Monthly Archives: September 2010

Americana Satanica

William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) is a perfect movie for the tail end of the Great Depression. It’s about Jabez Stone (James Craig), an unlucky New Hampshire farmer, who strikes a Faustian bargain in order to stave off foreclosure. The movie is set in 1840, but the dilemma was just as familiar a century later. With its message of family values and collective action, it’s just as topical and vaguely socialist as Frank Capra classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. But it’s also a smart blend of fantasy and horror, featuring still-impressive special effects and a diabolical, Oscar-nominated Walter Huston in the first of the title roles.

The other title role – the non-diabolical one – is played by Edward Arnold, who’s better-known for playing Wall Street fat cats (and sometimes fascists) in the afore-mentioned Capra political dramas. Webster initially acts as a folksy mentor figure for Jabez, but as his lucre expands, he casts aside Webster’s lessons and his mother’s piety, embracing the besotted “good life” with his new maid Belle, who comes from “over the mountain.” But when time comes to literally give the devil, aka Mr. Scratch, his due, Webster is back with all his orating power to reclaim Jabez’s soul.

Superficially, The Devil and Daniel Webster is a well-crafted assemblage of cornball Americana. The film’s dialogue is obsessed with national identity, rugged individualism, and the values of the common man. It equates bourgeois luxury, like the mansion that Jabez moves into, with selfishness, foreignness, and, well, Satan. Belle, after all, is played with seductive decadence by Simone Simon, the femme fatale of Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, flourishing that sexy French accent as she tempts Jabez away from his wife and son. And Jabez’s Bible-thumping mother is Jane Darwell, who represented “the people” as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

So when it’s plugged into the film’s early American framework, this casting is practically allegorical. Darwell is gratitude and hard work; Simone is excess and dirty fun. So the film was extremely timely, as much of an American national myth as anything John Ford was making at the time (The Grapes of Wrath included). But it was also stylistically advanced enough that it hasn’t lost any of its demonic charm. The film’s lighting and focus are manipulated to produce some very eerie visual effects.

The Devil and Daniel Webster shares its composer (Bernard Herrmann), editor (Robert Wise), and studio (RKO) with Citizen Kane, and it shows. Kane‘s richly stylized opening sequence makes Xanadu feel like a haunted house; similarly, the collision of Herrmann’s echoing score with Dieterle’s fantastic visions makes the devil’s presence surprisingly believable. But Huston’s cackling, maniacal performance sure doesn’t hurt.

Huston just steals the show with his unabashedly evil performance. (The same goes for Simon, to some extent.) During a frenzied dance, he fiddles wildly; when Ma Stone approaches during a conference with Jabez, he dashes off with bountiful energy. (Keep in mind that Huston was in his mid-fifties at the time.) He gnaws on carrots like a hellbound Bugs Bunny, and eagerly shares in some rum while debating with Daniel Webster. Huston’s Mr. Scratch isn’t grim or power-obsessed. Even when he loses the case, he doesn’t let it get him down. He heads out, steals Ma Stone’s pie, and turns his soul-searching gaze on the audience itself.

Mr. Scratch is the world’s most experienced salesman. He’s the kind of guy you could imagine selling your soul to; he makes being damned look like a damn good time. Even when Craig’s brooding and indecision get a little repetitive, when Arnold’s laid-back speechifying get a little too self-righteous, Huston is there to give the film momentum. If he got fed up and cartwheeled off-screen, it would hardly be surprising.

And now, as a final treat, here’s a none-too-subtle visual joke I noticed. Since this was 1941, they couldn’t show sexual intercourse onscreen. But through the magic of editing, they could imply so much more. In one scene, Jabez Stone embraces his wife…

Then we fade to black, and cut to:

Jabez “plowing the fields.” I think you can infer what that means. And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I make my exit.

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Screwball Sci-fi in The Fifth Element

Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic The Fifth Element (1997) is a mixed bag of a movie: it has a lot to offer, but it’s very strangely packaged, and there’s a lot of extraneous fluff. It bounces back and forth between the self-serious heroism and romance that constitute its weaker parts, and the free-floating punk/screwball sensibility that makes it unique. Reportedly, Besson began writing the screenplay while he was in high school, and it shows in the convoluted mythology and the derivative, somewhat generic structure and conflicts of the film’s futuristic universe.

However, the film also has some moments of odd beauty and very satisfying comedy, plus one-of-a-kind visual design by two French artists – Moebius and Jean-Claude Mézières – who had been featured in Métal Hurlant, the predecessor to America’s Heavy Metal. At its best, The Fifth Element possesses some of the same traits that made Heavy Metal so great: a rich, bawdy sense of humor; a national and cultural eclecticism; and a willingness to tweak age-old sci-fi tropes in new ways. Overall, it’s not really successful, but it hits some great peaks along the way.

The plot of The Fifth Element is anything but simple, concerned as it is with at least 4-5 different self-interested factions each seeking the same set of four elemental stones. According to a sketched-out secret history wherein aliens occasionally visit Egypt, a “Great Evil” threatens earth every 5,000 years, and only an ultimate weapon made up of all five elements can save it. (The title is dropped with a resounding thud at least six times during the prologue.) Long story short: taxi driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has to shepherd the fifth-element-in-physical form, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), to a resort planet to fetch the stones.

They’re aided by a bungling high priest (Ian Holm) and a hyperactive radio super-personality (Chris Tucker). They’re opposed by a band of extraterrestrial mercenaries as well as their erstwhile employer, a nutty plutocrat named Zorg, played with a strangely southern accent and the world’s weirdest haircut by the great Gary Oldman. Yeah, it really is “that kind of movie.” Brion James (Blade Runner‘s Leon) is there as the earth general who recruits Dallas; even La Haine director and Amélie star Mathieu Kassovitz shows up as a jittery would-be mugger.

This is not a subtle movie. When Willis and Jovovich are giving the most restrained performances, you know you’re in dangerous territory. The Fifth Element is basically a live-action cartoon in the Looney Tunes mold, with all the visual hyperbole and frenetic action that entails. When Holm’s priest is startled, he literally topples over backwards – as sure as if he’d been Elmer Fudd whacked with a mallet. Oldman and Tucker (the latter especially) are both completely unhinged, madly overacting in a curiously compelling way. If nothing else, Tucker’s mile-a-minute spiel and proto-Gaga costumes are unlikely to be matched by any other movie – and his performance is almost plausible as a 23rd century media personality.

Clearly, your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your tolerance for cartoon physics and outrageously quirky acting. Oldman and Tucker also tread the very thin line between “eccentric” and “grating,” and Tucker occasionally, if fearlessly, crosses over it. Similarly, the movie’s frames are very cluttered; in Besson’s quasi-dystopian future, there’s always something going on, be it in the costuming, set design, or special effects. Some of this busyness can be delightful, while other components are less endearing. All of it, to varying degrees, is ridiculous.

With all of these oddball characters floating around, The Fifth Element does have some truly funny scenes (e.g., “Multipass?”) that end up playing out like a Star Wars spoof crossed with Bringing Up Baby. (Holm, who played another [less benevolent] advisor in Alien, could pass for a neurotic Obi-Wan Kenobi.) By the time we’re watching a blue-skinned, tentacle-headed diva sing an aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, the movie has almost found profundity in its genre-splicing, special-effects-filled surface.

So the real shame is the ending: it goes on far too long, it loses the raw, funny edge, and it devolves into a meaningless last-minute lecture on the evils of war and the power of love; it even begins to take its nonsensical back story seriously. It’s really disappointing when a movie’s epic climax turns out to be surprisingly rote and anticlimactic. But you know what? The Fifth Element is still better than Total Recall and a lot of other planet-hopping movies of that ilk. It’s still got all of Besson’s loony characters running into each other, wearing impractically garish outfits while North Africa-influenced techno plays in the background.

In short: at least it’s still interesting. It may not be an especially smart or consistent movie, but I’ll take Besson’s brand of colorful, multinational, imaginative sci-fi over the tedious sameness of Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay anyday. And the weird, loaded cast doesn’t hurt, either. So, is The Fifth Element really a “good” movie? Not as such. But it’s still highly enjoyable and even a little bit stylistically subversive. What do you think? Have you seen the movie, or do you want to?

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Link Dump: #7

Damn, life in 1930s Connecticut was swanky. Look at that dress! It’s really perfect leopard-petting apparel. Here’s some links I gathered over the past week that could come in handy if you need to go “gay all of a sudden“:

  • From the “Last Year’s News” department, I just read this 7-month-old article by Paul Tatara bitching about Avatar and eulogizing Eric Rohmer. I wouldn’t link to it, but it’s so insightful, well-written, and bittersweet that I couldn’t help it. Besides, it contains a still from Claire’s Knee.
  • Say it ain’t so, PTA! The Master, the latest project from the genius/director of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, has been indefinitely suspended. And it would’ve starred Philip Seymour Hoffman, too!
  • Shanna Katz writes in “No, I’m NOT Her Roomate” about heteronormativity and fuckers who refuse to acknowledge queer relationships as legitimate.
  • Static Nonsense at Some Assembly Required talks about sexuality and OCD, touching on some problems with the word “bisexual.”
  • Jezebel has the scoop on what’s next for DADT. Maybe soon the answer can firmly be “repeal”? Eh, Obama administration?
  • Dan Savage has started the beautiful It Gets Better project on YouTube to help gay teenagers. It’s really inspiring; go watch some of the videos. (Happy Bodies talks about It Gets Better as well.)
  • Big Think has a 20-minute interview with John Waters about filth, art, his new book Role Models, Salò, and more! The man is an indisputable genius and you need to watch this whole thing. Right now.
  • From the 13th issue of Rouge, a film magazine, published in March ’09, here’s an essay entitled “The Secret Life of Objects” by Mark Rappaport. It’s lengthy, but very rewarding, as it addresses Hollywood studios’ reuses of certain sets, paintings, and statues across the films of the 1940s and ’50s. Give it a read.
  • You know what’s freaking aweso.me? Freaking Aweso.me’s “ridiculous detailed” zombie poster. It’s a rotting hand and it’s got the names of almost 1,000 zombie movies/books/video games and you can zoom in to read it closer online. All I can say is, “BRAAAINS!”

This was a disappointing week in search terms, but we did get some wacky pussy-related entries. Like that immortal question, “woman puts dog food in pussy why”? Why indeed. Or another timeless riddle: what is the “sound made by pussy when fucking”? Forsooth, learned men have been pondering the sound of one pussy fucking for eons now. Someone wonders, “do you see princess mononoke’s pussy”? I reply: 1) her name’s not actually “Princess Mononoke,” but San and 2) NO, YOU DON’T! Duh. Next: “pregnant open pussy and baby can be seen.” Ummm. Yeah. And finally, “the old testament the book of smut.” I do not believe the Old Testament contains such a book. But I could be wrong.

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Sturges, Sissies, and Comic Genius

Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940) is a firecracker of a movie – an early sign of the greatness to come, with oodles of romance, verbal comedy, social commentary, and humanistic charm packed into 67 minutes. Dick Powell plays a wide-eyed dreamer (and office worker) who enters one contest after another in hopes of winning big. But when some coworkers convince him that he has won big, the situation rapidly flies out of control. It’s a hilarious, lightning-paced movie, but the part that most captivated me was the opening 2-3 minutes.

In the opening scene, Powell and his sweetheart sit on the roof of their tenement, listening on the radio for the results of an all-important coffee slogan contest. (Powell is counting on his terrible, counterintuitive entry: “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.”) The rooftop is intercut with the interior of the radio station, which in turn is intercut with shots of blue-collar Americans of all races and occupations. Clearly, a lot of folks have their hopes pinned on this contest. And so, radio announcer Don Hartman gives his opening spiel…

This spiel is my favorite part of the film, and that’s because Hartman is played by character actor Franklin Pangborn. Pangborn (1889-1958) was ubiquitous in comedies throughout the 1930s and ’40s, generally playing effete, officious bureaucrats, butlers, clerks, and civil servants. In The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo describes how Pangborn was one of the prime embodiments of the “sissy” character in classical Hollywood films; this was basically a recurring gay stereotype – although never explicitly identified as such.

In Hollywood under the Production Code, the sissy type primarily existed to neutralize the threat of non-normative sexuality. If queerness could be reduced to a trait of harmless, much-ridiculed supporting characters, then hetero masculinity could triumph. (And as Russo demonstrates, sissies were constantly used as counterexamples against which to measure real men.) But of course, the full story is more complicated than just “Hollywood was universally homophobic, and therefore all gay men were portrayed as effeminate nonentities.” Pangborn’s performance in Christmas in July exemplifies some of this creeping ambiguity.

While discussing the sissy’s stereotypical qualities, Russo adds that Pangborn was “an inventive satirist with expert timing. [He] seized on his brief screen moments and made them shine… He could turn a one-line part into a tour-de-force.” This is really the crux of my point. Although the radio announcer in Christmas in July never expresses any queer desires, he still displays the decidedly unmasculine verbal flourishes and mannerisms of Pangborn’s usual characters – he’s still obviously a sissy. (On the topic of verbal flourishes: Russo cites A Star Is Born [1937], where Pangborn uses the word “divoon,” a red flag for effeminacy if there ever was one.)

But with his versatility, his comic timing, and his inimitable vocal flutter, Pangborn overcame (or undermined?) the implicitly homophobic limitations written into his characters, making them more than the giddy, cowardly ciphers that the screenplays would have them be. Of course, it helps that Sturges’ screenplay for Christmas in July is brimming with nearly poetic dialogue, and despite being onscreen for only a few minutes in the film, Pangborn is captivating. In his opening monologue, he delivers bon mots with unbeatable precision and delight:

As you may well imagine, ladies and gentlemen, all that sugar draws a lot of flies! And the jury here has been struggling for a week to try to pick the winners from a little snowdrift of 2,947,582 answers. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a lot of answers in any language, including the Scandinavian! Heh, heh, heh…

Coming out of Pangborn’s mouth, a seven-digit number oozes with class. Pangborn’s characters are never really witty or superior; they’re always at the behest of their situations and subordinated to the protagonist’s plight. In Vivacious Lady, for example, he’s nothing but a stumbling block in Jimmy Stewart’s frantic rush to rendezvous with Ginger Rogers. In Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (a metafictional oddity where Pangborn plays a fictionalized “Franklin Pangborn”), he’s just the flustered straight man for W.C. Fields’ nonchalant nuttiness.

But whenever Pangborn got a break from doing double takes and was given chance to rhapsodize – as he was under Sturges – he just flew with it. He had the voice of an irrepressible raconteur, nonthreatening but with a veneer of distinction. That voice, along with his highly emotive body language, have become icons embedded in Hollywood’s past. I’ll conclude with a great example of this: when I saw Guy Maddin doing a live audio commentary on The Saddest Music in the World, he paused to note that the effusive radio commentators played by Talia Pura and Claude Dorge were inspired by character actors like Hedda Hopper and, of course, Franklin Pangborn. He may be long dead, but his cultural memory lives on.

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One Hour Mark: The White Ribbon

This is a dour image from 1:00:00 into Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning period piece The White Ribbon (2009). Conveniently for me, it’s also near-identical to the film’s poster, and therefore pretty emblematic for the whole movie. This is Martin, one of the disturbed children living in Eichwald, Germany just before World War I. Eichwald has been the site of a series of mysterious, violent attacks in the style of Bergman’s The Passion of Anna (1969), and Martin – along with his sister Klara – is somehow connected to this intangible evil.

He’s also the son of a strict pastor, one of the town’s guiding authorities. At this point in the film, his father is giving him a stern (and emotionally abusive) lecture about the dangers of self-abuse, bullying his son into a tearful confession despite never raising his voice. The scene is a microcosmic demonstration of Haneke’s grand thesis throughout the film: that the atrocities of the twentieth century are rooted in the sins of the fathers – i.e., the psychological damage that children suffer at the hands of their hypocritical, puritanical parents, and the irrational, destructive behavior patterns in which that damage manifests itself. Think of The White Ribbon as an austere, postmodern Rebel Without a Cause.

It’s also one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen in theaters. Christian Berger, the DP, shoots it in such pristine black and white that it feels as if the screen is about to ice over. Here, the photography complements the rigidity of life in Eichwald, as each character is bound by a set of painful social and religious strictures; in Martin’s case, they’re symbolized by the titular white ribbon tied to his arm, which his father put there as a reminder of purity. Under the pastor’s iron fist, personal freedom something foul which must be hidden behind locked doors and under bedsheets.

The scene takes place in the father’s den, which is neatly decorated with all the trappings of middle-class propriety: a bookshelf, a little bureau, a cross on the wall (and, behind the camera, a desk and birdcage). As Martin stands there stiffly, he’s circumscribed by these visual tokens of patriarchal authority, being simultaneously tormented and indoctrinated. His face sours into a guilt-riddled scowl and he averts his eyes from the camera’s gaze, even as his father opines that a child guilty of chronic masturbation had “avoided looking his parents in the eye.”

Leonard Proxauf, then only 14, plays Martin as a sad-eyed, fearful child with a not-quite-concealed capacity for evil, emotionally torn apart by his father’s impossibly demanding brand of anti-sex Christianity. Haneke never draws too straight of a line between these teachings and the frightening bursts that punctuate the film’s gloom, but it’s clear that the pastor’s lessons of self-hatred and self-esteem-destroying proclamations are important factors in the evil that engulfs the town. The moral poison surrounding the children of Eichwald is ultimately untraceable, but its seeds are everywhere. When they engage in unpredictable spurts of violence, it’s reminiscent of that classic anti-drug PSA: “I learned it by watching you.

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Why I Love Julianne Moore

It’s just an unavoidable fact about me: I love Julianne Moore. Love, love, love, in all the ways that a cinephile can love a movie star. (Except for the creepy, obsessive, and bad ones. Not those.) She’s just one of my favorite living actresses. Why is that? you may ask. Well, hypothetical reader, you are right to ask. Because I’ve prepared an itemized list of reasons for you. First of all: she’s a redhead. (Ashley is also a redhead. This is not a coincidence.) Second and mostly of all: she’s an incredible actress.

[Image via three frames]

Moore gives such intense, nuanced performances – in so many movies, she’s the one who sticks with you. Her actions and delivery burrow under your skin and stay inside you, surfacing in your mind when you least expect it. Just look at her in Safe (1995), one of her many collaborations with director Todd Haynes. She’s Carol, a superficial California wife and mother, obsessing over the color of her new couch and whether or not it matches the rest of her interior decoration. Then, one day, her body starts fighting her. Amidst spontaneous asphyxiation (see above), nose bleeds, coughing, and more, she’s jerked out of her once-comfortable life.

Safe is a brilliant mix of caustic satire, AIDS metaphor, melodrama, and horror. It’s got a great supporting cast, including Xander Berkeley (he of Candyman) who, in one haunting scene, has totally unemotional sex with Carol at the end of a long day. But at its core is Julianne Fucking Moore and her tender, pathetic vulnerability. She’s like a struggling animal, unsure of what her body’s doing to her, eager to just get on with her life and resume her former complacency. You know the old chestnut “you have to be smart to play dumb”? Julianne Moore is smart. She was also a crucial part of Haynes’ postmodern genre revisionism in Far from Heaven (2002), and to a lesser degree in his Bob Dylan super-biography I’m Not There (2007).

Or look at her in Magnolia (1999), where she’s acting in the service of a very different kind postmodern playfulness – that of director Paul Thomas Anderson. (She also played the aptronymous Amber Waves in his porn epic Boogie Nights [1997].) In one of Magnolia‘s many storylines, she’s Linda, the drug-addicted wife of a dying TV producer played by Jason Robards, and calling her “a wreck” is a massive understatement. She ‘s wracked with guilt and quasi-suicidal desperation, and she inflicts her emotional histrionics on everyone around her – from a nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to her husband’s lawyer (Nashville‘s Michael Murphy).

Like Safe‘s Carol, Linda is extremely vulnerable, but she’s also defensive. She may be plagued with self-loathing, but she doesn’t put with shit from anyone else. In a film packed with great, hot-to-the-touch performances – like a bathetic William H. Macy – Moore is a stand-out because, despite being a complete psychological mess, she retains an intimidating quality of refinement. Even when the screenplay gets a little too cutesy or pat, Moore’s performance sprawls, sneers, sobs, and threatens to collapse. In the most grandiose moments, she still feels naturalistic; this makes her the perfect cornerstone for PTA’s ensembles.

No matter what the quality or genre of the film, she brings that je ne sais Moore, that unquantifiable essence. I haven’t seen some of her more mainstream roles, like Hannibal or Next, but I’m sure they’re all the richer for her presence. And take an already rich film, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), pictured above, or the Coen Bros.’ wacky neo-noir The Big Lebowski (1998), where she plays the title character’s daughter, a sperm-hunting artist.

In both of those films, she’s a minor character who’s romantically linked to the protagonist. But she doesn’t feel minor; instead, she seems to exist on a higher, more mysterious plane than Clive Owen’s bureaucratic everyman or Jeff Bridges’ stoner private eye. As she is in real life, her characters in those films, Julian and Maude, are politically engaged. They’re fully aware of what’s going on, and they can manipulate their situations to get what they want. Thanks largely to Moore’s acting, they’re not plot devices, but rather self-motivated women. So Julianne Moore’s versatile, too: she functions equally well in lead and character parts.

All of this leads me to Moore’s most recent role: as a laid-back lesbian wife and mother whose family is unpredictably changing in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010). I seriously enjoyed this movie; it literally made me laugh and cry, sometimes in rapid succession. I was so deeply invested in the characters’ relationships, and it’s because the main cast – Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and especially Annette Bening – make their shared histories, as well as the repercussions of their tenuous biological links, believable.

It’s not a big or sensational movie. Nobody’s going to die or get arrested. The worst that can happen is a series of broken hearts, which in this case is really the scariest threat of all. The film’s screenplay also deals with difficult, controversial questions of sexual fluidity. It may not always be quite successful or accurate, but Moore’s performance as Jules personalizes these issues, as they have direct consequences on the dynamics of her marriage.

In an early scene, teenage son Laser asks his moms why they watch “gay man porn.” Jules hazards an explanation: “Well, sweetie, human sexuality is complicated. And sometimes, people’s desires can be… counterintuitive…” Without being too edgy or too bland, The Kids Are All Right takes on the human drama that results from those counterintuitive complications – and by extension, the confusing and inexplicable behavior that defines families. It’s a powerful, poignant movie. And, if the stars are right, maybe Julianne Moore will win that Best Actress Oscar she so deserves. Either way, I’m grateful to her for years of beautiful acting.

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Francis Bacon scares me

Tonight I was reading about Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, and the painting itself really, deeply started to creep me out. It’s not hard to see why: Bacon fucks with Velázquez’s classicism, tearing the composition apart with those rippling vertical lines. With its open mouth, the once-papal figure looks terrified, as if it’s being torn apart. It’s very dynamic, yet very ghostly. It’s a pleasant reminder that horror in visual art is not confined to film.

It’s also not surprising that Bacon’s nightmarish, agony-stricken canvases would have echoes in later cinematic horrors. Famously, a shot of a corpse suspended from a cage in The Silence of the Lambs was based on Bacon’s Figure with Meat. The Screaming Pope is also strikingly similar to the poster for David Cronenberg’s Scanners. The works of both Bacon and Cronenberg are heavily concerned with the pliability and deformation of human flesh, a topic that’s inherently a source of horror. Death to Velázquez, long live the new flesh?

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