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NF-Lee's Gildor and Frodo

Still thinking about 'Brokeback' ... plus a great review by Daniel Mendelsohn

Posted on 2006.02.06 at 10:44
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Yep, I'm still thinking about Brokeback....

My CD of the motion picture soundtrack arrived a couple of days ago. I have been listening to it a lot. I'm listening to it right now. Composer Gustavo Santaololla has accomplished much the same thing Howard Shore was able to do for me, albeit on a much smaller scale: creating original film music that so strongly evokes the scenes from the films, when I listen to it, I pant to see and experience the film all over again.

Although I thought I was all finished talking about this film, I am not. I have resumed talking about themes and film scenes in greater detail, in the LJ of an e-friend, a fellow-fan of LotR and this film. This morning, she linked me to a film review I had not yet read, by Daniel Mendelsohn.

His review is so excellent, so thoughtful, and so challenging to me, I wanted to post it here for my own reference and, well, “for posterity.”

(I have some things to say about it, too, which will appear under the review.)

From the New York Review of Books – Feb. 23, 2006 edition

An Affair to Remember ~ By Daniel Mendelsohn

A review of Brokeback Mountain, a film directed by Ang Lee, based on the story by E. Annie Proulx

Brokeback Mountain—the highly praised new movie as well as the short story by Annie Proulx on which the picture is faithfully based—is a tale about two homosexual men. Two gay men. To some people it will seem strange to say this; to some other people, it will seem strange to have to say it. Strange to say it, because the story is, as everyone now knows, about two young Wyoming ranch hands who fall in love as teenagers in 1963 and continue their tortured affair, furtively, over the next twenty years. And as everyone also knows, when most people hear the words "two homosexual men" or "gay," the image that comes to mind is not likely to be one of rugged young cowboys who shoot elk and ride broncos for fun.

Two homosexual men: it is strange to have to say it just now because the distinct emphasis of so much that has been said about the movie—in commercial advertising as well as in the adulatory reviews—has been that the story told in Brokeback Mountain is not, in fact, a gay story, but a sweeping romantic epic with "universal" appeal. The lengths to which reviewers from all over the country, representing publications of various ideological shadings, have gone in order to diminish the specifically gay element is striking, as a random sampling of the reviews collected on the film's official Web site makes clear. The Wall Street Journal's critic asserted that "love stories come and go, but this one stays with you—not because both lovers are men, but because their story is so full of life and longing, and true romance." The Los Angeles Times declared the film to be a deeply felt, emotional love story that deals with the uncharted, mysterious ways of the human heart just as so many mainstream films have before it. The two lovers here just happen to be men.

Indeed, a month after the movie's release most of the reviews were resisting, indignantly, the popular tendency to refer to it as "the gay cowboy movie." "It is much more than that glib description implies," the critic of the Minneapolis Star Tribune sniffed. "This is a human story." This particular rhetorical emphasis figures prominently in the advertising for the film, which in quoting such passages reflects the producer's understandable desire that Brokeback Mountain not be seen as something for a "niche" market but as a story with broad appeal, whatever the particulars of its time, place, and personalities. (The words "gay" and "homosexual" are never used of the film's two main characters in the forty-nine-page press kit distributed by the filmmakers to critics.) "One movie is connecting with the heart of America," one of the current print ad campaigns declares; the ad shows the star Heath Ledger, without his costar, grinning in a cowboy hat. A television ad that ran immediately after the Golden Globe awards a few weeks ago showed clips of the male leads embracing their wives, but not each other.

The reluctance to be explicit about the film's themes and content was evident at the Golden Globes, where the film took the major awards—for best movie drama, best director, and best screenplay. When a short montage of clips from the film was screened, it was described as "a story of monumental conflict"; later, the actor reading the names of nominees for best actor in a movie drama described Heath Ledger's character as "a cowboy caught up in a complicated love." After Ang Lee received the award he was quoted as saying, "This is a universal story. I just wanted to make a love story."

Because I am as admiring as almost everyone else of the film's many excellences, it seems to me necessary to counter this special emphasis in the way the film is being promoted and received. For to see Brokeback Mountain as a love story, or even as a film about universal human emotions, is to misconstrue it very seriously—and in so doing inevitably to diminish its real achievement.

Both narratively and visually, Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the "closet"—about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it. What love story there is occurs early on in the film, and briefly: a summer's idyll herding sheep on a Wyoming mountain, during which two lonely youths, taciturn Ennis and high-spirited Jack, fall into bed, and then in love, with each other. The sole visual representation of their happiness in love is a single brief shot of the two shirtless youths horsing around in the grass. That shot is eerily—and significantly—silent, voiceless: it turns out that what we are seeing is what the boys' boss is seeing through his binoculars as he spies on them.

After that—because their love for each other can't be fitted into the lives they think they must lead—misery pursues and finally destroys the two men and everyone with whom they come in contact with the relentless thoroughness you associate with Greek tragedy. By the end of the drama, indeed, whole families have been laid waste. Ennis's marriage to a conventional, sweet-natured girl disintegrates, savaging her simple illusions and spoiling the home life of his two daughters; Jack's nervy young wife, Lureen, devolves into a brittle shrew, her increasingly elaborate and artificial hairstyles serving as a visual marker of the ever-growing mendacity that underlies the couple's relationship. Even an appealing young waitress, with whom Ennis after his divorce has a flirtation (an episode much amplified from a bare mention in the original story), is made miserable by her brief contact with a man who is as enigmatic to himself as he is to her. If Jack and Ennis are tainted, it's not because they're gay, but because they pretend not to be; it's the lie that poisons everyone they touch.

As for Jack and Ennis themselves, the brief and infrequent vacations that they are able to take together as the years pass—"fishing trips" on which, as Ennis's wife points out, still choking on her bitterness years after their marriage fails, no fish were ever caught— are haunted, increasingly, by the specter of the happier life they might have had, had they been able to live together. Their final vacation together (before Jack is beaten to death in what is clearly represented, in a flashback, as a roadside gay-bashing incident) is poisoned by mutual recriminations. "I wish I knew how to quit you," the now nearly middle-aged Jack tearfully cries out, humiliated by years of having to seek sexual solace in the arms of Mexican hustlers. "It's because of you that I'm like this—nothing, nobody," the dirt-poor Ennis sobs as he collapses in the dust. What Ennis means, of course, is that he's "nothing" because loving Jack has forced him to be aware of real passion that has no outlet, aware of a sexual nature that he cannot ignore but which neither his background nor his circumstances have equipped him to make part of his life. Again and again over the years, he rebuffs Jack's offers to try living together and running "a little cow and calf operation" somewhere, hobbled by his inability even to imagine what a life of happiness might look like.

One reason he can't bring himself to envision such a life with his lover is a grisly childhood memory, presented in flashback, of being taken at the age of eight by his father to see the body of a gay rancher who'd been tortured and beaten to death—a scene that prefigures the scene of Jack's death. This explicit reference to childhood trauma suggests another, quite powerful, reason why Brokeback must be seen as a specifically gay tragedy. In another review that decried the use of the term "gay cowboy movie" ("a cruel simplification"), the Chicago Sun-Times's critic, Roger Ebert, wrote with ostensible compassion about the dilemma of Jack and Ennis, declaring that "their tragedy is universal. It could be about two women, or lovers from different religious or ethnic groups—any 'forbidden' love." This is well-meaning but seriously misguided. The tragedy of heterosexual lovers from different religious or ethnic groups is, essentially, a social tragedy; as we watch it unfold, we are meant to be outraged by the irrationality of social strictures that prevent the two from loving each other, strictures that the lovers themselves may legitimately rail against and despise.

But those lovers, however star-crossed, never despise themselves. As Brokeback makes so eloquently clear, the tragedy of gay lovers like Ennis and Jack is only secondarily a social tragedy. Their tragedy, which starts well before the lovers ever meet, is primarily a psychological tragedy, a tragedy of psyches scarred from the very first stirrings of an erotic desire which the world around them—beginning in earliest childhood, in the bosom of their families, as Ennis's grim flashback is meant to remind us—represents as unhealthy, hateful, and deadly. Romeo and Juliet (and we) may hate the outside world, the Capulets and Montagues, may hate Verona; but because they learn to hate homosexuality so early on, young people with homosexual impulses more often than not grow up hating themselves: they believe that there's something wrong with themselves long before they can understand that there's something wrong with society. This is the truth that Heath Ledger, who plays Ennis, clearly understands—"Fear was instilled in him at an early age, and so the way he loved disgusted him," the actor has said—and that is so brilliantly conveyed by his deservedly acclaimed performance. On screen, Ennis's self-repression and self-loathing are given startling physical form: the awkward, almost hobbled quality of his gait, the constricted gestures, the way in which he barely opens his mouth when he talks all speak eloquently of a man who is tormented simply by being in his own body—by being himself.

So much, at any rate, for the movie being a love story like any other, even a tragic one. To their great credit, the makers of Brokeback Mountain—the writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the director Ang Lee—seem, despite the official rhetoric, to have been aware that they were making a movie specifically about the closet. The themes of repression, containment, the emptiness of unrealized lives—all ending in the "nothingness" to which Ennis achingly refers—are consistently expressed in the film, appropriately enough, by the use of space; given the film's homoerotic themes, this device is particularly meaningful. The two lovers are only happy in the wide, unfenced outdoors, where exuberant shots of enormous skies and vast landscapes suggest, tellingly, that what the men feel for each other is "natural." By contrast, whenever we see Jack and Ennis indoors, in the scenes that show the failure of their domestic and social lives, they look cramped and claustrophobic. (Ennis in particular is often seen in reflection, in various mirrors: a figure confined in a tiny frame.) There's a sequence in which we see Ennis in Wyoming, and then Jack in Texas, anxiously preparing for one of their "fishing trips," and both men, as they pack for their trip—Ennis nearly leaves behind his fishing tackle, the unused and increasingly unpersuasive prop for the fiction he tells his wife each time he goes away with Jack— pace back and forth in their respective houses like caged animals.

The climax of these visual contrasts is also the emotional climax of the film, which takes place in two consecutive scenes, both of which prominently feature closets—literal closets. In the first, a grief-stricken Ennis, now in his late thirties, visits Jack's childhood home, where in the tiny closet of Jack's almost bare room he discovers two shirts—his and Jack's, the clothes they'd worn during their summer on Brokeback Mountain—one of which Jack has sentimentally encased in the other. (At the end of that summer, Ennis had thought he'd lost the shirt; only now do we realize that Jack had stolen it for this purpose.) The image —which is taken directly from Proulx's story—of the two shirts hidden in the closet, preserved in an embrace which the men who wore them could never fully enjoy, stands as the poignant visual symbol of the story's tragedy. Made aware too late of how greatly he was loved, of the extent of his loss, Ennis stands in the tiny windowless space, caressing the shirts and weeping wordlessly.

In the scene that follows, another misplaced piece of clothing leads to a similar scene of tragic realization. Now middle-aged and living alone in a battered, sparsely furnished trailer (a setting with which Proulx's story begins, the tale itself unfolding as a long flashback), Ennis receives a visit from his grown daughter, who announces that she's engaged to be married. "Does he love you?" the blighted father protectively demands, as if realizing too late that this is all that matters. After the girl leaves, Ennis realizes she's left her sweater behind, and when he opens his little closet door to store it there, we see that he's hung the two shirts from their first summer, one still wearing the other, on the inside of the closet door, below a tattered postcard of Brokeback Mountain. Just as we see this, the camera pulls back to allow us a slightly wider view, which reveals a little window next to the closet, a rectangular frame that affords a glimpse of a field of yellow flowers and the mountains and sky. The juxtaposition of the two spaces—the cramped and airless closet, the window with its unlimited vistas beyond—efficiently but wrenchingly suggests the man's tragedy: the life he has lived, the life that might have been. His eyes filling with tears, Ennis looks at his closet and says, "Jack, I swear..."; but he never completes his sentence, as he never completed his life.

One of the most tortured, but by no means untypical, attempts to suggest that the tragic heroes of Brokeback Mountain aren't "really" gay appeared in, of all places, the San Francisco Chronicle, where the critic Mick LaSalle argued that the film is

about two men who are in love, and it makes no sense. It makes no sense in terms of who they are, where they are, how they live and how they see themselves. It makes no sense in terms of what they do for a living or how they would probably vote in a national election....

The situation carries a lot of emotional power, largely because it's so specific and yet undefined. The two guys—cowboys—are in love with each other, but we don't ever quite know if they're in love with each other because they're gay, or if they're gay because they're in love with each other.

It's possible that if these fellows had never met, one or both would have gone through life straight.

The statement suggests what's wrong with so much of the criticism of the film, however well-meaning it is. It seems clear by now that Brokeback has received the attention it's been getting, from critics and audiences alike, partly because it seems on its surface to make normal what many people think of as gay experience— bringing it into the familiar "heart of America." (Had this been the story of, say, the love between two closeted interior decorators living in New York City in the 1970s, you suspect that there wouldn't be full-page ads in the major papers trumpeting its "universal" themes.) But the fact that this film's main characters look like cowboys doesn't make them, or their story, any less gay. Criticisms like LaSalle's, and those of the many other critics trying to persuade you that Brokeback isn't "really" gay, that Jack and Ennis's love "makes no sense" because they're Wyoming ranch hands who are likely to vote Republican, only work if you believe that being gay means having a certain look, or lifestyle (urban, say), or politics; that it's anything other than the bare fact of being erotically attached primarily to members of your own sex.

Indeed, the point that gay people have been trying to make for years—a point that Brokeback could be making now, if so many of its vocal admirers would listen to what it's saying—is that there's no such thing as a typi-cal gay person, a strangely different-seeming person with whom Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar have nothing in common—thankfully, you can't help feeling, in the eyes of many commentators. (It is surely significant that the film's only major departure from Proulx's story are two scenes clearly meant to underscore Jack's and Ennis's bona fides as macho American men: one in which Jack successfully challenges his boorish father-in-law at a Thanksgiving celebration, and another in which Ennis punches a couple of biker goons at a July Fourth picnic—a scene that culminates with the image of Ennis standing tall against a skyscape of exploding fireworks.)

The real achievement of Brokeback Mountain is not that it tells a universal love story that happens to have gay characters in it, but that it tells a distinctively gay story that happens to be so well told that any feeling person can be moved by it. If you insist, as so many have, that the story of Jack and Ennis is OK to watch and sympathize with because they're not really homosexual—that they're more like the heart of America than like "gay people"—you're pushing them back into the closet whose narrow and suffocating confines Ang Lee and his collaborators have so beautifully and harrowingly exposed.

* * *

I want to say that Mendelsohn’s review put me to the test. I myself have been one of those insisting that BBM is not a movie about, "gay men in love," but "men who happen to be in love with men" (well, Ennis is, anyway – Jack is clearly gay). I could have written what Mick LaSalle wrote, quoted above. But Mendelsohn’s argument is so compellingly presented I am thinking about changing my mind. I, too, had been lumping BBM’s love affair with stories of other star-crossed lovers, not gay, who found themselves in “forbidden” relationships, punishable by their societies.

His comparison with “Romeo and Juliet” was too easy an example, but it made his point. Relationships that cross prohibitions based on race or religion, which can bring extreme animosity, even death, upon those who cross them, seem worthy of greater respect. What of a Nazi concentration camp guard who falls in love with his Jewish prisoner, and she with him? From the outside, the love would be condemned by both groups. Inside, both lovers would have to struggle with their own intense internalized opposition. She would feel herself an arc traitor to her people. He, deeply conditioned to believe Jews only worthy of contempt – even less than human – would have his own intense inner struggles.

But Mendelsohn’s point that gay lovers [in the story’s time and place] not only have to struggle against opposition from without, but their own internalized opposition, is a valid one. I think I had not taken it fully into consideration until I read his review.

As a fan of the film, I still strongly want to see Brokeback Mountain as a film about, “just people.” It gives it its “universal” appeal. If it is labelled as a “gay” movie, I fear it will be more easily dismissed as film valuable only to viewers who are gay. Defining the film as “gay,” or defining the characters in it as “gay,” seems to make sexual preference the determining factor for how the film and its characters are to be understood. I want to think of sexual preference as one part of each person’s make-up, rather than the determining one. I suspect, though, that if Mendelsohn heard me he would point out that being persecuted for being gay makes sexual preference the determining factor in a person’s life -- whether he or she likes it or not.

Reading this review has made me suspect I really haven’t finished thinking the whole gay-straight thing through. I have resisted understanding the film as the story of "gay men in love." The article's argument makes me ask myself, “Is it true? Am I only able to like this film if I think the characters ‘aren't really gay’?”

Maybe I will learn more this afternoon, when I will go see the film again -- for the fifth time.

~ Mechtild

Brokeback Mountain Links Page HERE


(Deleted comment)
mechtild at 2006-02-06 18:15 (UTC) (Link)
Hi, Mews. That was a thoughtful, candid comment. This remark drew me, and makes me want to try for a further distinction....

Jack seems much more open, but when Ennis went to Jack's childhood home and met that poor, emotionally starved woman living that gray, hopeless life, I wondered how he had managed to be able to express his feelings at all. It seems to me that many of us are taught from an early age to hide our feelings and not show emotions, and that is magnified beyond belief by the world in which those two men were born and had to live.

I think training children in societies to hide their emotions is probably widely-practiced. In some cases it is a matter of manners; one doesn't subject others outside one's intimate acquaintance with the full bore of one's emotions, especially negative ones. Also, one doesn't show one's feelings until one knows the person seeing them can be trusted. Training children to veil their emotions from others is a way of protecting them. It is a harsh world in most places, and in most eras. People who grow up "thin-skinned," who "wear their hearts on their sleeves," can hurt or destroyed far more easily than those who are taught to protect themselves.

What the characters in Brokeback seem to be taught not only to guard or veil their emotions, but to deny them, even to despise them. That is something else. I think that's what is so wrenching and bleak in the lives of so many of the tenderer film characters. They have not only learned to veil their feelings from the world, they have veiled them from themselves, even to the point of nearly quenching them. Which characters easily show their feelings in the film? The characters whose feelings are negative. Joe Aguirre, Jack's father, and Jack's father-in-law aren't the least bit inhibited to show they are angry, pissed or petulant. The more vulnerable characters show their negative emotions, but only when pressed. Showing their tenderer feelings is more challenging still, so used are they to protecting themselves for fear of hurt or rejection. But, with those they trust, they will dare to do it. It happens between the two lovers, when Ennis comes to Jack's tent the second night. It happens between Jack and his daughter, between Jack's mother and Ennis. The beauty of those moments blazes from the screen. It fills me with hope, too.
(Deleted comment)
ellinestel at 2006-02-06 22:35 (UTC) (Link)
(((((Mechtild))))) I do see a point in this review, and I also see it in your thoguht about a "just people" movie.

OK, I haven't seen BBM, but I've read all the spoilers (bad me! :D) and this review as well, and I have something to say.

I want to be "just a person". To be honest, I hate the seperation of straight and gay, I get uncomfortable when somebody calls me a lesbian, including myself. Not because I live in a hostile environment. I just want to be a person. A girl. Just somebody. And the thing is thst it cannot be - not for me myself and not for any person who knows me. I cannot run away from what I am, I cannot choose, and that's it. And from this review I see a very special point. No matter how doomed the straight couple's romance is, self-loathing and the feeling of being robbed of a choice is very rarely there.

When a girl falls in love with a man, no matter what the situation is, she never thinks: "Oh, woe is me, I've been robbed of a chance of a lesbian relationship." In my case, I did feel robbed of any chance of happiness.

Yes, I know, I'm an idiot. And, of course, I'm not so depressed as I was years ago over this.
mechtild at 2006-02-06 23:39 (UTC) (Link)
You are not an "idiot" to feel this way, Ellin. It is makes sense, unfortunately. Yes, I have been thinking of people as just people, or trying to, but I see the author's point. Even if he overstates it a little in order to make it, the situation is one that can't be ignored in terms of the effect it would have on a person, inside.

As long as sexual orientation is considered a distinguishing factor about a person, it's going to make an impact on any gay or lesbian person, as to how they feel about themselves.

I used to feel that way about being overweight (I fluctuate between being average to what I am now - too heavy). I still do, but less strongly as I get older. More than anything, I wanted to be trim just so that people who met me would think of me as, "the woman who talked about Lord of the Rings all night, " rather than as "the fat woman who talked..." I hated it that the most determining factor for people meeting me was that I was overweight. I wanted people to look at me and see a person, not a fat person.
ellinestel at 2006-02-06 23:49 (UTC) (Link)

I used to feel that way about being overweight (I fluctuate between being average to what I am now - too heavy). I still do, but less strongly as I get older.

I know what you mean. :k I'm not slim, either, and that makes me very self-concsious sometimes, too.

BTW, concerning looks. ;) I had a very funny conversation with Anna the last time I saw her:

I: Oh, I look terrible, I've picked a wrong shampoo...
Anna: No, no, you look wonderful, and I look terrible....

And so on and so forth for five minutes. :D
maeglian at 2006-02-07 00:40 (UTC) (Link)
I'm glad to see this post, and I have learned something from the thoughtful replies to it and your insightful responses. Thank you.
mechtild at 2006-02-07 01:13 (UTC) (Link)
Welome, you writer of wonderful Brokeback Mountain posts, you! How splendid to see you here (and your Alma icon, too!).

I think BBM, for those who respond to it, will do much to encourage the reconsideration of assumptions, unexamined prejudices, and personal priorities -- all for the better.

Map-Maker, Lighthouse-Keeper
marinshellstone at 2006-02-07 03:23 (UTC) (Link)
God that was amazing. It made me cry all over again just reading it.

I need to treat myself to seeing this film again.

But there's one thing I wanted to clarify. just_ann_now helped with this; I thought they left Jack's death open to interpretation in the film. It was as if Ennis was having his worst nightmare confirmed by hearing about Jack's death, and then took it a step further in his own mind, without knowing for sure if that's what happened. The worst possible thing that could happen to Jack, for Ennis, is what happened to that rancher his father showed him. This one fate was what he juxtaposed the actual happiness he and Jack could have had against; Jack's death couldn't have been senseless because then the fate they had stayed apart to avoid wouldn't have mattered, and they could have lived their simple "cattle-and-calf operation" life together somewhere...that crushing realization is something that he could not have taken...not sure, that's just what I got from it.

I loved this review, it clarified so many things for me, as did your thoughts and everyone else's comments. May I link to this post in my journal?
mechtild at 2006-02-07 03:32 (UTC) (Link)
Hadara, Ann's remarks were great, weren't they? And they were fresh to my ears, in spite of all my lurking.

As for Jack's death, Jack's fate was ambiguous in the short story. Proulx seemed purposely to write it in a way that left it to the reader to conjecture whether Jack was murdered as Ennis suspected, or really did die accidentally. I do think the film portrayed it less ambiguously, intending us to believe with Ennis that Jack was murdered.

Thanks so much for posting, Hadara. How long does NY have you for, by the way?
ylla999 at 2006-02-07 18:37 (UTC) (Link)
Just popping in here to Thank You for having this wonderful LJ discussion of a film that I truly loved!!!
I could have written that "beautifully put" post that Ann made regarding her impressions of BBM on first viewing and second viewings(although I probably wouldn't have written it as well as she!)
My sentiments exactly!!!!
Brava...both of you!!!!
I loved BBM...it is an incredibly well done movie...and I don't think of it as a gay love story...it's just about love....period.
mechtild at 2006-02-07 22:12 (UTC) (Link)
Ylla, it's lovely to "see" you. Yes, it's a great story about love and lovers. (((((Brokeback Mountain)))))
just_ann_now at 2006-02-08 00:30 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you! It's been a pleasure to discuss this with such lovely, responsive friends. I happily pondered this discussion all day, and could hardly wait until I got home to continue.
mechtild at 2006-02-08 05:39 (UTC) (Link)
It's posts like the ones in this string of comments that make LJ discussion worthwhile for me. A post like yours, for example, not only presents yourfeelings and ideas, which are fascinating and relevant in themselves, it provides a catalyst for me to think and say more about what matters to me on the subject.

And it's always a pleasure to share a little swooning. :)
maeglian at 2006-02-27 20:30 (UTC) (Link)
Though I'd give you the link to this interview of someone else who've read the Mendelsohn essay and taken it to heart. (It's towards the end of the little interview).

mechtild at 2006-02-27 20:58 (UTC) (Link)
Yep. That was definitely the same article. Mr. Mendelsohn did well to raise the issue. And, effectively, obviously. :)
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