The hairwashing scene in Out of Africa (1985)

The 58th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1985.  The nominations were announced on February 5, 1986 and the awards were held on March 24, 1986.

Best Picture:  Out of Africa

  • Kiss of the Spider Woman
  • Witness
  • The Color Purple
  • Prizzi’s Honor

Most Surprising Omission:  Ran

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Ran

Best Eligible English Language Film Not Nominated:  Blood Simple

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #43

The Race:  Peter Weir’s Gallipoli had gotten no Oscar nominations and his The Year in Living Dangerously, which winning Best Supporting Actress, had earned no other nominations.  Harrison Ford, in spite of massive box office success, had yet to earn any acting respect.  But their collaboration Witness, about a cop in Amish country was earning great reviews and was the first hit of 1985 before the previous year’s Oscar nominations had even been announced.  When it was chosen to open Cannes it only gained more notice.

Having opened in February, it was the big film being talked about until the summer started.  Then came a surprising barrage of critically acclaimed films: Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, a small independent film called Kiss of the Spider Woman starring William Hurt (who won Best Actor at Cannes) and a surprise gangster comedy: Prizzi’s HonorPrizzi teamed up Jack Nicholson with his Chinatown co-star John Huston (back behind the camera), John’s daughter Anjelica (Jack’s real-life longtime lover) and Kathleen Turner.  The film was hit with audiences and an even bigger hit with the critics, proving that Huston still had it at 79.

Coming into the fall, the film being talked about was Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, a samurai epic based on King Lear.  Ran had opened the Tokyo Film Festival and New York Film Festival.  But, aside from some of the best reviews of his treasured career (Kurosawa was almost as old as Huston, clocking in at 75), there was also controversy.  Kurosawa himself had not shown up at the Tokyo Film Festival and in response, Japan declined to submit it to the Oscars for the Best Foreign Film category.

The two big films opening at Christmas were long, Oscar-type films.  There was Out of Africa, an epic starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.  The other was the first major serious (read: non-genre) film of Steven Spielberg’s career: The Color Purple, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker.  The Color Purple had a lot more word of mouth and publicity, but going in to the Oscar nominations, Out of Africa had actually taken home more money and better reviews.

But the film that took home the first critics award was one that hadn’t even been released.  Terry Gilliam had been fighting with Universal head Sidney Sheinberg to get his film Brazil into theaters, to the point of buying a full page ad in Variety that read “Dear Sidney, when are you going to release my film Brazil?”  But L.A. Times critic Jack Mathews had seen and loved the film and snuck other critics in to see it and suddenly, on December 14, the L.A. Film Critics kicked off the awards season by giving it Best Picture, Director and Screenplay.  Though it was deemed too strange for an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Universal finally caved in and released, hoping to get critical acclaim.

The next group up was the National Board of Review and they went with The Color Purple, though they gave Best Director to Akira Kurosawa.  The New York Film Critics went with Prizzi’s Honor, giving it Picture, Director, Actor and Supporting Actress.  Nicholson and the Hustons triumphed again at the National Society of Film Critics, but, in a showdown between the acolytes of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, the former won out, giving Ran Best Picture over the documentary Shoah.

The big films at the Golden Globes were Out of Africa, Prizzi’s Honor and Witness, with 6 nominations each, including Picture, Director and Screenplay, with The Color Purple right behind with 5, including Picture and Director.  Kiss of the Spider Woman was in the mix for Best Picture and Woody Allen’s latest, The Purple Rose of Cairo, had a Best Picture nomination and would win Best Screenplay.  Prizzi’s Honor would take home Picture and Director while Out of Africa would take home the Best Picture (Drama) prize.  Witness would make up for its 0 Globes by winning the WGA over The Purple Rose of Cairo and Prizzi’s Honor would win the Adapted category over Out of Africa and Color Purple.  The DGA would cement Purple, Prizzi, Africa and Witness as front-runners with the final nomination, in a surprise, going to Ron Howard, for his science-fiction film Cocoon.

The Results:  In 1975, Steven Spielberg had reporters in his house on nomination morning and they watched his dismay when he was passed over for an Oscar nomination in favor of Fellini.  There were no reporters this time when Spielberg again was pushed aside.  Had he been nominated, it would have put Purple on top of the nominations heap, but instead it was tied with Africa with 11.  With Spielberg out of the race, it looked like it would be between Africa and Prizzi (which was up for 8). Witness, the only original screenplay among the nominees and Kiss of the Spider Woman, with Hurt likely to win, though they both had Picture and Director nominations, were likely taking home consolation prizes.  The final director spot had gone to Kurosawa, whose Ran was up for 4 awards, themselves consolations for being snubbed in the Foreign Film process.  Woody Allen and Terry Gilliam had both made it into the Oscar race, but only in the Original Screenplay category.

Then the race heated up as the Directors Guild for the first time in history gave their award to someone who hadn’t received an Oscar nomination.  Spielberg had finally won something and it gave the film itself a bit of a boost heading into the big night.  But then the big night did arrive and the prizes started being handed out and it became clear that nothing was headed the film’s way.  By the end of the night, heading into Best Picture, Out of Africa had taken home 6 awards and five other films had beaten Purple for various awards (Prizzi’s Honor for Supporting Actress, Trip to Bountiful for Actress, Ran for Costume Design, Mask for Makeup, White Nights for Song).  The Color Purple had yet to win anything and they only thing left was Best Picture.

“If Steven had managed to pull that Oscar out of the hat, it might have been the best entertainment story in a decade.  On the East Coast, NBC staffers for “Today” had already assembled a collection of film clips which showed Steven in action on the sets of E.T., 1941, and The Color Purple.  It was the same across America, as the world held its breath.  ‘When that last envelope was opened, the words coming out of my mouth in a desperate chant were ‘Color Purple . . . Color Purple . . . Color Purple!’ ‘ recalled Los Angeles Times film writer Jack Matthews.  ‘I didn’t like the movie, but its win would have made a great story.  Snubbed for a Best Director nomination; snubbed in ten previous categories; then, on a sentimental crest for Steven Spielberg, to pull out the Big One in the last act.’  Matthews said the Times was well prepared ‘to tell that story as well.  I even overheard an editor verbally composing a headline for it: Africa – 6, Purple – won.’ ”  Oscar Dearest, p 36.

It was not to be.  Out of Africa had joined Gandhi and Amadeus as recent big winners.  The Color Purple had joined The Turning Point as the most snubbed film in Oscar history – 11 nominations, 0 wins.

Out of Africa: the weakest Best Picture winner in 27 years

Out of Africa

  • Director:  Sydney Pollack
  • Writer:  Kurt Luedtke  (from the book by Isak Dineson)
  • Producer:  Sydney Pollack
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Klaus Maria Brandauer
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Actress (Streep), Supporting Actor (Brandauer), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  555
  • Length:  161 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Epic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $87.07 mil  (#5 – 1985)
  • Release Date:  20 December 1985
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #61  (year)  /  #404  (nominees)  /  #77  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor (Brandauer)
  • Nighthawk Points:  60

The Film:  An old-fashioned movie was how Roger Ebert, and, I’m sure, a lot of critics put it.  An old-fashioned romance with the big wide African vistas and the glory of Redford and Streep.  Sometimes old-fashioned is a good thing, a reminder of the type of films that used to be made (of course, the underlying notion of that is that things were better in the old days – shades of the line from The Big Chill – “So we were great then and we’re shit now?”).  But in this case, it throws back to so many problems that films used to have in the old days.  It has dialogue that isn’t particularly believable, it has an attitude towards Africa and Africans that is ridiculously out-dated (of course, since it is based on the writings of Karen Blixen, who actually lived in that times, this at least has an excuse).  I spent the whole film, both the first time I watched it and this time waiting for Streep, Brandaeur and the gorgeous cinematography to rise above the story itself.

Maybe the real problem is Redford.  Robert Redford was never a great actor – his best performances, like Butch Cassidy and The Sting, relied on his charm and his humor, not his romantic skills (thus his nomination for The Sting rather than The Way We Were).  It’s why, in spite of perfectly looking the part of Gatsby, he wasn’t able to quite inhabit the role properly.  And here he is a serious problem.  He’s trying to rely on his charm but it’s just not enough in this role.  In one sense it wants to be one of those old-fashioned adventurer roles like Stuart Granger in King Solomon’s Mines, but he veers too much towards the romance.  The story problems are part of the script, but the inability to pull it off is pure Redford.  He simply gets acted off the screen by Streep and Brandaeur (who are both excellent) and he’s just never believable as a person.

Then there is the end of the film, and perhaps this is a personal note as to why this film irritates me so much.  At the funeral there is Blixen reading one of my favorite poems of all-time, one which I had already memorized long before I had ever seen the film.  And it’s just so ridiculous.  It’s so out of place, I can’t fathom who thought it was a good idea.  It’s entirely possible that it’s in the original book (the film has so irritated me that I have never gotten around to reading any Blixen, but I will eventually), but even if it was, they should have substituted another.  For a man of his age, in the circumstances he died, this poem just doesn’t belong and it seems as out of place in the film as the film does in modern times.  Had this been made in the 50’s, it might have seemed more appropriate.

As I watched it again, I realize it is not as bad as I have thought – it at least is a *** film, not quite the high **.5 I have been giving it.  But looking at it again, looking at all the other great films of the year, it’s just a shame that this walked away with 7 Oscars.

Independent film finally gets a Best Picture nominee with Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

Kiss of the Spider Woman

  • Director:  Hector Babenco
  • Writer:  Leonard Schrader  (from the novel by Manuel Puig)
  • Producer:  David Weisman
  • Studio:  Island Alive
  • Stars:  William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Actor (Hurt)
  • Oscar Points:  205
  • Length:  120 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $17.00 mil  (#56 – 1985)
  • Release Date:  26 July 1985
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #113  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hurt), Supporting Actor (Julia), Cinematography, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  280

The Film:  Films allow you to escape from reality.  They open a door that you can step through and for a couple of hours it is not about your life anymore.  That is the whole notion behind the escapism of the movies.  Of course, there are films that don’t allow you to escape.  Some films only remind you of some of the things that you are trying to escape from.  Those movies, films with a darker edge that don’t allow you that notion of escape can be hard to sit through and don’t often invite a second viewing.  All of this combines to make Kiss of the Spider Woman a fantastic film that succeeds on an emotional, an artistic and even an entertainment level.

The plot is a very simple one.  William Hurt is Molina, a gay window dresser who is in jail in Brazil.  Sharing his cell is Valentin, a political prisoner, played by Raul Julia.  During their time together, Molina will make Valentin live through his descriptions of films that Molina has seen.  He describes the plots intricately (and the film shows us all of these films within the film) and it is their escape from this small little cell that is their entire world.

These films, all b-films from another era are a reminder of that escapism of film.  Molina’s love of these films, his intimate knowledge of their stories and the care with which he tells them keeps him alive, keeps Valentin alive, allows them to escape.  Of course, there is more than just the telling of old films.  In between those, we have a smart film about the horrible things that have been going on in South and Central America for decades.  We can understand how a gay man and a revolutionary would find themselves sharing a cell and sharing their lives, for both are second class citizens in countries like these (this film could easily take place in Syria today and hardly a thing would need to be changed).

But then there are the performances.  It’s not all about William Hurt, though his performance is amazing, and probably a revelation in 1985.  Hurt has always been a great actor, and for a time in the eighties, it seemed like people could finally understand that.  The decade saw him in Body Heat, The Big Chill, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Children of a Lesser God, Broadcast News and The Accidental Tourist.  His performance a few years ago in A History of Violence (which earned him an Oscar nomination in spite of its brevity) reminded us of how good he has always been and he deserved his Oscar.  But there is also the small shining performance of Sonia Braga (who didn’t know English and you’d never know it) and the incredible performance of Raul Julia, always an under-rated actor, who died too young.

This film is impressive enough.  But if you read the novel you will be even more impressed.  It is a film of dialogue and brief government reports, flowing from dialogue to internal monologue.  It belongs on a list with The English Patient of novels that you would never have expected to make coherent films due to their difficulty, but somehow, through great care, were made into great films.

Note:  A few days before re-watching this I was at the Boston Book Annex.  The radio was on and I could hear them discussing an Argentine writer who had died.  I asked the bookseller who they were talking about and he said that he didn’t know, but that he didn’t really like an Argentine writers – Borges just left him cold (it turned out to be Ernesto Sabato).  Then I said, “What about Manuel Puig?”  He looked at me and said “Is he from Argentina?”  We discussed it for a moment while I paid for my purchase (6 Modern Library Giants).  But he wouldn’t let me leave until he could look it up, and as he was checking on the computer, he said “And you know, the other day I was just telling someone how Kiss of the Spider Woman is probably one of my three favorite films of all-time.”  It turned out that Puig, is, of course, from Argentina and we discussed how good both the novel and the film were.  As I was leaving, he said “You can feel good that you made me realize that there is an Argentine writer I like.”

Witness (1985): a film for Siskel AND Ebert

Witness

  • Director:  Peter Weir
  • Writer:  Earl W. Wallace  /  William Kelley  /  Pamela Wallace
  • Producer:  Edward S. Feldman
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Ford), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  330
  • Length:  112 min
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $68.70 mil  (#8 – 1985)
  • Release Date:  8 February 1985
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7  (year)  /  #160  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Ford), Supporting Actress (McGillis), Editing, Original Score
  • Nighthawk Points:  115

The Film:  Witness is a film for both Siskel and Ebert.  By that I don’t mean that they gave it two thumbs up, though they did.  When I first began taking films seriously and was watching a lot of the two of them back in the late eighties, I realized that I agreed with Siskel far more than I agreed with Ebert.  Then it became clear to me as to why.  Though Ebert was the great writer (in the breadth of his career it has become apparent that he is America’s best film critic – heresy to those who would follow Agee or Farber or Kauffmann or Kael, but this is my belief), they had different ways of viewing films and I was aligned with Siskel.  Ebert would often praise a film based on specific scenes – he would talk how much about he enjoyed various aspects of the film, while Siskel would talk much more about the film as a whole.  Though it is not a completely true dualism, I have often found that people who love films and love to talk about films generally fall into one camp or the other, even if they don’t know it.

Witness works so well because it works on either level.  There are a number of truly magnificent scenes in Witness – from the tension of the death early in the film, to the heightened moment when young Jakob, and then John Book, realize who the killer is, to the famous raising of the barn, the wonderful dance to “Wonderful World” and the masterful editing of the final chase through the farm.  But the film also works extremely well as a whole, not just a group of great scenes.  It works as a cop story, as a thriller and even as a love story.  It is thoughtful and intelligent – well written, well directed, well acted (it is often mentioned as the best performance of Harrison Ford’s career, namely because he earned his only Oscar nomination for it, but I rank it behind Raiders and Presumed Innocent – but then, I thought he deserved nominations for both of those films) and very well made.

There is of course very good cinematography and Academy Award winning Editing, but those aren’t the biggest strength.  What Peter Weir does, as well as any director in film outside of Steven Spielberg, is match his film with the music.  Think of the raising of the barn or the moment when Jakob identifies the killer, or outside of Witness, think of the finale of Dead Poets Society, or the moment in The Truman Show where Truman begins to understand.  Weir finds the music to fit the film.  While Maurice Jarre is usually linked with David Lean because of the three Oscars that he won working with Lean, he worked with Weir on five films and it was a fruitful collaboration.

But it doesn’t even come down to Ford’s strong performance or McGillis’ quiet sensuality, or the smile on their faces as they dance to the music – a youthful memory for him, a forbidden pleasure for her.  It is how well the film is constructed.  It allows us to see what a frightening place the city can be to those who are from outside.  It gives us an equal understanding of those from the city and those for whom it is a frightening place and allows us to understand both worlds.  Think of the man yelling as they drive away after the confrontation in town: “This is bad for tourism, Lapp.”  So, it’s good for tourism to have people who will hound the Amish simply because they don’t fight back?  It provides a character who could easily be a foil, a rival or a betrayer in Daniel, but all of his actions fit his character perfectly and his presence adds to the story and makes the final scene a poignant one that develops from the characters rather than forcing them into situations.

There is also one final thing I want to say about the conclusion of the film.  When that bell is ringing, the people around hear it and they respond.  It is the calling of the community.  No wonder these people can’t understand what goes on in the city.  I have watched a man bleed to death while only three of us out of a crowd of 20 did anything to help save him and I screamed at the crowd “What the hell is wrong with you?”  I have sprinted down the street, chasing a shoplifter, screaming for anyone to trip him so I could catch him and have him arrested, but no one could bother to interfere.  In both cases there were clear lines drawn of who would get involved in the situation.  There was no sense of community, no sense that we were all part of the human race – no one who would help someone who needed it, no one who would stop someone they knew was in the wrong.  The people of the Amish community respond when that bell rings because they are a part of the community.  That’s why they can work together and build that barn and that’s something the writers understand.  In some ways this film is very much a Hollywood film – the big city cop as a fish out of water, the dramatic chase.  But in other ways it is so much more.

The Color Purple (1985): Spielberg gets the shaft again

The Color Purple

  • Director:  Steven Spielberg
  • Writer:  Menno Meyjes  (from the novel by Alice Walker)
  • Producer:  Steven Spielberg  /  Kathleen Kennedy  /  Frank Marshall  /  Quincy Jones
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Actress (Goldberg), Supporting Actress (Avery), Supporting Actress (Winfrey), Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Song (“Miss Celie’s Blues”)
  • Oscar Points:  290
  • Length:  154 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $94.17 mil  (#4 – 1985)
  • Release Date:  20 December 1985
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #212  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Avery), Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Song (“Miss Celie’s Blues”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  175

The Film:  On the one hand I want to scream at the Academy.  When Spielberg deserved the Oscar for Jaws they didn’t even nominate him.  Then they didn’t nominate Close Encounters for Best Picture.  Then they gave the Oscars to the solid, but not great Chariots of Fire and Gandhi rather than Raiders and E.T..  Now we get to 1985 and for the second time they passed Spielberg by – granted they were nominating Kurosawa instead of Spielberg, but they actually gave the Oscar to the massively over-rated Out of Africa and Spielberg was again left without the Oscar nomination.

On the other hand, The Color Purple just barely slides up into the “great” category for me (at the very low end of ****).  The first time I watched it was when I was in college, not long after reading Alice Walker’s novel, I thought it was great and when I later saw Out of Africa I was dismayed over the Academy’s choice.  I was so impressed with the film that I even thought Whoopi Goldberg, one of my least favorite actresses of all-time was great as Celie.  I was blown away by the sensuality of Margaret Avery as Shug and thought the rest of the cast was very strong.

So why do I keep sounding like I no longer think that?  Well, it is a very well acted film and it is certainly a very well made film.  The cinematography, the music, the look of the film are all right.  But there is also something there – the criticism that is often leveled against Spielberg and his rather saccharine feel.  This is one of the few films where I really feel that seeping through.  It’s not enough for me to knock it down from ****, but it is enough that it doesn’t reach the level of the truly great films of the year – films like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Witness, or Brazil and Blood Simple.

It is up to you to make your own decision on the film.  It has plenty of people who absolutely love, whose love for the novel extends perfectly into the film.  But then there are plenty of detractors as well – those who think it’s rather ridiculous for a white Jew to make a film about a black religious woman.  And certainly it is difficult to step back and accept Goldberg and Winfrey in these dramatic roles given the large changes that have come over their lives in the years since the film was made.  But as you sit and listen to “Miss Celie’s Blues”, the song that is so much, much better than the song that won the Oscar over it, you’ll have a hard time denying the emotional impact of it all.

Prizzi's Honor (1985): John Huston's 15th Oscar nomination, Jack Nicholson's 8th Oscar nomination, Kathleen Turner would still have to wait

Prizzi’s Honor

  • Director:  John Huston
  • Writer:  Richard Condon  /  Janet Roach  (from the novel by Condon)
  • Producer:  John Foreman
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, Anjelica Huston, Robert Loggia, William Hickey
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Actor (Nicholson), Supporting Actor (Hickey), Supporting Actress (Huston), Editing, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  300
  • Length:  130 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Gangster)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $26.65 mil  (#32 – 1985)
  • Release Date:  14 June 1985
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #9  (year)  /  #235  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Turner), Supporting Actress (Huston)
  • Nighthawk Points:  140

The Film:  I didn’t really get it.  In some ways, I suppose, I still don’t get it.  Well, I mean, I got it more than Jack Nicholson himself apparently did: “When the first draft of the script didn’t make things clearer, Huston put his arm around the actors and whispered ‘Jack, it’s a comedy.’ ” (Inside Oscar, p. 662)  Humor is, after all, a tricky thing.  I knew a guy in college who read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a straight story and my own mother asked me after Men in Black if it was supposed to be funny.  I knew it was a comedy.  To me, there was never really any question of it.  The question was, how funny was it and how good was it?

I’ve watched it again and I still don’t know.  I suppose that is why this film sits at three and a half stars and can’t push its way up to the four star level.  I admire its wit.  I admire the performances (even though it’s so weird to hear Jack with that accent and to accept him as someone so dim-witted, a stark contrast to most of the characters he’s played over the years).  Anjelica Huston is magnificent (a slam dunk, winning all five critics groups and the Oscar, though she somehow lost the Globe to Meg Tilly), Kathleen Turner is at the peak of both her acting and her sexiness (yet, somehow managed to get passed over for Anne Bancroft and Jessica Lange – the second year in a row she would win the Golden Globe for Actress – Comedy and fail to earn an Oscar nomination) and William Hickey is just hilarious to watch.

And then think about the direction.  John Huston was almost 80 when he made this and would only live another couple of years, yet it has the touch of a much younger director.  It never lags, never lets you down, always keeps you entertained.  Yet, something about it just doesn’t click with me.  That is sometimes the problem with film criticism.  You can’t always explain how you feel about a film.

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