'A Haze of Visions': Dream Work in Early Australian Avant-Garde Cinema

| Danni Zuvela
 + Earthquake in Adelaide (still) Harry Krischock, 1913.

'A Haze of Visions': Dream Work in Early Australian Avant-Garde Cinema

'A Haze Of Visions': Dream Work In Early Australian Avant-Garde Cinema | Danni Zuvela

Applied to the technique of the cinema the correctness and fecundity of the Surrealist thesis is all the more striking. The objection to method (the difficulty of uniting the conscious and unconscious on the same plane) does not hold for cinema, in which the thing seen corresponds exactly to a conscious hallucination. — Jean Goudal (1925)1

If the cinema is not made to translate dreams or all that which, in conscious life, resembles dreams, then the cinema does not exist. — Antonin Artaud (1927)2

The urge to disturb

We see a title screen, black with white lettering. The intertitles read:

Our ‘Cine’ Man dreams —

Buildings would rock and people would hurry some

Then, in black and white monochrome, we see the scene: A busy Australian city street baking in the hard flat light of midday. The crowd clumps, seethes, and breaks apart again; from our vantage point at the end of the street we are observing the daily choreography of urban bodies at lunch hour. Flat-capped boys on wobbly bicycles dart between striding businessmen and strolling ladies. Foot and vehicular traffic pass by the camera without acknowledging its recording eye. Suddenly, the frame jolts; a rough, jostling, tipping movement. The image seems to bounce vertically. The frame bounces again, and the camera pitches rudely to the right side. Our angle of vision accordingly turns to the side and we now observe the same street scene from the new sideways angle. Then the frame shakes and shudders again, and pitches roughly over to the left side. 

With this film, Earthquake in Adelaide, Harry Krischock (1875-1940), a freelance stills photographer who also shot actuality footage from time-to-time, attempted to simulate the experience of an earthquake.3 The year is 1913 and this may well be Australia’s first experimental film.

This essay considers Australian experimental film in its formative years; that is, avant-garde film works produced independently by solo artists and filmmakers that emerged before the better known outbreak of avant-garde cinema, which was marked by collectivism and the development of alternative institutions in the 1960s.4 Taken as a corpus, these ‘early’ films illuminate the conditions leading into the development of organised systems of experimental production, distribution and exhibition in the mid-1960s. They also share, somewhat unexpectedly, a central organising aesthetic sensibility. The series of largely unconnected instances of experimental practice discussed here possess multiple correspondences in the form of a textual and experiential agenda drawn from international surrealism. Moreover, in terms of cultural flows, the remaking of surrealist iconography in these works by Australian makers and émigrés from continental and Eastern Europe offers the opportunity for a complex understanding, not just of the role of the film medium in the emergence of modernist creative practice in Australia, but also of the broader relationality between centres and peripheries in this history. My exploration of these works takes place within the wider context of the revision of artistic geographies, with its attendance to the specificity of practice, and its consideration of both space and identity as constituted by interrelation. As a heterogeneous sphere held in place by critical tensions, national experimental film requires an interpretive model oriented towards what Doreen Massey calls ‘the entanglements and configurations of multiple trajectories, multiple histories’,5 which can open onto deeper understandings of these trajectories, the dynamism and geographies of their relations.  

In the period when Harry Krischock made Earthquake in Adelaide, cinema, as Tom Gunning argues, ‘emerged as a new form of representation, outside of academic aesthetics and not yet recognised as an art form. Thus, for avant-gardists, the form was not cursed by a hoary tradition of aesthetic principles.’6 On the contrary, the moving image represented an emphatically modern means of creation.7 In the teen years of the twentieth century, the cinema was fermenting in its “intuitive period”. Prior to the (imminent)8 development of the full-blown industrial system, with its rigid continuity scripts and Fordist model of differentiated labour, filmmakers regularly improvised, taking advantage of developments to hand, and making films in a manner that Paul Hammond describes as ‘spontaneous—a Surrealist might say “automatic”.’9 Krischock was no radical avant-gardist, and would have had next to no consciousness of the contemporaneous ‘Continental’ developments in the form of Dada taking place on the other side of the world at this time.10 Nonetheless, the particular proximate forces pressing on the creation of his film—chiefly, the experience of the early cinema showman-exhibitor seeking to captivate his audience with a new vision of their familiar streetscape—led him to improvise in what might be termed a Surrealist modality of filmmaking. The result of this aleatory experiment was Earthquake in Adelaide. Though the cultural contexts could scarcely be more divergent (post-Federation colonial Australia as opposed to old Europe during the Great War), just like the artists gathering in Paris and Zurich at this time, what Krischock alighted upon was the particular capacity of the cinema to deliver ‘shocks’ to the spectator.11 The historical transformations of modernity that unfolded in this period saw the cinematic ‘culture of shocks’ mutate and diverge into Dadaist cinema, abstract film, and Surrealist cinema, in parallel with the development of industrial cinema. Short, percussive ‘attractions’ were to become multi-reel story films. As Gunning puts it, at this juncture in history, ‘the piston in the gasoline motor provides a model: a contained explosion is converted into consistent motion’.12 In the period of this transformation from ‘shock’ to ‘flow’, filmmakers and artists fixated on what was to become one of the cinema’s most enduring themes: the power of the medium to suggest a state of reverie. 

Mid-century, momentary

In the Australian silent classic, A Sentimental Bloke (1919), the face of the beloved pickle-factory girl (Doreen) appears on a pumpkin before her lover (the Bloke). Though narratively justified—depicting the mental colonisation of romantic infatuation—this scene remains one of the more bizarre images from the early period of Australian cinema.13 In another surreal moment, we witness the Bloke hurl his rival off a cliff in what turns out to be an extended dream sequence. However, these scenes and a handful of other trick superimpositions in A Sentimental Bloke are little more than fleeting moments in what is otherwise a straightforward story.14 In a similar vein, in the surviving fragments of what is regarded as the most obviously ‘modernistic’ Australian film of the 1920s, the ‘jazz-age’ feature Painted Daughters (1925), a couple of highly stylised sequences are suggestive of modernist tactics of selfreflexivity, obsessive interiority and paranoid imagination.15 In his exegesis of these manifestations of stylistic modernism in the silent era, Bill Routt makes a convincing case that the ‘gulf’ between ‘Australia’ and ‘modernism’ has been overstated, but, it was still another three decades until the emergence of a fully-fledged Australian surrealist film. In the United States, building on an existing tradition of practice and cultivated, at least in part, by key institutional support, avant-garde film flourished in the post-war period.16  By contrast, in Australian cinema, which was preoccupied with post-war reconstructionism, documentary-realist aesthetics dominated.17 After a period of war-time creative fertility, the postwar period in Australian modern art is generally regarded as a regressive era, in which the combined effects of the William Dobell trial in 1944 and the Ern Malley Affair contributed to a profoundly conservative turn in the creative climate for artistic experimentation—and a particularly vexed atmosphere for surrealist art practice.18 The effect of these mechanisms was that avant-garde sensibilities, by and large, retreated; or, as academic Brian Elliott (reputedly the first to suspect the Ern Malley hoax) later observed: ‘It was wonderful to see all the precious young poets around the place pulling in their horns like a whole lot of snails who had been touched in sensitive places.’19

The earliest inklings of a sustained experimental sensibility in film practice in Australia emerged in the 1950s, roughly contemporaneous with the abstraction/figuration debates in Australian painting. In this period, the local film industry suffered from a significant downturn; while newsreels and documentary genres ‘kept an industry of sorts alive’, the regular production of Australian feature films was ‘a dead issue’.20 From within the Australian film industry, there was the 1954 government-sponsored documentary, Back of Beyond, about the committed postman Tom Kruse, whose delivery route was executed with highly stylised ellipses of time and space.21 Ross Gibson describes it as ‘an attempt to bring in a more lyrical, more evocative approach to issues of documentation’, while Brian Shoesmith notes: 

If there is much you would expect in a film about the Australian outback in The Back of Beyond, there is also a lot that you would not expect. Two examples—the unexpected use of a record player to provide diegetic music and the image of Kruse, his helper and their passenger sitting in armchairs on the banks of Coopers Creek which recalls Bunuel.22

As fascinating as the amalgam of surrealist and modernist elements within this unusual, ‘prestige’ documentary made in the period of feature film drought is, Back of Beyond is nonetheless an atypical example for its era. Far from aspiring to the status of high art, Routt argues, ‘Australian films were resolutely populist in this period.’23

However, by the early 1950s, a significantly different cinematic idiom began to emerge. Reflecting contact with the European modernism of its proponents—migrant artists working in isolation in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide—these films were born outside the ambit of the film industry, in the artisanal, personal mode characteristic of the avant-garde.24 In Melbourne, Giorgio Mangiamele (1926–2001) produced a series of 16mm films, including the remarkable feature-length Il Contratto (The Contract, 1953).25 These pioneering, highly personal ‘no budget’26 films are studies in the alienation, loneliness and frustration of the migrant experience in midcentury Australia; but while their genre is (mostly) social realism, their tenor is more poetic. Though inflected by the Neo-Realism that is foremost among the contributions to world cinema by his native Italy, Mangiamele’s imagery is also more allusive, interpretive, and, at times, more formally inventive than it is strictly (Neo-) realist.27 The recent recovery of Mangiamele’s work heralded in the official National Film and Sound Archive DVD publication has seen the development of discursive efforts to locate in his filmmaking as the birth of an ‘art’ cinema in Australia. As Quentin Turnour argues, the aesthetic practice Mangiamele forged reflects the streetscapes of Albert Tucker and Arthur Boyd, along with the ‘alienating Australian suburbs of Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot or Robin Boyd’s Australian Ugliness.’28 Mangiamele’s complex allegorical style ‘is about as close as mid-century Australian cinema culture gets to something like the moment in Australian visual arts in this period.’29 The exemplary film in this regard is the 1965 Cannes film Clay,30 which, for Turnour—considering its interest in allegorical narrative, the symbolist image and the filmed dream—hews closest to the cinema of the ‘high’ silent era.31  

Similarly, Gino Moliterno argues that Clay’s story—essentially a tragic romance narrative about a fugitive who is rescued and cared for in an artist compound—echoes, in its allegory for artistic struggle, the symbolist cinema of Jean Cocteau.32 The similarities, without doubt, proliferate, and it seems safe to assume that Mangiamele, like many artists at this time, was influenced by these films, and was attempting to produce a film within his era’s dominant art-film register. However, another reading of Clay is possible, which places it—if somewhat unevenly—within another of the ‘multiple trajectories’ for independent film of this era. There is the central structuring role of a dream in the film’s narrative, an off-kilter approach to composition offsetting the more melodramatic moments, and, especially, the uncanny opening and closing scenes featuring the ingénue speaking from beyond the grave about how ‘life is a dream’.33 This is enhanced by negative-printing, so that blacks become white and vice-versa, the images of the landscape in these bookend scenes—stark, leafless branches swaying in an eerie moonscape—owe more to the formal experiments of the avant-garde than to the art cinema mode of narration. Even if, as Turnour argues, the film is not ‘dreamy’ enough (‘the dream is too melodramatic and straight, lacking the real oddness of dreams, alternatively distressing and cocked-up logic’),34 the effect of the synthesis of these elements conspires to bring Clay away from the neo-real, into the purview of the surreal. 

While the film is without doubt more concerned with a melodramatic and allegorical subjectivity than the insurrectionary excesses associated with the more extreme reaches of surrealism, Clay nevertheless seems to evince the central surrealist belief in the power of the moving image to give form to dreamworlds. Fascinated by its apparently limitless capacity to upend the conventional grammar of the image, the Surrealists invested the cinema with the aspiration to transpose surrealist thought to the screen. A ‘marvelous mode of expression for the dream state’ according to Phillipe Soupault, the cinema, according to Jules Romains, extended the tantalising promise of the shared “group dream”.35 As Robert Desnos put it, ‘the screen, we thought, might be the equal of our dreams’.36 The current of idealism, then, that undercuts Clay’s tragic ending is an offer of release from the repressive forces of reality. At its most instrumental, the Surrealists’ stress on dreams constituted an imaginative counterforce to the twin conditions of complacent confidence in scientific progress and alienation—what Walter Benjamin termed the ‘poverty of the interior’—endemic under modernity.37 Mangiamele’s films all communicate an acute awareness of that poverty, but only with Clay is the prospect of a redemptive alternative, in the form of imagination unshackled from the reality principle and allowed to roam in the night territories of the dreaming mind, offered up. 

Unquiet lands

The group dream now begins. They sleep; their eyes no longer see. They are no longer conscious of their bodies. Instead there are only passing images, a gliding and rustling of dreams. They no longer realise they are in a large square chamber, immobile, in parallel rows as in a plowed field. A haze of visions which resemble life hovers before them. Things have a different appearance than they do outside. They have changed color, outline and gesture. Creatures seem gigantic and move as if in a hurry. What controls their rhythm is not ordinary time, which occupies most people when they are not dreaming. Here they are quick, capricious, drunken, constantly skipping about, sometimes they attempt enormous leaps when least expected. Their actions have no logical order. Causes produce strange effects like golden eggs.38

At around the same time as Mangiamele, the Czech émigré painter Dusan Marek, in Sydney, also began making his first films. Marek’s was also an art of social purpose, and, like Mangiamele’s, his independent film works are centrally concerned with the ‘interior poverty’ of displacement and the alienation of the migrant experience in 1950s Australia. From the outset, however, Marek’s formal experimentation leans more heavily on the side of abstraction, and his lyricism tends towards narrative opacity. Furthermore, instead of story-based poetic narratives with human actors, Marek’s earliest forays into the moving image were experimental animations. Like his painting practice, begun in Czechoslovakia under the instruction of the artist František Tichý,39 Marek’s early films deposit drastically simplified human forms into an allusive landscape at once recognisable as his new land, but with stylised distortions that render it unfamiliar and discomforting. Despite the many hallmarks of Czech animation in these films—grotesque puppets and claymation maquettes navigating neurotic interior journeys, undercut with a mordant wit—the artist’s arrival in Australia in 194840 predates the great age of animation in Czechoslovakia which produced international cinematic luminaries such as Jan Svankmajer and Jiří Trnka.41 The explanation for the immediately recognisable Czech animation aesthetic of Marek’s work involves two key contexts: the specific tradition of Czech puppetry,42 and the wellspring of Czech Surrealism, which, as Piotr Piotrowski explains, was ‘a home-grown product, not a self-conscious import’.43 The spread of totalitarian rule across Eastern Europe led to a specific character in Czech Surrealism, which, Piotrowski argues was a reflection of the political context:

This understanding of Surrealism within utopian categories of the unified European culture took on a specific meaning: not of the ‘sur-reality’ postulated by the authors of the European School’s manifesto, but of ‘unreality’. It reflected the fact that Europe was being divided by the steadily growing Iron Curtain … Instead of the East and the West coming together, the two geographic parts of the continent were turning their backs on each other.44

This specifically Czech aesthetic of an alienated ‘un-reality’ is evident in Marek’s filmmaking from his earliest films, Fisherman’s Holiday (1952, 2 minutes, 45 seconds, black and white, silent) and Light of the Darkness (1952, 5 minutes, colour, silent). Light of the Darkness utilises stop-motion plasticine figures to weave a Caligari-esque scenario of distorted figures, long shadows and looming architecture.

The episodic story consists of a set of vignettes involving an overseeing wizard character who conjures up a large egg that serves as a motif to provide a loose linkage between ensuing scenes. In addition to the recognisably Surrealist visual vocabulary (buildings looming over tenebrous streetscapes and, particularly, the egg), the film is populated with a suite of strange Australiana: edgy kangaroos, Peters’ ice-creams for sale at the corner-shop, a dust-up at a police station, a lusty man whose striped suit suggests he is a convict, and, most iconically, a sunbather at the beach. The estrangement of these familiar icons means that in Light of the Darkness, as in other Surrealist film, as Hammond quoting Magritte notes, ‘a poetic space is opened up between signifier and signified.’45 That the film is, at least on one level, a Surrealist’s response to his Antipodean transplantation, appears evident in the quotation of this iconography within in an overall mise-en-scène that interpolates a distinctly Eastern European apartment housing block amongst the Sydney terrace streetscape, and the appearance of the artist himself, his face intercut in single frames at the end of the film.46

Disappointed with the unenthusiastic critical reception of his painting work,47 Marek realised a long-held desire to travel to Papua New Guinea,48 where he mostly worked as a photographer, documentary maker and engineer on coastal copra boats, but continued to draw and created one key experimental film: 1956’s Nightmare (6 minutes, 38 seconds, colour). Further exploiting the surrealistic potential of stopmotion puppetry, this film (also known as The Magician) tells the tale of a mysterious green-faced visitor who disturbs drinkers in a small-town hotel. Though governed by a stronger narrative imperative than Light of the Darkness, Nightmare again makes use of a surrealistic lexicon—deep shadows, grotesque figures and distortions of perspective and scale—to invoke the menacing, half-grasped atmosphere of the dream world signaled in its title. Stop-motion animation, used for the long shots in this film, makes a critical contribution to its evocation of the fantastical.49 This technique, as Devin and Marsha Orgeron note in their discussion of Czech master Svankmajer, ‘is a near-perfect surrealist method for its uncanny ability to defamiliarise otherwise familiar objects by altering their presumed context and by reorganising them in surprising ways.’50 Stop-motion, in other words, at once animates still objects, but in the process, engenders not the life-likeness of cinematic verisimilitude, but its opposite.

After a brief return to Australia in 1956, in which he made a short cut-out animation, Spaceman Number One (2 minutes, 22 seconds, colour), about a man reading an article in a newspaper about space travel who suddenly finds himself transported into space, Marek returned to Australia in 1959, settling initially in Adelaide. There he produced a suite of innovative animations,51 including a 1962 Cubist foray into allegorical abstraction, the award-winning, stop-motion, cut-out animation Adam and Eve (10 minutes, colour).52 This success secured the artist a position working with Fontana Films, a small Sydney production company that employed a number of Czech émigrés. The provision of a stable salary, a studio and a manageable workload of television commercial production gave him the time and the means to undertake more creative exploration in his personal practice. This period also saw Marek’s aesthetic shift away from object animation and animated cut-outs into experiments with live action. Though the subsequent films Cobweb on a Parachute (1967, 70 minutes, colour) and And the Word was Made Flesh (70 minutes, black and white) feature real human bodies in place of stop-motion or cut-out animation, and the action is “live”, as Bernice Murphy points out, however, the result is rarely “naturalistic”.53 Marek’s cinematic language continued to draw heavily on the vocabularies of Surrealism; And the Word was Made Flesh, a film made in collaboration with students from Flinders University, is another instance, like Clay, of an Australian work in the “filmed dream” mode, featuring with reversals of action, suggestions of erotic fantasy, enigmatic abandoned houses, and a fractured gaze on the Australian bush setting. 

However, perhaps the most archetypally surrealist of Marek’s works is Cobweb on a Parachute. A bizarre version of a self-portrait narrative, produced in 1966–7, it is a significant work in the context of artists’ cinema — one of the few feature-length colour 35mm avant-garde films made anywhere in the world. Marek’s synopsis outlines Cobweb’s psychoanalytic concerns: 

This film unfolds the problem facing every person on earth, the problem within himself, the fight between the conscious and the sub-conscious mind. It is a document of the human mind. Through this quiet and savage conflict we experience the subconsciousness as it gains new strength that enables man to  realise the excitement of living.54 

In the film, the protagonist, again played by the artist himself becomes aware that another man, a figure whose head is completely concealed by a featureless oval mask, is shadowing him. Marek’s masked alter-ego accosts the artist in a series of provocations with other symbolic figures in a mysterious landscape. Further development of the film’s neurotic atmosphere is its layered sound composition, which includes bird-calls, sound effects, and rhythmic percussion mixed with a poetic narration about the struggle with the self, spoken by Marek. In a classic modernist move, the character’s subjectivity is fragmented and then reunified, as the artist comes to realise that the strange featureless creature pursuing him is not his enemy, but his own subconscious. The film ends with an extraordinarily self-reflexive sequence where Marek’s subconscious is admitted into his studio, the two persons (re)unite, and we realise that the resultant being is left in control of the outcome of the film we are watching. 

Unfortunately, the film was never released, nor even completed: due to a dispute with Fontana over ownership of the work, Marek’s employers seized the uncut (colour) negative, and what remains today is a black and white work print, an interstitial form of a film that, in this case, lacks the artist’s montage elements (dissolves and superimpositions).55 However, even in its uncompleted state, Cobweb registers unmistakably as a Surrealist work in the aesthetic mode familiar from so many of the most canonical paintings: the visual manifestation of Freudian psychoanalysis. One of the most striking elements of its formal language is the motif of the masked figure who confronts the dreamer. The string-bound papier-mâché cocoon seems to directly reference the recurring masked figures in the canonical surrealist paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, such as The Two Sisters and The Seer (both 1915) and The Concerning Muses (1916). The ‘blind seer’ in Surrealist painting, pointing to another kind of sight, also suggests the cinema’s appeal to the ‘inner eye of the imagination’, and the Surrealists’ desire that through the cinema, Breton hoped, ‘could we be fitted to receive the Key to the Opening which Chazal speaks of, which can make the mechanism of correspondences operate as far as the eye can see.’56 The confrontation between the subconscious and conscious self, jarring juxtapositions, and this apparent quotation of canonical imagery make Marek’s Cobweb virtually a catalogue of surrealist film techniques. And though Marek worked independently, these films did not emerge in total isolation: there were others involved in this ‘group dream’ for the cinema.

Unconscious indices

A hub of central and Eastern European migration, Adelaide was home to at least two other artists in this first generation of Australian experimental filmmakers who embraced film as a tool for the expression of the metarational. Born in Poland in 1922, Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski studied art in Warsaw, was sent to Germany on forced labour, was liberated by the Americans, and then won a scholarship to the Bauhaus Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf, before emigrating to Australia in 1949. There, he studied further at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, and worked in Central Australia in the mid-1950s, before settling in Adelaide.57 There, Ostoja-Kotkowski collaborated with the South Australian photographer Ian Davidson to create the surrealistic short film Quest of Time in 1956.58 This film journeys through the dream of a man who, after falling asleep on a chair, experiences a series of puzzling random encounters typical of the filmed dream. Throughout the discursive history of cinema, the theme of the dream, of course, exceeds the mere oneiric image; it was the assertion of correspondences between the acts of cinema-going and dreaming that underpinned the emergence of psychoanalytic and semiotic film theories in the 1970s, while the theoretical location of comparisons between the dreamer and the film spectator are a key preoccupation throughout twentieth-century film theory.59 The representational possibilities of the dream-state have provided unflagging inspiration for filmmakers, from the very earliest days of the medium through classical Hollywood to contemporary, post-classical, conglomerate-era cinema. The same international art cinema context that framed Mangiamele’s practice applied to Ostoja’s work in this period: French Symbolist cinema. Any reading of the iconography and mise-en-scène—especially the costume and styling of the dreamer—of Quest of Time without a doubt evokes Cocteau’s Orphee (1950). That Ostoja embarked on an ambitious, but ultimately abortive version of the Orpheus tale is further evidence of the relationship between his filmmaking and Symbolist film, with its wellspring in Greek myth.60 However, another reading of the film is possible. 

Avant-garde cinema triangulates with Symbolist cinema and surrealist cinema in the modality of the ‘trance’ film. Surrealism’s obsession with dreams, as Hammond argues, derives in part from the Romantic somnambulist tradition—the same wellspring as Symbolist cinema. Occupying a prime position in international avantgarde cinema history,61 the trance film is a distinctive experimental narrative mode most associated with Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947).62 Though hard to prove, that Ostoja-Kotkowski (and Marek, whose Cobweb on a Parachute is another example of the trance film) encountered these works is highly possible, given that the very active film society movement of the mid-century is likely to have screened them.63 The trance film’s key referents are the valorisation of the dream state, and of the alternative to narrative causality that dream logic offers to the organisation of story elements; the dreamer is thus positioned to make discoveries unavailable to the waking mind. The films made by another Polish emigrant artist, Ludwik Dutkiewicz,64 also working with Ian Davidson, are similarly surreal and feature the atmosphere of the filmed dream. However Quest of Time is possibly the most archetypal of Australian trance films from this period, and the closest to correspond with the form prevalent throughout the mid-century avant-garde in cinema.

Quest of Time features a dreamer, played, as is the habit of trance films, by the filmmaker himself. Upon waking, he strolls along the beach, passing a strange woman without seeing her. The rolling ocean offers up a black Bakelite object—a telephone mouthpiece, which becomes a recurring motif throughout the film. The use of the telephone as a dream-object linking scenes across different spaces is strongly reminiscent of the brass key motif at the centre of Meshes’ intricate spiral structure, while the sea as the bringer of knowledge also recalls Deren’s other well-known film, At Land (1944). Along with these specific correspondences to the trance film, Quest of Time, via its recurring telephone mouthpiece trope, resonates with the Surrealist project on several other levels. The dream-telephone suggests subconscious communication with the ‘other’ world; a reading enforced by the text of the poem recited in the film’s soundtrack. Furthermore, the recontextualisation of domestic materials is part of the Surrealist cinematic project that Louis Aragon described as comprising manoeuvres to question the significance of small familiar objects, making them assume ‘mysterious aspects’ or ‘transforming them to the point where they take on enigmatic meanings’,65 and of which the telephone was a favoured fetish-object (Dali’s Lobster Telephone being the most famous example). The estrangement of everyday objects, transubstantiated in foreign contexts where they lose relation to purpose, was a strategy employed by the Surrealists to elevate photogenic ‘thingness’ into an index of consciousness, as Paul Hammond argues: ‘In isolating objects, magnifying them, and recombining them in new ways, things were revealed — and reveiled, as Breton demanded — in all their fulsome, hieratic mystery’.66 The accidental conjunctures so prized by the Surrealists extend to the process by which Quest of Time was produced. In true objet trouvé style, Ostoja-Kotkowski and Davidson found the telephone parts while exploring a famous Adelaide junkyard, Cann’s, early in the shoot and decided spontaneously to incorporate it into the film’s story.67 

Low take-offs on what the high people were doing68

It was the shortage of dough that stifled filmmaking and besides, it was more fashionable to write poetry to act up with the Drama Club. Film was still a rather dubious art form … Any youngsters who wanted to make film were slightly mad or at best hopeless dreamers. 

— Gil Brealey, on filmmaking in the 1950s69

In addition to these instances of exilic experimental cinema practice in Australia are a number of significant examples of home-ground experimentation in this early period.70 Roughly contemporaneous with Marek’s first avant-garde animations, a group of cinephiles led by Melbourne University Film Society president Gil Brealey began making films under the banner ‘Experimental Film Productions’. As an expression of support for cultural diversity and sophistication, the film society movement was a key development in the art of cinema in Australia, especially when the efforts of these societies in building bridges with European art cinema, as Barrett Hodsdon emphasises, are ‘seen against the backdrop of a long period of political and ideological conservatism in Australian life’.71 In the early 1950s, Brealey (b. 1932), who went on to enjoy a high-profile career in the Australian film industry, produced a number of the key films of this new critical axis that are in dialogue with cinematic modernism. The filmed dream modality again appears in Brealey’s Ballade (1952), a treatment of an old Scottish poem (‘Edward Edward’) that, though conventionally told, includes an extended dream sequence, invoking chance associations in an enigmatic landscape — in other words, another case for the broader body of Australian surrealistic cinema. Another of the early works created under the aegis of Experimental Film Productions, Le Bain Vorace (Dial ‘P’ for Plughole), directed by Colin Munro in 1954, spoofed the spy-movie genre, and starred a young Barry Humphries in the performer’s earliest film role.72 The film follows a group of friends on a high-spirited espionage caper, and despite a somewhat grisly conclusion — it ends with six bodies in a bathtub of nitric acid — the dominant tone is of madcap hijinks, achieved in part by its effective reproduction of the surreal formal logic of the silent-era slapstick mode. Though formally less experimental than either Marek’s work at this time or the later fully-fledged avant-garde cinema it presaged, this film’s studied silliness represents a serious creative ploy to break with politeness: both in the dominant forms of cinematic expression and ‘serious’ film culture, and also as an artistic response to the prevailing conditions of Australian cultural life.73

As an example of ‘Melbourne Dada’, Le Bain Vorace is a key document. Its impudent form, like Humphries’s comic performances, is a dismissal of the stereotypically conformist materialism, wowserism and general stuffiness of Australian suburban life of the 1950s.74 Even if, as Ian Britain argues, the picture is a little more complicated than the image of cultural ‘tundra’ painted by the wave of 1950s and 1960s expats,75 it is clear from the tenor of Le Bain Vorace that the target is the politeness and conformism of prevailing Australian ‘good taste’. The jesting, testing, burlesquing impulse running through Le Bain Vorace resurfaces a decade later in the early films of the Ubu group in Sydney, led by Albie Thoms, whose film Blunderball is another ‘spook spoof’. At surface level, this film — a rambunctious, rollicking satire featuring a blundering James Bond-type character—seems to be essentially a pragmatic exercise, devised strategically to bootstrap experimental filmmaking in a cinematic economy where the means to create moving images (film stock and cameras) were priced beyond everyday reach.76 On the other hand, seen in concert with Le Bain Vorace, as well as another Ubu film, the Western spoof Four Eyes the Fastest Gun, it forms part of a key underground burlesque tradition in which the parodic is also political.77 The manner in which films in this modality embrace exaggeration, parody and impersonation suggests that the deployment of camp is for more than just laughs; as Ross argues, ‘camp contains an explicit commentary on feats of survival in a world dominated by the taste, interests and definitions of others’.78 These tactics of camp and burlesque, as part of an antagonistic theatrical vanguard for whom irony and parody are an emblem not ultimately of a cynical stance, but of affirmation, form a bridge between the early experiments of Brealey and Humphries in the film society scene, ‘Drift’ movement and ‘Melbourne Dada’ of the 1950s, and Thoms and Ubu in Sydney in the early 1960s. By the time Ubu germinated, the tenor had shifted; as Moore argues, ‘cynicism and pessimism give way to the optimism and romanticism of a new generation who believe art, non-conformity and play power can change society: a counter-culture’.79

Throughout the early 1960s, the term ‘underground cinema’ circulated widely, in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, to designate and accommodate a wide range of unconventional and non-standard approaches to the moving image.80 Writing about English experimental cinema of this period, Duncan Reekie argues for a perspective that figures the ‘underground’ cinema as the product of a fusion of popular culture, counterculture and anti-art tendencies stemming from its central dialogue with Dada and Surrealism.81 These were the energies that led to the formation of the Ubu Films group, which grew out of Albie Thoms’s collaboration with fellow Sydney artist David Perry on the film The Spurt of Blood (1965), based on the short scenario by Antonin Artaud for Thoms’s multi-media omnibus stage production Theatre of Cruelty. A ‘self-consciously avant-garde group’,82 Ubu—comprising Thoms and Perry, Aggy Read and John Clarke, and, later, fifth member Garry Shead—were immersed in a heady stew of artistic influences, which included pop art, intermedia and multimedia, Fluxus and conceptual art. However, along with a more general counter-cultural celebration of play, delight in the irrational and appreciation for oneiric imagery and altered states of consciousness, Ubu’s matrix in the Theatre of Cruelty productions, as well as the context leading up to the formation of group, provides another clue to the way in which Surrealist thought provided a specific creative wellspring in Australian experimental cinema’s ‘early’ period. 

We must make reason shit83

Perhaps the purest example of Surrealist cinema in Australia occurred prior to the formation of Ubu, when Thoms, as a young drama student at Sydney University, teamed up with another student named Bruce Beresford to make a short film called It Droppeth as the Gentle Rain (1963). This is a narrative film, based on a scenario by Jacques Prévert.84 The film opens with tastefully attired guests arriving at a sedate suburban home for a dinner party. The sky begins to cloud over and there is a radio report of a troubling storm on the way. As it begins to rain, the guests smell something foul—urine! Soon great clods of excrement fall from the sky (depicted with an ingenious, low-budget, paper cut-out, animation effect). The bourgeois dinner party are soon saturated with urine and smothered with faeces. The film ends with the screen obscured, blotted out with shit. Unsurprisingly, the film attracted the ire of the censors and was banned for many years before its recent restoration by Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.85 It Droppeth occupies an important space in Australian artists’ cinema history as both the product of international influence and specific local forms. As with much experimental film of the 1960s, it invokes the ‘effervescent body’ of the 1960s86—a figure producing and produced by the ‘material strata of digestion, excretion, procreation and death’—but here, the libertine objectives of the counter-culture and violation of bodily taboos are bound together with a ‘sense of freedom and anarchism’ that seethes with a darker, sardonic edge.87 Its scandalous scatalogy, grotesque mise-en-scène and crude absurdism is the epitome of Artaudian cruelty, while its deliberately profane, de-riding, de-sacrilising impulse reference that much older tradition, the Menippean spirit of the carnivalesque, and, in particular, the penchant for the ‘lower bodily stratum’ of which Bakhtin writes.88 As Robert Stam, in his magisterial study of Bakhtin and the cinema, puts it, in the filmic realisation of the carnival topos of ‘grotesque realism’ and ‘redeeming filth’, blasphemy becomes an aesthetic strategy.89 Harnessing the radical populism of the carnival folklore tradition in bawdy, anarchic films is one way in which experimental cinema articulates aesthetic resistance, Reekie argues, and enacts the historically antagonistic critical remit of the avant-garde. In the case of It Droppeth, a film whose entire organising telos is the performance of a devastating critique of Western materialism, the techniques of profanation conjure a bourgeois nightmare that is, simultaneously, a carnivalesque radical wet dream. 


This essay has considered how a particular formal strand of Surrealist, and to a lesser extent, Dadaist thought90 was expressed in the ‘first generation’ of Australian experimental cinema, prior to the period of widespread avant-garde film activity in the late 1960s. In its sketch of the historical forces that contributed to the development of these film practices, this essay has addressed how their works emerged, neither in a derivative relationship to these inherited forms, or by ‘re-placing’ overseas ‘originals’, but rather in a complex confluence of the migration of ideas and specific local conditions.91 The ‘accented’ modernism of film artists such as Mangiamele, Marek and Ostoja-Kotkowski recovers earlier ideas of canonical modernism, but translates these into the context of their new homeland. Both Australian and notAustralian, their film practice found in surrealist thought—and particularly in the motif of the dream—the perfect vehicle to express their relationship to the culture in which they found themselves. The works of Brealey, Munro, Thoms and Beresford, perhaps more consciously if less directly imbibed the spirit of European modernism and exhibit more immediately a carnivalesque topoi, but are similarly permeated with the dream-world’s circumvention of the ‘logical mechanism’.92 Even considering what Jean-Louis Baudry once described as the ‘common-sense’ slippage between the cinema and the dream, the proleptic and early works of the Australian experimental cinema are populated with a significant number of dreams and dreamers. There are, of course, purely pragmatic reasons for this: in Australia prior to the 1960s, the dream state’s suspension of quotidian reality furnished a particular poetic license, whose value in a conservative era cannot be readily understated. The creative experiments made possible through the creation of dream films opened up a space for artists to use the technology of the moving image to question, disturb and transform the spectator’s relationship to the moving image as it was then experienced. 

This is evident not just in the works by mid-century artists and filmmakers discussed in this essay, but also in the very early work of photographer Harry Krischock in Earthquake in Adelaide. Literally—if photographically—upturning not just the city, but also the institution of cinema, Earthquake in Adelaide seems to embrace the Surrealists’ ‘unpredictable perturbation’ and ‘metamorphosis’ in the domain of representation. In that film, after the tilting simulations, Krischock inserts images capatured from a different perspective of a city street, sped-up to simulate people rushing in panic (or, as the inter-titles state, ‘hurrying some’). The camera tilts again then returns to the street level, then there is a strange shot of dark smoke clouds rushing overhead. When the film cuts back to the street scene, the sped-up film reveals people rushing again—but this time, backwards, as the motion is reversed. We see a brick silo crash in slow-motion, and a town hall clock tilting this way and that, and even upside down. The final sequence has the camera panning down to an ornate building, the newly-opened picture palace, The Wondergraph.93 Shortly thereafter, smoke blows over the image as it tilts to the side, then continues into a full 360-degree spin, completing three revolutions before the final intertitle appears: ‘— and then he woke up’. 


Originally published as Danni Zuvela, "'A Haze of Visions': Dream Work in Early Australian Avant-garde Cinema." EMAJ 6, (2012), DOI: doi.org/10.38030/emaj.2012.6.2.

1. This line is from the widely cited ‘Surrealism and Cinema’ essay by Goudal (himself not a member of the movement) on the latter’s projection of conscious hallucinations, reprinted in Hammond (2001, pp.

2. ‘Sorcellerie et Cinéma’, in Lebeau 2001, p. 32. 

3. Sutton, 2009. Janet Robertson notes that ‘Between the time of his marriage in 1897 and the opening of the first bioscope and moving picture houses in Adelaide in 1910, Harry Krishock had his own photographic studio and was working as a freelance photographer’, Robertson, 1971, p. 3.

4. The ‘golden era’ of experimental filmmaking in Australia was heralded by the formation of groups such as Sydney’s Ubu and the emergence of the work of Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, and the germination of the co-operative movement (See Mudie 1997).

5. Massey, 2005, p. 9, 14

6. Gunning, 2006, p. 299.

7. ‘Given its striking appeal to popular sentiment, its mechanical force and play, its enlivening and contradictory tension between picturing and moving, cinema metaphorised modernity’. Gunning, 2006, p. 302.

8. Bordwell and Thompson argue that in the teens (at the exact moment of Krischok’s film), ‘two factors contributed to a new type of script: the standardisation of the multiple-reel film between 1911 and 1915 and the development of the central producer system. Another factor, the simultaneous movement toward the classical style, also promoted the change.’ Bordwell and Thompson, 1988, p. 137.

9. Hammond, 2000, p. 31.

10. As Sutton notes, in Adelaide in the early teens, the degree of awareness of international developments in contemporary art was unquestionably limited.

11. Gunning neatly summarises this: ‘the cinema of attractions—such as direct confrontation of the audience, brevity of film subjects, a fascination with speed and surprising special effects, a display of novelties, and a lack of sustained temporal and narrative development—corresponded to the new modern environment of shocks as described by Benjamin and others’. Gunning, 2006, p. 306.

12. Gunning, 2006, p. 10.

13. For more detail of this period, see Shirley and Adams, 1983, pp. 21–44; and their discussion of A Sentimental Bloke, pp. 53–6.

14. Boyd, 1998.

15. Routt describes the sequence in which trick photography depicts alcohol-induced hallucinations (a drunk is attacked by “phantom birds”) as ‘one of the most surprising and effective early examples of Australian-produced “avant garde” cinema’. However, as far as claiming the director, Stuart-Whyte, as an Australian modernist pioneer, Routt notes that Painted Daughters ‘was directed by a Scot who had film experience in Hollywood — and so perhaps this film might have been made modern because of insidious foreign influence’ (Routt, 2000). See also Pike and Cooper 1998, pp. 125–6.

16. Wasson, 2005; Pierson, 2003.

17. O’Regan, 1987; Williams, 2005.

18. Macnamara, Stephen and Goad’s 2006 sourcebook; also see Haese, 1988 (1981), pp. 257–68. 

19. Thompson 2002 (1959).

20. Shirley and Adams, 1983, p. 186; see also Williams, 2005.

21. Dawson, 2009.

22. Gibson, 1986.

23. Routt, 2000, and see also Formica, 2011.

24. Murray Smith,1998, p. 395 has observed that, ‘The avant-garde is an ‘artisanal’ or ‘personal’ mode. Avant-garde films tend to be made by individuals or very small groups of collaborators, financed either by the filmmakers alone or in combination with private patronage and grants from arts institutions.’

25. Other films Mangiamele produced in this period include the feature The Brothers and the (lost) twenty-minute short, The Unwanted (both 1958). Mangiamele’s films have recently been restored and released on DVD by the National Film and Sound Archive, and were shown at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival, see ‘Rediscovering Mangiamele’ and National Film and Sound Archive, 2011.

26. Turnour, 2001.

27. Turnour argues that ‘(a)lthough … neo-realism would have been something impossible to avoid for any young Italian film intellectual … to me the baggage of Italianness and neo-realism has, I believe, done considerable disservice to views of Giorgio’s work, enforcing on his career a naturalist narrative formal model to which he rarely had any interest in aspiring.’ Turnour, 2011, n.p.

28. Turnour, 2001.

29. Turnour, 2001.

30. In 1985, Graeme Cutts, writing in Cinema Papers, conducted a lengthy interview with Mangiamele, and noted that while Fred Schepisi’s Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith in 1978 had until then been considered the first Australian film in competition at Cannes, Clay, in 1965, clearly pre-dated that film. In the catalogue notes for the 2011 DVD release of Mangiamele’s films (a revised version of the 2001 Senses of Cinema text), Turnour observes that it is hard to clarify what constitutes a film in competition at Cannes, noting that Charles Chauvel’s Jedda screened in 1955 and Chips Rafferty’s Walk in to Paradise in 1956.

31. Moliterno, 2011.

32. Moliterno, 2011.

33. The otherworldly effect of this afterlife narration accompanying imagery of an unreal landscape prefigures one of the key motifs of Australian art film of the ‘revival’; an estranging, unsettling effect arising from a the iconography of the Australian bush.

34. Turnour, 2011.

35. Phillipe Soupault, 1965, cited in Abel, 1996, p. 5. 

36. Robert Desnos, cited in Abel, 1996, p. 58.

37 Bronner, 2012, xiv.

38. From an early essay sketching the metapsychology of the cinematic dream by Jules Romains (1911, cited in Abel, 1996, p. 67).

39. Tichý, an artist whose work Winter (2007) argues was markedly contiguous with Surrealist principles, studied in Paris in the “life-changing” years of 1930-1935 (Winter 2007, p.400ff).  

40. Following the Stalinist takeover of Czechoslovakia, Marek, together with his brother Voitre and Voitre’s wife Vera, fled to Australia, Mould 2008, pp. 22-23.

41. Hand 2008.

42. As Arthur Cantrill, himself a former puppeteer, Czech puppetry has a long, rich history – ‘1500 puppet theatres in 1938’. See Cantrill 1996, p. 47.

43. Piotrowski notes that even Andre Breton, speaking in Prague in 1935, acknowledged that Surrealism developed along parallel trajectories in Prague and Paris, arguing that this was testimony to the fact that Surrealism was a truly international phenomenon (p. 40).

44. Piotrowski, 2011, p. 41

45. Hammond, 2000, p. 7.

46. The self-reflexive gesture of appearing in his films was to become a recurring feature of Marek’s explorations of subjectivity.

47. Despite also attracting some champions, reviews of the Marek brothers’ early exhibitions in Adelaide were highly critical of their ‘mystifying’ work. Bernice Murphy describes this critical reception as illustrative of the ‘withering, jingoistic narrowness of vision inevitably rampant in Australia after a war, a depression and isolation from Europe.’ Murphy, 1976, p. 1.

48. Mould, 2008, p. 37.

49. Arthur Cantrill notes that Marek operated the maquettes in real time by manipulating their armatures for the close ups, and ‘in wide shots the freestanding figures are animated single frame’. See Cantrill, 1996, p. 48.

50. Orgeron and Orgeron 2011, p. 100.

51. These include 1959-1960’s Three Wise Men of Gotham (1minute, black and white); 1960’s Eight Nursery Rhymes (16minutes, colour); 1962’s The Magic Trumpet (8minutes, colour); and the 1963 Windmills (7minutes, colour), made in collaboration with school children by animating their drawings. 

52. Adam and Eve won numerous awards at the Australian Film Institute awards in 1963, and other international recognition followed at Vancouver, Venice and Chicago (Benko 1969, p.99 and Murphy 1979, p. 50).

53. Murphy 1979, p.50

54. Mould 2007, p.11.

55. This is the (incomplete) version held at the National Film and Sound Archive.

56. Breton (1951) ‘As in a Wood’, cited in Hammond, 2000, p. 76.

57. For accounts of the artist’s other contemporaneous practice in experimental theatre, sculpture and electronics, see Benko 1969, pp. 108–13, and de Berg, 1969.

58. Davidson, 1995.

59. Miller, 2000, p. 477; also see Elsaesser’s discussion of how ‘in the darkened environment of the cinema auditorium, one’s grip on reality is loosened, facilitating through the external, optical projection also different kinds of internal, psychic projections, and bringing about a fusion of the interior ‘dream screen’ with the actual screen in the cinema’. Elsaesser, 2007, p. 64ff. On the analogy between dreams and the cinema leading to psychoanalytic film theory’s founding metaphors, see, for example, Miller 2000, p. 477; Bergstrom, 1999; Lebeau, 2001; Baudry, 1974. Rascaroli provides a useful overview of the founding ‘oneiric metaphor’ in film theory (Rascaraoli, 2007).

60. Davidson, 1995.

61. Sitney, 1979; James, 2005, pp. 165–202.

62. In conversation with MacDonald in 2007, filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky notes his fondness for a recurring trope in mid-century experimental filmmaking which seems pertinent to the context of Ostoja and Dutkiewicz’s practice: ‘the late-forties, early-fifties mythic drama, the pursuit film, usually a boy following a girl, accompanied by a certain kind of classical music. They seem to be based on Cocteau and Maya Deren’. Dorsky and MacDonald, 2007, p. 23.

63. On the film society movement in Australia, see Hodsdon, 2001. Further evidence is provided by Davidson’s recollection, in his memoirs, of a meeting with Ostoja in May 1955, during which time they ‘had a good chat, especially about European experimental films, and decided that we would start a 16mm one, to be shot without a script, just going out with a camera, shooting whatever we found, and stirred our imagination’. Davidson, 1995, p. 1.

64. These films are Transfiguration (1964) and Time in Summer (1968), see Dutkiewicz, 2009, pp. 58– 61.

65. Louis Aragon, On Décor, cited in Hammond, 2001, p. 52.

66. Hammond, 2001, p. 7.

67. In his memoirs, Davidson recalls the anecdote of finding the mouthpiece in the junkyard, and how ‘it became a symbol of the means by which (in dream), he communicated with the other world … Quite a lot of time was spent in filming it floating through the air, in slow motion (p. 2). In the film Stan constructs a dream-like sequence of events, but of a syntax that is apparently without theme as a dream often has, even if only in symbols. The new syntax, which was prevalent in the creative atmosphere of Adelaide at the time, is that “Like life, THINGS JUST HAPPEN”, rather than structured by Justification, and a literary coherence or Logic’ (p. 6). Davidson, 1999.   

68. In his essay ‘Film, Literature and the Carnivalesque’, Robert Stam discusses the artistic and narrative strategies associated with carnival, in particular ‘parody and burlesque in the form of the “low take-off on what the high people were doing”’. Stam, 1989, p. 97.

69. Notes from the First Australian Filmmakers’ Festival, Sydney, 1971, cited in Thoms, 1978, p. 78.

70. Naficy, 2001.

71. Hodsdon. 2001, p. 62.

72. Lawson, 1963, p. 19. 

73. Moore reads this period in terms of a generational shift: ‘At the outbreak of peace a diaspora occurs and the bohemian torch passes to a new Cold War generation of jazz and folk musicians, beats, homosexuals, occultists but especially students … but also the Dadaist inspired Melbourne “Drift” of Barry Humphries’. Moore, 1998, p. 59.

74. Humphries, 1992 (especially pp. 121–2, where he discusses his ‘attachment’ to the Film Society and the arrangement of ‘special screenings of surrealist movies like Un Chien Andalou and La Coquille et le Clergyman’). Considering Humphries’s early beginnings in experimental cinema, his satirisation of the genre in the hilarious late-1960s invention Martin Agrippa — ‘pillar of the cinematic avant-garde’ — is further evidence of his commitment to Dadaist ‘sacrilege’. 

75. See Britain, 1997.

76. Thoms noted that the funds raised from early screenings of Blunderball were sufficient to fund the production and processing of several other films. Conversation with the author, 5 July 2011; see also Thoms, 1978, p. 79.

77. See Thoms, 1978, p. 32.

78. Ross, 1989, p. 144.

79. Moore, 1998, p. 59.

80. See Tyler ,1969; Renan, 1968.

81. See Reekie, 2007.

82. Thoms, 1978, p. 79.

83. Artaud, Cahiers de Rodez, (1945-46), in Kuenzli, 1996, p. 171.

84. Thoms, 1978 (1973), p. 259.

85. Mudie, 1997.

86. Banes, 1993, p. 191.

87. Thoms ,1973, p. 257.

88. Bakhtin, 1965.

89. Stam, 1989, p. 105, 103; 85ff.

90. As Martin Jay notes, the Surrealists’ thought translated infrequently into actual films realising this promise – ‘(m)uch of their talent was, in fact, spent in devising scenarios rather than shooting actual films – that is, in verbal rather than visual endeavours’, Jay, 1993, p. 255.

91. See Butler, 2002, p. 102.

92. See Magrini, 2009.

93. Robertson notes that The Wondergraph company was formed to make local news and feature pictures in 1911, with Krischock becoming a contract camera-man in 1912. Robertson, 1971, p. 4.

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