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Special Issue of Cinephile – Visions of the 60s

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

This came out in 2015, but somehow it slipped past my radar.

I have an essay in this issue of the excellent journal Cinephile on experimental cinema in the 1960s, Cinephile 11.1, “Visions of the Sixties.” As the journal’s website notes, “marking the tenth anniversary of the University of British Columbia’s Film Journal, this issue features articles by Wheeler Winston Dixon, David E. James, Victoria Kennedy, Andrew Marzoni, and Emma Pett, with an introduction by Timothy Scott Brown. For more information, please click here.”

It was a pleasure working with the editors of the journal, Molly Lewis and Angela Walsh, on the essay. I love the cover, which really captures the spirit of the era. As Timothy Scott Brown notes in an introductory essay for the issue, “if one theme or question emerges from the essays in this issue, it is about the status of popular culture as a field for the creation, elaboration, and consumption of the 1960s cultural revolution.

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s essay, ‘The End of the Real: 1960s Experimental Cinema, and The Loss of Cinema Culture,’ calls to mind the now (in some cases, literally) lost world of 1960s independent filmmaking, a world in which the notion of making art outside of normal channels of production and distribution was understood by its protagonists as its own form of radical praxis.

It is difficult to call to mind now, in an era of almost unlimited access to the cultural means of production—no further away than one’s laptop—the radical imperative at work in the artistic initiatives Dixon examines. Against the backdrop of our current and seemingly endless horizon of digital possibility, the technical inaccessibility of this earlier wave of underground art reads as particularly ironic.

If you get a chance to pick up a copy, do so – it’s an excellent issue all around.

Still Not On DVD – “They Won’t Believe Me” (1947)

Friday, May 13th, 2016

Irving Pichel’s They Won’t Believe Me is a noir masterpiece that still doesn’t have a US DVD release.

As Steve Eifert wrote in part in his blog Noir of the Week way back in 2012, “Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. TCM for all the good it does for classic films – airs a butchered version of the RKO noir They Won’t Believe Me! Instead of the 95 minutes watching a man behave badly we’re stuck with a neutered lead not really doing anything all that wrong. The cut 80-minute one turns a top-shelf film noir into a watered-down flim flam. Cutting 15 minutes from a film can do that . . . the 80-minute cut should be shown before the full version to film students as a lesson on how a bad edit can ruin a film.

[The film] fits nicely with “A” pictures like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice but retains that RKO look and feel (slightly cheap and gritty with familiar actors peppering the edges). That would include Out of the Past released 1/2 a year after They Won’t Believe Me! Robert Young plays Larry Ballentine — a young playboy who marries rich. He finds himself bored with is wife and begins an inappropriate relationship with one of his wife’s friends (Jane Greer). When we first are introduced to Larry and Janice it’s in a courtroom with Larry on trial for murder.

It quickly moves to a flashback showing the two on a Saturday afternoon meetup at a New York City bar. They drink crazy frozen drinks that you’d never think about ordering when you’re alone. They’re flirty and touchy – as they discuss their plans to build a boat together. Larry – after downing a few drinks – stumbles home to be confronted by his wife, her aunt, and some friends who think he’s a heel.

Things happen and the next week he tells her he’s leaving her for Janice. Greta (Rita Johnson) convinces him otherwise and Janice is out of the picture. Larry continues to work for his wife’s company. He’s only there because his wife owns a sizable share of it. He is lazy –as expected –and not liked by his partner Trenton (familiar face Tom Powers.)

Underling Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward) catches Larry’s eye one day. Before he can finish a voice over talking about how he’s been ‘too close to the flame and is now power shy when it comes to beautiful women’ he’s asking her what kind of perfume she likes.

I would guess you could credit camera man Harry J. Wild for most of the film’s look – he certainly shot his share of noir including Pitfall, Nocturne, Station West, The Threat, His Kind of Woman and many, many more. Director/actor Irving Pichel didn’t do anything remarkable in the film-noir world outside of this one (which is great), but turned out the enjoyable Quicksand in 1950.

The cast of They Won’t Believe Me! Is strong. Robert Young is remembered by those of a certain age as Marcus Welby, M.D. Here he’s quite good as the playboy with a wandering eye. Jane Greer is only months away before Out of the Past is released. She’s at the height of her beauty. Finally Susan Hayward is given some of the best lines. She’s quite something when she’s trying to reel in Larry by cutting down his rich wife and flashing a smile that is so suggestive it should be illegal – only Gilda’s hair flip is more powerful.”

That was four years ago, and as I wrote in the comments section when Steve’s article appeared, “this is one of the greatest noirs of all time, and you’re absolutely right — the 80 minute cut is a disaster. Luckily for me, I was able to see it uncut at the Thalia Theater in NYC many years ago in 35mm, and it made an indelible impression.

Irving Pichel’s direction is immaculate, and Robert Young is very interestingly cast against type as the ne’er do well husband. It’s sad that this isn’t available on DVD; and you’re right about the Italian DVD – it’s still cut. This truly is, from first frame to last, an absolutely superb film — not just an excellent noir, but a brilliant, tough piece of filmmaking, easily in the same class as Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past.

I can only hope that the WB Archive follows through with putting this out, even with potentially damaged footage. It’s a missing gem in American film history. If anyone out there has a decent copy of the uncut version, I sure would like to hear from them.”

This was when the WB Archive was considering releasing the film, but that came to nought – and so we have only a VHS, and two foreign versions, one of which is out of sync, and another with Castilian subtitles that you can’t turn off during viewing. Neither DVD does the film any sort of justice, to say nothing of the 80 minute cut down job; this deserves a Criterion version all the way, but why on earth isn’t it getting one? I just watched the butchered Spanish version this evening, poorly transferred and with unwanted subtitles, and it still knocked me out.

Another classic “lost in the cosmos” as Jean-Luc Godard would put it – see it uncut if you possibly can.

An Essential 5 DVD Set: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

A restoration of these films has been a long time coming – get this set when it comes out in July.

This incredible collection – coming out shortly on DVD and Blu-ray, is a must for any serious library of American cinema, featuring some of the most historically vital works of America’s legendary first African-American filmmakers, and is the only comprehensive collection of its kind. There have been DVD releases of many of the individual films included here, but in cheap editions, without digital restoration, and now, finally, we can see them as they were meant to be seen.

Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, the packaged set includes no fewer than a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments. Subject matter includes race issues that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades. The directors include Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, and many others whose films deserve a much wider audience.

Films in the collection include: Birthright (1938), The Blood of Jesus (1941), Body and Soul (1925), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), By Right of Birth (fragment, 1921), Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina (excerpt, 1940), The Darktown Revue (1931), Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), Eleven P.M. (1930), The Exile (1931), The Flying Ace (1926), God’s Stepchildren (1938), Heaven-Bound Traveler (1933), Hellbound Train (1930), Hot Biskits (1931), Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918), Regeneration (fragment, 1923), The Scar of Shame (1929), S.S. Jones Home Movies (1924-26), The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK (1920), Ten Minutes to Live (1932), Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), Veiled Aristocrats (1932), Verdict Not Guilty (1934), We Work Again (1937) and Within Our Gates (1920).

The set features musical scores (for the silent films) by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Max Roach, Samuel D. Waymon, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura, Alloy Orchestra, Rob Gal, Andrew Simpson.

Bonus Features: Optional English Subtitles, 80-page booklet with essays and detailed film notes; Interviews with series curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart; Documentary on the restoration of the films; Documentary on the restoration efforts of the Library of Congress; Archival interview with actors Ethel and Lucia Moses (1978); Tyler Texas Black Film Collection promo film (with Ossie Davis, 1985) and more!

Although these films have been available for many decades – I’ve run them in my classes for a long time – the film prints were often battered and scratched, 16mm dupes that lacked the depth and quality of the original negatives. Here, these films have been lovingly restored in a collection that is an essential part of the history of the American cinema. This is the part of film history you’ve probably missed – and shouldn’t.

This is an amazing act of historical reclamation – a must have for everyone.

Lois Weber’s “Shoes” (1916) Saved by Eye Museum, Amsterdam

Friday, April 29th, 2016

The EYE Museum in Amsterdam has restored Shoes (1916), a nearly lost film by director Lois Weber.

As the EYE Museum’s YouTube site notes, “the film Shoes (1916, USA, Universal Bluebird Photoplays), directed by Lois Weber, starred Mary MacLaren, Harry Griffith, Jessie Arnold, and William Mong. The film is a social drama about the dime store clerk Eva Meyer (MacLaren), who desperately needs a new pair of shoes. However, because her father is unemployed, Eva’s weekly earnings go into the household budget, bringing a new pair of shoes completely out of her reach.”

As historian Shelley Stamp writes of Lois Weber on the Women Film Pioneers Project website, “Lois Weber was the leading female director-screenwriter in early Hollywood. She began her career alongside her husband, Phillips Smalley, after the two had worked together in the theatre. They began working in motion pictures around 1907, often billed under the collective title ‘The Smalleys.’

In their early years at studios like Gaumont and Reliance, they acted alongside one another on-screen and codirected scripts written by Weber. Indeed, their status as a married, middle-class couple was often used to enhance their reputation for highbrow, quality pictures.

In 1912, they were placed in charge of the Rex brand at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, where they produced one or two one-reel films each week with a stock company of actors, quickly turning the brand into one of the studio’s most sophisticated.

The couple increasingly turned their attention to multireel films, completing a four-reel production of The Merchant of Venice in 1914, the first American feature directed by a woman. Later that year they moved from Universal to Hobart Bosworth Productions where they were given more freedom to make feature-length films, among them Hypocrites (1915).

By the time the couple arrived back at Universal in 1916, Weber had emerged as the dominant member of the husband and wife partnership and, indeed, as one of the top directors on the lot. She was the sole author of scripts the couple adapted for the screen, and marketing materials and reviews singled out her work on the productions. Reporters visiting the couple on set found Smalley repeatedly turning to his wife for important decisions.

During these years Weber made a series of high profile and often deeply controversial films on social issues of the day, including capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), drug abuse in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916), poverty and wage equity in Shoes (1916), and contraception in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) [. . .]

Weber achieved the height of her renown during these years: her name was routinely mentioned alongside that of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as one of the top talents in Hollywood. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, a solitary honor she would retain for decades.

While at Universal it is also likely that she helped to foster the careers of other actresses employed at the studio, many of whom she had directed, including Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton, and Dorothy Davenport Reid, who would become directors or producers in their own right.”

Read Stamp’s complete essay on Lois Weber by clicking here – an essential figure in cinema history.

Complete Online Index – “A Short History of Film”

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

A scholar in Germany has created a complete online index to A Short History of Film, 2nd edition.

A scholar in Germany has compiled a complete list of all the films mentioned in A Short History of Film, 2nd edition (Rutgers University Press, 2013), written by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and myself, with images of either the poster, or the DVD for each film, complete with links to reviews, purchase points, and other information on the film – as well as lots of opinions, of course – which seems like rather an amazing undertaking.

All told, the list covers more than 2,000 films, and runs to 21 webpages in the list, and can serve as a very useful way to access the films discussed in the volume. So if you’re reading A Short History of Film, 2nd edition, or using it for a class, and would like detail on access to some of the many films mentioned – the images here show just a few of the many titles covered in the volume – just consult this list, click on the title, and see what’s available.

A very useful guide – many thanks to the person who did so much work on this.

Unfinished Films at The Met Breuer

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

The Met Breuer, of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is hosting a fascinating new film series.

The Met Breuer, located at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street in Manhattan, on the former site of the Whitney Museum of American Art (which has moved downtown to 99 Gansevoort Street) is serving up a remarkable series focusing on incomplete, or unfinished films by a wide variety of artists, with talks led by some of the leading figures in the field on the significance of the works in question.

As the site for the series notes, “what can be learned from unfinished films, from works that arrive to us as fragments? Considered collectively—from the infamous excesses of Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly to the grand ambitions of Hollis Frampton’s Magellan—perhaps they constitute a secret canon, one made up of the most raw and, in turn, revealing sides of an artist’s practice.

Such works might be held in any number of intermediary states: left intentionally unfinished, abandoned out of frustration, cut short by death, curtailed by political circumstance.To watch these films is to unveil the particularities of their origins, to see the vicissitudes of their process and production laid bare. Presented in connection with the exhibition Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, this series features films selected by Thomas Beard, a founder and co-director of Light Industry.”

This is an altogether unique series, which gives one a chance to view the creative process from the inside, before a work is completed – and should not be missed in you’re going to be in the city. Admission is free with a regular museum admission; seats are first come, first served, so get there early.

The Night Manager – Totally Addictive Television

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

The Night Manager, from John le Carré’s 1993 novel, is a British drama ideal for non-stop binge watching.

Produced by the BBC, and already screened on British television, the six-part miniseries debuted on AMC on April 19, 2016, and I was hooked from the first moments on. Tom Hiddleston, who was so good in Jim Jarmusch’s post-modern vampire thriller Only Lovers Left Alive, and Hugh Laurie, who made a fortune from umpteen seasons of House, combine with Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, who directed all six episodes, to create a rattling good yarn that keeps you enthralled from first frame to last.

Le Carré, who is now 84, is apparently even musing the idea of writing a sequel to his novel with the same characters, because he’s so pleased with the result as well, and the actors in the mini-series have made pact that if le Carré does, in fact, turn out another novel as a follow up, they’ll all line up to do it. The entire series is out on Region 2 DVD in the UK now, and after watching just one episode on AMC, I snapped up the DVD of the entire series immediately – commercial free, of course.

As Hiddleston told Debra Birnbaum of Variety, “It’s fascinating to hear that Le Carré himself is up for it and considering writing new material for characters he created 25 years ago.” As Birnbaum further reported, “Le Carré — now 84 and living and working in Cornwall, on the southwestern tip of England — was part of the creative process throughout, contributing extra scenes, answering spycraft questions, sitting through the table read and, yes, cringing at the changes to his book. But ultimately, he was satisfied.

‘It seems to me that this time ’round we may really have got it: Film doing its own job, opening up my novel in ways I didn’t think anyone had noticed. And what I like best of all is how Susanne Bier goes on chewing at the bone of the drama long after other directors would have given up.”

The series was filmed on location in four countries over the course of 75 days. Bier approached it like a very long feature, shooting scenes out of order. She gave the actors ample freedom to explore — beginning each day by allowing them to improvise in rehearsals to see how a scene might play out. Making sure she didn’t stray from the story, while still maintaining creative freedom, was ‘like having a number of chess games running at the same time,’ she notes.”

The plot is vintage le Carré, but brought up to date with a modern twist. During the midst of the Arab Spring of 2011, a mysterious and utterly unscrupulous arms dealer, Richard Roper (Laurie) –  repeatedly described as “the worst man in the world”  - who hides in plain sight as a supposedly legitimate businessman and philanthropist, tries to strike a deal with some militants for a massive shipment of weapons – enough to equip an entire army ten times over.

But his plans are derailed by former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston), now the night manager at a Cairo hotel, who comes into possession of some incriminating documents, and leaks them to the British authorities. And that, of course, leads to absolute mayhem – and naturally all the governments involved are corrupt, intelligence agencies are underfunded, and no one can be trusted at all.

From there, I honestly have no idea what happens, and I’m just going to wait for the DVD to arrive, and then sit down and watch the entire series in one gulp, but I can tell you this much; it’s not Masterpiece Theater. This is sharp, smart filmmaking with a real bite, stylishly directed by Bier with real skill and feeling. Hiddleston and Laurie are both superb in their roles, and it’s clear that no expense was spared to bring the project to the screen. And although it’s television, one can’t help but imagine it on a theater screen – talk about impact.

So buy the DVD, or see it on AMC: The Night Manager is definitely worth a look!

Jeffrey Fleishman on Marketing Hollywood Films Abroad

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Foreign playdates account for 70% of the Hollywood box-office take, but you have to know how to do it.

As Jeffrey Fleishman reports in The Los Angeles Times, “like many in the film distribution business, Mimi Steinbauer has a story — ‘funniest example ever’ — of the ingenious sleight of hand in marketing American movies to foreign lands. In her case it was Machete, a picture by Robert Rodriguez about a Mexican drug lord, an ex-federal agent and a racist Texas senator. With comedy, satire and caricature, the film was a violent and outlandish comment on America’s immigration debate.

Buyers in Thailand, however, weren’t interested in political overtones. ‘The Thais called it Machete: Splatter Blood and there was blood all over the poster,’ said Steinbauer, president and chief executive of Radiant Films International in Los Angeles. ‘I said, “You can’t call it that.” But they said it would work and it did. It wasn’t a lie per se. It wasn’t a slasher film, but they knew their audience.’

Distributing and marketing American films to other countries is a game of deciphering aesthetics and culture. What appeals to one nation may turn off another. Europe prefers sex to shootouts, while Asia and the Middle East are rapt by action and violence. Italians recoil at science fiction, Argentines drift toward the intellectual, Russians adore Minions but are cool to interracial love stories, and one distributor described American dramas as ‘the big dirty word in our business.’

Race, politics, religion all factor into how films are packaged. Steinbauer and other U.S.-based film distributors are intimate with local markets and how an American distribution campaign may have to be recast — at times dramatically so — to resonate abroad.

Understanding international preferences is crucial as Hollywood and independent filmmakers reach for larger global shares. World-wide ticket sales reached a record-breaking $38.3 billion last year. More than 70% of the film industry’s box office is generated overseas, a figure that is increasingly driving strategy and financing decisions.

Tapping into the fascinations of audiences from Beijing to Brussels is a high-stakes alchemy of language, allure, censorship, the style of a trailer, the background color of a poster and the bankability of a star such as Nicolas Cage, who despite a declining career is still a good bet in Asia. Such calculations require people with on-the-ground knowledge of specific regions — the kind of innate sensitivity you can’t learn in Hollywood.”

A fascinating article, about a topic which merits more discussion; read it by clicking here, or on the image above.

Lost “Masterwork” Found: Thomas White’s Who’s Crazy? (1966)

Friday, April 15th, 2016

A lost “beat” classic has been found and restored, featuring an epic soundtrack by Ornette Coleman.

As Peter Monaghan writes in Moving Image Archive News, “thanks to an overdue search of the filmmaker’s garage, a rarity from the experimental film ferment of the 1960s was just screened for the first time in almost 50 years, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. With that, Who’s Crazy?, in a restoration by Anthology’s John Klacsmann and distribution by Grand Motel Films, has reemerged as an emblem of its age.

In 1965, Thomas White, then a 33-year-old American living a bohemian life in Montparnasse, made the 73-minute feature in Heist-sur-Mer, Belgium, with a set of collaborators-of-the-moment. Those included members of New York’s Living Theater, playing a bus load of residents of an asylum for the insane, and a soundtrack by the jazz icon Ornette Coleman, who even recorded a cut for the film with singer Marianne Faithfull, then in her late teens and already embarked on a life course whose mayhem the inmates might have recognized.

The rediscovery of the film has made a splash, not only because, as Richard Brody put it in The New Yorker, in article entitled “A Lost Masterwork is Found,” the film “bursts the bonds of movie logic to unleash the primal ecstasy of the cinema,” but also because of its place in the history of truly independent filmmaking of that time.

It has, for instance, links to Shirley Clarke’s recently revived 1962 portrayal The Connection, which was made from a play mounted by Living Theater co-founders Judith Malina and Julian Beck . . . Who’s Crazy had been missing for decades, listed as lost by the Library of Congress.” And when the Library of Congress says that a film is lost, that’s usually the case. But here, we got lucky. Hopefully, as Brody notes in his essay, linked above, a DVD will soon be forthcoming.

Readers of this blog know that I hold a special place in my heart for such deeply personal works, made in an era before money was ruling factor in nearly all forms of social interaction, and what Brody referred to as “the primal ecstasy of the cinema” dominated filmmaking, which was then cheap, and within the range of nearly everyone- just pick up a camera and shoot.

At the same time, the standard rules of “three act narrative,” or any form of narrative for that matter, clearly went out the window, and what was valued above all was spontaneity, authenticity, and capturing the moment, rather than CGI ridden spectacles in which every movement is defined by green screen technology. Not everything has to be planned out in advance; in fact, sometimes nothing needs to be planned at all. Sometimes, if you get an enormously talented group of people together and give them free reign, the results can be remarkable.

Writing in The New York Times, Jim Hoberman agrees, noting that “an anarchic rave with a wacky new-wave flavor, “Who’s Crazy?” opens on a bus that breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The passengers are psychiatric patients who, eluding their keepers, take refuge in a deserted building, haphazardly creating a new society complete with rituals that include a trial and a wedding.

Mr. White, reached by phone this month at his home in Connecticut, said 10 hours of film were shot over 10 or 12 days. The scenario was based on the actors’ improvisation. ‘Nobody told them what to do,’ he said.

Left to their own devices, the performers engage in breathing exercises, dress up in funny hats, play instruments, mill around, stage group hugs, make a mess, cook food, play with candles, stare into one another’s eyes, break into primal screams and declaim poetry in beatnik rants that might have been recorded at an open mike at Cafe Wha? The polyrhythmic cascade of honks and squawks produced by Mr. Coleman, abetted by his sidemen — the bassist David Izenzon and the drummer Charles Moffett — imbue these activities with tremendous energy.”

Watch the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Chinese Cinema Explosion – 22 New Screens Every Day

Monday, April 11th, 2016

The theatrical film experience in China is absolutely exploding.

As the CBS News program 60 Minutes reports, “The movie business is booming across China. Shopping malls have popped up everywhere, and with them, theaters. Twenty-two new movie screens open every day, that’s right, every day. In the last five years, box office receipts have grown a staggering 350 per cent . . .

In February, the Chinese box office brought in over a billion dollars for the first time ever, beating the U.S. and Canada. China, with its 1.3 billion people, is expected to become the biggest movie market in the world as early as next year. Hollywood has taken notice, partnering with Chinese studios and making blockbusters as much for Chinese audiences as American ones. But the U.S. film industry is also facing competition from Chinese moguls and movie stars with big ambitions . . .

Chinese studios produce over 600 features a year, action movies, sci-fi, thrillers . . . [Said one seasoned observer of the Chinese film industry] ‘they are smart. They understand storytelling. They are super well-versed in what works in their own country. They are super well-versed in what works globally. I couldn’t be more excited. So I would say– you know, Hollywood, watch out.’”

This is a fascinating story – read the entire piece here, with videos.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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