Ascending From Los Angeles: Mike Nichols, Director Of The Graduate, 1931-2014

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In the opening scene of Mike Nichols’ 1967 film “The Graduate,” an airplane captain intones the chilling words “We are now beginning our descent into Los Angeles.”

Nichols has died at the age of 83. “The Graduate,” one of my favorite films, is truly directed — that is, crafted by a man with a vision. Rewatch it regularly. I do. — CC

61 Comments on "Ascending From Los Angeles: Mike Nichols, Director Of The Graduate, 1931-2014"

  1. My all-time favorite movie. No film at any point in my life, and yes I was only 17 when I first saw it, affected me on the levels that The Graduate did. And I do watch it regularly as well CC.

  2. His first four movies were classics, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, ” The Graduate “, “Catch-22 “, “Carnal Knowledge “, after that it was good films, but wait for it to show up on video or cable.

    What’s not to like about “The Graduate”? Bancroft, Ross and an Alfa Spyder. 😉

    Mike Nichols RIP.

  3. There’s nothing decent about LA

  4. Don’t remind me…

    Fixed. Thanks.

  5. Whether that plane was coming from San Francisco or the East Coast didn’t matter; going to L.A. was a descent indeed.

  6. Left L.A. in 1961 to go to college.
    Went back briefly in 1965.
    Left after a month.
    Visited in 1985.
    It wasn’t any better.
    Haven’t gone back since.
    Don’t intend to.

  7. No disrespect to the late Mr. Nichols, but I hate “The Graduate” with a white-hot passion. This from the Fred character in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona captures for me the inescapable silliness of the often-praised end of that awful slog thru the self-indulgent narcissism of an entirely forgettable and tiresome ‘antihero’:

    Katharine Ross has just married this cool,

    tall, blond…popular guy, the make-out king

    of his fraternity.

    This obnoxious Dustin Hoffman character

    shows up at the church…

    …starts pounding on the glass,

    acting like a total asshole.

    ”Elaine! Elaine! ”

    Does Katharine Ross tell Dustin Hoffman,

    ”Get lost creep, I’m a married woman”?

    No.

    She runs off with him. On a bus.

  8. I agree that he’s not the greatest protagonist, and that as a smart guy who doesn’t know what he wants to do after college, he may be tiresome and dated, apparently how kids today find Holden Caulfield, for example.

    The musical montage scene that shows the passage of time, that he’s been going to the hotel with Mrs. Robinson on multiple occasions, culminating with the shot where he leaps onto the pool raft, which immediately cuts to a final thrust on her, is just brilliant.

    As is the writing, acting and directing in the scene where they start to do it, then argue, then make up and begrudingly undress again to go ahead and do it anyway out of ennui, also brilliantly dramatizes dead-end, sex-based relationships.

    I think there is a correlary in Stillman’s characters, though. I’m thinking of the “I just assumed I’d be a failure” scene in “Metropolitan.”

  9. A.E.W. Mason | November 20, 2014 at 6:52 pm |

    @Taliesin

    Agree entirely.

  10. LA Country Club, Bel-Air Country Club, nice tracks. If you stay close to the ocean, LA can be tolerable.

  11. Maybe “The Graduate” was the basis for “Seinfeld”. Absolutely no likeable characters. 😉

    There seemed a run on “college” films +- 1970, “The Graduate”, “Goodbye Columbus”, “Love Story”( about Al Gore & Tipper) and “Paper Chase”.

  12. @Christian:

    I agree that it’s well-filmed, and often visually intriguing. I can’t watch it just for that particular artistry, although I can understand why others would enjoy it. I can’t get past my disdain for the main character. It’s visceral.

  13. Taliesin
    Good point. Two movies one should see on the big screen, “Lawrence Of Arabia” and “Out Of Africa”. Only one is a great movie.

  14. Im sure a delight for cinematography students (calling all Wes Anderson wannabe’s), and, granted, there are some fun tricks played with scene progression. (what if we we place the camera behind the basketball goal?? Cool!) But the overall effect is soporific–the sleepy soundtrack, the whiny protagonist, the silly finale. There’s no way she leaves that guy at the altar.

    The back seat of the bus–his goofy, I-can’t-believe-I-just-did-that smile fades as he notes the regret and doubts on her face. Nichols got that part right. Two miles down the road, she breaks down into tears, pleads with the driver to hit the breaks, and runs back to the church.

  15. Umm. “brakes.” (oops).

  16. S.E.
    But, she LOVES him. In the remake he is a coke dealer and she has a habit.

  17. Isn’t Nichols satirizing that whole milieu? So the question left in our minds might exactly be, what happens next? — as those who reject the plausibility of the ending suggest. Will the young generation turn into a version of their parents?

  18. Who or what is the subject of satire in the film? The protagonist, who Roger Ebert described as “an insufferable creep,” but who was at the time of the film’s release largely viewed as some kind of rebellious role-model? The older generation, who, apart from the rapacious Mrs. Robinson, mostly seem (at least to my Gen X eyes) like normal people going about imperfect but ordinary, inoffensive lives?

    The film touched some kind of nerve in 1967. Since I wasn’t around I won’t pretend to understand why. But watching it with modern eyes, it’s just kind of awful, and Benjamin Braddock’s revulsion at the choices of his parents and their friends seems like little more than juvenile posturing, more understandable in a high school student than a college graduate.

  19. A.E.W. Mason | November 21, 2014 at 2:37 pm |

    I’m glad others have brought up the “then what happens question.” Thank you. As a parent, I often reflect on the restraint and tolerance so many WW II veteran fathers, including my own, showed toward a very spoiled and self-infatuated generation.

    By the way, the author of the book, Charles Webb, published a sequel in 2007 called “Homeschool.” It wasn’t well received:

    https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/charles-webb/home-school/

    Apparently, it picks after the unemployed, spirited couple, has finessed the bus ride to nowhere.

  20. A.E.W. Mason | November 21, 2014 at 3:08 pm |

    I meant, “picks up.” Sorry.

  21. “it’s just kind of awful, and Benjamin Braddock’s revulsion at the choices of his parents and their friends seems like little more than juvenile posturing, more understandable in a high school student than a college graduate.” –Taliesin

    Yes.

  22. I was about 18 when I saw it, sort of liked it generally as I recall, but even to a fairly naïve small town kid it didn’t ring true. Except, as noted, the very last shot when they realized they were “on their own”….with no resources, in any sense.

    BTW, Holden Caulfield was a textbook, classic, by-the-numbers teenage alcoholic. No more, no less.

  23. Taliesin sees the adults in the movie as “normal people going about imperfect but ordinary, inoffensive lives.” A mother seducing her daughter’s friend, who is also the son of her neighbors? No harm no foul?

    Here’s an alternative view. Emptiness and despair poorly covered over by materialism, damaged people in damaged relationships, destroying the lives of those nearest them. Which is why the scene in the beginning at the pool when the man recommends “plastics” to Benjamin had such resonance at the time. Benjamin sees the hypocrisy, but also gets caught up in it, and in the end we sense the cycle will be repeated. Actually, the movie could be seen as prophetic. It satirizes American materialism and also the shallow idealism of the younger generation who thought they could escape it.

  24. Not to complicate matters by engaging in discussion about clothes, but, well, uh, to do that–

    It’s not surprising that the film appeals to any and all who mine nuggets of gold in the form of “cool” from the quarry that is the 60s. The Alpha Romeo, the skinny pants and jackets, sunglasses, cigarettes, the setting–lots of “cool.” The frizzy-haired, coo-coo-ca-chooey kind, mind you.

    And yet, one can’t help, scene by cleverly planned scene, but get a whiff of Worsted Tex. Poly-this and Dacron-that. Pierces the screen. God bless you please, synthetic fibers.

    That uber-fitted look, lauded by modern-day Ivydom–whatever it is, it’s not your great grandfather’s Brooks Brothers, complete with some shoulder (albeit round and sloped), tumescent middle, and full fitting bottoms.

  25. @S.E.

    “And yet, one can’t help, scene by cleverly planned scene, but get a whiff of Worsted Tex. Poly-this and Dacron-that. Pierces the screen. God bless you please, synthetic fibers.”

    As Mr McGuire said, “I have just one word for you, plastics”.

  26. @RJG (“Taliesin sees the adults in the movie as “normal people going about imperfect but ordinary, inoffensive lives.” A mother seducing her daughter’s friend, who is also the son of her neighbors? No harm no foul?”)

    You didn’t read closely enough what I wrote. I said, and I’ll emphasize the part you missed: “The older generation, who, APART FROM THE RAPACIOUS MRS. ROBINSON, mostly seem (at least to my Gen X eyes) like normal people going about imperfect but ordinary, inoffensive lives.”

    Harm, and foul. But Mrs. Robinson had individual agency and her actions were hardly an indictment of the rest of the people in her circle, or, for that matter, as people in the 60s used to say, an indictment of “the system.”

  27. @ Taliesin You’re right, I missed the qualification of your statement, so I’m sorry for overlooking it. I probably did so because I think there are grounds to argue for a broader satire of the entire vapid milieu, with the iconic suggestion that plastics are the way to go for Benjamin signalling it from the start. I remember seeing the movie in New York when it came out and that line was huge for everyone in the theater. It’s really interesting to me, however, that a movie that subverts romantic comedy so thoroughly can be seen today by a later generation as representing normality.

    @ S.E. To follow up on what the clothes are signalling, the interiors of the houses are ghastly gauche.

  28. A.E.W. Mason | November 22, 2014 at 2:10 pm |

    Consider a Freudian (i.e. pompous) critique. Plenary societal neuroses persist because of a cultural demand that we bury our natural inclination to base acts of sexual aggression in service of order. There are two primal — “Freudian” — screams in the story. It’s a mother-daughter act, in fact. The first is the figurative scream of Mrs. R in seducing Ben. The second is the literal scream of Ms. Ross at the end when she turns around, observes her Freudian liberator and screams, “BENNNNNN!”. What does it tell us? That material consumption is inadequate to sublimate our primeval impulses? Perhaps. But for anyone who has experienced a prolonged period of married, as opposed to romantic, love, the uselessness, recklessness, of these acts makes them uninteresting and, as has been aptly noted, childish. In a sense, Mrs. R is not much more adult than her daughter.

    But, much more importantly: What’s going on with that Mississippi Delta of space in between Ben’s shirt collar and jacket collar? Maybe there is some Dacron in that tweed….

  29. He didn’t unbutton his jacket before sitting, that’t the problem.

  30. I saw the movie when it came out, I liked it, still do, It was disturbing, just like the late 1960s.

  31. In the Narthex of the church, why is Mrs. Robinson screaming, “It’s custom made!” at Elaine?

  32. @S.E.

    I only heard Mrs. Robinson shout “It’s too late!”

  33. I have ever thought that a fair ending for this movie would be add a touch of science fiction.
    Benjamin Braddock falls in a hole in time-space and arrives in 1933,in the midst of the Great Depression (maybe in a dustball tempest).
    So in row for a job and a bowl of soup learn to appreciate the “consumistic and materialistic” world of his parents in 1967.

  34. I think “The Graduate” still holds up as a satire of inter-generational communication. And certainly Benjamin Braddock’s gaucheness is as much or more a source of the humor as his parents’ and their friends’ insipidness.

    I suspect that young people responded to the movie’s main theme that their generation was being pushed into marriage and family life at too young an age (which by historical standards they were). That doesn’t seem to be that relevant these days.

    Parts (the worst parts) of the movie do sort of read as a cultural attack on certain ways of life. On the other hand, “The Graduate” makes mid-1960’s coastal California seem really, really cool (polyester and all).

  35. “pushed into marriage and family life at too young an age (which by historical standards they were)”

    Interesting census data here. Unfortunately, the data go back only to 1890. It appears that 20-23 for women was common in colonial times, and a bit younger in much of the 19th century. So “too young”? Maybe not so much.

    Regardless, unlike many of today’s women, for most of American history women were getting married while still at peak fertility.

  36. So, it’s mostly if not entirely satire? Author, screenwriters, and director are poking fun at…?

  37. Guys in Tradsville tend to have trouble with that word and concept. I think they like to invoke it on message boards just to render all further discussion moot.

    Since this post I haven’t rewatched the film, mostly because I’ve seen it within the past year. But in thinking back over it, Benjamin is hardly a callous jerk. The film opens with him a shy virgin defererntial to his parents and their friends. He’s a smart kid who went back east for school and has the wardrobe to prove it.

    I suspect that for those who strongly dislike the film, it comes down to a couple of things. There’s establishment world of “plastics,” as represented by Ben’s parents and their friends and by Elaine’s fiancee. If you identify with this world, rather than with Ben, who finds himself drowning in it (to wit the scene where he’s sunken to the bottom of the pool), that’s one possible reason.

    The second is the theme of infidelity, explored countless times in film and literature. But in this story the adulterers are not clearly punished for their transgression (“Damage,” with Jeremy Irons, pops into mind as a film in which a man loses everything due to infidelity). If you have a strong objection to this part of the story on moral grounds, then I can see how the film would displease.

    Interesting though that it was clearly made at a time of transition. Two years later, in ’69, it wouldn’t have made sense for Ben to announce to his parents that he and Elaine are getting married (which he says even though she and he have never discussed it). Subsequently he ends up rescuing her from marriage, or at least a bad marriage.

    Don’t forget Nichols has that brilliant shot as they make their escape when Ben grabs a large cross to seal the door, locking their parents and the community in their old morality.

    But he was a canny storyteller indeed, as if he knew the ironic view we take on all the peace and love ’60s rhetoric now. The tone and message the film ends on, as they sit silently in the bus, is clearly “What do we do now?”

    Who was it that wrote something to the effect that the tragedy of the ’60s was that it did away with all the old moralities but offered nothing in its place?

  38. But the 1960s did offer a replacement to the Holy Trinity with a new ones, hedonism, narcissism and nihilism. Let’s not forget the Holy Grail of the left, mass abortion on demand. 😉

  39. It’s a resurrection cross (Easter victory), not a crucifix. The church looks to be one of those modern (built in the 50s) horrors. No Neo Gorhic architecture or surplices, so these folks aren’t old line Episcy’s.

    He’s quite literally locked out of the sanctuary. He “saves” Elaine by picking up a cross and carrying it. Because “stoic, stifling” Christian morality is actually liberating, after all, the joke’s on young Ben. It’s not the congregation populated by proper Protestants who discover they’re trapped.

    It’s Ben. An accidental martyr. A stinky bus going nowhere is purgatory indeed, especially when Eros fails. Look again, Ben. She doesn’t want to be with you.

  40. Charlottesville | November 24, 2014 at 3:23 pm |

    MAC, @SE et al.

    I have to agree. While I suppose I can enjoy “The Graduate” for some elements of nostalgia, and will concede that it can be interpreted as a cautionary tale, the film seems to me emblematic of the abandonment of traditional morality and virtue for the indulgence and self-pity of a generation that had it better than any in prior history. I doubt I’ll watch it again anytime soon. If we are looking for a movie to wax nostalgic over, Whit Stlllman’s “Metropolitan” gets my vote. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001LTB0CQ?ie=UTF8&ref=Dvm_us_js_sl_GCATTVB001LTB0CQ&tag=gcatvodmov-20

  41. Charlottesville
    Good choice, good film.

  42. @SE

    Fortunately we live in an age in which all interpretations are valid.

  43. Some laud the artistry of The Graduate. But, scene after (we can safely guess) obsessed over scene, it’s overkill. I get it, I get it–honestly, I do. The camera placement and angles and perspectives. But, well, I don’t get it. I mean, it feels well crafted. And it shouldn’t. It’s a movie. Nearly every scene (Ben as a moving foreground shadow; what’s Nichols trying to say?!?…??!?!) goes for the big grab. Not so subtle.

    Reminds me of what a professor of mine used to say about Hemingway. “I can’t read him. I get the sense that with every sentence, he was laboring to demonstrate his brilliance.” When you can sense the artist’s sweat and toil leap of the page (or screen), it’s not as much fun.

    Metropolitan, though. That really is a damned fine piece of work. Realism. The engine is the dialogue, which, it turns out, is just people talking. Just talking. About stuff. Drama doesn’t have to feel overdramatic.

  44. It sounds like you’re arguing technical faults when in fact you simply dislike the subject matter and/or point of view of the writer-director.

    And your professor’s opinion on Hemingway sounds more fitting for Fitzgerald. Maybe he just didn’t like Hemingway as a man.

  45. the movie–maybe all the above. There’s a lot to not like.

    Hemingway–he was a workhorse, I’ll give him that. You are correct–True of Fitzgerald, as well.

  46. “I suspect that for those who strongly dislike the film, it comes down to a couple of things. There’s establishment world of “plastics,” as represented by Ben’s parents and their friends and by Elaine’s fiancee. If you identify with this world, rather than with Ben, who finds himself drowning in it (to wit the scene where he’s sunken to the bottom of the pool), that’s one possible reason”.

    Chris,i don’t identify myself with the “world of plastic” of Ben’s parents and their friends,
    I understand those peoples.
    Hell,you are a kid in the great depression,when you are little more than a teenager you are send in pacific aganist japs or in europe aganist nazi.
    Many of your friends not return to home,but you go back and with GIBills go to College.
    Years of hard work and finally you enjoy a little of well being..and a little jerk born in welfare considers what you have built a “life of plastic”?

  47. The film was released in 1967, at that time it was common to graduate in four years, making Ben 22, therefore born in 1945.

    He was a child of postwar affluence, not of the Depression.

    Not knowing what to do with your life and wanting to go off and “find yourself” are privileges of a solid middle-class-or-above upbringing. Take it from me. My sister and I studied literature and classical music in college. Eventually, after many years of being overeducated* and underworked, we ended up working in media and communications.

    We would not have enjoyed that privilege had we been new immigrants to Astoria, New York, the place where I live now, and the most diverse place on the planet.

    *(Ha!)

    PS: I see now that by child of Depression you mean Ben’s parents and their friends. But does the story give us reason to believe that they were poor during the Depression?

  48. A.E.W. Mason | November 24, 2014 at 9:27 pm |

    @Charlottesville, S.E., MAC, Carmelo

    Excellent observations! And ones with which I agree. By the way, MAC, I fully agree that the 60s–by the time the decade closed–wreaked irremediable damage on the country.

    Here, in the Golden State, that legacy can be seen in the juxtaposition of the fact that, while the State’s public education system is perhaps the worst in the country, yet, our education bureaucrats in Sacramento are now busying themselves with the critical task of crafting new curricula to ensure that–and I’m not making this up–students learn about the contributions of same sex and other non-traditional unions during the time of the Gold Rush.

  49. Buckley, Kerouac, Sanders and Yablonsky discuss Hippies….;-)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaBnIzY3R00

  50. A.E.W. Mason | November 25, 2014 at 1:33 am |

    One didn’t have to come from a poor family to be deeply affected by what occurred during the Depression. Many children of middle and upper middle class families came away with a very mature view–at a very young age–of what life demanded based on the Depression experience. Most young men returning from service after the war felt that the most important thing was to get a job that would provide some security. And, in many cases, that meant finishing what had been a dislocated education so you could get on with making a safe, secure living.

  51. A.E.W. Mason | November 25, 2014 at 2:38 am |

    Christian,

    So I understand: Is your question about the parents being poor meant to imply that had they been so during the Depression, then they might be forgiven for wanting to, as Carmelo puts it, just enjoy a little well being? I may have misunderstood what you were getting at.

  52. “The film was released in 1967, at that time it was common to graduate in four years, making Ben 22, therefore born in 1945.
    He was a child of postwar affluence, not of the Depression”.

    Infact i was talking about Ben’s parents.
    Of course that the baby boomer Ben had not known the depression and the WW-II,..
    Otherwise he would not feel “insodisfaction for the life of plastic”.
    That life was a hard conquest,a life of dream for the average American grown up in 30s and early 40s.
    P.S.
    Maybe the Ben’s parents were rich in 30s or maybe not,this is not a point.
    Ben is a symbolic character,is the symbol of a generation that was unsatisfied because did not understand neither appreciated the sacrifices of the previous generation (the greatest generation) for to get those standards of well-being.
    Were consumerist?
    Yes,but think when all those goods were out from the possibility of average American.

    @ A.E.W.
    “I fully agree that the 60s–by the time the decade closed–wreaked irremediable damage on the country”.

    So i’m agree.
    But i don’t see 60s as a unitary decade,but rather as a set of very different periods.
    In particular i see different the 1960-1963 perio,that under many aspects is more in continuity with the 50s that with late 60s.
    Also in the field of clothes we can see that the real change is after 1966.
    The fact is that in 60s the changes were slow; each year was equal to five years.
    If you see a movie or a TV show of 1965 and one of 1969 are two different worlds…and had passed only few years.
    So i see the turning point in 1964-65.

  53. @AEW

    Alas now I too am misunderstanding what you’re getting at.

    Ben has the luxury of not knowing what to do with his life because he grew up affluent. I don’t think the film informs us whether or not his parents had been poor.

    There’s probably never been a bigger generation gap than the one between the baby boomers and the so-called greatest generation.

  54. The draft and the escalation of the war had as much to do with the unrest of the times. The draft is the unspoken elephant in the room of the film. Why wasn’t Ben worried about it?

  55. Charlottesville | November 25, 2014 at 11:27 am |

    @Christian

    “There’s probably never been a bigger generation gap than the one between the baby boomers and the so-called greatest generation.”

    So true. I am a mid-to-late era boomer (younger by a good bit than Ben, but still old enough to recall B&W TV and dial phones), and find the bulk of us to comprise a remarkably self-obsessed bunch of bores. Denying our own mortality, worshipping youth (increasingly laughable as we age), etc. I think that is partly why I wear a suit or sport coat and tie every day, even though few around me bother anymore, even in fairly traditional Charlottesville, Virginia. I even wear a proper hat most days, which was already a dated look when I took up the custom in the mid 1980s, and I fear may begin to look like costume at some point. But, frankly, I just feel better this way.

  56. @ Carmelo “Ben is a symbolic character,is the symbol of a generation that was unsatisfied because did not understand neither appreciated the sacrifices of the previous generation (the greatest generation) for to get those standards of well-being.”

    I think you have to keep separate what the movie may be doing from what you think the movie should be doing. It’s more than possible to write a critique of the boomers, but that would be a different movie, one closer to “The Big Chill.”

    But if you want to attribute the misplaced ( in your view) opinion of the inadequacy of “plastics” for human fulfillment to the ingratitude of Benjamin, it would actually make more sense to attribute it to the author, who grew up wealthy in Pasadena and wrote the novel shortly after graduating from Williams College. But then what do you do with the screenwriter, Buck Henry, born in New York in 1930, and the director, Mike Nichols, who was born in Berlin in 1931 and wouldn’t have survived very long if he hadn’t fled Germany in 1939 at the age of eight? Were they being ungrateful also? At some point, it’s not about where you come from, but how you see things.

  57. ” At some point, it’s not about where you come from, but how you see things”. Nice!.

  58. Errata corrige in my previous post:

    @ A.E.W.
    “I fully agree that the 60s–by the time the decade closed–wreaked irremediable damage on the country”.

    So i’m agree.
    But i don’t see 60s as a unitary decade,but rather as a set of very different periods.
    In particular i see different the 1960-1963 perio,that under many aspects is more in continuity with the 50s that with late 60s.
    Also in the field of clothes we can see that the real change is after 1966.
    The fact is that in 60s the changes were FAST; each year was equal to five years.
    If you see a movie or a TV show of 1965 and one of 1969 are two different worlds…and had passed only few years.
    So i see the turning point in 1964-65.

  59. Errata corrige in my previous post:

    @ A.E.W.
    “I fully agree that the 60s–by the time the decade closed–wreaked irremediable damage on the country”.

    So i’m agree.
    But i don’t see 60s as a unitary decade,but rather as a set of very different periods.
    In particular i see different the 1960-1963 perio,that under many aspects is more in continuity with the 50s that with late 60s.

    Also in the field of clothes we can see that the real change is after 1966.
    The fact is that in 60s the changes were FAST; each year was equal to five years.
    If you see a movie or a TV show of 1965 and one of 1969 are two different worlds…and had passed only few years.
    So i see the turning point in 1964-65.

  60. A.E.W. Mason | November 25, 2014 at 3:09 pm |

    @ Carmelo

    You’re quite right. And Christian’s comment about the schism between Boomers and their parents is in point. In 1968 you could walk into a gathering of corporate lawyers down town and it would look like Ivy “Nirvana” — gentlemen not yet even 50 years of age and all’s quiet on the western front. A half a mile away, Led Zeppelin were unloading their gear at the Fillmore East. There was something almost schizophrenic about it.

  61. For a Williams grad, Benjamin Braddock is a total failure.

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