On the Big Screen: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

Steve Buscemi & Jeffrey Tambor

The Death of Stalin, from director Armando Iannucci (trailer) satirizes the cynical, self-absorbed group of leaders surrounding the Communist dictator and their desperate jockeying for position both before and after his death in 1953.

Banned in Russia, the film is based on a graphic novel by French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (Amazon link), full of one-liners and sight gags. Undoubtedly, some of the humor arises out of a characters’ sense of release—having lived under such extreme repression, day in and day out, guarding every word and eyebrow twitch, a giddy humanity bubbles up once the leader dies.

Late one evening, Stalin decides he wants to hear an orchestra concert that was broadcast on the radio. No one thought to record it, and the anxious scramble to recreate the concert illustrates the high-pitched fear of displeasing him. (Bringing in baffled street people to pad the audience was a nice touch.) Stalin murdered the pianist’s family, and she slips a vitriolic message into the recording jacket that causes the dictator have a stroke. His comrades can’t find a doctor for him because, they readily acknowledge, all the “good doctors” have been purged.

Stalin’s potential heirs include Nikita Kruschev (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi), who is put in charge of a lavish state funeral where things, inevitably, go awry. Due to his position on the Central Committee, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is “in charge,” with terror and venality at war behind his eyes. Vyacheslov Molotov (Michael Palin) is the only inner circle member unaware that Stalin’s unexpected death has spared him a grim fate in Lubyanka prison. The head of state security, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) oils his way into nearly every scene, always plotting and loathed by everyone.

As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, it’s a comedy, “grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless” and “ten times funnier . . . than it has any right to be.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 95%; audiences: 79%.

Cezanne: Portraits of a Life

Cezanne

Paul Cézanne, “Self Portrait in a Bowler Hat,” (1885-86)

This beautiful documentary, directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer), was created to accompany a joint exhibition of some 60 of Paul Cézanne’s portraits being mounted by London’s National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Better known for his still lifes and landscapes, the portraits, which New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl says were “the genre most resistant to Cézanne’s struggle” are nevertheless worthy of careful attention. Certainly the museum staff who provide commentary for the film have been captivated by them. Yet the artist’s struggle is evident in his letters to his friends, read in voice-over.

What I found most thrilling were the extreme closeups of the painted surface that seeing the works on a big screen provided. In a postcard (!) or print in a book, or even glanced at in a gallery, the paintings may look rather flat, but the huge enlargement allows you to see the many layers of color used to create that surface and to appreciate these works in a completely new way. Some of the landscapes and a few still lifes also receive this close-in treatment.

Although Cézanne masterfully depicted the faces and the hands of his subjects, he said that these were not what constituted the “portrait” of a person, but indeed the whole canvas—the clothing, the chair, the background, all together, were the true portrait. See it if you can.

The exhibit has had its Paris and London runs and will be in Washington March 25-July 1, 2018.

ICYMI: American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art MuseumThe free American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Square, shares its modestly sized space with the Manhattan temple of the Church of Latter Day Saints, across from Lincoln Center on Columbus Avenue at 66th Street. This location is one of the Museum’s two outposts. The other, in Long Island City, displays items from the permanent collection, whereas the Manhattan space has  rotating exhibitions.

When we visited recently, the exhibit was a fascinating display of “self-taught” art, along with the artists’ written commentaries about their work. Twenty-one artists from the United States and numerous other countries are represented, and the exhibition will be on display until May 27.

What the works have in common, over space and time, is the intensity and focus of the artistic vision applied. Many of the artists struggled with mental illness and art may have been a way of coping with and an expression of their challenges. Collectively, the exhibition catalog says, the artists through both their works and what they say about them demonstrate the “idiosyncratic structure of their lifelong, intricate, and nonlinear narratives.”

The first set of pencil drawings we examined, by artist James Edward Deeds, Jr. (1908-1987), was mounted so you could see both sides of the paper on which his drawings of steamboats, horse-drawn carts, and circus wagons were created. The paper on which they were created was unused forms from the state mental institution where he lived for 37 years. A few years after Deeds’s death, a curious teenager rescued the artist’s 283 drawings from the trash.

I was drawn to a display of more than a hundred 8 x 10-inch topographical drawings and paintings fitted together like a map—“Journey to Another Dimension” (photo below)—by Michigan artist Jerry Gretzinger, The full set of almost 3500 of these panels could cover the floor of a basketball court and has been shown in its entirety only once (on the floor of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). A fascinating video shows Gretzinger talking about his elaborate, random process for revising individual panels, which allows for organic change in the set.

There’s a group of 80-year-old drawings of children by Henry Darger (one is featured on the Museum website) that at first look playful until you read the captions; Spanish artist Josep Baqué’s fantastical creatures; and a pattern on paper that looks like dots. The museum conveniently offers a powerful magnifying glass to let you see the dots are very, very teensy words.

It’s fair to say that all the works were intriguing, some even startling, but perhaps not as much as the inspired minds behind them. I hope to go back regularly to see what this museum is up to! A fantastic gift shop, BTW.

Gretzinger Map

photo: Nicholas Helmholdt

Bill Murray’s “New Worlds”

Otsego Lake

Otsego Lake; photo: Corey Seeman, creative commons license

Comedian and actor Bill Murray brought his “New Worlds” show, created in partnership with master cellist Jan Vogler, to Princeton last week. It’s an unusual, interesting, and often thrilling hour and three-quarters (trailer).

Murray reads excerpts from authors as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and James Thurber, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, accompanied by Vogler, Mira Wang on violin, and Vanessa Perez, piano. Murray sings, too—movingly on “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and comically in selections from West Side Story. He dances with Wang in a tango by Argentinean composer Astor Piazzola. Throughout, the music is sublime.

Murray and Vogler have created juxtapositions of text and music that are full of unexpected resonances. When Murray reads a lyrical passage about the beauty of Otsego Lake from The Deerslayer, the last of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, Vogler plays Schubert. Both Cooper and Schubert loved nature, but that coincidence is amplified by the revelation that Schubert was reading the Leatherstocking tales on his deathbed.

Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River” accompanied an excerpt from Huckleberry Finn in which Huck and Jim are on the raft, floating down the river at night, anticipating sight of the lights of Cairo, Illinois, where Jim will be free. There’s a startling coordination of images of moon, river, the shore lights that are not Cairo, and “two drifters off to see the world”—and, certainly, “my huckleberry friend.”

The audience exercises its lungs in George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” sung by Murray to a musical arrangement by, of all the unexpected people,  Jascha Heifetz. That irreverent selection is counterbalanced later in the program by a powerfully moving version of Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God.”

Reviewer John von Rhein in Murray’s home-town newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, says the actor has again reinvented himself “in a rather wonderful new species of performance art few others would have dreamed up or could have brought off so beautifully.” This unique and unforgettable show has many forthcoming dates around the country—and the world. See it if you can. And, if you can’t, Amazon will let you stream it.

“Big Chief Wears a Golden Crown”

Masking IndianThis week Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts hosted a panel discussion with two leaders in the tradition of New Orleans Black Masking Indians. Darryl Montana, great-grandson of one of the tradition’s founders, and Demond Melancon, whom Montana calls the “world’s best beader” described masking’s origins and modern significance.

Masking—familiar to viewers of the television series Treme, (to my regret, only four seasons long!) in which Clarke Peters played Big Chief Albert Lambreaux—is a nearly two-hundred-year-old tradition that has various origin stories. In part it may have begun as resistance to early rules prohibiting negroes from wearing feathers, in part as a shout-out to the Native Americans who helped runaway slaves, and in part as a strong expression of individuality and pride in an era of repression.

The Chiefs of New Orleans’s nearly 40 black masking tribes make one suit a year. Each suit has multiple parts, can weigh up to 150 pounds, and takes about 5000 hours to construct. Because masking is a “competitive sport,” Montana said, the costumes are generally made in secret, their design and significance revealed only when the Indians come out on Carnival Day (Mardi Gras).

In recognition of Melancon’s artistic skills, in 2012, the elders of the Mardi Gras Indian community dubbed him Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters, with his very own tribe in the Lower Ninth Ward. Increasingly, the creation of suits is considered a significant contemporary art form, and its best practitioners keep pushing the envelope of creative possibility. Melancon’s suit on display at the Lewis Center tells the story of an enslaved Ghanian prince brought to New Orleans in the 1830’s. He lost an arm after a dispute with police, and was thereafter called Bras Coupé. Every beaded element of this stunning suit carries symbolic significance.

masking Indian suit

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Montana is the Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters Black Masking Indian Tribe and made the lavish lavender suit pictured. Completion often involves family members and select friends.

Montana explained that he does not want “to take what I learned from the Chief to the grave with me,” and now makes a concerted effort to engage the next generation in the masking tradition. “You have to keep (young people) busy,” he said, and he believes that through the intensity of the suit-making process, the time commitment, and the camaraderie of working on a culturally meaningful project, he’s found a way to do that.

Cocktail Party Conversation Stopper

In case this slipped by you too, the Big Chief mentioned the massive amount of Mardi Gras beads bead-deviling New Orleans’s storm drains. Last fall 93,000 pounds-worth were excavated from merely a five-block stretch of St. Charles Avenue! Of course, they were wet.

Intrigued? Here’s More + Pictures!

The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum by Ronald Lewis
Mardi Gras Indians
by Michael Smith
From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians – Joroen Dewulf’s new theory about the origins of the black masking Indian tradition
Treme from David Simon and George Pelecanos for HBO. Watch the beginning for free.

On Stage: A Loverly New “My Fair Lady”

my-fair-lady-poster2This spring Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre is presenting the first new production of Lerner and Loewe’s irresistible musical My Fair Lady in a quarter-century. Opening night for this production, directed by Bartlett Sher, is April 19. We were lucky to get good seats for a preview performance and enjoyed it tremendously.

Lauren Ambrose (Claire in Six Feet Under) plays the redoubtable Eliza Doolittle, with spirit and a knock-your-socks-off singing voice. It turns out she had classical voice training, but this is the first time since high school she’s had a role that let her use it.

Ambrose’s Eliza is more than Higgins’s life-sized doll, as she’s transformed from cockney flower girl to elegant lady. In a New York Times interview, she said, “I’m fighting for the dignity of the character.” This helps counter some of the show’s ideas that are uncomfortably dated, though Henry Higgins remains a deliciously irredeemable throwback. His “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” is right out of a time capsule. Yet the play as a whole overcomes that successfully in this #MeToo moment.

You’ll recognize Harry Hadden-Paton, who plays Professor Higgins, from numerous roles on British television, most recently in The Crown. Unlike Rex Harrison, he can actually sing. The cast-member who is our sentimental favorite is Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering. We met him when he played Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express at McCarter Theatre, and seeing Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins was a delicious treat!

Any actor playing Alfred P. Doolittle has the gift of two rousing numbers—“A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and Norbert Leo Butz plays them for all they’re worth, supported by his two semi-sober pals. He has everything he needs to bring the house down, and, boy, does he. Great support from the huge (29 members!) and hugely talented ensemble.

Michael Yeargan’s main set is on a revolving turntable, and the rest is designed for quick scene changes and continuous movement. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are loverly, especially for the scenes at the Ascot races—a golden opportunity for the costume designer to pull all the stops. The red taffeta coat Eliza wears to the Embassy Ball is a brave and dramatic choice for the red-haired Ambrose. That’s a scene where her dress has to be up to the drama of the moment: “She is a princess,” after all. But I’m still trying to figure out what color that dress was.

I especially appreciated that the orchestra—part of which appears on stage for the ballroom scene—did not drown out the singing.

MFL is often considered “the perfect musical.” If you’ve never seen the show, or if you haven’t seen it in years, it will leave a big smile on your face. “What in all of heaven can have prompted you to go?” The promise of a terrific evening at the theater!

April Fool’s Jokes, All in the Family

Fool -

photo: Andrea Mann, creative commons license

Whew! Survived April Fool’s Day without making an idiot of myself. Here are a few of my family’s notable pranks that make me a teensy bit nervous as April first approaches.

Dream Job: Restaurant Reviewer

Our local newspaper once had a truly awful restaurant reviewer. Her reviews would go something like this: “My associate taster and I decided to try C— U——- for lunch. We started with two delicious Black Russians. The garlic mashed potatoes that arrived with our main course were spectacular, . . . etc.” I guess after a couple of lunchtime Black Russians, garlic mashed potatoes were a food she could confidently identify.

This reviewer needed a new associate taster. I’m a pretty good cook with a lot of interest in food, and my family told me they put my name in. When I received a handwritten letter saying she’d selected me, I was thrilled!! Before I called to thank her, they had the wit to remind me it was April 1.

“We need the money now!”

When our daughter Alix was about twelve, we were staying in a Naples, Florida, beachfront hotel, along with her grandparents. She was sleeping in, and all the adults were out, presumably at the beach or breakfast. Pounding on the hotel door awakened her. Two burly guys from hotel security announced that our credit card hadn’t worked and they needed an alternative form of payment immediately.

This sleepy little voice said “My dad . . .” “We don’t care about your dad; we need the money now!” “But I don’t have any money . . .” She glanced around the empty room and missed seeing her parents and grandparents peeking through the adjoining room’s door. “You have to pay us!” “But . . .” The police were mentioned.

Finally, the guys couldn’t stand it any longer and started laughing. As did we. She didn’t speak to any of us the rest of the day. The security team, though, received a nice tip.

A Mom Wises Up

Then Alix grew up, married, and lives several states away. About seven months after the wedding, my husband came into my home office and said, “Did you see Alix’s email? She’s pregnant!” “Forget about it,” I said, inured to their tricks. “It’s April Fool’s Day.” “Oh, right. I’ll send a reply saying how excited we are.”

The next day we received a FedEx package with the sonogram. An April Fool’s double-cross if there ever was one!

Scottsdale, AZ — a Sweet Visit!

Ice Cream light fixture

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

A trip to sunny Arizona took us out of the slush of New Jersey for a few days earlier this month. Having seen and enjoyed the city’s museums and major attractions on numerous previous visits, we put together a set of new, easily managed stops, some of which might interest you, if you’re headed west.

Scottsdale Art Walk – We were in town on a Thursday night, when galleries all stay open in downtown Scottsdale. You pick and choose what to see from a “casual and eclectic” array, at your own pace. It’s always interesting to see what artists are up to.

We enjoyed the public art installation along the Arizona Canal, just west of Scottsdale Road. This is a changing exhibition, and might not be the same in a few months. What we saw was “Reflection Rising,” by Patrick Shearn and Poetic Kinetics—hundreds of thousands of strips of mylar (?) suspended in waves over the canal. Lovely.

Mandatory stop at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, 4014 North Goldwater Boulevard. You can probably time your visit to coincide with one of  the many author book signings they host, and the staff always has great recommendations on mysteries and thrillers. Our visit necessitated a trip to the post office to mail our purchases home—probably they would have arranged that if we’d thought of it before we got back in the car. Too excited about our treasures!

What’s not to love? At The Art of Ice Cream pop-up exhibit, 4224 North Craftsman Court—you get ice cream, you get photo opps, you get a small exhibit with lots of humor and spirit, including a canoe dressed up as a banana split. Note the ice cream-shaped light fixtures in the photo!

Having seen Sedona multiple times, this trip our out-of-town sojourn was to Payson and the Mogollan Rim, a 90-minute drive northeast. The countryside becomes thick with trees, and once you arrive, there are a couple of interesting things to do in this historic town. The Rim Country Museum and Zane Gray Cabin both had cheerful local volunteer guides who were natural storytellers. Nearby was the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, with the world’s largest natural travertine bridge.

An annual event, the Indian Fair and Market was on view at the Heard Museum. We didn’t set foot in the museum itself, which is always a great experience, but wandered the tents of the market and a bit of the surrounding Old Phoenix neighborhood.

And another must-do Scottsdale event, is lunch at the Sugar Bowl. I asked the valet at our hotel what the cross-street is for the Sugar Bowl, but he wasn’t familiar with it. “What? You don’t like pink?”

On Stage: Crowns

Crowns

photo: © T Charles Erickson Photography

Fifteen years ago, McCarter Theatre premiered Regina Taylor’s original Crowns, which has become one of the country’s most-produced musicals. Currently on stage at McCarter until April 1 is an entirely new version of Crowns, again written and directed by Regina Taylor.

Although, as McCarter artistic director Emily Mann says, Crowns is “a joyful, brilliant expression of the past and present lives of African-American women,” the emotional subtext of the story is universal, and the production offers a rousing, end-of-winter uplift. If you recall the original Crowns, you’ll remember the title refers to the extravagant hats worn by African-American women, especially to church, and you’ll appreciate Caite Hevner’s set design that imaginatively incorporates hats by the dozen.

Much more than a tale about headgear, Crowns remains a story about attitude and about asserting individuality when society wants you to be invisible. The hats are a touchstone for memory too, enabling their wearers to reconnect with past experiences, good and bad, with failures and triumphs. Taylor has said that “hats reveal and they conceal,” and in her play, they do both.

Taylor has brought the play into the present by combining the hip-hop of a 17-year-old Chicago girl, Yolanda (played by Gabrielle Beckford), with the gospel of her South Carolina grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison). Yolanda is sent to stay with her grandmother after her brother is murdered in a drug deal gone bad. However, she’s impervious to the support and love offered by her granny and the women of the community, the Hat Queens. “Talk about it,” they sing, but Yolanda won’t, can’t.

Loosely structured around the elements of a church service, the women cast members (Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope, and Danielle K. Thomas) are lively story-tellers and singers, and Crawford brings down the house with her rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Any of them could teach a master class in movement. The one male cast-member (Lawrence Clayton) plays multiple roles, donning different personalities as easily as his different hats.

Providing the propulsive energy for the almost non-stop music, much of it original for this production, are Jaret Landon on keyboards and trumpet and David Pleasant on percussion. Alas, on opening night, the “accompaniment” sometimes overpowered the singers. The production makes fine use of projections, which transform the single set from Chicago’s streets, to Mother Shaw’s church, to a South Carolina high school, and much more. Parts of Yolanda’s raps are projected in chalk letters too.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two new restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Trying: A Play by Joanna Glass

The story of 20th century figure Judge Francis Biddle comes alive in Trying, an engaging play by Joanna McClelland Glass, who was Biddle’s assistant during his last year of life. On stage at the George Street Playhouse through April 8, the play is directed by Jim Jack.

It has an apt title, because the irascible judge was very trying during this period, plagued by illnesses, painful arthritis, and growing infirmities. But he also wanted to finish his memoirs, and Glass (in the play, her character’s name is Sarah) must cajole and persuade and badger him to “try.” She learns to work with the prickly, demanding Biddle, and they develop a strong mutual affection and a relationship that contains a healthy dose of humor.

Biddle was the quintessential “Philadelphia lawyer,” accomplished, educated at elite U.S. institutions and related to or acquainted with a significant number of the country’s patrician leaders. He served numerous posts in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, including as U.S. Solicitor General and U.S. Attorney General.

When the internment of Japanese-Americans was proposed, he initially opposed it, and regretted his later support. (In the play, he expresses this regret and said that episode is where he learned to mistrust the phrase “military necessity.”) He took actions to support African-American civil rights. Perhaps his most notable achievements were as America’s chief judge at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis. The lobby displays posters with a number of his strong human rights quotations.

Ironically, Glass says in her notes accompanying the play, at the end of his life the two events that preoccupied him were the deaths that robbed him of a young son and his own father when he was six. The lost opportunities to know those two people haunted him.

Even though there are only two actors in the cast, the story clicks right along. Biddle—“81 years old, elegant, sharply cantankerous, and trying to put his life in order”—is played by Philip Goodwin, with increasing frailty of body, but not of spirit, and Cary Zien plays off him well as a sympathetic and energetic young Sarah. The set design conveys the passage of time, with the changing weather and flora outside the window, and though spring arrives and the days grow longer, they are a constant reminder that Biddle’s days are coming to an end.

This is a lovely play, and gives audiences a lot to think about, with respect to the contributions a single person can make—Biddle in his legal career and Glass with her acute perceptions about what constitutes a well-lived life.

ICYMThem: The Good and the Bad of Recent Biopics

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Annette BeningThis beneath-the-radar film directed by Paul McGuigan (script by Matt Greenhalgh) shows  the last days of Academy-Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (trailer). In her final illness, she turns to a former lover, the much younger actor, Peter Turner, and the flashbacks about their relationship in its heyday are sparkling and fun. They knew how to enjoy life and each other.

Annette Bening makes a charming, sexy Grahame, riddled with vanities, and Jamie Bell is Turner—sincere and doing the right thing. One heart-rending moment of unselfish love and compassion from each of them. Julie Walters is excellent as Turner’s mother, unaccustomed to consorting with Hollywood stars, but able to establish a strong human connection.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating 80%; audiences 71%.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Mark Felt, Liam Neeson, phone boothWhile Watergate revelations piled up daily in the early 1970s, in all the excruciating details of high-level misdeeds, one mystery remained: Who was the high-ranking source, “Deep Throat”? Washington Post reporters gave this name to one of history’s most important whistle-blowers.

Thirty years later Americans learned the source had been Mark Felt, J. Edgar Hoover’s #2, the man expected to next head the FBI. Felt was aced out of the position by the White House when Hoover died unexpectedly. Were his actions revenge? Or more noble? I saw the film and cannot answer that.

This is great material about a consequential period. Too bad the filmmakers couldn’t make better use of it. Liam Neeson (Felt) looks cadaverous, and writer/director Peter Landesman gives the actors some really wooden dialog, offering little depth (trailer).

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating 35%; audiences 43%.

Marshall

Marshall - Chadwick BosemanAnother biopic that doesn’t live up to its source material is Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall, written by Jacob and Michael Koskoff (trailer). Chadwick Boseman nicely plays Thurgood Marshall in his early days, fighting for equal treatment under the law for black Americans. He finds a litigation partner in a reluctant Sam Friedman (played by Josh Gad. The acting is fine, but the scenes and dialog are clichéd, and the rest of the characters two-dimensional.

End-titles mention the 33 cases Marshall argued before the Supreme Court—surely there were numerous episodes embedded in those cases that would bring new issues to light, more illuminating than the courtroom drama presented here: a black man accused of raping and trying to kill a white woman. It would have been interesting to see how the nation’s top court responded to civil rights issues, rather than the predictable provincial racism of a local justice system. We’ve seen that scenario before. Says critic Indra Arriaga in the Anchorage Press, “Marshall misses opportunity after opportunity to be truthful and relevant in the world today.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 83%; audiences 85%.

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