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Monday, January 30, 2006

No. No. No. No. No. Yes.

It is I, Smeliana, here yet again. You thought I'd disappeared. In fact, I just have a job and an active social life. I know. I know. I'm sorry. But I'll try to make it up to you. I just saw When Harry Met Sally, again. And, if I may spoil the inevitable but brilliant romantic comedy ending, I'll pontificate for a moment.

I'm going to assume that we all know the movie. And it's wonderful. It's fabulous. The comic timing, the editing, the pacing, the colors, the juxtopositions, the split screens, the racial/ethnic undertones, the City are all incredible. Just so good.

Harry and Sally are just complex enough that the film can hold up over time and it has several canonical scenes spurring debates throughout the ages. (I mean, the movie is almost 17 years old. That's practically FOREVER.) I'm in no mood to pander to you and tell you all of the ways in which this film is gold. I have a very specific question.

What's with the ending?

Harry comes to his senses and realizes exactly what he's supposed to realize; he loves Sally and wants to be with her. He even spouts a perfect "I Love You" Monologue:

I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.


How much do I want someone to say that to me? Hell, I could even write it beforehand and give it to him; I wouldn't want him to strain himself. My response (and Sally and I are VERY similar) would be to promptly pick myself up off the floor (I would have buckled at "sleep at night"), grab him, kiss him, and say, "Really? Go on..."

But no. Not Sally. She says that she hates him. She hates him because he says things that make it impossible to hate him. At this point, I'm with her, a bit. Alright, Sally. You want to be mad. Mad is a graspable emotion. It makes sense and has a standard protocol. It's fun to hold onto. There's always something to do. But he's so great, and so you're struggling. Rightly so. Struggle, struggle, struggle.

But then she just repeats, "I hate you. I hate you. [shakes head, tears up, and mouths again] I hate you." And then he kisses her! And they kiss! And then you have the pullback to the crowd and the cut to them discussing their marriage and happiness.

Am I the only one who finds this disconcerting? Do I hate conflict that much? Why does he kiss her? She just told him she hates him! Shouldn't that wound him a bit? Shouldn't he care if she hates him? Or shouldn't he worry that she still wants to hate him? If I confessed my love to my best friend and then he said he hated me and started to cry, I couldn't kiss him. I would cry too. "What did I say? What did I do wrong? I love you!"

The repeated, "I hate you" would just be such a blow to my ego that I couldn't kiss him right after. Is Harry cockier than I am? Is he so confident that she can't cancel out his determination? Is this a case of "when you know, you know"? Is love when both of you understand that the words coming out of your mouth are false?

I don't know how I feel about that. Maybe I've never had true love. Maybe I'm more emotionally specific than most people. Maybe my skin is too thin. But I don't think I could kiss someone after they say they hate me.

And what does it mean that it's okay that he did it? What kinds of gender ramifications does it have? "Don't listen to the crazy woman. She doesn't know what she's talking about! Kiss her! Win her!" Could it ever work the other way? He would say, "I hate you" and that would be it. Over.

Do you think this is unsettling?

Musing Pictures: "The 40 Year Old Virgin"

Comedy is tough. Whenever I see a comedy that I enjoy, it occurs to me that I should pay more attention, because comedy is tough.

"The 40 Year Old Virgin" is a comedy of awkwardness, in the way that everything from Charlie Chaplin to Mr Bean is comedy of awkwardness. The nice thing about the film's star, Steve Carell, is that he manages to pull off some true, genuine sentiment, in a way that is closer to Chaplin (or, really, to Buster Keaton, who, I feel, is better at it, because of his face). Despite its bawdy subject matter, the film really comes across as a pleasant, genuine little story, and it's Carell who is responsible for that.

Perhaps seeing a similarity to Buster Keaton isn't as farfetched as I thought it would be a few sentences ago. As I think on it, the film does include some physical, chase-related comedy (in cars, on bikes, on foot, etc.) and throughout it, the funniest part is Carell's face. His gift for comedic expression is remarkable, especially considering how quickly other actors over-emphasize their reactions to get a cheap laugh.

To my mind, there's something very intricate about comedy, and somewhere tied in to that intricacy is the supremacy of subtlety in comedic arts. I think that's why I prefer Keaton to Chaplin (although Chaplin knew extremely well the importance of subtlety, as well). I think that's why "Old Stoneface" Keaton hasn't been matched by other physical comedians/stuntment like Jackie Chan (who is quite funny, but not as sublime).

No, Carell is not a stuntman, as far as I know, but his ability to not only control his face, but to understate his own expression is where I feel he is most like Keaton. I wonder what his career will look like down the road. Comedians with highly over-expressive faces (Robin Williams, Jim Carrey etc.) have been attempting transitions to non-comic forms (Williams has been more successful, it seems... Jamie Foxx has been most successful of any of them). A subtle, under-expressive face seems more at home in drama than comedy, so I wonder, twenty years from now, when Carell is tired of that Same Old Thing, what will his dramas look like?

Also, a side-note on the film: It looks like a sitcom -- the lighting, the sets, even the staging of characters. Interestingly, the cinematographer (Jack N. Green) has had almost no interaction with television at all (although he was cinematographer for the cinematic adaptation, "Serenity", which had its origins on TV). The director, of course, (Judd Apatow), is a veteran of the television world, and a relative newby to the big screen (this is his first stint as director...)

-AzS

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Musing Pictures: "It's a Wonderful Life"

I was introduced to the film "It's a Wonderful Life" at a production meeting, of all places.

The fellow who suggested that I see the film introduced it roughly like this: "When it begins, you'll think there's absolutely no way this film can work, but you'll see, by the time it's over, it kicks like a mule."

Like a mule? I was curious.

Frank Capra's film, which has become an annual holiday event of sorts on TV (though it's much reduced, usually, when it is broadcast), begins with a conversation between a twinkly light in the sky, and another twinkly light in the sky. These are angels, discussing the saving of a poor fellow named George Bailey from his intended suicide. You'd think you were watching some bad, early Hallmark telefilm.

But here's the thing. Capra takes it all totally seriously.

We see the town (Bedford Falls). We see kids playing. We see George Bailey's story unfold (and the role is completely inhabited by Jimmy Stewart), and Capra takes everything in as matter-of-factly as he possibly can. To Capra, this is not schlock. This is important. And that makes it all the easier for us to take it seriously.

I found myself buying in to the film's premise quite quickly, and, in fact, being rather taken by it -- moved to the verge of tears by the end (which is something very few movies can do to me).

I spent some time, after seeing the film, pondering Spielberg. He said, once: "Before I go off and direct a movie, I always look at four films. They tend to be The Seven Samurai, Lawrence Of Arabia, It's A Wonderful Life and The Searchers" (http://www.tiscali.co.uk/entertainment/film/biographies/steven_spielberg_biog/5)

That's an interesting spread of films, and "It's a Wonderful Life" fits in there in an interesting way -- it is the most heartwarming, the most uplifting of the films. Strangely, the director who seems to be known for playing his audience's heartstrings very well takes most of his cues from dark films, where characters die, and where people skirt the edge of reason or even turn completely evil before all is said and done.

But "It's a Wonderful Life" stands out, and I suspect that I know why. It's a completely effective film that somehow avoids falling in to all of the traps of a sentimental family picture. It's sentimental without sentimentality -- without coming across as being made of maple syrup. For Spielberg, who loves to tell uplifting stories (even though, lately, he has taken a dark turn), I can certainly understand why "It's a Wonderful Life" is such an influential film that he will re-watch it before every film he shoots.

An aside: I wonder how "Its a Wonderful Life" will affect me in forty years. Today, I am much more like the young, ambitious George Bailey. I'm not yet a family man, with kids, with that day-to-day grind, and with curbed ambitions. It strikes me as the sort of film that affects people very differently, depending on their age and stage of life.

-AzS

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Princess Bride

"The Princess Bride" was a film that I was introduced to fairly late, probably by someone who said to me "What? You haven't seen 'The Princess Bride'? Go see it!" I don't remember when the first time I saw it was, but it was on TV last night, and I found myself quite engaged by it, yet again.

What really, truly struck me about it this time around was its sheer technical simplicity -- and the fact that it still "works" despite its technical simplicity.

Here's what I mean.

Andre the Giant plays a giant. the people with the swords are people with swords. The sky is a painted backdrop most of the time (especially at the top of that cliff, early on) but we don't care, because we're too busy laughing at lines like "I am not left handed".

There is plenty in "The Princess Bride" that doesn't look real, and that isn't meant to look real. Rob Reiner is so confident in William Goldman's script that he just lets the sets do what they've done in theater for thousands of years -- imply a location for us so that the story (the STORY!) takes precedence.

I wish today's special effects films would take a note from films like "The Princess Bride". Peter Jackson, for example, spends too much time admiring his own creations in his films (and yes, although I did like the new "King Kong", he's very guilty in that film, as well), and Lucas, unfortunately, since he spent twenty years selling his special effects innovations via ILM, does little more than showcase his technology in his latest "Star Wars" films. Spielberg, along with (possibly) the much younger Shyamalan, seems to know how to weave high-end effects in to an engrossing story (see "Indiana Jones" or "Jaws", or, for a more subtle example, "Minority Report"), but I can't really think of anyone else who does that well. Maybe Joss Whedon? He's too new to tell (and I'm still irked by that line about the "thirty coin" quip that the token Jew in "Serenity" mutters).

-AzS

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Abyss

Whenever I heard mention of James Cameron's "The Abyss", I would get intrigued.

Here is a film about a bunch of reluctant explorers (there's that concept again) underwater, discovering new, weird, crazy things.

I was intrigued both for the mystery of it -- the "what's down there?" aspect -- and for the special effects, which were considered fairly top-of-the-line at the time (and they are).

What disappoints me, now that I've seen it, is that the film is actually a weak, underwater remake of Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (which I feel is one of his most undervalued films). I think its weakness is most pronounced when its heavyhanded anti-violence, anti-war, anti-nuclear rhetoric overtakes the plot. It's an interesting story, but then the story stops so we can witness some demonstrations about how the military is inherently evil (which the film simply assumes). Basically, the military people in this underwater laboratory go insane -- or, at least, one of them does -- and all sorts of bad things happen. I'd be fine with this if it was just another character going nuts. And I'm fine with films that are genuinely critical of the military, or of militant types of authority. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is brilliantly critical by showing that the military, with all of its good intentions, simply doesn't understand what's going on along with everyone else -- and perhaps because it's the military, it can not afford to be as imaginative as regular people. That's a genuine critique, and it is woven very deftly in to Spielberg's narrative. In "The Abyss", Cameron, who can do short sequences really well (the sinking of the Titanic, or the emergence of the Terminator, etc.), can't seem to blend the storytelling with the preachiness, and the effect is that the film pauses every time Cameron thinks he has something important to say.

It wouldn't surprise me if someone remakes "The Abyss" someday. It will be a better film if the military's role is downplayed, and if the awe and wonder of exploration is really given its due.

-AzS

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Media Chick: School of Rock

Here I am again, loyal droves, to give you some more analysis. And if you're new to my writing and you wish there were more of it, go visit my personal Smelblog. It's the same, witty Smeliana with dirtier language and pictures. (No dirty pictures...yet.)

I Always Think There's A Band, Kid


It took me three years to see School of Rock. Why? Why would I wait so long for unbridled hilarity? Because I'm a snob. A stupid snob who likes to feel like her films are commenting on society and history and theory. And if they're not depressing treatises, I like them to be cheeky satires or meta-rants. So I avoided School of Rock because I thought it wouldn't thrill me. And then I would have to explain to the plebian masses why I wasn't rolling in the aisles whenever Mr. Black raised his eyebrows. And that, my gentle readers, would be too much with which to deal.

So I've waited until today to watch my roommate's copy. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Why didn't any of you tell me that School of Rock was a modern-day Music Man???

I'm a little disappointed in you all. I would have watched it much sooner had I known. We have the idealistic dreamer who comes across as a slackerly, commitment-phobic huckster in our hero. We have the begging-to-be-unwound teacher/principal/librarian/pseudo-love interest. (She even gets propositioned by a more successful version of the hero during the film's climax.) We have the old friend who abadoned the dream to come work in the situation in which Mr. Music finds himself. Friendo here has got a girl whereas Mr. Music is loveless, albeit searching. He wins over the kids, sometimes as a group and sometimes confronting individuals' needs, giving them special parts when requested. And, when the moment that the kids have been working for suddenly arrives, he has been intimidated by the parents, run out of town, only to be ushered back by his believing flock, pleading for his leadership and turning his lessons of confidence and joy back onto himself in the nick of time. Huzzah!

I know the love story elements aren't as strong. There aren't any bandleader/baton girl romances. And the kids aren't exactly the same. But there is a fat Black girl with an Arethavoice, a scared Asian boy with a penchant for Classical piano and books, and a skinny whitewashed Jewboy who is the brains behind the music. That totally modernizes the fatherless Irish boy with a lisp. If only the grade-grubbing Hapa girl had been sisters with the uptight principal...

(The ever-talented Joan Cusack looks significantly less ugly here than she usually does. I think she's the ugliest successful actress in Hollywood. Except maybe Uma Thurman, but she has her good days, at least.)

Anyway, what more is there to say about School of Rock that can't be concluded by my racial stereotyping? I would comment on the actual rock elements of the film, but as I would say, I don't know from Rock. But the movie was really fun and peppy. I bet it's a great babysitting flick. And then you can do air guitar with your kids. That'd be good.

Also, what about the bassist chick? She's totally ignored in the plot. I know you can't have a plot around every kid, but, come on! She's a female, 10 year-old bassist! You gotta give her some attention or no one ever will!

And don't even get me started on the gaygaygay little boy fashion designer. The only way they could have exagerrated that further would have been to have him hit on one of the other rockers. "I love your leather pants. They fit so...well. They'd look great on my floor in the morning..." (Overeducated, gay 10 year-olds speak with many ellipses. It's a mix between closeted fear and fabulous confidence.)

So that's my take on School of Rock. Sorry, Dr. Stoner, that I didn't write about How Stella Got Her Groove Back yet. I don't know if I should tackle the racial angle (He's always blacklit and she always spotlit, making him appear even darker and she lighter, a dynamic that fits right in with their power struggle.) and/or the gender angle (Is this an objectifying of the man a reclaiming of female sexuality, another tickmark in the history of objectifying Black men, or a dual-objectification of both of them, because they're both just so damn gorgeous?). And all of the bell hooks texts in my brain are screaming at me. "How dare you purport to suggest that one could ever separate the racial and gender angles! And what about the class issues?! That boy went from wealthy in Jamaica to working-class among the vacationing wealthy to rich in San Francisco! Where is the nuance in those societies? And what about addressing the poor Blacks in the areas?! No successful Black woman should live without acknowledging her less fortunate sisters in the ghetto! Where is this movie's class/racial/gender consciousness? It's in the dumpster, chucked to make room for a couple of steamy sex scenes! Well, I never!" You see, bell hooks is a very angry woman. But Lord does she have a right to be...

Anyway, next time I tell you my brain is overflowing after a movie, it's with rants like that. Just so you know.

So, whaddya think?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Musing Pictures: Aguirre -- Wrath of God

Depressing films are not new, but they do bring to mind an interesting question, which I will get to later.

I recently had an opportunity to see the 1972 German film, "Aguirre -- Wrath of God", which had been sitting, un-watched, on my shelf for several months. My first introduction to the film was by name, only, on a movie list from a 10th grade film teacher (Media Chick remembers him, too). Fast forward to my sophomore year of college, the intro film history class, and there it is again, Aguirre, in a dramatic final scene, standing aslant on a rickety raft, sailing down a tropical river with monkeys and corpses for company. The professor showed only that one scene, and it was all I knew of "Aguirre -- Wrath of God" for several years.

When I finally popped it in the VCR (yes, VHS tapes are really cheap, so I still buy them) all I knew to expect was that Aguirre would stand alone, with monkeys, in the end.

It's a very strange film, and of course, a very dark one. Aguirre, the head of a mutinous band of explorers, pushes them beyond their abilities and beyond their sanity in a quest to find the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. It is a study in leadership, and in insanity, and in the relationship between the two.

When I think of tales of exploration, the ones I gravitate towards are triumphant -- Neil Armstrong, Vespucci, Magellan, and yes, even Columbus, before the butchery. In my capacities as a dreamer and a storyteller, there is little more fascinating than the promise of just beyond the dip of the horizon. In "Aguirre", Werner Herzog paints a dark promise: there is nothing over the horizon but more horizon. We know that El Dorado is a myth, and that knowledge forces us to not only frown on the stalwart explorers, but to feel anger, as well, at Aguirre himself (played brilliantly by Klaus Kinski), for driving them so hard towards something that Just Isn't There. I think that's the difference between "Aguirre" and other exploration stories -- we know the ending, and we know it can't be good. When we first saw "The Wizard of Oz", we didn't know the ending, but it was good. The end of the rainbow proved to be a warm, happy, safe place. Although Magellan died before his circumnavigation of the globe was complete, we know that the task he set out to achieve was completed successfully, and GPS systems everywhere are now named after him. At the Olympic Games, we watch eagerly to see someone rise to victory. But there is also that dark fascination with watching another's failure. That is the fascination that makes "Aguirre" so powerful.

It's dark, and it's depressing, and we sometimes wonder, "who wants to see a dark, depressing movie?" I admit, I don't like them, most of the time. I love the cinema that transports and uplifts me -- the grand, sweeping, operatic stuff that leaves me desperately happy. But there's a fascination, nonetheless, with a fall. King Kong (the remake) is all about that -- a three hour film that culminates, literally, in a character's fall. Although I enjoyed the remake of Kong, a student of mine made the astute observation that it's just not fun to have so much pity for a character that you can't do anything to help.

There's a theory, and I don't think it has a name, that says: a strong source of tension in film comes from the desire to help a character, conflicting with the realization that you can not reach through the screen to the world of the film -- the desire and the inability to help.

Hitchcock takes full advantage of this type of tension, showing us just a little more than a character knows, and teasing us by placing the character in just the situation that makes the knowledge we have most relevant and most urgent. The key to Hitchcock, though, is that the character we care about gets out of the situation somehow. Our tension is released through relief. In "King Kong", and in "Aguirre", our tension is released through dispair and disappointment, if it is released at all. Rather than laughing, we cry, or brood. Sometimes, it just turns in to frustration. And it is not the same as crying when a beloved character dies "naturally" -- when even had we been able to provide information through the screen to the film, the character would have died. That is a death we can feel genuinely sad about, because there is no guilt associated with it. The character died, and it's sad for everyone who is still alive, but we don't have the frustration associated with the unrelieved tension.

"Munich", also a depressing film, works because even if we think we have the answers, we know that even within the film's world (which is meant to mirror our own), there are no clear answers. Even if we could reach in and say something, it wouldn't have an effect. (and yes, Spielberg does have his Hitchcock moment, when the little girl comes home early, and the bomb meant for her father threatens to take her life instead... but that moment, true to Hitchcock, allows for the right kind of release -- relief, rather than frustration.)

In "Aguirre", as in "King Kong", we have a feeling that we could step in and explain things. We could tell the world, "King Kong is just a Big Monkey with a Heart of Gold and a Penchant for Blondes!" or "Come on, guys, can't you tell Aguirre is insane? Feed him to the monkeys, and let's get out of here!" And we know we're right, and the screen prevents us from being able to say anything, and it's frustrating.

Werner Herzog's recent "Grizzly Man" is on my list of films to see. From the sound of it, it's also depressing in the same way (it's the tale of a man who devoted his life to protecting Grizzly Bears, only to get eaten by them one day.) I'm sure I'll have the same reaction to it, wanting desperately to tell this guy to get out of the woods, but not being able to because of the glass or the canvas that divides reality from the world of the film. [and a twist on "Grizzly Man" is that it is a documentary... time itself becomes a barrier, too.]

Monday, January 02, 2006

Media Chick: Match Point

Woody Allen wishes you would just admit to your despair. He used to be some adorable little man who spent his days worrying about his inadequacies. You thought that was so cute. "Ooooh. Look at him ponder and pace and pout! Isn't he darling! The jittery little Jewish man is so insecure!" But, gentle readers, you were wrong. Woody is 70 now and the nervousness has given way to an air of wisdom about the world. And, turns out, the world sucks. Or, as he put it in three quotations I found, "Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon." "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." And, "Most of the time I don't have much fun. The rest of the time I don't have any fun at all."

Sounds hopeful, right?

Wrong.

"Match Point" is about the supremacy of luck. (Luck is the absence of reason or a cause-and-effect system of occurences.) One character states early on, "I think faith is the path of least resistance." And this ideology carries throughout the film. I'm not sure if Allen thinks that everything is a waste of time (maybe not sex...) but hope sure is. And even hedging ones bets seems to be fairly futile. Along with Allen decrying faith, he heralds the failure of Intelligent Design. (While the Godlessness of the world is merely a corrolary to "Match Point"'s metaphysics, this is the same Allen who said, "I believe there is something out there watching us. Unfortunately, it's the government.") Anything that is under our control is just as quickly out of control. Forces of nature, logic, reason, or history can change without a moment's notice and we're left to cope with the pieces. Or we're not left at all.

Don't get me wrong. "Match Point" was a fantastic film. Unlike most depressing works I've seen, it had a cogent outlook on the world, presented clearly, convincingly, and completely. The entire film fit under this rubric, cleverly laying piece after piece down, until its events seemed to point to the only logical construction of the universe. Allen seems to have it all worked out. I just hope he's wrong.

I could talk about the fabulous casting, the hottttt sex scenes (more like sex snippets), or the excellent discussion about class. I could talk to you all about how Allen's New Yorker frankness served as a perfect implied counterpoint to this film about highly British manners. But, really, I'm too depressed.

Upside? Filmmaking is alive and well. Downside? It's alive in a man who once said, "My one regret in life is that I am not someone else."

Isn't that special?

Media Chick

Hello everybody! It is I, AzS's new partner in legality, Media Chick aka Smeliana. I have been one of AzS's foils in celluloid ever since our high school days in good ol' Waltham, MA. He and I used to sit on a bus traveling around Israel, talking all about movies we loved and recommending whole lists to each other. Maybe, just maybe, next time I go home to Beantown I'll bring that journal back and document those lists. How have our lists changed, five years later?

Anyway, AzS and I have always been a great tag team because our interests are along different angles of the vast cinematic universe. AzS, as far as I can tell, is a lover of film as an art form and a communicative medium for filmmakers to speak to audiences. I, on the other hand, am a bit of a media slut. I love the blunt instrument of the widescreen, the sledgehammer of popular opinion that is generated through ad campaigns, and the capitalist wars that are waged through studio competition. It's all so crude and animalistic. And yet, every so often, some people know how to wield these impossible tools to create multi-fronted attacks on the populace that grab their attentions such that forking down $10.75 seems a natural instinct.

Okay, that's ideology, albeit in a caricaturized nutshell.

Biography? I went to high school with AzS. I then fled Boston with the speed of an overhyped, newly shorn centerfielder and came to The City (New York, that is) to go to college at Columbia. I majored in American Studies, focusing in sociology and movies. I wrote my thesis on the evolution of the portrayal of gay men with AIDS in film. (Yes. I saw "Philadelphia".) And now I'm living in this big City, with all its bright lights, and trying to break into journalism. Turns out "freelancer" applies mostly to the amount of money I'll be working for and the pain that the search inflicts. It's not an easy business. But I've tried other things and this writing thing is what I love. I guess that's when you go into it. So this blog, as well as my personal blog get me writing and even get other people reading me. What could be better?

So check back, often, to see my thoughts on the films I see. I'm going to be the one to address the celebrity-driven backstories, media campaigns, implications and expectations of the films in addition to their actual stories/artistry. It's all very meta. But don't worry. You'll be able to keep up.

And I'm the one who uses the dirty words. You'll want to keep reading.

Feel free to comment. I'd love to hear what you think!