P:O.V. No.6 - The Art of Film Editing

The urban inferno. On the æsthetics of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver

Martin Weinreich

In the USA of the 1970's, a new generation of film directors emerges, generally designated New Hollywood Cinema, The American New Wave, or The Brat Pack.[1]A common trait shared by these directors - Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese, and others - is that they all achieve an extension and vitalization of the language of film by making personal and modernistic films. As opposed to the American filmmakers of earlier times, they have university degrees and possess knowledge of film theory and the film traditions of other countries. They are particularly inspired by the French New Wave[2 ]and the films made by this movement in the sixties, with their modernist qualities.

Modernism is a paradigm which by now carries a lot of different connotations, within the sphere of literature as well as film. Thus, in film history, both the German expressionist films (Murnau, Wiene, and others), the Russian montage films (Eisenstein, Vertov, and others), and the surrealist films, for instance Buñuel, are comprised under the designation modernistic. But most often, however, the expression is used in connection with the experimentalist European films of the 60's and 70's, such as Jean- Luc Godard's A Bout de Souffle (Breathless), 1960, Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up, 1966, and Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, 1960. These films care less about a progressing continuity and are often experimental and fragmented in form. In contrast to Hollywood's traditional focus on outer tension, the European films dare to take as their starting point the psychological and existential problems of the individual in a modern world.

When the American directors of the 70's begin to make films inspired by modern European films, their productions are financed by the big Hollywood companies, which is why there is not much room for the formal experimentation that is present in their European precursors. The films are - as is the case for commercial films in general - still oriented towards an audience; they don't have room for wild stylistic and narrative experiments, such as intellectual montage[3], found in European modernist films. But the American films of the 70s still deal with modernist problems.

Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, which won the 1976 Palme d 'Or at Cannes, is one of the finest examples of this subdued modernism which we find in the American movies of the 70s. The film was written by Paul Schrader[4 ]and stars Robert de Niro - an actor Scorsese has worked with often - in the all- important lead role as the taxi driver Travis Bickle.

In this essay I intend to look at urbanity, modernity, and modernism in Taxi Driver. My focus will be on how the problems of modernity are expressed through the aesthetics of the film. I will look at the use of style, narration, and editing in an expressive and modernistic context.

Urbanity, Modernity, and Modernism

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Taxi Driver is a city film. It is about the city and human existence in the city - about how the city and the culture influence human life. The cityscape of Taxi Driver is not idyllic; it is a city dominated by unrest, noise, dirt and suffering, by a disintegrating culture. A city in which man is lonely and alienated. A city where nature is absent. A city modeled on Babylon rather than heavenly Jerusalem. The city as an inferno.

The city is the birthplace of modernity. By modernity I understand the historical upheavals that via industrialization and urbanization have taken place since the mid- 18th century. Modernity belongs to an epoch. But at the same time modernity is a standard. Baudelaire[5] defines modernity as the transitory and fleeting, which is opposed to the eternal and constant. Terms that could just as well be applied to the city. Modernity can be viewed as a process which breaks forth and shows itself in urban environments. For the city is before anything else the environment of the modern, and as such a consequence of modernity. Urbanity and modernity are intertwined notions. But modernity is also bound up with the break- down of values in general, with Nietzsche's negation of God. The city is transitory, the place of the ever- changing. And in an unstable world stability is absent. The individual has to create a meaning himself. God is dead, and the only certainty is uncertainty. Taxi Driver is part of modernity. It is about experiences of modernity, about the existence of the human subject in the modern city.

That Taxi Driver is set in the city and deals with city existence is no coincidence. The individual in the city is something Scorsese has portrayed throughout his career. Apart from Taxi Driver, especially his first film Who's That Knocking at my Door (1967), the breakthrough film Mean Streets (1973), the boxing- film Raging Bull (1980), and After Hours (1986), a film about the city as a Kafkaesque labyrinth, all deal with city themes. Scorsese's business is the conflict between the individual and urbanity, modernity, and the loss of values. To delineate these themes his films must necessarily take place in the city after it has become modern.

It is important here to distinguish between modernity and modernism. Modernism is a concept which, with its "- ism" suffix, is a typological classification directed entirely towards products with an aesthetic dimension. This is a complete opposite of the notion of modernity, which primarily designates a period in time. It is possible to discern ties between modernism and modernity; modernism is about experiences of modernity, such as urbanity, industry, and technology. It is a characteristic of modernism that it takes conditions of uncertainty and asymmetry seriously. Reality is perceived as split, man is alienated and objectified. From these conditions the necessity arises for the modern individual to fill the void and create a new order. Modernism is further defined by its idioms, in that it ordinarily attempts to describe the problems of modernity in its aesthetics and form. One definition of modernism is found in Brian McHale's book Postmodernist Fiction.[6] Here modernism and postmodernism are compared. The author's main point is that what separates the two types of fiction is the fact that modernism utilizes themes and strategies to raise epistemological questions about the meaning of life, and our understanding of the world. In contrast to this, postmodernism raises ontological questions such as: which world is this, and which of my selves is in this world? In Taxi Driver a lot of epistemological questions are asked through the main character Travis, such as, How should I understand reality, What's my role in it, and What's the meaning of life? The pivotal point of the film concerns existing in the world, which, according to McHale's theories, makes it a good example of a modernist film.

The homogeneous and the heterogeneous

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The main character of Taxi Driver finds himself in a city, a country, an environment to which he feels he doesn't belong. The film depicts Travis' experience of the world via its modes of expression, such as narrativity, cinematography, and sound.

The city as we see it in Taxi Driver contains all the negative aspects of the modern city: noise, chaos, restlessness, poverty, loneliness, the mass of people, and rapidity. This is shown already in the first image of the film, where Travis emerges from a cloud of smoke, as from an inferno. Typical qualities of modernity such as fragmentation, emptiness, alienation, and senselessness are in the city as depicted in the film.

Like the city, Travis' apartment is not a nice place to be. It is small, ugly, and claustrophobic, with kitchen, living room, and bedroom contained in the same room. It is messy and city noises are continually heard, passing cars and especially fighting neighbours. Travis cannot find peace even in his own home, the city intrudes even here. The windows are barred, and Travis is as imprisoned by his problems and thoughts inside as he is outside.

The same is true of the culture of the city, which is also negatively described. It consists to a large degree of crime, drugs, prostitution, insanity, porn theaters, violence and suchlike. There is the constant, pervading noise of arguments, sirens, and honking cars. The police are conspicuously absent.

Characteristically, the family, that pillar of culture and society, is also disintegrating. Not a single ordinary family is present in the film. Iris (Jodie Foster) has run away from home at the age of eleven, and Travis is totally cut off from any family relation, excepting a few lying postcards he occasionally mails to his parents. Culture is disintegrating. The symbolic order, that which holds culture together, has become destabilised. Laws, norms, and values are disappearing. Travis' actions are an attempt at creating order, making a difference in a world where everything has become undifferentiated.

Georges Bataille[7 ]contrasts two concepts: the heterogeneous order and the homogeneous order. The heterogeneous order refers to uselessness, dissipation, the irrational, kinds of sexual ecstasy. Within the heterogeneous order intensity is pursued, the intensity which is reached through the crossing of cultural boundaries, sexual perversions, and exploration of limits as for instance playing with death. The opposite of this is the homogeneous order. This is the edifying order, where things are produced. Here logic is subordinated to utility. In Taxi Driver, culture as we see it in the streets, has gone from a homogeneous to a heterogeneous order. This is a development that Travis does not like.

Aesthetics, narration, and expression

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The protagonist and narrator of the film is Travis. We hear him narrate (writing his diary[8]) and only very rarely is the camera in a room where he is not. In fact, this happens only twice[9], in a scene showing Sport (Harvey Keitel) dealing drugs from his doorstep, and in the scene of Sport seducing Iris. And these two sequences could be construed as happening solely in Travis' imagination. The urban inferno is really a personal inferno.

So the camera follows Travis, he and his perceptions are important. An example of this is the first scene in the night cafeteria, when Travis joins the other taxi drivers. The whole room is shown in total, but when Travis sits down on a chair he is followed by the camera, which doesn't zoom in. It merely tilts half a meter downwards, because he is sitting down. He controls the camera. The film shows us his very subjective view of the city, and how he is obsessed and hurt by it. We perceive what he perceives, his experiences become ours. And the music, the colours, and the restless, floating camera join forces to construct an image of the city, seen through him, as hell on earth. This is established right at the beginning, for the film opens with a close- up of Travis' face, right after we have seen the taxi emerge from the smoke. Thereafter there is a point- of- view shot[10] though the windshield, and we see what he sees. But the city we see is in slow motion, it is unreal and dreamlike. It is not the real city we see, but Travis' experience of the city that is illustrated. The city of the film works expressively as an image of Travis' mounting paranoia.

The aesthetics and narrativity of the film rather resembles a dream. In general the editing is slow, with a lot of dissolves instead of cuts. This dream- like quality is something that Scorsese purposely aims at. He explains:[11]

Much of Taxi Driver arose from my feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state, or like taking dope. And the shock of walking out of the theatre into broad daylight can be terrifying. I watch movies all the time and I am also very bad at waking up. The film was like that for me -that state of being almost awake.

In the film this is advanced by its constant blend of the very realistic and the expressive. The film is narrated both with a camera outside of Travis, and a camera within Travis, but both pass on Travis' experiences and feeling to the viewer. About this Kolker writes:[12]

... the world created by Taxi Driver exists only within its own space, a space which is formed by the state of mind of its central actor, in that strange double perception in which the viewer sees the world the way the character sees it and sees the character himself, thereby permitting both proximity and separation.

In a way the film is very realistic, it hasn't been shot in any artificial settings, but in the real world. When you watch it you get the feeling that the city life it depicts is real. But at the same time, the realistic ingredients, such as the taxi in the first scene of the film, work expressively, as it runs in slow motion. From the presentation of the taxi a cut is made, as mentioned above, to the eyes of Travis watching the street. The eyes are filmed at normal speed. They are looking back and forth, as if they are seeing something. In the next shot we see what Travis has been watching, the street, recorded in slow motion. This could indicate that what Travis sees is what is shown in slow motion, but it is not quite that simple. For the taxi in the first shot was also in slow motion, and often Travis is seen moving at that speed, perhaps to emphasize a contrast to the other people, who move at ordinary speed, as for instance in the night cafeteria scenes, or perhaps merely to lend an ominous feeling of incidents about to happen in the film.

In Taxi Driver there is both an outer and an inner expression, both an explicit and an implicit narrator, but the point is that the film as a whole, through the editing, is quietly woven together into Travis' personal experience of the city.

In the editing of Taxi Driver a lot of attention is given to P.O.V. The editing is mainly orchestrated through P.O.V. shots with the protagonist Travis as starting point, but a surprising number of P.O.V. shots from the viewpoint of other characters of the film are in evidence. In this film, perception and psyche are bound up with the multitude of the city, connected to modernity's emphasis on the individual's perception and the individual's severance from former social taxonomy. The changing P.O.V.s confuse and enhance the feeling of fragmentation, of paranoia. An example of the changing viewpoint takes place outside the cafeteria, when Travis is about to talk to Wizard. A black man comes walking down the street and stares at Travis, who stares back. In this scene, Scorsese cuts between two different subjective cameras, and the whole thing is in slow motion. After this "evil stare" exchange, it is easy to understand Travis' hatred of "the scum".

Bernard Herrmann's[13] music underscores the feeling of the city as fragmented and threatening. The music abruptly changes from beautiful, lyrical passages, and deep, ominous tones that keep reappearing. It is difficult to explain with words, but the music perfectly models the different themes and sequences of the film. It supports the action and creates a frightening atmosphere of something threatening about to break through to the surface.

Travis in the City

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We do not know much about our protagonist, Travis Bickle. We hear little of his background, who he is and where he is from. Most of the little we hear we are told in the first actual scene of the film, the introductory scene, so to speak, where Travis is looking for work. Here we are told that he is having trouble sleeping at night (an indication of psychological or other problems), that he has been a soldier in Vietnam, that he is prepared to drive anywhere at any time, which gives us the feeling that he has not got much of a social life, something that is confirmed as the action progresses. Later in the film we learn that he has got a family somewhere, but that he is utterly out of contact with them.

Travis becomes a taxi driver, and we quickly learn that he is the epitome of the isolated city- man, lonely and incapable of communicating with the world around him. This is also why he keeps a diary: to have at least somebody to communicate with, even if that is just himself. There are many examples of this lack of ability to communicate, e.g. the scene when he approaches the father figure Wizard for advice, and trouble arises from the fact that they are talking about two different things. All in all, it is not very strange that Wizard at the end of the conversation says "What do I know, I don't even know what you're talking about."

A part of Travis' problem is purely linguistic; in the majority of the longer conversations in the film some linguistic misunderstandings are present. For example, in the introductory scene. Travis does not know what 'moonlighting' means, and in the scene with Betsy in the cafeteria, neither understands what the other means by 'organize'.

As already shown, Travis is a person with severe modernity problems. His loneliness and ostracism are filmically depicted, for instance in the scene with the other taxi drivers and the dialogue- scene with Betsy, in both of which he is sitting alone, with the thick line of a window frame between him and the people he is talking to. It is no accident, either, that in the dialogue scene with Betsy he is practically always shot alone, while she is filmed over his shoulder, so that when he is in the picture, he is alone, but whenever she is visible, there are two persons.

Modernistic aesthetics

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Above I have presented some examples of how the aesthetics of Taxi Driver - with a starting point in the portrayal of Travis' personal experience of the world - are built up around the themes of modernity within the film. It is interesting that the aesthetics of the film, on many levels, more or less explicitly communicate modernity problems. Of course, this is done in a more subdued manner than is the case for instance with Godard, but there are also examples of a more explicit modernism in the aesthetics of Taxi Driver. In closing I will present three examples of how Travis' modernity trouble is described via the editing of the film. The first example is the series of quick, almost rhythmical shots of flashing lights seen after Travis has been thrown out of the campaign office. To fully understand the examples it is necessary to explore the relation in which they appear.

For Travis the world is divided into two groups, "the scum" and "the people". He hates "the scum": the dirt, the whores, the gays. He wants to be what is commonly associated with decent and normal, he wants to belong to "the people". As he says: "I believe that someone should become a person like other people." He tries to fit in with 'the people' by taking Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) out; she works for the presidential candidate Palentine, whose slogan is "We are the people". Travis tells about how he has seen Betsy, and has fallen for her because she is like an angel in all the dirt. Later we see him spying on her, until he is removed by a male campaign worker. The next shot of the film is of a stoplight. Travis cannot get any further; it is understood that his life has become tangled up and that he does not know what to do. He drives around, and at a point he sees a couple kissing and observes them with interest. It is as if Travis thinks to himself, Why can they when I can't? Afterwards he drives on, and there are many quick shots of green traffic lights. We are in his head, in the movie, and while it is not explicitly shown, we and he suspect possibilities in connection with Betsy, if he dares. In this scene it is the editing that illustrates his optimism concerning his project with Betsy.

The next example is the strange dolly movement during the telephone conversation in which Betsy rejects Travis. This, too, must be seen in context.

Travis tries to court Betsy. A complete stranger, he walks into the campaign office and asks her out. All over the office are posters with the slogan "We are the people". And they are the people, as opposed to Travis, who in this scene seems strange and out of place compared with the people in the office. He is not one of 'the people'. This is also why his date with Betsy turns into a failure. He does not know what is expected of him, he has to guess. When he invites her to the cinema, everything goes wrong. He takes her to see a porno movie (some Swedish sexual education film) and she leaves the cinema in anger. Travis does not understand this, as there are many couples in the theater for this film. His standards are different from those of the rest of society. The scene in which he calls Betsy to be unequivocally told that their relationship is over, is a central one. Here the modernity problems are brought forth by not cutting to Travis, which traditionally would be done, but by using the room as a metaphor. The camera shows us his tremendous loneliness. As he speaks on the phone, the camera on a dolly moves sideways and reveals a long, empty hallway. On top of this image we hear Travis' voice as he is being rejected. After a few seconds he hangs up, enters the picture and walks down the hallway. His life is empty, sad, and lonely, like the hallway. It is not because he is very much in love with Betsy that he falls ill and feels even worse after his rejection; rather, it is because he, and the viewer, have realised that he will never become one of 'the people'.

The final example, which is the jump- cut[14] after Travis' job interview at the beginning of the film, is tied to the narrative structure of the film.

Actually the composition of Taxi Driver is rather classical, structured in accordance with the "narrator- model"[15]. Through a tight structure with 'set- up' and 'pay- off' elements the film builds up tension towards the violent climax. There are many examples of this throughout the film, e.g. Travis' exit remark when he leaves the brothel for the first time, and the guard says "come back any time" and Travis answers "I will". Yes indeed!

The film's initial point is when Travis approaches Betsy at the campaign office and asks her out. This is when Travis passes from being a man who observes and senses to one who acts. From here everything progresses, over the break with Betsy, the inspiring meeting with the jealous husband (played by Scorsese himself), the gun purchase, the encounter with Iris, and the shooting of the Afro-American robber in the store, toward the final shoot- out of the film. Thus, the film is epic, containing a beginning, a middle, and an end, but apart from this I also think the film is cyclical. The protagonist ends up where he started, in a taxi making its way through the city, and any belief in a personal development of Travis is illusory. In the rear view mirror all his enemies and problems still lurk. This is driven home as early as one of the first shots of the film, when Travis is walking down the street after his job interview, and a jump- cut is made via a dissolve. This instance of highly untraditional editing lends a feeling of Travis walking and walking without ever getting anywhere. Something he will do throughout the entire film. After the climactic show- down Travis is seemingly restored and proclaimed a hero, but this can only be construed as irony on the part of Scorsese and Schrader. Travis will explode once more, and the film ends where it took off, with a paranoid Travis stuck in a city which he hates.


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Bataille, Georges. Den hovedløse. Århus: Anis, 1984.

Baudelaire, Charles. "Le peintre de la vie moderne,"(1863). Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1982.

Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin. Film Art : An Introduction. (1979). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.

Connelly, Marie Katheryn. Martin Scorsese: An Analysis of His Feature Films, With a Filmography of His Entire Directorial Career. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Compagny, 1993.

Ehrenstein, David. The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1992.

Katz, Ephraim. The Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Keyser, Les.Martin Scorsese. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Kolker, Robert Phillip. A Cinema of Loneliness. Penn, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. 1980. Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Kyndrup, Morten. Det postmoderne - om betydningens forandring i kunst, litteratur, samfund. København: Gyldendal, 1986.

Larsen , Peter Harms. Faktion. København: Amanda, 1990

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1993.

Pedersen, Lars. "Filmen, byen og taxichaufføren," Storbyens rum (særnummer af tværfags skriftsserie Prismer). Århus: Århus Universitet, 1993.

Pye, Michael & Myles, Lynda. The Movie Brats; How the Film Generation Took Over Hollywood. New York: Holt, Reinhardt and Winston, 1979.

Schepelern, Peter (Ed.). Filmleksikon. København: Munksgaard-Rosinante, 1995

Schrader, Poul. Taxi Driver. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1990.

Scorsese, Martin. Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber and Faber, 1989.

Siska, William Charles. Modernism in the Narrative Film: The Art Film as a Genre. New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Stern, Lesly. The Scorsese Connection. London: British Film Institute, 1995.

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[1] For a more thorough discussion of this generation of filmmakers, see Michael Pye and Lynda Myles: The Movie Brats; How the Film Generation Took Over Hollywood (New York 1979).

[2] Term coined by the journalist Françoise Girard, who launched the expression la nouvelle vague in the French newspaper L'Express on August 23rd 1957. The term 'The New Wave' covers a group of rather diverse French film directors, all of whom began making movies at about 1960. They had in common the fact that they all made their debuts at this time, and that they all wished to develop film as an art form under the slogan 'The Camera as Pen'. They wanted to break with the film industry's standardized film language and use the camera as personally as the writer used his pen. Directors generally thought of as belonging to this New Wave include: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Demy.

[3] According to tradition there are two primary modes of editing: analytic montage and intellectual montage. The former designates the ordinary mode of narration, continuity editing, which is used in Hollywood films, whereas the latter designates the type of editing that the Russian montage-directors, e.g. Sergei Eisenstein, invented and applied. Here the juxtaposition of a series of images is used to create an abstract idea not present in any one image. An example is Sergei Eisenstein's Strike (1924) in which intellectual montage is used metaphorically, as when he cuts from the real plane of the film -the shooting of the strikers - to the slaughter of cattle. In another instance, an orange is being squeezed as a metaphor for the capitalist exploitation of the workers.

[4] Apart from Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader has written the scripts of many famous films, such as Raging Bull (1980), also for Scorsese, and Sidney Pollack's The Yakuza (1975). Schrader has also directed a number of movies himself: Blue Collar (1978), Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), Mishima (1986) and others, and he has written on film theory in Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (University of California Press, 1972) and in articles on film noir.

[5] Charles Baudelaire, Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne (1863) in Oeuvres Complètes (Paris 1982), page 553.

[6] Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York 1993).

[7] Georges Bataille, Den Hovedløse (Anis, 1984).

[8] Protagonists keeping diaries are known from many movies, e.g. Robert Bresson Journal d'un Curé de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) 1950.

[9] I discount the scenes from the presidential campaign, as Travis during these is sitting in his taxi, looking in.

[10] "Point-of-view (POV) shot: A shot filmed at such a camera angle that an object or an action appears to be seen from a particular actor's viewpoint." Ephraim Katz, The Macmillian International Film Encyclopedia (New York 1994), p.1086. The most common way of doing this is by starting with a shot of a person in a medium close-up looking towards something. Then a cut is made to what he sees, e.g. a beautiful woman. Finally, to emphasize the point, you can cut back to the person. Now he is perhaps smiling.

[11] Martin Scorsese, Scorsese on Scorsese (London: Faber & Faber, 1989), p. 54.

[12] Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. (Oxford University Press, 1988; orig. pub. 1980), pp. 186- 87.

[13] Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) composed the scores of a number of famous films, including Citizen Kane (1941), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960), but the soundtrack of Taxi Driver was to be his last. He died on the night of its completion.

[14] "Jump cut: A noticeably abrupt movement of a subject on the screen, resulting either from cutting out a section of film from the middle of a shot, and joining the remaining ends together, or from stopping the camera, moving closer to the subject, and beginning to film again without changing the angle." Ephraim Katz, The Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia, (New York, 1994), p. 714.

[15] The narrator-model is the structure ordinarily inherent in dramatic tales, which are built up to a climax near the end. In Peter Harms Larsen`s Faktion (Amanda 1990) the author writes about the elements that the models consists of: "...the narrator-model is made up of the following phases: preliminary, presentation, elaboration, point-of-no-retun, conflict escalation, climax, and toning out."

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