“Time Just Gets Away From Us”: True Grit, John Wayne, and the West

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J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he studies literature and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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  1. Avatar Mark Thompson
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    Damn. This sheds a whole new light on the movie that I hadn’t considered much at all, probably because I’ve somehow never had the opportunity to see the John Wayne version (I’ve obviously been aware of that version, but never actually managed to get my hands on it). But I’ve seen enough John Wayne movies to recognize that this review fits this version extraordinarily well.

    I especially related to this bit:

    Yet, on a moral level, to call him a “hero” or even “heroic” is just as simple-minded as to apply either label to Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, no matter how tempting their deeds against odds may make it, if for no other reason than the sake of a story. Cogburn commits a single heroic deed, but he is no hero.

    I think this explains why I was having a disconnect in understanding the Coen brothers’ insistence on making Cogburn proud of various misdeeds (which, in and of itself is a classic movie trope – the good cop who refuses to follow the rules, whether it be Axel Foley or John McLane) while also insisting on pointing out the cruelty, cost, and indeed unfairness of Western justice (e.g., the way in which the Indian chief is singled out for disrespect at his execution).

    This is just a great, great review, JL.Report

  2. Avatar Rufus F.
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    I really liked this. I still haven’t seen the movie, so I’ll likely have more to say about it after I do. As for the mythic quality of the West, it seems to me that most of the ancient myths couldn’t be updated as well for today as they could in a western setting. It might have something to do with the sort of punishing landscape in which most of them were written, which best applies to the 19th century frontier in an American context. Just a guess.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Rufus F.
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      I hadn’t thought that about the frontier landscape itself, except insofar as there is, I believe, a passage in BLOOD MERIDIAN that explicitly links the desert southwest with the shape of the earth in the beginning stages of Creation (and various other references in various other books/films that IMPLY this connection) — but the punishing landscape also links to the idea of a society at the first stages of civilization, tottering between rule under law/man and the rule of nature. Which, when you think of the Greek myths, at least — and especially their dramatic adaptations — there’s a great deal of exploration of just that bridge in the history of mankind between the perils of the natural world and civilization. And the frontier West was certainly a place in the process of being civilized.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to J.L. Wall
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        “…but the punishing landscape also links to the idea of a society at the first stages of civilization, tottering between rule under law/man and the rule of nature.”

        Yep, that’s what I was thinking of. Greece isn’t the easiest place to live off the land and the difficulty of that sort of survival seems, to me, to show up in their myths. I take it the western frontier was much the same way. Neither location is exactly a land of plenty, if you know what I mean. There’s also a sort of interesting parallel between ‘barbarians’ and the ‘injuns’.Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to J.L. Wall
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        Essentially, the Southern perspective interprets said landscape as coming out of the Divine will (see Schelling) in freedom/love imbued with a gnostic component that points to the ‘fall’ of man and colors the whole drama while defining man’s existence between the poles of order and disorder, mortality and immortality, etc.Report

  3. Avatar Robert Cheeks
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    J.L., bravo, this is just an outstanding review.
    I am more sympathetic to the Southern conservative perspective and its ability, long gone, to produce the ‘attitude’ of the chevalier (anti-progressive), and Mark just knocked my socks off with his analysis of the crepuscular horse ride with Rooster carrying Mattie off to get help for the snake bite.
    I’m going to cling to the idea that the Good Lord utilized Mattie as a, somewhat, ironic instrument of divine justice. Sometimes I think, the bad guy gets his just desserts…sometimes judgement awaits beyond the abyss.
    However, this is just a terrific review and an insightful analysis.Report

    • Avatar Francis in reply to Robert Cheeks
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      “I am more sympathetic to the Southern conservative perspective “.

      Having the unquestioned right to own other people, command their labor, and live a life of luxury based on that relationship is such a sympathetic way of life (so long as one is assured of being the owner, not the owned). And while there’s plenty of slavery in the OT, I would have thought that the teachings of Jesus Christ would be inconsistent with the chevalier / slaveowner lifestyle. (eg, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”)Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Robert Cheeks
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      says:

      crepuscular

      I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to look that word up.Report

  4. Avatar Francis
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    Bob: so is it the case that you live in a fictional world where the Southern courtier lifestyle could exist independent of slavery, or do you just prefer not to worry your little mind about the human cost thereof?Report

    • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Francis
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      Francis, is that how you want to believe I see things? If so, have at it. If it makes you feel better, if it makes you believe you’ve won some argument or other, than please do so.
      But, I hope you’re smarter than that.Report

      • Avatar Mike Farmer in reply to Robert Cheeks
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        From what I can tell, the odds are that Bob is most likely not in favor of slavery.

        I haven’t seen True Grit, but the preview where Matt Damon delivers that perfect line — something about the sun in his, then says “or should I say, your eye” makes me want to see it.Report

  5. Avatar Maxwell James
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    First note: I like the movie a lot, and the book even more. And I enjoyed this review. But this is an oversimplification:

    A world in which justice has a cost—indeed, does not go unpunished—is not the world of John Wayne’s west.

    You don’t have to look any farther than The Searchers – beloved by many filmmakers, including the Coens – to find a classic John Wayne movie in which justice most certainly has a cost, and a steep one. Or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (particularly relevant with respect to your penultimate paragraph – “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”). Or Red River. The roles Wayne played were often more complex, and justice harder to come by, then his hagiographers tend to remember. A lot of that was due to John Ford, of course, but the point is that Wayne should get more credit for the complexity & variety of his roles.

    In response to Robert Cheeks: I think something your review misses is that the movie (and the book) is a comedy, albeit one with a serious and moving ending. In particular, it’s a comedy of manners, and a biting one. That is not to deny its religious themes, nor its humanization (not heroicization) of the confederate characters. But those should be seen from within the comic structure.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Maxwell James
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      It’s been a long time since the days I spent watching John Wayne’s movies with any frequency — it’s not an “I grew out of it” kind of thing; it’s an, “I got old enough to choose what movies to rent” thing and an “I don’t have time to watch that many movies” (cf. the rate at which the growth of my “to-read” list outpaces my ability to read) — and you’re probably right that I’m being a little over-simple. But the type of hero I REMEMBER John Wayne being is roughly in line with what I wrote about (and I think it holds true for the original TRUE GRIT film, which I have watched within the last several years (in fact, I own it, but on good ol’ VHS). And I think that kind of hero isn’t that far off of the IDEA of the kind of hero he portrayed — or of the IDEA of The Duke himself. (I’m thinking of the attitude taken in the song I referenced in the review above, and also of a Joan Didion essay from SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM in which her idea of who John Wayne is crashes up against the sick, weak, oxygen-tank-dependent Wayne she meets.)

      Getting around to watching some of the classic Ford westerns now that I’m older than 10 has been on my t0-view list for a while, but I think I’ll bump it up a few notches. (Not that this means I’ll get around to it anytime this decade, but…)Report

      • Avatar Maxwell James in reply to J.L. Wall
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        It’s certainly true that the “idea” of John Wayne has evolved into something different from who John Wayne actually was, as an actor and as a person. But my point is that film geeks like the Coens probably do not perceive Wayne in the same way that the popular culture perceives him, and I think their film actually references The Searchers more than the 1968 True Grit. See this thoughtful review by Armond White for some examples.Report

    • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Maxwell James
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      Maxwell James, that is a fascinating point and one with which, considering the word usage, at least in the film, I’m not prepared to argue. Perhaps comedy can convey the ‘higher’ forms of man’s tensional existence. God, I should think, considering the complications of this fallen world, must have some sense of the comedic. I must read the novel.
      Sometime I want you to differentiate ‘humanization/heroicization’ in terms of our Confederate friends at some length.Report

      • Avatar Francis in reply to Robert Cheeks
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        Humanization — like many people have done for millennia, Confederate soldiers signed up for war because their leaders told them to do so. Some fought with courage, some did not. Some understood that the cause of the war was to preserve human bondage; some did not. They may have been wrong, they may have been misled, but they were our fellow citizens and they died in civil war. We can honor their sacrifice if not their wisdom.

        Heroicization — the leaders of the Confederacy were traitors who should have been hanged. And when the Klan arose, they should have been hanged. And when the Confederate battle flag suddenly became popular, those who waved it should have been cast out from positions of leadership. Because the leaders of the Confederacy, the leaders of the Klan and the symbol of the Confederate battle flag are not about honoring the South; they are about enforcing human bondage.

        But in an attempt to promote reconciliation, and because many were stone racists themselves, Union elites looked away when Lost Cause mythologists promoted the existence of an utterly fictional ‘heroic’ society that — oh by the way — was based on human bondage. And tragic characters make for good stories; the myth of the still-proud, honorable-in-defeat Confederate soldier has been a staple of movie making probably as long as there have been movies.

        The single best blogger these days on this issue is without doubt Ta-Nehisi Coates, who posts at the Atlantic.Report

        • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Francis
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          Francis, thank you, my response, should you care, can be found on the previous thread re: The War of Secession.
          It appears you are a ‘monied-interest’, big bidness, Lincolnite. Well, I’ll take a Rebel stand.
          Let me recommend Robert Penn Warren’s essay in “I’ll Take My Stand.”Report

          • Avatar Francis in reply to Robert Cheeks
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            says:

            Actually, I’m not. I’m just curious how you reconcile your Christianity with your support for a government that supported slavery.Report

            • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Francis
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              Oh Francis, I hate to get all serious, however.
              I don’t support African chattel slavery. However, history is history and you appear to know it as well as I. We can’t change it.
              While the Southern states legalized slavery the North didn’t. However, given human nature what do you think would have been the Northern position if tobacco, cotton, and rice could have been grown north of the Ohio River?
              What interests me about the South is that it projected a firmer, much better grounded vision of the republic. Keep in mind most of the important founders were Southerners.
              The North on the other hand turned toward state supported market capitalism and looked for ways to aid and assist in the expansion of banking, railroad, and manufacturing interests.
              My point is that Southern agrarian republicanism offered a better chance to withstand the encroachments of the consolidated, central gummint. It allowed (white) people to live a life free of gummint interference. Further, it does not take much imagination to understand the horrendous days of African chattel slavery were coming to a close, ironically, with the ‘progress’ in the manufacture of machines that would do the slave labor.
              Southern republicanism was the last best hope for the nurturing of republicanism in America, a hope dashed in the ‘late unpleasantness.’
              Because of big bidness, the railroads, bankers and other Lincolnites (‘you people’) a unique (Southern) republicanism was destroyed and, gradually at first, we have devolved into a socialist democracy.
              Happily, today we see the spiritual sons/daughters of those who founded the nation, and those Southerners who understood their republican roots during the War of Secession, rise up again in the so-called Tea Party movement. I do think this is America’s last chance to survive.
              And, Francis when you charge Davis, Lee, and Jackson with treason you betray a profound ignorance. They were no more traitors than Washington, Jefferson, and Adams.
              Let me know if you can find where Jesus or Paul condemn slavery.Report

              • Avatar RTod in reply to Robert Cheeks
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                Bob –

                I agree with our point that history is history, and that you take the good with the bad. My ancestors are Irish army, and I don’t feel personally responsible for terrorism myself. And I get the insinuation that people from the North may not have been inherently better than people from the South, and may have justified awful things as well. (Though even though they didn’t grow cotton, I’m sure there were other shitty or dangerous jobs in the North. I don’t think slavery is a stright up and down economic question.)

                But this:

                “Further, it does not take much imagination to understand the horrendous days of African chattel slavery were coming to a close, ironically, with the ‘progress’ in the manufacture of machines that would do the slave labor.”

                First off, it seems like you’re saying “Well, they were just about to free the slaves of course, but then the North rudely took away that chance…” Also, human nature being human nature: if you’re OK with the idea of slavery, and you’ve already paid for the slaves, well… surely you can find another use for them?Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to RTod
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                RTod, you’re probably correct that I take too much when I extrapolate ‘time’ into the future to show that 620, 000 Americans didn’t have to die in order for eastern monied interests to continue to dominate the gummint. I am guilty of that.
                Frankly, if the North was offended by African chattel slavery they should have just let the South secede…that they didn’t, and why they didn’t speaks volumes.Report

              • Avatar RTod in reply to Robert Cheeks
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                OK, now I AM confused. And since I’m pretty sure you know a lot more about the history of the South, I’ll need you to explain: are you saying that if the North was really anti-slavery they would have just let the South secede and continue with slavery? I’m totally lost.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to RTod
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                I suppose what I ‘m saying is why wasn’t the North’s attitude something like “thank God these dirty slavers are leaving us.”
                Now we can have a ‘progressive’ gummint and they can be judged for the sin of slavery, regardless of our, collective, history and participation.
                The key, I think, to understanding this very complex era is the willingness to grasp human nature/fallen nature (libido dominandi as St. Augustine would say), and man’s economic self interests, which drove the first (treasonous?) rebellion against the crown.
                As you know Northern propaganda portrayed the typical Southerner as a dirty, illiterate, inbred, tobacco chewin’, drunk who beat and raped his slaves. Why would you want to politically associate with “those people?”Report

              • Avatar RTod in reply to RTod
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                I’m trying to tread softly here, so I’m going to take pains to point out that I’m not trying to knee-jerk… But the view that in the case of the Civil War and slavery the issues are a choice between Northern gummint and biddness, or the South continuing slavery and letting whoever judge their morality somewhere down the road…. Isn’t that kind of a white-centered choice? Because I’d think just about every African American I can think of would say that the first option was irrelevant, and the second unconscionable.Report

              • Avatar Trumwill in reply to RTod
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                RTod, see my comment below (I couldn’t place it properly in the thread because it was from my phone) for futher explanation of where I think Bob is coming from.

                Though I disagree with him about this being a potential solution to the North’s slavery dilemma, Bob is pretty much right that the North did not go to war with the South to end slavery. They did it to preserve the union. Had the South left, the west would not have been far behind. It also would have been the Union in an insecure position if Kentucky bolted and left Ohio as the only bridge between east and west.

                By most accounts, slavery was something the north was politically willing to tolerate in the name of compromise, but it was something that was likely to be chipped away at further and further. And ultimately the institution would not have survived as more and more anti-slavery states entered the union. The South knew that, of course, and so they drew their lines in the sand early on.

                Bob is under the impression that it would not have survived in the Confederacy. Or at least that it’s a distinct possibility. I would call it a remote one at best (for the forseeable future, I do think it would have happened eventually some decades down the line, for economic/trade/viability reasons) and given am glad that Lincoln did not let our country be disintegrated on the hope that it might.

                That’s of course, leaving aside that even if it had happened, it’s not as though the South would have been inclined to treat them in a civilized manner regardless. Jim Crow was less bad than slavery, but still pretty wildly unacceptable.Report

              • Avatar Francis in reply to Robert Cheeks
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                Agrarian republicanism is another word for despotic rural poverty. If you want to live off the grid, please feel free to do so. And if you want to live in a county where political power is vested in a tiny number of largely related individuals, there are lots of places in Texas and across the Midwest which are still like that. What I fail to understand is why a government should impose the poverty associated with agrarian republicanism on its citizens.

                There’s a reason why WalMart has been so successful. It has offered the rural poor to lower middle class an enormous bounty of goods obtained from across the planet. It manages to do so because of the rails and roads that are largely paid for by urban taxpayers. (Federal road projects are not solely funded out of gas taxes; they get big chunks out of general revenues, which come from people who pay income taxes. These tend to be the urban middle class.)

                I don’t force anyone to shop at WalMart; I just pay the taxes that allow them to do so. If the lifestyle you propose is so tempting, why is it that so many people reject it?

                On Christ’s condemnation of slavery: He apparently said: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” and that his second greatest commandment is “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Those statements are not a condemnation of slavery? You can be a slaveowner and a good Christian? Really?Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Francis
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                Francis, I love ya dude!
                My wife and I have lived “back on the land” since ’68 when I came across the first copy of Shuttlesworth’s “Mother Earth News.” We built our house ourselves without any bank. We bought us 20 acres of hill country, and we’ve heated with wood for over 30 years.
                Living as I do in this “despotic rural poverty” I’ve come to appreciate neighbors that are, indeed, poor and sometimes need a hand with makin’ hay or feedin’ stock or wiring up a house or trailer (yes, we have trailers out here). A neighbor, down the road, was dying with MS and we fed him and helped with a group of other neighbors and family with his needs until the day he died.
                I have no desire for gummint to impose my lifestyle on anyone; I have no idea where you got that?
                I’m not sure if your Jesus quotes satisfy the inquiry on slavery..pretty thin gruel.
                However, “Jesus, don’t like killin’ no matter what the reaasons for” is a quote that I’m sure you can agree with and join me in opposing the slaughter of the innocents? After all, African chattel slavery and abortion are all about the dignity and sacredness of human life? Yes/NO?Report

        • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Francis
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          I have to agree with your comment about TNC’s posts on the Civil War. I don’t read as many of them as I’d like (which is to say, for reasons of time, I read less than all), but the combination of bringing up source material I’d never get around to and his commentary is fantastic. Truth be told, his blog has affected the ways in which I’m willing to describe Lee and Jackson — though I’m still going to cling to the poetry of my imagined image of Stonewall riding into battle hand raised, sucking on a lemon, and singing from a memorized hymnal. And Pickett’s protest to Lee after the latter ordered that infamous charge makes it (in a way still affected by that particular cause) authentically tragic.

          Yet, from a slightly different perspective, Walker Percy’s use of a Colonel Pelham, CSA, in the Donahue Show segment of LOST IN THE COSMOS is the best available means of making the points for which Percy uses him. Which is to say, there IS a way for using the Confederacy as a kind of shorthand for a kind of Southern/Agrarian antebellum conservative attitude — the challenge, in my view, is to manage not to do so in a way that accidentally aligns one with the despicable.

          Personally, I think the final paragraph of Foote’s “Bibliographical Note” to his NARRATIVE is a fairly proper attitude (and with which I will conclude this note — though not before stating how excited I am to have begun a matter of bickering over this particular war!):

          “One word more perhaps will not be out of place. I am a Mississippian. Though the veterans I knew are all dead now, down to the final home guard drummer boy of my childhood, the remembrance of them is still with me. However, being nearly as far removed from them in time as most of them were from combat when they died, I hope I have recovered the respect they had for their opponents until Reconstruction lessened and finally killed it. Biased is the last thing I would be; I yield to know one in my admiration for heroism and ability, no matter which side of the line a man was born or fought on when the war broke out, fourscore and seventeen years ago. If pride in the resistance my forebears made against the odds has leaned me to any degree in their direction, I hope it will be seen to amount to no more, in the end, than the average American’s normal sympathy for the underdog in a fight.”Report

      • Avatar Maxwell James in reply to Robert Cheeks
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        Well, I don’t have the time for “at some length” right now, but I think JL’s description is a pretty good one. Both Rooster and LaBoeuf are are presented as sympathetic yet pretty flawed human beings who are capable of heroic deeds, but are not heroes in themselves. Both are amply satirized at times – LaBoeuf for his preening affectations & stiffness, Rooster for well, pretty much everything. They are not romanticized, but they are also not victims.

        I love the book and highly recommend it, but if you’re expecting it to be the “last novel of Northern aggression,” you will be disappointed. If anything the book is more a depiction of both the charms and nobility, but also the bitter contradictions of the South – and really, very particularly of Western Arkansas (and also Texas through LaBoeuf). It’s terrifically well-written, and if anything, even funnier than the movie.Report

  6. Avatar Trumwill
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    RTod, I think his point is that the North could have washed their hands of slavery had they just let the South secede. They could additionally have provided a safehaven for escaped slaves. So there would still have been slavery, but the North’s hands would have been cleaner in some respects because they wouldn’t have been a part of it.

    I should add that I reject this notion wholesale. The modern North and South both should be glad Lincoln did what he did.Report

    • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Trumwill
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      Trumwill, excellent point but have you considered that had the ‘agrarian conservative’ South established a Southern republic on the first priniciples of the American founding it may well have flourished, it may well have ended slavery on it’s own without bloodshed/war? And, if this imaginery republic had abided by the tenets of republicanism it would have eschewed the wars of empire and the lure of socialism and continued to exist as economic viable, operating a central gummint in a true federalist form.
      Hell, I’m figurin’ that you’d be seein’ Yankees sneaking, south, across the Ohio River to live in a country like that.Report

      • Avatar Katherine in reply to Robert Cheeks
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        Considering that slavery and slaves were the source and foundation of all the South’s wealth and the single most valuable commodity in it aside from the land itself, and that they seceded merely on the chance that the federal government would limit the expansion of slavery in the territories, no, it doesn’t seem likely that they would have ended slavery of their own volition.

        Also, fascinatingly, the South was big on expanding an empire in which slavery could be maintained. They were especially enthusiastic about the possibility of acquiring Cuba by either invasion or purchase.Report

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