Sunday, May 29, 2022

Recapping Sir Alec Guinness’s Rocky Relationship With STAR WARS


O
n Friday, May 27, one of the most anticipated installments in one of the biggest franchises of all time dropped: Obi-Wan Kenobi, the new Disney+ mini-series. The six-part program features Ewan McGregor reprising his role as the titular Jedi Master, who he first portrayed in the STAR WARS prequel trilogy (1999-2005). McGregor’s Kenobi, was one of the most popular characters in the three widely disdained prequels, largely because his performance paid loving tribute to the actor that originated the role in the original STAR WARS trilogy.

That would be Sir Alec Guinness, who embodied Kenobi, Ben to his friends, in STAR WARS (1977, later re-titled A NEW HOPE), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), and RETURN OF THE JEDI (1980). So as McGregor again summons the wise, gentle spirit of Guinness for his new journey as Kenobi, let’s look back at an amusing factor that many fans are well aware of, but that many others may be blissfully unaware of – that is, Guinness’s heavy distaste for that “Galaxy far, far away.”

Hatred is a strong word, and Guinness never outright said he hated George Lucas’ iconic creation; just that it wasn’t really his cup of tea, and that its overwhelming popularity was a bit concerning. Since science fiction wasn’t his preferred genre (“Crumbs, not for me.”), Guinness took the role for the money, and, with royalties from the 1977 film, and its sequels, he pocketed around $50 million, so we can definitely say that he didn’t hate the money.

Guinness had qualms at the beginning of the shoot of STAR WARS in Tunishia early 1976, noting in a letter to a friend that “new rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper - and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable.” 

Funnily enough, he concluded his note to Anne Kaufman with some chat about his fellow cast members: “I must off to studio and work with a dwarf (very sweet – and he has to wash in a bidet) and your fellow countrymen Mark Hamill and Tennyson (that can’t be right) Ford – Ellison (? – No!*) – well, a rangy, languid young man who is probably intelligent and amusing. But Oh, God, God, they make me feel ninety – and treat me as if I was 106. Love, Alec *Harrison Ford – ever heard of him?”


In another letter, later in the shoot, Guinness wrote, “Apart from the money, I regret having embarked on the film. I like them well enough, but it's not an acting job, the dialogue - which is lamentable - keeps being changed and only slightly improved, and I find myself old and out of touch with the young.”

But when the film was released in the summer of ‘77, he was quite complimentary, writing in his diary: “It’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant.”

At the height of the film’s success, Guinness appeared on the BBC talk show, Parkinson (hosted by Sir Michael Parkinson), where he praised STAR WAR’s “marvelous, healthy innocence. Great pace, wonderful to look at. Full of guts, nothing unpleasant – I mean, people go ‘bang bang’ and people fall over and are dead, but no horrors, no sleazy sex - in fact, actually, no sex at all, when it comes to that. And a sort of wonderful freshness about it, kind of like a wonderful fresh air. When I came out of the cinema at Tottenham Court Road, I thought to myself, ‘Oh Lord, London’s awfully gritty and dirty and full of rubbish, isn’t it’. Because it had all been so invigorating.”


But still, the script’s words were a sticking point as he told his diary, “some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise.”

20 years later, Guinness was still going on about the dire dialogue in an interview in Talk magazine (1999): “What I didn't tell Lucas was that I just couldn't go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines. I'd had enough of the mumbo jumbo.”

Throughout the years before his death in 2000, the grand actor went back and forth from thankfully acknowledging the fortune he received from the franchise (“Blessed be STAR WARS” he even said at one point), and lamenting that his involvement in the movie that earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination was something that made him squirm.


Possibly Guinness’s best summation came in Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography: “A refurbished STAR WARS is on somewhere or everywhere, I have no intention of revisiting any galaxy. I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned. Twenty years ago, when the film was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. Then I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having.”

Perhaps the most amusing episode in the saga of Guinness’s rocky relationship with STAR WARS comes in the form of an oft told tale about a young boy, who, when asking for an autograph from the original Kenobi, told him that he had seen the 1977 movie 100 times (actually 102 times). Guinness response was that he only give him the autograph, if the boy promised that he’d never see the film again.

This is how Guinness described the scene in his last memoir, A Positively Final Apperance (2000): “The bad penny first dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me proudly that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boy’s eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.

“I would love you to do something for me,” I said. “Anything! Anything!” the boy said rapturously. “You won’t like what I’m going to ask you to do,” I said. “Anything, sir, anything!” “Well,” I said, “do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?”

He burst into tears. His mother drew himself up to an immense height. “What a dreadful thing to say to a child!” she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.

Despite this anecdote being in Guinness’s book, I thought it was an exaggeration or amalgam of the man’s encounters with fans, but it’s been confirmed by the boy himself – Daniel Henning, an actor/audiobook narrator, who had, at 12 years old, met Guinness at an event in 1979. In 2019, Henning put out the audiobook, Alec Guinness Hated Star Wars or How I Became a Famous Star Wars Fan: A True Star Wars.


Just last month, Henning gave his first ever interview about his exchange on the podcast, Rebel Force Radio. Henning told hosts, Jason Swank and Jimmy Mac, that it occurred at the San Francisco International Film Festival, which held an Alec Guinness tribute at the Palace of Fine Arts that year.

Henning says it went down like this: “I said, ‘Sir Alec, hello - I have seen STAR WARS 102 times,’ and I paused because I thought, when other people heard that they were kind of shocked and I thought that the audience might have some reaction too, which they did, there were gasps, there was laughter, there was a little bit of applause, and then Sir Alec literally did this in his chair (slumps back and acts dead)…and then he leans up to the microphone, and says, ‘it wasn’t even my best picture.’

Henning goes on, “And it would mean very much to me, if I could have your autograph.’ And I expected him to say, ‘Come down to the stage,’ and just sign it there. That was my fantasy of what was going to happen, that was how I was going to meet Alec Guinness, right? But instead, he said, he pointed his finger at me, and said ‘I’ll see you after the show.’”

After some joking around that I’ll edit for time, Henning explains, “We went backstage, my Mom and I, they immediately let us in, and everyone knew, like all the people backstage were like ‘there he is, there he is, there’s that boy.’ People were hanging around wanting to see whatever this is going to be, I guess. I didn’t quite realize that in the moment, but then when it happened, I was like ‘oh, they were all listening.’ We’re standing there and they bring Sir Alec over to me, and he was, huge smile on his face, and he was lovely, and charming, and the very first thing he said to me was, ‘I feel like I should give you some of my money back.’

Following even more kidding around banter, Henning arrives at the pivotal moment: “He says, ‘I’ll give you the autograph, but I want to ask you to do something for me.’ And I said, ‘anything.’ He said, ‘you’re not gonna like what I am going to ask you to do,’ and I said, ‘anything, anything!’ And he said, ‘Do you think you could manage never to see STAR WARS again?’ That is certainly not what I was expecting him to say. Again, I thought it was just going to be the moment of him signing the autograph, I didn’t realize we were going to get into his psychological issues with STAR WARS.”

The 12-year old Henning agreed that he would never again see the original movie again, and that Guinness even put it in writing (“you’ve promised me not to see STAR WARS again”) with his autograph on the program for the festival. Listen to the entire interview.

It’s interesting that Henning points out that Guinness’s first responses to the boy’s tally of viewings were about it not being his best work, and then the money thing. An art versus commerce predicament for the actor so succinctly displayed.

Whatever his issues with the supreme space opera, Guinness brought gravitas and a aged wisdom to the then budding franchise, despite only being 58 years old when he began his run as Kenobi. Having watched the first two episodes of Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi series, I can attest that McGregor is successfully channeling Guinness, but at the same time putting forth his own rugged take on the character.


While the great Jedi Master Kenobi has grown in stature as a core character in the ginormous saga with the now extended portrayal by McGregor in the prequels, and the new series, I have a bad feeling that Guinness would still be shaking his head at the absurd longevity of the cult surrounding STAR WARS, and would be lamenting how the dialogue is still so lame.

More later...

Friday, May 20, 2022

That Time The Clash Did A Diss Track On Roger Moore


While many of the songs in the all-too brief repertoire of the punk icons, The Clash, are rock classics, there are a handful of lesser known tunes by the British band that are really worth seeking out. One such is a non-album track that only appears on the 1991 box set, The Clash on Broadway, entitled “One Emotion.” It’s an outtake from their second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978), and it’s a pleasingly punchy number that was amusingly inspired by the acting styling (that’s right, one styling) of Roger Moore.


Moore famously portrayed the legendary secret service agent James Bond in seven films from 1973-1985, but there is some dispute by the song’s writers, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, about whether it was Bond or Moore’s earlier role as Simon Templar in the TV series, The Saint(1962-69), that sparked the song into existence.

In excerpts from the booklet for the Clash on Broadway box, Strummer recalls, “The phrase ‘One Emotion’ came when we were watching Roger Moore. I think it might have been reruns of The Saint, it struck us how one dimensional he was. Then we wrote a more serious song around it, trying to jib our way out of a hole.”

But Jones offers alternate facts: “We used to nip in the cinema just to catch a film in our spare time. I think it was Roger Moore in a really bad James Bond film.”

At the time of the Clash’s recording of “One Emotion” in 1978, the most likely Bond movie to be playing in British cinemas was 1977’s THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, which wasn’t a really bad Bond film in my, and many critics and fans’ minds (it’s even Moore’s personal favorite of the 007 films he made), but still may have been seen as establishment dreck by Strummer, Jones, and their bandmates, Paul Simonon, and Nicky “Topper” Headon. 

But reruns of The Saint were possibly prevalent during that period as well, so it’s plausible that it was a combination of these influences that gave the song its title and hook. A promotional disc for the Clash on Broadway collection featured a soundbite of Strummer talking about the song, but this time he said it was from the gang watching a James Bond movie on television, and that it was Jones that exclaimed, “This guy’s only got one emotion!”

The song is worth YouTubing as, aside from the Moore takedown, it’s an infectious performance that captures the early Clash sound in all its edgy punk pop purity. 

Check it out:


One of the first concerts I ever attended was the Clash at Carmichael Auditorium on the UNC campus in my hometown of Chapel Hill, N.C. on April 6, 1984 (tickets were $11.50!). Now this was the band on their last legs as Jones, and Headon had left, and Strummer and Simonon were joined by hired hands Pete Howard, Nick Sheppard, and Vince White, but it was still The Clash, and therefore a rousing, thrilling experience for my 13-year old existence.

I vividly recall was that there was a wall of television sets on the stage behind the band that were all showing news clips of war footage, and other violent events to punctuate the power of the Clash’s performance. A bit of film that repeatedly appeared interspliced into the mix of vicious visuals was a moment from the 1965 James Bond smash, GOLDFINGER, in which Sean Connery is engaged in a fight with the villain’s henchman, Odd Job in the vault at Fort Knox.

I think that makes it pretty damn obvious which Bond the Clash really preferred.


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Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Many Times John Landis Put His Director Pals In His Projects


Because today is the 78th Birthday of THX-1138 and AMERICAN GRAFFITI filmmaker George Lucas, I was reminded of his odd cameo in John Landis’s BEVERLY HILLS COP III (1994). Then I thought about how Landis often had his fellow director friends put in brief appearances in his films, and then I thought that might make a good blog post. So before I think about something else, and forget this thread, let’s take a look at some of the most notable times that this crazy event occurred (this post is far from complete as I skipped over as well as probably missed a number of these instances).

 

The whole Landis and his filmmaker friends cameo calvacade starts with Frank Oz.



A few years before Oz began his filmmaking career co-directing THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982) with Jim Henson (his solo debut as Director was LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS in 1986), the voice behind such major Muppets as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Animal (among many others), made his in-person film debut as “Corrections Officer” in Landis’s THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980). The part consists of Oz drolly, and displaying much disgust, doling out the possessions of John Belushi’s Jake Blues as he’s being released from Chicago’s Joliet Prison. 

In Landis’s beyond misguided 1998 sequel, BLUES BROTHERS 2000, Oz reprises the role, showing that the character is now the Prison Warden, who has the sad task of having to tell Dan Aykroyd’s Elwood Blues, upon his release from Joliet 18 years after the events in the first film, that his brother has passed. Not sure why this important info wasn’t revealed to Elwood before this, but it actually makes for one of the miserable movie’s only heartfelt moments so I’ll drop the questioning.

 

Oz also put in cameos, usually as stern authority figures, in Landis’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), TRADING PLACES (1983), SPIES LIKE US (1985), and INNOCENT BLOOD (1992), which was not only his last appearance in a Landis film, but his last in-person part in a movie until his brief bit in Rian Johnson’s KNIVES OUT, in 2019. 

 

Back to the original BLUES BROTHERS, in which arguably the most famous, and most successful filmmaker in cinema history, Steven Spielberg put in a cameo. It was his film acting debut, as the “Cook County Assessor’s Office Clerk” who helped the black-suited, fedora, and sunglass-wearing music men fulfill their “mission from God.”


After a tragic accident which took the lives of actor Vic Morrow, and two illegally-hired child actors on the set of Landis’s segment for TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), the director/writer/producer staged a comeback in the 1985 Jeff Goldblum/Michelle Pfeifer vehicle, INTO THE NIGHT. The film was a decent mid ‘80s comedy throwaway, the kind you’d see and quickly forget on cable, but when it came to director cameos it boasted an embarrassment of riches.


Filmmakers Jack Arnold (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE), Paul Bartel (EATING RAOUL), David Cronenberg (SCANNERS), Jonathan Demme (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), Richard Franklin (ROAD GAMES), Amy Heckerling (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH), Jim Henson (pictured above with Landis), Colin Higgins (HAROLD AND MAUDE writer/BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS director), Lawrence Kasdan (BODY HEAT), Paul Mazursky (AN UNMARRIED WOMAN), Daniel Petrie (A RAISIN IN THE SUN), Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY), and Roger Vadim (BARBARELLA) all popped up throughout INTO THE NIGHT as the movie went, well, deeper into the night.

 

There’s too many of these people to post pics of here (unless I want a blog post a mile long), but here’s one of Cronenberg, whose part, credited as “Group Supervisor” was larger than most of the other directors involved.



Landis’s aforementioned 1985 Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd comedy SPIES LIKE US also featured:

 

Joel Coen, and Sam Raimi as “Drive-in Security.” 



And Terry Gilliam as “Dr. Imhaus.” 



Directors Mikael Apted, Ray Harryhausen, and Martin Brest (the director of the original BEVERLY HILLS COP) also put in cameos in SPIES LIKE US, but, again, I don’t want to take up too much space with pics.

Landis’s 1996 Tom Arnold comedy, THE STUPIDS, again featured Cronenberg, as well as more filmmaker bit parts by Robert Wise, Norman Jewison, Atom Egoyan, and Costa-Gavras.

I’ll finish with the cameo that inspired this post, Lucas as “Disappointed Man” in BEVERLY HILLS COP III. Unlike his other appearances in HOOK (1991) as “Man Kissing on Bridge,” and as Baron Papanoida in STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005), he actually has a speaking part: “Hey!” – reacting to Eddie Murphy’s Axl Foley stealing his Sky Whirl ride at the fictional theme park, Wonderworld – and “Come on, let’s go.” Okay, those lines obviously aren’t much, but they do constitute Lucas’s only in-person lines ever in a feature film. Watch the scene if you must:



From how awkward, and stiff, the STAR WARS guru was in this scene, one can only guess that Frank Oz was busy that day.

 

More later…

Friday, May 06, 2022

Classic Cinematic Cameo: Orson Welles In THE MUPPET MOVIE


Today, Film Babble Blog is celebrating the posthumous Birthday of one of the all-time greats, Orson Welles, who was born on this date in 1915. 

So I’m going to pay homage in this post by looking at one of his less celebrated, but still mighty worthy, moments: Welles’ cameo in James Frawley’s 1979 family comedy classic, THE MUPPET MOVIE.

Since his passing in 1985, the legendary status of the writer/director/actor/ producer has grown into mythic proportions. This is largely due to the insurmountable acclaim that his 1941 masterpiece, CITIZEN KANE, has never stopped accumulating, despite the fact that there are, and have been many younger generations that have questioned its regular placing as the greatest film in movie history. Those fools.

But before I knew any of this, my first introduction to the larger than life icon came when I was an eight-year old kid when my grandmother took me to see THE MUPPET MOVIE in the summer of ‘79. The film, the Muppets’ first feature, was an origin story that told how Kermit the Frog journeyed across country from a Florida swamp to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune, while forming major bonds with such felt friends as Fozzie Bear, Gonzo The Great, Rowlf the Dog, the Electric Mayhem, and, of course, Kermit’s blustery love interest Mrs. Piggy.

The Variety ad that Kermit was answering actually stated “World Wide Studios announces open auditions for frogs wishing to become rich and famous.” So the talented banjo-playing frog, figuring if they need frogs, they must need bears, pigs, dogs, etc. (which is sound logic), after wacky road trip adventures, shows up at the office of studio head, Lew Lord portrayed by a 63-year old, bearded, cigar-chomping, and very intimidating Orson Welles.

Watch the scene:


After regaining his composure from Lord’s initial harsh, and judgemental expression upon the Muppets’ entrance into his opulent office, Kermit says, “Please Sir, my name is Kermit the Frog, and we read your ad, and we’ve come to be rich and famous.”

After removing his cigar from his mouth, and giving the situation a hard, deep, yet comically brief pondering, Welles' Lord intercoms his secretary, “Miss Tracy, prepare the standard ‘Rich and Famous’ contract for Kermit the Frog and company.”

Kermit and company didn’t even have to audition at all to get green-lit by Lord and World Wide Studios, which, I guess, proves the adage “90% of success is just showing up.”

Welles powerful studio chief character was based by screenwriters Jerry Juhl, and Jack Burns, on British media mogul Sir Lew Grade, who gave Jim Henson, and The Muppet Show a big break in real life. The role was also notably empowering for Welles as he had spent the ‘70s (and much of his life after KANE) as an outcast from, and yet still inside Hollywood, hustling for financing for various dream projects, surviving by doing wine commercials and other cameos, while being ridiculed as a one of the industry's most notorious has-beens.

To see what Welles would’ve looked like as a towering titan of Tinseltown in his MUPPET MOVIE cameo is a beautiful thing. I, for one, want to live in that alternate universe where Welles had a colossal career in which he never had to fight for final cut, and was able to produce a rich filmography instead of the meager dozen or so movies he directed in our universe.


Welles’ love for the Muppets extended to a pilot episode of a never aired 1979 TV talk program, The Orson Welles Show, in which he interviewed Henson, Frank Oz, and the main Muppets. The footage from the show wasn’t available for decades, but due to the magic of YouTube, you can watch an excerpt of it here.

One of the wonderful benefits of seeing THE MUPPET MOVIE with my Grandmother was that she clued me into who the old stars putting in the cameos were like Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy for that matter), Milton Berle, and Mel Brooks. But Welles made the biggest impression, maybe because he was literally the largest performer involved, but more the stature, and gravitas in how they presented him.

I had never laid eyes on Welles before his crucial scene in THE MUPPET MOVIE, but my eight-year old mind immediately knew that this was *somebody* incredibly important, and that I should take note. It was the beginning of my fandom for the man, and his movies, and, looking back, I can’t think of a better introduction for a kid poised for a life of loving film.

Happy Birthday in the afterlife, Mr. Welles. Maybe you didn’t reach the height of running a major film studio with the power to make a frog, and his buddies the biggest stars in the world, but for a brief, shining instance it looked, and felt like you did, and that’s how I choose to remember you.

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Thursday, May 05, 2022

DOCTOR STRANGE 2: With Sam Raimi At The Helm, I Expected More MADNESS

Now playing at a multiplex in a multiverse near you:


DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS

(Dir. Sam Raimi, 2022)


It’s not surprising to me that my first press screening since The Before Times would be for a Marvel movie. 


That’s obviously because there’s so damn many of them – case in point, this Doctor Strange sequel is the 28th film in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). It’s also the sixth time that Benedict Cumberbatch has portrayed the titular master mystic as, apart from his 2016 stand-alone adventure, he has appeared in two AVENGERS movies, one THOR entry, and only several months ago was a major player in the super successful SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME.

 

So why does the character still not feel fully fleshed out to me? Cumberbatch brings the wit, and all the clever charisma he can muster, but his Dr. Stephen Strange still seems to stiffly be going through the Marvel movie motions in yet another overly familiar formula film. But what’s most surprising here is that this is the return of comic horror filmmaker extraordinaire Sam Raimi. Since Raimi’s last movie, 2013’s OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, wasn’t that great and/or powerful, I was both hoping for a big comeback, one that would re-establish the man’s credentials for batshit-crazy cinema, but alas the supposed madness that the title boasts is severely muted due to the lack of pure oomph in the project.

 

It was difficult for me to care much for the plot that somehow involves a new, well, new-to-me character, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) whose power of being able to travel through the multiverse is being sought by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) so this keys into last year’s Marvel TV series WandaVision. It’s one of the film’s only inspired moves to make Olsen’s Scarlett Witch into the villain here, but her motivation – i.e. needing to stay with her kids in their universe at all costs – doesn’t make for really riveting stakes.

 

Like in the first DOCTOR STRANGE, there are a variety of arresting visuals, and a lot of immersive imagery, courtesy of literally thousands of digital artists whose names you’ll have to wait for to get to the obligatory post credits stinger, but in our current world of blockbusters, where even many bad films are graced with stunning effects, those descriptors mean less and less as accolades.

 

Cumberbatch does an admirable job pulling triple duty as he plays alternate universe versions of Dr. Strange: Defender Strange, Zombie Strange, and Strange Supreme, but the character himself is strangely lackluster overall. The supporting cast, well, supports adequately with turns by returning cast members Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo, and Rachel McAdams as lost love interest Christine Palmer being the stand-outs.

 

I just wish Raimi had thrown the superhero conventions out the window, and did a deep dive into the possibilities of loco landscapes, infinities of insanity, and nutso narratives. Has his younger self’s go-for-broke hunger that resulted in the over-the-top EVIL DEAD series really been completely satiated? If it doesn’t rear its head in a movie so calling for some “next level shit” ambition, when will it get another chance to thrive?

 

But while it consists of more exposition than explosions, DR. STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is a serviceable vehicle in the franchise, but maybe it would’ve been better broken down, and embellished into another streaming Marvel television show. It simply doesn’t fare any better or worse than what Disney+ has been serving up on that front recently.

 

Raimi’s workmanlike DOCTOR STRANGE sequel will unlikely be remembered much by me or many other movie-goers in the future except as just another chapter in the never-ending MCU. Perhaps the most telling factor is in a previously reliable element that Raimi fans will be anxiously awaiting upon viewing this movie – the Bruce Campbell cameo. That even that moment doesn’t truly deliver sadly says it all about Marvel Movie #28.


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