One of my favorite album covers of all time is Everything but the Girl's Love not Money. It has a picture of a little boy and a little girl outside in the street of what appears to be some lower class mill town. It has been raining and the gray-toned photo is of the two of them watching each other piss into a puddle in the street. Kids. I'd want to kill some of the ones I've run into in my life if I hadn't been one once. Having been one once and then having kids of your own is a powerful combination that makes it impossible for any sane person to consider seriously harming a child.

This first English language film by Alejandro González Iñárritu and his second feature film is about the consequences of harming children. His first feature film, Amores Perros, was in Spanish and was about the consequences of harming dogs. I suppose his next film will be about the consequences of harming the gods. Who knows what language that one will be in?

21 Grams is about a whole lot more than harming children, but I couldn't get past the idea of two children. Benicio Del Toro, who more than anyone else in this movie deserves whatever awards you get for a job well done in the film industry these days, is a born again loser who is trying to be a father to a little girl and her younger brother. They're his kids but he is doing what could generously be called a halfass job of raising them.

I think I first paid attention to Del Toro in Traffic. I'm sure I noticed him in The Usual Suspects, but I don't think it would be a stretch to say that this is the role he was born for in 21 Grams.

It's not going to spoil your movie-watching entertainment to tell you that he is responsible for the deaths of two children (not his own) in this film. It might spoil the movie for you if I told you about the other two children in the movie, so I'll let that lie for now. But I could not get over the idea that this film should have been called "Two Children," primarily because I couldn't for the life of me figure out what the hell the 21 grams had to do with anything. Even if it *is* true that a human body loses 21 grams at the exact moment of death, this did not help me understand anything that happened in this movie. The character Sean Penn plays is a mathematician (if you can believe that -- nothing in the film leads you to believe that this is really true, even though you have to assume it is). He tells the female lead (Naomi Watts) that he studies numbers and how they imbue some sort of meaning to everything that happens in our lives. However, if you're looking for a great movie about numbers, I would suggest Pi or A Beautiful Mind. It's just an afterthought here, as far as I can tell.

Sean Penn will probably be the one who gets the award nominations. Of course, he's also in Mystic River this year, which I hear is a great film and one I will likely see, if for no other reason than it was directed by one of my modern-day heroes, Clint Eastwood. I suppose those of you who know me can imagine how much I dislike Sean Penn. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy hearing the other side of the political argument from those with a sharp wit and an ability to express themselves. Sean Penn has neither. Did you hear that rambling interview he did with Larry King after coming back from a trip to Iraq before the war? It was amazing to me that a man who can so skillfully recite the lines that are given to him in a drama can be incapable of putting a coherent sentence together when expressing his own words. It just made me sad, really. I think of Winona Ryder and Morton Downey Jr. and Courtney Love and all the other wasted lives laid bare before us by the movie machine.

However, there is no escaping the fact that Penn puts on a good performance in this film. Most of his acting is done with the interaction between himself and a cigarette, and you've got to have smoked a lot of cigarettes to be as good as he is at it.

As with Amores Perros, Iñárritu tells the story with two basic style elements: One is a grainy look to the film. I'll have to let riverrun tell you how that's done since I've been out of the film biz for too many years to know. I would suspect that cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto shot it on a hand-held 16 mm or some smaller than usual format and then transferred to the larger stock. But that's just a guess. (In riverrun's honor, I will mention that the editor here is Stephen Mirrione who won an Oscar for his work on Traffic.) The more important element is the shifting timelines. This is not a new trick, but Iñárritu uses it in a way that I've never really seen before. He takes short shots and tosses them back and forth in the timeline in order to suit his purposes for setting the mood. It might just be a shot of an empty, nasty swimming pool at a motel. It might be a majestic shot of birds flying against a rosy dawn. The important thing is that it does not jar you into walking out of the movie, as so many of these type films do, thinking, "I'm not getting this and I've seen enough." I would venture to say that this film has had little or no walkouts, even though it is one of those movies my wife would call "too weird." I went to see it with my daughter who was also born in December and has the sensibilities of a good Sagittarian. Oddly enough, it turns out that Iñárritu shares the exact birthday of my Leonine wife, August 15.

As with Amores Perros, the film centers around the consequences of one accident on three different people. And, as with Amores Perros, he wrote this along with Guillermo Arriaga. I think you're going to be hearing a lot about these two names during the next couple of decades. And for those of you who live in or have known Memphis very well, most of the city scenes in this movie were shot there. (I've got to tell you I didn't recognize the city at all when I was watching it.) The desert scenes were shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The one defining characteristic of a great movie is that you will think about it for several days after you see it. It might be the "grand idea" you realized suddenly. It might be the majestic work of an actor or actress that you can't get out of your mind. With me and Amores Perros and 21 Grams, it's just a mood that I can't forget. It's a slice of my life somewhere that I usually keep hidden and these films drag memories out of the dark and make me look at them, whether I want to or not. That's pretty darn good art, in my book.

"We're just a bunch of Mexicans, trying to make a movie in America."

—Guillermo Arriaga, screenwriter, 21 Grams

In a way, this is my favorite time of year. The holidays are over, the new toys are either broken or well-integrated into the family lifestyle, and things are getting back to normal.

For me and mine, "normal" means a roughly three-month parade of free movies—industry passes at the local Bijou and/or invitations to private screenings which arrive thickly in my mailbox daily.

Basically I see them all, the ones I couldn't bring myself to even consider back in May (say, for example, Seabiscuit) as well as the high-brow and/or popular fare that is always released late in the year to qualify for the Oscars (Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, Big Fish).

I sit in the best seats in the best theatres with my best buddies and watch the best and the worst that Hollywood has to offer. Sometimes the occasion can be painful: my then-eight-year-old and I saw The Lord of the Rings 13 times, for example. Because we could. And sometimes, like this year, I am reminded of why I got into the movie business in the first place.

Sometimes I see a film that takes my breath away.

Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams is such a film. I don't remember when a movie that had somehow been below my radar for so long has affected me so strongly.

They're tricky monsters, you know, movies. The best of them don't just sit there on the screen waiting for you to "get" them. The great ones make you work for your deep and lasting appreciation. Sometimes, like much art in my experience, a film can anger you at first view, usually because it's so far outside your own experience, because it's so original in conception and execution that it resembles nothing you've ever seen before.

Citizen Kane is such a film. Apocalypse Now qualifies, as does Andrei Tarkovsky's entire ouvre.

To a large degree, as well, world-class cinema depends—like a good acid trip or a bad marriage—very much on set and setting. Sometimes you've just gotta be in the mood. Like Christopher Nolan's Memento of a few seasons ago, 21 Grams, the story of three strangers whose lives are inextricably intertwined because of a tragic accident, demands that you leave your prejudices, your everyday trials and tribulations, and—most important— your ideas about what constitutes great "art" at the door.

Because art shows you where your shit is.

I was privileged to attend an industry screening of the film I want to call the "best" of the year last week. Present for a discussion following 21 Grams were its screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, Robert Salerno, co-producer along with Mr. Iñárritu, and Stephen Mirrione, the film's incredibly gifted editor.

To give you an idea of what transpired during and after the screening, I'll note that as the credits faded away and the house lights came up, there was not a sound in the theater. The audience, comprised of world-weary pros not unlike myself who've watched a lot of celluloid dreams unspool in our time, failed to give the film the giddy and tumultuous ovation that I experienced at similar screenings of In America, Cold Mountain, Big Fish and Lost in Translation.

We were, in a word, stunned. And as the film's creators regaled us with tales of its construction, nobody left the room; not a property man with an early call; not an assistant camerawoman with a brand-new baby. Not a single young director stuffed with the hubris of "hunh, I could have done that" stood up to ask a single stupid question.

Because, you know, none of us could have made that film.

To begin with, Guillermo Arriaga, the writer, is a genius who created the story out of whole cloth, imagining, he told us, what would have happened were he to attend his own birthday party after killing a man in a traffic accident. Or being a man killed in a traffic accident who never got to his party. Or being a witness to a man killed in a traffic accident and thinking about it all the way to the party for which he was late (the truth). You know how writing goes: it's fluid, watery as can be, till the hard climate of the page and then the screen freezes it for all time.

Like Amores Perros before it, 21 Grams is structured in a highly idiosyncratic fashion: we the audience can initially make absolutely no sense of its apparent inconsistencies of time and place, of set and setting. The end seems to be first, the beginning is abrupt, and the middle is hard to find. Who are these people who seem to be so haphazardly presented to us? Why should we even care?

Well, we care, finally, because Jack, Benicio Del Toro's born-again ex-con, Paul, Sean Penn's guilt-ridden heart-sick college professor, and Cristina, Naomi Watts's recovering addict-housewife are, like every character William Shakespeare ever created, complete, whole, living/breathing human beings in conflict. We care because we recognize non-linear bits and pieces of ourselves in them. And we care because 21 Grams proceeds, once you find its range, with the tragic inevitability of Sophocles. It's like a car-crash unfolding right before your eyes, existing in de-saturated slow motion and multi-phonic sound in a world all its own.

Film Editor Stephen Mirrione talked about it thus: "The challenge to editing a movie like this is that everyone is going to watch this and initially react in a different way. But they won't have to know or be expecting this or that to happen, because this movie will pull you along. It's going to impact everyone a little differently. You are feeling 21 Grams as it's happening. Then, at the end, when it's over, there will be the same overall emotional impact—it hits you."

When asked how he managed to come up with such a powerful arrangement of images, Mirrione demurred to the screenwriter, who admitted, not without chagrin, that he WROTE the film entirely the way it was presented.

"I have a little secret," Mr. Arriaga confessed. "Since childhood I have ADD. It's the way I think."

This brought a delighted laugh from the audience, but the writer continued: "The traditional three-act structure…I don't know. It isn't the way we tell stories, is it? Not really."

"I mean you say 'oh look, the boy, my son, he fell down off his bike and broke his tooth. You know, his mother, my wife, she has a similar broken tooth. Years ago her mother was not paying attention. Her mother was from Vera Cruz.'"

"And so the story begins. We don't mind that we don't always know where we are in the story because, hopefully, the story is a good one, and anyway, we like the story-teller."

The film's fragmented hallucinatory style is an extremely viable way to tell a story, in my opinion, particularly in this age of visually literate audiences with short attention spans. We find ourselves concentrating with unusual effort on what is unfolding before us. In a way, we are collaborating with the filmmaker as the tale progresses. We bring knowledge OF a character TO a character as he or she is presented to us. This is extremely gratifying. And it mimics, in a way, the manner in which we "discover" friends and enemies in "real" life. It's revolutionary cinema.

"Collaborating with Alejandro means high energy," reported Producer Robert Salerno. "He likes to hear from everybody—his DP, his costume designer, his production designer, whoever—and then puts the pieces together. He is passionate about everything that goes into a script and a film. That energy and passion inspire the crew and the actors."

"A few weeks of rehearsals preceded the start of production, and exhaustive research was the key element in both character construction and pre-production. Background research was required for every profession that appeared in the script, so hundreds of hours were spent interviewing doctors, professors, and ministers. Extras were, whenever possible, what they appeared to be; cardiologists played cardiologists, nurses were nurses. Even restaurant patrons were corralled from regulars at the eatery location. Workout enthusiasts appeared in the swimming pool and community center scenes."

Producer, editor, and writer referred, again and again all evening long, to the genius and commitment of the film's director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, a man I should very much like to buy a beer. The attention to detail that he lavished on the project, which took three years to complete, seems to me to be nothing short of superhuman. He's a young man (this is only his second film), and the mind boggles at what may lie ahead.

Regarding the choice of Memphis, for example, as the film's locale, Iñárritu was very specific in a previous interview: he found it to be "unique, and quite different from all the cities in the United States that I've known and visited. It reminds me a little bit of a Latin American city. Memphis has a strong personality and the people there still have their feet on the ground. It's the heart of America, with a nostalgic sad feeling. You can hear the blues in the air, plus the strength of the Mississippi River."

Screenwriter Arriaga confided that on a rare day off from production, he visited the Oxford, Mississippi home of his favorite author, William Faulkner, to whom the film owes somewhat of a debt, insofar as its fragmented style and sense of Old Testament grace and redemption are concerned.

"Wouldn't you know it?" he remarked. "It was closed. But—no matter. I climb the fence."

For me, this is metaphoric, delineating the process of discovering a unique film reality that has become the collaborative technique of this group of (essentially) Mexican filmmakers.

Many of my acquaintances who do not like the film (I know 20 people who hate it—always a good sign) complain that its style is haphazard, cacophonic, a gimmick. Listen to what Rodrigo Prieto, the film's visionary cinematographer, has to say about that in the December 2003 issue of American Cinematographer:

"We were separating each story with colors that we felt were appropriate. We pictured Paul's story in cool colors; the interior lighting is generally white, and the night exteriors have the cool, greenish look of metal-halide lamps. By contrast, we went for warmer colors for Jack; all of the night exteriors in his story are lit with sodium-vapor lamps, and we gelled lamps indoors with warm colors. The vibration of red-orange light is more intense, which we felt was right for the character. Cristina's story is presented neutrally, as something in between. In general, the lighting is white, but her story mixes so much Paul's that they both have blue-green night exteriors. And when they finally meet Jack, all three color schemes become more red-orange.

"We also played with different film stocks to keep the grain structures in different contrasts as the stories developed," Prieto continues. "When things were looking up for the characters, we'd use a finer-grained stock." For Paul's story, that meant Kodak Vision 250D 5246 stock for the scenes following his transplant, and for most of his scenes with Cristina. (Night interiors involving these characters were shot with Kodak Vision 500T 5279.) "Then, as things get more complex, we go to a heavier grain, Kodak Vision 800T 5289. The first third of Jack's story was 5279, and then we moved into 5289." In fact, the transition occurs in the midst of a sequence in which friends are gathered for Jack's birthday party, and the guest of honor is absent.

"Scenes that show the party happening without him were filmed on 5279, and the moment he arrives, we changed to 5289," says Prieto. "It's so subtle that it's likely no one will consciously notice it." When the characters converge in New Mexico for the film's climax, the scenes are rendered entirely with the heavy-grained 5289, made harsher by the bleach-bypass process.

"Prior to shooting, we did many, many tests involving wardrobe, palettes of background colors, film stocks and lighting colors," the cinematographer recalls. "We didn't initially approach those choices in a way that actually gave them intellectual meaning; we just went with what we felt. We kept making tests, and we arrived at the final scheme through discovery, not design."

Testing also helped determine what effect Deluxe Lab's CCE silver-retention process would have on the images. "I was almost fighting the process in the way I was lighting," Prieto reveals. "We didn't want the look to be extremely contrasty, but we did want it to have an extra edge, a vibration. Lighting by eye, I had to fight my instincts and be very aware of the actors' eyes, which normally would have been perfectly exposed. The nervousness caused by that approach gave the shoot a special energy for me. We couldn't take anything for granted - we were surprised by the test results every time! A color that we thought would read gray would turn out to be completely black. That's why we tested every piece of wardrobe and every single set color."

Inarritu and Prieto also shot-listed the movie in prep, but only for general guidance. They wanted to achieve a style of camerawork that would feel spontaneous, but wouldn't call attention to itself. "The objective was to make the film as unobtrusive as possible visually," says Prieto. "The images support the power, drama and emotions of the story, but we hope they don't make you think about the way the film was shot. Our goal was a kind of minimalism, in the sense that we didn't use any cranes or dollies. We were working handheld all the time, even on static shots, because we wanted to create the feeling that the camera was present with the actors, moving, reacting and breathing with them."

Indeed, this may be more detail regarding the "look" of the film than the average audience member needs to know, but the thoroughness of the artists' approach marks them as filmmakers with whom to be reckoned.

And incidentally, the film was not shot in 16mm (as dannye wonders aloud in the accompanying write up), but rather in traditional 35 mm utilizing an Arriflex Moviecam SL, a lightweight camera with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses. "We wanted to see every blemish and nuance of the actors' faces," notes Prieto.

So there you have it: a film that is, perhaps, at bottom, about blemishes, the idiosyncrasies that make us human, and, at the other end of the spectrum, at the top of the fence that we all must someday climb, the aspirations that, ultimately, bring us closer to the divine.

21 Grams is my favorite film of this, and probably MANY a year.

Prepare to be amazed.

On Hollywood and filmmaking:

Below the Line

sex drugs and divorce

a little life, interrupted
  1. Hecho en Mejico
  2. Entrances
  3. Sam's Song
  4. Hemingway and Fortuna
  5. Hummingbird on the Left
  6. The Long and Drunken Afternoon
  7. Safe in the Lap of the Gods
  8. Quetzal Birds in Love
  9. Angela in Paradise
  10. And the machine ran backwards

a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon

I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind

Below the Line
completion bond
Film Editing
Film Editor
Final Cut Pro
forced development
HD Video
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Sven Nykvist
Wilford Brimley

21 Grams
Andrei Rublyov
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
Ivan's Childhood
The Jazz Singer
The Sacrifice
We Were Soldiers
Wild Strawberries

Duncan MacDougall and weighing the dead

Science does not exist in a vacuum. Throughout time, it has been utilized and sometimes highjacked in order to have some sort of tangible, "verifiable" confirmation of cherished beliefs. One might argue that part of the success of Christianity and Judaism is because they are historically based. The idea that material, flesh and blood people existed and real events occurred—ones that can be unearthed and studied. It is also part of the reason some fight tooth and nail when the suggestion that some of things in the Bible may be metaphorical—more message than occurrence. This isn't just a religious thing (Darwin did not formulate "social Darwinism") but matters of faith and of the metaphysical variety are common candidates for these attempts to use science in order to "prove" the veracity of key beliefs.

One important belief—not confined to just the two aforementioned religions by any means—is a belief in something called a "soul."1 A part of the person that exists, a spark of life that makes the person special, "human," different from mere animals. It is also a human's connection with the eternal. Not only is the soul a part of "who you are" and the lifespark, it is a part of the person that continues well after the death of the body. Of course, a soul is apparently intangible and invisible; it is a matter of faith. But if someone could show, somehow, that such a thing existed. If someone could verify that belief in eternal life. That would fulfill the all-too-human desire to, Thomas-like, probe the wounds for proof that can be seen and felt.

In the early twentieth century, a certain Massachusetts (Haverhill) doctor named Duncan MacDougall thought he could do just that. MacDougall felt that the soul did indeed have a materiality—at least as far as weight goes (this belief would expand later on). It was probably very little but he was convinced that careful experiments would reveal that shortly after death—when the soul vacated the body—there would be a measurable decrease in the weight of the body. He wasn't the first one to posit this "theory" that souls might have measurable characteristics, but in 1907 he became the first to test the idea.

Setting to work, he constructed a special bed in his office. It was "arranged on a light framework built upon very delicately balanced platform beam scales." Since he would need to be precise and because the soul would likely have very little weight, he made his creation sensitive to 0.2 ounces. Then, of course, came the next step. He would need subjects who would agree to be monitored before, during the death process, and following the actual death. Of these six subjects, four suffered tuberculosis, one diabetes, and the sixth an indeterminate illness (or one that was not recorded).

While making sure of each patient's comfort, he carefully studied any changes in weight throughout the period. A person's weight fluctuates quite a bit over time (though often by amounts that most typical scales cannot measure). MacDougall needed to determine those fluctuations and the conditions under which they would take place. This way he hoped to control for variations that might lead to false conclusions. One patient was closely observed over a period of three hours and 40 minutes (until death). MacDougall determined that from evaporation of sweat and moisture from respiration, the patient lost about one ounce per hour.

When the patient finally "expired," he noted a drop of approximately three-fourths of an ounce (just about 21 grams) beyond what was expected from previous measurements. He could not otherwise account for the loss. There was no bowel movement and though a small amount of urine flowed at death, it remained on the bed, meaning that it could not account for the loss of weight. He and his partner then checked to see what difference full or empty lungs would make. They determined that it didn't affect the weight.

MacDougall was fairly sure he could explain the experimental evidence with his theory. Another test was done to see if the loss was human-specific. The experiment was reproduced using fifteen dogs (presumably killed for the purpose of his proving the existence of the human soul).2 Generally, animals are thought not to have souls so if there was no weight difference before and after death, then it would bolster his contention that the weight change was (or at least might be) the soul. It confirmed his expectations, "the results were uniformly negative, no loss of weight at death."

Confident that he had made a breakthrough in science and religion, he published his results in both the New York Times and a medical journal (American Medicine). His conclusions and methodology were attacked immediately. To be fair, even MacDougall recognized that many more trials had to be made and the results replicated. But he felt that he had proved that "there is in the human being a loss of substance at death not accounted for by known channels of loss" and that the dog trials showed that the loss was unique to humans.

So aside from the dogs, what about those human subjects? The results were inconsistent across the board (his small sample of only six people was one of the many objections to his conclusions). Sure there was the already noted "three-fourths ounce" change. But moving on to the others, his results were inconclusive. Another was found to only lose a half ounce. Apparently not realizing if the patient was dead, MacDougall's partner listened to the heart (called by the fancy term "auscultation") and found it had stopped beating. They checked the weight again and found the loss to one and a half ounces (and 50 grains). That would be about 45.6 grams. In the third case, the person lost a half ounce at death. Then lost another half ounce a few minutes later. 28.3 grams.

The fifth one was indeed curious. It "showed a distinct drop in the beam requiring about three-eighths of an ounce which could not be accounted for. This occurred exactly simultaneously with death but peculiarly on bringing the beam back up again with weights and later removing them, the beam did not sink back to stay for fully fifteen minutes." In other words, the weight slightly increased at first but reversed before later returning to a higher weight.

So far, there were three clear drops, though only one was a single event rather than an initial drop followed by a later additional loss. Then there's the puzzling fifth trial. Worse are the other two. The fourth case was thrown out by MacDougall ("I regard this test as of no value") because the scales "were not finely adjusted" and "a good deal of interference by people opposed to our work." The sixth was useless because the subject died on the bed before the scales were all adjusted.

MacDougall's conclusions were solely on the back of 15 dead dogs (no record that he bothered to test any other animals—perhaps one that had approximately the same weight as a given human subject), and only one patient that showed the expected results. The other two that dropped are at the least very problematic unless the nature of the weight drop can be explained or controlled for. There is also the distinct differences in the weight of the hypothesized "soul" without much attempt to explain why "souls" would not have a uniform (or narrower range) weight. And if they do not have a uniform weight, then there must be some way to determine when a weight change is due to the evacuation of the soul or something else.

Other problems were apparent, one being the determination of the exact moment of death (accompanied by the assumption that it is at that precise moment the soul leaves the body). MacDougall said the moment in question was when the person exhaled the final breath and would try to explain away the inconsistencies between the drop rate by claiming that "the soul's weight is removed from the body virtually at the instant of last breath, though in persons of sluggish temperament it may remain in the body a full minute. Of course, one wonders how he was able to determine that as the reason (or what qualifies as a "sluggish temperament"). Assumptions are at every step of his experiment and are later used to make the evidence conform to the "theory."

But MacDougall was convinced. A true believer. Even considered an "expert" of some sort on the subject of science and souls. Four years later he made the front page of the New York Times discussing the use of x-ray technology to photograph the soul (a serious program being undertaken at the University of Pennsylvania, apparently). He dismissed the idea that a simple x-ray could capture the soul because an x-ray was "in reality a shadowy picture." On the other hand, he felt that at that precise moment of death "the soul substance might become so agitated as to reduce the obstruction that the bone offers" to x-rays and would be revealed as a "lighter spot on the dark shadow of the bone" in the developed plate.

The article went on to say that he believed that this "soul substance gives off a light resembling that of interstellar ether."

McDougall died in 1920 and his legacy that we have inherited is the idea that upon death the soul exits the body, leaving it 21 grams lighter. Even though only one of the six exhibited that weight change. And after all those additional assumptions that allowed him to believe that he had discovered scientific proof of the human soul.

Hope springs eternal....

1For the sake of discussion, I'm using a general mainstream Christian view (since specifics can vary from denomination to denomination, not even counting personal variations within denominational views). It is likely the view which the doctor was working with.

2In his own words, "the ideal tests on dogs would be obtained in those dying from some disease that rendered them exhausted and incapable of struggle." He would also add that "it was not my fortune to get dogs dying from such sickness." The reader may draw his or her own conclusions.

Source and all quotes: "Soul Man"

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