‘[T]he more technology develops the diffusion of information (and notably of images), the more it provides the means of masking the constructed meaning under the appearance of the given meaning’
(Roland Barthes, ‘The Rhetoric of the image’)
Semiotician Roland Barthes’ work proposed a method of identifying meaning in underlying structures of texts and furthermore tracing these structures to signs and symbols on the ‘surface’ which convey messages. Celebrants of the power and importance of visual communication such as Barthes propounded that ‘the visual sign, the icon, was characterised by continuity of shape, not by radical discontinuity’1. In this quote he asserts that technological advancement can dissipate and alter the signals transmitted by an image.
This essay will use this statement as a starting point and will apply Barthes’ concept to the medium of film which was not his primary target of analysis and where his impact ‘was more indirect’2 yet significant. It will propose that ‘meaning’ within film can be construed as realism and will examine how the construction of reality through the ‘diffusion of information’ occurs within Hollywood cinematic narrative.
The evolution of technological invention and innovation will be charted through the history of cinema from the classic Hollywood era through to contemporary film and finally it will be assessed as to how the representation of reality has been shaped and altered within film form.
Semiotics (the study of sign processes and the construction of meaning) is central to this study and additional to this the work and theories of André Bazin; Christian Metz’s observations in ‘The Imaginary Signifier’ and Brechtian theory are also important to this study of constructed meanings in images and perceptions of the ‘real’ and ‘realism’ in cinema. It is essential to assert at this stage also that this essay will define ‘realistic’, ‘realism’ and ‘reality’ as that of an audience’s or viewer’s relationship to, or the extent to which a representation is like something which has been previously established to them. For example, to suggest that an image is not ‘realistic’ would be to argue that it does not relate to what a viewer has previously encountered in their life.
André Bazin was concerned with the relationship between an audience and a film text and how reality was constructed by a film and interpreted by the viewer. Primarily through his essays in ‘Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?’(‘What is cinema?’, 1958-1962), he contended that cinema and its technological development were respondent to a pre-existent aesthetic and cultural need for unmediated reproduction of reality3 and related cinematic realism to its fidelity to the psychology of human perception. Bazin believed that cinema is a fundamentally photographic process that should function by objectively recording and revealing the reality of objects in space only4. These opinions and theories are crucial to the goals of this essay and will be incrementally referred to.
‘Screen theory’ emanated from the British cinema journal Screen during the 1970s and amongst its contributions to film theory it featured notions regarding psychoanalysis in film; the viewers relationship to a film text. Christian Metz writing in Screen suggested the importance of ‘Identification’ and ‘Fetishism’ (no connection to feminism) to the viewing experience. ‘Identification’ is the result of a viewer being able to position themselves psychologically within a film narrative by relating to the characters (i.e. the images on screen) in the film which therefore generates meaning to them. ‘Fetishism’ refers to when an audience acknowledges the fictional nature of a film text but can enjoy it none-the-less. This ‘suspension of disbelief’ works on an axis of dual fictiveness within a film as the characters inhabit a superficial reality within the film text as well as them not physically being present within the cinema itself5. The concept of the viewer relationship to and connectivity with the cinematic image outlined here will be of great importance later on.
Bertoldt Brecht’s philosophies are also useful as he formulated a style of cinema in which the principle was that the audience should always be aware that the performance (and by extension the image) they are witnessing is a representation of reality as opposed to them being drawn into an illusion of reality6. The concept of ‘representation’ is vital in ascertaining how reality can be constructed by cinema as Maltby suggests like Brecht, that photographic and sound recording should be understood as ‘representation rather than reproduction’7.
Barthes refers to the ‘masking’ of meanings through the manipulation and dissipation of the image and these theorists suggest the means by which an audience can extract meanings from a film text. The next stage is to begin to assess how technology has altered the presentation of reality in cinema.
Technological innovation it is proposed by Allen8, has influenced cinematic narrative and the construction of realism since the initial years of cinema where Georges Méliès created through the constant rewinding of the camera, multiple exposures resulting in ‘fantastic images’ or very primitive special effects. This is notable in his most important work Le voyage dans la Lune (1902) and Allen suggests these images, although logically impossible, could appear believable to the viewer, foreshadowing issues that would be resurrected a hundred years later.
As cinema grew into a larger and more industrial concern, the ‘Classic Hollywood’ era of film production emerged in the 1920s with its unique set of narrative and stylistic characteristics. The intention to create a naturalistic representation of reality or ‘realist aesthetic’ of this era has been described as ‘transparent and illusionist’9 with Bazin contesting that the narrative point-of-view was objective and the camera angles served only to provide the viewer with the most optimal view of events as well as emphasize crucial plot elements10. The Classic Hollywood narrative consisted of formulaic elements which were utilised partly for the purposes of efficiency and standardisation. ‘Continuity’ editing was established featuring eye-line matching; the ‘shot-reverse-shot’ technique and the ‘180degree’ rule amongst others, all of which were in service of the realist construction and were almost universally adhered to. Kuhn underlines this noting that ‘Temporal and spatial coherence are…pre-conditions of the cause-effect logic of events in the classic narrative’11. The results of this system, combined with naturalistic mise-en-scène created a coherent, linear and didactic narrative where a fictional world on-screen is believable and understandable to the audience and crucially it is one which they can relate to.
The role of technology at this time was primarily to facilitate this mode of representation. Lighting, for instance evolved during the embryonic stages of Classic Hollywood from a device that’s purpose was to simply provide correct exposures for film-making to a more refined floodlight system which enabled facial modeling of actors and greater distinctions to be drawn between backgrounds and actors. By 1918 lighting for illumination-only purposes had been replaced by a convention of lighting which was ‘grounded in realist aesthetic’12 and would serve the lucid narrative style of the era.
Away from and in opposition to the paradigm of Classic Hollywood production, technological innovation was fundamentally altering the cinematic fabrication of reality and challenging the established realist aesthetic. In one of the earliest significant breakthroughs in film construction, Sergei Eisenstein developed the theory and practice of montage during the 1920s (used notably in Battleship Potemkin, 1925) as a solution to what perceived as limitations within the existing syuzhet, or narration in film. He aimed to offer the audience escape from the immediacy of visual perception present in conventional narrative structure13 and achieved this by generating complex and layered meaning through temporal fragmentation and juxtapositions of images cut together in quick succession and accompanied by non-diagetic music. It can be asserted that this is the first instance of what Barthes refers to as ‘diffusion of information’ as linear narrative and the represented space was broken by montage. D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) had, through innovative application of new cinematography and ‘cross-cutting’ techniques (which would evolve into ‘continuity editing’), ushered in the ‘institutional mode of representation’ era of film-making and this was the first instance since this that technological innovation had altered the way in which the cinematic image was constructed so profoundly. This early example of technological advances that ‘have periodically revised the viewing experience’14 would eventually permeate the Classic Hollywood narrative in film such as Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager (1942).
The technique developed by Eisenstein is one of the rare occurrences where a breakthrough in cinematic form through the utilisation of technology was born of artistic concerns, but it is often ‘discreet but profound’ developments such as labour saving devices which have more frequently altered the cinematic experience15. Maltby highlights this, stating that ‘Hollywood’s technological development is one of opportunism driven by economic motives’16. The editing process for example, evolved during the 1930s when a typical number of shots per film doubled from 400 to 700 and the progress in the ability to re-arrange the sequence of images had a huge influence over film form. During the early part of the Classic era, rooms full of workers would have to hand craft each physical edit17 but relatively minor innovations such as the numbering of film segments in order to better keep track of them sped up this process18. From possessing a limited ability to remodel and coerce the image sequence film-makers were being granted greater power and freedom to displace the viewer by disrupting the ocular delivery of their films. Although Bazin favoured a more photographic-esque assembly of film which provided greater clarity, more sophisticated editing allowed for what he called ‘ambiguity of reality’ by which he believed that a film aught to provide the audience with multiple and conflicting interpretations19. The increasing ease in the capacity to cut, re-arrange and manipulate the image would subsequently allow directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock to engineer the form more frequently and dramatically through the narrowing of focalisation and more rapid shifting of perspective and angles which further departed from the stable of realist aesthetic in the Classic Hollywood era.
In sharp contrast to the effects of more frequent and effective editing, other subtle developments led to another considerable progression that would influence the audience’s relationship with the image. Advancements in film stocks, processing methods combined with better lighting and camera lenses resulted in the emergence of deep-focus cinematography in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941. Deep-focus shooting generated an antithesis to the visual effects of frequent intercutting. This newly acquired ability to densely layer the cinematic image created a much richer and populous reality for the viewer which more closely ‘reproduced the effects of still photos’20 than ever before. Rather than being presented with a an almost recumbent plateau of actors juxtaposed against a backdrop, the viewer could now perceive events happening behind the primary action thus more accurately resembling the human perceptual capability and crucially this took place within an ‘unmanipulated’ framing21 maintaining the purity of the image. Ogle supports deep-focus noting that ‘…he [the viewer] may scan according to his own desires without the interruptions of intercutting’22. Bazin was also an admirer of this style of cinematography as it conformed to his belief that cinema was akin to the photograph in its representation of events and was closer to reality in its creation of dramatic effects than montage or editing23. Hollywood’s ‘understanding of realism’24 was likewise disturbed by the inception of colour filming which challenged and altered the monochrome ‘world’ of Hollywood so much that it was invented in the 1920s and did not become standard until the (post-classic era) 1960s.
The Classic era in Hollywood came to an end and the studio system fragmented in the 1950s and along with it the strict narrative style it endorsed dissipated with only continuity editing surviving in earnest.
The impact of television in the 1950s and the resultant economic slump this caused in the film industry led to an increased need for diversity and one example of this was an alternative viewing format being initiated in order to re-vitalise the industry and install a new sense of wonder into cinema. Widescreen formats ‘Cinerama’ (1: 2.6), ‘Cinemascope’ (1: 2.35) and eventually ‘Panavision’ (1: 2.25) superseded the ‘Academy ratio’ (1: 1.33) effectively stretching the canvas on which the artist could paint and Stam suggests created ‘immersive’ cinema where the spectator was now ‘in’ the image25. Widescreen format enhanced the viewer’s choice of what to look at and when26 and Bazin suggested that it was more towards ‘aesthetic advances’ due to the new depth of focus27. Widescreen however, dissipated the clarity and focus of the image by offering such choice of a wider field of perception.
Editing became more frequent and significant during the 1960s due to increased ease offered by the simple use of clear adhesive tape which allowed for the sticking of film segments28 and then the KEM Universal editing table which gave directors more control and influence over the editing process29. Editing was becoming a more pertinent component in the ‘art’ of film-making as the ability to re-arrange the shot composition broke the mimetic, linear, spatial and temporal continuity of the image ever more readily with more innovative effects coming to the fore such as the ‘jump cut’ which took the disorientating effects of intercutting to a new extreme. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) illustrates the new post-Classic era aesthetic as in the ‘shower- murder’ scene where an astounding thirty-four shots appear in twenty-five seconds30.
In contemporary cinema, ‘discontinuous and disjunctive editing practices’31 are ever more prevalent as digital technology offers greater tools by which to manipulate the shot sequence and offer new and innovative perspectives to the audience. Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy (2001-2007) for example, utilises multiple split-screens which present individual images simultaneously, offering the audience various perspectives of co-current events at once almost completely dismantling the clarity and singularity of the image.
Contemporary Hollywood cinema has cultivated the most dramatic shifts in and tests to representational narrative reality in the history of cinema through the development of and subsequent explosion of digital technology in the 1990s. The digital influence over film is the greatest progression in how stories are told in the cinema since the inception of cause-effect narrative at the beginning of the 20th Century- ‘Digital technology not only redefines movies, but also the very idea of the image’32. Graphical animation effects have been employed in film for decades to create unimaginable and bizarre images such as in Forbidden Planet (1956) where Disney animator Joshua Meador created the startling ‘ID’ monster through conventional drawn animation which was then inserted into live-action scenes33. The profound advances in special effects however did not occur until the 1970s where George Lucas founded Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) which would pioneer new digital technology (resulting in effects house Pixar being established). The commercially unsuccessful Tron (1982) was the first feature-length film to utilise ‘large-scale use of graphics’34. Due to the rudimentary appearance and cost of such image construction though; it was not until James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) which used effective (if limited) digital animation to create the ‘water alien’ and subsequently Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) that significant breakthroughs in creating almost photo-realistic and believable images occurred. The huge commercial success of Terminator 2 indicated that digital effects had progressed enough that audiences could accept them as something other than a mere gimmick and the computer-generated imagery industry began to evolve rapidly with Pixar creating children’s film Toy Story, the first fully computer-generated feature in 199535. ‘The distinction between reality and the image [is] ever more difficult to maintain’ 36 as photography is ever-more greatly being surpassed by digital imagery. George Lucas’ 1999 prequel to his Star Wars Trilogy, The Phantom Menace was created of a staggering eighty percent digital imagery37and films such as Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007) capture human acting performances and graft them into a fully digitalised image. Editing is also now integrated within the special effects process as in post-production much of the image is re-worked digitally from raw footage as it is edited into the final work38.
This essay would propose in analysing the technological progression of cinema that two distinct categories, or eras must be referred to. We must identify the ‘analogue’ era and the ‘digital’ era of film-making when attempting to extrapolate how the image in cinema can be diffused by technology. This fundamental difference between these two modes of representation is noted by Schrader who asserts that ‘film is an analogue, that is, a physical copy of something else’ whereas ‘A digital image…is an electronic and mathematical translation’39. This differentiation is essential to the relationship between the viewer and the cinematic image. The development of new technologies (namely digital advances) both in the film-making process and its method of delivery (in the cinema) have radically altered the viewer’s perception and interpretation of reality on the screen.
To return to the beginning of cinematic innovation, the ability of the film-maker to manipulate the gaze of the camera by utilising intercutting and through shot selections (mise-en-shot) can be interpreted as either enhancement or dispersal of image and its meaning. The granting of multiple angles as well as alternate perspectives to the viewer provides a more omniscient point-of-view of events, essentially heightening the fictitiousness of the image yet these offerings are coercing the audiences perspective (from a Bazinian or Brechtian point-of-view) and providing subjective narration or syuzhet. To apply this to Barthes’ quote, the ‘constructed meaning’ (the actual narrative elements of the story or fabula) are masked by the ‘given’ meaning of what the viewer actually receives visually through the discursive construction.
Similar methodology can be applied to the influence over the viewer of widescreen technology as it provides greater freedom to interpret the image but this choice can diminish the purity and clarity of the core narrative message (the constructed meaning). A visual disruption is created by the diffusion of the framed information delivered to the audience.
Crucially, during the ‘analogue’ era of film production, the manipulation of the image occurred through the addition of elements to the photographic image. Montage, editing, lighting, colour and alternate cinematography (such as deep-focus) all in some way maneuver or add layers of complexity to a photographic representation and forge a new, ‘surface’ meaning.
Allen suggests that ‘All major technological innovations contribute towards increasing the sense of experiencing ‘real life’ when watching…a film’40 and to some extent this can be applied to ‘analogue’ film production as has been noted but this statement becomes much more problematic when an attempt is made to apply it to the ‘digital’ era of cinema. This is essentially due to ‘Digital technology…not only transforming exhibition’ but crucially ‘transforming our notion of the image’41– the audiences relationship to the image has been elementally altered by the digital era.
As Metz proposed in Screen, an audience’s emotional connection with the cinematic image is achieved through a subconscious or even innate relationship to what they are seeing. There are complications inherent to the digital age’s construction of image though, regarding the extent to which the viewer can identify with and understand what is before them; the essential characteristic which makes cinema an evocative and connective medium. The digital or computer-generated image it is argued here is more realistic to the viewer yet less realistic at the same moment. The digital effects used in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) for example, to create the vast, city-destructing extra-terrestrials were more effective in their ability to synthesise such an ‘un-worldly’ and ‘un-realistic’ event than ever before in cinematic history yet the credence of these images is lost as the viewer has no cognitive, cultural underpinning or reference point by which to visualise, process and ultimately identify with. Such digital images are not born of mimetic form such as photographic reproductions are and therefore cannot conform to the audience’s expectations of reality. Bazin refers to such a discrepancy when suggesting that ‘Perception is a synthesis whose elements react against each other’ in the context of ‘stereoscopic filming in 3-D which projected the image outward into the cinema audience. Bazin believed this created ‘internal contradiction’ as the audience was taken closer, thus realism was increased yet they could not touch the image, shattering this illusion of realism. He concluded that such technological development (which can relate directly to digital image production) ‘simultaneously added to and disturbed cinema’s realism’42.
Unlike the analogue image, digital images do not have a ‘constructed’ meaning in the same sense which can be masked. Schrader notes that ‘photographs replicate’ whereas digital imagery is akin to a portrait which ‘interprets’43. Digital images are not mimesis; they must be viewed as a fundamentally artificial construction which drastically alters their relationship with the audience. There is no longer a dependency upon the camera’s physical capacity by which to transport and represent reality for the audience and as a result ‘seeing is no longer believing’44.
It could be purported that in contemporary cinema technology has ‘diffused’ the meaning of the image to such an extent that the ability to digitally create and sculpt ‘Worlds’ visually is now, in some instances the meaning of the film. This essay would suggest a dual usage of computer-generated imagery in contemporary cinema.
The first category occurs through the application of digital imaging as a ‘tool’ which is in service of the narrative of the film in attempting to allow the viewer to visualise aspects of the plot which would have, in the past been problematic or impossible to achieve. Peter Weir’s Master and Commander (2003) constructs war faring Napoleonic era ships in battle but these images are not crucial to the success of the film; they merely enhance its claim for drama, grandeur and spectacle. They are not the focalisation of the narrative, serving its intentions instead.
The second proposed category is where the digital imagery and effects in a film are the event. Films such as Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) and Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) are marketed on and importantly constructed upon spectacular and outrageous ‘set-piece’ moments of action and destruction which invite the audience to somewhat perversely enjoy improbable images at the expense of narrative synergy. This type of new aesthetic may be the future of ‘high-end’, big-budget cinema due to concerns similar to those of the 1950s and the inception of widescreen. More advanced home entertainment and increasingly sophisticated video games offering interaction mean that cinema must react and find new ways to impress the viewer and make cinema an ‘event’ again. Syd Silverman said ‘No-one ever bought a ticket to watch technology’45 but this is arguably no longer the case as audiences are invited to gaze upon the achievement of the digital image in an ironic return to the ‘primitive era’, exhibition style cinema of the late 19th Century.
This essay must ultimately agree with Barthes’ assertion that technology can mask meanings within images:
‘The movie theatre has become…a three-dimensional extension of the screens two-dimensional image in which the audience is surrounded…’46
As this quote suggests, the progression of cinema as an art form has resulted in the pure essence of cinema as a photographic representation being dissipated and almost lost entirely.
In the analogue era, the introduction of more sophisticated lighting created an artificial atmosphere to record in whilst sound and colour complicated Hollywood’s realist paradigm. Montage and increased use of editing evolved the medium further as the narrative features of cinema were progressed at the expense of the clarity and simplicity of the image. Alternate and unconventional cinematography such as deep-focus or the contemporary ‘handheld’ camera style (e.g. The Blair Witch Project, 1999 and Cloverfield, 2008) have altered the audience’s perspective and the aesthetic experience of cinema.
Cinema has hurtled into a new and dynamic era however as ‘film is an obsolete medium’47 and the process of recording onto conventional film in the photographic style ‘is very antiquated’48. Digital technology has usurped the canon of the medium and fundamentally altered how films are made and viewed. Brecht believed that the audience should be aware that they are watching a representation and wanted them to be alienated from the image yet this divide is now almost impossible to maintain as ‘analogue images are immutable…digital images are manipulatable, not only by the artists but also by the viewer’49. The rules of the film-making game have changed irreversibly and the reading of a film is simply not the same process or experience as it has been in the past. The fidelity and clarity of the cinematic image has been lost in a labyrinth of computer-generated effects and digital machinations. ‘Instantaneous access [to the image] and radical manipulation…threatens to run out of control’50 – it would be fascinating to know what Barthes and Bazin would make of it all. Bazin disagreed with the idea of technology itself being a feature of watching a film51 and Barthes’ theories pertaining to the way structure and surface meanings can relate and be extracted from an image would surely have to be re-evaluated as there is no longer guarantee of a mimetic and representative formulation of the contemporary image. There is no such ‘constructed’ or underlying meaning as powerful imagery in modern cinema can be representative of nothing- merely bytes of memory on a computer.
Hitchcock once pronounced that ‘Cinema is life, with the boring bits cut out’52 but now we must question this definition of ‘life’ and accept that a whole new level of comprehension is required of the contemporary audience to analyse and interpret such new ‘realities’ on-screen.
- Sylvia Harvey, ‘What is Cinema? The Sensuous, the Abstract and the Political’ in Cinema: the Beginnings and the Future, ed. Christopher Williams (London: University of Westminster Press, 1996), 236.
- Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 530.
- Maltby, 229.
- Maltby, 234.
- Joanne Hollows, Peter Hutchings and Mark Jancovich, ‘Screen Theory I: From Marxism to Psychoanalysis Introduction’ in The Film Studies Reader, eds. Joanne Hollows, Peter Hutchings and Mark Jancovich (London: Arnold, 2000), 195.
- James Naremore, ‘Acting in Cinema’ in The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook (London: BFI, 2007), 117.
- Maltby, 233.
- Michael Allen, ‘Technologies: Introduction’ in The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook (London: BFI, 2007), 141.
- David Bordwell, ‘Classical Narration’ in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson (London: Routledge, 1991), 24.
- Bordwell, 24.
- Annette Kuhn, ‘Classical Hollywood narrative’ in The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook (London: BFI, 2007), 45.
- Michael Allen and Annette Kuhn, ‘Lighting’ in The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook (London: BFI, 2007), 152.
- Harvey, 235.
- Maltby, 228.
- Maltby, 258.
- Maltby, 229.
- Michael Allen, ‘Editing’ in The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook (London: BFI, 2007), 161.
- Maltby, 258.
- Maltby, 234.
- Michael Allen and Annette Kuhn, ‘Deep-Focus’ in The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook (London: BFI, 2007), 149.
- Allen, ‘Technologies: Introduction’, 141.
- Allen and Kuhn, ‘Deep-Focus’, 149.
- Maltby, 234.
- Maltby, 249.
- Maltby, 259.
- Allen, ‘Technologies: Introduction’, 141.
- Maltby, 253.
- Maltby, 258.
- Allen, ‘Editing’, 161.
- Warren Buckland, Teach Yourself Film Studies (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998), 64.
- Maltby, 258.
- Paul Schrader, ‘Don’t Cry for Me when I’m Gone: Motion Pictures in the 1990s’ in Cinema: the Beginnings and the Future, ed. Christopher Williams (London: University of Westminster Press, 1996), 204.
- Forbidden Planet, DVD, directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox (1956: Warner Home Video, 2005)
- Michael Allen, ‘From Bwana Devil to Batman Forever: technology in contemporary Hollywood cinema’ in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Eds. Steve Neale and Murray Smith (London: Routledge, 1998), 124.
- Tim Dirks, ‘Milestones in Film History: Greatest Visual and Special Effects and Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI)’ from Filmsite.org, http://www.filmsite.org/visualeffects16.html (accessed December 17th 2008), 16.
- Maltby, 236.
- Allen, ‘From Bwana Devil to Batman Forever: technology in contemporary Hollywood cinema’, 126.
- Allen, ‘Editing’, 161.
- Schrader, 204.
- Allen, ‘Technologies: Introduction’, 141.
- Schrader, 204.
- Maltby, 231.
- Schrader, 204.
- Maltby, 237.
- Maltby, 227.
- Maltby, 259.
- Maltby, 259.
- Schrader, 204.
- Schrader, 205.
- Allen, ‘Editing’, 161.
- Maltby, 253.
- Maltby, 414.
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