From Film Quarterly, Winter 2022, Volume 76, Number 2
You know the feeling. You have lovingly dedicated a part of your day to uninterruptedly watching a film, but sometime before it is over you realize you haven’t been watching it. You try, but your body eventually succumbs to an uncontrollable somnolence. You doze off a few times, perhaps even fall completely asleep. Maybe a snore wakes you up and now you are trying to catch up on what you’ve missed. By now, of course, you are no longer the model spectator you had wanted to be.
As Jean Ma breathtakingly demonstrates in At the Edges of Sleep: Moving Images and Somnolent Spectators, all is not lost for the sleepy spectator. Throughout her book, she contends not only that somnolence is a part of spectatorship, but that film theory should take it seriously and wrestle with it—and, finally, that it may even be a desirable form of spectatorship. In fact, somnolence may be exactly what a film intends to create in its viewers, conjuring the sleepy experience as a respite from the 24/7 capitalist regimen of productivity, offering them an opportunity to claim autonomy over the film’s intentions.
Such is the case with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, an installation commissioned for the International Film Festival Rotterdam of 2018 that, as its title implies, invited viewers to sleep. The setup consisted of a single large circular screen and eight bunk beds spread out across the main floor of a dark venue. On the screen played a twenty-hour compilation of archival footage from Amsterdam’s Eye Filmmuseum and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. Patrons, coming and going at will, could view the continuous screening much like gallery visitors—or like spectators in the early years of cinema, as Ma notes. However, to attend the full screening, spectators needed to book a bed in advance, from which to view the film’s sleep-inducing images. Overnight guests were then invited to record their experiences in a sort of communal dream journal. Challenging common sense, the work suggests that, for Apichatpong, sleep creates rather than hinders action and signification. An image of a book cover featuring two photos, one on top of the other. The top image is of the ocean and sky, bisected by the horizon and framed by tree branches. The bottom image is a man asleep on a bed. Text below reads At the Edges of Sleep Moving Images and Somnolent Spectators Jean Ma.
For Ma, to engage in Apichatpong’s kind of drowsy spectatorship is to liberate oneself from the directives of the text and its systems of meaning. By opening unpredictable fissures—narrative, aesthetic, logical, and chronological, to name a few—somnolence demands a subjective, individualized suturing that contradicts the model of the powerless spectator. Underscoring an affinity between sleeping and filmgoing, the spectator occupies a narrow state between wakefulness and sleep—awake enough to watch, but somnolent enough to be taken by the film—or, as Ma suggests, at the edges of sleep. In other words, in the preferred state of spectatorship, somnolence is, in many respects, not avoided but induced by cinema. For psychoanalytic film theory, the state of watching is akin to a psychic regression during which spectators fully submit to the images unfolding before them—a process that engenders identification and, thus, pleasure. What happens, then, when spectators fall asleep, effectively escaping the reach of arguably the most robust spectatorship theories to date? Have they also freed themselves from the threat of the apparatus, or have they fallen deeper into a regressive state?
If film theory has employed such a construct in order to critique the narcotic or sedative effects of filmgoing, Ma puts forth the argument that film theoreticians “need not automatically call for the corrective of a more critically awakened viewing practice” (125). The stated goal here is to emancipate the sleepy spectator “from a recuperative logic that insists upon critical vigilance as its highest priority” (128). As it turns out, to sleep—or to linger at the edges of sleep—is to reclaim one’s autonomy as a spectator, to reconfigure the terms of spectatorship, and to selectively, even critically, engage with the cinematic experience.
The gist and genius of At the Edges of Sleep lie in its paradigm-shifting reconfiguration of spectatorship to accommodate the somnolent viewer, more grounded in phenomenology than in psychoanalysis or cognitivism. In Ma’s formulation of spectatorship, the text and the circumstances of reception are key components. Central to her endeavor is the figure of Apichatpong as filmmaker, visual artist, and theorist of sleepy spectatorship, persistently engaging with it across his work and even, on several occasions, equating cinema to sleeping. For Ma, there is no better interlocutor on sleep than Apichatpong, and there is no better framework for analyzing his oeuvre than that of sleep.
The book’s unconventional structure—eleven short chapters that overlap in multiple ways—allows for a highly rewarding reading experience. Passages will seem familiar and innovative at the same time, unexpectedly speeding up or slowing down, sometimes cutting off soon after an engrossing crescendo. As if speaking to the reader in short breaths, Ma shapes the book in such a way that it bears, in the author’s words, “the imprint of sleep” (17). Its narrative spirals out and away from SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL—a fitting and fascinating starting point—but then returns to other works by Apichatpong, addressing and uncovering his multichannel installations, short and feature films, fiction and nonfiction, narrative and experimental works, and moving beyond him.
In the first of the book’s detours away from Apichatpong, Ma recovers different representations, articulations, and incorporations of sleep throughout cinematic history, highlighting the (somewhat surprising) ubiquity of sleeping characters in the medium. More than a motif, sleep has been employed as a narrative and aesthetic device, as in several films by George Méliès, such as The Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship (1905) and A Grandmother’s Story (1908); the prelude to Edwin S. Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman (1903); Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939); and Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). In Ma’s words, the abundance of examples highlights the “oneiric properties of the filmic image, its operation according to another order and logic” (61–62), and how sleep becomes a portal for boundless narrative and aesthetic explorations of alternative realities.
In her analysis of Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015), whose narrative centers on a makeshift clinic hosting Thai soldiers affected by a mysterious epidemic of sleeping, Ma demonstrates how Apichatpong goes against these traditions. Here, as is the case of many of his films and installations, scenes of sleep do not lead to renditions of dreams or alternative reality. Instead, the opacity of the sleeping body highlights those aspects of human experience that remain inaccessible and unknowable to cinema and to the viewer. Blurring the boundaries between consciousness and sleep, Apichatpong revels not only in the narrative and aesthetic possibilities of sleep, but also in its effects on the spectator.
Sleep multiplies in other functions throughout Apichatpong’s films. In the ambitious multichannel installation Primitive (2009), a science-fiction premise makes room for documentary images of young men in military garb sleeping inside a red-tinted podlike spaceship. As Ma points out, those images are awash in political registers that must remain obscure under the despotic Thai regime: sleep here stands in for a place of vulnerability and dispossession that recalls the latest coup to have succeeded in the nation. Elsewhere, such as in Apichatpong’s Blissfully Yours (2002) and Tropical Malady (2004), Ma recognizes sleep as giving rise to queer modes of intimacy, enabling characters to engage in nonnormative relations. In the three-channel installation Teem (2007), the filmmaker captures his then-partner, sleeping, with an ever-moving digital camera—a choice that resonates with Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963). These moments prompt Ma to draw inspired parallels between Apichatpong’s films and those of Tsai Ming-liang, positioning the two filmmakers as counterparts in their explorations of sleep in queer and alternative cinemas.
Such likeness is not limited to these filmmakers’ strictly cinematic endeavors. Four years before Apichatpong’s SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, Tsai launched Stray Dogs at the Museum, an exhibition including takes and outtakes from his feature film Stray Dogs (2013) spread across multiple channels and floors in the Museum of the National Taipei University of Education, in Taiwan. Across the large exhibition hall, viewers piled up in different states of sleep, producing alongside the projected images a “convivial disarray and colorful patchwork of sleeping bags and blankets” (196).
Like Apichatpong’s installation, Tsai’s Stray Dogs at the Museum (2014) also promotes somnolence, making it (nearly) impossible for viewers to remain awake. Both installations call up other notorious works such as Christian Marclay’s daylong The Clock (2010), Douglas Gordon’s twenty-four-hour-long 24 Hour Psycho (1993), and Gregory Markopoulos’s eighty-hour-long Eniaios (2004). But in addition to merely being too long to be sustained by any one viewer in one sitting, they accommodate their audiences in spaces that welcome sleep. This approach sets those installations alongside a cinema of slowness—as their inactivity rejects the accelerated rhythms of capitalist production—but also apart from it, for, as Ma puts it, slow cinema still “turns to a familiar ideal, that of the active spectator, and advocates for a return to concentration as a privileged form of attention” (181). Highlighting such distinction, Ma names Apichatpong’s and Tsai’s preferred format of public, often overnight, screenings that incorporate sleep and actively disengage viewers’ attention “circadian cinemas.” Compellingly, she contends that circadian cinema “makes a bid for the survival of cinema as a communal experience … without prescribing in advance the relational forms this experience can assume, in full recognition of the ephemerality and unpredictability threading through the social horizon of spectatorship” (208). In other words, in the current crisis of theatrical exhibition, these works can save cinema. But in order to fully appreciate their function and effect, there also needs to be a reexamination of spectatorship, both in theory and in practice.
In what she calls “a little history of sleeping at the movies,” evidence for the need to reexamine normative spectatorship appears in an astounding and unlikely collection of Weegee’s photographs taken inside New York movie theaters in the 1940s and 1950s. Ma embraces Weegee’s images portraying a motley audience in different stages of waking as documentary evidence of a wide array of spectatorial states and positions. Indeed, Weegee’s photographs anticipate the phenomenological turn in film theory and film history’s interest in various sites of reception. And, in the diversity of bodies they reveal, they highlight the liveness of the movie theater as a space of friction, in which differences of race, class, age, and gender are anything but irrelevant. A generalized uneven distribution of sleep means that different bodies have different needs for sleep in cinema, mimicking social inequities. This is visible in some of these photographs, which recall that theaters once provided a haven for vagrants and cinephiles alike. As Ma points out, the history of film exhibition in the United States is also a history of gentrification, as theaters became increasingly less welcoming for equitable slumber.
Through her focus on somnolence, Ma renders the film audience as a collective, heterogenous group, refocusing on the particularities of the conditions of reception. This, in fact, is crucial and deliberate in the circadian cinemas of Apichatpong, Tsai, and others. Accepting drowsiness as a possible, plausible, and even desirable state in spectatorship means to challenge narrow definitions of reception and to consider new ways of engagement with cinema. As Ma summarizes, “[S]leep does not necessarily diminish the experience of a work, but can deepen the impact that it makes, strengthen its claim on the viewer’s memory, and forge a more intimate bond” (174).
Ma’s readers will be encouraged to revel at the edges of sleep and to allow Apichatpong’s trademark sign-off, when introducing screenings of his films, to echo: “I hope you sleep with good dreams.”
Bruno Guaraná: How did you become interested in the study of somnolence in cinema, both in its representation and as a phenomenon in spectators?
Jean Ma: I can point very directly to the genesis of my book: it was Apichatpong’s 2015 feature film Cemetery of Splendor. The film arrived in San Francisco’s theaters in the winter of 2016, at a time when I was working on a paper on the broad theme of slow aesthetics. While I had long been a fan of Apichatpong’s work, Cemetery of Splendor was especially captivating. I kept rewatching it during its theatrical run and thinking about it—replaying its hypnotic images and sounds, but also puzzling over how it evoked so much more than it actually showed. The persistent sense of something more than what immediately meets the eye and ear stems in large part from the film’s narrative focus on sleep as a physical state as well as a metaphor signaling the unsayable.
On many occasions Apichatpong has referred to the political significance of Cemetery of Splendor’s story of a group of soldiers afflicted by an unexplained sleeping sickness, and to the film as his response to increasing authoritarianism and censorship in Thailand. But at the same time, it would be wrong to take his comments as a prescription reducing the meaning of sleep to the negative force of repression and silencing; rather, the film struck me as a prompt to consider sleep as an expressive resource and a site of possibility. In not only Cemetery but also other films by Apichatpong—where characters are constantly dozing off or waking up—sleep stands out as a way of accessing other scenes and other times, gesturing to hidden relationships and multiple stories.
Guaraná: How did this inspiration shape your book’s innovative structure, split into dual, complementary parts?
Ma: The project developed along two parallel tracks. The first traces and articulates an argument—which emerges throughout Apichatpong’s body of work—for sleep as a vital resource for cinema, whether cinema is understood to consist of representations on the screen, or to consist of the encounter between moving images and viewers. The second turns to a larger set of moving-image works and writings with an analytic eye trained by Apichatpong, building from the premise that his work teaches his audience to see the history of cinema with new eyes attuned to the deeply entrenched affinities between cinema and sleep.
I would be loath to describe this as a book “about” Apichatpong; I would instead call it a directorial monograph that points in many directions. I say this advisedly, acknowledging the charges of traditionalism and narrowness that attach to this genre of academic writing. While I hear the criticisms of those who are over auteurist methodologies, my approach in this instance was not to lay aside the monograph formula, but rather to try to engage it irreverently—pushing at its limitations, breaking it apart, and opening it out toward plural methodologies.
I see this approach as a way of drawing out Apichatpong’s impact as a theorist and thinker as much as a filmmaker and artist whose insights could be put into action and applied to other objects of analysis. I remember a conversation between Kong Rithdee and Arnika Fuhrmann in which they pointed out that Apichatpong is a theorist of moving images even though he has rarely been engaged as such. That observation is quite relevant to recent debates about who is included in and excluded from the canon of film theory, and so it lodged in my mind and influenced the final shape of the project.
Guaraná: You uncover an impressive number of scenes of sleep throughout film history to illustrate how ubiquitous they in fact have been. Why do they seem to recur so often? How have sleeping bodies functioned throughout film history?
Ma: Early in the research, it became apparent to me that as soon as you start to look for sleep in film history, you find it everywhere, starting with the earliest motion pictures. Many examples in the category of trick films begin with a figure who lies down and goes to sleep; think also of the many shorts made by George Méliès that have the word “dream” or “nightmare” in their title. Along with relating these filmic sleepers to contemporary visual media like serial comics and print illustrations, the fourth chapter identifies a particular cinematic coding of this figure as a hinge between competing realities—ordinary versus fantastic, earthbound versus oneiric. The sleeper goes under in order to awaken to another reality. A phrase from the poet Anne Carson nicely encapsulates the way these sleepers embody passages or movements across discontinuous, splintered spaces; sleep, as she puts it, is “an exit that is also an entrance.”
This function of the sleeping body persists throughout the history of filmmaking, whether in avant-garde works like Meshes of the Afternoon, where Maya Deren plays a woman who, like the sleepers of early cinema, is plagued by false awakenings; or in commercial narrative films like The Wizard of Oz, in which the journey from Kansas to Oz requires a loss of consciousness; or even in the action film Inception [Christopher Nolan, 2010], where sleeping bodies function as anchoring points in a complex structure of nested narratives. Or think of the coding of the sleeping body in relation to time travel and parallel universes in the science-fiction genre, in which characters sleep in order to awaken to alternative futures.
Guaraná: How does Apichatpong’s wide-ranging body of work break with these depictions of sleep in film history?
Ma: Apichatpong’s films and installations reference the ways the sleeping body has functioned throughout film history. But at the same time, they break from familiar representational modes in their refusal to give visual form to the dreamworlds accessed by the sleeper. Given how frequently his characters drift off to sleep, the absence of conventionally defined dream sequences in his filmography is striking. His work therefore requires a different accounting of how sleep destabilizes reality and disorients perception, and this is provided in my chapters that discuss it in detail.
Guaraná: In addition to images of sleep, you are also concerned with the somnolence induced in spectators by works such as Apichatpong’s, describing an arena of “narcotic reception.” What do you mean by that term?
Ma: What I just said about film history also applies to theoretical discussions of spectatorship, in which sleep comes up again and again. At various moments of exploring the specificity of cinema spectatorship and the unique state of consciousness that films seem to induce in their audience, the question arises of whether the viewer is actually awake.
In the second part of the book, I shift from sleep on the screen to sleep as part of the audience’s experience. Here I compose a mapping of what I call the discourse of narcotic reception, pulling together a host of writings that draw a comparison between watching films and going to sleep, or entering into a zone between sleeping and waking. According to this discourse of narcotic reception, which threads through a variety of contexts and voices, the film audience does not merely behold a spectacle, but is also submerged within and altered by it.
I’ll share one citation from the many presented in the book. The curator Iris Barry, who founded the film program at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, contrasts film with drama, writing that
[t]o go to the pictures is to purchase a dream. To go to the theatre is to buy an experience…. We come out of the pictures soothed and drugged like sleepers wakened, having half-forgotten our own existence, hardly knowing our own names. The theatre is a tonic, the cinema a sedative. 1
Narcosis, as an artificially induced sedation, refers to sleep but also to adjacent terms like hypnosis, opiation, and anesthetization. Some writers, such as Siegfried Kracauer, use these terms interchangeably. 2
Guaraná: How do these issues adjacent to narcosis appear in traditional models of film spectatorship?
Ma: Notwithstanding the differences of perspective that constitute the discourse of narcotic reception, it finds its center of gravity in a suspicious view of sleep as a change that brings about a loss of critical faculties, a reduced mode of perceptual and intellectual functioning, and a disarming of the audience’s ability to think and act in the face of the projected image. Sleep becomes a metaphor for a process that the viewer cannot fully control, invoked to support claims about the fundamentally passive and regressive nature of spectatorship. The discourse of narcotic reception finds its most forceful theoretical articulation in the writings of Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz. 3
I trace the connections between their take on spectatorship and the definition of sleep as regression articulated by Sigmund Freud. To reconstruct their dialogue with Freud exposes a psychoanalytic genealogy that complicates prevailing characterizations of apparatus theory—and that also, not incidentally, exerts an enormous influence on twentieth-century understandings of sleep.
Guaraná: Reacting to these models, your approach to Apichatpong as an artist and a theorist reveals the need for a shift in the theorization of sleep. How does that also signal a departure from a traditionally negative understanding of sleep?
Ma: The last word on sleep and spectatorship is not given to the most somnophobic voices in the discourse of narcotic reception. Instead, it is given to those who emphasize the generative role that sleep can play in the audience’s experience, with Apichatpong key among them. For the latter group, sleep raises vital questions about exactly when the viewing experience begins and ends, what the filmgoer contributes to this experience and to the qualities of spectatorial attention.
The final chapters of the book delineate an alternative itinerary of narcotic reception that welcomes sleep as a means of accessing an expansive, open-ended, and porous model of spectatorship. These questions are explored in the writings, commentaries, and moving-image works of Apichatpong, along with those of Abbas Kiarostami (who says that his favorite films are those that allow him a little nap), Raúl Ruiz, Victor Burgin, and Agnès Varda, among others.
In compiling this somnophilic discourse of reception, I was struck that the key voices are those of practitioners of film and moving-image art, as opposed to those of theorists. Their views call to mind a longer history of avant-garde challenges to the norms of aesthetic contemplation that include but also extend beyond cinema, as I address in the first and final chapters. Throughout this history, sleep relates to a divestment from the focused vision and concentrated attentiveness that traditionally have been (and continue to be) prioritized as hallmarks of the aesthetic encounter.
Guaraná: Are there other filmmakers who deal with sleep as richly as Apichatpong?
Ma: While Apichatpong has a lot to say about sleepy spectatorship, I found especially compelling his pursuit of it in a material framework in SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL. It is a work literally designed to put its audience to sleep, therefore putting to the test his theoretical claim that sleep resides at the center of cinema experience—or, as he says even more emphatically, that sleep is cinema. Tsai Ming-liang’s installation Stray Dogs at the Museum likewise scheduled several sleepover events at the filmmaker’s request.
Tsai and Apichatpong are often named together in discussions of so-called slow cinema. A chapter in the first part of the book identifies a consonance in the way they compose scenarios of queer intimacy, weaving together desire and care that center on a sleeping male figure. But these installation works reveal another kind of affinity, one that is explored in my book’s last chapter. This affinity consists in their fluid crossings between the film world and the art world as they forge bodies of work that stretch beyond the art-house feature films for which they are best known to include audiovisual installations, theater, photography, drawing, and experimental forms of filmmaking. These multiple modes of practice do not just proceed in parallel. They cross-fertilize one another, resulting in projects like SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL and Stray Dogs at the Museum, which I place in dialogue through my idea of “circadian cinema.” Other examples of such cross-fertilization can be found in Apichatpong’s Fever Room , a performance involving multiple moving screens, objects, sounds, lights, and vapor instead of people; and Tsai’s Walker series, the last installment of which is Sand , a site-specific installation and film created for an ecological park in Taiwan.
Guaraná: Some of the works you analyze in your book are situated within a traditional theatrical format, but just as many consist of alternative exhibition models such as multichannel video installations. How do exhibition strategies engage with distracted viewers?
Ma: Much of our conversation so far has focused on sleeping in the movie theater. But SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL and Stray Dogs at the Museum are notable for centering sleep as part of the experience of spectators who follow the projected moving image’s circuitous routes beyond the theater, in a contemporary moment defined by what Francesco Casetti calls relocated and mutated cinema. 4 Both of these projects incorporate circadian cycles as part of an experimentation with spatially flexible and temporally dilated exhibition formats.
Sleep figures centrally in the pursuit of new modes of encounter between viewers and projected images and in the reimagination of cinema as a perceptual, corporeal, and social experience. In this respect, these projects challenge a commonplace critical tendency to draw a rigid contrast between the immobility, fixity, and absorption of the theater and the interactive, mobile, and distracted spectatorial practices of the postcinematic era.
Guaraná: How does a somnolent scholar, curator, or critic think and write about the film text to which they have fallen asleep?
Ma: This question came up a few times when I presented material from the book: How can a sleeping viewer possibly make a claim to a spectatorial experience? How can you even say that you watched the film if you were asleep? Perhaps especially for the good sleepers, who can quickly fall into a heavy and impenetrable slumber, this is an obvious question to ask. I am, sadly, not one of those lucky people. For me, falling and staying asleep is a struggle.
Usually this is a source of major stress, but when I spent the night at SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, it became a source of pleasure. The gaps in my sleep became opportunities for the sounds and images to penetrate, and an interesting interplay between the pictures on the screen and the pictures in my dreams came about, as the flux of sleep and the flow of images tangled together. The project builds into its design a point often made by sleep scientists and perhaps too often overlooked in commonly held definitions of “good” sleep: that sleep is not a matter of just hitting an off switch, but rather a complex process marked by dynamic phases, rhythms, and interruptions. And despite the breaks in my sleep, I woke up feeling very well rested.
SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL was amazing to experience, as I describe in detail in one of the chapters. I think of that section of the book as my auto-theory of sleepy spectatorship. And in fact, some of my best memories of sleeping at the movies are of periods of extremely disordered sleep—namely, at film festivals I have traveled far to attend, when I am not only dealing with jet lag, but also in a state of total circadian disorientation as a result of spending all day in dark theaters. Festival screenings have a way of blurring together, with the exception of those films and moments that somehow manage to sear into the mind; among the latter for me are some films that I watched in pieces when the urge to nap became irresistible. Bookended by blankness, those pieces stand out in my memory with a special mystery and vibrancy.
If I had a better, less neurotic relationship with sleep, this book probably would not have been written. I have a habit of eagerly reading every piece of sleep advice that I come across, every report on a new gadget or tool or hack promising improved rest, and at a certain point it became clear that these [reports] were coming out more rapidly than ever before. While thinking about sleep in relation to cinema, I was also tracking this emergent obsession with sleep in contemporary life, one in which I fully take part, and this became another layer in the project. I attempt to take the pulse of what I see as a major shift in conceptions of sleep in the present moment, one that breaks from long-standing understandings of it in the modern era. It is because of this shift that the book snapped into focus.
- Iris Barry, Let’s Go to the Movies (New York: Payson and Clarke, 1926), 31.
- Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 159–60.
- See Jean-Louis Baudry, “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in the Cinema” (1975), in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 104–26; and Christian Metz, “The Fiction Film and Its Spectator: A Metapsychological Study,” New Literary History 8, no. 1 (Autumn 1976): 75–105.
- Francesco Casetti, The Lumière Galaxy: Seven Key Words for the Cinema to Come (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
BOOK DATA Jean Ma, At the Edges of Sleep: Moving Images and Somnolent Spectators, Oakland: University of California Press, 2022. $34.95 paper; open access e-book. 280 pages.
The open access ebook of At the Edges of Sleep is available here.
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