For the second year in a row, I kept a “media diary” in 2005: a list of every TV show and movie I watched, every play I attended, and every book I read. This enables me to look back on my media diet and see what I was consuming. (The answer: “Jeopardy!”!)
Here is a wrap-up of what I watched and read this year. Perhaps it is only of interest to me, or to those who stalk me. Or perhaps it will correspond with some of what YOU watched and read this year, too. Let us stroll down memory lane, shall we?
Last year, I set a goal of seeing 366 movies, one for every day in 2004. I fell short of that goal, missing the mark by just six movies. I was so angry, I tampered with the brakes in a school bus and watched it go over a cliff. No wait, that was on “Veronica Mars.” I don’t remember what I did.
In 2005, I made the same goal, except that without Leap Year, I only had to watch 365. And I did it! Achieving your goals is awesome. You should totally try it.
The year started off well, as it usually does, because January is Sundance Film Festival month. I saw 55 movies in January this year, then settled into a more ordinary pattern of 21 in February, 28 in March, 20 in April, and 26 in May. At that point, I was almost exactly on target: I had watched 150 movies, and there had been 151 days.
It was June that put me over the top. I attended the CineVegas Film Festival in Las Vegas and watched 13 movies in five days. After that, I moved to Portland and immediately began to take advantage of the city’s bustling arthouse scene. In all, I saw 37 movies in June.
July and August were normal (30 and 28), and then I had 40 in September. This was partly due to there being so many new theatrical releases that month, and partly because classes at Portland State didn’t begin until the end of the month, leaving me with a fair amount of free time before that.
That’s right, Portland State. I’m taking some Film Studies classes there, to make me more smarter. One of them was called Hollywood in the 1970s, and it involved watching two assigned movies a week. My October total was 40 and my November total was 28. At the end of November, I’d watched 353 movies for the year — 19 more than I needed to. (That class had accounted for 15 of those; my other class, Film History I, accounted for the other four. In other words, had I not taken the classes, I’d have been exactly on target with no wiggle room.)
So going into December, I only needed to watch 12 movies. I accomplished that on Dec. 13 (Woody Allen’s “Match Point”), and everything after that was gravy. My total? A lovely 380, 15 over my goal. Success!
Of course, while quantity is nice, quality is important, too, and among the non-new movies that I saw for the first time this year, there were some real treats. Several of them were for class; a few were TiVoed from Turner Classic Movies (THE best place for movies on cable or satellite); a few were even through Comcast’s “On Demand” system, from when I was staying with friends who didn’t have TiVo or satellite or running water.
I’m a huge fan of the Coen brothers (“Raising Arizona,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” etc.), yet had never seen their first film, “Blood Simple.” Portland’s Laurelhurst Theatre, one of the city’s coolest cinemas, showed it for a week this fall, so I took advantage of the low admission price ($3!) and the availability of good pizza at the concession stand and watched it. It’s one of the best film noir crime dramas I’ve ever seen.
“Adam’s Rib” is one of the classic Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy comedies, and it probably made me laugh almost as much in 2005 as it made people laugh in 1949. It was delightful to see that on my own, and also to see several old films in my Film History class. Among them: “The Jazz Singer,” which everyone knows was the first “talkie” but which few people today have actually seen, and which I doubt I’d have rented on my own. I’m glad I saw it. It’s not a great film, but it’s an important one.
That class also introduced me to “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” a French film from the silent era that is unlike any silent movie you’ve ever seen. The editing, the acting, the staging — everything is much more advanced and “modern” than its contemporaries. You see some critics with “The Passion of Joan of Arc” on their list of all-time greatest movies and you figure those critics are just being snooty, but man alive, what a great film. I was astonished at how much I liked it.
Even better than seeing quality films is seeing quality films with friends. Even if you say nothing during the entire film, it’s still a shared experience. As ever, I had good company for some of my fondest movie memories this year.
In January, I got to see all my movie critic pals at the Sundance Film Festival. The gang from HollywoodB****slap.com are always good for a heated debate over the merits of some film or other, and this year my friend Monty from Provo was in attendance for several movies, too, having received a pass as a gift from someone. When you’re weary from seeing four or five movies a day for nine days straight, the sight of a good friend can be a real boost, especially if that friend has brought you a candy bar.
Another friend, Michael, is famous for not fully understanding what’s going on in movies, often raising his hand politely so that he can ask questions of the rest of us. This spring, when he wanted to borrow my DVD of “Memento” and watch it on his own, I refused, saying he wouldn’t survive 10 minutes in that convoluted movie without a guide. So he and I and my roommate Greg watched it. This is one of my favorite films, and it was gratifying to introduce it to two new viewers, to see them engrossed by its fiendishly non-linear storyline.
When my friend Brett came to Portland to visit in September, we saw a couple of movies. One of them was “The Aristocrats,” which I had already seen but which I was eager to see his reaction to. (He was paralyzed with laughter.) The other was “The 400 Blows,” a film from the French New Wave cinema movement of the late ’50s and ’60s that was a huge influence on American cinema of the late ’60s and ’70s (which in turn influenced American cinema of today, of course). Since he and I are both films buffs, and since it was on my TiVo, it seemed like a good thing to watch. Turns out it’s pretty enjoyable.
Good ol’ Luscious Malone attended the “King Kong” screening with me, and she found it necessary to use a death grip on my hand during several sequences. She and I and her little brother went to a midnight screening of the new Harry Potter film, too, where we were afraid all the teenage girls around us would be chattering through the whole movie. But nope, turns out the only one talking was Luscious Malone.
Finally, a few family members and I spent three evenings at the very end of the year watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000” — the films were “Bloodlust,” “The Creeping Terror” and “The Skydivers.” My dad and my brother Chris will probably never tire of telling people just HOW BAD “The Creeping Terror” was. And even I, the jaded and hard-to-shock movie critic, have to admit it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. Thank goodness for Mike and the robots making it tolerable.
Here are the 380 movies I saw this year. This is just the list of EVERYTHING. If you want to know what the best and worst ones were, read this other article.
2005 releases that I saw and reviewed:
You can go here if you want to see all 303 of the 2005 releases that I reviewed. (Some of them are technically 2004 releases that didn’t open in my city of residence until early 2005, hence the 2005 release dates.)
2005 releases that I saw but did not review:
“Breakfast on Pluto” (I did review it eventually, after seeing it a second time.)
2005 releases that I reviewed and subsequently watched a second time:
“Fun with Dick and Jane”
“A History of Violence”
“Mobsters and Mormons”
“Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior”
“States of Grace”
“Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith”
Pre-2005 releases that I had seen before, and reviewed, that I re-watched this year:
“About a Boy”
“Beauty and the Beast”
“Meet the Fockers”
Pre-2005 releases that I had seen before but did not review, that I re-watched this year:
“A Clockwork Orange”
“The Creeping Terror”
“The Deer Hunter”
“Dog Day Afternoon”
“La Dolce Vita”
“Monty Python and the Holy Grail”
“The Usual Suspects”
Pre-2005 releases that I saw for the first time this year:
“The 400 Blows”
“5 Card Stud”
“Ace in the Hole”
“Best Laid Plans”
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”
“Caligula” (edited version)
“Every Which Way But Loose”
“Full Metal Jacket”
“Ichi the Killer”
“The Jazz Singer” (1927)
“Less Than Zero”
“The Man with the Movie Camera”
“The Passion of Joan of Arc”
“Saturday Night Fever”
“What’s Up Doc?”
Ah, television. How I love you. I watched 539 hours of TV this year, although with TiVo and commercial-skipping, I watched those 538 hours of programming in only 404 hours. That’s an average of 1 hour and 6 minutes spent in front of the TV every day — which seems amazingly low, considering how much TV it SEEMS like I watch. I guess it really would be a lot if every show were on every week.
My highest month was May, of course — season finale month! New episodes of everything! I watched 70.5 hours of TV that month.
A more typical month was around 50 hours. My lowest was July, when I only watched 12 hours of TV. That’s when I was staying with friends who didn’t have satellite or TiVo or indoor plumbing. (I read nine books that month, too, which is far more than usual for me.) June and August were low, too, because I spent part of those months in that same situation.
Here are the shows I watched regularly this year. For fun, I tallied the number of episodes that I consumed of each one, just to remind myself that though I might watch a show “all year,” it’s really only 13-24 episodes at the most (since I don’t watch reruns). Not, you know, 52.
American Idol (15) (But this was the LAST YEAR for me. I swear!)
Arrested Development (18)
Cold Case (12) (through May; I lost interest at some point after that)
Desperate Housewives (13) (I quit watching after the first season)
Everybody Hates Chris (8)
Family Guy (17)
Harvey Birdman (10)
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (7)
Law & Order (22)
Law & Order: SVU (20)
Law & Order: Trial by Jury (12) (until its sad, sad death)
Little Britain (8)
Malcolm in the Middle (20)
My Name Is Earl (9)
NYPD Blue (9) (until it ended)
The Office (16)
Point Pleasant (6) (until its untimely death)
Prison Break (13)
Reno 911 (13)
Saturday Night Live (19)
The Shield (13)
The Simpsons (22)
Six Feet Under (12)
South Park (13)
Threshold (7) (until its cancellation)
Veronica Mars (22)
Will & Grace (22)
Wonder Showzen (7)
And of course,
My favorites? It’s hard to choose — unlike movies, where I see everything, I don’t generally watch a show regularly unless I’m quite fond of it. To compile my Top 10, I thought: What shows do I not just watch, but actively LOOK FORWARD to? And here they are:
1. “Arrested Development” (Fox): Everything you’ve heard about this show is true, too. It’s the most brilliantly written and performed sitcom IN THE HISTORY OF TELEVISION. Yet you won’t watch it. And now Fox is canceling it. I hope you’re happy.
2. “Veronica Mars” (UPN): Everything you’ve heard about this show is true: It’s funny, smart and surprising, a combination detective show and high school drama that is far superior to pretty much everything else on TV. Every week I laugh out loud and often gasp just as audibly at the plot twists.
3. The short-run comedies: “Wonder Showzen” (MTV2), “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (FX) and “Stella” (Comedy Central): At 10 episodes, “Stella” was the most prolific of these three very funny series. “Wonder Showzen” is a demented “Sesame Street” parody that uses children and puppets to shatter taboos; “It’s Always Funny” mines comedy from “unfunny” things too (Nazis, abortion, racism, etc.), in the format of a “Seinfeld”-style group of friends; and “Stella” is a delightfully absurd take on the sitcom genre, with three suit-wearing roommates engaging in all manner of shenanigans. “Stella’s” fate is undecided, but the other two series have been renewed for more episodes.
4. “Deadwood” (HBO): A more literate, poetically written series than this Old West drama does not currently exist. The erudite dialogue, profane though it is, has an almost Shakespearean quality to it, and the stories and characters are as rich as anything.
5. “24” (Fox): So preposterous. So outrageous. And so exciting! Season 4 rivaled Season 2 for sheer drama and intensity, in my opinion, and Season 5 looks promising, what with Jack having faked his death and now having to come back to save the world again.
6. “Family Guy” (Fox): I hate that “Family Guy” is funnier than “The Simpsons” now. I really do. But it is. It’s sometimes infuriatingly random, and the characters aren’t nearly as endearing … but man do they ever make me laugh.
7. “Scrubs” (NBC): “My Name Is Earl” is getting all the love these days (and is a fine series, sure), but “Scrubs” has been NBC’s best no-laugh-track sitcom for four years. With sharp dialogue, bizarre fantasy sequences and genuinely lovable characters, this show keeps getting more whimsical and silly and juvenile, and I love it.
8. “The Office” (NBC): The American remake of the stellar British series doesn’t suck! It’s actually rather brilliant, a superbly constructed examination of lame bosses and desk jockey ennui.
9. “Law & Order: SVU” (NBC): I find the strict formula of the original “Law & Order” soothing, but the stories and acting on “SVU” are more compelling. Which victims are the most awesome? The special victims.
10. “Malcolm in the Middle” (Fox): Everyone has forgotten this show, especially now that it’s moved to Friday nights (where it gets fewer viewers than “Arrested Development” … yet Fox hasn’t canceled it … hmm). But it’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny, its characters now so firmly rooted in their individual niches that the show runs like a well-oiled machine of family craziness.
No Top 10 list, because I only read 21 of them. Most of those were this summer, when I was staying with those friends who didn’t have satellite or TiVo or electricity. I also tackled a few very lengthy books this year, one of which I didn’t even finish, costing me a month of time with no finished product to show for it.
Here are the books I read, with brief synposes. The links provided are to Amazon.com, where if you buy any of these books (or any product there, actually), I receive a very small kickback. These little proceeds help cover the costs of maintaining my Web site — the Web hosting service, the Laotian children who work in my sweatshop, etc. — so if you’re going to be buying stuff from Amazon ANYWAY, it would be super if you’d get to Amazon.com by clicking to it from a link on my site.
Anyway, here’s the list, arranged by topic, sort of. Books that I particularly recommend are starred, though a brief skimming of the summaries will show that I was fond of nearly all of them.
PESSIMISTIC MODERN FICTION
“Less Than Zero,” by Bret Easton Ellis. This was Ellis’ first novel, and it was subsequently the source for a crappy Robert Downey Jr. movie (in which he plays an addict whose life is nearly destroyed by drugs!). Ellis captures the nothingness and despondency of a privileged Los Angeles teen lifestyle, but to be honest, his style — pessimistic, stream-of-consciousness and dreary — wears thin for me after a while.
“Diary,” by Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk is one of my favorite authors. Maybe that’s why I moved to Portland, where he’s from. Anyway, “Diary” is about a woman who marries a man and moves with him to his hometown, a little island off the coast of Washington where all the quaint folks are just-so and where they have many bizarre traditions and where things are soon awry. As always, the story is outrageously dark, funny and wickedly twisted.
**”Haunted,” by Chuck Palahniuk. I’d like to go for a walk in Chuck Palahniuk’s brain sometime. I bet it’s an odd place. This time, he has a group of would-be writers on a “retreat” together, which winds up with them locked inside an old theater with no way out and no communication with the outside world. The chapters alternate between the events inside the theater and the short stories that each of them has written about his or her own bizarre life. For fans of Palahniuk, the book is a marvel: Any one of these mini-stories could have been expanded into a full novel. It’s like a huge buffet of marvelously demented Palahniuk ideas.
HUMOROUS NON-FICTION AND ABSURDISM
“Dress Your Family in Denim and Corduroy,” by David Sedaris. Sedaris, one of the modern masters of the humorous essay, exposes more family skeletons in this very funny, occasionally very poignant work. It is akin to his previous efforts: acerbic, observant and very smartly written.
**”A Portrait of Yo Mama As a Young Man,” by Andrew Barlow and Kent Roberts. This is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in my entire life. I weep with laughter every time I pick it up. It is, simply, a treatise on yo mama, and all the things wrong with her. It’s absurdist, surreal humor, by two writers from The Onion. I urge you to read this blog entry I wrote about it, and then I urge you to buy a copy of the book.
“The Underminer,” by Mike Albo and Virginia Heffernan. This hilarious book is written in the form of a series of monologues by a person who is allegedly your friend, but who is pretentious, self-absorbed, and is always subtly tearing you down. (The subtitle is: “The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life.”) Over the course of a few years, you keep running into him or her (the character is careful not to use any pronouns to refer to himself/herself, so it can be anyone; “you” are never identified, either), and each time he/she has plenty to say about his/her most recent successes, and lots of backhanded compliments to pay you. Much of the humor, of course, comes in realizing how this character is exactly like someone you know.
**”Et Tu, Babe?,” by Mark Leyner. I scarcely know how to describe this book. It’s absurd and surreal, purporting to be a first-person account of the author’s wealthy, fabulous lifestyle, and his attempts to write the book in spite of shifting tides of loyalty among his staff. The narrative is barely linear. The writing is hilarious, though, careening from one obscure metaphor to another, making you laugh out loud at the sheer strangeness of it all. It’s one of the most satisfyingly bizarre books I’ve ever read.
“Frankland,” by James Whorton. No Pulitzers for this slim volume, a jolly, lightweight little comedy about a 28-year-old historian with few social skills heading to rural Tennessee to find long-lost documents pertaining to President Andrew Johnson. He encounters many odd locals and much small-town weirdness on the way, of course. Much of the humor is derived from the protagonist’s formal, polite way of speaking, juxtaposed with the informality of the rural South. I love Whorton’s way with words, too. (Upon encountering a sweaty, loathsome man who has recently infuriated him, our hero says, “If there had been a way to slap his face without touching his face, I would have done it.”)
**”Approximately Heaven,” by James Whorton. Having read his second book first, I went back and read James Whorton’s first book second, and liked it even more than “Frankland.” It’s just as funny (albeit in a different way), but it also has just a little bit of weight to it, which “Frankland” does not. This one is still set in the rural South, but it is written from the point of view of one of the locals, and Whorton thoroughly captures his voice, his matter-of-fact way of describing things, his countryfied mannerisms. Beer is a constant bittersweet theme, providing humor as well as pathos, as the protagonist and a buddy of his go on a road trip while the former’s wife is threatening to leave. I heartily recommend this very funny, very endearing novel.
“Carry on, Jeeves,” by P.G. Wodehouse. When I was a kid, my grandmother was always reading some Jeeves book or other. Jeeves is the butler; Wooster is the wealthy layabout bachelor who’s always getting into scrapes and needing Jeeves’ help. This book is a collection of Jeeves-and-Wooster stories, and though there’s a certain sameness about them, they are cleverly written and a good deal of fun to read. Now I know what Grandma was laughing about all those times.
“About a Boy,” by Nick Hornby. This is one of my favorite movies, so I finally got around to reading the book it’s based on. I like Hornby’s style quite a bit, and the book is as funny and warmhearted as the film.
“Thank You for Smoking,” by Christopher Buckley. Hearing that a movie of this book was going to premiere at Sundance, I had a looksee and found it quite entertaining. It’s a satire about a spokesman for the tobacco industry, whose job is to lie, obfuscate, distract and manipulate. (His best friends are his counterparts for the alcohol and firearm industries.) The outrageousness of his ideas are hilarious — and alarmingly close to real life — and it’s a breezy, enjoyable read.
“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” J.K. Rowling. It’s a book about a boy wizard. Maybe you’ve heard of it. I enjoy these books very much, but I never re-read them, nor do I spend a lot of time analyzing or discussing them. I was utterly engrossed by it, and I eagerly await the next volume. There.
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” by C.S. Lewis. With the movie coming up, I figured I ought to read the book. My reaction? Meh. It’s fanciful and everything, but since it’s a direct allegory for the life of Christ, and since I’ve read the New Testament a few times, it actually became disappointingly predictable after a while. I always knew what was going to happen next simply be remembering what happened next in the Bible. If only I hadn’t read the Gospels all those times!
GREAT MODERN WRITERS
**”Middlesex,” by Jeffrey Eugenides. Now here’s a book for you. This Pulitzer Prize-winner tells the story of a Detroit man who was born and raised, until age 14, a girl — an actual hermaphrodite (not like Jamie Lee Curtis, who is only alleged to be one). The writing is fluid and beautiful, and the story — which begins with the subject’s grandparents in Greece — is affecting, funny, harrowing and completely absorbing.
**”The Light of Falling Stars,” by J. Robert Lennon. This astonishingly good first novel (from 1997) begins with a small plane crashing in the woods in Montana. From there it follows several threads: the young married couple who live in the house near those woods, who saw the whole thing, and whose marriage was in trouble; the boyfriend of one of the victims; the ex-wife of one of the victims; and a survivor. Lennon’s writing is rich with metaphors, each of them perfectly worded so as to be exactly evocative. You feel what the characters feel — which in this case means sadness, grief, love and hope. It’s truly a beautiful novel.
“On the Night Plain,” by J. Robert Lennon. This one is nearly as beautiful as “The Light of Falling Stars.” It’s set just after World War II and follows a man who leaves his family’s sheep farm to find himself in the world, only to eventually return and inherit the sheep business with his brother. Like the just-mentioned book, it is highly internal and introspective, again brimming with well-constructed similes and metaphors. You think you could never care about a character who runs a sheep farm, but then you read “On the Night Plain” and you care deeply.
**”The Final Solution,” by Michael Chabon. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” wrote this novella about an old man in the 1940s who used to be a big-time detective, is now retired, and becomes involved in solving a case. His name is never given, but we understand: It’s Sherlock Holmes. As always, Chabon writes with a tenderness and eloquence that few other modern writers can match. The story is engaging and satisfying, a great joy to read — and a pretty good Sherlock Holmes story, too!
“Spies,” by Michael Frayn. Michael Frayn is the genius who wrote the plays “Noises Off” and “Copenhagen” (among others), as well as the very smart/funny novel “Headlong.” This one is more nostalgic than funny, and tells of two young boys in wartime England who play a game where they pretend the mother of one of them is a German spy. But is she up to something for real? Frayn evokes a very powerful image of childhood and game-playing, even if you didn’t grow up in wartime England.
**”Oryx and Crake,” by Margaret Atwood. I had this one read to me on CD by actor Campbell Scott on a road trip. It’s a fine novel, set at some point in the near future, where most of humanity has apparently been wiped out and one man, called Snowman, now lives near the beach and is the only connection the new breed of people — strange, peaceful, childlike adults — have to the old world. Through flashback, we learn how it all happened, and how the evil genius behind it was a friend of Snowman’s. It’s a great story, well told by Atwood.
ODDLY TRANSLATED FRENCH THRILLERS
“Out of My Head,” by Didier Van Cauwelaert. This pulpy thriller was written in French and translated, rather awkwardly, into English. The story itself is OK: A man wakes up from a coma to find his wife claims not to know him, and in fact has another husband instead of him. No one else knows him either. Is he crazy? Is it an elaborate conspiracy? As is often the case, the answer to the problem is not as interesting as the problem itself. But a larger drawback is that the translation, while probably technically correct, has people saying things that do not resemble the way people actually talk. It reads like, well, a translation. It’s a quick read, though, and not altogether unpraiseworthy.
Live theater isn’t as big a part of my life as it was when I was reviewing it — well, duh — but I still love it when I get a chance to see it. That amounted to 11 times this year, six of which were when I was still living in Salt Lake City and doing some freelance work for City Weekly.
Those shows (links to reviews are included, if you’re curious) were: “Steel Magnolias” and “West Side Story” at Pioneer Theatre Company (Utah’s finest fully professional theater), “Dust Eaters” at Salt Lake Acting Company (Utah’s finest non-mainstream theater), “Angels in America” (part one) at the University of Utah, and “Cakewalk” and “Maiden’s Prayer” at a smaller, fringe theater.
The national tour of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” came through Salt Lake in April, and since seeing it on Broadway was one of my most enjoyable theater experiences, I made sure to get tickets for the tour. Not as funny as it had been in New York, but what can you do?
I even made it to the opera twice this year, thanks to a friend of mine being involved with Utah Opera Company and scoring free tickets. “Jenufa” was a handsome production of a Czech opera of tragedy and whatnot; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Benjamin Britten sets Shakespeare’s text to music that I found not the least bit enjoyable. I like my music to have a melody. That’s just me. (I wrote a column mentioning these two operas in Salt Lake City Weekly; you may read it here.)
I also saw a theatrical production of “Midsummer,” produced at Provo Theatre Company, directed by my good friend Chris Clark and starring several of my other friends. It was an absolute delight. Many of the same people are doing “Much Ado About Nothing” at that theater in January 2006, so if you are in the Provo area, I highly recommend it.
Another friend of mine directed a production of “Romeo and Juliet” at a high school in Utah County, and she invited us to come see it. Turns out it was a musical, sort of, in the style of “Moulin Rouge” (i.e., with existing songs worked into the action). It was far more effective than you might think, and a very fine production of the play. This friend of mine, Lindsay Adamson Livingston, is some kind of genius.
Portland has a thriving theater scene, but I’ve only been able to get to one show here so far: “Dirty Story,” an odd comedy that’s an allegory for Middle East politics, with one character representing Israel, one for Palestine, one for the U.S. (a cowboy, obviously) and one for England. Once you realize who everybody signifies, and what their relationships are, it’s a highly entertaining, very unusual show. I saw it on Sept. 11, which seems fitting.
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