'Looper'

May. 2nd, 2013 07:56 pm
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'In the year 2047 time travel has yet to be invented. Thirty years later, however, it has. Though immediately outlawed, time-travel technology is quickly appropriated by the mob, and used to cleanly dispose of anyone deemed a threat. The process is simple: When the mob wants someone to disappear, they simply send them back to the year 2047, where an assassin known as a "looper" quickly carries out the hit, and disposes of the body. Joe Simmons (Gordon-Levitt) is one of the most respected loopers around. Each kill earns him a big payday, and he's got big plans to retire to France. Then, one day, as Joe patiently awaits the appearance of his next target near the edge of a remote corn field, he's shocked to come face-to-face with his future self (Bruce Willis). When the younger Joe hesitates, the older Joe makes a daring escape. Now, in order to avoid the wrath of his underworld boss (Jeff Daniels), young Joe must "close the loop" and kill his older counterpart. Meanwhile, the revelation that a powerful crime boss in the future has set the underworld ablaze pits the two Joes on a violent collision course, with the fate of a devoted mother (Emily Blunt) and her young son hanging in the balance.' (source)


Ah time travel — the SF device that leaves as many holes in the internal logic of stories as a weevil in a ship's biscuit. Very few time travel stories even vaguely attempt a consistent approach to time travel, I assume because letting the consequences of time travel run its logical course means throwing all your plotted intentions off a bridge. There's a difference between being willing to kill your darlings and being willing to pull down the story you cared about because a fictional element won't stand up to scientific scrutiny.The second one involves a lot more drinking at midnight I imagine.

So, unsurprisingly 'Looper', the newest filmic addition to time travel canon, does not escape the weevil; like most time travel stories 'Looper' presents a logically inconsistent vision of how time travel might affect the continuity of a life. What are paradoxes? We don't need to deal with no stinking paradoxes! Never mind 'Looper', I still like you.

I am interested in the logical construction of time travel stories and I believe that time travel stories with internally consistent logic are possible1. However, bendy time travel logic is present in some of my favourite stories ('A Wish After Midnight'; 'Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures'; many, many episodes of 'Dr Who' and 'Torchwood'). I am always in for time travel stories, no matter how frustrating their wiggly time designs may be and I get my kicks from looking at time travel narratives as stories rather than examining just how and why their time lines don't make sense in places. So, I'm not going to spend a heap of time on where time travel logic breaks down in 'Looper'. If you're interested in that side of things, 'Everything Wrong With Looper in Three Minutes' breaks down some of the places where the film conveniently fudges the way time travel would impact the story if we assume a linear link between young Joe Simmon's present actions and old Joe Simmon's life. There's definitely a different kind of pleasure to be taken from that kind of analysis but I'm happy to let someone else do the tracking when it comes to breaking down the repercussions of time lines.

Despite all the holes we might pick in its theory of time travel, the main SF premise of 'Looper' and the way it approaches time travel is imaginative. We enter into the world of a society which knows that thirty years in the future time travel will/has been invented and then banned. And the film focuses on a society that is passively affected by time travel, rather than a futuristic society that can actively move through time. I can't think of another piece of time travel media where the main protagonist never gets to travel through time. Not only that, but in this world time travel is controlled by an organisation of criminal overlords who use it to dispose of bodies and one of those future crime bosses, Abe, has travelled back to run a major city in the present. Most time travel narratives stress the importance of not interfering in the past. That is some cool and original invention even if some of these concepts are not backed up by developed reason.

I find the film's secondary SF elements like hoverbikes and the development of eye drop drugs less interesting in general. Hover vehicles have been around in film for a while now and we've even seen real hovercraft built, so this idea looks a little dated. Drugs in drop form are an SF novelty but not an exciting one (especially when people shoot vodka through their eyeballs in our own society) and artistically the drugged up scenes are fairly standard. The idea that roughly one in three people have the extremely useless telekinetic power of being able to float coins adds a hint of the knowing absurd to this SF society. Unfortunately, this lacks integration into a wider SF world and is left as an isolated, dangling detail, which just shows up the relative barness of the SF side of 'Looper', until telekenisis proves to be of greater plot importance. However, the SF premise where men willingly sign up as assassins despite knowing they will one day be asked to kill their future selves is an exceptionally intriguing concept. Wow. *chin on hands*. Tell me more film — show me the terrible, heart rending angst that is sure to follow.

'Looper' smuggles some intriguing ideas about human society in underneath its SF invention. Primarily, this film looks to me like an old, recognisable story about a younger generation's desire (even need to) destroy and distance themselves from the older generation in order to live their own lives. The need for the younger generation to engage in this inter-generational conflict, and make a break from the older generation, is one of the underpinning story lines of classic SF like 'Star Wars', fantasy like 'The Brave' and contemporary comedy like 'Freaky Friday'. As the young adult community points out regularly, many young characters come without parents because this allows them to take control of their own stories. So, the need for younger generations to forge their own lives is a well established fictional theme. 'Looper' changes the presentation of this theme slightly by making both the new order and the old order different incarnations of the same person, which is again some interesting invention, but at heart it offers the same lesson — the old ways must fall so the new can develop.

The need for the young to make a life separate from the older generation is everywhere in 'Looper'. Most basically, young Joe2 always knows he will have to kill his future self in order to survive — paradoxical as that might sound. If he doesn't then Abe, his boss, would use him as a tool to hunt down and kill old Joe; amputating young Joe's limbs until old Joe showed up to be executed. Young Joe will then lose the thirty years of freedom and pleasure that he anticipates will follow after performing his final job for Abe by 'closing his loop'/killing his future self.

Once everything goes wrong and young Joe actually meets his future self, you might think it would be hard for young Joe to kill old Joe but not so. Old Joe may theoretically be young Joe grown up but to young Joe he seems in practise just a person grown from a distanced, unimaginable incarnation of young Joe — to him old Joe feels like he comes from another, separate young Joe who has already existed, even though really time travel means he is still this young Joe. Young Joe appears to feel almost no empathetic connection with this man. In a scene where they sit across from each other in a dinner, for example, young Joe clinically suggests that if he marries someone else old Joe's wife will never be accidentally shot3. To him, his future, aged self is a stranger and perhaps worse still an older stranger trying to dictate his life; trying to tell him that his life is already set out. I have to say I never felt fully connected to Bruce Willis' version of Joe. This is probably because I spent so little time with him as most of the film is focused on following young Joe and I don't think that lack of connection is a filmic misstep. Instead it is set up deliberately to allow audiences to identify more with young Joe than with old Joe and to encourage them to embrace the idea that youth must be society's primary concern.

Other instances of the inter-generational struggle occur regularly. The audience sees Joe's friend Seth allow his future incarnation, old Seth, to escape instead of killing him; failing to distance himself sufficiently from his older self. As a consequence, young Seth is slowly dismembered by Abe's fixer, the Doc, to encourage old Seth to return even though he will be killed. When questioned by Abe about Seth's whereabouts, young Joe ends up revealing where he plans to go when he closes his loop. Joe is heading to France but Abe says something to the effect of 'I'm from the future, go to China'. This comment leads to a vehement and pointless argument where Joe shows that he doesn't appreciate the old order (Abe who may be from the future but is older than Joe and loosely an establishment figure) trying to tell him what to do with his present life. And in old Joe's central plotline he kills children, in his attempt to keep a dictator from the future called the Rainmaker from growing up and causing the death of his wife, symbolising the old order's destruction of youth's prospects.

In the final twist of the film, young Joe realises that old Joe's interference is what will warp a telekinetic child called Cid and turn him into the Rainmaker thereby forcing an unending cycle of time travelling destruction. Young Joe has to sacrifice himself to keep old Joe from shaping this young child into a murderous dictator. Despite the fact that the death of young Joe is the death of a younger generation, his action still arguably upholds the loud and bloody message that the old order must be challenged to make way for the young to live. Cid, a member of the even younger generation, is free to grow and turn out differently, and 'Looper' ends with a kind of bloody, rousing visual chorus of 'I Believe the Children are the Future'.

Like I said the idea that the old order restricts the younger generation and must be defeated, or at least shown the error of its ways, in order for the world to grow anew has been around for a long time. It's a useful story telling theme which critiques establishment values. However, I am less than cheerful about seeing it pop up uncritiqued in a film which personifies the old order in the form of older, individual characters and doesn't explicitly link these characters to established organisations or systems. I understand the need for new generations to break away from the old in order to try and build lives they feel are uninfluenced by the values that went before them. And I'm sure someone like litlove could explain the psychological necessity of the struggle between child and parent figures in these stories. However, a film that explicitly says 'the old must die' and 'the young feel no kinship with older generations' (and implicitly with the future — wow there are some scary repercussions there) sits uneasily with me, because of the filmic culture it filters into.

Visual media and the visual media industry worships youth. In Britain, we're beginning to see some beloved stars, like Maggie Smith and Peter O'Toole, given starring roles in films which focus on lives further down the road. In American cinema, films like 'Red' indicate that, provided they can prove an audience will show up, older stars can now have long careers and expect to play in films that acknowledge their age. Generally though, youth is in and society follows where media leads, largely valuing youth over all. If the film focused more heavily on the need for new systems to be removed from the control of primarily older officials, or on swiping away the paternal, authoritative control that comes from the future to impose itself on the youth of the present, I would feel less like it was sort of justifying the ageism of its own industry. That would personally make me happier about the way this theme is used although I do think the general theme and the way 'Looper' uses its time travel plot to develop that theme is interesting nonetheless. And perhaps using Bruce Willis to play the character who embodies the old order is significant as Willis is an older actor whose career looks set to thrive, and whose recent films often include tongue in cheek references to the fact that he is an ageing action man.

As 'Looper' progresses, we also see young Joe and the film negotiate just how much any person can change their life. I feel like the idea of predestination is one of the themes that SFF returns to frequently. How much control we have over our lives, and whether we can change ,or are on a predestined path, are some of the biggest questions out there and it's no bad thing if SFF spends much of its time examining such a central human question. Recently, I've felt like there's been a great interest in going back to the classically popular tradition of presenting the future as fixed especially as that idea fits in nicely with the nihilistic trend that is gaining ground in the genre. Presenting the future as predestined also allows for lots of angst in the name of art and can easily deliver that gut punch audiences seem to respond to with so much anguished love. By setting up a character for the author to empathise with, only to trap them in doomed circumstances that inevitably destroy them, media which believes in set fates and includes tragic heroes hit audiences right in the feels.

I have definitely done my own share of weeping with great satisfaction over endings which can't be changed. 'Romeo and Juliet' fan right here. Still, as someone who doesn't believe in biological determinism, nature over nurture, or sometimes even the magical 'one' I often have a hard time with the metaphorical overtones of stories about how future and fate are fixed. I know that lots of these story lines are really about determination by circumstances; particular events are set in motion by chance and result in particular unstoppable consequences. These story lines could just as easily be a metaphor for the very real phenomena of social determinism where your social profile (race, gender, economic background etc) can affect your life in ways that are often impossible to escape. The beauty and the curse of lit crit though is that there is always more than one possible interpretation. So, while watching stories about people stuck to their destiny like glue I'm often left with the feeling that I just got served another slice of the 'there's no way out' logic where something written into our DNA naturally determines our whole damn lives. Oh SFF why do you hurt me so?

Imagine my absolutely delighted bemusement upon finding that 'Looper', the film with an SFF set up that could easily suggest the reality of determinism and sealed fates, rejects the idea that nature defines us all, or that change is impossible. Instead 'Looper' supports the idea that nurture and societal circumstances, not biology, are the most important forces in shaping us. While young Joe begins by believing that Cid is destined to grow up into the evil Rainmaker he sees, by the end of the film, that it is the lack of nurture that Cid will receive if Sara, his mother, dies that will truly shape him into a murderous monster. Old Joe is incapable of seeing how his actions will affect Cid; incapable of believing that the power of circumstances, rather than nature, could determining a person's fate. And in the end it is this blinkered nature that leaves young Joe no other option than to destroy him. After both of them are dead, there is an affecting montage of shots showing Sara caring for Cid. The inclusion of this sequence heavily suggests to me that the film's ending supports Sara and young Joe's idea that Cid can grow up to be responsible with his powers if she's around to raise him. Bam — nurture over nature saving the future.

And that's not all — 'Looper' also shows a belief in people's desire to change their lives, even if it mostly believes (as Abigail Nussbaum points out in her review) that this change can't come about without outside help. Joe's life before he meets his future self is a live for today kind of enterprise. He drinks, he drops, he kills, he fucks, and he never seems to slow down to consider if it will be worth living this way for the thirty years he'll get after closing his loop. At the same time, as the film develops, we see that Joe has plans. He unlawfully stockpiles silver and when caught out admits he has decided to go to France after closing his loop. We see scenes of him practising his French to make his life easier when he gets there. In a half conscious, drugged up state he offers Suzie, a prostitute he is a little in love with, a chance to leave her job and take care of her kid presumably in an attempt to make a life with her after he closes his loop. He mentions changing his life for the good of another (old Joe's wife). And soon he is so into Sara that you can well imagine him shaping his whole life around her, if only he'd survived. Importantly, the fact that he never manages to bring any of these changes off does not preclude his intention to change, or his willingness to really try to make that change happen.

At the end of the film, comes the one instance where it could be argued that young Joe does manage to make that change; by killing himself to save another he changes the whole future. I can see that it's debateable whether a character killing themselves counts as changing their life, when it ends that life — it seems to be more about changing the consequences of that life, maybe managing the ripple effect of their actions? However, his choice to shoot himself indicates that he is trying to care more about others than himself, which is a huge personal change. I'm going to count this as change achieved even if that changes comes at a grim price.

Despite all this fascinating substance I can't say that 'Looper' made me 'care about its whole', an idea that Abigail Nussbaum mentions in her review. At the end of the film when young Joe kills himself he completes an SFF logic cycle; in the process destroying old Joe in order to break another cycle (the destructive development of the telekinetic prodigy Cid, which would be brought on by old Joe's murder of his mother). This action creates a neat SFF solution — the kind of supposedly satisfying ending that can be found throughout SFF film work as directors desperately try to distract attention from the inherent messy logic of their major SFF concept with a “tidy”, cyclical, tail eating finale4. An ending like that practically represents 'wholeness' on screen. I imagine that if I'd really cared about 'Looper' as a complete package, I'd have been somehow emotionally affected by how the film carried me on a journey only to shock drop me right back at the beginning of that journey at its conclusion. And I really wasn't moved by the end of 'Looper'. There was no jolt when Joe dropped to the ground, I was mostly just glad Sara was making it out of this film alive. Run Emily Blunt — be free!

However, sometimes all a work needs to take a hold on your heart is a collection of good strong pieces rather than a totally engaging whole. When I say 'Looper' has its moments, I mean it has some excellent artistic and emotional parts that it is worth taking the long trip of the whole film to see.

For me some of the most affecting moments come when Kid Blue is on screen. Kid Blue is the screw up, tag along character of Abe's crew who is best known for shooting himself in the foot with his own gun. Much like Davy Prentiss in Patrick Ness' 'The Ask and the Answer', Kid Blue is desperate for approval and luxuriates in the certainty of the power his gun gives him. Unfortunately his very desperation, and his reliance on tools to give himself power, make his masculine insecurity is patently obvious to the men who should be his comrades in such a traditionally masculine society and they scorn him. His insecure handle on what the men around him take for granted (inbred power derived from their status as straight, able bodied men who can use violence against others without flinching) lead him to look ridiculous in a male dominated criminal organisation. And his knowledge that he is somehow not the same as the men around him in turn makes him more unstable and dangerous as he tries to prove his worth or deflect their ridicule.

Now, I have my problems with the tendency of fiction to focus on a host of insecure male characters who are desperately grasping for masculine power. To wrap up my feelings generally: the insecurity of white, straight, able bodied men who are nonetheless outside traditional masculine culture is a really interesting theme with great relevance for our society but a lot of the stories which focus on this social phenomenon are awful. They're either too mean and full of navel gazing self-flagellation to really advance any discussion about men who don't fit the most traditional masculine shape, or too slyly sympathetic towards men who make wildly inappropriate passes at the women around them in order to prove their masculinity. However, I'm also a huge sucker for these kinds of underdog male characters when their relationship with other men, not with their failing sexual advances towards women, is the centre of their insecurity. Boys with daddy issues — bring them to me.

Kid Blue's issues all come out of the way the men around him, especially Abe, react to him and his desire to be successful in their eyes. And this makes him fascinating to me what with my fixation on searching out fiction which drags out and illuminates parts of masculine culture. Add to his set up as the loser kid, the way Noah Segan plays Kid Blue — he brings a deep in the bones edgy, responsive physicality to the character that projects an unrestrained emotional side which can be difficult to watch at times because it is so open and undisguised. At one point, he is wide eyed, braggy and intense while he ludicrously twirls his gun around in an attempt to intimidate and best young Joe. Later he is a tear stained wreck as he faces Abe. And this open style of acting allows the viewer to connect significantly with a character who is individually not that important for driving the plot, or developing the main character's stories.

'Looper' also sets up some distressing scenes which do much artistically with simple details. Take the cornfield scene where the audience first sees young Joe shoot someone. The setting is basic — a background of corn and sky, a white tarp area set up to receive the victim, a car, a waiting man who looks at his pocket watch. We hear the ticking and not much else in the quiet of the field. Then he snaps the watch closed. The action that follows is simple — a person appears, hooded and kneeling, they take one shot in the chest and fall. The stark nature of the setting, the set up and the kill all contribute to provide an effective, understated picture of a violent deed undertaken with great efficiency and practicality. It avoids glamorising violence by piling on sex-death erotic aesthetic associations, or turning violence into fist pump entertainment, instead managing to create an aesthetically beautiful sequence that allows the audience to really understand the blank horror of this moment, the detachment Joe feels about it and the horror the audience should feel at his detachment.

There are a number of other moments that I feel give the viewer access to the human heart of this film. The contrast in the scene where Joe drives his expensive car through the poor, dystopic looking streets of his world. His time spent drugged up with Suzy. The doors closing on Seth in a hospital bed, while the viewer is left to imagine the horrific surgery he has just undergone. The interplay between young Joe and Abe when Abe makes him admit where Seth is hiding. Cid coming down from his house shaking tantrum, crawling tear stained and delicate into his mother's embrace. Cid in the cornfield covered in blood looking up sadly after accidentally killing a man with his powers. That flash forward scene to Cid on a train where his face shows so much hurt. Even shots of the incongruous frog communicators bring the humanity of 'Looper' to the forefront. Every time the film showed some soul I was hooked.

I should stress though that I don't think these moments add up to a whole composed of small moments, like a mosaic, but really come as relief in between scenes which are less about character and more about plot. Plot is important and I don't want to accidentally write it off but the presentation of these plot swathes in 'Looper' is less interesting than the substance of the plot being shown (travelling back in time to fix your future and killing your future to save your present). Old Joe's back story for example, is flashed through in an explanatory flicker book that would have fit in any Matrix inspired action SF piece and his whole story line is less than affecting. There are a lot of what feel like filler shots focusing on young Joe's drug habit, which in my opinion are dull and unnecessary, especially considering how quickly he recovers from withdrawal when separated from his drops. Just my opinion but I think media should make their character's habit important or leave it out rather than playing around with drug culture just because it lets them add what they think are creepy-beautiful, drugged up sequences. And it does feel like some visual parts of the film only exist so that the explanatory voice over has images to accompany it. These parts of 'Looper' are executed messily despite its strong artistic eye in other places.

Ultimately 'Looper' offers the audience access to both feeling and a great wave of detachment. I'm okay with detachment in media and, at times, I thought that detachment was making a point about young Joe's journey from cold assassin who never looks forward to a person who cares, defends and assesses the consequences of his actions. Or maybe the detachment shows the film trying to act in sympathy with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's face, which is buried beneath all of those prosthetics that make him look perhaps more stolid and unemotional than usual. At other times the level of detachment that the film offered, or pushed on the audience, seemed to serve no interesting purpose, not even presentationally reinforcing the hard bitten, at times nihilistic, core of the film. Perhaps the detachment I experienced was nothing more than the film setting me up to care just a bit about young Joe, but not so much that when he dies I'd find his death more affecting that Cid's chance at a new life. Maybe the feeling of detachment is a deliberately injected attempt to keep me connected with the film's overarching idea that the youngest generation is the most important. I'm not sure and it's more interesting to hold multiple theories than to solve a puzzle sometimes, but I am wary of any media that I think may have included a particular element just to serve its manipulative purposes. All media wants to push you in certain directions, but it should make sure that manipulation somehow serves a secondary artistic purpose as well, I feel.

Just a note before I finish on something you've probably guessed from my descriptions of the masculine culture in this film — 'Looper' is a film focused on dudes. There are four women in this film, only three are named and another combination of three are incredibly minor characters. Suzie, a prostitute, features in three short scenes. Beatrix, a French speaking waitress, has no more than ten lines. She mostly seems to exists so that 'Looper' can show young Joe speaking French, although her name does providing him with the chance to introduce a clever twist into the film when he contacts old Joe. Old Joe's wife (who according to IMDd is unnamed — seriously can we start making up names for all the characters, it would take two minutes) never speaks and gets fridged which provides the catalyst for old Joe to travel back in time and power the plot of the film. Beatrix and old Joe's wife are played by chromatic actresses (Tracie Thoms and Summer Quing respectively), which is good in terms of jobs for chromatic actresses, but their roles are small and there is already far too much media where chromatic actresses die. Add to these problems the fact that there seem to be no female loopers because of... reasons... and hey look we're in familiar Hollywood territory watching the unthinking erasure of women from major films.

Sara could be such an interesting character if only the film were more interested in depicting her realistically or in offering us more from her perspective. She is mother to a telekinetic child prone to tantrums. She struggles with guilt that her time as an absent parent may have hardened her son. And she has a higher level of power than any other telekinetic person in the world apart from Cid. I am definitely a fan of Sara, and PLEASE SEND ME FAN-FIC PEOPLE, but I suppose the film has to direct its focus at young Joe so we miss out any further development of Sara's story. I also don't think the film's decision to make her attracted to young Joe helps her any. There's this weird moment when all of a sudden she just gets super hot for him out of the blue, in the middle of all her fear about old Joe. This could make sense, could even be realistic but just looks really suspiciously like a male gaze fantasy in the context of this film that is all about the dudes. And the ending turns her into a mother figure for young Joe, as after he dies she strokes his hair just like his mother used to... Okay. I don't think female characters should become mother figures for their lovers. Just, do not try to change my mind about that — it is fixed. I think we have enough problems surrounding the way writers turn female characters into sexual beings without adding this in.

Moving on from my building rage! Hey, at least Sara and two women make it out alive (but that's probably not enough to justify throwing Rian Johnson a party).

For me, 'Looper' is a strong if uneven example of how SFF that also takes on classic, big concept themes can still be full of SFF invention and refreshingly artistic. There were parts I didn't connect with, and unhappy Hollwood standards that I'd have liked to see it reject, but there were also images, feelings and ideas in this project that I fell right into. I guess this review stands as another example of me having all the feels over a contender for a Hugo long from dramatic presentation award. At least I know I can write 'The Hobbit'5 at the bottom of any voting slip. Ah certainty, I love it so.


Notes

1For me 'To Say Nothing of the Dog' comes pretty close to creating a unifying, sensible, satisfying theory of how time travel might affect time lines)

2 Going forward I'm going to use 'young Joe' to mean the version of Joe Simmons played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and 'old Joe' to mean the version of Joe Simmons played by Bruce Willis. Abigail Nussbaum uses this system in her review and I thank her for giving me an easy way to sort all the Joes out.

3 This is the reason old Joe is trying to change the past.

4 Give me the 'Inception' ending any day.

5 I don't think I've ever enjoyed the fandom for a piece of media so much more than the actual piece of media.


Other Reviews

Asking the Wrong Questions

Yours?

Date: 2013-05-02 11:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jennysbooks.wordpress.com
It's interesting how differently you responded to the end of the movie than I did! I enjoyed a lot of the movie, but I felt like the end was a cheat. It felt like the ending to a completely different movie than the one we'd been watching. The real end of that movie is, he kills the kid. It's awful, but it's the natural ending to the movie they've set up. I felt totally cheated that the solution to this dark movie that had so much about Man's Inhumanity to Man was, Motherlove saves the day! Grrrr.

Date: 2013-05-03 05:17 am (UTC)
myfriendamy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] myfriendamy
I saw this so long ago...and like my basic feelings about it was that it entertained me, I was never bored so yay! (shockingly hard to do)

but I felt like I forgot it really quickly. Which made me think it wasn't a movie that did anything really for me or that lacked real substance.

But seeing as you enjoy time travel and daddy issues (lucky you tbh there are so many boys with daddy issues!) I realized I don't know if you watched Lost???

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