Photo by Julian Anderson
" . . . it's interesting, you know, how things'll work out. well, not 'out,' i guess, not so much that as maybe 'through.' right? things get worked through . . . or work themselves through, we probably don't have all that much to do with it."
--medea redux, bash: latterday plays
SOME DIRECTORS MAKE MOVIES ABOUT THE world they wish we lived in. Hollywood is filled with directors like these -- women sometimes, though men mostly -- who believe in cascading music and honeyed lighting, narrative arcs and obvious motivation and always, always, sympathetic characters that the money people think audiences can sink into. And then there are directors who make movies about the way the world is but we don't really want it to be. These are the filmmakers who create worlds, large and small, political and personal, that are darker, more bleak, despairing and cruel -- and, if we're lucky, worlds that are more honest -- than those that generally show up on American screens. We usually call these filmmakers foreign, although sometimes we call them independent or noncommercial; inevitably, we call them difficult.
Neil LaBute, the 39-year-old director of two modest independent scandals, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, and the new, considerably bigger-budgeted Nurse Betty, makes films that are routinely called dark, bleak, despairing and cruel. His films are also often very funny, whip-smart and made for grown-ups. Sometimes they are honest to the point of brutality, especially about sex, though there are times when they seem just brutal, even sadistic. The hard part about liking LaBute's work is that the very thing that can sucker you in -- the mean laughs, the unvarnished honesty, the jolting, down-and-dirty bedroom talk -- is the thing that can turn you off. I like LaBute's work, but I don't always like the fact that I do. Is soliciting our worst tendencies -- if indeed that is what LaBute is up to -- what art is meant to do, if art is meant to do anything at all?
"Women -- nice ones, the most frigid of the race, it doesn't matter in the end -- inside they're all the same. Meat and gristle and hatred just simmering. And I for one have had it with their shit, know what I mean? It makes me just want to . . . something."
--In the Company of Men
WHEN LaBUTE'S FIRST FILM, IN THE COMPANY of Men, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997, you couldn't just feel the electricity crackling through the stale theater air, you could all but hear the audience sigh -- finally, a movie about something. Shot for $25,000, the film traces the merciless machinations of two white-collar men who, mainly for kicks and perhaps for revenge, casually conspire to humiliate a deaf woman who works in their office, much as Leopold and Loeb once colluded on murder. Caustically funny and obvious, it was the hit of the festival and won LaBute the Filmmakers Trophy. The reviews coming out of Sundance that year were ecstatic, prophetic; by the end of the year he had secured the New York Film Critics Award for Best First Feature. One of the first cinematic references that critics invoked was Stanley Kubrick, who throughout his filmmaking life was accused, much as LaBute has since been accused, of deploying an almost gleeful sadism toward his characters and audiences both.
As unnerving as it is to be labeled a sadist, it's arguably worse to be compared to one of the gods of cinema. LaBute has yet to persuade the whole of the film world that he is worthy of comparison to Kubrick. At the same time, there is no doubt that his is one of the most exciting filmmaking voices to emerge in the past few years. Along with Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, Tim Burton, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, David Fincher, Kevin Smith, David O. Russell and that great hope of our commercial cinema, Steven Soderbergh, LaBute helps form the small, core group of promising, forward-looking, relevant young American filmmakers currently working in the wake of New Hollywood and the first wave of the film-school generation.
During the late 1960s and much of the '70s, a messy, contrary company of men -- encompassing everyone from Hal Ashby to Bob Rafelson, Brian De Palma to Martin Scorsese -- rejuvenated a moribund studio system as much by chance as by design. In the process, they made careers -- and just as often incinerated them -- with films that reconceptualized not just what American movies could be about (it only started with drugs, sex, rock & roll), but how American movies could look and sound: raw, ragged, real -- or real enough that you could almost believe you smelled the sweat under Gene Hackman's suit jacket.
The bitter truth, however, is that the most successful of these upstarts -- George Lucas and Steven Spielberg -- also helped to extinguish the industry's more inventive, anarchic creative tendencies with the blockbuster imperative. The rest is contemporary movie history, brought to you by Jerry Bruckheimer and the wonderful world of industrial entertainment. What remains is an unstable system in which studios function more like distributors than production units, and the more visionary studio heads, such as Joe Roth, formerly of Disney, and Bill Mechanic, formerly of Fox, are rotated off their jobs before they can really take hold. This sort of executive musical chairs, in turn, has helped to create an environment in which directors, young or not, are forced to jump from studio to studio, production deal to production deal -- that is, if anyone wants them to jump at all. Nobody asks Jarmusch to, and it's doubtful he ever would.
But LaBute has jumped. This weekend, Nurse Betty, an alternately dark and sly road movie starring Renée Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock and Greg Kinnear, opens across the country. The film, which was initially funded by the now-defunct Polygram and then rerouted to the newly formed USA Films, a division of Universal Pictures, was produced for under $30 million -- or about $23 million more than Your Friends & Neighbors, the film that sealed LaBute's reputation as "the meanest man in Hollywood," as Details put it. In contrast, despite one Grand Guignol murder and two icy hit men, Nurse Betty seems sweet enough to threaten LaBute's notoriety, a shift in tone that may be as important to understanding his trajectory as the fact that he's not credited as its writer. When Nurse Betty premiered in May at Cannes, it won the prize for best screenplay for John C. Richards and James Flamberg. It's no small irony that the director, who wrote his first two films and is also a playwright of estimable standing, was banished to the sidelines during the film's big festival moment. Ironic, especially, because LaBute rewrote the dialogue from beginning to end.
LaBute has no problem claiming credit, but unlike many newly minted auteurs, he doesn't seem anxious to laminate each film with his fingerprints. "I like working within other people's frameworks," he says. As if to prove his point, and with the hope of directing, he did a rewrite of a Richard Price screenplay, Bleeder, for Jonathan Demme's company. LaBute may yet direct Bleeder, but not for a while, because just last week he began production in Northern England on Possession, a lavish romance set in the Victorian era and the present day, based on the novel by A.S. Byatt. A fan of the book, LaBute sought out the project, and though there was already a screenplay by Laura Jones (The Portrait of a Lady), whom he credits with "breaking the back of the book," he plunged into a rewrite. The stars are Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle and the director's college friend and regular collaborator Aaron Eckhart; the companies footing the bill are USA Films and Warner Bros. Much as in Nurse Betty, in which Zellweger plays a woman who's forced to flee her home in order to discover her true self, Neil LaBute is following his own glittering road.
"i really don't wanna, umm, elaborate too much on, well, you know, cover all the relationship stuff a whole lot, cause if you've talked to him you know it already, anyway, right? maybe more than you want to . . . "
--medea redux, bash: latterday plays
NEIL LaBUTE WAS BORN IN DETROIT AND RAISED near Spokane. His father worked as a long-haul truck driver while his mother worked as a homemaker, taking care of Neil and his older brother. LaBute grew up "outdoorsy," attended a nondenominational church, watched a lot of TV and, with his mother's encouragement, began cultivating a taste for the foreign films that aired on public television. "The quintessential Film 101," as he calls it. "You know, Alexander Nevsky and Wild Strawberries and La Strada." While in junior high, he began acting, going on to play everyone from Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown to "the alcoholic choir leader" in Our Town. After graduating from high school, he took a year off to consider his options. He was working in a supermarket and at an art cinema, going to movies every night and taking a film class at the local college, when a high school adviser steered him toward Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, which had a theater program and a number of non-Mormon scholarships. (He also has an M.A. from the University of Kansas and an MFA in dramatic writing from New York University.)
It was while at Brigham Young that he was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When asked why, LaBute, a big guy with a baby face under ã glasses and a thicket of whiskers, answers freely. "You have to remember," he says, "I was going to a school where you're asked to take 12 hours of religious coursework. You're surrounded -- I mean, in Salt Lake you could find quite a disparity of people, but in Provo, 45 miles down the road, and certainly on campus, it was probably 97 percent [Mormon] -- you're literally surrounded. Everywhere you go you're getting the same kind of sell. Sometimes it's a very, very soft sell and sometimes there's a harder sell. Being surrounded by all that was a bit intoxicating. For myself, I can't imagine how it couldn't be. I still find that, as a religion, it makes as much sense -- and ultimately more -- than anything else that I've come in contact with. The idea of a modern prophet seems no more ludicrous, if you will, than the idea of an ancient prophet."
LaBute's Mormonism has been a subject of some discomfort in the media, addressed more as an article of kitsch than of faith. Read enough interviews and reviews, and you begin to understand why he prefers to live with his wife and two children outside Chicago rather than in Los Angeles or New York. A review of Nurse Betty in the current Gear, in which LaBute is tagged as the "Stormin' Mormon," exemplifies the cruder extreme of this unease: "Shit, even misanthropic Mormons have feelings. Who knew?" Even when LaBute's religious identity isn't the issue, it informs much of the critical language. In a bitingly funny and generally approving review of Your Friends & Neighbors, J. Hoberman of the Village Voice nonetheless reproached the film's "giddy sense of puritan revenge -- as though the filmmaker's dream audience would be watching these antics from the stocks."
LaBute isn't a puritan, not even in the colloquial sense of the word (though as a Latter-day Saint he remains caffeine, alcohol and nicotine free, even here in Babylon). No matter how ugly its sentiments, his work evidences his pleasure in both its content (however ineptly, his characters are continually pursuing pleasure) and its form, particularly language and performance. At the same time, it's clear that for LaBute the pursuit of pleasure is freighted with danger and -- this is the kicker -- a wholly, and inevitably, moral proposition. This ties him to his younger contemporary Kevin Smith, who pounds at Catholic dogma like some punk Luther, as well as Martin Scorsese, for whom issues of faith, sin and redemption are always at stake, whether in the mean streets of New York or the mountains of Tibet. Although plenty of film critics believe that LaBute has gone beyond good and evil, to the point of amorality, it's clear that he hasn't, although he sees this essential dialectic operating more in his stage work. Specifically, in the critically acclaimed 1999 trilogy bash, which is about Mormons and mortal sin and references various Greek tragedies.
"I'm interested, in the plays I've written, with the idea not just of sin," he says, "but of guilt, and what people can get away with. Have they gotten away with something just because no one knows?" The three one-act plays that compose bash pivot on shocking violence -- two murders, one possible murder -- for which each character has, in the legal sense, remained unpunished. In the psychological or spiritual sense, of course, none has -- which becomes evident as each narrates his or her crime in the casual language of everyday violence that is LaBute's idiom, his grammar. LaBute is fascinated with the human compulsion to spill our guts, which he describes as "the sort of confessional quality of bash. That's probably why I'm so drawn to the monologue, that very serviceable thing in the theater that allows us to look into a character. A character can suddenly address the audience and make a connection that he can't make with anyone on stage. I love scratching away at that fourth wall between an audience and a production, and saying we're uncomfortably close. I love nothing more than doing theater in a space that holds 30 people and bringing the action into their laps."
--Your Friends & Neighbors
LaBUTE'S GIFT FOR UNEASY INTIMACY IS PART of what has earned him accolades as a playwright. (Writing in The New Yorker, drama critic John Lahr called LaBute "an original voice, and the best new playwright to emerge in the past decade.") That same gift has defined him as a filmmaker, and won him as many passionate detractors as admirers. Although he's earned enthusiastic notices from film critics as dissimilar as Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum and The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann, he has also inspired unusually inflamed negative reviews. Writing in the L.A. Times, Kenneth Turan dubbed In the Company of Men a "psychological snuff film." For Turan, LaBute's second film only confirmed that his was "a cinema of humiliation, embarrassment and misery, the celluloid equivalent of a round-the-clock news station that offers all jerks, all the time."
"LaBute is about serious statements about middle-class people, supposedly, and gross-out stuff too," says Kent Jones, a contributing editor at Film Comment and programmer for New York's prestigious Walter Reade Theater. "But I would much rather watch Jim Carrey taking a dump than suffer through Your Friends & Neighbors' Jason Patric telling the story of raping a guy in a locker room. I have nothing against movies that are unpleasant. Pasolini's Salo is the ultimate example of that -- it's very unpleasant to watch, but it's productively unpleasant. This is a moment in history where people can avail themselves of what I would call an Instant Transgression Erector Set. LaBute is selling people on the idea that he's performing transgressive acts with his movies, and he's doing nothing of the kind. He's either conning himself or he's conning us. He seems to be a very smart guy, so I assume that he's conning us. In any case, he's conning somebody."
Humiliation, misery and cynicism notwithstanding, the most common critical charge lobbed against LaBute is the most wildly off-target. Because he has a talent for summoning up uglier human truths -- he finds poetry under every rock -- LaBute is repeatedly accused of being a hater; again and again, he is accused of the very thing his films take aim at: misogyny. What put critics on edge and on notice with In the Company of Men, besides the metronome dialogue and David Mamet inflections (the title alludes to one of Mamet's essays), was LaBute's refusal to either prettify or excuse male hatred of women, a strategy often misread as sympathy. But it was with Your Friends & Neighbors, or six characters in search of a sex life, that LaBute transformed from promising indie filmmaker into cultural flash point. Suddenly, his name became shorthand for a variety of sins, mostly committed by men. In an essay pegged to Susan Faludi's book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, culture coroner James Wolcott lumped LaBute (or rather, "the needling misogyny of Neil LaBute") with South Park, The Man Show, Maxim magazine, Adam Sandler and the Farrelly Brothers as key practitioners of the "guy humor and horniness" that dominated pop culture in the '90s.
Yet as is evident from his rogues' gallery of male rapists, killers and just plain sick fucks, LaBute's biggest problem isn't with women, but with his own sex. "Yeah," he admits, "there's a preponderance of bad men in my work." One overly reductive explanation is his father, who was absent from home because of his hours on the road, and LaBute avers that "often there were periods of tension when he was around, because he was a very strong personality." But his take on men and women and the space between them seems more complex than this freeze-dried pop psychology. In the spirit of confession, the filmmaker volunteers that his interest in suspect male behavior may spring from his patriarchal church, or may be one of the reasons he was drawn to the church in the first place.
"I was once asked if it could have been two women who plotted together in In the Company of Men," he says. "I said that it seemed particularly male, and what it was was the hunt, which was as exciting to them as the capture. A woman could be as deceptive and harsh, but it would be a singular attack rather than something that was done in that sort of one-upmanship." LaBute isn't a misogynist, but his tendency for letting women more easily off the hook proves that neither is he an enlightened feminist. Two of the plays in bash feature characters who kill their children. The crime committed by the woman, as well as its rationale, is telegraphed by the play's title, medea redux; the man kills his baby for purely selfish reasons in a play titled iphigenia in orem (as in Orem, Utah). A restless thinker who calls himself cynical and hopeful at once, LaBute is finally far more preoccupied with questions of sin and guilt than with those of gender. "There's been a thread of betrayal through a lot of the things I've written because I think that is the most potent thing that happens between people, and people who profess to know each other well," he says. "Intimate betrayals are infinitely fascinating."
"She wanted more out of life?"
"No, she just wants something out of life."
IT MAKES A FUNNY KIND OF SENSE THAT THE center of LaBute's newest film -- its driving moral conscience, its victim and hero, its bleeding heart and occasional object of ridicule -- is a woman. As the ã emotionally abused wife of another of Aaron Eckhart's memorable shitheads, Zellweger's Betty Sizemore endures a crucible of emotional abuse familiar from LaBute's other work, but she endures with greater grace, perhaps because the director is kinder toward her. The character is by far the most sympathetic in his films, but she's not a thornless rose. There's a sickening undertow to Betty's wholesomeness, to the naiveté that skews sweet, then pathological, and at times makes her the scariest character in the film. It's a dark, almost covert vision of female banality and hollowness -- emotional, psychological and intellectual -- that is absolutely pitiless. As unfair a comparison as this may be, it recalls a story LaBute tells about one of his writing classes at NYU, in which an exercise was to "'write the most disgusting scene you can imagine, the most awful, vile scene.'
"Of course," he says, "you'd get these scenes that people would bring in like 'Interior. Anus. Day.' We went through any number of those kinds of scenes. I knew that the scene I wrote would be perfect if I could just let enough people go first, [with their scenes featuring] the festering back of some awful gnome, you know, terrible dripping oozing kinds of scenes, right? And they get to mine, and it's the most lovely garden party, and it's just women sitting around extolling the virtues of being women. I only wrote it just to poke everybody. To have them go, 'That's the worst thing you could write, that's the most horrible?' And I said, 'Yeah. I couldn't imagine anything worse than a bunch of women sitting around talking like that.'" LaBute may be adept at creating all manner of human monsters to scare us, but you get the feeling that what he finds most frightening is the absence of meaning, in art and in life. Betty doesn't glorify the virtues of womanhood -- she's more interesting than that -- but she embodies LaBute's preoccupations more fully than any of his previous film characters. And if she is also his most sympathetic screen creation, it may be because she is the most autobiographical -- in Betty you see a self struggling to find meaning, in the world and within.
So far the response to Nurse Betty hasn't been as outraged as the response to LaBute's garden party, but the film has raised the question of whether its director has gone off track. The latest issue of the British film magazine Sight and Sound carries the cover line "Has Neil LaBute Gone Soft?" (According to the article, the answer is yes.) It's easy to imagine one of LaBute's own male characters spitting out this nasty double entendre, but it's one that has been making the critical rounds since the film debuted at Cannes. There are some LaBute partisans who are disappointed that the film isn't more persuasively personal. Ironically, the very fact that it doesn't seem wholly LaBute -- the camera doesn't mime the dead-eye stare of the first two films, and the dialogue is more closely tethered to the plot -- may end up bringing the director new fans, including critics who have previously dismissed his work.
"I think from the outset," LaBute says of Nurse Betty, "I wanted to challenge myself and, by extension, challenge an audience. I saw it as something that on its surface I would never imagine doing, and certainly not writing, and therefore I was intrigued by it. Whether it was calculated or not? It didn't seem so at the time. I simply thought people wouldn't see this coming. Bash had opened, and there was an Owen Gleiberman review: 'What is it with this guy? What is he so angry about?' And it seemed like, well, why don't I just take a shot to the kidneys here and say, 'What do you think about this, then?'"
LaBute doesn't believe his decision was purely reactive, but he doesn't discount the impulse. "No, not at all, not purely," he says, "but there was an element of that. There was also me looking at a screenplay and being charmed by the things that were familiar yet spun in a way that kept it interesting, and an overall tone I had not dealt with before. Could I create that sort of sweetness and not paw it up?" LaBute left the plot and the characters alone, but worked on the dialogue "from one end of the shoot to the other," consulting the original writers along the way. If he felt any qualms about directing from a script he hadn't fully conceived, or worried that it would adversely affect his reputation as a fledgling auteur, he's not saying: "The decision needed to be made quickly enough that I didn't really have time to think about career development. It wasn't a matter of me going, 'Oh, gosh, should I direct only things I've written?' It was just presented to me as 'We're going to make this movie. We hope you do it, but we will move on.' For me, it was probably a bit more of the playground bully saying, 'I don't want anyone else to play with this.'"
"Hold on, I'm having a moment here."
IF THERE'S A NAGGING PROBLEM WITH LaBute's work, it may be that he hasn't yet learned how to control that playground bully -- so far, he doesn't seem particularly interested in even trying. He has a story he likes to tell about the first time one of his works was staged in New York, when someone in the audience shouted, "Kill the playwright!" He has told the story to various interviewers, including to me, and he tells it with obvious relish. Inspiring overheated reactions is its own kind of thrill, but it is an essentially cheap and pointless thrill, particularly for an artist, and particularly when épater les bourgeois just doesn't play the way it once did. LaBute is up to more than his harshest critics allow -- like his best contemporaries, those younger filmmakers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, when American film could scrape against our consciousness, could be difficult, demanding, contrary and adult, sometimes queasily so, he has seen the possibilities of art. But his penchant for outrage, for sensation, for sticking it to his audiences and characters and then turning the blade, makes him a needlessly easy target. Worse, it may limit his possibilities, his very reach as a filmmaker who wants, as LaBute clearly does, to explore the full bloom of human feeling. Stanley Kubrick and Luis Buñuel created art that still shocks, but each did so with the pity and terror that the Greeks, of whom LaBute is so fond, demanded of their art.
The weakest moment in Nurse Betty is a spasm of violence that seems recycled out of Quentin Tarantino's oeuvre; the best thing about the movie, outside of its performances, is its more expansive emotional register. For the first time in a LaBute film, it feels as if the director is working through his obsessions closer to the ground -- closer both to his characters and to us. If it doesn't always sound and look like a LaBute film, perhaps it's ã because we've been mistaken in believing we know what a LaBute film is. Nurse Betty may not be as obviously singular as his first two films, but in some very crucial respects it is a leap forward, especially in terms of camera (the cinematographer is the great Jean Yves Escoffier) and character (from hit men to soap-opera stars). LaBute got a chance to play with a much larger train set this time. ("He said that the first day of shooting was the first time he had done an exterior scene and used a crane," says his producing partner, Gail Mutrux.) "People are saying there's a new language there," says LaBute, that he's gotten freer, more fluid with the image. "But, God, if you compare it to a lot of films, you would think it was very still. From the beginning, I probably went in saying that this story needs a different kind of telling, the tale itself requires that. Whereas these little, very microscopically observed worlds that I'd written myself could afford to be much more clinical."
In the end, the best way to look at Nurse Betty is as one of the many projects that constitute the ongoing project that is Neil LaBute. "I think he's being very smart about his career right now," says Steven Soderbergh, who first met LaBute in 1997. "I thought In the Company of Men was really, really interesting, and I remember watching it thinking, 'He can't possibly sustain this. How is he going to land it?' And that last scene of the guy yelling at her in that bank was so powerful, it really caught me in a way that was unexpected. I thought Your Friends & Neighbors expanded on that idea a little, and I liked that he was opening things up. I remember seeing it and thinking, 'Aw, I wish I'd made that.' And then Nurse Betty, which I like a lot, I feel is just a great way to expand his horizons and spend time in somebody else's house. This idea that a lot of young filmmakers get caught up in, of 'I've got to write everything I direct,' is really self-defeating. I think it's really smart to go out and just shoot and shoot -- it's the only way you get better. He should do whatever he feels he needs to do to keep himself excited."
Based on the number and variety of projects he has, LaBute should be able to. He has several films planned with Mutrux, who became his producing partner around the release of Your Friends & Neighbors. Together, they have The Child in Time, based on the Ian McEwan novel, to which Ralph Fiennes is attached and which LaBute would like to direct, and The Danish Girl, David Ebershoff's fact-based account of the first sex-change operation, which LaBute would like to adapt and direct. (Mutrux and LaBute still haven't named their new venture. Her company is called ab-strakt pictures and his is Contemptible Entertainment, named in honor of the Jean-Luc Godard film that he fetishizes. "I think we've agreed," jokes Mutrux, "that it shouldn't be Contemptibly ab-strakt.") In addition, LaBute has a deal with Fox to remake the deranged 1945 Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven -- "I have no business reworking it, but I loved that movie so much when I was a kid" -- and then there's something called Geography of Hope, which he cryptically describes as "my own little original piece about, oddly enough, bad men in Mexico who meet some schoolteachers."
If intrigue in Mexico seems a long way from the domestic blahs of Kansas, where Nurse Betty begins, and the lush English romance that is currently preoccupying LaBute on the set of Possession, it both is and isn't. In America, we have become so used to directors doing the same thing again and again, grinding out movies like sausages, that it's something of a jolt when someone veers off expectation. Cineastes may be nostalgic for the halcyon days of the 1960s and '70s, but all too often we -- critics, audiences, the industry itself -- punish independents for setting their sights on the mainstream, and ridicule the mainstream for its occasional flights of vision. Is it any surprise that journalists have already asked Neil LaBute if he has sold out? "I was more worried that Nurse Betty was going to be too soft for me," he says, "that it did not have enough punch. I think the story does require both a sweetness and an absolute sick, sour side as well. I wasn't really worried about selling out. I'm sure, had I worked at it hard enough, I could have sold out in a much stronger, bigger way -- I could have gotten more cash in the bank and had more cash to work with if I was really looking to exploit any chance of selling out. On the set, people would throw out names like 'Cute LaBute,' saying that people will speculate that this is my cuter side. I'm here to tell you that I'm just setting them up for the next blow."
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