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Radha Vatsal in The Atlantic – Forgotten Female Action Stars

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Serial star Ruth Roland in an advertisement for Hands Up! (1918)

Writing in The Atlantic, Radha Vatsal has a fascinating piece on early women heroines. As Vatsal notes, “in the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot).

But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.

During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called ’serial’ or ‘chapter’ film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic.

The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains. The film scholar Ben Singer estimates that between 1912 and 1920, about 60 action serials with female protagonists were released, totaling around 800 episodes.

What’s most striking about the category, Singer says, is its ‘extraordinary emphasis on female heroism.’ Protagonists exhibited traditionally ‘masculine’ qualities like ‘physical strength and endurance, self-reliance, courage, social authority, and the freedom to explore novel experiences outside the domestic sphere.’ Then, by the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called ’serial queens,’ disappeared.

What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process—a phenomenon that helps explain why today, even after women have shattered so many cultural barriers, action movies still continue to be dominated by male stars.

To understand what happened in the 1910s, it’s necessary to put the emergence of the serial film into context. During this period, two film formats jostled for dominance: what we’d now call ’shorts’ and ‘features.’ But short films weren’t labeled as ’short’ at the time—they were simply the industry standard, and were usually described by their length (in number of reels).

Features, meanwhile, were the newcomers, with higher production values, more ambitious plots, and greater production costs. Serials were something of a bridge between the two formats. Each episode in a serial was the length of a 15- or 20-minute short film, but over several weeks, a serial could tell a more complicated story.

Serials focused on women action heroes from the start, possibly thanks to the format’s tie-ins with magazines and newspapers, which aimed to draw female readers because they were attractive to advertisers. In 1912, Thomas Edison’s film company teamed up with Ladies’ World magazine to put one of the earliest instances of a serial film, What Happened to Mary, into print.

This example of cross-promotion would continue as other ‘chapter films’ were serialized in newspapers. The Chicago Tribune printed the story of The Adventures of Kathleen (1913) while the film episodes played in theaters. (Incidentally, Kathlyn was the first film serial to have a narrative thread that continued from week to week instead of relying on the same leading character to provide cohesiveness.)

Why do the 2010s lag behind the 1910s in terms of a robust body of films with female action leads? The focus on heroines seems also to correlate with the film industry’s fascination with the ‘New Woman.’ ‘She wore less restrictive clothes,’ the film curator Eileen Bowser notes, ’she was active, she went everywhere she wanted, and she was capable of resolving mysteries.’

The proliferation of women in all areas of the film industry during the 1910s—not just as actors, but as screenwriters, theater managers, gossip columnists, film producers, and directors—reflected the increasing number of women in the American workplace, and also the efforts of the vocal and energetic women’s suffrage movement.”

Fascinating stuff – and not well enough known – read the entire article here.

MoMA Does The 1960s – March 26, 2016 – March 12, 2017

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

Andy Warhol, Philip Fagan (left) and Gerard Malanga (right) at Warhol’s factory, New York City, 1964.

The 1960s was one of the most adventurous and optimistic eras in American, and indeed world culture, and now The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan is mounting a new exhibition of some key works from the period, running for nearly a full year until March 12, 2017 – coincidentally, my next birthday. As the museum’s website for the exhibition notes, “with From the Collection: 1960–1969, MoMA reinstalls its fourth-floor collection galleries with works from all six of its curatorial departments. The presentation is organized through the lens of the 1960s, when interdisciplinary artistic experimentation flourished and traditional mediums were radically transformed.

Artistic change paralleled sociopolitical upheaval around the globe, and these seismic shifts reach to the present moment. The galleries feature works across mediums, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, architecture, design objects, videos, films, and archival materials. The presentation will undergo periodic reinstallations over the course of the year, reflecting the depth and richness of the Museum’s collection and the view that there are countless ways to explore the history of modern art.

The installation includes a range of works from the 1960s, including a Jaguar E-Type Roadster (1961), a selection from Bela Kolárová’s photographic body of work Radiogram of Circle (1962–63), Nam June Paik’s Zen for TV (1963), James Rosenquist’s F-111 (1964–65), Jo Baer’s Primary Light Group: Red, Green, Blue (1964-65), Robert Smithson’s drawing A Heap of Language (1966), Bonnie Maclean’s poster for the Yardbirds and the Doors (1967), Eva Hesse’s Repetition Nineteen (1968), a group of works related to Superstudio’s The Continuous Monument: New York Extrusion Project, New York, New York(1969), and Nalini Malani’s film Dream Houses (1969), among many others.

Each gallery is dedicated to works from a single year, and the galleries proceed in chronological order. This approach provides a framework for displaying a wide-ranging selection of objects from the Museum’s collection, offering visitors a rare opportunity to see an automobile in proximity to an oil painting, an etching juxtaposed with an architectural model, or a film alongside a sculpture. The organizational principles vary throughout: some galleries explore the potential of unexpected connections across mediums and genres while others gather works that are similar in materials or function.”

This, like so many shows at MoMA, is not to be missed.

Christophe Folschette on Visual Listening

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

Christophe Folschette of Talkwalker has some interesting thoughts on the way we process images.

As Folschette told Richard Sunley in the journal Social Media News, “visual listening is like social listening but for visual content. Up until now, social listening has mainly focused on text content like the text of tweets or the text of a blog post. Visual listening goes one step further and allows you to track logos within images and photos posted on social networks and online. From here, you can apply all sorts of advanced analytics to understand how a post spreads across the web, which images are trending at the moment, the top influencers posting photos of your products and much much more.

Over recent years the use of visual content – that’s photos and images – has exploded on all social networks and across online media channels. Reports suggest that almost two-thirds of all content posted on social channels includes an image. When you think that on Twitter alone, people are sending around half a billion tweets every day, that’s an enormous amount of visuals that audiences are consuming. Studies have also shown that the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text which gives some indication as to why this type of content appeals to us so much.”

Folschette is concentrating on marketing here, but the same theory applies to the way we process images in art, or the visuals we see on the many screens we view everyday, as well as in daily  existence. Just one frame of film or video contains a multitude of information that has to be decoded if one if going to arrive at any reasonable approximation of the what that image really conveys.

This is why analytical viewing is such an essential part of film and video studies – more so today than ever – because the images we are confronted with are often so resolutely commercial, and we need to understand how they are trying to manipulate us. In short, we can’t be passive in the face of the images that inundate us – we have to strive to understand them. Otherwise, we’re simply letting these images enter our consciousness without thought – as Jean-Luc Godard famously observed, “it’s not a just image – it’s just an image.” An image we should seek – always – to understand.

Something to think about as you see more and more images – all carefully constructed – everyday.

Mike Fleming Jr. – Low Budget Movies That Made Big Bucks

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline showcases five low budget features that defied box-office expectations.

As Fleming writes in Deadline, “each year when Deadline runs its film profitability countdown, readers understandably ask about wildly profitable films, usually genre pictures, that don’t merit inclusion on the basis of highest domestic gross. But that doesn’t mean these films don’t tell compelling stories in their own right. So this time, we included snapshots of five overachieving pictures.”

Among the films Fleming highlights are The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Paper Towns, Unfriended and The Visit. I have already blogged on The Visit, which I thought was an interesting, bare bones film, and it turns out The Visit was also highly profitable as well, for as Fleming reports, the picture cost just $5 million to make, while the global box office was $98 million, leaving a $43 million net profit after expenses – “a smashing result to the studio’s bottom line.”

Equally impressive from a financial point of view is Unfriended, “launched in April without much fanfare, from Timur Bekmambetov’s Russia-based film factory Bazelevs. The key here is that the makers delivered this movie for a $1M budget, and it reached the mainstream. The picture grossed $64 million globally [with a] net profit of $17.3 million.”

Both The Visit and Unfriended were small films, with minimal sets and fairly unknown actors, that nevertheless crossed over to mainstream success because they contained that rarest of all elements in Hollywood today – an original, topical idea. And audiences responded.

So you don’t need a lot of money to make a successful feature film – all you need is talent.

Batman v Superman: Diminishing Returns

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

After two years of post-production, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finally his theaters today.

As I wrote back in June 26, 2015 of Zack Snyder’s latest film,”in the mid 1940s, Universal was coming off a two decade wave of horror movies, such as Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941), but at length, audiences were bored with just one monster, and demanded something to amp up the franchise. Thus, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) was born, the first of the Universal monster ‘team ups,’ but in short order, the entire franchise collapsed as Universal combined nearly all their famed horror icons in two ‘monster rally’ entries, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in cheap, hastily staged films that did little more than revive the monsters only to destroy them.

With these final two films in the initial series, it seemed that the franchise was exhausted, and the next Universal horror entry wasn’t a horror entry at all; it was the parody Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). It wasn’t until Hammer films re-energized these classic characters in such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) that the franchise once again took on new life.

It seems to me that we’re now at a similar point with the DC Universe; the Superman series seems a bit played out, as the character seems a bit too straight arrow to relate to 21st century audiences; and Christopher Nolan has run the Batman series into the ground, as did Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher before him, so that both characters seem, for the moment, played out for the contemporary viewer.

What to do? Why, just put them both in one film, as a a sort of WWF smackdown, recalling the first Universal team up, Frankenstein Meets (or more accurately, ‘battles’) The Wolf Man. And so now we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack ‘300′ Snyder on a $200 million dollar budget, which wrapped filming in December 2014, and is now going through an apparently intensive post-production process, and won’t be released – at latest word – until March 25, 2016. What the final cost will be, who knows? Will it ‘blow up’ like Jurassic World, and make a fortune? DC certainly hopes so.

It seems worth noting to me that Marvel has been much more successful at these ‘ensemble’ films lately, but then they have a much larger cast of characters to work with. And when one character gets tired, they just sideline her or him for a while, and go for an Avengers team-up, and everyone seems happy as the dollars roll in, and then Marvel eventually gets around to rebooting whatever needs to be jump started next, as the cycle continues with Sisyphian relentlessness.

But DC, I think, doesn’t have the same depth in its playing field, and so this team-up has, at least for me, the inescapable whiff of ‘last chance at the genre corral,’ when you take your two most influential characters and put them into a face-off. After this, what can you do; repeat the same thing all over again, perhaps throwing in The Green Lantern for some added traction?

It seems sad to me that this is one of the most hotly anticipated tickets of next year – because the whole thing seems so formulaic and predestined, but there it is. On yes, and Wonder Woman, in the person of Gal Godot, will also swing by to get in on the action, so this in many ways might be closer to the ‘monster rally’ films than the first Universal team-up film.”

All of the above was written long before the film was released; it actually finished principal photography in 2014, and has spent close to two years in post-production, which is never a good sign. Now everyone can see the film for themselves – it is, after all, rated PG-13, with an R rated “director’s cut,” one half hour longer, forthcoming on DVD in the coming months.

That said, it looks like most of what I predicted way back nearly a year ago has come true, and it seems that the film is more of a miss than a hit with fans and critics alike, though the ticket presales have been spectacular. But with audiences able to text “instant reviews” during the film as to whether or not they approve, who knows what will happen? Batman v Superman wound up costing north of $250 million, and will need to clear at least $800,000 to a billion dollars at the box office just to break even. That’s a lot of money.

Yet as Michael Roffman noted in a perceptive review of the film published on the website Consequence of Sound, Batman v Superman represents – perhaps – both the beginning of the end for comic book movies, which may have finally reached an audience saturation point, as well as a failure of the imagination. Notes Roffman, “the adrenaline and the excitement of a superhero film has taken back seat to morbid curiosity and blind acceptance.

To paraphrase the late Hunter S. Thompson, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice offers us an ideal vantage point to look at the near past, where with the right kind of eyes we can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. Some might say that was 2012’s The Avengers; others might argue it was 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Whatever the case, we’re coasting into a no-wake zone right now, and it’s getting harder to keep the signal on and tiring to glue our eyes toward the sky.”

Or as A.O. Scott put it more bluntly in a review in The New York Times, “the point of Batman v Superman isn’t fun, and it isn’t thinking, either. It’s obedience. The theology is invoked not to elicit meditations on mercy, justice or sacrifice, but to buttress a spectacle of power. And in that way the film serves as a metaphor for its own aspirations. The corporations that produce movies like this one, and the ambitious hacks who sign up to make them, have no evident motive beyond their own aggrandizement. Entertainment is less the goal than the byproduct, and as the commercial reach of superpower franchises grows, their creative exhaustion becomes ever more apparent.”

Which seems about right to me – it’s time to move on to something new.

Nothing Is Real – Hollywood’s Digital Facelifts

Friday, March 18th, 2016

Yes, Hollywood has found the “flawless” Fountain of Youth.

As Stephanie Merry writes in The Washington Post for March 18th, 2016, “Pee-wee Herman hasn’t changed a bit. It’s been three decades since his heyday, when he hammed it up in a snug gray suit for TV watchers every Saturday morning. But take a look at his new Netflix movie, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, and prepare to be stunned. Has actor Paul Reubens — who first played the bowtied character in 1979 — found the fountain of youth? Sort of.

The Peter Pan-ish Pee-wee was never meant to age, so tech wizardry intervened. In postproduction, artists digitally retouched his face to turn back the clock. It’s called beauty work, and it’s been around for more than a decade. But it’s a hidden craft, practiced by artists who make every frame look sublime by toiling for long hours — while remaining invisible. ‘In a perfect world, you will never see our work,’ says one expert, Howard Shur, who started the Los Angeles-based digital effects company Flawless FX three years ago. ‘It will just look natural and normal.’

In the early days, the effects niche was reserved for music videos, to make pop stars pop. But over the years, business boomed as commercials, movies and TV got on board. Now, plenty of actors have beauty work written into their contracts. Maybe you can guess which ones, but you won’t get confirmation from the people who fix A-list flaws.

Non-disclosure agreements are the norm. Unless it’s a conspicuous part of the story, like Brad Pitt aging in reverse in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or the flashback in Ant-Man that shaved 30 years off Michael Douglas’s face.

Click here to see Flawless Fx’s truly amazing demo reel – you’ll feel ten years younger!

Or if an actor like Reubens admits it, as he did in a New York Times profile, exposing this little-known — and pricey — process. ‘I could have had a facelift and we would have saved $2 million,’ he said in the interview. Commercials and music videos tend to get more treatment than movies and television, according to Culley Bunker, who runs Skulley Effects in Los Angeles. In the former case, ‘they’re selling you an image, they’re selling you a product,’ he says. ‘Movies are more artistic.’

One of Flawless’s specialties is fixing continuity errors — minor adjustments that result from fast shooting schedules or tight set budgets. Let’s say an actor has a cold sore for two days of his 10 on set. Because movies are generally shot out of order, viewers might be distracted if the blister vanished and then reappeared.

Of course, it’s not always about continuity. According to multiple artists, a popular job is to take care of those pesky eye bags. Artists can also add muscle definition, zap blemishes, fix teeth and tame rogue strands of hair. The request can come from a record label, a director, a producer or a movie star, depending on the situation.

It’s not easy, nor is it quick. Each frame is digitally hand-painted. New York-based visual-effects artist Nathaniel Westveer, who works mainly on music videos, estimates that it takes him an hour to work on 24 frames one second of footage.”

Read the whole article here – all is an illusion – especially in Hollywoodland.

“Consuming the Apocalypse, Marketing Bunker Materiality” by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has published a new article in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

Foster’s article, “Consuming the Apocalypse, Marketing Bunker Materiality” has just appeared in the latest issue of Quarterly Review of Film and Video (March 17, 2016), in which she argues that “there are two parallel social movements that may, at first glance, seem unrelated, but are in fact closely intertwined; the rapid increase in economic inequity in contemporary society (as evidenced in the enormously wide gap between the wealthy and the poor) on the one hand, and the current apocalyptic cultural mindset (associated with paranoia, prepping, the rise of the gated community, the return of the underground bunker, and a massive uptick in gun sales) as celebrated in myriad apocalyptically-themed films and television programs, programs I define as apocotainment.

The upwardly mobile class and preppers have more in common than one might think, and in some ways the two groups have even merged; what brings these two identities together is a decided lack of empathy for others and a sense of free-floating paranoia, centering on a crisis in masculinity, whiteness, and a fascination with Doomsday scenarios.”

Needless to say, this is a very timely essay, and expands on Foster’s work in her 2014 book Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers and the Culture of Apocalypse, which explores the current American, and indeed worldwide fascination with an ever expanding universe of Doomsday scenarios. The current vogue for “end of the world” or “end of civilization” narratives has taken hold of practically every area of the public consciousness, and Foster’s article examines the ways in which this cultural trend has moved to the center of contemporary public discourse.

Here’s a link to the article; fascinating reading in every respect.

Tom Cabela – UNL Film Studies Alumni – Builds Major Career

Friday, March 4th, 2016

Tom Cabela, a UNL Film Studies Alumni, has built himself a brilliant career in Hollywood.

As Erin Chambers writes on the UNL English Department website in an article posted today, “Tom Cabela was one of the first Film Studies Majors at UNL in the late 1990s, and has since gone on to a stellar career in Hollywood, with great personal and professional success.

Interested in film since childhood, Cabela started making his own films in while attending Lincoln Southeast High School, where he helped found Southeast’s first film program. He soon realized he wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking, and decided to come to UNL after graduating.

Cabela joined the Film Studies Program at UNL, where Professors Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon helped shape the way he viewed and analyzed cinema. They also helped prepare him for the rigors of the industry and in finding his own artistic voice.

‘Professor Foster was always so encouraging and supportive, and really helped shape me intellectually and as a person,’ says Cabela. ‘Thanks to her I was one step ahead on post-modern and feminist film theory when I got to the University of California. Professor Dixon also helped prepare me for the demands and high expectations of the industry. His lessons have always held me in good stead.’

After graduating from UNL in 2001, Cabela moved to Santa Cruz and completed the production program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked briefly for production designer Jennifer Williams. Williams introduced him to a friend, Oscar nominated editor Peter Honess, who soon hired Cabela as a Post Production Assistant.

Honess and his team trained Cabela, got him into the union, and brought him up to assistant editor. As a part of that team, Cabela worked on films like Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Aeon Flux, and Poseidon. He also worked on Blades of Glory, Get Smart, and Red Dawn under editor Richard Pearson.

Eventually he went to work for James Cameron’s company C.P.G., where Cameron and his partner Vince Pace trained him as a stereo (3D) picture specialist. There, he worked on Transformers 3, Sin City 2, Walking with Dinosaurs, Cirque Du Soleil, and others.

However, the 3D ‘bubble’ soon burst, and he found himself looking for work elsewhere. His background in 3D/VFX as well as editorial made VFX Editing a perfect fit. Since becoming a VFX Editor, Cabela’s editing and visual effects work has appeared in Entourage the Movie and the new Todd Phillips film War Dogs.

He continues to make his own films, which have shown at festivals like Mill Valley, Sarasota, and South by Southwest. You can view samplings of his work on Vimeo. But for Cabela, this is only the beginning. “Who knows what the future holds?” Cabela wonders. “The possibilities are limitless.”

Indeed they are – this is just the beginning for Tom – who knows what will come next?

Jaume R. Lloret’s Side by Side Remakes of 25 Films

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Here’s a fresh look at the ways in which remakes dominate the current cinema.

As Joe Berkowitz writes on the website FastCoCreate, “when director Gus Van Sant announced that he would be following up his breakthrough commercial hit, Good Will Hunting, with a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, many were confused. That confusion did not go away when the film was eventually released either. Audiences and critics couldn’t tell whether the whole exercise was a dadaist art statement or what was even happening. Was Van Sant’s message that no cows are sacred or that all cows are sacred? Nobody could quite tell. If the director’s aim was to urge other filmmakers away from remake culture, however, it was a resounding failure.

Nearly 20 years later, remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations make up what feels like at least half of each year’s major cinematic offerings. (The other half are adaptations.) The degree to which studios, filmmakers, and audiences have embraced remake culture, though, means more opportunities to approach these properties from different angles. Every now and then, a film will treat its source material with nearly the same perhaps ironic reverence as Gus Van Sant did Psycho, but most others indulge in more of a flickering faithfulness. A new video puts together side by side comparisons of scenes from 25 movies and their remakes to show how different (or not) the same movie can be the second time.

Barcelona-based filmmaker and editor Jaume R. Lloret had his work cut out for him in some movies more than others. Finding footage from Psycho that matches up is like shooting a barrel in a barrel factory. (Steven Soderbergh once overlaid both versions of the film on top of each other to play simultaneously.) Lloret also includes the curious case of when Michael Haneke remade his own Austrian film (Funny Games) in English with different actors but no other changes whatsoever. The other films, however, comprise just about the entire spectrum of remakes and reveal a lot about how these are made and received.”

Fascinating stuff - read the entire article, and see the video by clicking here, or on the image above.

Children’s Best Picture Oscar Summaries – Totally Accurate!

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

As Riyad Mammadyarov reports in Indiewire, these kids have it all down on this year’s Oscar contenders.

As Mammadyarov notes, “kids sure do have wild imaginations. And Fandango Movieclips takes full advantage of their outrageous lateral logic thinking in yet another edition of Reel Kids, which take a group of young, precocious children and let them intellectually loose. As we begin the countdown to this weekend’s Oscars, some ‘Reel Kids’ take their sweet, indecisive time to spell out what they think each Best Picture nominee is really all about.

As the children fumble over their words and wildly change their pitches to describe what each movie is about, the host, Dan, riffs with the various children to flush out their hilariously cute ideas. One explains that The Big Short is really nothing more than a rip-off of the Schwarzenegger-DeVito buddy flick, Twins. Another suggests that Mad Max: Fury Road is a simple and touching tale of a young man’s harrowing journey to take a quiet and restorative nap. The Revenant? Obviously a fun-loving story about Revenant the Elephant.”

Personally, I’d rather see their versions of these films!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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