UPDATE: I saw it again and changed my mind! Never mind! See comments.
As promised, and mindful of the fact that I'm in a small minority (9.3 at IMDB!!!), here goes...
Inception bored me so much I literally had to get up in the middle and seek amusement--in the form of a $4.00 box of chocolate chip cookie dough candy. I managed to stay awake only by consuming said confection for the final hour.
Why so boring?
#1 We are to believe that Leonardo DiCaprio leads a team of dream manipulators who are tasked with implanting an idea in a a rich guy's head to get him to break apart his dead father's mega-business. Their modus operandi is not just altering the guy's dreams, but setting up group dreams. The whole team, plus the rich guy, wind up on an airplane having an exciting and eventful team dream which has been planned ahead of time by a dream architect.
Now, I'm willing to suspend disbelief. I don't need to know how things work in painstaking detail. The Matrix, for example, works just fine for me. In principle a person could have their brain manipulated by a computer, so that they experience a completely convincing virtual reality. It's not hopelessly incoherent to think this could happen in the way The Matrix depicts: characters lie down in a chair and put on a helmet.
But what's with these team dreams? To begin with, how do they get going? The dream team has some fancy suitcases. When they open them up, we can see some bottles and wires inside. They set them down next to the group, and they all start dreaming. But wait--dreams take place in our brains. We see nothing that connects the suitcases to people's brains. This is....nuts.
And how does the architect create the dreams to begin with? Well, she creates models--real world architectural models. But how do the models get into the suitcases that somehow get into people's dreams? Why (on earth) should we go along with this?
But it's even worse. How does it make a difference whether a group is dreaming, or just one person? How do the team members exert control during the dream, so that they can make the rich guy dream the right thing, and receive the crucial idea?
In short: WHAT???
#2 Much of the movie consists of the team dream that commences on the airplane, and by all means it's a visual phantasmagoria. But I'm afraid still a big bore. In real life, and in movie depictions of real life, we know that when someone falls down or gets shot, that can change the outcome. So we feel concern and suspense. In a dream events don't matter in the same way. There are no rules for ordinary dreams--anything can happen next. Granted, the laws for preplanned team dreams are somehow different. The events somehow matter, and the team members somehow affect the events. But how does it all really work? Who knows. So it really doesn't exactly matter what happens all along the way in the dream. Or does it? I'm afraid this uncertainty really makes it hard to care. (Did you know that chocolate chip cookie dough candy is actually quite good?)
#3 But wait, what about the marvelous stuff about the difficulty of telling the contents of our minds from reality? There's talk about this, but it just sounds like talk (yadda, yadda)--and not fresh talk either, given all the previous mind/reality movies. The movie doesn't create any gripping anxiety about the line between dream-reality and actual-reality until the very end (which I won't spoil by discussing), unlike great mind/reality movies like The Truman Show, The Matrix, and Strange Days.
Granted, 99% of people who see this movie find it suspenseful and intellectually engaging, but I'm right and they're wrong. (Hey, I write an arts column for a small circulation magazine. That gives me authority!) Go ahead, tell me what you thought. I promise to be civilized about this.
Heh. OK, you didn't like this movie for different reasons that I thought, and unfortunately for not very interesting reasons! But I'll give it a shot anyway. As it happens I'm a hobbyist in the analysis of VR movies so that makes me an authority :P
You principle reasons for not like this movie are:
1. it’s not realistic. The brain hookups don't make sense. We don't have enough explanation of how the suitcases work, or how they feed material into the minds of the dreamers. Without more detail, how are we supposed to be interested in the conceit?? It JUST DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE!!!! Thus: boring.
Response: Huh? The movie invests no time in explaining this stuff because there is never any point in explaining this stuff. The practical reality of inducing simulations into brains in vats might have some practical interest (as in: is it REALLY practicable that we could ever do it?) But once one accepts the essential conceit of Brain in The Vat, I think the practical implementation goes by the wayside. To me it's like complaining that it's "not realistic" that the folks in Plato's Cave don't notice that they have shackles on their bodies. I mean c'mon! who doesn't notice a bunch of shackles on their bodies! And who mistakes shadows on the wall as real images??!! I mean, they are black and white and 2 dimensional! So unrealistic. But wait! It's an ALLEGORY. Most of these movies play with metaphor. So taking "realism" as a standard here is (very) out of place.
Let’s take The Matrix as an example, since that gets a free pass from almost everyone: How is it "realistic" that the machines need human beings for their BTU energy? What the heck is that about? Why not use cows, or some other mamal? Surely they are less likely to wake up. The whole "BTUs mixed with a special kind of fusion" is ludicrous. But it's NOT about "realism." It's about the way using people as a power source functions a useful metaphor for commenting on society. In my opinion anyone approaching this stuff at the level of "how do the suitcases work" or "how does the architect make reality change" is pretty much changing the subject, and really missing the point. How does Neo get inside of Agent Smith and make him blow apart? Why does Trinity giving him a kiss in the real world make him wakeup and kick ass in The Matrix? Why do they need "hard lines" to get out of the Matrix, but they are all on wireless "broadcasting their pirate signal?" What does "finding a hard line" even MEAN? A "remote hard line" would seem to be a contradiction, or a redundancy. Seriously. So unrealistic.
That's not to say that there are no criticisms that can't be delivered on the way that the various conceits that the film makes interact with each other. But complaining that we don’t know "how the suitcases work" or "how does the architect code the dream" are nit picking at a level that very few of VR movies can survive, The Matrix most certainly included. So to me this criticism boils down to little more than: "Yuck." Which is fine as far as it goes, but is hardly substantive. Would the movie really have been lots better if they had put electrodes onto their temples instead of just IV stuff in their arms?
many thanks indeedy for your remarks on the Inception film. As with your stance on moral facts, I disagree (even though I haven't gotten to see the film yet), but I am glad of your point of view.
It does seem to sum up though to criticising a lack of scientific/logical/storyline plausibility. May I ask you please if it is possible to fill out your comments a bit by also giving us your point of view on Matrix, and if you have seen them, The Thirteenth Floor and the forerunner of them all, the 1980 version of The Lathe Of Heaven?
And if it's not asking too much, your thoughts on the link I gave in my last comment on your last blog post, the review by The Last Psychiatrist, in relation to narcissism, etc. etc.? How about tying this all in with your own thoughts on moral actions and responsibility?
I will be blogging on Inception as soon as I can get to see it (living in Germany means such films come to me a bit later, a couple of weeks).
My apologies for asking tons of questions of you, but I would love more from your own point of view on all this (since you help me sharpen up my own thinking, since we are at odds on these things), and I am personally fascinated by the free-will/automatism interface and sliding-scale (unlike you, I find free will to be quite neurologically plausible, which is part of why I disagree with your stance on moral facts). Again, apologies for being overly demanding.
And yes, things like candy are good, though I prefer popcorn. The worst thing at the end of every movie is having to brush off all the loose popcorn quickly so one doesn't look very very silly when leaving the cinema.
Hmm, I never thought about the cows and BTUS and shackles and all! (Love it...) But isn't it true that you have to be given SOMETHING that makes sense in order to not ask further questions? In the Matrix you're given just enough, so you don't think "why not cows?" What was I given here? Just suitcases! Couldn't they do just a bit better?
(Re: Matrix--but don't you think part of the fun is figuring out the logic of how dream events affect reality and reality affects dream events? In Inception it seem as if there is simply much less logic.)
Alright, let's go on to #2. I think that's what really sent me out into the lobby in search of candy. The world of that dream didn't have clear laws. It wasn't clear why it mattered what was happening. OK, so they run around a whole lot,and this and that happens...so what? Whatever happens in the first 3/4 of the dream, it's still possible for the rich guy to get "incepted" in the last 1/4. So there's no suspense.
I mean--say you're watching my dream about climbing Mt. Everest (lucky you). Should you care if I lose my sunglasses and get lost in a storm and fall into a crevice in the first 3/4? No, because it's still possible I'll make it to the top in the last 1/4. Dreams have no laws, so there's no real suspense.
OK, tell me how silly that is, and then we can get on to #3.
Sorry--re: the Matrix, I meant virtual events, not dream events.
OK lets take on #2.
Let me say that of your 3 points, this is the one where I may be able to agree with you...a little bit.
You say that you found it hard to find that any of it "mattered" because of the arbitrariness of the dream world(s).
I think that this is mostly wrong, but maybe a little right.
Reasons it is wrong:
I don't see how you can say that it was all arbitrary. They made plenty of rules regarding how all of it fit together, sometimes with some expostiion that was painfully heavy handed, precisely because they had so many rules to deliver. Here are just a few of these rules:
1. Each world relates to time on a different scale. The deeper the dream layer the larger the time multiplier.
2. Whenever you change the world of a dreamer his unconscious will attack you.
3. Dreams are responsive to changes in the layer of reality that they are immediately subordinated to.
4. If you die in a dream you will wake up, but not if you are under heavy sedation. If you are under heavy sedation you will be stuck in limbo, possibly forever due to time dialation problems.
5. Architecting dream spaces from memories of real places increases the danger that you will lose track of the reality/dream distinction.
6. People can train their unconscious to be extremely aggressive in rejecting intruders (they can "millitarize" their unconscious).
7. In order to get out of a dream before the suitcase timer releases you you have to be "kicked" out, which requires a sense of falling.
8. If you are down several levels into a dream the kick has to coordinated across every level or it will not work.
Just to name a few. There are also rules surrounding the "tokens" that they carry that help ground them in reality, but those go to a different layer of the story that doesn't have to do with the "Heist" storyline, and rather with the metastory (which incidentally is the main story of the movie).
So I'm just not sure what you mean when you complain about it all being arbitrary. Were there ways that they could improvise? Sure, but I didn't really feel these had the kind of "make it up as you go along" that you suggest, and, to the degree that they did, I felt it was more of a commentary about dreaming in general: ie. that when we are dreaming we are doing exactly this: "making it up as we go along."
Here are some areas where I can maybe agree:
I think it's possible they may have violated some of their very own rules. If so, this is a problem. The rules are very important for precisely the reason you describe, they provide the anchors to the film the prevent it from being PURE "make it up as you call along." So to the degree that they broke their own rules arbitrarily, I think we have a problem. But I'm not sure if they did or not at this point, there was just too much in the film that I was processing to be sure until I see it again.
Second, I DO think there is a weird emptiness to the fact that all the "people" they are fighting are not actually people, but elements of the dreamers unconscious. It's more like they are fighting robots, and it makes the fighting weirdly empty at times. On the other hand, in The Matrix, they are killing actual human beings with impunity, and I've always found it bizarre that people don't comment on this fact more. The fact that they are all "duped" by the Matrix doesn't really help the moral problem. Any terrorist organization could make that claim about a dominant cultural order, and indeed, that's exactly what most terrorists do. I think it's very fair to view the heroes of The Matrix as a bunch of terrorists (in the full bad sense), yet this is not a connection that most people care to make.
The Matrix had plot and scientific logic holes that you could drive a spaceship through. To say nothing of The Chosen/Messiah device. *snore*
I won't be seeing Inception. It sounds far worse than Prestige and life's too short to waste.
Inception, and its dreamworld rules, explained:
The five levels explained:
OK I'm off to take my daughter to a birthday party. More on this later :)
Faust, To be honest, I think your analysis is brilliant. Good heavens, I didn't "get" the rules. It all seemed lawless and arbitrary, so not interesting. I think I may actually have to go see it again. This time I will try not to keep thinking HOW DO THE SUITCASES WORK??? Apparently this got in my way.
Another impediment (perhaps)--I am not a fan of psychoanalysis (used to be, but no longer). So when people started using that jargon, I tended not to listen carefully. It was like--yeah, yeah, projection, whatever.
I see a remedial trip to the theater coming soon. Kids will like it, I think.
Faust, Mind blowing suggestion from James Garvey (maybe said half-seriously)--it's all a dream. That's why the suitcases are so sketchy. Whaddya think?
Haven't read Garvey yet, will do so now.
Here is my quick, and more full blown sketch:
Hmm where is Garvey's take? Don't see it on TPM? Or am I blind..
Private email. Ahhh...so you have really thought about this. Will read.
Just saw the movie with my daughter. Yes, there was too much shooting and stuff blowing up (boring), but overall we both liked it. In fact, my daughter, who isn't normally a fan of science fiction, said Inception is one of the best movies she's ever seen. As for me, I was particularly intrigued by the part where the Japanese tycoon says he wants to have someone incepted with the urge to buy a box of chocolate chip cookie dough candy. Or did I just dream that part?
For fans of virtual reality or dream-within-dream stories, I recommend the novels Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick, and much of the work of Christopher Priest, including A Dream of Wessex (silly U.S. title: The Perfect Lover), The Extremes, and The Separation. For some reason, Priest's books are unusually difficult to find in North America, or at least in my part of North America.
Aeolus, Hmm, maybe I was out in the lobby during that part!
I've now atoned, and I think I'm going to go again. I was a fool...I sat there worrying about the damned suitcases.
Wow, Phillip Dick seems to be behind lots of good stories and movies, but I've never read him. Must do.
Best way to start with Dick is to start with a short story anthology. Low commitment, and he wrote some great short stories. Some of his novels are...well. Lets just say you should start with his short stories. I do agree 3 stigmata is vintage Dick. I also really like flow my tears.
One interesting clue: the shoes of the children in their last scene are white for the first time.
And, as for the conversion;
there shall be much rejoicing in Heaven I mean among us blog commentators over he or she who first turned away from Inception, only to repent and turn back.
Ha! I shall be entering the pearly gates, then. Now if I can just convince one of my kids. (I was too grumpy to even notice the shoes.)
Faust, Thanks for recommendations. Must do it!
Damnable software ate a long comment of mine on Philip K. Dick. Trying again.
Like Faust, I would heavily recommend not reading Dick's novels, except "The Man In The High Castle", one which is pretty much a must. Read compilations of Dick's short stories instead, they're huge value.
Dick had a sad life, and fame and success came only after his death. He was often on uppers and downers provided by his medico father-in-law, which made his writing even more opaque and loose.
Additionally, his publisher to save costs simply did not have manuscripts checked, but just published them as they were handed in, which led to one entire chapter in "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?" which should have simply been ripped out before publishing, and similar things (that was BTW the book from which the film Bladerunner was made, and IMvHO, the film was better than the book).
Dick on the whole seems to have been quite a nice bloke; depressed, and possibly bipolar, but a nice bloke.
The Man in the High Castle is Dick's best novel in some respects (e.g., character portrayal) and one of the very best alternative-history stories ever. It doesn't have the no-holds-barred, possibly drugs-inspired inventiveness of some of his other novels. As for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, here and elsewhere in his fiction, Dick uses the android as a metaphor for the human who is living an inauthentic life. The novel also has a test for who is or isn't an android: whether one has empathy for animals -- empathy for others being the essence of authentic humanity.
Yeah, I have to disagree with you here Jean. I liked the movie through and through. I think you're not suspending disbelief in the right places, the suitcases, how the dream things work exactly.
I think some of the exposition in the beginning isn't necessary, but they need to throw in some there, so you understand the climax, like the time differences.
I think the observation about dreams simply starting in the middle of something, with no real beginning is brilliant! I recognize that Nolan is right and never really realized that particular fact.
The last shot is priceless. Good movie, through and through. 3 hours never seemed so short.
Hey Wayne, I've redeemed myself, thanks to everyone's comments, especially Faust's explanation of "the rules." I went again with a different attitude yesterday and really enjoyed it. Strange how you can hate a movie once, then like it a lot the second time. I think I'd better add a disclaimer to the post!
The movie is interesting because it seems to deliberately induce puzzlement. I can't imagine anyone sitting there (especially the first time) and really understanding everything. Things happen fast, and especially in the long dream, it's frequently hard to say exactly why characters are appearing, fighting, etc. You have to really think hard to follow what are the projections, whose subconscious is controlling what's happening, etc. I understood much, much better the second time, but not 100%.
So--is that just me, or do you also think it's meant to be found chaotic and puzzling throughout?
Yeah, the thing about dreams is cool. Maybe that's why the whole movie starts in the middle!
I think a lot people will wind up going to this over and over again because you really can figure out more and more stuff with every watching. Very good for the boxoffice, I'm sure.
I think it's not so much that it's meant to be found puzzling, as that it functions like Memento, in that it forces on the viewer to perform the central act that the movie explores.
So, for example:
In Memento, the viewer is forced to remember each sequence so that they can the reconstruct the narrative. Because the movie rolls out in reverse, the viewer is responsible for telling the story in the typical linear fashion.
In Inception, the viewer is forced to constantly scramble for frame of reference, using the rules of the game to construct an interpretation of the events as they unfold. The challenge at the end is to determine if there really is an ultimate frame of reference for the film, and what that frame of reference is grounded in.
I do think that Memento is a cleaner, more "pure" movie. But I really admire the raw ambition of Inception, and repeated viewings may enable me to declare it the masterpiece that I suspect it is. Or not :)
Faust, I read your post and really enjoyed it. Lots of great points, esp. about the word "inception" and the connection to "Memento."
One thing you don't talk about--the movie has a very sad, dramatic tone. It's about VR, but also about Cobb being pulled into the dream world by his wife. Throughout the dream, the very loud soundtrack constantly signals sadness about the wife, and how she lost track of appearance and reality. He keeps trying to avoid getting sucked into the same vortex, but his subconscious keeps producing her, and he doesn't seem to be able to "get out" and get back to his real kids.
So the movie is sort of about the tragedy of getting sucked into unreal things, and losing track of real things. When I saw it two days ago, this really resonated with me, and in fact I started thinking that the blogosphere has some of the same unreality of a dream. One can get intently focused on things that are not quite real.
But getting back to the main point--the movie is about everything you say, but also has a very strong emotional layer about nostalgia and love and trying to get back to things that are gone, and trying to reunite with real children, etc etc
Yeah, I bet "the incident" (you know what I'm talking about!) made you feel like you were trapped in a surreal dream (and not a good one!).
I quite agree about the emotional layer. I do address this point in two ways:
1. By noting that the movie focuses on emotional drives as constitutive of personality.
2. By suggesting at the end of the essay: "Inception (like Existenz) denies us this route, and recommends the view that no final anchor can be found once we find ourselves behind the veil of ideas. If there is an anchor to be found here, it is simply this: to love the objects of our care."
I'll probably flesh out that essay more at some point, for now I just wanted to elucidate a quick schematic of the film at a meta level.
Precisely. Drowning in something unreal, trying to get back out.
OK, I guess I didn't focus on that in your essay. Now that I think about it, you talked about the Beloved, the anchor, etc.
I was very struck my this aspect the second time--the constant melancholy throughout, the nostalgia. It's not just the ordinary philosophy 101 "how do we know what's real?" kind of thing but there is deep emotional stuff in there about being pulled away from reality into dreams, memories, the blogosphere ...no, not that. That's my projection!
I'm going to address the issue of the Beloved quite directly when I put out my 3rd installment out on Nozick. The second (and 3rd) part got destroyed when my daughter spilled water on my laptop but I've rebuilt it, so that should be coming along soon if you're interested.
Nolan has a running theme in his movies.... characters who are completely lost in their work because of tragedy (Memento, Insomnia, Batman begins, The Dark Knight, Inception) to the point of obsession. There is something about the grieving process where we start to just throw ourselves into something, just to be lost for a while. DiCaprio's character and his wife know this a little too well.
I'm not too thrilled by all the jabber about reality and dream that this movie generates. I think if you start questioning the veracity of the the entire story line (DiCaprio is just dreaming or something similar) it really undermines the story that is being told.
I'm beginning to think that the last shot of the movie was a real disservice to the narrative.
Anyways, back to following the movie... I've noticed with Nolan's movies (with Batman Begins being the exception I think) that there is a certain demand upon the viewing audience to follow the architecture of the story actively. His movies are not popcorn movies to watch and have fun (although I'm sure you can with the Batmans and Inception). Come ready and attentive like to a lecture. There will be explosions though.
Wayne, I think that demand aspect is interesting. This isn't clear, transparent story-telling, like...whatever. Woody Allen, Gone with the Wind (ferinstance). I think people really enjoy the hard work of figuring it out, even kids. I've had 4 13-year olds say they liked this so far, even though they were confused through a lot of it.
"I'm beginning to think that the last shot of the movie was a real disservice to the narrative."
I think this is quite wrong. It's vintage Nolan.
Here is a quote from Nolan re: Memento,
"I believe the answers are all there in the film, but the terms of the storytelling deliberately prevent people from finding them. If you watch the film, and abandon your conventional desire for absolute truth - and the confirmation of absolute truth that most films provide you with - then you can find all the answers you're looking for. As far as I'm concerned, my view is very much in the film - the answers are all there for the attentive viewer, but the terms of the storytelling prevent me from being able to give the audience absolute confirmation. And that's the point."
So too Inception. However, if you're someone who wants the film to have a sharp demarcation between dreams and reality, your best evidence is the wedding ring. Just google Inception wedding ring and you'll get the lowdown. Personally, I don't think this gets people a definitive answer, but it certain produces excellent justification for a rejection that it is ALL a dream.
Faust- Here's why I think its a disservice: 1. If what we just witnessed was all a dream, then very plausibly nothing that we just watched has any veracity to it. Its just the dreams of a madman. 2. The half truth possibility that its all a dream but there is this dream entering business and such, and he's still in limbo from going too deep into his dream ignores the idea of the anchor all together. He would either have to have had given someone his totem anchor so they could trick him in his dream, which we never see in the film, so we're forced to start creating these largely speculative theories most of which ultimately would undermine the movie's plot. (believe me when I say this is true... I've had too many conversations about this already. If Nolan is being genuine when he says its all in the movie, then pretty much anything involving a conspiracy around the top must be wrong, or fancy speculation).
3.Just the end is a dream. I think this is plausible. We have no idea if he's stuck in there or not. I think that's the most reasonable theory, but that isn't what people walk away with. The vast majority of people start questioning the entire movie's veracity.
Let me briefly compare this with the series finale of "Lost" where people thought the entire series was taking place in the afterlife. This was the reverse. Only a few people who really weren't paying attention to the show thought this was the case. The vast majority of people understood the flash sideways to be the afterlife, and that there really was an island etc. I only had to explain that maybe twice. But the more often than not, everyone comes up to me about inception saying it was all a dream (and isn't that awesome philosophy? To which I roll my eyes). So when I ask them if everything is a dream what does that mean? They take routes 1 or 2, almost never 3.
So the vast majority just simply don't get or are walking away with a deep misunderstanding of the story, I think. It forces people to change what they think about the narrative.
I'm all far obscuring and making the the audience work for it, (I loved Memento... and I really like Inception) And I loved the last shot. But if something about the movie is forcing people to disregard the entire narrative of the story, then I think theres a problem there. Even in Memento, which I think is much more puzzling than Inception is with the questions of Leonard's accident and his wife's death, and whether we can trust Teddy, doesn't force you to throw away the entire movie's story for one interpretation or the other. If Teddy is lying or telling the truth, it really doesn't change the narrative.
Meh. I don't know.... Maybe I'm just sick of a a theory about the movie that everyone keeps pestering me with.
I hear what you are saying. I agree with you in this way:
The message of Inception is NOT "it is all a dream." People who walk away from the film thinking that this is the "message" or "main point" of the film are missing the point. For what is a dream? A dream is only interesting when contrasted with "reality." If there is nothing BUT dream then reality falls by the wayside. If there is nothing but dream, then dreams ARE reality.
But Nolan is clearly also interested in resisting (or playing with scenarios that resist) "absolute reality." As he puts it in the quote I cited above,
"If you watch the film, and abandon your conventional desire for absolute truth - and the confirmation of absolute truth that most films provide you with - then you can find all the answers you're looking for. As far as I'm concerned, my view is very much in the film - the answers are all there for the attentive viewer, but the terms of the storytelling prevent me from being able to give the audience absolute confirmation. And that's the point."
In my view the end is simply to block "absolute confirmation." The question of HOW "absolute confirmation CAN be blocked, is what makes it philosophically interesting, at least, insofar as epistemological skepticism rooted in "veil of ideas" skepticism is interesting.
I think Nolan is generally more interested in questions of interpretation than he is in questions about veracity.
One thing that struck me was the scene where Cobb (DiCaprio) is trying to dissuade his wife Mal from committing suicide looks off. Cobb is in one hotel room, looking and talking out the window, while his wife is sitting at the edge of a window in another room at another hotel across the street. That street should separate Cobb and Mal by hundreds of feet, and Cobb shouldn't even be able to see easily her kicking off one of her shoes, yet the two of them talk as if they are a few yards apart. And how did Cobb and Mal manage to book two rooms in two different hotels and have the luck for them to be exactly across from one another? That makes sense in a dream but it looks unreal.
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