royal couple sinks. The princesses are left alone.

Fast forward to coronation day. The curtains and gates at the kingdom of Arendelle are about to open. Anna continues to seek Elsa, and Elsa continues to fear the possibilities of her power. They sing about their hopes and fears for the evening in “For the First Time in Forever” (Anna: “at least I have a chance”…Elsa: “But it’s only for today, It’s agony to wait”). Begin party…the sisters see each other and begin small talk. It’s awkward, but it’s clear that they both want to rekindle their relationship. Anna meets “the one” Prince Hans–a perfect IMAGE of a Disney prince. The two become engaged, much to Elsa’s dismay. They argue, and Elsa’s passionate response to her sister’s question of why she shuts her out ends in a display of her power. She flees, amid accusations of black sorcery, to the north mountain, and in an incredible moment that only Disney can create Elsa comes into her power as she sings the powerful ballad “Let it Go.” Dude, I gotta share it. It’s that good.

In doing this, Elsa unleashes perpetual winter, which sets Anna off on a journey to find her sister and “fix everything.” Along the way, she comes across a man named Kristoff, his fantastic reindeer Sven, and a snowman come to life by Elsa named Olaf. The relationship between Anna and these characters is adorable…but peripheral (though there is love, growth and education there) to a reunion between Anna and Elsa. Anna and crew eventually make their way to the north mountain where she and Elsa quarrel again. Anna believes that if they can just come together and be honest with each other, they can fix everything. Once again, Anna is accidentally injured…this time in her heart. The trolls tell her that only an act of true love will save her.

Kristoff and crew return her to her “true love” Prince Hans who, in a twist that apparently everyone but romantic little me saw coming, reveals himself as the villain (WHAT?!!). Hans locks Anna away and imprisons Elsa, attempting to drive an even deeper wedge between them. Elsa runs heart-broken into the snow, whipping up an even worse blizzard as she goes. Anna runs out into the snow searching for her “true love” moment, when suddenly the snow begins to die down and Anna sees Prince Hans attempting to kill Elsa. Anna, about to turn into a block of ice, gives herself for Elsa as she freezes. Elsa holds her sister and in a typical “true love’s kiss” moment, Anna comes back to life. Turns out that the act of true love she needed was one of her own, for her sister. All’s well that ends well…lesson learned…release the fear, embrace your power and love each other. Open the gates and never shut them again.

Now, Personal:

Confession: I have two sisters, both of whom I adore. I share a father with one sister and a mother with the other. And there is pain and trauma on both sides, which I am not at liberty to write about in this blog. Let’s just say that in relationship to both of them, I am the Anna. It is well known in our family that I am the silly, klutzy naive one of the group.I’ve got the freckles, the unshakable belief, the braids, the goofiness…they’ve got the beauty, the composure, grace, the maturity. I am also the one who has often been thought to need protection. I was so much younger that at different times, both of my sisters have, of their own belief and by our parents, felt that they could be the cause of hurt for me. Furthermore, they has caused them to doubt themselves and their gifts.

Both of my sisters are powerful women who have experienced differing levels of pressure to hold themselves back for fear of what release of their own intensity could mean. So they held back, and frankly, for a long time I didn’t really know my sisters. Now, as an adult, this story resonates with me. I can see how my sisters loved me and sought to protect me all through our lives. And, I know that an act of true love requires selfless acceptance, something I know that both my sisters and me were always willing to give. Just as Elsa needs to release the fear of her power…her ability to hurt the people she loves in order to embrace the beauty of who she is, so Anna needs to appreciate what her sister feels and support her in that power. But in order for that to happen, Elsa and Anna need to trust each other…a balance between the compassionate power of Queen Elsa and the boundless optimism of Princess Anna. These are powerful archetypal images that I find present in my relationship with my sisters. Older sisters, younger sisters. An act of true love can melt a frozen heart. And I’ve seen these archetypes in play in other families as well. My nieces, my cousins, my friends…

What could it mean for us all if we embraced our loved ones without fear? What if we bring what we believe to be shadow into light–accepting truth and loving each other, not in spite of it, but because of it? Disney’s Frozen tells us what happens. Love will thaw. And it is no coincidence that love comes to us through Disney’s healing touch of the feminine–on this point, sisterly love rather than romantic love. Sisters: The image of little girls at play and young women empowering each other. It is beautiful…and it heals, because we are more powerful together than apart. Together, we are whole.

Given, with love, for my darling sisters: Shari Merrill and Lisa Filippini

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Oz: The Great And Powerful and Re-Myth-ing the Origin Story

ImageApproximately ten months ago or so, my dear friend Bonnie and I spoke with some intuitives at our local mythie bookstore. One of the individuals with whom I spoke told me that he felt that I was in the middle of re-crafting my own origin stories. Of all the things we talked about that day that was the one thing that really stuck with me.

Origin stories? Genesis myths? Immediately, I asked a bunch of questions like: What does that mean? To exactly what kind of stories in my personal life might that speak? And, most importantly for this blog, how does this obsession with origin stories make its way into my personal myths? How are the myth-makers that I gravitate toward retelling their own origin stories?

Ever since this discussion, I am becoming more aware of the ways that I am drawn to people retelling their own genesis. I have become especially aware of the way that Disney has been in the process of doing so of late.

And why not? Speaking of our myths, noted philosopher, author and professor Sam Keen reminds us that “We need to reinvent them from time to time…The stories we tell of ourselves determine who we become, who we are, what we believe” (Your Mythic Journey qtd in Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Our Lives, Phil Cousineau, 7). There is a reason that origin myths are meant to be reenacted cyclically.

Perhaps this insight is particularly poignant right now—at the beginning of this year’s Passover and Holy Week remembrances. We respect (at least ideologically) the ritualizing of the origin stories of the religious traditions of all Americans. Origin myths are meant to be a living part of the calendar, and so they are in their own ways in our secular culture as well. We celebrate Independence Day each year, Election Day every four years, President’s Day every year and so on.

Many of these have a basis in history, but what of our imaginal origin stories? What about the origin stories that come about as a natural outpouring of fantasy? I am convinced that these origin stories are also reinvented on a cyclical basis as well.

From the work of the D23 to the heightened presence of the archives to the re-mything of the “golden age” of Los Angeles at Disney California Adventure in Disneyland Resort to Diane Disney’s Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco to a renewed interest in Oswald and Mickey Mouse cartoons spurned on by the success of the first Epic Mickey game, a renewed interest in origin stories seems to be everywhere in Disney’s storytelling at present.

Disney’s relationship with the Oz books dates back to the early days of Disney feature film animation. As early as the 1930’s, Walt Disney sought to acquire the rights to re-mythologize Baum’s books in film. Perhaps, as a Midwesterner (a Missourian/Kansas City-man) himself, Walt Disney felt particularly drawn (pun intended) to the Kansas landscape of Dorothy Gale and her family.

By 1954, he had acquired the rights to eleven of the books. By 1958, he had acquired the rights to all twelve of the books, but he was never quite ready to work them into film. Time, tide and technology never quite crossed for Walt and Oz.

In 1985, Disney released Return to Oz, which, although it became a bit of a cult classic among Gen X and Y’ers, has little else to recommend it. Now, all these years later, in 2013, The Walt Disney Company has finally decided to release a feature film version of an Oz story—Oz: The Great and Powerful.

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Why? This film is itself an effort to re-mythologize the genesis and importance of the film industry itself and Disney’s role in it (as well, perhaps, as Disney’s favorite medium within film, animation/computers and technology ala Pixar).

Let’s look at it:

This film is what is known as a prequel. It tells the story of how the “wizard” makes his way to Oz. Loosely inspired by Frank L. Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as well as the iconic 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz (originally released by Samuel Goldwyn, then bought by MGM, and now owned by Warner Bros.) this film draws on an iconic well of imagery—the black and white opening sequence, the tornado, an eye-popping candy-colored technologically wondrous Oz, the soft muted pastel pink of Glinda (The Good Witch of the South), Theodora (The Wicked Witch of the West)—her green skin and her black witchy garb complete with hat, flying primates, the look of the Emerald City and the Yellow Brick Road.

It tells the story of how the “wizard” (James Franco) makes his way to Oz and is unwittingly used by one bad witch (Evanora of the East, Rachel Weisz) to turn another witch wicked (Theodora of the West–Mila Kunis) before becoming using his abilities to become the savior of Oz. The “wizard,” aided by Glinda (the Good of the South–Michelle Williams) , is convinced to mobilize the people of Oz, and fights back against the wicked witches.

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There is, however, one problem—the wizard is not actually a wizard, in the conventional definition of the word. He is a charlatan and a con man. More importantly, he is an illusionist. He is a carnival performer, a kind of inspiration for the late great Johnny Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent.” Oz is what is known as the archetypal trickster. As such, he is a master at sleight of hand, shapeshfting, lies, and illusions.

This trickster, however, really isn’t that clever. His illusions are easy to see through. It is clear that he yearns for greatness, but it is just as clear that that greatness eludes him. While on his journey through the land that bears his name, he begins to realize that, as Glinda says, he may not be the wizard they were expecting, but he is the wizard that has appeared. His affection for the people of Oz leads him to use his skill as an illusionist to convince the witches of the power he does not actually have. And, it works. In the end, the wizard defeats the witches through sheer illusion and sleight of hand. He fuses his hermetic abilities with the Tinkers’ (Imagineers perhaps?) ability to use technology. He creates a living, breathing illusion.

So, what does this have to do with Disney, the film industry, and origin myths? Simply put, this film suggests that like “the wizard,” filmmakers are both con artists and wizards. As myth-ie tricksters, filmmakers shepherd their audiences through to experiences that turn tin cans into walking, talking allies, convince them that they are in imminent danger from mechanical sharks, to create magical portals to mythic worlds using digital pixels, and simply entrance them will spectacle, color and delight.

Oz: The Great And Powerful is an origin myth crafted specifically to remind the audience of the importance of imagination, illusion, and storytelling. It makes sense that Disney chose to tell it through one of the most iconic and replete mythic systems ever to be touched by the film industry. It is intended to remind the audience why the kinds of things Disney is always up to (putting on a show, telling a story, ritualizing magical locales, and entertaining through illusionist sleight of hand) are powerful and central to psychic health. In that way, this film (for all its shortcomings…of which there are many…) works.

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My Review of “Hitchcock”

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When I saw that a biopic about Hitchcock and the making of Psycho was about to be released, I was uncontrollably excited!  After all, it was Hitchcock’s work that lit the fire of cinematic passion in my heart. My sister, who happens to be seven years older than me, loves Hitchcock films. She is particularly enamoured with Vertigo, arguably Hitchcock (Hitch) ‘s most genius treatment of the psychopathology of sexual obsession and control. The Birds was another family favorite. My mother, brothers, and sister once lived in Valley Ford, a town just a few miles from Bodega Bay that has the distinction of housing the film’s infamous “Fawcett farm”. And yes, Bruce and I did go see it when it was recently rereleased in theaters for one night.

I can remember being no older than five or six and watching a documentary on TV about the making of Psycho. I can’t really remember the time in my life when I didn’t know about Janet Leigh’s famous swallowing of a contact lens as she lay dead on the floor of the shower. When I got married, I was lucky enough to snag a partner who loves Hitch’s movies even more than I do. Around the time that Hitch’s birthday comes around every August, Bruce always pulls out these classic films: Rear Window, Rope, Vertigo, Marnie, Spellbound, Notorious, The Birds, Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest, Shadow of A Doubt. We’ve watched these movies so many times, I’m surprised we haven’t (pardon the pun) worn a hole through them.

I am also kind of obsessed with the ways golden age Hollywood is portrayed in film. Factuality is not important to me. I just like to analyze what the films are doing. So, lucky me! Genius Tony Hopkins (a high school crush of mine) plays the creepiest director in history. Not to mention Helen Mirren as his inimitable wife. How could they lose?

Bruce and I saw it last night and here’s my mythie take on it.

Hitch was called the master of suspense. Everyone knows that. Everyone who knows anything about him knows that he was obsessed with murder, suspense, and the macabre. He was interested in Freudian psychology, and he clearly loved to explore the deepest darkest recesses of the mind. He loved to shock audiences with what was possible in the realm of human behavior.

Psychologist and PGI godfather, James Hillman, made an interesting documentary in 2005 (Surfing LA) in which he explored the archetypal nature of the city of Los Angeles. He suggests that there is something about Los Angeles that is underworldly, that the energy of the place–from the geography to the violent history of the city to the presence of the film industry and the darkness that seems to surround it–makes it the entrance to the underworld. It seems fitting that this master of macabre storytelling would make his home the City of Angels during its golden age.

Hitchcock explores a time when this master filmmaker seemed about to fall from his golden pedastal. The film begins with a member of the press asking him why at sixty years old he doesnt just retire while he is ahead. The viewer can see the anger brewing inside of him. He searches for his next project, and when it does it is an adaptation of Psycho, a novel based on the true story of psychotic murder Ed Gein. Hitch descends into madness as the character of Norman Bates begins to resonate with him. The anger that Hitch feels toward everyone in his life is turned interior, as he lives it vicariously through Norman.

All of these details are fascinating, but it was the mythic associations of the characters of Hitch and his wife Alma themselves that had me really interested. I wondered to myself: Is there a pattern from classical mythology being played out in this relationship? If so, what is it?

As per usual, I turned to Greek mythology, and it became clear to me that there was indeed a series of motifs from Greek mythology being played out in the story of the making of Psycho, and probably in the truth of Hitch’s life.

According to the Encyclopedia Mythica (pantheon.org):

Hephaestus, the god of fire, especially the blacksmith’s fire, was the patron of all craftsmen, principally those working with metals. Known as the lame god, Hephaestus was born weak and crippled. Displeased by the sight of her son, Hera threw Hephaestus from Mount Olympus, and he fell for a whole day before landing in the sea. Nymphs rescued him and took him to Lemnos, where the people of the island cared for him. 

To gain revenge for his rejection by Hera, Hephaestus fashioned a magic throne, which was presented to her on Mount Olympus. When Hera sat on the throne, it entrapped her, making her a prisoner. Hephaestus eventually released Hera after being given the beautiful Aphrodite as his bride.

The god of craftsmen, and poets, and, I would suggest that is applies to filmmakers as well, the archetypal energy of Hephaestus is present in Hitch, the archetypal craftsman and poet. Hitch lives deep in the bowels of the cutting room, making, shifting, editing his way to greatness. Like Hephaestus, he is considered ugly–overweight, bald, and (ehem) not tall. Also, like Hephaestus, he is metaphorically wed to Aphrodite, as he is cursed to live an obsession with the blond Hitchcockian woman of mystery, who is always guaranteed to scorn his form.

By contrast, like Hera, his wife Alma is presented as being the queen of the “Hills.” It becomes clear that Hitch would be nothing without her. And, if fact, he says as much to her at one point during the film. She is a genius editor, writer, and intuitive producer. She is involved in every aspect of the project from the cast choices to the camera angles. She is the mother of his creation, and their relationship reflects the possessiveness, perversion, and obsession of a Freudian Oedipal relationship. She is consistently frustrated by his destructive “ugliness.” She spends much of the films pushing him away and pursuing her own well deserved goals.

The Alma of this film longs for her own work. She believes she will find it in a new collaborator, but in the end, she is called back to her work with Hitch, and through that return he is forced to recognize that, well, she’s more powerful than he is, and that he loves her.

When Alma tells Hitch that she has waited thirty years for him to tell her that she is more beautiful than any Hitchcock blonde, he tells her: “And THAT, my dear, is the reason they call me the master of suspense.”

Ultimately, Bruce and I both found this film to be a fascinating portrayal of this pivotal period of Hitchcock’s career. Hopkins and Mirren shine. Scarlett Johansson inhabits Janet Leigh, and James D’Arcy’s portrayal of Anthony Perkins is at once incredibly unsettling and sympathetic. Fine holiday fun for a pair of Hitchcock nerds. We loved it!

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Coming Soon!

It came to my attention recently that I hadn’t watched Tim Burton’s Big Fish in quite a long while. It has been on cable a bit lately, and so I’ve watched parts of it from time to time. I’m working up a blog review of this film. Something about the mythopoetic process as a bridge between different archetypal personalities (perhaps Hermes and Apollo types?). I’m working on a paper for a Film and Myth Conference in Wisconsin. When I’m done with that, I’ll sit down with what I consider as Tim Burton’s Magnum Opus…a love song to storytellers…and write a review.–Keep your eyes peeled.

Until then dear readers.

Keep on flickin’!

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