Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Ghost Dance: Re-evaluating Terrence Malick’s darkest film


Newborn, I open my eyes... I fall into the flame. You brought me out of the shadows. You lifted me from the ground.”

Delivered in subtitled French, over some alarmingly lo-fi digital footage, Olga Kurylenko's ecstatic words launch the opening monologue of Terrence Malick’s sixth film, To the Wonder. On first viewing, they seem to repeat the kind of romantic reverie that has underscored so many of the director’s past films (especially the revered 1970s pair), a series of visions of erotic love as a shortcut to sublimity. In dramatic terms, however, the language used seems a little too frank: if love has been acknowledged as a ‘born again’ experience in the opening seconds of the film, then it is hard to see how the remaining 113 minutes will generate any real affective weight. 

Upon walking out of the cinema six months ago, these concerns seemed to have been well-founded: while the arrival of Rachel McAdams’s ‘Jane’ had formed a momentary eddying love triangle a third of the way into the film, the work seemed a monotonous slab of melodrama, utterly lacking the sheer historical power of his earlier masterpieces (The Thin Red Line and The New World), and failing to recapture the grim theological urgency of The Tree of Life. Where the latter’s audacious theodicy involved a jaw-dropping recreation of the deity’s ‘speech from the whirlwind’ (Job 40:6–42:6), To the Wonder seemed content with an extended illustration of the notion of marriage as a mirror of Christ’s relationship with the church (Ephesians 5:23). The director's new film, strangely pedantic and literal, seemed to altogether lack its predecessor’s profound tragic resonance, a quality that quite superseded personal belief, as evidenced by that work's deserved winning of the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

Even Roger Ebert’s warm review (his last) was rather hesitant, admitting that “as the film opened, I wondered if I was missing something.” In this sense, the closing paragraphs of the late critic’s article are movingly candid:
"Well," I asked myself, "why not?" Why must a film explain everything? [...] There will be many who find To the Wonder elusive and too effervescent. They'll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.
Over the past six months, to my surprise, Malick’s sixth film has stuck with me. Certain malevolent images have resurfaced with the nagging insistence of a horror film (the wellington-booted ‘Neil’ picking his insolent way through the fatally diseased mud of Bartlesville; ‘Jane’ edging past a nest of torch-lit dolls in her oppressively gloomy house; or ‘Marina’ herself, peering through their shrouded windows out into the deserted neon streets). Unlike Badlands or Days of Heaven, in which the forces of darkness were fairly explicit (and criminal), To the Wonder seemed to conceal a deeper unease, juxtaposing the three protagonists’ privileged ennui with the brooding existential doubt of Father Quintana, asking: “Why do you turn your back? All I see is destruction. Failure. Ruin.” An extended work of quasi-Lutheran deus absconditus, Malick’s latest film shared with Quintana the painful sense that the deity was hidden to the contemporary world, leading to its savage portrait of our debased era, packed with glitched Skype calls and electrical garage doors.

Aside from the vague echo of Ephesians, however, the depiction of Neil’s failed romance seemed to bear little relevance to such grand concerns, and the ‘born again’ romantic notions introduced by Marina’s opening monologue formed a rather bland distraction from the profound questions lurking at the heart of the film. As Joe Neumaier complained in the New York Daily News, the film appeared “dreamlike but empty: Olga Kurylenko just keeps dancing...”


Given that the vast majority of the film was set (and shot) in the Oklahoma town in which the director was raised, it is intriguing to learn that this southern state was also the primary historical location of the Nanissáanah, the Native American ‘ghost dance’ of the 1890s. Created by a Nevadan Paiute named Wovoka in 1888, each ritual performance of the Nanissáanah lasted for four whole days, during which (according to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture): 
“the dancer would be transported to the afterworld where departed relatives were seen living the old, happy life of the prereservation era, when bison abounded”. 
Wovoka's extended conjuration ritual, summoning the ghosts of the dead and opening liminal pathways to the bison-rich pre-Columbian age, was soon seen by the US government as an act of political resistance, ultimately leading to the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29th 1890. Following the slaughter, a US soldier proudly noted that his regiment had “Sent 200 Indians to that Heaven which the ghost dancer enjoys. This checked the Indian noise, and Gen. Miles with staff Returned to Illinois.” The act of attempted genocide was approvingly reported by the young L. Frank Baum (later to gain fame for creating the escapist frontier of Oz), who saw the massacre of the ghost-dancers as a step forward in the ongoing drive to “wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth”.


These historical crimes form the darkest substrata of the poisoned soil in Malick’s film, and the ceaseless acts of dancing (that so irritated Joe Neumaier) seem to be part of the director’s ongoing effort to forge his own path back to the “prereservation era, when bison abounded”, locating an alternative historical track. In his sixth film Malick is again seeking what Thomas Pynchon has called “the fork in the road America never took, the singular point she jumped the wrong way from..."



While it remains far less explicit than the ecocidal war of The Thin Red Line (or the doomed Wagnerian portrait of Pocahontas and Smith in The New World), this murderous backdrop hints already at the brooding malevolence that was detectable upon even a cursory viewing of Malick’s film. The Aeolian harp that Marina listens to with such rapt attention, for example, seems less a symbol of the Shelleyan divine (“Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is!”), and more of creeping Coleridgean dejection: “the dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes upon the strings of this Aeolian lute, which better far were mute.” Marina’s harp is catching at the gloomy air of the dead lands that surround her, rendering the atmosphere of the nation horribly audible, and underscoring her own terminal Nanissáanah. (Even when the Aeolian harp is absent, a low droning effect haunts the majority of To the Wonder, courtesy of Daniel Lanois, who is credited with ‘Sonics and Variations’ at the end of the film.)

To fully comprehend Malick’s enigmatic ghost-dance, however, it is necessary to consider the private realm as well as the public: like The Tree of Life, this is a work of spiritual autobiography rather than national history, and it has been constructed from such personal material that (as Ebert recognised) we are at constant risk of “missing something”. Modern Hollywood, of course, is very fond of autobiographical cinema – in recent interviews, Oscar-beloved directors such as David O. Russell and Richard Linklater have been eager to reveal the personal stories behind their work, with Russell declaring that Silver Linings Playbook is “personal to me, because I’ve lived through some of these experiences with my son,” and Linklater revealing that the Before trilogy is “personal and I don’t talk about it, but I met a girl in Philadelphia in 1989, and we ended up spending the night walking around, flirting...” While there is a certain affected coyness to such remarks (leading to the enormous ‘but’ that excuses Linklater’s kiss-and-tell commentary), they reveal the contemporary film industry’s voracious appetite for ‘personal’ detail. After Stanley Kubrick’s death, even Eyes Wide Shut was dragged into such a context, with Tom Cruise telling journalists that the film was “as personal a story as [Kubrick]’s ever done”.

For Malick, of course, this demand for extraneous ‘personal’ commentary poses a problem: the director has refused to give any formal interviews since 1979, insisting that the work stands alone. This stance, admirable and effective enough in relation to the four historical films that launched his career, begins to create interpretive difficulties following his late turn towards autobiographical material; with The Tree of Life the director seemed to make some deliberate concessions in this direction, making the underlying personal tragedy (Larry Malick’s death in 1968) fairly explicit in the film’s heart-rending opening scenes. To the Wonder, however, is far more elliptical, refusing to grant any real access to the private events that underscore the film’s onscreen meditation. 

By turning to the few biographical articles that have been published (in particular Peter Biskind’s lengthy 1998 piece for Vanity Fair), it is possible to assemble an approximate account of the individuals and circumstances depicted in To the Wonder. The four central characters correspond quite closely with the director himself, and three others:

  • Neil = Terrence Malick (who grew up in Bartlesville Oklahoma, and moved to Paris in 1980)
  • Marina = Michèle Morette (who met Malick in Paris, 1980; moved to Austin and married him in 1985; agreed to a divorce in 1998)
  • Tatiana = Alex Morette (Michèle’s daughter, who returned to Paris to live with her father aged 15)
  • Jane = Alexandra Wallace (Malick’s sweetheart from St. Stephen's Episcopal school in Austin, who married the director in 1998)

Assembled in such crude terms, the film is revealed as a kind of autobiographical roman à clef, exploring the obscure years between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), a period in which the director spent time in Paris before returning to Texas with Michèle Morette and her daughter (who left soon afterwards), where the couple married, and then separated. The succeeding marriage to Rachel McAdams’s ‘Jane’ (Alexandra Wallace) thus presumably awaits Neil at the end of the film, offering what might appear to be a rather cheerful conclusion: an uplifting comedy, in the best Elizabethan tradition ("A heaven on earth I have won by wooing thee").

Except, of course, that this ending is denied us: To the Wonder ends instead with the dejected Marina (Michèle Morette) vanishing into an forbiddingly dark airport tunnel, before reappearing, inexplicably drenched in water, on an unidentifiable grassland. Dancing a final Nanissáanah, she drifts towards a pylon on the horizon, moving further and further away from Malick’s lens until a bright light abruptly catches her face, and she ‘sees’ the wonder, the insular abbey of Mont Saint-Michel (‘La Merveille’), Normandy:




This closing montage is far from the Elizabethan marriage scenario that we might expect from the biographical outline above, and it is only really comprehensible once we discover the sad fact that Michèle Morette passed away in July 2008. Malick received this news just three months after he had begun shooting The Tree of Life, and the loss evidently haunted his sixth film from its very inception. Marina’s opening monologue is not simply the paen to ‘born again’ love that it appears upon an initial viewing; it is a disarmingly direct response to the cinematic act of incantation itself, the first utterance of a summoned voice glad to have been (temporarily) raised from the otherworld:

Newborn, I open my eyes... I fall into the flame. You brought me out of the shadows. You lifted me from the ground.”

Kurylenko’s ‘Marina’, then, is a kind of filmic apparition, dancing the Nanissáanah through the numinous space of the director’s Oklahoma grassland, made dimly aware of her own immateriality. Affleck’s ‘Neil’ is (along with the directorial Malick himself) a kind of Orpheus figure, who has raised a deceased lover “from the ground,” but is unable to fully accept her reincarnated form. Like Eurydice, she stands a few feet behind him in the garden of ‘La Merveille’, and he is appreciably reluctant to turn and look directly at her:


When these two black-garbed figures do finally embrace, Marina’s breath immediately clouds, and Malick cuts to a shot of the same garden (green just moments earlier), covered with a thin layer of snow:


Unlike anything in the director’s prior filmography, this sequence offers filmmaking in the chilliest symbolist tradition, recalling the haunted contemporary Paris of Cocteau’s Orphée (1950) more than the pastoral romances of Badlands or Days of Heaven.

Following on from this unsettling prologue, the America in which the bulk of the film takes place is seen to be even more diseased, a vision of Oklahoma in which every house seems haunted, and in which the local river itself has become cursed:





The spreading toxicity of the land that Affleck encounters is, of course, the result of the kind of tar-sand seepage that often hits headlines in the contemporary US, a politically resonant instance of the dead poisoning the living (for what is tar but decayed organic matter...?). As Marina struggles to suppress any awareness of her own mortality, the unquiet spirits beneath Oklahoma are seen to be quite literally polluting the land itself.

Throughout Malick's short film, Neil tries to comprehend and overcome this spreading decay (cutting and bagging samples of hair from sick children), but the shared unrest gradually leads to a vision of total entropy, a frozen state upon which the film fades to black after 41 minutes, marking the spread of the infected ice glimpsed in ‘La Merveille’ to America itself:


The central third of To the Wonder is dominated by Rachel McAdams’s moving portrait of Alexandra Malick (‘Jane’), offering a marked contrast to the dancing, incorporeal Marina. As a still-living woman, Jane works and reads, but rarely dances: she has not been 'summoned' by Malick’s film, and is merely being observed. Where Kurylenko's performance is abstracted and balletic, McAdams' is grounded and realist: the malevolent gloom of the film stays well away from her, and almost seems to be waiting (as a form of Lovecraftian eldritch darkness) outside her home, massing itself behind Neil’s back:


When Malick finally turns his attention away from his current wife, and back to Marina, we find, unsettlingly, that she has literally returned to the earth, and is scudding along the dark metallic subway beneath Paris:


“I feel stripped bare,” intones Marina, sounding uncannily like a soul trapped in the thirteenth canto of Dante’s Inferno (“naked and scratched, flying so violently that they broke all the limbs of the wood”). “I don’t know where I’m going... I can’t take it here anymore.” The subterranean European locale that she cannot bear is soon (inevitably) folded back into the poisoned earth of Oklahoma, as Malick intercuts shots of Marina with the quagmire through which Neil staggers, in one of the director’s most queasily memorable scenes.

The dark second half of the film, following Marina’s return, comes increasingly to resemble the almost necrophiliac relationship between Kelvin and Hari (or ‘Rheya’) in Stanisław Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris (and its two excellent cinematic adaptations, by Tarkovsky in 1972 and Soderbergh in 2002). Olga Kurylenko, who was born in the Ukraine, has joked that she “comes from Tarkovsky-land,” suggesting that the striking echoes of Natalya Bondarchuk’s 1972 performance may well be intentional. Like Lem’s reluctantly reanimated heroine, Marina becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her existence throughout the second half of the film, leading to the harrowing sequence in which she attempts to swallow an entire bottle of capsules while fighting with her pitiless husband:


This scene carries grim echoes of Hari/Rheya’s consumption of a container of liquid oxygen in Lem’s novel, hinting at the morbid consequences of defying natural decay, and anticipating the grimly entropic pronouncements of Father Quintana that dominate the film’s tortuous latter half: “Why do you turn your back? All I see is destruction. Failure. Ruin.” Malick’s priest, like the suffering Father Carras in William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist (1971), is increasingly plagued by visions of those he is intended to protect, as his house becomes infested with wasp-like insects, and is surrounded by the clamouring of the sick and the poor:


Quintana's dramatic failure of priestly compassion in these scenes offers an echo of the haunted lovers’ predicament far more profound than was initially apparent (with the film simply appearing to be an extended sermon on Ephesians 5:23); like the Orphic Neil, Quintana has repeatedly failed to find the divine in his surroundings (or in his parishioners), and is being gradually drawn towards his own hellish version of Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

The two most dramatic episodes of the film’s second half are both presented as encounters, more or less literal, with the demonic. If To the Wonder is understood as an Orphic story, detailing the artist’s failed attempt to raise Eurydice from the underworld, then the intervention of ‘Anna’ seems to reflect a fairly explicit instance of the subterranean world’s resistance to such a forbidden operation. Romina Mondello (who plays the interloper) is most famous for starring in the Dario Argento-produced Italian horror film The Wax Mask (1997), and Malick makes his most explicit nod to the ‘horror’ genre in casting her as his bizarre Felliniesque temptress. The menacing Anna tries to lead Marina away from the suburban world of the living, while hissing in her ear: “Leave this place. It’s cramped. Small. There’s nothing here. Look at their faces. False. All false...”


Significantly, Anna makes the film’s only explicit reference to Marina’s mortality, as she tells her to “Listen to your heart,” before pressing her ear to the woman’s breast. “Dead?” she asks. As these two women stride through the streets of Bartlesville, shouting at the inhabitants (“Where are the people? They’re all dead. Nobody’s here. Nothing!”), it seems to be implied that Anna is a kind of apparition. She, at least, recognises such unease in Marina, and taunts her for it: “What are you looking at? You think I’m a monster? An evil monster? A vampire? A witch?” And it is true: none of Bartlesville’s residents seem to see or hear her, despite her raising such a racket. Mondello’s character seems to be the literal incarnation of the “other woman” referred to in one of Marina’s monologues: “My God, what a cruel war. I find two women inside me.” One of these, the uneasy Marina tells us, seeks after the deity, while “the other pulls me down towards the earth...” 

The climactic episode in Marina’s tragic story is the brief motel encounter, during which she seems to submit to the impulse to return to the earth, surrendering to the kind of debased love that Jane has already seen in Neil (“You made it into nothing. Pleasure. Lust.”). While Anna’s demonic nature was made only tauntingly implicit, the figure Marina joins in the motel is literally branded with death, a tattoo spreading across his chest as unmissable as the ‘666’ upon Damien Thorn’s brow:


This pivotal sequence is separated from the strange scenes with the demonic ‘Anna’ by one of the most troubling instances of dance in the entire film, as Marina pirouettes brazenly through a shopping mall, swinging a yellow mop. The incongruous image is probably that which most irritated critics such as Joe Neumaier, yet it also marks a key transformation in the film’s abiding use of the ghost dance: the point at which Marina’s Nanissáanah shifts from being a celebratory evocation of the “prereservation era, when bison abounded” and becomes a sign of her consuming death-drive (the Freudian Todestrieb). The music to which Marina’s final impromptu mall dance is set is Rachmaninov’s symphonic Isle of the Dead (Op. 29, composed in 1908), a piece whose strangely swaying 5/8 ostinato was intended (by the composer himself) to evoke the sound of Charon’s oarsmen rowing a soul to the land of the dead. With a nudge from the demonic Anna, it seems that Kurylenko’s Marina has begun to dance to Charon’s thanatic rhythm, and that she is at last ready to join the deceased souls that teem in the substrata beneath the plains.


Malick's depiction of Marina's oddly willing dance towards death, utterly lacking the theological security of The Tree of Life’s closing scenes, is markedly darker than anything in the director’s previous work. Where The New World was largely inspired by the transcendental musings of Thoreau, Hawthorne and Melville (and The Tree of Life ended with a sublime incarnation of Hart Crane’s The Bridge), To the Wonder seems to be an illustration of the sort of existential pessimism found in T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem, ‘The Hollow Men’:


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar...
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Marina, summoned from ‘death’s other Kingdom’ by the bereaved artist, is gradually seen to be little more than a “headpiece filled with straw,” a disquieting realisation that ultimately starts to extend to the living, too: the director’s overdubbed whispered voices increasingly become as “quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in [a] dry cellar”.

For a work that borders on such nihilism, To the Wonder might seem to have been rather oddly titled, the phrase's air of sublimity making for an ill fit with the film’s abiding vision of failure and ruin. In this sense, it is interesting to discover articles dating back to December 2010 (as the film was being shot) that refer to the film under a totally different title: The Burial. Shortly before the film’s release (a year after these reports emerged), producer Sarah Green belatedly denied any links to this more morbid title, declaring that “It is not called The Burial. We don't know what The Burial is. There is no movie that we're working on called The Burial.” Green’s strenuously disowned title does, however, seem to have been rather appropriate, suggesting as it does that the entire film is serving as a kind of anthropoid coffin, surrounded by canopic jars: a celluloid vessel to be lowered into the earth. 

Given the director’s famous reticence it is impossible to know for sure whether the more explicit title was indeed considered, and if so (as seems likely), why it was ultimately rejected. One reason, of course, might simply be that The Burial veered too close to the horror tropes with which To the Wonder occasionally dabbles, and that the proximity to classic genre pieces (such as the 28th issue of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing) would distort the film's reception. Another possible factor is that touched upon by Roger Ebert’s final review (“Why must a film explain everything?”): there is the chance that, had the film been released under its working title, it might have seemed too blatant an exploration of the Orphic process, and too intimate a reflection upon Malick’s private loss. 

These speculations are, of course, ultimately superseded by the closing reels of the work itself. The final sequences of Malick’s film (depicting Marina’s lonely corridor descent and her muddy reincarnation upon the lamplit plain, illustrated above) serve as a loose structural parallel to the ‘dummy chamber’ found in each of the ancient Egyptian pyramids; these feints lead hapless intruders away from the true Pharaohic chamber, trapping them in a dark end-stopped tunnel. Similarly, the true heart of Malick’s film (and the wealth buried in Marina's celluloid tomb) has already been encountered, a reel earlier, with Quintana’s rapturous closing epiphany: “Flood our bodies with your spirit and light so completely that our lives may be only a reflection of yours. Shine through us.” 

This climactic vision of divinity resting among such apparently shattered lives recalls the closing monologue of The Thin Red Line, in which Private Train watches the wake churning from the rear of a troop carrier, and murmurs: “Darkness, light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.” In the earlier film, this “darkness” was seen as a gigantic, historical force, the war itself. In Malick's latest, unsettlingly personal film, these forces have been internalized, as “our bodies” are seen to have become the decaying corporeal sites of theological light and darkness. While the “eyes” mentioned at the end of The Thin Red Line had witnessed epic conflict on a Homeric scale, Father Quintana has simply gazed upon the throng of damaged souls that forms contemporary America: the faces of the sick, the impoverished, and the incarcerated. Rather than burying these souls with Marina, however, Malick’s disturbing Orphic miniature (his shortest film since Days of Heaven) turns the nation's doomed demos into a source of uncanny cinematic awe. As Quintana realises, in his final words in the film, every pair of eyes, no matter how haunted or debased, form a mirror to the wonder of pure Being: “We were made to see you.”

12 comments:

  1. Just thank you for this article! It's the best analysis I've read on that film so far.

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  2. Cocteau's Orphée and Tarkovsky are also discussed in this blog: reviewingtreeoflife.blogspot.

    I disagree on one point of your article, McAdams's character being a moving portrait of Malick's current wife. I thought her character was very shallow and at the border of ridicule and pathetic. It was 15 minutes of "nothing", which is quite disturbing.

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  3. Thank you so much for writing this. So interesting!

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  4. I wish I could read and understand art as well as you can.

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  5. One of the best film essays I have ever read. Illuminating and intelligent. Makes me want to watch the film again. Thank you.

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  6. I think the bridge in The Tree of Life has more to do with Heidegger than Crane's poem.

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  7. Namedropping, overtly explaining, plain misinterpretation. Film watched with brains rather than expericed with soul. No sense or sensibility. Much too much cultural & intertextual refeneces for showing the knowing. This was a bad film criticsm.

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    1. There's no need to rely on tactility or phenomenology to experience a Terrence Malick film - they are loaded with symbolism and iconography.
      This was as interesting and lengthy discussion of the film as I have seen. Well done,

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  8. an excellent and insightful analysis of this misunderstood film . . .

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  9. fantastic read, thank you!

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  10. I would like to reprint this in a small book I am editing for fans of the film, can I have your permission? thx

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  11. In addition, children seem to play a very important role in the movie. Most prominently, there is of course Tatiana. However, there are many scenes with other children too. For example, when Neil and Marina are invited to dinner, the host family has at least 6 children (which, by the way, is the number of Wallace Malick's children). Also, Bach's "Unto Us A Child Is Born; Alleluia (From Christmas Cantata No. 142)" plays an important role in the movie: It plays halfway during the movie, and also at the end, during the credits. In the DVD edition, it is even played at the root menu. Could this be the wonder that the title alludes to?

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