Tag Archives: don coscarelli

Intro to YouTube Criticism, or, How to be a Complete Muppet

PART ONE

 

Should YouTube be a subject for criticism?

I’m not sure. On the one hand, some amongst the YouTube creative community[1] are making content of real quality (and batshit insanity[2]). They make videos that inspire emotion and engage with the endless discussion on what it’s like to be human. They even do so in a fairly novel way. YouTube has its own style of visual storytelling, as different to TV and film as those two are different to each other, and this is in part what makes it worth criticising. But on the other hand, I worry that criticism would prove anathema to YouTube’s unique character.

Like TV and film, YouTube has its own capabilities and limitations as a creative medium, its main strength being the lack of human obstacles. At no point on YouTube is there some office suit rejecting ideas for lack of perceived market potential, and the result is a wonderful mess of creativity. YouTube features rhetoric, poetry, education on everything from The Great Gatsby to the Tau-Pi debate, and twisted cartoons about psychopathic llamas. As long as people can cobble together the equipment, funds and willing helpers to make something, that thing is going on YouTube. Of course, that does not mean that anyone is going to watch it.

See, the flipside of no corporate oversight is a lack of corporate backing. This means less money for making things, but, more importantly, also means no professional marketing, no publicists and no paid advertising. There is no-one building an audience before the appearance of a YouTube video. Instead the video is simply uploaded with the hope that an audience will appear. In addition, no corporate backing means no money up front. If you want to make a living from YouTube, you depend on having a big audience that will generate ad revenue and buy your branded merchandise. On YouTube, the audience directly pays the creator, rather than paying the creator indirectly via media companies as happens with film and TV.

This means that the YouTuber has both all the responsibility for building and maintaining a loyal audience, and all the profit motivation to do so. This can conflict with creativity, in that people drift towards making what’s popular over what they might prefer to do,[3] but as creative people rarely like bandwagons, this tends not to happen. YouTubers may instead cater to audiences in more indirect ways, such as keeping their videos short in respect of standard internet-user attention spans[4] or making more naturally crowd-pleasing entertainment, like action or comedy. This sort of audience building is not pandering, largely because what audiences like to watch many creators like to make. But there are plenty of people making comedy skits or wacky animations or action sequences on YouTube. To build an audience on YouTube, a creator has to make people want to watch their stuff in particular. They have to engage the audience on a personal level. It is a challenge to be sure, but when creators rise to it, the results can be amazing.

YouTubers are open with their audiences to a degree that is awe-inspiring. Without prompting they reveal their drives, the details of their lives and their feelings, whether joys, miseries[5] or fears[6]. This is not a complete openness. As in any social situation, YouTubers subtly adjust the way they behave when in front of the camera. They might exaggerate some traits, or suppress others. This means what the audience is engaging with is a persona, but because engaging with personas is how all human relationships work, that really makes no difference. After all the persona still has all the same drives and desires as the actual person. So, to the extent that anyone really does, YouTubers honestly reveal themselves to their audience. This inspires empathy, and empathy for the creator makes you want to keep watching.

This up-front revelation of the creator’s personality is alien to other media. In film for example the artists (directors, writers, DOPs, et al) are pretty anonymous. Not completely: good artists put enough of themselves into their films that you can recognise the person by what they make. But seeing particular individual traits within a movie’s themes or visual style is not the same thing as having a creator state their thoughts and feelings direct to camera. Learning about a person by analysing what they make is a pretty distanced way of getting to know someone.

But the comparative lack of intimacy is not the main way film and also film criticism shapes the audience-creator relationship. As the only way you get to know a filmmaker is through their work, the quality of that work is a massive factor in how your relationship with them develops. Indeed how good a filmmaker is at their job becomes the defining trait of that filmmaker. This is made all the more true if you happen to be heavily involved in film criticism.

Critics, you see, think that art is important. World-changingly important. This is not just a critic thing mind: lots of people think this way, but it is a mindset that critics almost have to have, because otherwise why would they bother? You don’t spend ages discussing something unless you think that thing is really important, and if you think film as a whole is important, good films become vital. You are not just thankful to the filmmaker for the emotional experience they provide; you are also gripped with the belief that their life and works are making the world better. This combines with a lack of intimacy with the filmmaker as a person, to turn the filmmaker from a person into a fucking idol. This has its consequences: for example, it helped me to make a thorough fool of myself.

 

PART TWO

 

The ensuing story takes place at the BFI Southbank Centre. I was there to see John Dies at the End, a film I was far, far too excited about. I love the source material, I loved how brilliantly weird the trailer was, but most of all, I was excited because the movie was directed by Don Coscarelli. That man is not just a filmmaker: he is the kind of filmmaker I want to be.   For example, Coscarelli’s first film was a horror about an evil pensioner who chops up dead bodies to make dwarf slaves who toil for him on some alien world. That is a good starting point for excellence, but Coscarelli cemented it by having a great ear for music, and an insistence on practical effects work. The result was Phantasm, a cult horror legend. But though that film and its sequels are loved by many, the reason I fell in love with Coscarelli was a much more recent film of his called Bubba Ho-Tep. It is a film about Elvis fighting a mummy in an old folks’ home, and has an ending so beautiful that after multiple viewings it still makes me tear up. I love Bubba Ho-Tep, but that love had unfortunate consequences. I watched that film, and thought it a work of genius, so, I began to idolise.

So there I was, at Southbank. I got there an hour early, and though I tried to pass the time by writing, my anticipation overdose made it a fruitless effort. I could but sit and jiggle and wait as the minutes peeled away, until, finally it was time. I got up to head over to theatre, and, as I went, bam! There he was. Standing in the lobby, for all the world like a normal person, was Don Coscarelli. For a moment I was frozen, locked in an internal scuffle of balls vs shyness. Balls won out, with the assertion that if I didn’t go say hello, I would end up kicking my own arse till the end of time. So, over I went. I stood before the man, and cleared my throat in a fairly weak manner, but Coscarelli had already seen me. I was still plucking up the courage to speak, when he held out his hand and said: “Hi. I’m Don.”

That tore it. My lazy brain, always looking for the best cliché, found and appropriated the standard Hollywood post-explosion, glassy-eyed discombobulation. Still, I somehow managed to shake the proferred hand and burble something complimentary about Bubba Ho-Tep. Coscarelli responded fairly off-handedly, after first giving full credit for any goodness to the writer of the source material (and so adding humility to his list of virtues). He described how he’d rewatched it recently and had forgotten how sentimental it was, a comment that frankly floored me. I mean, how could a genius forget his greatest work, or indeed talk about it so lightly? My world reeled. Unfortunately the momentary silence that followed was immediately filled by Coscarelli’s event organiser escort, who began burbling about some of the actually important stuff that needed to be done. Suddenly the conversation had moved on, and I could only stand and watch it go.

Now, most people in such a scenario would just leave, interrupting briefly to excuse themselves from proximity and then head off. However, I am middle-class & English to my core, and as such felt myself trapped between the Scylla and Charybdis of awkward social situations. I mean it would have been rude to stay where I was, because the conversation that was now happening was obviously not one I should be involved in. However it was also rude for me to just leave (it would look as if I was offended). Same goes for interrupting the conversation to make a formal exit. Normally I think I might have shouldered my cross and managed a little rudeness, but at that time I was in the company of Don Coscarelli, graven image extraordinaire, and the very thought of committing social faux pas in front of him was…urgh. Not even considerable.

What then followed were several tortuous minutes, as I waited desperately for some acceptable avenue of escape to open up. Luckily, Don Coscarelli provided one, eventually, breaking off his conversation with his escort to tactfully tell me to go away. At the time, I could have kissed his hand for that, but now, the memory feels mortifying. I looked like a gormless muppet in front of one of my heroes. Of course, that just shows the problem. I thought of the man as a hero, which he isn’t. He’s just a bloke. Indeed, he seemed a rather affable bloke, and if I’d approached him as one of those, maybe I wouldn’t have been such a twit. Instead, I approached him as a brilliantly skilled filmmaker, and so froze up.

Now, obviously, this ridiculousness is my fault. I’m not the most adept of people at trying to be social in a non-social context, especially with people I admire. It was probably always going to be a little awkward, even though Coscarelli proved to be a decent chap. But when I compare how I behaved with Coscarelli with how I’ve behaved when meeting prominent YouTubers, well, I found it easier to approach the YouTubers, and I wouldn’t say it was because they were all nicer than Coscarelli. Most had about the same level of niceness, and a few were actually standoffish.[7] The difference was on my end. I genuinely felt more confident walking up and saying hello to the YouTubers, because, in my head, they were people. Their video-making skills were just a trait, and this made them approachable. Not that this prevented me from making a tit of myself in front of one, but it did mean I did so in a very different fashion.

 

PART THREE

 

So, last year I went to Summer in the City, the UK’s biggest YouTube gathering.[8] As part of this fandom maelstrom, I approached Jack Howard, one half of YouTube comedy duo OMFGitsJackandDean.[9] The man is an excellent, ‘I’m slowly losing my shit’ comedian, not to mention a compulsive collaborator (often popping up as an editor credit on other peoples’ videos), so I was pretty excited to meet him. However, I’d seen enough videos of him just being himself to not be overawed, so I was also fairly relaxed.

Things proceeded well. I did the usual ‘meeting a YouTuber’ routine with him,[10] during which I even managed a bit of conversation. It wasn’t anything major, just a bit of harmless joking. I remember I was making some stupid comment about how making good videos is all magic, things were winding up nicely, and then, I overextended the joke and called him a fairy. There followed a moment of silence, as I realised what I had just said. I then flusteredly tried to rectify matters, which of course made it even more awkward, and Jack kindly, but firmly, drew a line under our interaction.[11] So, I wandered away, and spent the rest of the gathering happily, but with occasional memory-flashes of embarrassment.

Despite those, I think on that example of my own colossal social ineptitude far more fondly than I do on the incident with Don Coscarelli. I much prefer to make a fool of myself by talking, than by nervous silence. It was also a lot less horrible embarrassing myself in front of a person like Jack Howard, than embarrassing myself in front of the idolised Coscarelli. As such, I feel I owe this diminished awkwardness to the closeness of YouTube’s audience-creator relationship. Hell, I owe the very opportunity of meeting Jack Howard to that closeness.

The YouTube gatherings are expressions of the unique relationship that YouTubers have with their audiences. Whether it’s just people hanging out in a park, or a more formal event like Summer in the City, the gatherings are about creators voluntarily going to connect with their audiences. This is not an easy thing. Many prominent YouTubers will have thousands of people wanting to share moments with them, and with the charged atmosphere of the big meet-ups, people can forget themselves in their excitement. The bigger YouTubers[12] can get encircled by massive crowds, surrounded by mystifyingly eager faces, and sometimes those crowds can get worryingly moblike.[13]

Even if the crowd remains well-behaved however, their combined want will often keep the YouTuber in one place for hours, endlessly repeating the same meet-the-fans routine until they physically cannot go on. The fact that YouTubers like Thomas Ridgewell, or Chris Bingham, or Jack Howard, still willingly go to these events shows an amazing commitment to their audiences. Exhausting yourself for your fans is about as inspirational a thing a creator can do, and it is that kind of effort that YouTube encourages. Currently it looks like that, in the UK at least, these meet-ups will begin to be more managed, but this is more in the interests of safety than anything else. Plus, I reckon a guarantee of occasional pit stops would make YouTubers even more willing to make great efforts in strengthening their link to their audiences.[14]

 

PART FOUR

 

So then, why am I worried about criticism? Surely, if the threat of being crushed by a mass of adoring fans is not enough to put YouTubers off keeping close to their audience, the words of a critic would have a negligible impact.

However, I’m not so confident, because honestly, criticism does have an impact on its mediums. In film for example, the modern primacy of the director as the principal cinematic artist is a result of the critical auteur theory. In literature, it is critics, not authors (a dividing line between roles, if not persons), who create the codifying trends and movements and genre histories that come to define individual stories. Criticism has an impact, and my worry is that one feature of criticism would have an unhealthy impact on YouTube. You see, criticism focusses on the art over the artist. This is not to say critics ignore artists: that would be ridiculous, but they look at them through the lens of their art, not as independent people. This is often how we as audiences see them too. I mean, my opinion of Michael Bay is very different to my opinion of Quentin Tarantino, and it has everything to do with the quality of films they make.

But YouTube is different. On YouTube creators show themselves as artists and people. We are able to see them as both, and the result is an intimacy that, as I have said throughout this piece, is special. My worry is that ubiquitous YouTube criticism, with its focus on the art and not the artist, might lead YouTubers away from revealing themselves, in addition to producing good art. Given how some of these revelations have touched me and so many others as well, their becoming less prevalent would not just make YouTube less engaging, but would neuter the medium on the cusp of its artistic flowering.

However, I do not intend for this concern to hold criticism back. I am not anti-critic. Hell, I want to criticise YouTube myself, talk at length about its content and its creators and revel in the birth of this new, exciting, wonderfully creative medium. As such consider this piece an introduction, rather than a closing door. I intend to criticise to my heart’s content, but will do so carefully, in the knowledge that this medium is different to others, and that difference is worth preserving.


[1] Alternatively referred to here as creators or ‘YouTubers’: they saved the creativity for their videos

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCZp7os4Llk – This video by Christopher Bingham represents the conflict of interests well, if in a slightly ostentatious way

[4] Though like all trends, the ‘not-over-10mins’ restriction exists to be bucked

[7] The latter being thoroughly understandable, because it must be insane meeting a bunch of strangers who treat you like you’re famous, when all you do is put 3 minute videos on the internet.

[8] An event where a bunch of YouTubers and their fans gather together for a big, ol’-fashioned festival of signing, pictures and hugs

[10] Say hi, compliment, ask for picture with arm round shoulder

[11] Are you guys noticing a common theme?

[12] In terms of popularity, not mass. No YouTuber I yet know of has their own gravitational pull. Insert cruel joke here.

[14] The latest Becoming YouTube video turns its documentary lens onto gatherings, from the creators’ perspective. It’s a more thorough summary of the phenomenon than what I’ve provided, and well worth checking out. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7H_lRfVnhrI

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ESLF Weird Feature – The Strange Synthesis of Bubba Ho-Tep

Weird Feature – The Strange Synthesis of Bubba Ho-Tep

This is my second feature article on the all-media movement known as The Weird. For over a century, artists of all stripes have left the beaten paths of genre convention and audience expectation to create fiction of a strange and wonderful kind. Meanwhile, over the last couple of years, my love for this fiction has grown out of all proportion. Rather than let it get too unmanageable, I have decided to put some of the love into a series of irregular features. Hopefully, thus trapped, it will prove less bothersome.

There is a strong possibility, that my decision to write these weird features stems solely from my desire to talk about Bubba Ho-Tep. Well, even if that’s the case, fuck it. Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie that needs to be talked about. This is a movie of exciting action, fairly creepy horror, and meditative, intelligent social commentary, all wrapped up in the most ridiculous packaging imaginable. It is a combination that should not work, that should be torn apart by competing frivolous and serious tones. And yet, this is not the case, and the brilliance of Bubba Ho-Tep lies in its weird synthesis of humour and gravitas.

Humour is not common in weird fiction, and frankly the scene can get terribly serious at times. This is not particularly surprising: the roots of weird fiction lie in grim earth. In part this is down to the legacy of the weird patriarchs, writers like Lovecraft, Poe and Blackwood. Their influence is visible in the tendency of weird fictioneers to couch their grotesque and uncanny content in the language of horror. But this is not the only cause. Gravity’s dominance also has a sense of self-consciousness about it, the feeling of artists worried that “If we don’t take it seriously, they’ll laugh at it”. The weird always runs the risk of breaching peoples’ tolerances which often prompts dismissal. Everyone prefers being dismissed on the grounds of being mysterious and inscrutable, than being labelled as silly. But in following tradition and caution, the weird fails to retain a certain sense of perspective.

To put it in an antagonistic fashion, the weird bears the imprint of academics insisting big tentacley monsters can only be treated seriously. Mostly seriously: yes. Such monsters were created to terrify after all. But it’s good to occasionally admit what is weird is also faintly ludicrous. This is what Bubba Ho-Tep does. This is a film in which an old man, who believes he is Elvis Presley, and another old and decidedly black man, who believes he is JFK, fight a mummy in a cowboy outfit intent on devouring the souls of pensioners. Now that is weird and also ridiculous. Bubba Ho-Tep is not shy about that.

In fact, Bubba Ho-Tep encourages its audience to laugh. Elvis and JFK are constantly quoting and paraphrasing their famous selves, and the film is full of silly one-liners and pictographic insults. The humour here is of the cheesy and knowing variety, making Bubba Ho-Tep the kind of movie that smiles along with mockery. Hell, the movie willingly pokes fun at itself: Elvis consistently refers to himself and his friend as ‘nuts’, and we are introduced to the character by his nurse teasing him about his identity.

But this acknowledgement of ridiculousness never undercuts the movie’s intelligence. Bubba Ho-Tep dishes out some fairly brutal criticism of modern society. In the black comic asides of two hearse drivers, Bubba Ho-Tep presents a society too preoccupied with day-to-day labour to care about more metaphysical issues. Philosophy here is the preserve of the oaf and the nut. The opening of the film too has something to say, following the death of Elvis’ roommate, a terminally ill veteran. When the veteran’s daughter comes to claim his things, she treats her father’s purple heart and old photos like rubbish, absent-mindedly dropping them in the bin. All she has to say about the man was that he was ‘alright’. When Elvis asks her why she never visited her father, all she can say is that she was ‘busy’. And yet she says it like it is the ultimate reason, that seeing her dying father could not be a priority in a world with so much to do. Through these scenes, Bubba Ho-Tep casts an unflattering light on a world of individuals living purely in the now, with no thought for past or future, or indeed other beings beyond their everyday sphere.

But the movie does find good men in this Gomorrah. The decision to fight the mummy leads to the ultimate redemption of Elvis and JFK. These two characters lived wholly in the moment during their youth. Now the moment has passed, and they are left with nothing but regrets. Their battle against the mummy is a sign of their personal growth, their acknowledgement of the worth in fighting for the sake of others. And the subtext doesn’t stop there.

Bubba Ho-Tep is also an effective critique of society’s treatment of the elderly, most commonly through Elvis’ bitter internal monologues. The old man is surrounded by younger people who treat him like a child. They scold him, tell him how long he can play outside, put him down for naps, and see him as sexually non-existent. It is a situation he abhors. Admittedly, and somewhat satirically, Elvis and JFK occasionally live up to the condescension: Elvis uses the toilet as a matter of pride, and the pair’s highest pleasure is found in secretly-stashed candy. But in the end, you are left in no doubt that there are serious problems with the way we instinctively treat senior invalids. Through this, Bubba Ho-Tep becomes a film about humanising the elderly. Just because they may be physically infirm, does not mean mind and will are weak. As the film’s ending shows, a hero in a wheelchair is just as badass as one walking.

And that in the end is what Elvis and JFK are: heroes. This is what makes the ridiculousness and the seriousness co-operate rather than conflict. Subtext aside, the story of Bubba Ho-Tep is the story of two men who, despite their physical frailty, take on a genuinely dangerous opponent. This is a film with real soul, something that can be felt in every strum of guitar in Brian Tyler’s score. It is this soul that gives the intellectual subtext emotional weight. It is this soul that makes the self-aware ridiculousness celebratory rather than snarky. This soul makes a darkly intelligent film, about Elvis and black JFK fighting a mummy, work. Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie that creates a whole out of all kinds of parts. It is a film chimaera. A Frankenstein’s story. And pure, weird, genius.

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What is Weird?

Hello folks. This is the startpoint of a new series, in which I shall be writing reviews/opinion features on all aspects of weird fiction. To do so I figured I should get at least the barest glimmers of an explanation of what ‘weird fiction’ is, straight in my head. This essay is the result of that pondering. It’s not essential reading, but hey, maybe it will give you something of an insight into my mental processes. Which are pretty weird in their own right.

What is weird fiction?

After all, the label means different things to different people. To HP Lovecraft, it meant a work involving the ‘defeat of those fixed laws of Nature’ that are humanities’ sole defence against ‘unexplainable dread’.[1] To the modern heir of Lovecraft’s squiddity, China Mieville, it is a ‘vivid real-of-the-unreal’, a baroque grotesquerie that makes its own sense (despite the author’s uncommonly large vocabulary).[2] To Ann and Jeff Vandermeer it is a visceral style of fantasy, taking place in invented cities and incorporating elements of science fiction and horror into itself.[3] M John Harrison wonders whether it’s simply ‘Pick ‘N’ Mix’.[4] The problem with all these definitions however, is that they all come from authors.

Where are the comments from the other media? Where are the contributions of Don Coscarelli, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Terry Gilliam or the entire South Korean film industry? When will Chris Hastings, Tom Siddell or Malachai Nicolle weigh in? Why has no-one from Doublefine, or the legendary Suda51, stepped up? I ask, because this is a conversation that we cannot afford to have dominated by one single medium. The weird is a phenomenon tapped into by every dramatic art form we currently possess. Webcomics, graphic novels, regular novels, video games, movies: all have their fringe of crazies. And yet, even amidst all the madness, there is a consistency of features to be seen. It is through these that I shall define weird fiction.

The first of these is a singleminded attention paid to aesthetic. This manifests in Jeff Vandermeer’s city of Ambergris, a corpse of a city consumed by fungal rot, in the colourful blockiness of the Psychonauts summer camp and in the ragtag cowboys of Manchuria in The Good, The Bad, The Weird. These are worlds filled to brim with characters of unusual appearance or mannerisms. Their heroes are only matched in their strangeness by their villains. Their religions are cryptic cults, their weapons usually cruel and definitely unusual and their monsters new shaped from nightmare. These are worlds of sheer strangeness, scoured to leave no handholds for normalcy to cling to. Weird fiction is the only genre to provide an outlet for truly unrestrained creativity, and its artists capitalise on that.

In conjunction with this, the weird also sates the artistic love of rebellion. Mieville, the heart of the literary New Weird, is the definitive noncomformist. He is a Marxist in a world ruled by democratic mammonism. He is a fantasy writer willing to denigrate Tolkien (‘the wen on the arse of fantasy’[5]). He is a multiple award-winner, who accuses the literary establishment of ‘back-slapping generic snobbery’.[6] For him, and for many other artists, the weird is a bucking of conventions. It’s having your sexy fantasy ladies have scarab beetles for heads rather than pointy ears. It’s having a film for kids end in the combustion of a child’s parents.[7] It’s having a Doctor, who is also a Ninja.[8] Rules can be broken as commentary: Mieville’s Iron Council is a Western which, rather than being about the end of idealised freedom, instead makes clear that the ideal is everlasting. But the rebellion of the weird is more than self-reference.

Instead, the aim is to provide an experience not just creative, but truly new. The weird world must be one where not only expectations of genre, but all expectations derived from reality can be and are overturned. In the worlds of weird fiction, the Antarctic is no barren wasteland, but an ancient alien colony. In such worlds, something as basic as identity is so uncertain, that you can’t be sure whether you are Douglas Quaid, or Rob Arctor, or Horselover Fat. In these worlds, C19th vampires have lasers on the moon,[9] and aliens come to Earth in the form of Rastafarians.[10] This is a devil-may-care style of rebellion, which, at its height, creates stories like flashfloods of gonzo energy. And yet, to reach this weird peak, one final trait is required.

See, because weird fiction is free to break every rule regarding content under the sun, it is all the more subject to the tyranny of drama. For weird fiction to deserve attention, it must feel like it makes sense. It requires character, dilemma and solution, and the solution must come out of pre-existing elements. Without these, the weird becomes nothing but a bland exercise of creative indulgence. But when it follows them, weird fiction becomes more than a story. When you can watch Elvis and JFK fight a mummy in cowboy duds, and feel like it makes sense? That’s when a story becomes more than another consumable narrative, and transforms into a waking dream.

By this then shall ye know the weird. It can be seen in extreme aesthetic commitment, a rebelliously creative spirit, and the illogical logic of dreams. It is the ultimate rejection of the notion that compelling drama depends on realism. Or is it? After all, reality hardly plays by the rules. We live in a world where a Japanese baseball team believes that they are haunted by the ghost of Colonel Sanders,[11] and there is a Chinese tradition of post-mortem weddings.[12] Hell, I live in the UK, a country whose ‘No.1 medium’ wants to be Mayor of Lewisham.[13] And yet all this strangeness is logically explicable: after all post-mortem marriages are a great way to make sure loved bachelors are not lonely in the afterlife. Like weird fiction, the real world proves itself both a graveyard of expectation, and yet still rational. The characteristics of weird fiction do not make it a rejection of reality. They make it a reflection of how bizarre reality really is.

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