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Le Brasier Ardent

When the world gets to a point where it no longer expects to be hit into excitement or tickled into guffaws by every film, when speed isn’t the test of a film – and that time isn’t so far distant – the French film will come into its own in the world’s eyes and the eyes of France.  – Harry Alan Potamkin, The French Film, 1930

When Harry Alan Potamkin wrote his article The French Film for the publication Cinema in 1930, I am sure he had no idea how far away we’d still be in 2017 from a time when “speed isn’t the test of a film”. I can say that, from my own experience as a teacher, that it is speed, the speed of cinema today versus the speed of the cinema ten or twenty years ago, that is the primary prohibitive factor that keeps today’s youth from discovering the cinema’s history. But why distinguish narrative cinema by a binary complex of “art” and “entertainment” at all?

 

Le Brasier Ardent

I believe there is something to be said for films whose system of aesthetic values defy categorization as either “entertainment” or as “art”. There exists between the two, the “speedy” and the “slow”, a happy medium where, on rare occasions, a different kind of cinema occurs. In this medium zone one would probably find such classics as Roy Rowland’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987), Sara Driver’s When Pigs Fly (1993), and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012); each film a brilliant, genre defying accumulation of incongruous cinematic expressions whose singular totality yields new and sometimes profound insights as to how we perceive and interpret films.

One of the truly anomalous works of cinematic art I have encountered, as strange and threatening as Tough Guys Don’t Dance but as chaotic as The Paperboy, is Le Brasier Ardent (1923). Le Brasier Ardent brings together such conflicting elements that its relatively fluid narrative trajectory should, under no circumstances, function cohesively; and yet it does. The film opens with what appears to be a D.W. Griffith inspired piece of metaphorical moralization which transitions into a slapstick styled satire (featuring a gadget infused bed and a speaking dog) that transitions once more into a different style altogether that combines Louis Feuillade’s sense of pulp with Fritz Lang’s sense of design to comic effect. The hero of Le Brasier Ardent, Detective Z., is equally absurd. He first appears as a Dr. Mabuse style vilain in a dream, then reappears in “reality” sporting a bizarre disguise only to metamorphose into a series of other personalities, in rather quick succession, including a dapper private eye, a grandma’s boy, a bumbling clown, a sadistic pianist, and finally, a giddy man-child.

The reason why all of this nonsense seems to work is because of Le Brasier Ardent’s star/director/writer Ivan Mosjoukine. Mosjoukine, a prominent member of Films Albatross, was a highly regarded actor in his day who only directed two films (of which Le Brasier Ardent is the second and last). The lack of a formal regard for the cinematographic, coupled with Mosjoukine’s sincere interest in exploring notions of fantasy, combined to create one of the most highly original and entertaining films France produced in the early twenties. According to the excellent Flicker Alley DVD liner notes to Le Brasier Ardent, this was the film that inspired Jean Renoir to first pursue a career in the cinema.

In many ways the genius moments of stylistic juxtaposition in Le Brasier Ardent are the byproduct of an amateurism; much in the same way that the beauty of Flaming Creatures (1963) was the byproduct of Jack Smith’s relative amateurism. The disregard for formal convention is one thing that, in most cases, cannot actually sustain a film on its own. Luckily, Mosjoukine’s own aesthetic convictions, as well as his charisma on screen, sustain Le Brasier Ardent where it may otherwise fail visually. Even more important though to the complex of Le Brasier Ardent’s various stylistic parts is Mosjoukine’s speed. We move at a rapid pace from scene to scene, plot point to plot point, style to style, at such a clip that it has to be Mosjoukine’s constant presence that sustains us as his image unifies the sum of the film’s parts.

Ivan Mosjoukine’s direction, his absolute authorship of the film Le Brasier Ardent, stands as a sort of latent self-portraiture. Ivan Mosjoukine began his film career in tsarist Russia, relocating to Paris during the revolution of 1918. At Films Albatross, Mosjoukine, along with other Russian émigrés Victor Tourjansky and Alexandre Volkoff, began to explore with tremendous enthusiasm the French cinema. The “discoveries” Mosjoukine made in the French cinema are felt throughout Le Brasier Ardent as if the film were a kind of index on the very potential of cinematic narrative forms. On another level, Le Brasier Ardent is not just a catalogue of aesthetics and techniques, it is a record of Mosjoukine’s various incarnations and meanings in the role of a matinee idol as Detective Z continues to shift and change with the narrative.

 

Le Brasier Ardent

Consider J. Lee Thompson’s What A Way To Go! (1964) in comparison with Le Brasier Ardent. Both films examine different styles of narrative film using one star (Ivan Mosjoukine and Shirley MacLaine) as the anchor point with which to provide narrative continuity in an otherwise discontinuous film. Each of these two films proposes questions about the interplay between the cinema and our own private fantasies. What A Way To Go! approaches this textual collage, as it were, in an episodic form, prioritizing accessibility for an audience with affiliations for the classic Hollywood form by locking its different styles alone in various isolated dream sequences. Mosjoukine’s film is more bold than that, maybe even careless. Le Brasier Ardent doesn’t treat each new style within a narrative vacuum. Mosjoukine grounds his investigations into differing forms within a straight fluid narrative that imbues the film with a spontaneity and intensity verboten in What A Way To Go!.

Le Brasier Ardent is one of those explosive little films that conveys a true and highly contagious passion for the cinema. However, if one were to consider seeking this film out, there is something to keep in mind; the plot-line is patriarchal and chauvinist (though no more so than the majority of silent films). Le Brasier Ardent is a film of value because of its technique, its uniqueness in this respect, not its political or social message.

-Robert Curry

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Godard & Ishaghpour: A Review

“Looking at Histoire(s) du cinéma, the first chapter especially, I got the impression there had been three major events in the twentieth century: the Russian revolution, Nazism, and cinema, particularly Hollywood cinema, which is the power of cinema, the plague as you (Jean-Luc Godard) say.” – Youssef Ishaghpour to Godard, Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century

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Jean-Luc Godard may come in and out of fashion, but it seems indisputable that he, more than any other filmmaker, is the most important artist of the cinema in the twentieth century. One doesn’t need to particularly like or enjoy Godard’s work to appreciate its singular accomplishments. In fact, in the book I wish to address, Youssef Ishaghpour himself, despite the high regard in which he holds Godard, often challenges the filmmaker’s own ideas and readings concerning his films. Godard certainly has his fair share of detractors, certainly with concerns towards his latter period, but to summarily dismiss a work because it is difficult or unconventional is more an act of self-betrayal than a critique of a film or filmmaker.

The book in question here is the brilliant Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century (first published in 2000) by Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour. This publication is part of a series titled Talking Images, edited by Yann Perreau, which is primarily interested in investigating the usefulness and purpose of the cinema at the start of the twenty-first century. So it is fitting that the text of Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century, a lengthy conversation between Ishaghpour and Godard followed by an essay by Ishaghpour, should focus on Godard’s mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma.

In Histoire(s) du cinéma Godard employs a variety of avant-garde video tactics (superimposition, text overlays, dubbing, looping, etc.) to create a visual complex that is the equivalent in cinema to what Alfred Döblin and James Joyce achieved in literature. At the center of this complex is Godard himself, and from this center spirals the cinema in a series of rhyming and juxtaposing rhythms whose images are linked by Godard’s own subjective interpretation of his memories of the twentieth century which are, in-turn, embodied on the audio track and in text overlays. This complex yields over its 8 parts and 266 minutes a series of patterns and intersections, both formal, calculated and accidental, that locate a broader sense of purpose to the very design of cinema as a social and political form of art.

From this jumbled description, of what I consider to be Godard’s greatest achievement, above, one can begin to understand how complicated Histoire(s) du cinéma truly is and why it continues to perplex, enrage and enthrall audiences. Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century is the most practical and useful guide one could hope for to dissect Histoire(s) du cinéma. The intimate, conversational quality of the “interview” section of the book gives Godard, by way of Ishaghpour’s insights and careful readings of the film, the opportunity not only to describe some of the specific meanings of certain images in Histoire(s) du cinéma, but to also address his own desired outcome of the project in terms of its spectatorship. This essentially serves to direct the reader’s focus to different elements of the film during different sections, though the conversation never becomes a matter of “mapping out” Godard’s complicated visual and audio complex.

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There is also a casual, somewhat anecdotal quality to Ishaghpour and Godard’s conversation that is likely to be of interest to the viewer who never bothered to look at Godard’s work post-Weekend (1968). For instance, Godard’s interest in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), Orson Welles and his aesthetic relationship to John Ford, Henri Langlois, Jules Michelet, Jean Mitry, Georges Sadoul, Gilles Deleuze and Truffaut are all discussed and will no doubt satisfy the appetites of many a film major.

But to separate one element of the interview from the other is to dispense with the overall purpose of the text as a whole which is to rediscover Godard the filmmaker and critic in his Histoire(s) du cinéma. Ishaghpour’s closing essay, Jean-Luc Godard Cineaste of Modern Life: The Poetic in the Historical, eloquently argues that, with Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard locates the cinema as a means of contesting History/Histoire(s). Ishaghpour very succinctly presents his idea within the wider context implied by Histoire(s) du cinéma, the state of contemporary art, by drawing on a variety of scholarship from Deleuze’s notion of the time-image to Sergei Eisenstein’s theories of montage.

I will say that some of the material in Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century can be a bit forbidding insofar as it references an equally wide variety of texts as it does films (some more obscure than others). If one prefers a less focused study of a single Godard film, or is interested in films from earlier in his career, I would recommend Forever Godard, edited by James Williams and Michael Temple. Forever Godard is a fascinating volume that anthologized a series of essays about the filmmaker on various parts of his career that is fully illustrated with stills from his films (which make this volume a beautiful object as much as a book).

-Robert Curry

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Life Is A Bed Of Roses

La vie est un roman (1983) opens in 1914, just before the outbreak of WWI. Count Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi) has assembled his closest friends, a collective of France’s most esteemed aristocracy, for the dedication of his proposed utopian city that he calls “The City Of Happiness” to his fiancé Livia (Fanny Ardant). As Forbek’s friends begin to applaud, the camera takes the viewer into the model of this proposed paradise. As this tracking shot of “The City Of Happiness” continues, the background fades to black, and then erupts in bright flames and explosions as the Great War desolates the land. Then there is a cut to a shot, which evokes Arthurian legends in which a cloaked handmaiden escorts an infant child, presumably the heir to the throne, from a castle laid siege. This sequence continues as the maiden emerges from a secret passage out of a tree in the midst of a forest. As the maiden exits the frame, a car drives by in the distance, introducing a third time period as well as a narrative, though this time in a contemporary France. This will remain the structure of the film, a triptych of narrative and location concerned with exploring not only the imaginative history of “The City Of Happiness”, but also the basis of the condition that society has defined as happiness itself.

La vie est un roman is the second film Alain Resnais directed from a script by Jean Gruault, following up the critically acclaimed film of Henri Laborit’s life Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980). Stylistically, La vie est un roman is a return to philosophical debate in the narrative form, though this time in the genre of the musical. Like all good musicals, La vie est un roman relegates the breaking out into song to moments of personal revelation and emotional duress. Resnais sees to it that the visual component of the cinematic dialect of musicals is uncharacteristically underplayed, preferring static wide shots to the boisterous camera moves of either Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli. Even the close-ups of characters in song are static, and devoid of any and all traces of choreography. This unusual tactic immediately repels the audience, reminding the viewer that the world of La vie est un roman is as fictitious as it is physically two-dimensional. The result is unpredictable, but it could be construed that by removing the viewer temporarily from the narrative of the film serves the purpose of a catalyst designed to stimulate an objective reading of the lyrics sung, which in most cases convey the thesis of a scene or the illuminating of a suspected subtext.

the fantasy section of the film

the fantasy section of the film

The visual dialogue of La vie est un roman is even more complex. The Romantic medieval section of the film is rich in cinematic and painterly quotations, utilizing small sets with matte paintings in both the foreground and background, lending these scenes, where there is undoubtedly singing in a Wagnerian fashion, the artifice of live theatre. Fantasy is the rule of the day, following a trend of post-modern films whose sense of the fantastic and concerns with the classical are derivative, visually speaking, of Fritz Lang’s epic Die Nibelungen (1924). Resnais’ simplistic staging of his fantasy sequences negate the gravitas of these post-modern fantasy films, be it Eric Rohmer’s Percival le Gallois (1978) or Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Winifried Wagner und die Geschichte des Hauses Wahnfried von 1914-1975 (1975), evoking simultaneously the Czech Fairytale films of the previous decade.

Forbek’s portion of the film, set in the twenties, makes a number of references both in terms of narrative, set design, and costume design to the serials of Louis Feuillade [Fantomas (1913-14), Les Vampires (1915)]. Resnais’ purpose in this is clear; for similar to his design of musical sequences, Resnais insists that the audience immediately recognizes and confronts their respective assumptions pertaining to the mechanisms of a particular genre. By alluding to Feuillade’s films Resnais guarantees that the audience will invest their suspension of disbelief into a familiar world, albeit a fictitious one. The tropes of Feuillade’s serials also serve as signifiers to a few stylistic expectations on the part of the audience, primarily with the melodramatic and Gothic qualities of the genre.

In juxtaposition to these more fantastic elements is the seemingly realist world of contemporary France. Of course this reality, despite the modern wardrobe and technology, inhabits the same space as Forbek’s narrative. This section of the film is set in “The City Of Happiness”, now a school whose primary objective is to educate children via the children’s own imaginative powers. At the moment the narrative in this section of the film begins, attendees of a conference on imagination in education are beginning to arrive at “The City Of Happiness”. The realistic world of contemporary France links to the other narratives not just spatially, as in the case of Forbek’s narrative, but physically. On several occasions the children at the school will run or dance through a scene focused on the adult characters and the camera will follow them, cutting to a match on action in the Romantic world of Arthurian legend, where the children quickly exit frame. This tactic links the artifice of the two fantasies discussed above with the more realistic primary narrative, equating all three equally as fantastic inventions of the cinema. The other equalizer being, of course, the musical element prevalent in all three narratives.

The medieval portions of La vie est un roman are the most simplistic. Visually, the camera is static in every shot of these sequences. In terms of narrative, detail and development are hardly needed because simple signifiers will do. The narrative tells of a King sent into hiding as a child until he reaches adulthood. At which time he becomes a great warrior, slaying first a lizard creature and then reclaiming his throne from a would be King by leading a peasant revolt. At which time the rightful King and hero of this narrative marries a princess, is crowned, and declares to all of his subjects that the “age of happiness” has indeed arrived. This is a very simplistic fairytale meant to suggest the crux of all legends in Western culture; freedom is happiness. By restricting this portion of the film to a two-dimensional narrative, La vie est un roman is able to pinpoint a primal understanding in mankind and therefore in the audience that will contrast with the more complex definitions of happiness that the films other two narratives suggest.

the Count Forbek section of the film

the Count Forbek section of the film

Count Forbek’s narrative centers around his megalomaniac aspirations to achieve utopia after the architect of his “City Of Happiness” is killed in the trenches of WWI and his lover Livia has married another. Still determined, Forbek completes as much of his “City Of Happiness” as his money will allow, inviting his remaining friends, including Livia and her husband, to come live with him once it is completed. Upon the arrival of Forbek’s guests, he makes a strange proposal. Forbek appeals to his friends to undergo a transformation that will return their psyches to infancy so that they may experience only those stimuli that approach “true happiness”. Forbek reveals that his intention is to first rid his friends of all sensations of pain, then, he intends to unleash his procedure onto the world. Forbek’s process is made up of a pulpy mixture of Eastern mysticism and Jungian psychology, which, keeping with the genre, proves lethal to one of those undergoing the process. However, unbeknownst to Forbek, Livia never drank her potion and has retained her adult consciousness. Once she is aware that the guest who has died is her husband, Livia attempts to rescue her friends, but fails, leaving her to confront Forbek. It is in this pivotal scene that Forbek reveals his intent to create a harmonious global state of “true happiness” to Livia. Livia, repulsed by this idea, maintains that it is her individuality and freedom that give her happiness, even if it comes at the expense of other’s misery. Enraged, Forbek attacks Livia, though she repulses his attack with a blow to his head.

The Forbek narrative complicates the final thesis of the medieval portion by raising the moral question if it is worthwhile to achieve happiness at the expense of others. This line of thinking is at the heart of the contemporary narrative centered at the conference for “Education Of The Imagination”, which for all purposes functions as a sort of dating game for the participants who continually pair off into couples. The concerns of this narrative are not as transparent as the previous two I have discussed. Firstly, there is the question of imagination as a means to happiness, the act of retreating into one’s intellect to escape the pain of reality. This concept is epitomized by the character Elisabeth (Sabine Azema), who, having recently lost both of her parents and a lover of two years, retreats into the romantic fantasies of a young girl. She directs these imaginative fantasies first onto Robert (Pierre Arditi) and then Walter Guarini (Vittorio Gassman). In the end, she selects Walter as the manifestation of her romantic delusions, primarily because of his romantic nature, though that has already been proven to be nothing more than a means to an end for him.

the portion of the film set in contemporary France

the portion of the film set in contemporary France

Elisabeth is at the center of another ideology; is it acceptable to give a physical life to one’s imagined happiness? This concept is first breached when she presents a model, much as Forbek did, of her student’s idea of an ideal school, which is as much a theme park as it is a museum. In her presentation of this model, Elisabeth sings of love, freedom, and individual growth. The conference reacts in pandemonium, chastising Elisabeth and arguing that by granting a physical reality to something imagined, imagination stifles, falters, and ceases. This counter argument cuts to the heart of Elisabeth’s romantic projections onto Walter as well as the career dilemma of Robert, who decides after Elisabeth’s presentation to quit being a teacher and become a clown. For like Elisabeth, Robert, having realized his imagined happiness as a teacher, has become unhappy (though in Elisabeth’s case she presumably drifts from long term relationship to another).

Wish fulfillment and the means be which it is achieved provide the fundamental thesis of the contemporary narrative of La vie est un roman. Resnais makes it clear that within a society it is impossible for the collective whole to find happiness, just as it isn’t always possible for one to be happy without others paying a price, even if it be a small one. For Resnais, happiness is a limited experience, restricted to only a few moments. But it is clear that in Resnais’ mind, these moments comprise a majority of who one is and in what direction one takes one’s life. It’s interesting, in terms of a sociological context, that at the time Alain Resnais made La vie est un roman France had entered into a new age of political conservatives. Resnais’ desire to make this film seems to be out of a desire to navigate a direction away from oppressive politics and the anonymity of popular conformity. Likewise, Resnais’ films had become widely criticized for not being optimistic enough or too opaque by many French film critics, indicating the kind of reception such ideas were to receive in France at the time. Regardless, in terms of style and content, La vie est un roman remains one of the most optimistic and escapist films in the long career of the late Alain Resnais.

-Robert Curry

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Wittgenstein, Bazin, & Godard

Reality: The world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them: “he refuses to face  reality”. – Webster’s English Dictionary definition

In 1921, Ludwig Wittgenstein published his most significant philosophical writing Tractus Logico-Philosophicus.  In his book, Wittgenstein does not argue on behalf of his beliefs as they pertain to reality, but instead presents his reader with a number of observations whose validity he believed to be self-evident.  The sum of Wittgenstein’s observations present the reader with a perspective of our shared reality that is designed to undermine the conventions and the stability with which man kind has always employed when grappling with the world around him.  In summation, Tractus Logico-Philosophicus presents a reality without any definite truth, where knowledge as we know it is nothing more than a human invention.  The components of this “human invention” consist of numerical labels and names that allow the human intellect to reason with his/her surroundings, to navigate a reality as subjective as it is believed to be objective.

Wittgenstein’s work has become one of the most influential philosophical studies of the twentieth century, and is, along with the works of Henri Bergson, essential to the development of film theory and criticism.  Consider that everything contained within a frame and the accompanying soundtrack of a film is a “reality”.  To navigate this reality, the filmmaker has broken it up into various shots.  These shots, aligned during the film’s post-production, allow a fluidity of experience, simulating the human experience of time or life.  The denominations of a film’s parts (shots, sequences, scenes, acts) are therefore synonymous with the numerical labels Wittgenstein attributes to man’s invention of a “shared reality”.

The parts of the film, assembled by the filmmaker, each represent a distinctly emotive signifier that the audience utilizes to navigate the film’s narrative.  Each member of the audience, with his or her own subjective perspective, will interpret these signifiers differently, though without much variation.  This phenomenon speaks directly to Wittgenstein’s observations regarding mankind’s experience of reality.  There can, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, be no definite reality if there is no universally uniform reaction or perception to an event, object or thought.

Film is the most illustrative medium of the arts when put in terms of philosophical translation. Yet, in an issue of Cahiers du Cinema published in December 1956, Andre Bazin and Jean-Luc Godard became embattled in an argument over the validity of film art and its ability to reflect or capture reality.

Bazin’s article, “Editing Forbidden”, advocates a cinema of long takes shot with a deep focus.  Bazin believed that it was the cinema’s responsibility to translate our reality as we see it to film, creating the illusion that we, the audience, are occupying the same space and time as the character’s of the film’s narrative.  This translation of reality is more literal than Godard’s interpretation, standing in direct opposition of the theories of montage originated by Eisenstein and Vertov in the twenties.  The films Bazin supported, such as the early films of Orson Welles and John Ford, present a perverted reflection of our reality, and therefore inherit the same non-truths as those outlined by Wittgenstein.

Godard’s article “Editing, My Beautiful Concern”, takes the opposite approach as Bazin’s.  Godard argues that the films of Nicholas Ray, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang, with their use of elaborate montage in the tradition of Eisenstein, present a cinematic experience closer to our reality, and perhaps even closer to a true reality in general.  By breaking a narrative up into numerous signifying parts as opposed to a few, these films create a more powerful emotional and psychological reaction in the audience.  Though most of these films are highly stylized and melodramatic, their ability, through montage, to capture human emotion does represent a more accurate reflection of the human experience.  Despite the fact that these films are subject to Wittgenstein’s observations because they exist in our reality as works of art, within their own insular world they come closer to a true definite reality than those films advocated by Bazin.

For instance, a film by F.W. Murnau such as Faust (1926), with its expressionist and romantic tendencies, creates a world within the film that is entirely reflective of the emotional and psychological truth of its characters that is indisputable to the audience, though the audiences’ own reaction is subject to debate.  A less stylized film such as Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train (1951) presents a world so much like our own that the truths experienced by the film’s characters are just as ambiguous and artificial as our own.

Godard’s observations are nonetheless in direct opposition of the basic language of film criticism.  Godard’s film Made In USA (1966) utilizes cultural signifies constantly, just as it employs a complex editing strategy.  Made In USA presents its audience with more truth through these tactics than most films, but is labeled avant-garde or experimental.  Yet, a film like Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) that utilizes a number of long takes, and avoids using signifiers of any cultural significance is labeled naturalistic.  The paradox that exists here is the direct result of what Wittgenstein outlined to be mankind’s desire to make sense out of the chaos of his existence, to label and categorize what there is in the world.  I don’t mean this in terms of the titles avant-garde or naturalism, but in mankind’s desire to confront reality on the terms of his experience of his perceived reality.  That is to say, the reality of Last Tango In Paris is closer to our own in how it deals with the concept of reality as an aesthetic illusion whereas Made In USA avoids all confrontation with our perceived reality, preferring to manufacture its own world of truths.

-Robert Curry

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