Monday, August 29, 2016

Tales from the Old New Land: Tale 4 - The First Quarter

And having a playback memory, Carmen remembered something he said about copying down everything he said that sounded vaguely like a reference to Isaiah 8:1, and recorded every word of what he said for fear that he'd demand of her why she did not comply with the order he gave mid-binge/tirade to record these pearls of wisdom. In fact, she did it immediately after he let her go from the ledge. She kept a copy of it on her person every day of her life, in case the Producer ever returned and demanded to see it.

The Producer and Carmen slugged on after that night for another sixteen months. When Carmen finally became Steve's, she was more radiantly beautiful than ever before for two whole decades, and considering the dangers she'd passed, one could argue that she was still more beautiful inside than out. Nevertheless, her ribs had the consistency of crushed ice, her joints bent in manners no human being should, the simple act of arising from her bed was pain itself. Among those who'd experienced repetitive trauma, it is not uncommon to deal with the constant rebreaking of bones, degenerative disc disease and an eventual lumbar spinal fusion; bone spurs, torn ligaments, degenerative arthritis, staff infections from corrective surgeries. And that's only from the effects from before he started to hit her face.

This is mercifully not a book in which to discuss the particulars of tyrannical behavior which cause such internal horror. This narrator has neither the patience nor nothing like the fortitude to speak in any more than generalities about the abominations perpetrated upon Carmen and he beseeches your forgiveness for his need to speak any further of these depravities. But if this fictional rendering of a single Hollywood player getting off on the scent of blood has anything like the ring of veracity to you, then he asks you to at least consider how many thousands there may have been over the past century of powerful Hollywood men who've acted precisely like this.

This particular apparition of a Producer knew on the night of this "window dressing" (his charming term for what transpired that dawn) that his days as a respected Hollywood player could be counted with two digits. Don't mind us the circumstances of his ignominy, there were any number of risible cinematic bombs in the late 70's and early 80's which wiped out Hollywood producers, production companies, and whole studios:

There was At Long Last Love, Peter Bogdanovich's trivial homage to 30's movie-musicals, Cole Porter songs, and Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedies - because nothing oozes Golden Age Hollywood class quite like Burt Reynolds, who became a superstar a few years previously when Deliverance allowed us to watch him kill a Georgia hillbilly with a crossbow while the hillbilly sodomized a 300 pound Ned Beatty as Ned's ordered to squeal like a pig. There was The Exorcist II: The Heretic, a shameless money grab of a sequel starring a miserable looking Richard Burton during a period when he looked like he was taking parts in horrible movies just so he could pay his astronomical bar tab. There was The Swarm, a horror movie about killer bees that starred Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, and Olivia de Havilland - because what everybody wanted to see in the late 70's was the biggest stars of 1945 in a horror movie with a plot too absurd for Roger Corman to film. There was I Spit On Your Grave - a film that couldn't even find distribution for two years because of its quarter-hour depictions (notice the plural) of gang rape. There was X-rated Caligula, a movie made through the combined talents of literary lion Gore Vidal and Bob Guccione - publisher of Penthouse Magazine, who simply wanted to record a literal rendering of the depraved events within the Roman Emperor Caligula's palace in Tacitus's Annals. Every imaginable degradation seemed to find its way into the script; raping a bride on her wedding day - and her groom, sex shows involving children and the deformed (if you don't believe me, watch it), gladiatorial public execution, and a confusing scene for which poor Helen Mirren has to use what is hopefully a prosthetic vaginal cavity to depict herself giving birth as part of a (literally) execrable performance within all these execrable performances. After seeing the original cut, Guccione decided that audiences weren't getting their money's worth, and insisted on inserting a forty-five minute bisexual orgy near the end which the Roman Senators and their wives are coerced into having.

There was, of course, Heaven's Gate, which lost 30 million dollars, ran to nearly four hours in original cut, deliberately killed a horse with explosives, was yanked from movie theaters after less than a week, and bankrupted United Artists - according to most experts the greatest of all movie studios - forever. Some swear it's a misunderstood masterpiece, this narrator doesn't want to find out... Of course, it has a ten minute rape scene...

There was Inchon, the B-Movie hagiography for America's Five-Star General in Asia, and for a moment in 1952 America's would-be dictator, Douglas MacArthur. Financed with no expense spared by a combination of the United States Military and world's most infamous cult leader, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, with MacArthur played by the world's greatest actor - the ailing Lord Lawrence Olivier - for a cool million bucks, and directed by Terrance Young, who made the first few James Bond movies. MacArthur's closest confidante was played by Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft. Who'd have conceived that a movie of such disparate parts would come unglued?

There was Tarzan, the Ape Man - in which a mythical White Ape turns out to be a white man raised by apes and therefore must be brought back to civilisation in England where he can be taught proper discourse. Nevertheless, he retains the animal sexual magnetism of Africa, which overwhelms poor proper and prim Jane. Tarzan's character was found offensive by some in the 1910's when he first appeared, imagine the reception by 1981. Yet somehow, there've since been another six Tarzan movies.

And who can, or should, forget George Lucas's Howard the Duck? A PG live-action movie in which a loveable alien duck gets transported through a wormhole to our world. In the course of the movie, he gets dumped by a club bouncer into a hot tub where a couple is having sex, a human that turns out to be an alien who has a tongue seems to extend like an erection in the presence of Lea Thompson, Howard's duckbill attempts to bite the ass of a sixty-something black woman whose onion-like posterior he finds quite stimulating, he excitedly opens Playduck Magazine in which we see a photo of a duck with curves and hair and feathered white nipples (later in the movie we see duck boobies with pink human nipples), the Cleveland Police Department sexually assaults Howard the Duck, and actor Jeffrey Jones (himself now a convicted sex offender) walks in on Lea Thompson seducing Howard the Duck.

And, of course, Ishtar. The only of these risible and bank-busting movies directed by a woman, and the only one whose director never directed a movie again. Perhaps Ishtar was, truly, the last movie of the Old-New Hollywood - directed by Mike Nichols's old comic partner Elaine May, Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty starring, Vittorio Storaro (Coppola and Bertolucci's cinematographer of choice) doing the photography, co-starring New Hollywood luminaries like Tess Harper (Tender Mercies) Charles Grodin (from an Orthodox family), Jack Weston (Weinstein), Carol Kane (Woody's first wife in Annie Hall and an Oscar nominee for a part in Hester Street that she acted in Yiddish), Aharon Ipale (Israeli), Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman in A Serious Man), David Margulies (Hollywood's character actor of choice when you needed a Jew). Is it any wonder that a film bombed that had so many Jews involved whose scenario was in an Arab country? 

Something rotted in that air of freedom which made the New Hollywood Golden Age possible. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It was inevitable that the freedom which allowed for realistic depictions of ordinary people with their ugliness intact, with sex, and violence, and emotional turmoil unshielded by a production code, would curdle into freedom's betrayal by making its depictions into something sickeningly exploitative - sometimes freedom's very liberators betrayed it. In the case of Hollywood, what appeared to be a glorious liberation turned out to be merely another swing of the pendulum that landed on equilibrium for a moment before swinging into decadence. Today's Hollywood has a new production code, a code that allows for rivers of blood so long as the violence is confined to an unrealistic genre and its human consequences softpedaled, a code that allows for the naive innocence of children to continue unabated into adulthood with bro comedies about manchildren, a code which only allows romantic comedies in which love's ugly moments are airbrushed out of existence, a code dominated by action movies for which the stars are the special effects. Just as in the old production code, today's Hollywood movies can still be damn good, but in the opinion of this clearly not humble enough narrator, almost none of them show us ourselves. There are ways around the problem - movies like The Social Network and Her and WALL-E and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which only show us a complex image of the human spirit by showing us how technology may have completely reshaped it; or movies like Boyhood or the Before movies or (believe it or not) Borat, in all of which the experimental gimmick that makes them possible is so radically extreme that they can only be done once and never be copied. There are some very fine and human directors working in Hollywood's orbit if not actually 'in' Hollywood: there are at least two American treasures: Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater, both of whom manage in every movie to say something new and elusive about America. Among the 'tribe', there's Jason Reitman, or at least was, who made three of the great American movies at the beginning of his career with Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up In The Air, all three of which manage to say something new and elusive about America, and there's John Sayles, whom nobody remembers anymore, but twenty years ago was the God of Independent American Film. There's Ang Lee, who isn't even American, but easily beats Americans at their own game. Errol Morris, the documentarian who makes movies so utterly different from everyone else's that you shouldn't even call them movies by the accepted definition. 

Other than them, there are, as Woody once called them, the Academy of the Overrated: Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson (whom in all fairness seems to be improving), Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufmann, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh (who at least tries to be more ambitious), Sofia Coppola, Peter Jackson, Ken Burns (it takes a rare talent to make the subjects of his documentaries boring), David O Russell, the Wachowskis, Gus Van Sant, Tim Burton, James Cameron... 

These are directors so enamored of movies that they jam pack their movies with references to other movies and forget to put references to life in them. Perhaps that statement is unfair, there are exceptions in every one of their outputs, but the exceptions are very few compared to the misfires. There is a kind of ersatz profundity to their movies - movies like The Matrix and Inception and Avatar and I Heart Huckabees (a movie I used to love) with philosophical messages that can fit inside a fortune cookie; a ponderousness which PT Anderson mistakes for profundity, an incomprehensibility which Charlie Kaufmann mistakes for intellectual challenge, a cynical darkness which David Fincher and the Coen Brothers mistake for gravity, an arrested development which Tim Burton and Wes Anderson mistaken for whimsy, a reliance on CGI which Christopher Nolan and the Wachowskis and James Cameron mistake for visual artistry (it's the technicians who are the artists), a reliance on other movies which Tarantino and David Lynch mistake for ironic commentary. In each of these cases, the problem is that they're weighted down by the baggage of movie history. The movies before them were simply too good, so rather than try to compete with them catharsis for catharsis, they dodge the challenge and instead create homages to what older masters did better than they did, and many critics call these postmodern homages 'original' when the only thing that's original about them is their lack of emotional demand on the audience. These are movies about other movies, and t<3 -="" a="" able="" about="" and="" anderson="" are="" arrested="" brothers="" burton="" challenge="" charlie="" coen="" contain="" cookie.="" cynical="" darkness="" david="" development="" fincher="" fit="" font="" for="" fortune="" gravity="" huckabees="" i="" incomprehensibility="" kaufmann="" last="" like="" love="" lynch="" meaning="" messages="" mistake="" movies="" nbsp="" of="" other="" philosophical="" pt="" s="" tarantino="" tedium="" that="" the="" tim="" to="" used="" wes="" which="" whimsy="" within="">herefore perhaps they're movies against movies. Most alarmingly, and prevalent to nearly all of them, are the movies that mistake technology for humanity. Even among the directors unaddicted to CGI, there are more breathtaking shots in today's American movies than ever before. If nature doesn't give you the background you want, if the lighting on some actress's face is not quite what you want, if her jawline is not quite the way you'd like it, you can digitally alter it to any specification you like; but to what end? Today's auteurs have utterly mastered the technical end of filmmaking, and perhaps because we've mastered technique, we've forgotten what the technique is for.  

Meanwhile, people who've devoted their whole lives to film tell us that the world is experiencing a cinematic Golden Age of which the United States is the only first world country who remains excluded. As with so many things about Contemporary America - soccer, news, public transit, languages, condoms, history, black humor, cheap health care, gun laws, and vegetables - we have in America have only the dimmest awareness of the feast that often seems to happen in every corner of the globe but ours because we're too busy playing with our toys. 

Special effects are the new stars of Hollywood. The highest grossing movies are no longer character based movies like The Godfather or Bonnie and Clyde or Midnight Cowboy or Easy Rider or American Graffiti or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or MASH or Fiddler on the Roof or Patton. There were plenty of smaller, character driven films during these years that did well, but it was between 1975 and 1990 that technology become the undisputed box office king, and after that came the systematic gutting of movies that portrayed Americans in their natural state in anywhere but independent film and the Miramax ghetto. Just over the other side of 1975 lay the Star Wars Trilogy and Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Indiana Jones and ET and Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit - and how human and full of personality do those early Spielberg and Lucas and Zemeckis movies seem next to the high-grossing movies of our time! Would it surprise anyone that Tom Cruise or Chris Hemsworth or Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson were actually computer programs or robots that only exist on a screen? There was even an Al Pacino movie about that exact notion fifteen years ago called Simone. Maybe Jennifer Lawrence is just an updated Simone, an indication that these computer avatars have improved to the point that seem so like us humans that perhaps humans are indistinguishable now from robots!

This New New Hollywood came into existence because the knowledge that movies like Caligula and I Spit On Your Grave and Heaven's Gate and Howard the Duck gave us of what we were capable of was too terrible. The freedom to create greater and more uplifting spectacles can also give us things too vile and revolting for contemplation. All it took was less than a dozen movies in which the human animal was presented to us undeniably in all its stinking shit, and the movie world's been running away from its truth ever since.

Our dearly beloved Producer could have been working on any of these movies, it doesn't matter which, but by the same time the next year, The Producer hadn't worked on a movie for nine months; nine months during which his fists literally performed an abortion on Carmen. Perhaps it became his sole source of satisfaction and relief, because for six months, no glamorous friend returned a call, relieving him not only of his own glamor but the sycophants who glommed onto it. Friendship is fleeting, love mere folly, but how much more true would that be when living in a place known as the 'Dream Factory?' But five minutes after every time he went off, he begged her not to leave, just you wait, he'll make you happy again, Hollywood can be something better than its ever been, and you'll be its leading lady!

Then there was the time the Producer bruised her father up after her father asked about Carmen's bruises. Two minutes later, he gave her Dad a $10,000 wad of cash, then drove him to the emergency room personally in his 1977 Lamborghini Countach. The moment he got through the door, he took out more wads of cash for the doctor and nurses and the other patients - they saw nothing. And while they were in the ER, Carmen's sister practically kidnapped her to a courthouse to make her get a restraining order. Carmen was unwilling, worried she was about to get killed. If not by her producer, then by the guys he'd pay to keep her quiet. The judge listened very patiently and carefully and evinced great compassion for her suffering, he then excused himself to his chamber for five minutes, came back and refused the restraining order. Twelve minutes later, the Producer was at the courthouse, gave Carmen a huge hug and kiss as she sobbed her tears upon him, took her home and told her over and over again how much he loved her. Two days later, they were engaged, and she was the one who wanted to go to the courthouse right away; but he promised her a wedding the whole world would know about, the wedding she deserved.

Who could turn down the life he promised? This was a man who knew how to turn curvature of the Earth to the precise angle he wanted. He was the best actor in Hollywood. For more than a decade, he dealt with creative geniuses every day of his life, but he was a genius of life itself. Every event, the most glamorous, the most spiritual, the most transcendent, the most intangible, could be picked apart and reduced to a transaction. Nothing in life was a mystery to him, and all he demanded in return was that she be no more complicated to understand than the concierge in Oviedo.

Even so, no matter how much of a genius he was, in order to have that wedding, he had to be back in the good graces of Hollywood, and in order to return to Hollywood's graces, he had to be in the graces of multinationals who bought Hollywood up.

It was just at this moment that our dear Producer, whose tastes in cuisine had always seemed tending to the upscale LA specialties of shellfish, steak, and sushi, seemed to develop a yen for rouladen, kasespatzle, saurbraten, kartoffelknodel, bretzels and wurst. Carmen had no idea why the Producer wanted them to go for German every night, and of course he wouldn't explain except to say that there was a different dish he wanted them to try. One night at Old World German Restaurant, the next at Van Nuys German Deli (a standup counter place for which he still insisted that Carmen wear heels), the next at Alpine Village, and the same every night for five or six weeks. Within a month, the Producer was a good twenty pounds heavier, but the moment Carmen's dress seemed a bit tighter, the Producer did what he could to make her not finish what he ordered for them. She would wrap the remains up and take home what remained in a doggie bag, then find them missing from the fridge the next morning.

About five to six weeks in, the Producer pointed to a table across the restaurant. "That's Karlheinz von Huntze, Executive Vice-President of Polygram Entertainment." Until the 60's, Polygram was a third-German, third-Dutch, third-British corporation responsible for no less than seven of the world's major classical music labels and another ten of the world's major Popular Music labels. A number of these labels were all too happy to collaborate with Hitler's culture ministers in times gone by, but Polygram controlled a vast swath of the great musical glories of the gramophone - glories set down before, during, and after the Second World War: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespe, Woody Herman, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Oscar Petersen, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, untold numbers of Broadway Musicals, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, the Rolling Stones and Elvis during some of their best periods, Eric Clapton, Talking Heads, the Ramones, KISS, Billy Joel, Donna Summer, the Village People, the Bee Gees, ABBA, The Osmonds, Yves Montand, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaff, and hundreds of other pop music acts; nearly every major mid-century orchestral conductor, untold numbers of great classical soloists and opera singers and chamber ensembles, the premiere recordings of every postwar work by Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, untold numbers of moderately obscure and young and unproven composers whom no major label today would take a chance on, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra... In 1963, it was Polygram's by then long since subsidiary, the Dutch Phillips Electronics (founded by Karl Marx's uncle), that invented the tape cassette.

By 1980, Polygram was surely too big to fail, and yet... its catalogue was simply too large, and it had to either expand significantly to make up for its losses, or shed an enormous part of its product. Since there was very little in music of which they didn't own a significant portion, it was time to move into Movies. What better way to do that than Movie Musicals? Polygram had a 50% share in RSO Records, which gave them a huge profit in the Disco market because RSO Records had the music distribution rights to Grease and Saturday Night Fever. This was in addition to the money made from their contracts with the Bee Gees and the Village People and Donna Summer. Unfortunately, this was nowhere near enough to cover their bill. They needed a movie musical of their own.

Enter Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band... THE MUSICAL! Yes, all the Beatles hits are here, sung as you've always wanted to hear them sung by Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, and Steve Martin. With cameos from Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Earth Wind & Fire, Dr. John, Etta James, Curtis Mayfield, Bonnie Raitt, Frankie Valli, and a hundred other musicians - none of which sing their original music, and narrated by George fucking Burns (now there's a name that'll put the young bums in the seats...). God knows how many hundreds of millions Polygram had to pay to acquire the rights for them from EMI, but it was just another couple hundred million pulled down the drain of this spectacular musical black hole. Ever the artistes, John and George refused to even attend the premiere, no doubt they took the money though; while ever the workhorses, Paul and Ringo went to the premiere, then refused to have anything more to do with the movie, or with Polygram.

And there sits Karlheinz Huntze, all sixty-seven years and 350 pounds of him squeezed into a fecally brown suit that probably fit him when he was fifty-five with a badly tied thin tie that didn't reach his naval, unashamed of his brown teeth and double chin that went past his neck, all of which bit with great begeisterung into the giant plate of braten and sauerkraut in front of him, yet vain enough about his hair to wear a spectacularly bad salt and pepper toupee whose base seemed to levitate an inch and a half over his boneless skull and continue six inches up. On his left hand, a wedding ring seems as though it might at any moment pop off his brat-like finger.

So this was it... The perfect movie musical star - a gorgeously unique looking petite girl with a large head, already well known and liked by everybody in Hollywood, packed to the gills with brains and lungs; no singing lessons necessary, no acting lessons necessary, minimal dancing, can play piano, knows every jazz standard in the Real Book. All it takes is one movie, then she has her choice - greatest living singer or greatest living actress? It's needless to say who's on her arm and advising her every decision.

And of course, she's brilliant when she talks to Huntze. Within ninety seconds, the Producer excuses himself to the bathroom and seems to stay in there for forty minutes. She speaks to him in the fluent German she picked up from her opera training, they compare the Schubert and Goethe they love best, they sing the Papageno and Pamina duet from Mozart's Die Zauberflote at the table (the restaurant bursts into applause, more for Carmen...). He orders four different deserts, and insists on splitting each of them with her and that she eat up her half to the every mouthful. He gives her a standing invitation to visit him and his wife in Hamburg so she can see the Kunsthalle and the Dichterhallen and walk through the taverns where the young Brahms played, and tells her that he'd love to hear her play piano before he leaves town. He writes down an address of a private residence of a freund at who's place he's staying.

Of course, very little piano was played. Someone already as thoroughly demoralized as Carmen has no illusions left of the necessities expected of her. If anything, she was thankful for Herr Huntze's patronizing kindness. The cutesy/schatzi German nicknames he gave her, the grandfatherly forcefeeding of Stroh and Obstwasser before geschlechtich verkehren and makronen afterward (which of course came to her mouth via his boneless hand). He told her she was a shoo-in, all she had to do was meet with a few more people at Polygram and they'd make a musical as a vehicle for her!

It is, of course, needless to tell you that something similar was expected at every new meeting with every member of the Polygram team: Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Dutch, Danish... Old world gentlemen all of them, their courtly manners justifying their sense of entitlement to the world. A few of them were quite attractive - tall, silver-haired gentlemen with immaculately tailored three-piece suits surrounding paisley ascots tucked into perfectly pressed shirts; sculpted hair and pencil-thin mustaches above the thin and constantly pursed lips that smoked long thin cigarettes; they wore scarves in the summer and walked with canes - even the young ones seemed old. The bald ones generally had combovers with more mousse than hair, the fat ones always had watch chains on their vests. Never would she leave without an extremely expensive gift - a Channel perfume, a Swarovski Chocolate Box, a De Beer diamond ring, a dress from Christian Dior (and of course, the measurements were perfect). When meeting her at the door they would bend down and kiss her on the hand, or kiss her on each cheek, sometimes three times rather than two. Conversation was always quite pleasant, the meals were always the height of gourmet and gourmand, the wines they picked were amazing (at least when they weren't German...), and occasionally they even flew her to Germany. Karlheinz even got her the Dichterhallen.

The Producer seemed strangely OK with all this. He never asked her where she was going, gave her free use of whatever car she wanted, and he seemed happier than he'd ever been in their relationship. He was on the phone 18 hours a day, his old friends were his friends again, and during that month when she was in meetings and gaining nearly thirty pounds from the German dishes she'd eaten - which made outfits much tighter and her curves more alluring - his life was back to a whirlwind of tennis, power lunches, movie pitches from him, and movie pitches to him.

Early in the evening of September 19th, Carmen returned to the house to find the Producer wearing what looked like a white bathrobe and a fisherman's cap on his head, but all of the cap but the bill was covered by the white shawl with blue stripes he work over his head. He was standing in the corner of his living room, bending his back up and down at the speed of sound as he read from a book while his lips moved with barely any sound at the speed of light. He didn't even seem to notice her, and as she walked in front of him, she saw that not only was he wearing his favorite tie, but the tie was cut in the middle, almost the entire way through.

Before she could even ask what was wrong, he looked at her and emphatically intoned:

"Vahyigah hadawvawr el meylekh nineveh mikis'aw va'yo'aw'ver ahdahrtaw meyawlawv."

And then he began to walk directly towards her, staring her deadly cold in the eye and taking a step a few inches forward with every seven words:

"For the word came unto the King of Nineveh and he arose from his throne and he laid his throne from him and covered him with sackcloth and sat in ashes and he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the King and his nobles saying let neither man nor beast nor herd nor flock taste any thing let them not feed nor drink water but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth and cry mightily unto Adonai yea let them turn every one from his evil way and from the violence that is in their hands."

He then stared at his hand for a moment that seemed like fifteen, as unaware as she was about what he was about to do.

"You didn't get the part."

And then he dislodged her cornea.

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