Writing in the journal Grantland, Harris sees a future of nothing but utterly predictable franchise films, made by cost accountants and others with no real investment in film as an art form, which it most certainly is. As he writes, in part, “I believe that what studios see when they look at the bumper-to-bumper barricade of a 2015–20 lineup they’ve built is a sense of security — a feeling that they have gotten their ducks in a row. But these lists, with their tremulous certainty that there is safety in numbers, especially when numbers come at the end of a title, represent something else as well: rigidity and fear. If you asked a bunch of executives without a creative bone in their bodies to craft a movie lineup for which the primary goal is to prevent failure, this is exactly what the defensive result would look like. It’s a bulwark that has been constructed using only those tools with which they feel comfortable — spreadsheets, P&L statements, demographic studies, risk-avoidance principles, and a calendar. There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing.”
Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category
Published by Amsterdam University Press, Frey’s book posits that “film criticism is in crisis. Dwelling on the many film journalists made redundant at newspapers, magazines, and other ‘old media’ in past years, commentators have voiced existential questions about the purpose and worth of the profession in the age of WordPress blogospheres and proclaimed the ‘death of the critic.’ Bemoaning the current anarchy of internet amateurs and the lack of authoritative critics, many journalists and academics claim that in the digital age, cultural commentary has become dumbed down and fragmented into niche markets. Mattias Frey, arguing against these claims, examines the history of film critical discourse in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He demonstrates that since its origins, film criticism has always found itself in crisis: the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns.”
It’s refreshing to see someone taking a level-headed, non-apocalyptic look at this issue; as Frey argues, “film criticism has always found itself in crisis,” from the earliest iterations of the cinema, and the rise of poplar “fan magazines” as opposed to the serious study of the cinema.The gap between pop culture “reviews” of the latest blockbuster – actually just opinion pieces with little real critical analysis, usually posted in daily newspapers or on the web, and considered by most readers not familiar with the study of film to be serious reviews, and work that actually takes the film apart, places it within a critical and historical context, measures it against similar films from the past, and operates from a detailed understanding of the medium as a whole – has been an ongoing issue in film criticism from the 1900s onward.
Frey’s book offers an excellent overview of the history of this contest between superficial, throwaway writing and actual critical analysis, and as he puts it, demonstrates that “the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns” in film history, theory and criticism. This is fascinating and important reading, demonstrating that the problem here isn’t so much the web – it’s the fact that many of the people writing on the web on film, as well as numerous other topics, substitute their own personal likes and dislikes for any real, informed analysis. In film as in all the arts, the audience is really an afterthought; it’s what the creators of any given work of art want to express that is paramount.
As I note, “The One I Love (2014) is yet another film that’s been completely overlooked in the headlong rush to the multiplex, yet it’s a stunning directorial debut by Charlie McDowell, from a script by Jonathan Lader, and produced by the Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay (Charlie McDowell, incidentally, is actor Malcolm McDowell’s son with Mary Steenburgen). Mark Duplass does double duty – an apt turn of phrase, as you will see – starring in the film, in addition to his co-producer role, as harried husband Ethan, who is first seen in a therapy session, both angry and repentant after having cheated on his wife Sophie (Elizabeth Moss, best known for her work on the TV series Mad Men). More on that later.
Yet, for all the force and power that The One I Love possesses, it might as well not have been made at all, so quickly did it disappear. As Wikipedia notes, after a well received screening at the Sundance Film festival on January 21, 2014, ‘The One I Love opened in a limited release [on August 22, 2014] in the United States in 8 theaters and grossed $48,059 with an average of $6,007 per theater and ranking #42 at the box office. The film’s widest release was 82 theaters and it ended up earning $513,447 domestically and $69,817 internationally for a total of $583,264.’ And then it was gone.
That’s a shame, because The One I Love is both original and unsettling, even as it incorporates themes, either by design or simply through coincidence, from John Cromwell’s The Enchanted Cottage (1945), tinged with the much darker vision of Maury Dexter’s The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963), with touches of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) thrown in for added resonance.
The One I Love starts off in a seemingly predictable manner, as if the film will be another earnest study of a marriage in collapse, in the manner of Mike Nichols’ film of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, which is actually referenced in the film’s dialogue), but soon any clinical realism is abandoned for a far more sinister and elliptical scenario – a kind of dark ‘magical realism’ – in which the audience is never sure about the characters’ motives, or even their putative identities.
Not surprisingly, Ethan and Sophie are experiencing a moment of crisis in their relationship as a result of Ethan’s infidelity, and their smooth and all-too-affable therapist (effortlessly played by Ted Danson) suggests that they spend a weekend at a therapeutic retreat to ‘reconnect.’ At first, when the couple arrives at the lavishly appointed estate, which is to be their home for the next few days, all seems well. It’s a rather odd place, overflowing with flowers and lavishly decorated throughout, with a guest book in the front hallway attesting to the salutary effect it has had on the previous couples who have stayed there.”
As Wikipedia notes, “Kent studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Art [in Australia]—where she learned acting alongside Babadook’s lead actor, Essie Davis—and graduated in 1991. She then worked primarily as an actor in the film industry for over two decades. Kent eventually lost her passion for acting by the end of the 20th century and sent a written proposal to Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, asking if she could assist on the film set of von Trier’s 2003 drama film, Dogville, to learn from the director. Kent’s proposal was accepted and she considers the experience her film school, citing the importance of stubbornness as the key lesson she learned.
Prior to Babadook, Kent’s first-ever feature film, she had completed a short film, titled Monster, and an episode of the television series Two Twisted. Kent explained in May 2014 that the origins of Babadook can be found in Monster, which she calls ‘baby Babadook.’ . . . Kent has stated that she sought to tell a story about facing up to the darkness with ourselves, the ‘fear of going mad’ and an exploration of parenting from a ‘real perspective’ . . . In terms of the characters, Kent said that it was important that both characters are loving and lovable, so that “we [the audience] really feel for them” . . .
Kent drew from her experience on the set of Dogville for the assembling of her production team, as she observed that von Triers was surrounded by a well-known ‘family of people.’ Therefore, Kent sought her own ‘family of collaborators to work with for the long term.’ Unable to find all of the suitable people within the Australian film industry, Kent hired Polish director of photography Radek Ladczuk, for whom Babadook was his first-ever English-language film, and American illustrator Alexander Juhasz. In terms of film influences, Kent cited 1970s and ’80s horror—including [John Carpenter's version of] The Thing, Halloween, Les Yeux Sans Visage, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Shining and Let The Right One In—as well as Vampyr and Nosferatu.”
Partially crowd funded on Kickstarter, and completed for roughly $1.5 million US dollars, The Babadook has received numerous awards on the festival circuit, including a screening at the Sundance Film festival, and when it opened theatrically in the United States on November 28, 2014, the critical response was equally adulatory. But since it isn’t a mainstream release, and as yet is available only on Australian DVD – an all region version, however, so I bought it immediately – you can only see it on demand, if you’re lucky enough to have it on your cable system, or in a theater if you live in New York City or another major metropolis.
This, of course, is the real tragedy here – this is an intelligent, absolutely riveting and completely original film that will keep you guessing right up to the last frame, and at the same time scare you to death, as a horror film should, but without the requisite gore and misogyny that seems to mar the horror genre of late – and it deserves the widest possible audience. There are echoes of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw here, at least for me, and traces of De Maupasssant’s The Horla, and the overall feel of the film is akin to Jack Clayton’s 1961 masterpiece The Innocents, but The Babadook is really a completely unique vision, immaculately photographed in CinemaScope and suitably subdued color.
As Anthony Lane wrote in his ecstatic review of the film in The New Yorker, “let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors. It would curb so many antiquated tropes: the use of young women, say, underdressed or not dressed at all, who are barely fleshed out as characters before that flesh is coveted, wounded, or worse. Beyond that, the law would restore horror to its rightful place as a chamber of secrets, ripe for emotional inquisition. Such thoughts are prompted by The Babadook, a fine new Australian film, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. This is about a woman in peril, yet it has no truck with the notion that she is a mere victim. At times, indeed, the peril seems to be, if not her fault, at least of her own making. Is she the sum of all fears, or the root of them?
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow, living in a small and ill-lit house with Samuel (Noah Wiseman), her only child. He is unmanageable, but, then, his origins were dire; his father was killed in a car crash, nearly seven years ago, as he drove Amelia, who was in labor with Samuel, to the hospital. Now it’s just the two of them, although they are soon joined by an unexpected third. The Babadook is towering and dark; he looms taller as you look at him, like an unhappy memory that swells in the traumatized mind. He wears a top hat, like the Artful Dodger, and his hands could be a child’s drawing of hands—a splay of simple spikes. He cleaves to what we ask of our monsters, that they be both amorphous and acute: oozily hard to pin down, but manifestly there, like a knife against the throat. His name has a nice Australian tang; Aboriginal legend tells of a frog called the Tiddalik, with an insatiable thirst.”
Talk about playing to diminishing returns – this film reunites a bunch of the cast members from the original 1977 film, which was quite a fun piece of entertainment, even if deeply indebted – by design – to the Saturday morning movie serials of the 1930s and 40s, but hasn’t this whole franchise been done to death? At least one of the original participants – now deceased – wasn’t happy with the film from the start, though he shrewdly realized it would be a huge hit, and negotiated a percentage of the profits as part of his salary, which paid off handsomely.
As Keir Mudie reported in The Sun on May 3, 2014, the gifted actor Sir Alec Guinness, forever after typecast as Obi-Wan Kenobi, called the first film “fairytale rubbish” with “lamentable dialogue” and complained during the shooting that ” [I] can’t say I’m enjoying the film… rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable” though he noted after Star Wars was completed that “it’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience.“
But must we keep beating it to death with one useless sequel after another? Aren’t there better things to do with our lives? Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens won’t come out until December 2015, and people are already talking about the film as if it’s a must-see event. Personally, I can’t think of any less imaginative or duller way to spend an afternoon – and even though the original film earned Guinness “more than £56million in royalties, a best supporting actor Oscar nomination and global stardom,” I have to agree with him – it is sheer rubbish. The follow up sequels are even more tedious, while the first film, at least, had some energy. But now that Disney owns the rights to the franchise, and plans to to put out a new film every year for the foreseeable future, I’m sure that, just like the endless chain of James Bond films, there will be a Star Wars film playing in cinemas from now until the end of time.
Indeed, Guinness disliked the film so much – which pretty much erased all of his previous work in a single stroke in the public consciousness – that he threw out all of the fan mail that came to him associated with Star Wars, and when confronted by a young boy who told him enthusiastically that he had seen the film 100 times, tartly responded “well, do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?” If only it were possible, but unfortunately, the franchise grinds on – with the only possible upside being that it supplies work for an army of technicians and extras, and will certainly draw crowds to theaters. But when I think of all the excellent films that will be completely ignored in the stampede to see this latest iteration, well, it makes me more than a bit sad.
Well, having just discussed the restoration of The Devil Rides Out, up pops another Fisher rarity. In my book length study of Terence Fisher, The Charm of Evil, I devote considerable space to this deeply undervalued film, which was Fisher’s second directorial effort after his debut “curtain raiser,” Colonel Bogey. When I wrote that book, I had to travel to the British Film Institute to see a 35mm print of the film; now, here it is on YouTube, in a very good version, too.
It was posted there by David Cairns, who also wrote an essay on the film for Mubi, which notes in part that “1948 was one of the great years of British film, with Powell & Pressburger, David Lean and others on top form. Terence Fisher, later to make his name at Hammer (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, etc.) was only just beginning his career, but he began it well: soon he would co-direct the gripping Hitchcockian yarn So Long at the Fair (1950), but before that came 40-minute short subject To the Public Danger, a thriller revolving around drunk driving.
As four characters meet in an English roadhouse and begin the kind of inebriate evening people fresh from WWII seemed to take in their strides, recklessness and arrogance leads towards inevitable doom, with the boozing accompanied by bullying, seduction, class prejudice, cowardice, paranoia and a slew of other unattractive qualities. The result is not so much mounting tension as an oppressive, agonizing sense of suffocating anxiety and unpleasantness.
This is the world of writer Patrick Hamilton, specialist in psychological torment (Gaslight), nerve-shredding anxiety (Rope) and alcoholic madness (Hangover Square). Few other writers can abuse their protagonists, and their public, with such merciless cruelty, while displaying at the same time a pained compassion for life’s victims.
To the Public Danger is adapted from a BBC radio play by Hamilton, and abounds in sharply-drawn detail, mostly delivered as dialogue: it must have made a gripping listen, and if the film has a flaw, it’s that nearly every effect is achieved by sound and voice. Still, Fisher serves up some nice nocturnal joyriding, all via rear projection of course, but with some intense low angles from under the steering wheel.
The premise may make the film sound like a Public Information film about highway safety, and it does have a socially redeeming function, but derives its power from the vicious interplay of its quartet of dysfunctional character.
Dermot Walsh is the loathsome Captain Cole, ex-army snob, manic boozer and bully; Susan Shaw is the beautiful blonde with a heart of brass; Barry Letts her milquetoast mark who must locate his backbone amidst the drunken maelstrom; and Roy Plomley the utterly sloshed Reggie, whose main contribution is adding to the general confusion. The script very sharply delineates their varied reactions to an apparent hit-and-run accident during which Shaw was holding the wheel while Walsh, in the driving seat, was lighting a cigarette . . .
Fisher’s style tended to be straightforward, blunt, at times crude, suiting him to Hammer’s penny dreadful approach. While British cinema was supposed to favor restraint and discretion, Fisher dealt with things head-on, however unpleasant. The impressionistic flurries of montage with which he suggests car accidents here, all screaming and flash-cuts and onrushing trees, suggests the savagery that would eventually birth Christopher Lee’s mush-faced Frankenstein creature, looking, as one reviewer wrote, ‘like a road accident.’”
As the publisher’s website for this book notes, “in the early 1600s, in a haunting tale titled New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon imagined the discovery of an uncharted island. This island was home to the descendants of the lost realm of Atlantis, who had organized themselves to seek ‘the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.’ Bacon’s make-believe island was not an empire in the usual sense, marked by territorial control; instead, it was the center of a vast general expansion of human knowledge and power.
Rosalind Williams uses Bacon’s island as a jumping-off point to explore the overarching historical event of our time: the rise and triumph of human empire, the apotheosis of the modern ambition to increase knowledge and power in order to achieve world domination. Confronting an intensely humanized world was a singular event of consciousness, which Williams explores through the lives and works of three writers of the late nineteenth century: Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
As the century drew to a close, these writers were unhappy with the direction in which their world seemed to be headed and worried that organized humanity would use knowledge and power for unworthy ends. In response, Williams shows, each engaged in a lifelong quest to make a home in the midst of human empire, to transcend it, and most of all to understand it. They accomplished this first by taking to the water: in life and in art, the transition from land to water offered them release from the condition of human domination.
At the same time, each writer transformed his world by exploring the literary boundary between realism and romance. Williams shows how Verne, Morris, and Stevenson experimented with romance and fantasy and how these traditions allowed them to express their growing awareness of the need for a new relationship between humans and Earth.
The Triumph of Human Empire shows that for these writers and their readers romance was an exceptionally powerful way of grappling with the political, technical, and environmental situations of modernity. As environmental consciousness rises in our time, along with evidence that our seeming control over nature is pathological and unpredictable, Williams’s history is one that speaks very much to the present.”
This is an absolutely remarkable achievement, managing to effortlessly synthesize science and the arts – two supposedly polar pursuits in the modern era – and demonstrates that each cannot function without the other, and that all of us are interconnected by both areas, which are of equal importance in the creation and continuance of our shared cultural heritage.
I’m still digesting this marvelous work, which took the author fully 20 years to complete, with some interruptions, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t gotten more attention – but perhaps that’s because the text’s message of inclusiveness is not one that’s currently popular.
Williams argues convincingly, without being strident about it, that without the Romantic instinct we will never really fully comprehend our human condition, and at the same time, provides a thorough yet concise outline of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne – who despite his futuristic fantasies was not all that taken with the notion of what was then considered “progress” in the industrial era – and the author William Morris, whose work clearly needs wider attention.
. . . and it doesn’t deserve to be. Though star Bette Davis was critical of the project from the outset, and caused all sorts of problems during production, and even more problems when Huston had to leave to serve during World War II, and the gifted Raoul Walsh took over to finish the film, In This Our Life is a brutally corrosive look at American society in the early 1940s, about the things that power and money can buy, about race relations in the United States during the era, and affords all the stars of the film a chance to do something more than make a conventional melodrama – something Warner Bros. excelled at during the era.
But with its hints of incest, frank references to racial prejudice, the unexpected suicide of a major character, and a fatal hit and run accident added to the mix, In This Our Life showed that behind the placid exterior of the white picket fence houses of the rich there lurked a world of almost complete moral corruption, highlighted only by a few bright spots of decency that pop up with distressing infrequency.
Needless to say, the film didn’t get the critical attention it deserved when first released, and Bette Davis’s public bad-mouthing of the film also did little to help its then-contemporary reputation, but with the passing of more than seven decades, it’s clear that this film has much to say about the time in which it was made – more so than Huston’s other slick entertainments of the period, especially his first film, the crowd pleasing and utter unoffensive detective thriller The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Don’t get me wrong; The Maltese Falcon is a stunning directorial debut, but it’s really more of an escapist puzzle than anything else – an above average mystery with superb performances all around. In This Our Life is something much more – a study of a family and of society in collapse, undone not only by the dissembling of Davis’s scheming central character, but also the weakness of the film’s more thoughtful protagonists, who nevertheless fail to act until it is almost too late.
As TCM notes of the film, “Ellen Glasgow’s novel won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. According to a Los Angeles Examiner news item dated February 27, 1941, the studio paid $40,000 for rights to the novel. A February 27, 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item adds that the film was to star Olivia De Havilland and Errol Flynn. Warner Bros. was named to the Honor Roll of Race Relations of 1942 for making this film because of its dignified portrayal of an African-American, although, according to a September 8, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Warner Bros. cut scenes which treated Ernest Anderson’s character [who is framed in the film for a hit and run accident he had absolutely nothing to do with] in a ‘friendly fashion’ in order to avoid offending viewers in the South.
In 1943, when the film was examined by the Office of Censorship in Washington, D.C. prior to general export, it was disapproved because ‘only by the effort of a conscientious white man in whose law office a Negro boy is studying law is the young man saved from a charge of murder…recklessly made by a white woman….[who] claimed that the Negro and not she, was driving the car at the time of the accident and so strong is the race feeling in this Virginia community that the young Negro was practically condemned in advance. It is made abundantly clear that a Negro’s testimony in court is almost certain to be disregarded if in conflict with the testimony of a white person.’ Actor Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father, appears briefly in the film in a cameo role as a bartender.”
With its brutally frank commentary on the sad state of racial inequality in the United States, especially in the South, the film was bound to cause a good deal of trouble. It seems to me that even today, people are more than willing to sweep it under the rug, and favor Huston’s more frankly commercial efforts, such as Key Largo or even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (both 1948) – again, excellent films, but productions that are much more frankly genre efforts.
But here, as in Sam Wood’s similarly themed indictment of small town American society, King’s Row (1942) – though that film takes place in the 19th century – the foremost concern is social commentary, on both the personal and larger level. Everything about the world that In This Our Life inhabits is wrong from the start, and suggests that there was a corrosive cancer in American society that was about to burst into full view in the postwar era – something that we’re still contending with now, albeit on a much larger scale. Yet In This Our Life is almost never singled out in retrospectives of the director’s career – which is a shame. It’s a strong, honest piece of work.
As I write, “it’s Halloween once again, and as one might suspect, American cable networks are offering a cornucopia of horror films, past and present, though the Universal films of the 1930s and 40s which started the entire horror cycle in America are now missing from most playlists. Val Lewton’s superb RKO gothics got better treatment from Turner Classic Movies, which ran a whole stack of them this year, and the British films produced by Hammer and Amicus in the 1960s were also well represented on the channel, albeit run at two and three in the morning, not exactly peak viewing hours.
The Hammer films, once ‘X’-rated in Britain upon their initial release, now seem like quaint fairy tales, which is what Hammer director Terence Fisher always claimed they were – ‘fairy tales for adults.’ These are films I know well, have seen many times, and have written about on numerous occasions. I no longer watch them all the way through; instead, I dip into them, keying in on certain scenes that I admire, and then switching to another film with much the same purpose in mind.
But as I sampled one Hammer and/or Amicus film in this fashion in the past few days, something hit me more forcefully than it ever has before in this particular subset of films – the use of silence, and a lack of dialogue, is a trait that nearly all of these films share. The most effective of these films operate through the power of the image alone, in concert with the movements of the actors, and the music of Elisabeth Lutyens and James Bernard, the two most accomplished composers who worked on the Hammer and Amicus films.”
While it will be interesting, no doubt, to see what happens with The Other Side of the Wind, the true lost Welles masterpiece is the complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons, which was taken away from Welles and recut by RKO under the supervision of Robert Wise, up to the point of having 45 minutes or so of footage chopped out, and a “happy ending” substituted at the last minute. To add insult to injury, the film was ultimately released on the bottom half of a double bill with Leslie Goodwins’ distinctly downmarket film Mexican Spitfire Sees a A Ghost - essentially dumped in the marketplace.
By this time, as has been well documented, RKO had undergone a change of management, and the critical praise that the director’s first film Citizen Kane had garnered notwithstanding, the studio was no longer in a mood to give Welles the creative freedom he had enjoyed on Kane. He had simply caused the studio too much trouble, and the new management was only interested in one thing – money. To make matters even worse, RKO ordered the destruction of all the negative trims and outtakes of the complete version, so that a later reconstruction by Welles would be impossible.
To this day, historians and theorists continue to hope that a complete copy of the film will turn up somewhere, in some long forgotten vault, and since Welles was in South America working on his abortive project It’s All True during Ambersons‘ editing, there is the faint – very, very faint – possibility that a complete version of the film was sent to him there, but this is the stuff of legend.
I’m reluctant to say that the complete film is absolutely gone, simply because while Kane dazzles, Ambersons is a much darker, more complex film, about the collapse of memory and social change, in which the world that one lives in is subject to the constant whims of “progress.” But while I can hope, I have to be a realist. It seems that the complete Ambersons is truly lost to us – forever.
If Kane is is a thunderbolt of a film, Ambersons reminds me of the work of Henry James; complex, convoluted, richly layered and deeply introspective. The destruction of the complete version of the film by RKO remains one of the great crimes of cinema history – a crime which it seems it impossible to undo. In the meantime, we have the 88 minute version, which still shows what the film was gesturing at, and what it might have been. In the end, I’ll come down on the side of Ambersons over Kane as Welles’ most deeply felt film, even in the current mutilated version.
About the Author
Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or email@example.com. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.
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