Getting Lost at the Movies with Pauline Kael

 
By Jasun Horsley

A longer and more autobiographical version of this essay first appeared in Seen & Not Seen: Confessions of a Movie Autist.

 

More Than a Critic

Like those cynical heroes who were idealists before they discovered that the world was more rotten than they had been led to expect, we’re just about all of us displaced persons, ‘a long way from home.’ When we feel defeated, when we imagine we could now perhaps settle for home and what it represents, that home no longer exists. But there are movie houses. —Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies”

When Pauline Kael first joined the New Yorker, she was accused of treading dirt onto its pages with her “cowboy boots.” Her style was anti-intellectual intellectualism: visceral, impulsive, sensual, bawdy, playful, punchy. Woody Allen accused her of being a great critic except for one thing, a lack of judgment. It’s easy to find evidence to support that view. (I could count the ways, but why bother—it’s all taste vs. taste anyway.) The problem people had with Kael, I think, had less to do with her occasionally dubious judgments than with how persuasively she could argue them.

One of the things that impressed me the most about her reviews was that she could change my mind about a movie (usually by making me see why a movie I liked was bad, rarely if ever the other way around). It’s not just that she was a brilliant writer that got people’s backs up, or even that she was an infuriatingly opinionated one. It’s that her passion was so intense and nakedly expressed that it was infectious. It was impossible to resist her view except by opposing it. The only way not to love her, in other words, was to hate her. A bit like a mother.

Kael put all of herself into her writing. She didn’t hold anything back and that allowed for a full psychic merging between herself and the reader. Her writing offers the sort of intimacy which we are all longing to experience, however we can get it, and it’s that same desire for intimacy which draws people to art—and sex, drugs, and religion—in the first place. I realize now that reading Kael as an adolescent gave me an experience that very nearly was sexual. Maybe this is why Kael injected sexual innuendo into her titles? And maybe it’s why she left it out at roughly the same time the oomph went out of her writing—around 1983 with The State of the Art? Curiously enough, that was also around the time I discovered Kael. Thirty years later, I have read her books countless times. It was re-reading Kael’s oeuvre in Spain, in 1997, that inspired me to write The Blood Poets, hence the dedication: “To P.K., for taking me deeper into movies, and making me reel.” Kael’s response was to give me the blurb which for years I cited when emailing agents and publishers, a fragment of which appeared on the cover of Matrix Warrior: “Jake Horsley seems to arrive from out of nowhere, yet here he is!” (exclamation point added). The strange insinuation is that Pauline Kael “midwifed” me into existence as a writer. I think it’s more than just an insinuation.

The angry denunciations of her and her work (people are still arguing about her to this day) are probably an indication of just how seriously we take movies, or more precisely, how seriously we take our feelings about them. Kael possessed—or was possessed by—a far greater talent than most of the people whose work she wrote about. Her attention, her intense involvement with movies, demanded reciprocity, from the filmmakers, from readers, from movies themselves. She didn’t just raise the bar, she changed the nature of the game. Naturally, people wanted to disqualify her from the field, and to the extent that her own power and influence went to her head, Kael appears to have played into the opposition’s hands and skewed her own game. This was most openly symbolized—or enacted—by her taking Warren Beatty’s “bait” in 1979 and going to Hollywood to try her skills as a producer. Adam tempted Eve, and in the end, Kael not only lost it at the movies, she seems to have wound up jilted and abandoned.

What I wonder now is, was it built into the relationship from the start?

 

*

Kael’s take-no-prisoners style of criticism was sometimes called cruel and unnecessarily cutting. There are accounts in Brian Kellow’s (disappointing) biography that suggest that her bite was not only lethal but vicious, and not necessarily reserved for the deserving; her famous acidic wit, some claimed, evidenced vitriol running through her veins in place of blood. It’s impossible to separate the genuine complaints from those of angry, wounded egos (whose complaints are also valid, in their way); it’s almost equally difficult to tell when Kael is applying her laser scalpel to save a life and when she’s getting carried away by her own surgical virtuosity.

Kael really did have erratic judgment, but only for a film critic. Her faulty judgments only seem so bad because they came with such fierce conviction and carried such weight behind them. As a moviegoer, her judgment was no worse or better, nor stranger, than anyone else’s. Judgment—who has it? What counts isn’t how “right” a critic is but how honest they are. How close does their judgment get to being an authentic expression of their experience, how embodied is that expression, and how true and real is their voice?

There’s no such thing as impeccable taste—what would it be measured against? A critic risks falling into the trap of being a critic when he or she offers subjective experience as objective judgment. That Kael fell into this trap is suggested by how she began to use “you” in place of “I” more and more in her reviews. It was as if she was telling the reader what they were supposed to be experiencing while distancing herself from her experiences by replacing the subjective “I” with the more authoritative “you.” And yet, without taking an authoritative position at least some of the time, a writer can be accused of writing only about themselves, and of not deserving the title of critic at all. Not that it’s such a great title to have, but there’s a function for critics, just as there’s a function for critical faculties. A good critic is both honest and discerning, which includes being honest about their lack of discernment by maintaining a fully subjective voice even when casting judgment. A good critic helps readers (which would include the artists being critiqued) to develop their own capacity for critical judgment.

That’s what Kael, at her best, did for me. She offered an example of what a relatively authentic voice sounds like. That’s why her work stands up as it does; not because she was a great critic, but because she was one of the very few American writers from any period with her own, unique voice. The degree to which Kael validated my own voice by endorsing The Blood Poets is a measure, perhaps, of both my own authenticity and the lack of it. After all, part of why she approved my writing, I suspect, was that it so skillfully and lovingly emulated her own. To this day, I still detect her voice in what I write, and I still enjoy finding it there.

Kael and I are what’s known as psychically enmeshed. Writing this present piece seems to be a way for me to pull apart the threads of that enmeshment, one strand at a time, to bring about the end of our affair.

 

What Pauline Lost at the Movies

Interviewer: “When I’m at the movies, I feel like I’m swept up, lost.”
Kael: “I feel as if I’m found.”

Some of Kael’s early pieces are actually transcripts from her radio broadcasts. The transcripts read like fully structured essays, but at the same time, they have the loose, conversational style which she eventually became known for. There’s a very obvious difference between written and spoken word pieces. When we speak, we do it with the total body and express far more than mere words can. Since there’s no time for composing our sentences and the only editing happens in our heads before we speak, we have much less control over what we communicate. Kael’s special gift (and what she gave to readers, and to the field of film criticism) was that she wrote like she spoke: with immediacy, honesty, spontaneity, frankness, and a lack of preciousness, free of the mincing that bogs down so much literary and critical writing. Yet how she could speak! She used words like a master jazz improviser following some interior music that only she could hear. And this was the way she spoke: in her interviews she often displayed the same magical eloquence.

When Kael writes in her prime—when, in the memorable phrase of Sherlock Holmes, “the game is afoot!”—her surprise, delight, discomfort and bewilderment is apparent as fresh insights bubble forth from her insides and pour out her pen. I recognize this because I have experienced it in my own writing: things that aren’t “thought out” just appear on the page or screen; they feel true, right, and so I put all of myself behind them and hope for the best. Most of the time, they do turn out to make a strange kind of sense; they allow for more coherent and rational discoveries that confirm the rightness of the intuition. But in the moment which the insights spring forth, like Athena born fully grown, they are as unexpected as they are improbable. That amazement is apparent in Kael’s writing, at its best, and it’s probably the surest proof that a writer is transmitting something above, below, and beyond their conscious awareness or intentions.

Kael acknowledged this in her last piece for The New Yorker, “The Movie Lover” (March 21st 1994), when she said, “I don’t fully know what I think until I’ve said it. The reader is in on my thought processes.” What communicates in such a literary “reveal” is far more (but also less) than the insights or the imagery being described: it’s the delight of a writer recognizing her own unconscious processes, and the reader gets to be right there, in that moment of truth. There’s really no literary substitute for that (and it really is like sex).

The danger of this, the trap, is when a writer gets so good at setting up these little epiphanies that she starts to think she is doing them herself. It then becomes possible to simulate the experience and to assume the guise—the pose and the prose—of “authority,” independently of being a genuine mouthpiece for Truth. When a writer gets “hooked” (the title of one of Kael’s later books) on the high of being an authority, they can end up performing an unconscious subterfuge, mistaking the external form of inspired writing for the internal content. They can learn to fake their epiphanies.

My guess is this has to do with a writer’s gaze becoming overly focused on the outside, on the readers, the reviews, the movies being critiqued, and losing touch with the inner discoveries occurring—or trying to occur—via the process of writing itself. Regardless of the subject, writing is primarily about bringing unconscious material into consciousness; without that primary goal being allowed to dictate the rules of engagement, it becomes an empty mastery of words. And what fills that emptiness is a different sort of unconscious material, the kind a writer won’t—or can’t—become conscious of, even once it’s out here—even if others invariably will.

 

*

What happened with Kael’s writing, I think, is this: Kael began writing about her experience of life, using movies as the focal point, like a sounding board to bounce her impassioned insights off. Writing about movies was a way to discover what was going on, not in the world out there, but in her; in a way, movies were the least of it. This searching intensity runs through her best books, I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, “Trash, Art, and the Movies” from Going Steady, and Deeper into Movies, from the period between 1954 and 1972. By the end of Deeper into Movies, and continuing with Reeling and When the Lights Go Down (1972-78), it was as if the movies had begun to respond to Kael’s loving, searing gaze—to respond to her touch. They began to reciprocate, to meet and match her expectations, to prove themselves worthy of the attention she was giving them; and so the movies came of age through this act of love.

The turning point for this would have been 1967—the year I was born—when Kael’s review of Bonnie and Clyde helped turn around critical opinion about the movie. Later, Peter Biskind credited the movie (and by association, somewhat exaggeratedly, Kael’s review) with kick-starting “the New Hollywood,” i.e., the period of intense creativity that fired Kael’s passion in the early to mid-seventies. What makes Kael’s love affair with the art form so compelling is that it was reciprocal: it was an active, not a passive affair. If I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Going Steady described the deflowering and courtship phases, Deeper into Movies and the following two books recount the full consummation and first, crucial years of marriage. They map the period when the power of Kael’s projections became all-consuming and potentially lethal, and when the inevitable disillusionment began to set in (whether it was noticed or not). Kael’s writing over this phase became increasingly focused on the movies themselves—because they demanded it.

But at the same time, something was lost in the process; the proof for me being that I enjoy her earlier books more, even though the movies she writes about are less interesting to me. In those first few books, it didn’t hardly matter what movie Kael was writing about, she usually found a way to dig deep into the ground (the social context) from which the movies emerged. The later books—even the astonishing middle period that mapped the rise and fall of the new Hollywood—didn’t do this so much, they stayed focused on the virtues or failings of the specific movies. And I think, because of this narrowing of focus, Kael’s writing also revealed less of her internal experience.

In the courtship and even the early consummation period of a love affair, the tension and excitement is especially intense because the hunt is still on and the desire to understand—to bridge the gulf between oneself and the other—is overpowering. But eventually the price of putting all our attention on the other person leads to losing sense of our own individuality. And then, inevitably, tragically, the bubble bursts.

Kael’s trip to Hollywood at Warren Beatty’s invitation (or seduction?) clearly marked the end of Kael’s love affair with movies. It marked the time, as in any marriage, when the partners are faced with a choice. They can let go of their illusions and expectations and move past the projections, into the deep discomfort of adult intimacy, complete with all its life traumas, rage and disappointments; or they can agree to keep to a comfortably superficial and civil relationship, “for the sake of the children,” etc. etc. (The other option is separation.) Even as “the New Hollywood” was ending, Kael did what many couples do, she tried the geographical cure and moved to Los Angeles. Like couples who try spicing up the marriage by bringing in sex games, she tried to take her “movie love” to a new level, not a deeper one but a more exotic and exciting one. Marriage is a kind of war, and Kael’s mistake, I think (if there was one), was that she let the “enemy” dictate the terms and choose the battleground for her.

“Why Are Movies So Bad? Or The Numbers,” the opening essay in Taking It All In, is the summation of everything Kael learned during her stint in Hollywood. (The other fruit was that she helped green-light David Lynch’s Elephant Man, no small feat.) “Why Are Movies So Bad?” sees Kael still at the top of her game as a writer, but in retrospect it’s also her swan song, the dying war cry of “General Kael,” the High Priestess of Movies. After that, I think Kael’s pieces (with some exceptions) became progressively less personal and impassioned, revealing or surprising, less vital in both senses of the word, until, by the time of State of the Art, she had lost not only her innocence but her edge. The movies had disillusioned her, and by the time she realized it, she had already given them the best years of her life.

This kind of disillusionment either spells a new kind of freedom or it spells defeat; there probably isn’t much in-between. Kael’s last books seemed to acknowledge this, not only in their lackluster content but in the titles, Hooked and Movie Love. Considering the quality of most of the movies she was hooked on, such titles conveyed less a sense of passion than one of resignation and quiet despair. For me, they invoke the image of a foolishly faithful lover, trapped in a miserable relationship, with nothing left but rationalizations.

 

Roses & Thorns

“Kael’s chief weakness is her lack of affinity or understanding for the more ‘spiritual’ dimensions of movies (we’ll leave life out of it), a common enough failing for the ‘intellectual.’” —Jake Horsley, The Blood Poets

Kael’s heyday—the prime of her power and influence—began around 1967, with the release of her Bonnie and Clyde review. According to most of the accounts I’ve found, Kael was done with romance by this point, and devoted to her daughter, Gina. (Gina was born in 1948, and some people have speculated that Kael’s attachment to her was smothering, controlling, even “imprisoning.”) Kael lived on Central Park West during this period and hosted parties for her chosen circle of associates, most of whom were male. These eventually became known as “the Paulettes,” an obviously derogatory term which I will keep in quotes.

“The Paulettes” (the males ones) included Paul Schrader, Michael Sragow, David Denby, James Wolcott, Roger Ebert, David Edelstein, Joe Morgenstern, Terrence Rafferty, Ray Sawhill, Charles Taylor, and Allen Barra. Kael first met many of them when they were still undergraduates or graduate students, when they reached out to her with their first efforts at film criticism. She took them into her circle, invited them to sit with her at screenings and to attend her soirees. She also advised them and helped advance their careers. Or so the story goes.

Some “Paulettes” have said that they eventually felt the need to break away from Kael (to leave the nest) under their own power, that they felt stifled or dominated by her. Certainly, more than one of these intense “affairs” did end in a severing of all ties between Kael and her acolyte. There’s plenty of evidence of this “syndrome” even in the testimonials of (male) writers who didn’t know Kael personally, but who seem to have gone from fawning adulation to scathing condemnation. The amount of hostility directed at Kael on the Internet isn’t particularly surprising, but it even shows up in some of the reviews and retrospectives that appeared in 2011, with the release of Kellow’s biography and The Age of Movies (a huge collection of Kael’s essays). Kael’s legacy is a complicated one, and it seems to include a disproportionate amount of anger and resentment.

David Denby is one “Paulette” whose break with Kael was acrimonious, and in his New Yorker recollections (October 20th 2003), he referred to the Kael circle as a “cult that never admitted its existence, a circle that never discussed its exclusions.”

[F]or many of us, her tossed out judgments on movies and books, and particularly, the remarks aimed at us, kindly or razor-edged, were accepted as a pure expression of spirit—an authentic, spontaneous creation. People sought her praise so energetically because there was little chance that she would ever give it out of politeness. And when it arrived it was enthralling. Literally so—some people became addicted to it and belonged to her forever.

James Wolcott also wrote a critical piece for Vanity Fair about his apprenticeship with Kael, but by the time of his book, Lucking Out, he seemed to have gotten over it. My guess is that, as is often the case with “cults,” it was up to the individual members how much they submitted to “groupthink.” In the above-cited piece, Denby presents a curious paradox:

She never pretended that she was objective or above the fray, and she refused to place her opinions on the table as just another view. She insisted that she was right about everything, and you would be right, too, someday, if you worked like hell and stayed loose… It wasn’t discipline but freedom of the most flagrant kind that Pauline demanded, license, with quick penalties (her scorn, followed by group ridicule) for a mistake.

Every tight-knit group has the potential to become cultish; but it also presents an opportunity for its members to find their own freedom by breaking from it. (I speak from personal experience.) How much a group’s visible leader is aware of this potential—and how much they may subtly encourage such “breakaways”—is notoriously hard to say. But if there’s one thing Kael’s whole literary style and personality seemed to have been opposed to, it’s slavish devotion.

By the time Kael discovered me (2000) it was too late for her to do much to help my career, so I escaped the fate of becoming one of Kael’s “Paulettes” by about ten years. But even if we had connected ten years earlier, I doubt I’d have met the necessary criteria. Maybe that was one of the things she liked about me (my prose, I mean), that, even as I was doing my best imitation of Kaelspeak, I was openly defying her jurisdiction over my judgments. My love letter contained barbs, as well as roses.

As she was to the other “Paulettes,” Kael acted for me as a sort of psychic/literary mother, and a male child must always break loose from his mother in the end to become autonomous and whole. (Either that or he remains a momma’s boy.) Developing a literary style—an identity or “voice” as a writer—is like finding a city to live in: there are good points and bad points.

My experience as an adolescent reading Kael was of having my opinions about movies subtly altered by her lucid critiques; this was probably only the tip of an iceberg, and the degree to which Kael influenced me at an unconscious level is, by definition, unknown, and that much more profound because unconscious. It’s doubtful if I would have developed such an enduring passion for (obsession with) movies if I hadn’t read Kael at the age I did. She licensed an obsession, blessing my relationship with movies—my self-engineered movie autism—even as I entered all the way into it. And, like a possessive mother, she infected me with an impossibly high standard for intimacy and engagement. Movies were like sex for me; they may have even seemed better than sex, or at least safer. They offered the excitement, the thrill, and the immersion, without the messiness and discomfort of exposure, the dreaded aftermath. The only catch was they weren’t “real.”

It’s perhaps no wonder that people found it so upsetting when Kael’s judgment was “off” (i.e., didn’t agree with their own). Her prose invites such intimacy that disagreement can be like hearing one’s lover moaning someone else’s name in mid-conjuctio. The spell is broken so violently that it’s like a betrayal—the primal split reoccurring.

 

*

In Brian Kellow’s biography, he quotes a eulogy given at Kael’s memorial service by her daughter, Gina:

Pauline’s greatest weakness, her failure as a person, became her great strength, her liberation as a writer and critic. She truly believed that what she did was for everyone’s good, and that because she meant well, she had no negative effects. She refused any consideration of that possibility and she denied any motivations or personal needs. . . . This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice. She turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.

It is an odd equation to make between a lack of introspection and “an honest voice” (Gina seems to be equating insensitivity with fearlessness), because my experience is exactly the reverse. And if writing doesn’t allow for a deepening of self-awareness, what’s it good for? With her strange choice of words, Gina seems to have been implying—consciously or not, but certainly discreetly—the opposite of what she said: that Kael’s “liberation” as a writer couldn’t be separated from her liberation as a human being, in ever-deepening relation to other human beings, and that both could only continue so long as there was a deepening of self-awareness. Is there such a thing as a great writer—or a great critic—who lacks introspection? I don’t see how, and I’m reasonably sure Kael would have agreed, at least at one time.

But then, I only really knew her through her writings, which were, as she acknowledged, “her story.”

 

Lost in the Dark

“What is getting older if it isn’t learning more ways that you’re vulnerable?”
—Pauline Kael, 1989 review of Casualties of War

Kael’s last written words for The New Yorker (1994’s “The Movie Lover”) were: “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” In the acknowledgments to Deeper into Movies, Kael wrote, “I would feel a fake if I dedicated a book to anyone, because I know I write because I love trying to figure out what I feel and what I think about what I feel, and why.” Another way of saying this is that Kael wrote to figure out why she wrote—which may be the only honest reason for writing anything.

Kael was notorious for never going back on any of her judgments about a movie and for never seeing a movie twice. The latter claim is demonstrably false, since Kael admits to seeing McCabe & Mrs. Miller a second time (to make sure it was as good as she thought it was) and having seen Taxi Driver without the musical score (at a private screening) and then later with. That she never changed her mind about a movie seems to be accurate, however; or that if she did, she never admitted it. Kael scorned “saphead objectivity” in a critic, but she also seemed to believe—talked and wrote as if—her judgment was the only correct one. As Gina said at a memorial tribute to her mother, “Her inflexibility pleased her. She was right—and that was it.” Changing her mind about a movie would be tantamount to admitting she’d been wrong, which would mean acknowledging she could be wrong again. To a large extent the urgency, immediacy, and power of her critical voice depended on the absolute certainty—the inflexibility—of her present judgment.

There’s a paradox here, because, as already mentioned, Kael’s style of writing was one of self-discovery: she didn’t know what she thought and felt about a movie until she wrote it down. Yet once she had written it down, that was it. It was as if she wrote herself into being and both the writing and the beingness were set in stone thereafter. To change her perspective, even a little bit, would have meant undoing the past—to deconstruct and undermine her “memoirs” would have been akin to revealing them as the products of a lie.

For Kael to change her mind she would have had to rewrite her past. The fact that she refused to edit or alter her old reviews in any way because she wanted them to accurately represent her original impressions is reasonable and right; but that she felt the need to continue to hold those views and to defend her original impressions is something else altogether. It meant becoming confined—imprisoned—to a false identity built from words and phrases, opinions and judgments.

Even as I wrote this piece (originally back in 2013 as a chapter in Seen & Not Seen), I found my feelings about Kael were changing, both subtly and drastically, through the process of writing. My words and sentences kept undoing themselves until by the end I didn’t know what my opinion of Kael was. I was unable to have a clear perspective on her, because she was too deeply entangled with my own psychic formation, my development as a writer. It felt unsafe, forbidden, to admit that I might have been wrong about her or that I might have been deceived or negatively influenced by her writing in some way. And yet, I know this is unavoidably the case, because it’s true of everything in my past.

Confronting the original sin of projected imagery—the psychic mother lode—is like pulling the main plug-in to the Matrix; it’s the microchip that holds the whole circuit board together. Facing off with the movie dominatrix—General Kael, the high priestess of trash and art, my fairy godmother of phantasy—felt a lot like putting my soul in peril.

My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that this was also the peril of Pauline, a peril which she faced on a daily basis and which she used writing—among other things—to rescue herself from. But like I say, it’s only a guess.

Every artist is attempting the same thing: to discover and express what’s inside them that’s unique and to individuate from the collective that spawned them. The undisclosed goal of the individuation process is to become a “star,” not in the movie sense of being adored by the masses, but in the sense of becoming an individual source of light, complete unto oneself, a “creator.”

Pauline Kael was an artist before she was a critic. Because her artistry went into criticism, she may have eventually undermined her creative process, that of breaking down her own resistances and making the unconscious conscious, let the chips fall where they must, judgment be damned. Or maybe not. Film criticism only seems less creative than fiction writing (or filmmaking) because it’s less obviously imaginative—because it doesn’t conjure images from the unconscious but refers to already conjured ones. But whatever the genre, every sentence tells a story.

Imagination isn’t only necessary to express one’s unconscious life but also to discover what’s in there to be expressed. It requires imagination to even recognize that creative potential is there to be expressed. Kael recognized potential in filmmakers, sometimes far beyond their own capacity to recognize it (or at least to discover and express it). I think, now, that she also fell short of recognizing and of owning her own potential. Her frustration and disappointment with film artists and their work was perhaps at least partly an unconscious expression of her frustration with herself. On the other hand, her delight when that inner light did come through in others fired her own creative expression as an artist-critic, causing her writing, for a brief while, to shine.

Like an infant star flashing its tiny light across endless darkness, seeking a home that no longer existed, Kael signaled furiously for a response, any response. The intensity of that signal fueled my own determination to shine, to express all of me at whatever the cost, to signal back to a fellow traveler. I responded to Kael not just because we shared a passion for movies (movies were the least of it), but because we were lost in the same darkness.

A longer and more autobiographical version of this essay first appeared in Seen & Not Seen: Confessions of a Movie Autist.

A second part of this series, “Kael Kael Bang Bang: The Pauline Kael/Clint Eastwood Secret Wars” will appear shortly.

Jasun Horsley is an existential detective, cultural commentator, and author of several books, including The Secret Life of Movies, Seen & Not Seen, Dark Oasis, Prisoner of Infinity, and The Vice of Kings. He hosts a weekly podcast called The Liminalist, and runs a thrift store with his wife in Canada. His website is https://auticulture.com/

 
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