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Ken Russell’s Portraits of Elgar, Delius and Mahler

Donald Phelps

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Pilgrim’s Progress: Russell’s Mezzotint of Edward Elgar

That wonderful phrase of Manny Farber – ‘sad, worn, methodical beauty (of old silent films)’ – recurred to me often on watching Ken Russell’s 1962 film (his debut in television), Elgar. The very opening shot, of Edward Elgar as a young boy of ten or eleven, charging on his pony thought all grass, breathes a gentle Victoriana, an evocation of Stevenson and Thomas Arnold. A line of sheep, then one of horses, is viewed in the distance. Pallid sky, grey foliage, intermingle with the simple trajectory of the boy’s ride. The bustling immediacy of the scene is typical of a Russell film opening in later years – although the gentle conventionality is not. The film will, however, disclose this travelling shot as instrumental to Russell’s design – a network of passages: horseback riding; upstairs and downstairs, in a modest home; strolls through the infinite-seeming avenues of trees, the cathedral-like image of which Russell deploys with unapologetic candour again and again – while his film traces the fervid, often harassed, branchings of Edward Elgar’s musical career: as light occasional composer; as classicist; as composer, for the British Crown, of the military march ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, that would be cherished and hallowed by his countrymen, and despised by its composer, for all time.

Unlike, say, either his Delius or Mahler films (discussed below), Elgar is accompanied by a voice-over written and spoken by Huw Wheldon. Its protagonist, therefore, doesn't share in the account of his life and career – intermingling his own reflections, as interpreted by Russell, and enriching, accordingly, the linear austerities of biography. His life, accordingly, emerges – more or less accurately, one might suppose – as more staid, minus the rococo frills of Delius or Mahler’s lives.

Yet Russell, it appears, has seized upon his relatively quiet and unspectacular subject with an intensity which is diverted into the gliding, veering and (to be sure) marching rhythms. Whereas the music of the other two composers, as presented by Russell, embodied vocation, Elgar began what would become his career as low-income artisan: his father, owner of a small music shop in Worcester. Staccato fragments are summoned by Russell to depict Elgar’s workaday association with his future art. He worked occasionally as music teacher: two close-ups of hands at piano keys. On occasion (the voice-over notes), he entertained, as one of a small, improvised band, the inmates of the local lunatic asylum. One is on the qui vive, recalling the visit of Mahler to a pitiably deranged Hugo Wolf, in the latter’s dungeon cell; or, the horrific (hallucinatory?) vignettes of Glenda Jackson, writhing in a Moscow madhouse as Tchaikovsky’s cast-off wife, in The Music Lovers (1971). Nothing of the sort here: a glimpse of Elgar – young, handsome, heavily moustached, in a flash of dark musician’s uniform. George McGrath and Rowena Gregory enact Edward and his wife of some thirty-one years, Caroline Alice (Roberts). Both are usually viewed in full figure, their faces averted or shadowed. For closer views, Russell relies on the iconography of period photographs. Indeed, we know Caroline Alice’s face in any detail from a profile of her, the blonde hair tinctured with gentle sunlight; seen early in her marriage, and at her death in 1920.

The history of Elgar’s early life, then, as furnished by Russell, is embedded in normalcy. However – as Russell never lets us forget – it is the particular normalcy of post-Romantic, Edwardian England. As noted, Russell’s camera honours the mezzotint shades of foliage, sky, tors; but also, the antic larkishness of a period that was eyed first-hand by the youthful Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley. Reports are cited of Elgar as a coltish, frolicking youth; Russell furnishes perceptive images of his frisking legs: kicking and nearly somersaulting on a game field; not far into the film, a Russellian visual prank shows a pair of trousered legs rising in the air – while a rope’s end comes down – as the bells peal in Elgar’s Catholic church, hub of the Elgars’ social exclusion by many of their neighbours (and seeming ample reason for his wife’s father, a retired Major General, disowning her upon her marriage to Edward). An occasional stray frill of Victorian sentiment is registered: Edward composes a birthday song for his sister Lucy; we see a photo album, decorated with painted flowers, probably an actual heirloom. Lucy herself appears, a matronly-proportioned young lady, singing some bars of her brother’s gift.

Elgar’s chronicle is offered as the life and career of a composer/musician who began as an artisan, embedded through relative poverty and, probably, his own footloose vagrancy of ambition (opportune symbol: a box kite, one of Edwards’ favourite pastimes, bouncing and twirling in the whitish sky). Caroline Alice is credited not only with inspiring, but – a marital straw boss – driving and chivvying him to attainment as a composer. One of the most richly romantic of Russell’s images is among the most conventional in concept: Edgar and Alice by night, seated at a round living room table, illumined only by their ornately shaded lamp; he scribbling at musical scores; she, across from him, patiently sorting.

In such an image, and numerous others – occasionally quoted directly from the period – Russell creates a palimpsest of at least two bygone eras: that of King Edward, with its lingering, retained and retentive sentiments, but also, a new-flowering dandyish humour, and hard-headed opportunism; also, the era of 1920s silent films – more likely, those of transplanted European directors. I think especially of Victor Seastrom’s work in such films as The Wind (1928) and The Scarlet Letter (1926). Images such as the spatter of desert sand, resembling sea spray, arabesque against a blackened train window; or, the humble cluster of meagre dinnerware on a cabin table, following a wedding celebration; or, the shadow of Lars Hanson as the Reverend Dimmesdale, in firelit relief on his parlour wall, as he bows disconsolately, head in hands. The union of quaintness and strength, in Russell’s images of the Elgars in their Kensington home, which seems dominated by the staircase; a repeated shot of Alice in shapeless nightdress, rinsing a wash basin. These and other such are augmented by the mingled plaintiveness and striving, heroic serenity, in the swell of Elgar’s music on the soundtrack (how it recalls, at times, the piano accompaniments of Arthur Kleiner at MOMA!). Russell ‘editorialises’ less here than in many of his other films; yet, one must detect a note of rueful comedy in the shot sequence of Alice’s back, wearily ascending the stairs, and Edward excitedly galloping down them. He has just received good news; Sir Arthur Sullivan wishes an interview with him. The, Sullivan is forced to cancel: Edward is seen hesitating at the door, as another man looks in; then, withdrawing.

By contrast, with the success of the Enigma Variations in 1899 – the ‘enigmas’ celebrated in these musical sketches numbered six, including Alice, Edward’s good friend Thomas Arnold (son of Matthew) and the Elgar dog, whom Alice forbade in the house – Russell turns festive, with swirling fireworks, amid which the Elgars dance, eventually sliding down a grassy slope on their backsides. Above, during the dance, a chandelier is seen from below, spinning deliriously in approximation of a sunburst: a possible eerie pre-vision of the micro-organism shapes studied by Edward as a scientific recluse in the ‘20s.

The possibly dangerous facility of Elgar’s earlier career is depicted as largely diverted by Alice’s demanding, loving persistence; also, supremely, by an access of mystical vision, borne of Elgar’s response, in 1899, to a poem of Cardinal Newman: ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, describing the transfiguration of and ascent of a soul at the moment of death. With no hint of sceptic parody, but a supercharge of his hyperbolic fervour, Russell, to the wracked, defiant exultancy of the music and soprano vocalist, bids us behold the familiar English hills, against a pale band of sky, over which muses a dark grey cloudbank. On a high bank are seen what appear at first to be three posts; then, as the soloist’s intensity increases, we discern, in silhouette, the three crosses of Calvary. Finally, the camera bears in toward the isolated silhouette of the crucified Christ: erect, intransigent, like a sentry of the Hereafter, reassuring and challenging.

Initially dismissed in England (one recalls Delius’ strikingly ill-considered sneer, quoted in Song of Summer, that Elgar was undone by Catholicism), the Gerontius composition was rapturously acknowledged in Germany. Russell provides photographs of two vociferous admirers: the renowned conductor Hans Richter (great coated, with a dickey of beard) and Richard Strauss, himself author of the powerful religious tone poem ‘Death and Transfiguration’. Russell presents Strauss’ youthful, clean-cut face framed by the black, Gothic handwriting of his testimonial.

The image of a Christian Heaven would soon be countervailed by one of a terrestrial Hell: World War One. The Diamond Jubilee, in which Elgar was featured, seems at length to be infected by a subtle pall. The once hilarious procession slows; in one of Russell’s most notable travelling shots, a black steamer, on a seemingly parallel course to the parade, appears, trudging along, an ambiguous courier. At last, Russell abandons it to focus briefly on a zeppelin advancing on a parallel route through space.

‘Land of Hope and Glory’ – England’s second national anthem – had in fact been written by Elgar during the Boer War. He agreed readily so submit it, as an inspirational anthem, at the initial threat of war. However, from shots of a uniformed officer exhorting a vocal mob, Russell – his iconoclastic animus now at full throttle – registers through newsreels the arrhythmic tumult of a battlefield: entangled hordes of uniformed men, viewed from the level of trenched and pitted earth. From here, the views shifts to young women digging graves; then – a famous photograph – a line of sightless men, many with bandaged eyes, some not, but each with his hand on the man’s shoulder who precedes him. The last, faint echo of the envisioned Christ: a horrible paraphrase of his parable against the Pharisees. Following this, even the infinity of white crosses – over which Russell’s camera sweeps with savage mock-nonchalance – is almost anti-climactic.

So sickened was Elgar by the carnage and desecration that he refused to produce a ‘Peace Anthem’ on the Armistice – voicing his removal from all ‘official music’. The final segment of his life begins with Alice’s death in 1920. Elgar sequestered himself to a corner of the handsome house that he had acquired; directing his energies to the study of biology, acquiring four microscopes for examining cellular structures. Russell depicts the improvised lab in a cold, lunar light; the squat, shrouded furniture a meagre audience. The highlight – the cells themselves – offers, however, an access of near-fantasy. As though a secret, inchoate tide of Elgar’s subconscious had been released, we behold miniature sunbursts; a throng of Klimt-like flower shapes; what appear to be crossed tree branches; a deranged cantata of Elgar’s beloved Nature.

Even as his reputation in England declined (the commentary tell us), Elgar, up to his death, anticipated an opera, sketches, a violin concerto in collaboration with the young Yehudi Menuhin. Russell’s remarkable film completes its course – a brilliant pas à deux of text and image – with a shot of a phonograph, apparently ready for playing; then, Elgar’s solitary figure, on cliff edge.

Darkness at Noon: A Portrait of

Song of Summer was originally filmed for British television, and released in 1968; I remember watching it in two weekly instalments in that year, or not long after. As a filmed portrait of a distinguished British composer, Frederick Delius, and a consideration of his art as wrought from staggering physical affliction, it ranks in my estimation with the Straubs’ The Chronicle of Anna Magdelena Bach (1968) and Russell’s own earlier entry, Elgar, in its eloquent intensity. It also offers a salutary change of perspective for those who, like the present writer, have come to identify Russell’s film work, with either smirk or shudder as coda, in terms phantasmagoric collages such as The Music Lovers, Tommy (1975) or Lisztomania (1975). Except for two startling, possibly jarring interludes, Russell’s film interiorises the obsession with the abrasiveness of authentic art, and its antipathy toward the commercial ‘realities’ of the world – that the other films cited present in blatant Expressionist caricature.

Foremost among Song of Summer’s achievements is the closeted intimacy of its perspective; and the dry, quivering vivacity of both tone and detail, whereby what amounts to a triumph of documentary film is realised (with the untold help of Eric Fenby’s supervision) through total fictional reconstruction. Likewise, it illustrates with salutary instruction how important can be passionate identification (that of Russell/Fenby) with the subject; and how aptly can be realised such passion, through attention to the demands of narrative form: scene by scene, moment by moment.

It tells the story of Fenby, as a young Yorkshireman who, during the 1920s, left his job as organ accompanist in a neighbourhood movie house to seek a post as amanuensis to the sexagenarian Frederick Delius; now, blind and paralysed from the decimations of syphilis; living with this wife Jelka and a German speaking attendant (who reads to him from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) in a cottage on the Breton coast.

There once existed in popular usage the term ‘closet drama’; alluding to a form of theatre restricted in space and characters, and committed to lengthy dialogues and soliloquies. The term would seem to have effectively vanished from critical usage; but Song of Summer re-invokes and redeems it; granting that the ‘closet’ is a latticed pavilion. Even apart from the musical excerpts (‘A Village Romeo and Juliet’, ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’, and others) that permeate the soundtrack with their brooding, dulcet fervour, Russell’s film offers an orchestration of atmosphere, light, performances – the rigorous splendours of Max Adrian (Delius), Maureen Pryor (Jelka); plus the sensitive capability of Christopher Gable as Fenby. Above all, the clean power of the cinematography, which restores those stalwart exiles, black and white, to their rightful, righteous power in film. The movie begins in the dreamy, shadow-cradled theatre where Fenby plies his organ in accompaniment to the soft shoe gambolings of Laurel and Hardy. The purist in me compels me to observe that Russell either (somewhat incredibly, I admit) did not know, or preferred to ignore, that the film, Way Out West, was a 1937 sound film. Contrastingly, the solid, glaring whiteness of the Breton cottage acts herald to the burning whiteness within, as embodied in Max Adrian’s white-gowned figure: its whiteness, that of bone or lime, the motif re-focused in the fine-boned face; in the nasal rasp of voice, now plaintive, now hectoring; his ferocity given an almost unbearable edge by his fierce inertia: Delius agonistes.

As Jelka, Pryor expresses herself the impounded savagery of genuine martyrdom: that which we share vicariously with the one we love. Stocky and bespectacled, Pryor conveys a matronly unaffected graciousness, buttressed however with iron candour. At one point, pleading with Fenby to remain when he is near despair over the almost inhuman ardures of his task, Jelka/Pryor disgorges a grieving, furious aria of recollection about Delius’ persistent infidelity. During an evening’s celebration (the completion, with Fenby’s midwife assistance, of a long impacted composition) an interlude of cheerful reminiscence is provided by an ancient recording: The Revelers in a jazz rendition of ‘Old Man River’. As the tinny echoes proceed, we see Jelka’s thick-ankled foot begin to tap, ever so cautiously, as her face gradually, staidly, brightens. Delius, meanwhile, reminisces about night possum-hunting, with a Black retinue, in the American everglades.

Such vignettes – and moreover, the patient, inquisitive rhythm they embody – reflect Kenneth Russell’s embrace – considerably beyond mere acceptance – of the television medium’s capacity for intimacy; and the irrelevance to it of roving, sprawling, large-screen techniques. Russell readily engages the small screen in a methodical, room by room inspection of the Delius domestic retreat: the furnishings, the books, piano; the white walls with their ascetic connotation; only superficially ironic. The intense relevance of such still life, the whitened Nordic stolidity. Versus the mingled aesthetic and domestic passions, invoke memory of Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) and Ordet (1955); but likewise the fioretti-like progression of episodes and vignettes irresistibly recalls to me what may be my favourite film by Rossellini: Francis, Jester of God (aka The Flowers of St Francis, 1950). The Breton coast, with its Northern/Southern cohabitation, seems notably appropriate to such diverse yet related impressions.

At variance with Russell’s far flung identification as a caricaturist is the discretion – yet combined with a vigorous appreciation of pictorial drama – in the portraiture of Delius: highlighting the throes of shackled outrage, the propinquity of icon and caricature – yet sheering clear of Groszian grotesquerie at every liable point.

Russell has forgone the Voice-Over: that counterpart of God’s presence, beloved of so much documentary and pseudo-documentary film, thus highlighting the ad lib occasions of Delius’ ongoing rumination, not to mention the youthful vulnerability of Fenby. Notwithstanding the frequent reverential sweetness of the music, Delius’ pantheism is no mere source of self-administered tranquillity. Rather, his Nature – separate from any officially standardised God, yet permeated by Divinity, gigantic and contemplative – is itself a Muse: embodying all that is inchoate, primitive and challenging. Artistic creation for Delius is no sequence of decorous faits accomplis, but a continuous dialogue with a tidal wave. Apropos conventional religion, he pities his ancient friend, Edward Elgar, claiming that Catholicism ruined him (in fact, as presented in Russell’s Elgar – a worthy companion piece – the composer’s major occasion of bitter chagrin was the celebrated national march, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, which became for him inextricably associated with the slaughter of World War I). In one flashback vignette, a vista of Gothic grey and pale sky, we see Delius, Jelka (carrying him) and their friend, the Australian composer Percy Grainger (David Collings) on a pilgrimage to the top of a Norwegian mountain.

Two other episodes focus on Nature’s bearish, importunate aspects; both forecast, though without the hysteric blatancy of the worst, Russell’s later flailing rodomontade. One involves Fenby’s importunate encounter with a priest in an almost empty, sunlit church; it follows and corroborates some scurrilous gossip about the same clergyman by a pretty local girl. The other episode is a celebration of Nature’s peasant ordures, as embodied in the first entrance of the aforesaid Percy Grainger, as the soundtrack veers into the jigging rhythms of ‘Country Gardens’ and ‘Molly on the Shore’. As presented with impish robustness by Collings, Grainger leaps from the roof of the Delius home; and, after some brief amenities, goes tearing over the adjoining landscape, trundling the wheelchaired Delius. An appearance that – had he not opted for a well-earned old age – Harpo Marx would have died for. And need the scene have been a mere conceit of Russell’s? One recalls reading an anecdote of William Wordsworth on his country estate, trundling his friend, the injured Coleridge, in a wheelbarrow.

Such vignettes may forecast some of Russell’s later rambunctious extravagance; yet, in the present context, do they not suggest an ongoing concern on his part – no less earnest for its complexity – with the adventures of authentic art in a world of cacophonous political and commercial realities? Apart from Russell’s films (at their best, as here, and even their frequent worst, later) how many instances can we recall, in films, of such singular concern with art, and willingness to give such concern, even to eccentricity, its vent?

Viennese Crystal:

Rather than the linear intensity and ascetic stark lyricism of Song of Summer, Mahler (1974) offers a baroque, sometimes clamourous ornateness; now sweepingly visionary (as Russell feverishly traces the via dolorosa of hero’s intertwined life and career), occasionally flagrantly bizarre; though, even in such moments, without the slapdash burlesque of a raucous polemic like The Music Lovers. The film proceeds through a succession of interiors; beginning inside Mahler’s head: a fragment of Bosch-like delirium, beginning with a night view of Mahler’s Tyrolean lake lodge bursting into flames; proceeding to a view of Mahler’s face on a pyramidal sandstone block; and, sharing the frame, a writhing, discernibly human shape, swaddled in white membrane: a monstrous forced partnership of primitive idolatry and nature; infused with the apprehension of idolatry as a potential tomb – in the midst of Mahler’s already brief-destined life. And, contrasted with it, the temporary imprisonment, seen in larval image, of his wife, Alma.

The massive grotesquerie of the images provides a touch of Gothic solemnity, an anchoring gravity, to the film as it unfolds. Immediately following are the hermetically elegant interiors of the train that is bearing Mahler (Robert Powell) and Alma (Georgina Hale) to New York, and his last concert: 1911. The crisp aquiline dignity of Powell/Mahler’s face, the grave eyes, still capable of sardonic mischief, provide a sort of continuing logo to the film’s narrative, a steel thread that holds in check the occasional extravagances. Hale’s mingling of kittenish sensuosity, tenderness, and occasional half-somnolent malice, provides a pulsing counterpoint.

The film’s major propulsive theme is twofold. The more familiar film-like preoccupation – Mahler’s career as composer/conductor, with the vicissitudes furnished by his Jewish origins – is intertwined with another, much less familiar motif: the progress of Mahler’s mind, as it pursues the development of its armour, its God-given shell: Mahler’s philosophy.

This is to be understood: not a mere, comfortable, many-mansioned residence, a perennial treatment centre; but, a mode of recognising and articulating, perceiving in its cosmic relevance and consistency, the salient obsession (as depicted with convulsive eloquence by Russell): the constant imminence throughout of the universe of Death. Within the earlier segment of the film, we are offered a signally Russellian visual pun, a ‘quote’: a beauteous lad in white sailor suit, golden-haired, suggestively approaches a middle-aged man, possibly of professional status, mustached and bespectacled. Death in Venice! Signor Visconti, grazi! The sailor-suited figure seems in retrospect to presage a second sailor-suited, flaxen-topped figure: a dummy composed by Alma, and mockingly situated in Mahler’s view, on the floating lodge. A scherzo reprise of the Death in Venice tempter? A long, dangling nose is attached: referent to Mahler’s Jewishness? The slightly out-of-focus ambiguity is more frequent in other Russell opi.

As addressed by Russell, the course of Mahler’s meditations takes place against expansive, at times alarming, at times vertiginously buoyant perspectives of Nature. The seemingly measureless blue waters of the Tyrol retreat; the engulfing Schwartzwald, itself surging, river-like, past the tracking camera, in a nightmare vision of Alma hunting her two small daughters; pursued in turn by the brooding chords of ‘Kindertotenlieder’ (‘Songs on the Death of Children’). The pantheism of Mahler apostrophises is, if anything, more ambiguous, more harshly incursive at times, than the Nature affinity of Delius; heavily tinctured with the melancholy and macabre Romanticism of German bards Brentano and Armin. And, as Russell caustically demonstrates – in the jagged flashbacks to Mahler’s childhood – Nature often amounted to a jarring and bewildering intruder.

Russell’s hermetically crowded and shadow-drenched scenes within and around Bernhard Mahler’s Wine and Spirits shop in the Bohemian ghetto are raspingly evocative; the glowering browns and deep reds of walls and clothing, the physically and emotionally overbearing throng of relatives, leaning above the deal table – like human promontories; the child Mahler, a stick figure in his engulfing clothes, with an inverted triangle face and pensive, sadly wary eyes. The excited group palavers about the radiant financial prospects for Mahler as a future conductor recall, in their hard-breathing inanity, similar enthused crowds in Preston Sturges’ movies.

At one point, young Mahler is befriended by a mysterious forester, who tries to allay his fear of water, and chides him for not recognising by name the forest plants and bird songs. Shortly after, in a cryptic, unsettling eruption, the boy retreats into the primitive domestic toilet, pursued by the family, including aunts and uncles, who pound the bolted door furiously. An intimation of homosexual guilt fantasy? A forecast of Mahler’s opportunistic conversion, in his thirties (a last ditch opportunism, to be sure; akin to that of Heinrich Heine and many another gifted Jew)? In contrast to the fetid realism of the ghetto scenes, the interview of Mahler and Alma with the white-uniformed Emperor Franz Josef – a drawling, effetely courteous fugitive from the imagination of Ernst Lubitsch – includes a proposal by His Highness of corrective surgery – offered, then, with feline suavity, withdrawn – that prefigures a real-life expediency, in the excellent German/French Europa Europa (1991). The scene ends with an abrupt non-grace note, vintage Benny Hill: Franz Josef, preparing for a remedial bath, tumbles into his fountain.

But such Happy Hooligan strokes are all but non-existent in Mahler. They are superseded by the journalistic roamings of Russell’s vision, resulting in glimpses like tapestry details in their intense assertiveness. Mahler’s expedient conversion is marked by an entourage of gaudy Jesus replicas; a previously unnoted Mahler chides Gustav’s egoism, while he frolics with a wig of blonde curls. Still, Russell’s narrative rhythm is not disjointed by these vignette-like side-glances. The always somewhat harried, over-heightened images of recollection, with the implicitly sensed distortion of guilt, and the commemorative compulsion induced by death terror: they provide an eloquent, if zigzagging, counterpoint to the dense, darkly fragrant Romanticism proposed by the photography’s colours, and Mahler’s music itself.

Moreover, the mindset, the romantically fevered temperament of Mahler, hounded by repeatedly colliding drives of self-realisation and reverence for the Universe, is unfailingly honoured by Kenneth Russell; never more so than in a moment something like midway through the film; when Mahler is gently lecturing his two small, white-frocked daughters on traditional concepts of the Afterlife. Using some vigorous, Doré-like illustrations of Heaven and Hell, he declares that neither of these exist. The, asks the one little girl, ‘there is nothing?’ ‘Oh yes!’ her father reassures her. As he speaks, the splendid angelic hierarchy of the illustrations first multiplies, then revolves, ever more rapidly, at last swirling in indistinguishable veins of purple. These, we behold as markings in a sphere of milky light; a lens – of Viennese crystal?



  My particular thanks to the recreation staff of Cabrini Nursing and Rehab Center, especially to George Bonnell and Haruka Toyofisu, for their unstinting and cheerful assistance in the production of this work; and to artist Rex Clawson, who supplied the videotape of Song of Summer.  

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© Donald Phelps and Rouge 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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