Hollywood


[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Cecil B. DeMille’s This Day and Age (1933) tells the tale of a group of youngsters taking on the corrupt system that has a stranglehold on their town. Steve (Richard Cromwell) witnesses the murder of his friend, the Jewish tailor Herman (Harry Green), by the local mafia boss Garrett (Charles Bickford). But his testimony is repudiated in court and Garrett walks scot free. Steve and his friends decide to carry out their own investigation and bring Garrett to justice. The film was made at a time when detective novels, especially involving teenage sleuths like the Hardy boys, enjoyed great fandom. While not a detective story in itself, DeMille’s film draws from the popularity of the genre, circumscribing the fact-finding efforts of its young leads within a larger political framework.

As its title indicates, This Day and Age purports to recount the story of its time. It begins appropriately with images of modern technology—aircrafts, zeppelins, motorboats and skyscrapers. But the film views modernity primarily in the possibilities of the younger generation and its power to wash away old structures and bring new moral life to society. As part of a “boys’ day programme”, Steve and two of his friends are appointed as the town attorney, judge and police commissioner for a brief time. They witness first-hand how the “system” fails to protect the innocent: judges trot out rules from books to defend Garrett’s acquittal, the defence lawyer grills Steve until he gives into doubt, and all proof of the murder is discredited. The boys realize they simply can’t win within this system, designed only to sustain itself, and must construct their own, based on their sense of truth and justice: they kidnap Garrett and convict him in a kangaroo court.

DeMille’s paean to youth has touches of what Nicholas Ray would undertake in the next couple of decades. The film’s first real shot is that of students walking into their high school union meeting. We will see their marching feet in closeup thrice in the film. The night they kidnap Garrett, they take over the town’s streets, and DeMille portrays this as the way forward for the nation. The film’s glorification of youngsters as a power in politics has an unnerving parallel with the rise of the Hitler Youth organization in Germany. The National Socialists had come to power a few months ago, and the Hitler Youth saw a twentyfold increase in its membership the year the film was made. This Day and Age capitalizes on this hopefulness about the younger generation pervading the air.

On the other hand, unlike in Nicholas Ray’s pictures, the film smoothens out all the rough edges around intergenerational relations. For one, the parents in DeMille’s film aren’t failed figures imprisoned by social norms. They are sympathetic and supportive of their children’s undertaking. Steve tells his parents that he’s going to get Garrett, and his father simply wishes him luck. DeMille’s paternalistic view of the teenagers finds them stuck between two ages, between the fragility of childhood and the moral urgency of adult life. When one of the boys is shot, he crawls into a foetal position and says, “I want my mother”, before collapsing. This sorry image is dissolved over a shot of Garrett’s cabaret girls dancing to a jazzed-up version of “Rock-a-bye Baby”. This desire for generational rapprochement reaches a peak in the film’s final scene, where the boys’ demands for justice are harmonized and blessed by the old boys of the system.

This Day and Age is an excellent case study to demonstrate that Hollywood films aren’t as much expressions of a coherent set of political beliefs as fruits of numerous contradictions created by conflicting production demands. On one hand, the film evidently draws inspiration from the socialist spirit of the times. The damage wrought by the Great Depression had brought popularity to social movements and trade unions around the country. The socialist writer Upton Sinclair would contest in the Californian gubernatorial elections as the Democratic Party candidate the following year. It’s telling that DeMille and Paramount Pictures, who aren’t generally known for films about everyday people, came together on a project defending the little man. The film, in fact, begins with a student union meeting to discuss unemployment.

On the other hand, a rather strong conservative streak is to be traced in the film’s conception of good and evil. The good, represented by youth, free enterprise and the common businessman who refuses to submit to the tyranny of unions, is brought into a provisional opposition with evil, symbolized by the mafia, politicians (who may be immigrants) and the government. The teenagers’ fight against Garrett is repeatedly cast as a truly American act, the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” serving as a recurring motif. The mafioso Garrett, in contrast, is someone who threatens small businesses and perverts the young, his cabaret corrupting innocent children’s rhymes for lurid entertainment.

Some of the ideological contradictions of the film originate from the figure of DeMille himself, a notorious conservative. The filmmaker was partly Jewish, but also one of the most virulent anti-communists in Hollywood. He reconciles his Jewish identity with his Americanism in the character of the tailor Herman. A fierce independent wary of unions, Herman is glad to cook different foods for his friends, and that includes ham for an Irish boy. “The stomach is the last thing to get patriotic about”, he remarks. DeMille had visited the USSR in 1931, an experience he described in positive terms. The strategic superimpositions and dissolves he employs in the film—the boy detectives crawling at Herman’s house searching for clues dissolved with Garrett’s cabaret girls crawling to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”, shot of a rat dissolved with Garrett’s face—themselves show an influence of Soviet montage techniques.

The film’s ideological confusions acquire tremendous power once Garrett is abducted by the boys. At the end of a robust kidnapping scene involving boot polish and adhesive tapes, Garrett finds himself hunched over like a primate, his hands stuck to his knees. He is carried to a mock courtroom in an amphitheatre populated by the youngsters of the town, armed with ropes, guns and torches. He is strung up and the planks under his feet are removed one by one, and he soon hangs free over a pit of rats. The boys press for a confession, lowering him progressively until only the rope his seen and his screams heard. It’s a scene drenched in sadism—intercut with another disturbing scene of sexual menace—but also righteous anger of the teenagers.

DeMille, a master of Biblical spectacles, amps up the uneasiness in the subsequent scene. Having confessed to Herman’s murder, Garrett is now propped up on a stick like a pagan offering and taken on a procession to the court—a sequence that has an echo in the garish “golden calf” episode of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). The boys march in militaristic unison, waving banners and belting out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. A shot of Garrett on the stake, haggard and resigned, introduces a rather queasy note in this celebratory theatre of revolution. The mob action is supported by the police and receives official sanction in the courthouse, where Garrett’s confession, though obtained under duress, is used to incriminate him. Couching a crusade for justice within a fascist form, This Day and Age is a work alive with the tensions of the era as well as the dynamics of Hollywood film production.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

Gary Cooper visits John Wayne on the sets of Rio Bravo

Film actors are always cursed. Not just the second fiddles, but the most famous ones too. Especially the most famous ones, I’m tempted to say. Indeed, their reputation is tied to two primordial elements: first of all, their private lives. That’s to say, their loves, their death. If one had to find an animal that symbolizes the media (just like the squirrel evokes saving, the lion MGM, or the donkey stupidity), it would be the hyena: death gives its victim a dignity, a gravity, a timelessness the person never had during his lifetime. Respect comes automatically: we never dare to speak ill of the dead, especially not immediately. With our praise, we seek to make up for a lack of enthusiasm in the past, sometimes imaginary. We’re ashamed to be living while he isn’t. Nothing like a premature, accidental and especially dramatic death. Valentino, Dean, Monroe… Can we imagine James Dean attaining eternal and universal celebrity if, on 30 September 1955, instead of getting killed in a car, he had simply retired? Marilyn Monroe would probably have lived in people’s minds anyway, but her supposed suicide (nothing more mediatized than this sustained uncertainty), her supposed affair with a president of the United States (with a death no less mysterious), and her measurements contributed much more to her survival than her exceptional work in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Bus Stop. Of course, talent helps, as the cases of Dean and Monroe prove. But it doesn’t turn out to be indispensable: had he lived on, Valentino would’ve remained in obscurity alongside other ham actors of the twenties.

The second important element is commercial success. Here, we clearly see the discrimination that exists between filmmakers and actors: directors like Jean-Marie Straub, Roberto Rossellini or Samuel Fuller, who didn’t have a single real success at the box-office, are the subject of a number of monographs. Cults form around their name and their body of work. If not for La Grande Illusion and French Cancan on one side, Breathless and Pierrot le fou on the other, we could’ve said the same of Renoir and Godard. Such a contradiction is impossible with actors: if, in place of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Cary Grant and James Stewart, I had told my editor that I’d like to write a book on Dominique Laffin, Denis Lavant, Claude Melki and Jean-François Stevenin, I’m absolutely sure that, with due respect, he would’ve pulled a face this long—or even longer—even though the second set of four aces has nothing to envy the first as far as quality of work is concerned.

In short, what counts in the evaluation of a director is the artistic value of his films, and what essentially counts in the evaluation of an actor is the commercial value of products bearing his name.

That’s why I said that great actors of international renown are more cursed than supporting actors. The attraction they exert is based, most of all, on wrong reasons. Which means that we can lump together Gary Cooper with Valentino or Peck or Schwarzenegger… This contempt, this misunderstanding doesn’t exist with great secondary actors like Jean Abeillé, Walter Brennan, Hume Cronyn, Serge Davri, Mercedes McCambridge, Michael J. Pollard, Kurt Raab or Dominique Zardi. We can like them only for the right reasons. And if we don’t like them, it’s probably that we don’t know them. No one knows about Walter Brennan’s love life or the circumstances of his death, and it’s for the better.

(more…)

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Produced by the short-lived Parklane pictures and distributed by United Artists, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) follows the exploits of low-level private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). After picking up a distressed woman (Cloris Leachman) on a highway, Hammer finds himself embroiled in a mystery too big for him to even understand, leave alone solve. A group of men with sketchy motivations, looking for “the box”, try to kill him, while every woman he comes across falls heads over heels for him. The more Hammer tries to get to the bottom of things, the farther they seem, and the more he risks losing. Ultimately, the film poses this question: how far will the detective go in his violence, misogyny, cynicism and pig-headedness before he realizes that he is only a tragic hero, doomed to failure?

Kiss Me Deadly was adapted by A. I. Bezzerides from Mickey Spillane’s detective novel of the same name. Bezzerides, a novelist himself, strips down concrete references from the source material. The object of everybody’s search becomes a box containing a nondescript “whatsit” instead of a drug consignment. The mafia makes way for a nameless, faceless “them” who pull all the strings. Such abstraction lends the film to different readings. Thanks to a reference, however, to the Manhattan Project and the radioactive quality of the box’s contents, the film is traditionally taken to be a commentary on the anxiety about nuclear age. Hammer’s developing paranoia comes to fruition when a femme fatale Lily (Gaby Rodgers) who double-crossed him ends up opening the box on a whim.

In a peculiar fashion, the film proceeds on two fronts at the same time. While the plot marches forward steadily, Aldrich and Bezzerides devote their attention elsewhere. Instead of accompanying Hammer in his search for truth, they reverse the gaze, looking rather at Hammer’s seedy operation, his obstinacy and his escalating paranoia, desperation and violence. Two or three things seem to be happening in parallel in every scene of the film. A debriefing sequence doubles as a game of seduction. A dinner with family becomes a confessional about a killing. Hammer goes to confront the story’s antagonist at the latter’s mansion, only to get into a long romantic exchange with the villain’s excessively forward sister. Full of stubs and false tracks, the plot appears to go nowhere, yet plot is the least of the film’s concerns.

It becomes clear as the film advances that Aldrich and Bezzerides are aiming less for a realistic detective story with allegorical underpinning than a myth with a very physical presence. The legend of Pandora’s Box particularly looms over the ending, but the whole film itself unfolds like a dream. The dialogue veers on the poetic and the actors’ line reading is weirdly protracted with pregnant pauses. Hammer’s dodgy cop friend Pat (Wesley Addy) speaks in an affectless, extra-terrestrial tone, his mechanic pal Nick (Nick Dennis) amps up the Mediterranean stereotype, Lily orders Hammer to kiss her in an incantatory repetition, while her boss, the doctor Soberin (Albert Dekker) makes pensive declarations full of mythological references.

The cumulative effect of these eccentric lines and dialogue delivery is the impression that what Hammer is navigating through is a nightmare of dilated time, a mechanical world of cold images programmed to perform specific functions. The surreal texture of the film’s soundscape is likely the reason British artist repurposed it for his recent experimental film, The Whalebone Box (2019), also about a mythical box with supreme powers. The movie’s oneiric quality is pitted against a heightened presence of the real Los Angeles. Several locations from the city feature in the film, most notably the uphill funicular known as the Angels Flight. In his epic study of the representation of Los Angeles in film, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), filmmaker and academic Thom Anderson deems Kiss Me Deadly “close to definitive as a portrait of the city in the mid-fifties.”

Accentuating the sense of the story’s oppressiveness is Aldrich’s muscular approach to direction. The story takes place in summer and, even when we aren’t sure where it’s headed, we feel the sultriness of the air. The film’s harsh, directional lighting scheme flashes the actors like headlights on a highway, as the camera lingers on their sweaty faces and jagged features. Doors are knocked down with more force than is usual in detective movies, the punches land harder. Hammer dispatches one henchman down a large flight of stairs. He’ll later jam the fingers of an elderly coroner in a drawer.

Like his peer Samuel Fuller, Aldrich employs a shot division that focuses largely on actors’ feet. The film’s first shot is that of a woman’s running feet. A while later, we see the same feet rise off the ground as the woman is tortured. As the film progresses, the image of feet accrues a frightening aura, belonging invariably to men sporting dark suits and heavy, leather shoes. This disembodied, faceless menace—sophisticated, emotionless and sure in its movement—becomes almost a metaphysical threat. We don’t know who these feet belong to, but we understand that its trace runs deep.

Matching the labyrinthine machinery of the plot is an equally complex cinematography. Shot by Hungarian emigré Ernest Laszlo, Kiss Me Deadly employs a camera choreography that rivals those of Orson Welles and Max Ophüls, as do the low-angle, deep space compositions. A three-minute scene of Hammer questioning a contact at a boxing gym is filmed in a single shot. It includes a conversation about a champion boxer in the ring without even a glimpse of the ring. Another three-minute shot, dominated by horizontal camera movements, finds Hammer grilling a soprano in a cramped hotel room. Aldrich varies his sequence construction from scene to scene, and the film remains as unpredictable on the visual level as on its narrative level.

The single most accomplished element of the film, though, is its multi-layered sound design that imparts complementary values to everything we see. This principle is evident from the credits sequence onwards, in which Nat King Cole’s I’d Rather Have the Blues is overlaid with the sound of heavy breathing of the girl in Hammer’s car—we know something is off right away. Throughout, Aldrich mixes in ambient noise—the buzz of the boxing gym, the sound of the sea, street traffic—in a way that expands the world we see on screen. At times, he superposes contradictory sound elements running against the grain of the image. So you have chamber music playing as a voice threatens Hammer on the phone. Or Schubert’s Eighth Symphony over the detective’s interrogation of a witness. In one stylized action sequence, Hammer’s escape is scored simultaneously to a piece of generic music, the sound of the ocean and sports commentary.

A B-movie with no stars or studio backing, Kiss Me Deadly has gathered a reputation among filmmakers and cinephiles over the years as a crime movie classic. The amoral, machine-like operation of Hammer finds an echo in the vigilante of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), itself inspiring Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009). Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) pays tribute to Aldrich’s film in its suitcase with glowing contents. But the first to consider Aldrich as a serious artist—and this film a masterpiece—were the young critics at the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Charles Bitsch, who became a filmmaker himself, called it one of the most significant films of the decade and Aldrich, “the first filmmaker of the atomic age”.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

  • A pre-code sex comedy is just as outrageous as it sounds. But Lubitsch’s sense of suggestion is so subtle and delicate that it suffuses the whole film, colouring ordinary lines and sequences with sexual charge. In another musical, the morning-after breakfast song, “Magic in the Muffin”, might pass largely without a guffaw. Every object becomes a sexual symbol, its value predicated on the fact that the connection isn’t made concrete. The whole movie talks about only one thing—the perils of testicular thought—without actually talking about it.
  • The scene between Colbert and Hopkins is a masterpiece of subversive feminism later reprised by Monroe and Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s a bedroom scene in which two young women fight, reconcile and drool over descriptions of their common lover in various stages of undress. They don’t discuss anything but the man, their need for the man, about the sort of song to sing for the man, the kind of lingerie they should wear to please the man. (And it turns out that the man needs nothing more.) And through these rather anti-Bechdel exchanges, they arrive at the film’s most memorable, moving relationship based on recognition of mutual desires and vulnerabilities. Both actors reproduce lines and gestures conceived by men, but their comic genius consists of owning it and making them their own. The scene simply collapses without their intelligence.
  • There’s hardly a funny line in the script, but the film is hysterical. All the comedy derives from the acting (Chevalier alone carries a ridiculous French accent while others speak American), line delivery, découpage and cutting. Seventy-four shots feature opening or closing doors (and countless others have doors and doorways as the backdrop)—every fourth or fifth shot of the film. Besides tying into Lubitsch’s obsession with what goes on behind closed doors, it performs a musical function here. Equally distributed as clusters of 3-6 shots through the film—but never happening during the song sequences, which unfold mostly in single shots—they lend a snappy, dance-like rhythm to the script and impart the viewer a feeling of constant movement.
  • The doors are also a brilliant means to sendup Old World mores, whose chambers of secrets barely conceal a neurotic obsession with sex. (The principle is the same in Polanski’s new film, but the object of obsession there are Jews.) Having spent a decade in America, Lubitsch is evidently taken by the cultural and intellectual directness of his new homeland (a fact that reflects in the stylistic sobriety of his Hollywood pictures). A sense of liberation is palpable in the way he ridicules pre-war European pretensions. The king of a tiny country in Mitteleuropa rues bourgeois power (“A thousand years ago they were even smaller than we. It’s only the last 700 years they’ve got anywhere.”) while his daughter threatens that she’ll marry an American if her wishes aren’t granted. But it’s a double-edged satire, directed as much at American puritanism (the hero is a slacker, womanizer, cheat and a decadent—this is established in the first minute) as European ritual.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

The story of Moonrise (1948), in many ways, is antithetical to the way Hollywood tells it. One of the ideological pillars of the classical Hollywood narrative is individualism, the idea that a person is what he chooses to be. In this view of things, factors outside one’s control, such as social milieu, upbringing or race, have little bearing on what one might make of their life. Moonrise, in contrast, foregrounds man as a product of circumstances. The protagonist Danny’s father is hanged for murder, and Danny (Dane Clark) spends his whole life struggling with the question of whether violence runs in his blood. In the film’s first scene, an overt bit of directorial messaging cuts from Danny’s father being hanged to the shadow of a suspended doll looming over baby Danny in the cradle.

As he grows up, Danny is bullied by peers, especially Jerry (Lloyd Bridges), the son of a wealthy banker. He is called by his second name, Hawkins, to remind him of his father’s sin. Danny lives in a constant state of fear and distress. As he puts it in an outburst late in the film, no one gives him a job, and girls stay away from him “like he was poison”. He carries a dead man on his back all his life, and he might be one himself. Danny keeps away those around him, with a few exceptions. He looks out for Billy the deaf-mute (Harry Morgan), the only one in town more unfortunate than him. He longs for the romantic attention of Gilly (Gain Russell), whom Jerry also courts.

In a tussle in the woods on a dance night, Danny ends up killing Jerry in a mix of pent-up rage and self-defence, and hides his body in a cave. As word starts getting around about Jerry’s disappearance, Danny grows desperate, meeting Gilly only secretly and frequenting his friend Mose (Rex Ingram) who lives in the woods with his hunting dogs. Mose is depicted a wise, well-read man who recognizes the dignity of every living being. He has no back story, but regretfully claims to have resigned from the human race. As a black man in the American south, he surely knows a thing or two about being judged for your involuntary inheritances.

When the noose starts tightening around Danny, another large-hearted figure comes into the picture. In contrast to the judgmental eyes of the small town, sheriff Otis (Allyn Joslyn) views Danny’s action in light of his difficult childhood. Like Mose, he recognizes crime as a product of social factors. In a powerful conversation with the town coroner, he says, “If you went into all the reasons why that rock struck Jerry’s head, you might end up writing the history of the world.” The Sheriff cuts Danny some slack, urging him to come surrender so that his sentence may be commuted. Gilly, too, sticks by Danny when she learns the truth.

These humane gestures are amplified by the film’s vision of small-town America. The story is set in Virginia and the place seems frozen in an unspecified time in early 20th century. People are referred to by their origin: hillbillies, Yankees. Prejudices run deep, especially against those way down the social ladder as Danny and Mose are. Soon after the murder, rumours float around about the killer’s identity. “A small town’s like a stomach—always digesting”, remarks the sheriff, referring to public incrimination by way of rumour-mongering. In the nuanced view of Moonrise, the familiarity enforced by small-town life is the source both of bigotry and saving grace.

This complexity is also extended to the anti-heroic protagonist, who is repulsive and sympathetic in equal measure. He is the result of his difficult circumstances, but he is also a difficult personality. While he fends for the hapless Billy, Danny practically forces himself on Gilly, who turns down his advances several times. When she gently criticizes him for his childishness, he pushes the pedal on the car he’s driving and crashes it. Emerging out of the crash, the first thing he does is to kiss a half-conscious Gilly. He tails her after the event, imposing himself despite her protests until she gives in.

Director Frank Borzage accentuates Danny’s shadowed existence by holding him at a distance from the viewer. We generally see the character under a blanket darkness or as a silhouette. At times, his face is blocked or covered by something on the foreground. Even in closer shots, he is filmed in profile and often with shadows creeping up on his face. This strategy also helps the filmmaker minimize his dependence on the capabilities of the lead actor, Dane Clark, a relatively new leading man in town. Clark plays Danny with an unflattering nervousness, a low voice and with no charm whatsoever. As a result, the viewer’s identification with the lead actor is weakened, if not thwarted.

Moonrise, moreover, progresses on a disharmonious scale from the start. After the execution of his father in the opening scene, we see young Danny being roughed up by his schoolmates. The murder takes place in the very next scene, as though a foreordained event. Danny courts Gilly in immediately afterwards, this segue into romance right after a murder producing an unnerving overtone. Save for a scene with Gilly at the town fair, Danny is never happy or at peace. This succession of one anxious scene after the other creates a sense of instability, a lingering feeling that it is not going to end well for the protagonist.

And yet, Moonrise makes an appeal for Danny. There’s a Christian charity at work in the film, no doubt part of Borzage’s temperament. Borzage, the most affirmatively Catholic of filmmakers in Hollywood along with John Ford and Frank Capra, shares the perspectives of Mose, Gilly and the sheriff. The church is present only at the margins of the story, but its fundamental spirit of forbearance suffuses the film. There’s a relentless seriousness about Moonrise that Borzage, unlike Ford and Capra, refuses to dilute with comic relief. There’s no irony or scepticism to be found in Borzage’s work, which embodies a sincerity almost pre-modern.

On the other hand, Moonrise signals a shift away from the director’s established style of soft, top lighting and diffusion filters. Working with fledgling cinematographer John Russell, freshly off Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), Borzage goes for an expressionistic style of high chiaroscuro. The framing is deep, the edges sharp and the shadows dark. The fisticuff between Danny and Jerry is as rough as anything in Fritz Lang, as is the manic frenzy of a key scene involving a Ferris wheel. The focus on hands, as in the extended shot that opens a conversation between Danny and Gilly or the shot where the sheriff tries to trap an insect on a table, brings in a materialist, hard-boiled texture to the images, far from the ethereal aesthetic characteristic of Borzage, where human beings often vanish into pure concepts.

It isn’t wholly unlikely that this change in style was influenced by the production company, Republic Pictures, one of the smaller Hollywood studios. Modesty of means often calls for invention, as is evident in a sequence at a railway station. The whole scene consists of shots of five people waiting on a platform bench. We never get a reverse shot of the approaching train or its passengers. This displaces the scene’s focus from the new stranger entering town to the reaction of Danny and the townsfolk to his arrival.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Classical Hollywood didn’t need a reason to make a film on Abraham Lincoln, a national icon revered across the political spectrum. By the time John Ford made Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) for Twentieth Century Fox, dozens of movies were already produced about him. Ford’s own brother, Francis, had played Lincoln seven times on screen. But Young Mr. Lincoln, featuring Henry Fonda in the titular role, isn’t a prestigious biopic about the 16th American president. It’s the story of Abraham the inexperienced lawyer trying to find his footing in small-town Illinois.

There’s a dual perspective at work in Lamar Trotter’s script. On one hand, for the film’s 20th century audience, Abraham Lincoln is already part of the collective consciousness as one of the greatest political figures of all time. The film plays on this awareness by hinting at foreordained nature of young Abraham’s destiny. Abe decides to become a lawyer by the toss of a stick at the grave of his first sweetheart Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore). He frequently stares at the ice-laden Sangamon river in the distance, as though heeding the call of a higher power. In the film’s final moments, he advances as a silhouette into the sunset. As he exits the frame, he walks into an approaching storm, the wind and the lightning suggesting the political tumult that awaits America in the coming decades.

On the other hand, Young Mr. Lincoln assures that it’s simply the story of a callow lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1830s. To this end, it minimizes the figure of Lincoln and instead presents him as an everyman unaware of what lies in wait. We see him judging a cooking contest, alternately chomping on an apple and a peach pie. He splits a piece of wood in record time. He plays ridiculous tunes on a Jew’s harp. At the first pangs of romance, he tosses a rock into the river. He has an awkward dance session at a ball with his wife-to-be, Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver). Before his first trial, he polishes his shoes and cuts his own hair. The Lincoln of Ford’s film is not the solemn orator of history books, but an entertainer with a self-deprecatory sense of humour. This minimization, in fact, only adds to the legend-building project of the film.

The film contrasts Lincoln’s straightforward persona with the pompous airs of those around him. In the first scene of the film, Lincoln’s co-legislator in New Salem delivers a harangue in which he promises to chase out corrupt elements from politics like “dogs from a meat house”. His speech, full of sound and fury, is followed by Lincoln’s. His head lowered and hands in the pocket, Abe delivers a short and heartfelt speech in sinking intonations, suggesting an honest language very different from the painted words of his peers. Similarly, the words of the prosecutor (Donald Meek) at his first trial, leaning on Biblical references and thunderous exhortations, is followed by Abe’s jovial argumentation, which is evidently on the level.

At the same time, the film subtly reinforces Lincoln’s essential integrity and rectitude. In his first address to the people, Abe is framed tightly, centred, head-on, and from a low angle. Sunlight seeping through gaps between wooden planks forms a vertical, striated pattern in the background to evoke a notion of uprightness. Abe interacts plainly with plain folks of the New Salem village. He trusts them to pay for their purchase later. He doffs his hat when pioneers of the 1776 revolution pass by in a parade. Ford’s Lincoln is the son of the soil, a herculean figure as adept at working an axe as debating in a courtroom. Throughout, Abe is associated with nature, the trees and the river, his understanding of law deriving from the intuitive understanding of right and wrong.

Like various figures representing the law in John Ford’s westerns, Abraham of Young Mr. Lincoln is a man of the book intervening in a society that believes in mob justice. When two young men from a neighbouring village are accused of murdering a local ruffian, the whole town tries to barge into the prison to capture the men and lynch them. To stop them, Abe poses himself between the crowd and the prison. He wields his imposing physique as his first weapon, forcefully pushing back the barging pole with his foot. He assures the crazed men he’s not there to make a speech, but he slowly segues into a monologue in which he appeals to the good will of individuals over the wisdom of the mob. A while earlier, when the prisoner’s mother Mrs. Clay (Alice Brady, in her last screen role) asks Abe who he is to help them, he says, “I’m your lawyer, ma’am”.

This double signification of Abe as a greenhorn as well as a master rhetorician also manifests in the figure of Henry Fonda, who excelled at conveying good-to-the-bone innocence without making it seem boyish. His blank stares often serve as a clean slate on which viewers project their own emotions. Fonda is self-effacing in several sequences of the film. For most part of the final trial scene, his Abe is merely a dark silhouette seen from behind. He sits on the floor, refers to books at the corner of the courtroom, and stands at the judge’s desk with his head buried in his hands. It is not until he wins the case, when the familiar figure in a top hat walks transfixed towards cheering, off-screen crowds, that his character assumes a mythical aura, that his Abe finally becomes Lincoln.

Henry Fonda was a tall man, 187 centimetres in height, six less than the real Lincoln. Few directors understood as well as Ford that he was a great actor of the legs. The filmmaker accentuates Abraham’s clumsiness by focusing on Fonda’s long legs, which seem even longer the way he wears his trousers up over his navel. When we first see Fonda, he’s on a chair, with his legs crossed over a barrel. This horizontal position—made iconic in Fonda’s later collaboration with Ford, My Darling Clementine (1946)—will appear several times in the film, most strikingly in the final courtroom scene. When Abe is reading a book in the woods, his head rests on a log and his legs are posed against a tree. He then sits up, leans against the tree and works the log with his left leg. He scratches his right shin as he mulls over the words of the law. When Ann shows up shortly on the other side of a fence, he approaches her and hops over the high rail with an ungainly leap. Ford captures the actor in many such unflattering poses, making the legendary stateman feel more human, one among the people.

John Ford’s film exhibit great pictorial beauty and the director had the uncanny knack of finding the most powerful yet unobtrusive camera angles and movements. More crucially, he had the ability to infuse his stories—none of which he wrote himself—with an eternal, transcendental quality. A sense of the supernatural marks his death-touched Lincoln. A poem by Rosemary Benet describing the maternal yearnings of Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother, opens the film. The spectres of his mother, his sister Sarah and his beloved Ann loom large over Abraham, who can’t but see them reincarnated in Mrs. Clay and her daughters. As he leans at Ann’s grave, whose demise is conveyed via a heart-breaking ellipse, the Sangamon river flows by in the background. This too shall pass.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

Stavisky… (1974, Alain Resnais)


Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

 

Made by Paramount studios and starring Kirk Douglas who passed away this month, Ace in the Hole (1951) is one of Billy Wilder’s best-known pictures. The film is a satire about a newspaperman Chuck (Douglas) in rural New Mexico who orchestrates a media frenzy around a miner (Richard Benedict) trapped inside a mountain. Chuck colludes with the local sheriff (Ray Teal), who is running a re-election campaign, and the local engineers to ensure that Leo isn’t rescued for at least six days, by which time the story would snowball into a national phenomenon and he would be hired by the top agencies in New York. Wilder, known for his tough, cynical classics, was also producer on the film, ensuring that his acidic sensibility dominated the film.

Wilder develops the story wholly through the warped mind of Chuck, who it seems would do anything for a scoop, including sustaining a tragedy for the sake of readership. “Good news is no news. Bad news sells better.”, he tells his naïve colleague, the photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur). He isn’t religious and smirks at the local beliefs about Indian spirits haunting the mountains. But that doesn’t prevent him from exploiting the angle for his story.  Chuck thus positions himself as the rational man towering over the simpletons of hinterland America, who are little more than fodder for his media circus, an agnostic for whom nothing—not the living, not the dead, not the living dead—is sacred.

Wilder doesn’t overwhelm the viewer with all this pessimism right away. The film’s script modulates the character gradually and subtly. Chuck is introduced as a rather affable character—overconfident but eminently likeable for that reason. His wayward career shows no sign of a moral compromise and he does uphold certain ethical principles as a reporter for the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Moreover, being played by a star like Douglas naturally renders the character endearing. But the tensions slowly surface as Chuck’s sociopathic fantasies come forth, masked as professional aspiration. His eyes light up when he hears about a prospector stuck inside the mountains. Making his way through the caves, he tempts Herbie with stories of journalistic greatness.

Chuck becomes more and more menacing as the story unfolds, a transformation reflected in the accumulating paraphernalia around him: a new telephone connection, a fax machine in his room and, then, the return of alcohol. In the process, Wilder divorces the audience’s perspective from Chuck’s, who now becomes an object of critique rather than identification. Wilder’s satire spirals away from Chuck to include other characters who exploit Leo’s predicament in their own ways. Most important of these is Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) who also wants to leave the boondocks by latching on to Chuck. In an unnerving scene, she cosies up to Chuck, who views her seduction as a deviation from the media narrative he’s crafting and violently slaps her to put her back in line.

            Chuck’s cynicism, though, hits a wall when his plans go awry. In the battle between the telephone cable and the cross on the wall of his room, old-fashioned values triumph: Chuck experiences guilt, which he tries to violently deflect on to Lorraine. And so, the film curves into a Christian fable of sin and suffering. Not a fable from the New Testament though: in the end, Chuck gets to address the crowd from the top of the mountain, but his speech feels less like Christ’s sermon than like Moses’ exhortations on the Sinai. Wilder’s film offers no redemption for Chuck, only punishment; he doesn’t even get to make his great confession.  

Billy Wilder’s renown as a scriptwriter has often come at the expense of his strengths as a filmmaker. True, the screenplay of Ace in the Hole is nimble and constantly moves forward without flashbacks or dream sequences. Even the passage of a whole year is accomplished with a straight cut. The virtues of the script, however, don’t take away from Wilder’s economic but vigorous approach to image-making and scene building. The triggering action of the script—an out-of-work journalist walks into a small-town newspaper office—is portrayed in just four shots, establishing Chuck’s character and nonchalant attitude right away.

            Wilder’s images in the film are dynamic, with an emphasis on the diagonal throughout. The recurring shot of Chuck peering at Leo through a gap in the rocks has a straight line slashing across the screen, producing a sense of both instability and claustrophobia. A scene of Chuck corrupting the sheriff by promising him a re-election is shot in a tight space to conjure an atmosphere of twisted intimacy. Wilder makes the lighting progressively dramatic, and the shots are increasingly invaded by shadows as the film advances. He films Chuck from a slightly low angle all through, the compositions taking his character from assertive to threatening to positively malevolent.  

             Central to the composition is the figure of Kirk Douglas himself. An emblem of classical, rugged masculinity, Douglas had a face that was uncertain in its signification. While his wavy locks and genial smile gave him an air of a Greek god, his cleft chin, like those of Robert Mitchum and Cary Grant, and protruding jaw line bestowed a slightly sinister aura. Douglas plays with this ambivalence in Ace in the Hole. His characteristic head tilt combines with his leaning posture to accentuate the diagonality of the shots. Douglas peppers his performance with fleeting but eye-catching gestures—a matchstick dragged over a typewriter, the flip of a bottle, a snap of the suspenders, a spectacular drop of his cigarette into a glass of water after persuading the sheriff—to suggest a master rhetorician at work.  

            Chuck is a New York man, a master of the universe for whom a job at a small-town press is just a sojourn. Douglas conveys this sense of superiority in the fable-like first scene in which he strolls, unannounced and unflappably, into the newspaper office to sell himself. His tone and gesture paint him as a man who stands tall over the poor chumps of Albuquerque. But he becomes restless when he finds himself stuck with his $60/week job even after a year. In a remarkable scene filmed in a single shot, he paces about the news room, delivering a begrudging paean to New York life, evoking both nostalgia and desperation. His zing returns when he smells a breakthrough story, and he plays up his east coast exceptionalism by rough-housing a deputy sheriff.

            While within the classical Hollywood tradition of satire, whose practitioners include Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, Ace in the Hole feels rather modern, partly because Wilder refuses to soften it with a morally upright protagonist. Its lampooning of people vacationing in front of the mountains is broad and caricatural, but it is also discomfiting in its pungent suggestion that it takes a city to bury a man. Like the best satires, Wilder’s film spreads wide outside of its immediate milieu to accommodate a broader cultural criticism.

Ace in the Hole is, in a way, a critique of capitalism, of the American promise of upward mobility so prevalent in its time. Everyone is Wilder’s film is either selling or consuming something at the cost of someone else. While Leo’s condition is a free resource for journalists and businessmen to exploit, Chuck conspires with the authorities to eliminate competition and ensure his monopoly. This idea of a systematic exploitation and commodification of human suffering—and not as the result of a single individual’s moral perversion, but as the rational logic of a system—is part of what lends Wilder’s film its unrelenting and unnerving quality. 

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Adapted from Ayn Rand’s madly popular 1943 novel, The Fountainhead (1949) is the story of Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), a genius modernist architect whose refusal to accept established styles and conform to public standards make him a pariah among his peers. Roark declares that his primary quest is his work itself, not its possible beneficiaries. He does not accept the judgment of collectives and knows that no “group, board, council or commission” would give him projects. Recognizing his greatness, but lacking the courage to be by his side, are Dominique (Patricia Neal), an architecture critic in love with Roark’s work (and thus Roark), and Wynand (Raymond Massey), a self-made media baron trying to regain the strength of character he lost on his way to the top. Running the crusade against Roark is Toohey (Robert Douglas), a social-minded critic at Wynand’s publication who is convinced of Roark’s genius and wants to break him down for that very reason.

            Much of the drama of the script, adapted from the novel by Rand herself, passes through a romantic triangle. Dominique is in love with Roark, but is afraid that the world will grind him down. To protect herself from the heartbreak, she marries Wynand, who also loves Dominique. Wynand is a very nuanced figure, an antagonist trying to redeem himself, who sees in Roark the man he could have been, but was too scared to become. Roark, for his part, is a cipher, an emotional monolith who refuses to compromise his work, whatever be the personal and professional cost of that attitude. The characters’ attraction to each other are modulated less by erotic fervour than their appreciation of each other’s moral outlook.

There’s a starkly new style of acting afoot in Vidor’s film, no doubt informed by the nature of the material at hand. Unusually for a Hollywood hero, Roark is not someone the viewer identifies with. Vidor’s direction divorces our perspective from that of Roark, whom we get to know only through information supplied by other characters. In the opening volley of exchanges, Roark stands as a silhouette at the edge of the frame, as his varying interlocutors describe his personality by way of cautionary advice: stubborn, uncompromising, visionary, individualistic, too idealist for this business. Throughout the film, we hear about the brilliance of Roark’s Frank Lloyd Wright-like designs, but we’re never told why they are so.

Cooper, in turn, dials down his already minimalist style and turns the character into a near-mythical figure. Many shots present him from the back, his obscured profile lending him a larger-than-life presence. Rand’s story constantly compares buildings to people and locates the integrity or inauthenticity of architects in the designs they produce. Roark, like his creations, is solemn, impassive, upright, impenetrable and flawless. Cooper is really playing a slab of marble here. He stands tall, hardly moves and performs very few actions. Except for a pair of gestures involving his fingers, his hands always remain close to his body or in his pockets. Whatever reactions he has, he conveys using microscopically calibrated facial expressions. His general unflappability becomes a moral quality, set against the neurotic body language of characters like his frazzled, covering peer Keating (Kent Smith). This idea of laconic speech and reduced physical movement conveying a superiority of character was already present in Cooper’s role in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and it’s taken to its philosophical extreme in The Fountainhead, thanks in no small part to Rand’s scenario.

Similar principles are at work with Patricia Neal’s character. In the initial stretches of the film, Dominique is dead-eyed, never blinks or moves her pupils when she fixates on something. She is cold and removed, her distance an expression of self-protection and a fear of loss of control. In her first scene, she tosses away a pretty statue because, she says, it’s too beautiful for this wretched world. Her melancholy defiance and whip-wielding dominance, of course, melt away when she lays eyes on Stark’s chiselled body drilling down a marble. As a result, Neal’s eyes become progressively warmer, her hands less in control. Vidor cranks up the sexual tension to untenable levels, curiously sublimating it in architecture talk. The dynamic culminates in the proto-fascist iconography of the final scene where Dominique, now wholly submitted to her love, ascends via a fork lift towards Roark, who stands atop a skyscraper looking down at her, his hands on his hips.  

This melodramatic framework is fundamental, and not incidental, to Rand’s script. In direct opposition to Freud, Rand believed that a person’s emotional life was founded on a bedrock of reason and that one could direct one’s sentimental life by rational analysis. “A man falls in love with and sexually desires a person who reflects his own deepest values”, she wrote. In flagrant contrast to the Hollywood model, Roark and Dominique fall in love with each other through an appreciation of each other’s moral, intellectual virtues. A long scene of romantic confession takes the shape of Dominique’s admiration for Roark’s nonconformism. This notion of an amorous relationship based on “rational self-interest”, if it isn’t given a lie by Rand’s own love life beset by passion and jealousy, at least makes for odd drama.

Another aspect of Rand’s script that goes against the grain of classical Hollywood is its unapologetic verbosity. Rand adores reiterating her declarations against mass culture (incriminating Hollywood indirectly), collectivism, altruism, solidarity and common standards in exceptionally lofty, impossibly articulate dialogue. She puts her most scandalizing lines in the mouth of Roark’s rival Toohey, whose cigar-blowing critic is a caricature of the New York intellectual. This writerly excess reaches its crescendo in an extended courtroom scene where Roark spells out his (and the film’s) philosophy in unequivocal terms. Like Roark, Rand sold the film rights on the condition that not one word of any of this be changed.

All the same, Vidor activates the material with a vertiginous imagery scored to Max Steiner’s thunderous score. Vidor’s style here can justifiably said to be baroque. His strong, rectilinear compositions in deep space make dazzling use of Edward Carrere’s modernist interiors and the highly directional lighting. A scene set at a marble quarry is a veritable series of minimalist canvases harnessing the straight edges of rock formations to great effect. Vidor’s eye for geometry is visible even in minor scenes like an idyllic interlude of three characters relaxing under a tree. The filmmaker’s characteristic camera movements impart a dynamism to scenes threatened by Rand’s wordiness. Even the long-winded courtroom speech is made snappy thanks to Vidor’s fluid sequencing and Cooper’s deadpan line delivery.  

Warner Brothers had bought the rights to Rand’s novel during the war, but it couldn’t be made into a film because of America’s pro-Russia stance at the time. In 1949, however, things were markedly different. The Cold War had begun and anti-communist sentiment was in the air. The House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) pursued its investigation into leftist infiltration of Hollywood. At the famous HUAC hearings of 1947, Cooper and Rand were summoned as friendly witnesses to denounce communism, which they did in their own unmistakable manner. First among those promising cooperation and clean-up was Jack Warner, the head of the studio that saw a major workers’ strike in 1945. It’s something of a bitter irony that Warner Brothers, known for its socially-conscious cinema and films about the little man, would go on to make a work that decried these very values. But the climate had changed, and one thing that the old Hollywood moguls understood well was which direction the winds blew. The Fountainhead was fashionable once more.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

It only takes two minutes for Sam Mendes’ WWI saga 1917 to set up its premise. A pair of lance corporals (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are entrusted by the General (Colin Firth) no less to courier a message to another battalion camping nine miles away. Failure to convey the message before dawn will result in the sure death of 1,600 soldiers. Its implausibility aside, this is an extremely cinematic setup, allowing the story to follow a pair of characters from point A to B. But Mendes chooses to film the entire two-hour narrative in an apparently single take, in the process snuffing out the rich possibilities of the premise.

            Like Dunkirk, 1917 is an experiment in film narrative. And like Nolan’s film, it is a failure that’s instructive in the way it fails. The director of Dunkirk had interwoven not just three timelines, which is standard practice, but three timescales: unfolding over a week, a day and an hour but sharing the same screen time. But in popular cinematic grammar, multiple closely intercut narrative threads evoke a sense of simultaneity. Failing that, a thematic correlation as is the case with films like Cloud Atlas or Wonderstruck. Nolan’s consciously anti-grammatical film demands the viewer to actively shift the time markers in their head back and forth, compelling him/her to recognize the various ways war is experienced by its participants despite a unity of mission. Whatever the mechanistic thrills of this formal scheme, the process remains intellectual, far more exigent than the intuitive pleasures offered by the accelerated editing of The Dark Knight series.

            1917 complements the challenge, choosing to preserve the spatial and temporal integrity of the narrative by filming it in a single shot. We understand right away, thanks to the history of war movies, that the corporals are going to make it to their destination no matter what, but we also know that they cannot possibly cover nine miles in two hours of real time, considering that they travel mostly on foot. It’s then immediately clear that Mendes has to fudge his filmmaking for the story to reach its conclusion. While the single shot setup purports to offer a slice of real time, as in Jafar Panahi’s Offside, the narrative itself is telescoped artificially into two hours.

            Mendes conveys a sense of passing distance and time, without it actually happening, by chaining together a series of starkly different landscapes: cramped trenches, marshlands, lush meadows, drab fields, a surreally lit, ruined city, water bodies and trenches once more. The movement of the corporals from one landscape to another serves the same purpose as a fade-out in conventional movies: to evoke a sensation of ellipse in the viewer. What we then have is an edit-less edit, like in those commercials where the actor seamlessly moves from one vastly different environment to another while seeming to simply walk across rooms. The principle is that of video games, where we find the same idea of telescoping longer durations and distances into shorter screen time, even when the player has a feeling of contiguous experience.

            The lack of cuts undermines the effect in another way too. Given that the viewer is planted in the here and the now, there’s no suspense against which the corporals’ action is to be measured. Hitchcock’s theory of suspense involves the revelation of dramatic stakes by a cutaway (to a ticking bomb, for instance). But considering we never know what’s at risk while the corporals are getting delayed, or if they’re getting delayed at all, we don’t share the urgency that the protagonists express time and again. The French film critic and theorist André Bazin championed long take realism, but only insofar as it preserved the spatial tension of a scene. The shot of an Inuit trying to hunt a seal, in Bazin’s example, has more impact presented in a single shot because it reproduces the danger involved as is. In contrast, conceit of 1917 perennially relegates the danger off-screen, rendering every dramatic development merely a shock.  

            “We experience life much closer to one longer continuous shot”, says Mendes in an interview. But do we? Anyone who has ever watched two people converse across a table will realize that we don’t pay attention to the empty space between them as our eyes leap from one speaker to the other. Our cognitive processes don’t track our ocular movement; our brain incessantly edits out insignificant information. Even our eyes constantly shuttle within a scene, causing counterintuitive mental compensations. Classical Hollywood continuity editing, which relies on closely stitching together vital bits of information from a single space, is thus perhaps more truthful to real experience than the long take. Defending classical scene construction over long shot filmmaking, Jean-Luc Godard wrote: “I would even see in that spatial discontinuity occasioned by shot changes, which certain devotees of the ‘ten-minute takes‘ make a point of despising, the reason for the greater part of the truth which this figure of style contains.

            Indeed, the formal schema of 1917 ensures that it lacks the psychological charge that even the most rudimentary war films contain. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins rightly suppose that their camera must be able to move 360 degrees around the actors to capture their expression. There are even a handful of closeups in the film to underscore dramatically important moments. But these closeups are simply relayed as discrete packets of new information (grief, shock etc.) without actually anticipating them. The viewer’s identification with a protagonist often passes through a combination of an action and the protagonist’s immediate reaction to it. Think of Kirk Douglas walking through the trenches looking at the cowering soldiers in The Paths of Glory. The continuous camera movement of 1917, however, prevents shot-reverse shot constructions. Here, the roving camera introduces a delay between action and reaction, allowing the viewer to get ahead of the protagonists. Or we see the actors’ reaction before the camera pans to what they are reacting to, which makes the reaction only mysterious.

            Finally, the notion of transforming the most horrifying of wars into an awe-inducing spectacle carries a stench of Big Money cynicism. To be sure, the idea is to immerse the audience into a time-space where there’s no time for mourning or contemplation, where the only action allowed is to move on, physically and mentally. “It doesn’t do to dwell on it”, tells a higher-up to one of the corporals after a tragedy. And there are references to the “horrors of war”, to death and destruction. But all of that is wrapped up in a triumphalist narrative closer to a speedrun through a particularly hard third-person shooter than a meditation on war. Deakins and Mendes concoct several visceral, stunning passages, breaking the monotony of the conceit with regular changes in scale, pace and tone. The viewer is perpetually aware of the creation of this spectacle, even when it tries to conceal it. This self-awareness, though, is led nowhere but a dumb submission to technical virtuosity.

Writing about his son’s enthusiastic visit to the offices of a comic book publisher, American critic Robert Warshow reflected on the benefits of disillusionment: “I think Paul’s desire to put himself directly in touch with the processes by which the comic books are produced may be the expression of a fundamental detachment which helps to protect him from them; the comic books are not a ‘universe’ to him, but simply objects produced for his entertainment.” Maybe 1917 is a new kind of war movie, a proto-Brechtian project that produces an illusion of the world even as it induces a doubt as to how that illusion was produced. And maybe that’s a good thing. We’ll know in time.

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