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Opinion: I vill say ziz only vonce

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Mark Kermode | 12:00 UK time, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The bizarre cacophony of comedy foreign accents in movies right now demonstrates just how desperately a solution is needed, and if you bear with me you will see there is one and that it is as logical as it is obvious.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Mark, I've no problem with the general idea at all - subtitled foreign language films are fine with me.

    But in reality you're never going to get a majority of actors who are multilingual, bilingual, cunnilingual, or whatever is needed to cover every possible film language. And let's not forget the whole argument in favour of subtitles over dubbing: that with subtitles you get to keep the actors' original performances, with all their many nuances.

    I doubt that Tom Cruise, or any of the other actors in Valkyrie, could offer as nuanced performance in a language in which they were not proficient.

    And let's not forget that it's possible to make excellent films based on factual events in English, where the original story would have been played out in a different language. I offer as evidence:

    Julius Caesar
    Joan of Arc
    The Ten Commandments
    The Greatest Story Ever Told
    The Song of Bernadette
    Nicholas and Alexandra

    Steve W

  • Comment number 2.


    I generally agree with you on this, with one little quibble. What about films that are SET in a certain country, but based on source material that is very much in the American language and mindset. For example, Memoirs of a Geisha. I was very annoyed, on exiting the cinema after seeing this, to hear two girls behind me having the following conversation:

    Girl 1: I really enjoyed that, but it was a bit Hollywood.
    Girl 2: Yeah, it's a shame they couldn't have done it in Japanese with subtitles.

    Normally, a valid and admirable point to make, but not with THIS film. I wanted to say to them a) The book was written by an American, it's a Hollywood epic if ever I saw one and therefore does not need cultural authenticity. And b) The cast were hired from all across Asia, do you expect them all to adopt perfectly accurate Japanese accents?

    I just think the hard and fast rule for accents may not work, when you take into account the difference between the setting and the writing of a story.

    Take care good doctor,


    PS my housemate stunned me to the core the other day, by saying that she hated Slumdog, saying it was boring, and 'one of those films that's just screaming "Give me an Oscar"'. How many ways can you be wrong in a single statement? May I wreak vengeance?

  • Comment number 3.

    Don't forget Che, entirely in I believe several Spanish dialects.

    What I found interesting and oddly coincidental about Valkyrie - though it's not hugely impacting when seeing the film - is that a big deal is being made about the wonderful cast of Brits. I just thought it was a strange coincidence that in so many of those old WWII thrillers Brits are the villains (ie Nazis): as Izzard has pointed out, because of the Revolutionary War. So for any obsessive fans of 50s/60s WWII thrillers (which Valkyrie does want to be in some way) there may be a horrific dichotomy in mind throughout this film. "They're Nazis!" "But they're killing Hitler!" "But they're BRITISH!" etc etc.

    What a banal point to make.

    The only accent problem which has bothered me recently was Cate Blanchett in Indiana Jones 4; her aggravating Standard Eastern-European Villain. But I've forgotten the film, so that's sorted.

  • Comment number 4.

    Agreed, thank you Mark. Might also be worth mentioning 'The Lord of the Rings', which has numerous scenes in Elvish!

  • Comment number 5.



    Nobod could have said it any better.

  • Comment number 6.


    I'm British and live in the US. Your POV is totally correct for the British market.

    However, the average American seems unable to think let alone read.

    Seriously, there are a few exceptions. You noted the two Mel Gibson movies. however, I'd argue that one was attended very heavily by religious oriented audiences and the other had huge curiosity as it was Mel's next film.

    With the average cineplex full of teenagers, subtitles are a huge risk. Unfortunately the US rules on this one.

    I lived in Belgium for 8 years and US films were V.O.S.T. (version originate avec sous titres).

    I think that the reality is that when you go and see a Tom Cruise movie directed by the guy from X-men it's caveat emptor


  • Comment number 7.

    Well said and well argued! Aside from all the questions you've had from listeners and viewers about these films was this video also inspired by your recent interview with Werner Herzog? Just like Sean Connery's accent isn't Scottish, Werner's accent isn't German, it's Herzogian.

  • Comment number 8.

    No, you are speaking nonsense. Why are those movies made in hindi? Because the people who watch them understand the language. The wast majority of people are not good enough at reading to keep up with subtitles (i grew up with it so no problem for me), that's why in most countries the dub the movies.

    So yes mainstream movies has to be in the langauge that their audiences understand - now you can say that art house movies, or even "real" movies don't need that - fine. Pretentious postulate, but fine - but not mainstream movies, never ever them.

  • Comment number 9.

    Good advice.

    One upcoming film, I am really excited about seeing, does exactly that. Spike Lee's Miracle at St Anna, which is a world war to movie which has all of the right people speaking in their native language. Criminally, I don't think it has a UK release date yet.

    In other news, now that the Academy Award nomiations are in I can announce that the winner of the Kermode Award for Best Actor must go to Benecio Del Toro... And just while we're on the subject, is it possible that his performance was overlooked because it was in Spanish?

  • Comment number 10.

    Pushing your 'logic' to it's dribbling conclusion, to ensure that the purity of the movie-going experience is not debased (even by subtitles), members of the audience really ought to be able to prove they have mastered the film's languages before they're allowed to buy a ticket. Everyone else will just have to hope 'Norbit 2' isn't in Danish.

  • Comment number 11.

    I read somewhere that Mel Gibson's reasoning for using original languages was that if he was doing a movie about Vikings, they wouldn't sound as scary if they were speaking English.

    I've also known people to change their mind about renting a DVD after finding out it was subtitled (DESPITE THE STICKER ON THE BOX SAYING "Subtitled"!).

    P.S. It's been pointed out before, but has anyone noticed the 'Valkyrie' trailer has the 'Saw' theme?

  • Comment number 12.

    Well, a dificult question indeed.
    In germany we face another problem, most international films will be dubbed into german - very often losing the inbetween-the-lines-message of dialogue and the finesse of the original version.

    Considering the spoken word a major part of the actors part, I´d personally prefer reading subtitles.

    People in the Netherlands, Belgium or other places with small populations are used to this and as a side effect pretty often speak english rather well.

    Regarding your suggestion, I doubt most english or american actors would deliver bearable german, russian or italian.

    As film is about fantasy anyway, proper development of characters will serve films far more than execution of fancy accents.

    In the case of Kate Winslet in The Reader, her accent is just ridiculous and doesn´t serve the film at all. If I´d be russian I´d most probably think the same of Daniel Craig and his russian accent in Defiance.

    To put it short, just let them speak english if they´re english. If they´re german in an english film they might speak english with a german accent - so what? But the fantasy of the film would not be corrupted by silly attempts to create a russian/german/italian feel to the dialogue.

  • Comment number 13.

    A lot of people are complaining that making films in the language of the place in which they are set would mean that big name Hollywood actors wouldn't give such great performances. There's another simple and obvious solution to that; don't use American actors if they can't speak the language. Why are we so stuck in the idea that for a film to be worth seeing it has to have an actor who is either American/English, someone everyone has heard of, or both?

    Yes, a lot of stupid people won't see a film if they hear it's subtitled. But in my experience, if a film is good enough they will not notice that it has subtitles. What's more, people are quite happy to see James Bond movies or other mainstream films that are in English but have sections with subtitles, so obviously they're not that put out by them when they appear, it's just the idea of them that puts them off. I think it would be possible to make subtitles more acceptable to mainstream audiences.

  • Comment number 14.

    Great blog Mr Kermode.

    This problem really needs to addressed.

    If mainstream audiences were to get hip to subtitles that would almost certainly mean the death of the "horrible Hollywood remake of the beautiful foreign film" trend that has been infecting the film industry as of late.

  • Comment number 15.

    Forgive the intrusion from a mediant by'stander but don't banish good cinema to the clutches of the elite. Spare a thought for those whose literacy skills, especially in reading for meaning, are not up to the standards of students of film. I agree the melange of accents is off-putting but not to the extent of losing possibly, one-in-five of today's adult audience. As usual, I stay up far too late reading everyone's comments. Keep up the good work, Dr K.

  • Comment number 16.

    Hello Mark,
    While I agree, it's better to use for example, German actors, speaking German for a film about Germans, there are a couple of films I can't help excusing.
    I recently saw Amadeus again, in which Mozart not only speaks English, but does so in an American accent. And you know what? It didn't matter because it's a great film. I'd rather that than have him speaking in a dodgy accent which distracted my enjoyment of the film.

    The same goes for Dangerous Liaisons and the variety of cockney accents you'll hear during a West End performance of Les Miz.
    So I suppose what I'm saying is sure, yeah, make the films in the language they're supposed to be in, but if you're going to make them in English, just let them use their own accents. It's much less distracting.

  • Comment number 17.

    At home I routinely watch even English language movies with the subtitles on so it's completely logical to me. I've enjoyed many foreign language films: Pan's Labyrinth, The Wave, and plenty of marial arts movies. It's surprising how quickly reading the subs becomes second nature.

    That said, there's one point you haven't taken into consideration, Mark: the quality of subtitles is often really terrible. Language is a subtle and nuanced thing and much is lost in translation. There are idioms and cultural references that just don't translate.

    Even English subtitles for English films are often awful (have you ever tried watching Gladiator with the "English for the Hard of Hearing" subtitles on? It's hilarious).

  • Comment number 18.

    The new Quentin Tarantino movie is in French, German and English with subtitles. It's another WW2 affair. The script is brilliant! I know Mark has not loved QT in the last while, but maybe this will win him over.

  • Comment number 19.

    People text message in cinemas, people can read subtitles. The revolution starts now!

  • Comment number 20.

    Dr K, there is a small flaw in the argument when (quoting Bryan Singer) you say that in Valkyrie they wouldn't have sounded like German accents to us. But Von Stauffenberg was from Bavaria and Olbricht (Bill Nighy) was from Saxony so they probably would have had different German accents - Google Maps suggests they are 372km apart! It's a bit like a movie with Jimmy Nail and Stephen Fry - both British accents but hugely different. (Where Sir Anthony Hopkins would stand is anyone's guess.)

    Besides, I don't really think there's any likelihood of Tom Cruise learning fluent (not just phonetic) German solely for a movie. Let's face it: by this logic Hamlet should only be performed in Danish and The Mikado in Japanese. Would Carry On Cleo have worked if Kenneth Williams had been speaking throughout in Latin?

  • Comment number 21.

    you're wrong Dr Kermode,

    having subtitles hinders box office.

    The success of the Passion of the Christ was not hindered by the use of subtitles because it was a cultural phenomenon, its succeess was not exactly based on its sparkling dialogue. also i'd argue that not many people would like to watch that film a second time

    Apocalypto again was a pure action film with hardly had any dialogue in the movie.

    Iwo Jima was not a box office success

    And more recently there is Che, which does exactlty what you profess, another box office failure

    Take for example in Italy, where films are dubbed rather than subtitled. Italians would rather see a badly dubbed film than read subtitles.

    most people are just put off by subtitles, unless the film is a cultural phenomenon

    most people just go to the cinema looking for a couple of hours of entertainment or escapism

    i love film, whether in the cinema or on dvd, but there are just times when i'm not in the mood, or just mainly tired, to read subtitles, and would not watch a film because of the extra effort required

    Often you would notice on film posters in the cinema, warnings that the relative film is subtitled

    people in general are just put off by subtitles

    about a month ago a friend of mine went to buy a ticket for watlz for bashir and the guy behind the counter said "Do you realise that this film was made in Germany and it is in Hebrew? Why would you want to see this?"
    And that's coming from a guy who works in the cinema

  • Comment number 22.

    On the whole, I do agree with you, the discrimination against foreign language films is ridiculous.

    However, I can see why some have problems with subtitles, whose motives are not "It's not in English so I won't watch it", but more, they find themselves physically unable to read subtitles.

    My father, for instance, is dyslexic. He finds it hard to read a single block of subtitles, let alone watch a whole film in this manner.For people like him, dubbing (or English in general) is the only way.

    There are cases where this has been fine, Das Boot, one of my favourite movies, for instance, was filmed in German and can be watched in German by anyone who wishes to, as this is definitely the most authentic and covincing method. However, for those who can't, a fine English dub is availible, and it is well acted with accents that are neutral, but with a slight German twang. The dubbing doesn't hurt the film in anyway, and it is just as powerful and engrossing as it is in German. The same goes for Spirited Away.

    However, I don't see why the film can't be made in its original language, and then dubbed for those who need it (with subtitles being the widely-distributed version). At least then a genuine, authentic version exits, rather than that laughable, accent-ridden mess Defiance.

    One thing I don't understand is Schindler's List. Spielberg shoots the film documentary-style, to help create the feeling that what you're watching is actual footage, but then spoils it by having them speaking in English with German/Austrian/Czeck/Polish accents. When will filmmakers like Spielberg, and Daldry learn that having your cast members speaking with an accent does not make the film feel more authentic, it merely HIGHLIGHTS the fact that they are not speaking in the language they are supposed to.

    But yeah, people need to cut out their adversity to subtitles ASAP, as its preventing films being the accurate depiction they should be.

    P.S. Thanks for voicing your vies on The Reader- it is TERRIBLY overrated.

  • Comment number 23.

    I totally agree with you Mark. Now all we got to do along with the language are actors that are actually from that country instead of getting actors who vaguely look like people from that region and pass them off of people from that nation.

    For intance Memoirs of a Geisha. For one thing speak bloody Japanese and another cast actors that are ACTUALLY JAPANESE instead of CHINESE ACTORS.

    The worst offender of this exercise is of course the terrible almost offensive Genghis Khan with Omar Sharif and british actors playing mongols. What was worse was James Mason and Robert Morley playing CHINESE with Morley playing the CHINESE EMPEROR. WTF!!!!!?????

    p.S I totally agree that The Reader is the most overrated film of the year and does not deserve its best picture nomination. Changeling should be there instead.

  • Comment number 24.

    You're correct Mark, however there are exceptions. Next thing you'll probably say that Spartans don't all speak with Scottish accents.

    Singer isn't trying to be authentic, he's just making a silly espionage movie. Since Bond baddies never spoke in foreign languages, Cruise shouldn't be expected to either. The only reason Valkyrie was made was because of Tom Cruise and if that means it's in English, it's better than not ever being made.

    The Reader should be in German however, since the story is trying to convey German authenticity. The Last Emperor and Gandhi should be in their native languages as well.

    Awards contenders should be in the native language, silly or fun pointless movies can keep their English accents.

  • Comment number 25.

    I think I can find a way through this Dr Mark.

    Lets go back to silent movies!
    The subtitles could be written in the language of the country it's shown.

    Plus can you imagine the frantic piano playing soundtrack in some of todays action sequences?

    Slow fade to small dot.

  • Comment number 26.

    Here in Brazil all films are subtitled except for the brazilians one (We hardly get any from Portugal). People are used since always to read the subtitles.
    For English spoken films I don't need to read subtitles, neither for Spanish. I'm not very fond of subtitles because your attention is inevitably divided between the images and the words. But it is still better than dubbing and than those ridiculous accents.

    I remember, for instance, Love in the Time of Cholera, from the beautiful García Márquez's novel. Actors from Spain, Italy, Brazil and other lantin american countries, spoke in a horrible english, while the extras spoke Colombian Spanish. It wasn't the film's only flaw but certainly one of the biggest. It didn't help its box office performance.

  • Comment number 27.

    I really have no respect for Mr. Kermode as a film critic in any way whatsoever. Thus, his comments and views on any film, actor/actress are futile. I rest my case on his introduction on Film 4 of the classic film Ringu a few years ago. Having never seen this classic film before, I was eager to watch, only for him to spoil the classic part of the film by discussing it and showing the clip before the film. He is as much a film critic as the complete waste of space that is Jonathan Ross.

  • Comment number 28.

    Basically I agree, but practically, it will never work. The point has already been made about actors being unlikely to be able to speak passable foreign languages. I remember once watching The Bourne Supremacy in Riga, Latvia, where most films are subtitled. The attempts to speak Russian (native language of at least half the audience and probably another quater spoke it well) made the audience roar with laughter. For every actor who manages something approximating the real thing (Viggo Mortensen, I salute you), there are 200 who sound ridiculous. I have lived in Russia for 5 years, and Russia (with rare exceptions) does not do subtitles. To the extent that I remember seeing Paris je t'aime with someone sitting at the front with a microphone to read out the subtitles. And sadly, most folk in the UK and particularly the US are like that. And I don't think it's an issue of literacy, it's a question of practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, but few folk are prepared to try, and even fewer understand what you are missing out on if you don't.

  • Comment number 29.

    Hi Mark

    I know you're a big fan of Johnny Greenwood's soundtrack to There Will Be Blood and of Mark Knopfler's Local Hero score but what other soundtracks are you fond of? Personally I love strange music scores particularly the music from The Devils, El Topo, Eraserhead, The Wicker Man, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Blade Runner and Daisies.

  • Comment number 30.

    RoscoCymru - regarding that Ringu spoiler Dr. Kermode has actually apologised for this in the past.

  • Comment number 31.

    Now bare with me, as the film i am about to mention is related to this topic, so don't ban me from your blog and/or put a price on my head when i say this film stars Steven Segal;
    'On Deadly Ground' is a bad film, like every other flick Segal has infected, yet this one co-stars Michael Caine (as a villain!), giving the film a little boost in its quest for supreme diabolicalness, as (and get this!), If you haven't seen this film then at-least watch some clips somehow, because it contains THE definitive, unnecessary accent:
    seeing Michael Cain attempting an American accent!
    It really is as bad as it sounds and after watching this film, instead of being left with laughing at what id just witnessed, i was simply trying to wonder; "Why on earth was an American accent needed, and of all the people in the world...Caine!?!?"

  • Comment number 32.

    RoscoCymru - regarding that Ringu spoiler

    Yeah I watched that on Channel 4.
    I'd never seen the film b4 that point and was shocked when he gave it away.
    I still loved the film but c'mon m8 we all slip up from time to time.
    He said sorry as well,I forgave him.

    "He is as much a film critic as the complete waste of space that is Jonathan Ross."

    Well I think both are good critic's and very entertaining points of views on film and cinema in general.

    Thinking about if you can't stand him why are you on his blog lol.

  • Comment number 33.

    Why worry about foreign accents? On television at least the predominant accent is scottish. No one dares complain about that, or request subtitles. Indeed the condition seems likely to worsen after your preposterous description of Burns as the 'one of the world's greatest writers'. Is it to improve your chances of a renewed contract with the Corporation that you took up the bagpipe, Mr Fairey, or was your decision influenced by learning that it was almost certainly the English who introduced the instrument into scotland the first place?

  • Comment number 34.

    I heard you mention this on the podcast and I take your point. We should watch more films with subtitles, so should the Italians (who are apparently really let down when they hear Sly Stallone's real voice which isn't as cool as the dubber's) and others. The problem with your suggestion is that having English actors struggling through foreign language scripts is inevitably going to produce embarrassing results. Judging by the films I've seen recently, acting in English is hard enough. And you can't just ban film and theatre that is set in different countries. What about Romeo and Juliet set in fair Verona? As long as the accents don't sound too put on, then if we can suspend disbelief and accept that Tom Cruise is a German soldier and not in fact a slightly odd American actor, then I think we should be able to suspend some disbelief on accents and put variations down to pretend regional differences. Or something

  • Comment number 35.

    Ah, the 'Last Emperor' effect!

    The big problem is that these films are made for a mass audience who want Tom Cruise but don't want him doing anything out of the ordinary. Some actors have personalities that become such a part of their persona that they cannot 'become a character' - for better or worse they'll always be Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas, Sean Connery or Michael Caine, and so on.

    It is a double edged sword as on the one hand there is a ready made persona that just gets slotted into the story about the racing driver or the plot to assassinate Hitler or the defecting Russian submarine commander - the 'general' audience (by which I mean the executives who greenlight the film) feel safe knowing that the film has the reassuring and unchanging presence of a familiar looking and sounding actor to guide them through the scary world of politics or situations that they did not previously know much about (or to get them to sympathise with a Nazi by having them played by the lovely Winslet or Cruise). This also allows the actor to feel comfortable knowing that a good portion of their job is done by just sticking to their meta-persona, rather than subsuming themself into a character, as a 'character actor' would.

    The other side of this though is that the actor is trapped by their persona - Sean Connery can never escape being Sean Connery and therefore is never really going to be able to tackle a range of different and challenging material. Nobody seems to want to see actors of this type try to do character actor material (and if they do try a project to stretch themselves they usually do poorly with both critics and audiences, seeming like unsatisfying and overblown vanity projects).

    If the public tire of the persona, or if the actor tires of keeping that persona going, there is little left to do but retire - see Sean Connery.

    Michael Caine has shown another alternative - do some more challenging work in cameo roles. He will never get past the Michael Caine persona, but not carrying the film as the 'star' lets him take some chances with different material than he is normally 'allowed'. See also Cruise in Magnolia.

    So being a megastar is both a blessing and a burden - you'll never be anonymous in a film, and will never really convince as anything other than a really famous actor playing a role rather than someone who 'inhabits' their part. But then is that not what the Oscars are about - honouring the best star turns rather than the best, and most appropriate for their material, performances? (This may also apply to any debate over Heath Ledger's Joker nomination and whether came about through performance reasons or for reasons outside of the film that he was nominated for)

    Sometimes the heavens align and the star turn and the performance come together, as with Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Helen Mirren in The Queen etc. (The Wrestler actor nominations look like where this alignment has occured this year, well cast actors in suitable roles that complement both the actor and the film).

    At other times one overpowers the other and it becomes more about the actor rather than their work in the role being particularly convincing (i.e. Judi Dench winning for her cameo in Shakespeare in Love, which was something that arguably overpowered the film in the short scenes where she appeared), and usually comes at a detriment to the quality of the film itself, or the story it tells, which to my mind should be the primary consideration.

    The other thing I would add to this is that Valkyrie, Defiance and The Reader are part of a big genre aimed at an audience still in love with the Second World War. World War Two has been commodified and commercialised as 'the acceptable face of war' to such an extent that it is becoming, to my mind, dangerous.

    There are of course many serious films made on the subject, and these often do have characters speaking in their appropriate language with subtitles, but when we are talking about mass marketed 'entertainment' pieces aimed at a wide audience there is a wish not to tax the viewer.

    There are many conflicts around the world since 1945 that audiences could certainly benefit from knowing about, but a seeming lack of will by filmmakers to venture away from the tried and tested (and lucrative) ground of WW2. It seems a cynical and blinkered focus to me, one conspiring to keep viewers ignorant of events that have occured since.

    I should list the exception to this though. I kept away from Antoment for a few months fearing that this was last year's Oscar 'WW2 bait' film (I had not read Ian McEwan's novel either), and was pleasantly surprised to find that this film despite appearances tackled the romantising and commercialising of a WW2 setting in an extremely mature way. Is the main character trying to 'atone' for her actions in her latest novel because she feels bad for what she did (in which case, why did she leave writing the novel for so long?), or is she simply dredging her past for lucractive stories with a commercial World War Two setting to feed an insatiable public (and publisher) appetite for such material?

  • Comment number 36.

    I can just imagine Sir Anttthhhony Hopkins stewing with rage on hearing this.

  • Comment number 37.

    I don't think the actors need to learn the language, I think they just need to get actors who know the language off by heart.

  • Comment number 38.

    This is a tricky one Mark. I commend you on making the right decision as I watch just as many subtitle films as English based ones but some films based abroad can work with English. For example you cannot expect Gladiator to work if the actors had to work in Greek or Latin. On the flip side Colin Farrell's Alexander with an Irish accent was just so bad it is one of the best unintentional comedies made.

    I think it boils down to the flavour of the film and the capabilities of the actors

    What I do not understand is why we cannot see more local actors. Case in point do we really need a Spanard playing a Greek in English (Penelope Cruz) or a Chinese woman playing a Japanese Geisha in English (Ziyi Zhang. I am sure local actors would be just as good. It is just Hollywood short sightedness that all we want to see are the same people and Hollywood stars.

    Viva new talent and in their own languages !

  • Comment number 39.

    If you market something correctly people will turn up.

  • Comment number 40.

    Absolutely Mark, I totally agree with you! Learn the bloody language! I had to do that 4 times in my life so far, being German and living in 4 different countries and if I can, anybody can...

  • Comment number 41.

    Mark is right (of course), it is, however, not enough that the actors learn a new language; they must also learn a respective accent, otherwise the problem remains: The viewer would have to bear the pain of listening to actors speaking japanese, french, german, italian with american and english accents. An eye-watering thought.


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