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  1. #1
    Lesser Hivemind Node Lethe's Avatar
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    The Cultural Resonance (or lack thereof) of James Cameron's Avatar

    So I was reading Cracked recently, because productivity is overrated, and this comment from NotASockPuppet stood out for me:

    [Avatar was] a billion dollar blockbuster that somehow came and went without leaving behind any kind of cultural footprint whatsoever. No-one quotes from it. No-one has a favourite scene from it. It's never referenced in parodies or comedy skits. It didn't even spawn any internet memes, which should be impossible. Its only real legacy is the occasional exhibitionist cosplayer looking for an excuse to get mostly naked and paint themselves blue. People remember it, in the sense that they recall its existence, but that doesn't prevent it being an entirely forgettable movie.
    There's not much to disagree with here. There is little doubt that Avatar has vanished without a trace from the public imagination. And yet I recall something very different at the time. Indeed, although the criticisms of the film that now constitute the standard view were present upon release, I nevertheless recall that, at the time, the film moved the broader cultural needle in ways rarely seen from cinema.

    Where is my evidence for this? Well, that's the thing: I don't have any; just the memory of a vague impression formed by the collation of fragmentary experiences at the time, plus a rather more concrete recollection of a conversation I had with a friend around 2011-2012 about the future of religion, in which I cited the fleeting (and having fled even by then) cultural response to Avatar as evidence that People (a) sought meaning in their lives of the kind that religious narratives can provide (b) felt and were dissatisfied with the lack of such meaning in modern individualist consumerist societies and (c) therefore merely awaited the right myth in the right place at the right time to bring a flourishing new religion into being.

    So my question for readers here is am I just imagining that Avatar moved the cultural needle in the weeks and months after its release? I certainly grant the possibility. On the other hand, if I'm not imagining it, then there is perhaps something more interesting going on in how the film has subsequently vanished from the public imagination than the standard explanations -- that everyone collectively realised the film was terrible, or they were soon overwhelmed by other CGI blockbusters, or that the modern market is so fragmented that no single work can exert a lasting influence on the public imagination -- would suggest.
    Last edited by Lethe; 25-05-2016 at 01:10 AM.
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  2. #2
    Network Hub gordianblot's Avatar
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    I'd say that a lot of the interest in Avatar was also interest in 3D. It was made by a major filmmaker with obvious interest in shooting a 3D movie (not just a scene or two and not something they shot and then appeased producers by adding it in). And I know there are plenty of detractors but it was competently made, used 3D to complete a lot of shots and had some technical innovations in lighting. But for all that, yeah, there was no "I'm the king of the world!" or "Game over, maaan!"

    But now people don't really care about 3D, manufacturers aren't pushing 3DTVs and nobody even owns a 3DTV (or owns and bothers with the 3D functions) to go "Oh, yeah. This was a pretty decent 3D movie."

  3. #3
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus sabrage's Avatar
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    More like 3Don't give me a migraine, please.

  4. #4
    Lesser Hivemind Node Spacewalk's Avatar
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    That kung fu one with the bald kid?

  5. #5
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Gus_Smedstad's Avatar
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    I don't agree that Avatar was primarily about 3D. Oh, sure, there was a lot of 3D-related publicity at the time, but if it weren't a SF film with Cameron's name attached to it, that wouldn't have mattered. Basically, people were hoping for another Terminator or Aliens because of his reputation.

    I don't think people collectively realized the film was terrible. It wasn't Prometheus. I think it was just, well, forgettable. I do not remember it being culturally significant at the time. It was a big-budget action blockbuster, and that was about it.

  6. #6
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Lukasz's Avatar
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    I remember people awing how amazing the world of avatar is. and thats it.

    The movie was mediocre and while it looks amazing, it does not impress anyone anymore. Not with modern computer graphics which make shitty tv shows look stunning.

    and the movie had nothing else to offer. It was a simple story, Pocahontas in space, with fairly generic characters (even colonel badass, the best character in that movie was done before) and forgettable lines.

    So the only thing the movie had going for it was stunning visuals and that Cameron was working on it. so people moved on afterwards as there was nothing else to keep the movie alive in memory.

  7. #7
    Lesser Hivemind Node Lethe's Avatar
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    This Wikipedia article rather comprehensively covers the various themes in Avatar, but that doesn't ultimately address the question. Ok, so an awful lot of people saw a film infused with messages about militarism, civilization, environmentalism and spirituality, but did they register those messages? Were they moved by them? I haven't seen convincing evidence for it, but nor against it.

    I do think it's important to consider the broader societal context into which the film was released and seen at the end of 2009 and throughout the first half of 2010:

    (1) The Global Financial Crisis which shook people's faith in the existing politico-economic system.
    (2) Post-Iraq War/Afghanistan/Bush scepticism: I would argue that in 2009/10 we were still in (if coming towards the end of) that strange and brief period that began around 2005-6 where scepticism of not only the competence of western military, national security and foreign policy institutions, but even their very intentions, was widespread and openly expressed.
    (3) The recent failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, with all that that portended.

    Interestingly, one of the references in that Wikipedia article is to a piece that almost certainly played a role at the time in shaping my impressions of the film's cultural resonance: an article in Foreign Policy magazine:

    James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar has becoming something of a political rorsarch test around the world. The story of the alien Na’avi’s struggles against the invasion of Earth’s military-industrial complexhas taken on some surprising allegorical means for movements around the world:

    • Palestinian protesters in the town of Bilin dressed up as Na’avi recently to protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
    • Bolivia’s leftist President Evo Morales has praised Avatar as a "profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defense of nature."
    • Chinese bloggers have compared the film’s story to the exploitation of Chinese citizens by government-backed real estate developers — a factor that may have contributed to the film being pulled from Chinese theaters.
    • Activists ran ads in the Hollywood newspaper Variety comparing the Na’avi to India’s forest-dwelling indigenous tribe, the Dongria, whose territory is now threatened by a planned bauxite mine.
    • Environmentalists Lori Pottinger compared the story of Avatar to the Brazilian government’s plans to build dams in the Amazon Basin.
    • Russian Communists described the film as an attempt to justify Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.
    • New York Times columinist Ross Douthat called the movie "an apolologia for pantheism."
    • David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute says the movie is about "defending property rights".
    • Last but not least, Cameron himself says the movie is an allegory about the U.S. war on terror.

    Personally, the movie struck me as a critique of counterinsurgency: the humans talked a good game about cultural understanding and minimizing civilian casualties to reassure the folks back home, but they were really just on Pandora to conquer and exploit.
    Last edited by Lethe; 25-05-2016 at 05:30 AM.
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  8. #8
    Lesser Hivemind Node Lethe's Avatar
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    Some additional comments around the edges:

    As my previous post indicates, I think it is important to try to distinguish the view of 2009/10 from the view of 2016. That is to say, we should not take the accepted wisdom of 2016 (i.e. that the film was shiny but of little substance and has therefore been forgotten) and apply it to 2009/10. It may well be that it was seen that way at the time too, but this is not a foregone conclusion and in any case we should endeavour to establish it independently.

    I have a theory regarding another film -- Quantum of Solace -- that leads me to suspect there may be more going on in the case of Avatar too than the standard narrative suggests. The accepted wisdom regarding Quantum of Solace is that the film was terrible and that is why everyone said so. Terrible it may be, certainly it was deeply flawed, although I'm not sure it really drags down the altogether unimpressive average of 007 films. But what has led me to be suspicious of the level of vitriol reserved for QoS is that it is unusual in another respect as well: it is far and away the most politically radical Bond film ever produced, one that displays an unprecedented level of scepticism regarding the righteousness of Bond's employers (i.e. the British government) and their allies in the Americans. Undoubtedly the radicalism of QoS was itself the product of the broader cultural post-Iraq scepticism of the western national security establishment. My contention is that QoS' thematic radicalism accounts as much for its hostile reception as do its more prosaic failings as a film.

    And so I am wondering if there is not some vaguely related process of cultural forgetting going on in the case of Avatar as well -- a case of a man having momentary tripped and fallen and displayed his vulnerability, only to pick himself up, brush his coat, and walk away whistling as if nothing had happened.
    Last edited by Lethe; 25-05-2016 at 03:13 PM.
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  9. #9
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus BillButNotBen's Avatar
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    It generated a huge number of internet memes and gifs... for a few months. But yeah, nothing with any staying power.

    The underlying themes it had were blatantly obvious, but since they were basically the same as Pochohontas, and we've seen that a dozen times, they were hardly new or exciting.

    The commenter is right, no one ever talks about it. If they ever get around to the sequel, I'm really interested to see if it makes billions or flops. (Though the China effect might make it a huge success, whatever the opinion in the west).

  10. #10
    Lesser Hivemind Node Lethe's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BillButNotBen View Post
    The underlying themes it had were blatantly obvious, but since they were basically the same as Pochohontas, and we've seen that a dozen times, they were hardly new or exciting.
    Themes don't have to be new, subtle, or nuanced to make an impact. Indeed, the latter two qualities are probably actively detrimental to the prospects of achieving widespread influence. Just as in consumer electronics, success doesn't go to those who push the boundaries of innovation, but rather those who package existing technologies in the right way, at the right moment, at the right price, and with the right marketing campaign.

    You mention that we've all seen Pocahontas -- actually, I haven't seen it. I have seen Dancing With Wolves, but not in 1990. For the purposes of having some measurable cultural influence at a given point in time ("moving the needle"), just as I wouldn't overestimate the importance of originality or sophistication, I wouldn't underestimate the importance of large numbers of people sharing a common context being simultaneously exposed to a common stimuli.

    The commenter is right, no one ever talks about it. If they ever get around to the sequel, I'm really interested to see if it makes billions or flops. (Though the China effect might make it a huge success, whatever the opinion in the west).
    Indeed, it will be interesting to see how the sequels perform, not only for prosaic reasons such as James Cameron being obviously mad with his plans to make four(?) sequels, particularly in the context of everyone now professing to have been entirely unimpressed by the original, but also in the markedly different societal context in which the film will be received, where we have since seen a reversion to normal patriotic attitudes to the military and foreign policy establishments, and with the GFC having largely faded from the imagination.
    Last edited by Lethe; 25-05-2016 at 06:44 AM.
    "I still havenít forgiven C. S. Lewis for going on all those long walks with J. R. R. Tolkien -- and failing to strangle him." (Clive James)

  11. #11
    To me the key flaw it made, memetically was to insult the viewer. Had they flipped it and had blue aliens invade the Nobel indigenous humans then maybe we would have had time for it in a (short view) period of scarcity.

    People are compromising more than they expected a decade ago and the movie tells them 'humans sure are greedy warmongering shits'.

    I struggle to think of a movie with such a message, especially from a AAA production from Hollywood.
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  12. #12
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus L_No's Avatar
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    Interesting topic. In line with it, I hadn't thought about Avatar in years, so I hadn't even realized how remarkable it is that a movie that was such a huge thing a few years ago basically vanished from public memory. I remember being very impressed when I left the cinema, even calling my father to convince him to go watch it (and him being equally impressed), and still I can barely remember anything from it.
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  13. #13
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Skalpadda's Avatar
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    So, here's a fun aside which I promise will lead back to an opinion about Avatar and Cameron in the end.

    I've been reading a bunch of French comic books lately in my quest to learn some French. One of those is a space opera called Sillage, the first issue of which (from 1998) has some interesting parallels with Avatar. Let's go through some of them.

    We start off on a lush alien world and are introduced to the protagonist, a girl called Nšvis, and google tells me her name is Navee in the (apparently crudely censored (what the hell is wrong with you America?) and incomplete) English translations.


    So immediately that's an interesting name and setting, and while she doesn't ride around on telepathic space horses with ethernet manes, and isn't part of a tribe of cat-smurfs, she starts off portrayed as a sort of child of nature and she's best buddies with a big talking cat creature named Houyo.



    It quickly turns out that trouble is about to hit this paradise when a force of technologically advanced outsiders arrive. These are the Hottards, and they're not out looking for Unobtanium, but instead are in desperate need to find a planet to settle on as their people are dying out. The Hottards need very high temperatures to survive, so in order to settle on this planet they will actually have to physically move it closer to the local star. The problem with this? The Hottards are part of a great galactic convoy civilization, the titular Sillage, and are not actually allowed to do this sort of thing to a planet where there's intelligent life. When signs emerge that the planet does contain intelligent life the leader of the Hottards decides, out of desperation for his own people, to suppress this information and proceed with his plan anyway.



    There's no real clone/telepathy thing going on, but Nšvis' complete lack of telepathic ability is a major plot point and she ends up being a sort of body host to a member of the Sillage's most powerfully telepathic race, who allies with her and helps her in her struggle to fend off the rogue invaders. Anyway, did I mention that Nšvis lives under the roots of a gigantic tree which towers over the surrounding jungle? A tree which the invaders cut down in their efforts to eliminate her.




    Ultimately of course this is not exactly the plot of Avatar, but the similarities both in theme and some grand visual elements are rather striking.

    Going back to Cameron, I don't think he's ever had an original or philosophically interesting idea in his entire career. I do however think that he cares deeply about his craft and has a real eye for visual storytelling and scene construction, and as a result tends to make solid enjoyable films.

    Avatar is so incredibly derivative though, and beyond the surface shine offers nothing we haven't seen countless times before. It's Dances with Wolves/Pocahontas/That Film Where the Cool High-School Guy Goes Out with the Nerdy Girl on a Macho Bet but Actually Falls for Her and Ends Up Risking His Own Standing as He Defends Her Against His Former Friends. There's really nothing there to leave an imprint on us beyond the visual spectacle.
    Last edited by Skalpadda; 25-05-2016 at 12:48 PM.

  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by Lethe View Post
    You mention that we've all seen Pocahontas -- actually, I haven't seen it. I have seen Dancing With Wolves, but not in 1990. For the purposes of having some measurable cultural influence at a given point in time ("moving the needle"), just as I wouldn't overestimate the importance of originality or sophistication, I wouldn't underestimate the importance of large numbers of people sharing a common context being simultaneously exposed to a common stimuli.
    I suspect the "we've all seen dozens of times" wasn't a reference to Pocahontas itself, but the story it tells (as does Avatar, as does Dune, as does Dances with Wolves, as does the Last Samurai, etc..)

    * White/Western/proxy-for people invade the land of a native group
    * There is conflict with the native people
    * Soldier from the colonizers ends up staying with the natives for a while
    * Soldier sympathises with the natives
    * Soldier tries to convince superiors; fails. Often mirrored in native tribe with a "they're just like each other really" scene.
    * Soldier becomes better at all the native conflict-relevant skills than any of them in a few days/an inspirational training montage.
    * Soldier leads natives to victory.
    * Some sort of peace is made.

    It's a common trope, because it gives the Western audience an outlet for any guilt/misgivings about their country's current or historical colonialist behavior. The native people are just wallpaper; there to be saved by the protagonist and help him fix his crisis of faith with newfound spirituality (and usually provide him with a suitably 'exotic' love interest, too).

    It's Hero's Journey wish fulfilment with a 'There there, you're not one of the bad guys, you'd act differently if you were there' pat on the head mixed in, and it's a very profitable combination.
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  15. #15
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Gus_Smedstad's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lethe View Post
    Ok, so an awful lot of people saw a film infused with messages about militarism, civilization, environmentalism and spirituality, but did they register those messages?
    An awful lot of people saw a shallow film clumsily infused with messages that they'd been hearing for decades about militarism, civilization, environmentalism and spirituality, and they registered those messages and ignored them. Because the messages were blatant and overt, rather than "infused," they got discarded. That's how I remember if from then, that the film was preachy, and that most of us were happy the preaching didn't get too much in the way of the adventure bits.

    You keep talking about this film like it was Dances With Wolves. That film, love it or hate it, had a huge cultural impact at the time. The messages of the two films are essentially the same (modulo the mystical crap), a journey into deserved guilt over European colonialism and its effect on the native populations. As Dilapinated points out, plenty of films have touched on this. Most don't get the kind of reaction that Dances with Wolves did. Presumably because that film did it a lot better, in a lot less forced way than most.

    There are lots and lots of message films out there. The message films that succeed in swaying the audience are the ones that manage to connect with the audience in terms of character and plot first, and then slowly draw them to whatever the film is trying to say. Generally without overdoing it. I know, I know, Costner's generally considered to be a pretty terrible actor, but he obviously managed to put in a good performance for at least that film, or it wouldn't have been received nearly so well. Avatar doesn't come close either on the "making us care" front or the "not overdoing it" front.

  16. #16
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Gus_Smedstad's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dilapinated View Post
    as does Avatar, as does Dune, as does Dances with Wolves, as does the Last Samurai, etc..)
    The earliest film I can think of that fits in this slot is Little Big Man from 1970. OK, sure, Hoffman's character isn't a soldier when he goes native, but he does end up as a US Cavalryman at one point. ([After an incident in which he takes part in a raid on an Cheyenne camp]:"There was no describing how I felt: an enemy had saved my life from the violent murder of one of my best friends... The world was too ridiculous to even bother to live in.")

    Little Big Man is a film that had a huge emotional impact on me at the time. Yes, I was a child, though possibly not 5 - I think when I saw it, it was getting a revival run, but I'm not sure. It must have affected my father as well, though, since we saw A Man Called Horse immediately afterward, and some early scenes offended him enough that he took us out of the theater. It's possible it was a double feature, since from the description, A Man Called Horse is another film in this genre.

    Part of me wonders if this is about how old Lethe was when he first saw Avatar. But I really do think there's a distinct quality that Avatar lacked that was present in both Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves, regardless of how impressionable you are. Namely, that they were emotionally involving films if you somehow managed to strip the message out of them. Avatar was fun, but you don't end up caring about the main character more than you care about Jack Reacher or Kyle Reese.

  17. #17
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Xercies's Avatar
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    I don't think tis just Avatar, all Blockbusters seems to go in one ear and out the other culturally unless its a part of a big franchise or film universe. But even then do you really remember an individual Marvel film now a days that aren't Phase 1 movies.

    Yeah basically we got to the point where the film industry just wants to placate you, no feelings or bad thoughts or any dramatic things, or god forbid any deep themes. We got to just give the audience what they want.

    Avatar paid lip service to the themes people said but what it really was there for is for you to delight in the CGI world, and to be wowed by the 3D.

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by Skalpadda View Post
    So, here's a fun aside which I promise will lead back to an opinion about Avatar and Cameron in the end.

    I've been reading a bunch of French comic books lately in my quest to learn some French. One of those is a space opera called Sillage, the first issue of which (from 1998) has some interesting parallels with Avatar. Let's go through some of them.
    You know Avatar's entire plot and story publicly pre-dates this, right? Or are you saying the comic book ripped off Avatar? Because the reverse is literally impossible.

    Why? Because the 80-page treatment for Avatar got loose on the internet in, what, 1996? Having been written in 1994/5. It was called "Project 880".

    I remember reading it (when still in high school) and going "OH GOD DON'T MAKE THIS MOVIE CAMERON ITS AWFUL!".

    Then things went quiet and I hoped he'd forgotten it but apparently not. The final movie is very close to the treatment.

    Anyway sounds like the comic-book ripped off the scriptment (presumably thinking it might never be made).

    As for the rest, Avatar is no Little Big Man (that film hit me like a freight train when I was a kid, changed me permanently - I don't think any film had such an impact on my views/thoughts), but I think there are some fairly silly theories being advanced here. Don't have time to discuss them now, but hopefully later.

    The biggest problem the movie had wasn't the cliches etc. it was that the male lead was completely and utterly charisma-free. Praying he's re-cast for the sequels but I fear not.

    Quote Originally Posted by Xercies View Post
    Avatar paid lip service to the themes people said but what it really was there for is for you to delight in the CGI world, and to be wowed by the 3D.


    I think that's pretty unfair. I mean, Cameron may have got carried away with his CGI, but if you doubt how much he cares about that stuff, I think you're silly.

  19. #19
    Quote Originally Posted by Xercies View Post
    Avatar paid lip service to the themes people said but what it really was there for is for you to delight in the CGI world, and to be wowed by the 3D.
    Honestly the best thing that Avatar did was introduce more of Wayne Barlowe's creature designs to a wider audience (if you've seen Pacific Rim, he did the kaiju). His speculative biology book "Expedition" is one of my alltime favourite books and one I can rant about for hours, and his paleoart is amazing.
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  20. #20
    Lesser Hivemind Node Lethe's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gus_Smedstad View Post
    An awful lot of people saw a shallow film clumsily infused with messages that they'd been hearing for decades about militarism, civilization, environmentalism and spirituality, and they registered those messages and ignored them. Because the messages were blatant and overt, rather than "infused," they got discarded. That's how I remember if from then, that the film was preachy, and that most of us were happy the preaching didn't get too much in the way of the adventure bits.
    But are you and your circle of friends really representative of the broader mass of people who helped make Avatar one of the most successful films of all time? For one, I had no idea most people were so cinematically literate.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gus_Smedstad View Post
    Part of me wonders if this is about how old Lethe was when he first saw Avatar.
    Which is funny, because I haven't said a word about what I think of the film, only what I think other people thought of the film.

    Quote Originally Posted by LexW View Post
    I think that's pretty unfair. I mean, Cameron may have got carried away with his CGI, but if you doubt how much he cares about that stuff, I think you're silly.
    Indeed, the anti-militarist and anti-corporate sentiments are consistent themes running through Cameron's work from Aliens to The Abyss to Terminator 2 to Avatar. I imagine this is related to his coming of age at the tail end of the Vietnam War, Church committee, Watergate and so forth, and before the backlash got underway in the form of Reagan, Rambo, Star Wars, etc. but in today's hyperpatriot world it makes him something of an oddity, at least considered in light of his eminently mainstream success and stature.
    Last edited by Lethe; 25-05-2016 at 03:15 PM.
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