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The Citroën CX of the Common People

[Originally published 1997 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

Seven music videos for your delectation. Just scroll down, or navigate:

  1. Blur's "Charmless Man"
  2. Pulp's "Common People"
  3. Rocket from the Crypt's "On a Rope"
  4. Nada Surf's "Popular"
  5. Orbital's "The Box"
  6. The Chemical Brothers' "Setting Sun"
  7. Luscious Jackson's "Naked Eye"

Blur's "Charmless Man"

Jamie Thraves, director

I had one of my trademark intuitions one day. (I can't explain them, and they come to me unpredictably, but they're always right.) This intuition bellowed Turn on the TV right now! I obeyed. I caught less than a second of footage featuring a strangely familiar man, then the blood-curdling visage of a smirking Damon Albarn. I thought nothing of it for a moment, and then sensory information store kicked in: Wasn't that...? Could it have been...?

Various episodes of VCR programming and breathless rewinding and reviewing later, I concluded that yes, the astonishingly dreamy Französisch-Amerikanski actor Jean-Marc Barr had somehow gotten himself mixed up with Blur. Starring in a video, in fact. In his underwear.

As I dabbed iodine on the scrapes sustained while dragging my mandible across the carpet, I reran the tape and at last began to understand how the charismatic and blisteringly intelligent leading man of European cinema (see Lars von Trier's Zentropa), who speaks a twangy Californian English and the velvetiest and most seductive French French imaginable, could find himself in bed with Damon Albarn. Well, not in bed; I reserve that honour. Rather, what Jean-Marc Barr exposes in "Charmless Man," as much as his chest, arms, and legs, is his aristocratic side, portraying a well-groomed boulevardier getting ready for a night on the town.

Funny, though, how Blur (a four-letter word) dogs him every step of the way. I sure as fuck wouldn't want Damon Albarn hovering behind me in the bathroom while I rinsed my mouth out with wine, or while standing mostly naked in the salon strapping on a wristwatch, or magically appearing behind me in a photo of myself on the wall. God, no. Give me Marilyn Manson instead. Huey Lewis. Anyone.

"I met him in a crowded room," Albarn sings in a deserted hall at the outset, accompanying himself on piano two fingers at a time, "where people go to drink away their gloom. He sat me down: So began the story of the Charmless Man." Oblivious at first, the living oxymoron (Jean-Marc Barr "charmless"! Get a grip!) later bemusedly puts up with Albarn's combination lampoon/serenade in the elevator, archly rolling his butterscotch eyes as Albarn fills the lift with multiple levels of vocal inflection. I barely have enough typographic controls at my disposal here (me, who cannot sign his name without italics) to depict Albarn's seesawing falsettos and stresses, but here goes:

He talks at speed. He gets nosebleeds. He doesn't see his days are tumbling down upon him. And yet he tries so hard to please – he's just so keen for you to listen, but no one's lis-ten-ing, and when you put it all together there's the model of the Charmless Man!

Ah, but our hero's passions are aroused when the elevator doors open and boom, there's Blur again standing right in front of him. This time the rolled eyes, bowed head and deliberate stance augur retribution, something I awaited with greater anticipation than a J.-M.B. shower scene. Hailing his right-hand-drive 911 Targa from a valet, l'homme Barr digs his hands into the pockets of his double-breasted and regards the leather-jacketed Britpop annoyance through the corner of his butterscotch eye. Bif! Bang! Pow! The Man (Charmless, peut-être; Milquetoast, nay) knocks Albarn to the ground and delivers a good kick to the kidneys. Itself a dream come true, this fantasia would soon be one-upped by Barr's deliberately running down the entire band when, after trailing him through the streets of London, they finally reappear in the middle of the road. Barr unhesitatingly mows the buggers down (everyone's fantasy, shurely?!), jumps out of the car, punches the roof and runs the rest of the way to the hall, bloodied knuckles bandaged.

Shirttails untucked, looking rather less stunningly coiffed and manicured than the museum-quality Barr we pays our good money for, he pushes open the door of what ought to be a crowded room and finds it empty save for... Blur and a sneering Damon Albarn. Fin du vidéo.

I gotta say, I cut a lot of slack for any videoclip that treats its song as a soundtrack and treats us with actual acting. I'm also fond of well-deployed artifice and metapop of all sorts. Still and all, I do wish Thraves had been a bit more attentive to continuity. Barr's running scenes don't meld together perfectly (too many takes with not enough practice), particularly the gratuitous butterscotch-eyes-aimed-dead-into-the-camera shot. The match cuts with Albarn taunting Barr in the elevator as seen from the front and back of Barr's close-cropped balding head do not really match. Lip-synching – always a mug's game and the first activity to be outlawed once I take over the world – is flubbed noticeably. Bratty Damon Albarn, whose existence I do not actually resent and who came over all lovably sinister, shaggy and insidious in the not-unfabulous "There's No Other Way" (winner of the Joe Clark Award for Best Use of a Worm, Nuclear Blast, and Blancmange in a Music Video), was in clear need here of tighter direction and a lighter acting touch. Going over the top requires restraint, ironically enough.

Even so, "Charmless Man" displays more inventiveness and skill and genuine storytelling than a typical Hollywood movie, very much including Barr's Big Blue, and benefits from dead-on casting of the binational heartthrob, who proceeded to portray an American oil-rig roughneck to a T in von Trier's Breaking the Waves. Damon Albarn should be so talented.

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Pulp's "Common People"

This glittering gem, which does more to advance the aesthetic of Op Art than any piece since the late '60s, showcases what computer matting actually can do in capable hands. And the contrast between the virtuality of the video effects and the manifest realism of Jarvis Cocker's spindly, dirty-hair sex appeal could not be more vivid. He's a sex symbol for all sexes despite a no-frills body no fancier than a vacuum-packed enclosure for bones and organs, minimal reliance on Procter & Gamble personal-hygiene products, and a wardrobe reminiscent of an Arena fashion shoot sourced in a second-hand shop. What leaches out of Cocker is an essence no parfumier can bottle: Star power. He's a subtle, captivating mess in a domain littered with hairspray, Issey Miyake, and pectoral implants.

She came from Greece. She has a thirst for knowledge. She studied sculpture at St. Martin's College. That's where I caught her eye.... She said, "I want to live like common people. I want to do whatever common people do"

That, at least, is the tale Cocker tells from his band's low-rent stage before a curtain of tinsel and a neon PULP sign irreproducible without a good stock of Letraset Instant Lettering fonts circa 1975. While the action detours momentarily to a surreal supermarket – ironically in a colour palate compatible with that used in Canadian Loblaws stores – whose every product is named PULP, the narrative concentrates on a screamingly-lit dance floor straight outta John Travolta with a posse of gratingly true-to-life poseurs, often duplicated in mirror-image on the other side of the dance floor. The danseurs-poseurs flit back and forth and forth and back and back and forth on an endless computer loop that signifies their decadence and depravity in a pretty damn blatant way.

But don't get all superior here, kids: As Jarvis Cocker lobs his new friend's words right back at her--

And still you'll never get it right, because when you're laying [sic] in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall, if you called your dad he could stop it all, yeah

– his pasty face is cut, copied, and pasted-pasted-pasted over a dolly shot of Contemporary British Life, with a lad bouncing a soccer ball (in a loop: bounce-fall-bounce-fall-bounce-fall), a punter kissing his girl (kiss. kiss. kiss), a man flipping-flipping-flipping-flipping through the paper. Is his Greek friend really willing to trade decadence for routine, to swap too much muchness for too little muchness?

After an instrumental bridge more thrilling than anything a gospel choir could belt out, the final Cocker mockery: Taunting les riches from the very Crayola-hued dance floor they call home. As Cocker declaims his slumming friend's words into the camera with ever-increasing scorn, the orchestration matching his parries and thrusts, an Annie Lennox type fixes her lipstick near the dance floor and a lout back in the real world nicks a TV. Common people, indeed.

Digital compositing has reached the stage where lighting discontinuities and haloing artifacts (i.e., matted-in characters have the wrong brightness or lustre and their edges are too distinct) are no longer a problem in video-quality work. George Michael ("Killer [Papa Was a Rolling Stone]") and the Rolling Stones (whatever the fuck that $n million video was called) were content to plaster larger-than-life products and/or actors into life-size scenes, but "Common People" shows us how it's really done. If you're going to use fake matting, make it look fake, and make making it look fake work in your favour. Give us hue, saturation, and brightness unattainable in nature. Make actors do the impossible. Don't try to hide the technology or you strangle the ghost in the machine.

And for God's sake, don't try to make Jarvis Cocker look beautiful. Shoehorning Cocker into a frock is akin to doing the same to Navratilova. We love 'em homely, their art their only backlight.

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Rocket from the Crypt's "On a Rope"

These neoretroglamrockers, who tend toward the kind of duck's-ass haircuts and identical glitter outfits that only straight guys can wear without shame, could reasonably be described as theatrical. If The Kids in the Hall had been an American show, Rocket from the Crypt's multiple guitars and horns (Cf. Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Glueleg) would have stolen the position of house band from queeny Kanadian surfcore instrumentalists Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, who are sort of overwrought and retro themselves, which is of course why we love them.

"On a Rope" – with a greater concentration of stop-start-in-unison lyrics and power chords than Black Sabbath, not that I can remember Black Sabbath – poses the standard directorial problem: How the h-e-double-hockey-stix do you illustrate a song with no actual storyline? The right way, of course, is to conceive a free-standing story told visually and hire actors to do it, banishing the band to mere original-music-video-soundtrack status.

Another way – perhaps not exactly wrong, but not really right, either – is to assemble a hyperreal mise-en-scène reminiscent of a David Lynch film or a Pierre et Gilles photograph (supersaturated green lawns; vast blue skies with puffier-than-puffy clouds; trees at various distances from the camera, permitting a fuzzy/sharp focus effect) and ask your tough indie rocker dudes to cavort with cuddly... little... animals.

Cavort with cuddly little animals. Indie rockers. While you're at it, maybe you could ask your Mormon friend to pick you up a copy of Hustler at the corner store.

The surprise here is the degree to which the Rocketeers take this pretext seriously: About 4/5 of the time they simply act, picking up a goat here, kissing a bunny there, playing host to a litter of kittens crawling across their priceless polyester shirts like tarantulas. Chickadees. Puppies. An actual snail. A hermit crab. An adult dog playing catch, then a stuffed one who, annoyingly, won't. The problem, though, is the other fifth: It's hard enough to lip-synch competently (enough with the lip-synching!) without trying to suppress a smile as a dog licks your face. As an ornery curmudgeon, I could manage it, but les Rocketeers are softies, I guess. The spirit is weak and the flesh is weak.

My typical complaint, then: Being 4/5 right ain't good enough. Being slightly off is just noticeable enough to be irksome – more irksome, in fact, than really fucking it up good. Or bad.

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Nada Surf's "Popular"

Jesse Peretz, director; adequate captions by NCI

The second-queerest video of 1996 (Number 1 is Laura Ashley MacIsaac's "Brenda Stubbert") conceals its queerness in satire, creating a hybrid video that mirrors its song, which itself is 1/3 recitative, not singing.

An Important Music-Industry Executive told me he had hopes that "Popular" would become the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" of '96, even going so far as to set an exact date (September 6) by which 4WD beat boxes continentwide would be blasting the song into unsuspecting bystanders' eardrums at red lights. Alas, it was not to be, and it could not have been: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was deeply ironical and funny within itself. You didn't need to see the video to get the joke. "Popular" is fabulous, but you have to watch "Popular," not just listen to it, to get it. And few Jeep YJs and Suzuki Samurais come equipped with Watchmans.

We open with a diatribe from a man who could not possibly be a teacher (cast an actor here, kids) in a Bayonne High classroom lifted wholesale from the National Lampoon High-School Yearbook Parody, with cheerleading chicks in ponytails and tight knit blouses nodding to themselves at the wisdom of the advice--

Three important lessons for breaking up: Don't put off breaking up when you know you want to. Prolonging the situation only makes it worse. Tell him honestly, simply, kindly, but firmly. Don't make a big production. Don't make up an elaborate story. This will help you avoid a big tearjerking scene. If you want to date other people, say so. Be prepared for the boy to feel hurt and rejected. Even if you've gone together for only a short time and haven't been too serious, there's still a feeling of rejection when someone says she prefers the company of others to your exclusive company. But if you're honest and direct and avoid making a flowery emotional speech when you break the news, the boy will respect you for your frankness, and honestly, he'll appreciate the kind, straightforward manner in which you told him your decision. Unless he's a real jerk or a crybaby, you'll remain friends!

Quick cut to Nada Surf belting out "Popular" in the middle of the football field as the team does warm-ups and, incongruously, the cheerleading chicks cheerlead. (I mean, a band playing in the middle of a football field on a school day I can imagine. But cheerleaders rousing the players for a workout? I mean, get real. These girls have chem labs to catch up on and IUDs to insert.)

"My mom says I'm a catch. I'm popular. I'm never the last picked. I got a cheerleading chick." Oh, God. Being last picked. If we exclude from consideration physical assaults like knees to the groin or wedgies, there simply is no greater high-school humiliation. And Johnny Football Hero doesn't have to worry about it. The fucker.

And he writes for the school newspaper, and everyone greets him as he sashays commandingly down the hall in the cheerleading chick's misty flashback, and he is spectacularly good-looking, with slicked-black chestnut-brown hair, low bodyfat, a great profile and a smart haircut, and Erik Estrada teeth. The fucker.

I propose we support a one-month limit on going steady. I think it would keep people more able to deal with weird situations and get to know more people.

But even as Johnny nuzzles her jaw post-practice, the cheerleading chick has eyes on Johnny's longhair teammate, himself busily doing hamstring stretches with a guy with a day job as a roadie in whatever that 1980s Samoan-American rap group was called.

You can keep your time to yourself. You don't need date insurance. You can go out with whoever you want to!

I know Johnny has low bodyfat, and a very nice pattern of body hair above the hips, because we get to watch him in the shower (he's singing "Popular"! – if Peretz is slouching toward meta, it ain't happening) with two of his closest friends. A careful misting of the frame, not quite similar enough to the mist of the shower jets to escape notice, alerts us that these boys really are taking a shower, and that on Christian music-video stations like MTV we can never catch a glance of their lethal weapons, which is of course why we have so many repressed homosexualists, and Greco-Roman wrestlers, in the showers of army barracks and in the marine corps, but that's another story.

Johnny's getting all lathered up while the cheerleading chick has her makeup mussed by the longhair dude, who hasn't even bothered to change out of his football uniform before tonguing her. Lips flatten, mouths hang agape, wind whips messily through hair. (Oh, the memories... I never had.) "I'm the party star. I'm popular! ... I'll never get caught. I'm popular!" And who saunters into the shower as the song tumbles to its thrilling conclusion? Mr. Longhair, of course, whom Johnny Football Hero greets with that dazzling smile and, I dunno, maybe some other kind of visible reaction that happens not to be in the frame. Close with a flashback of longhair barely keeping said hair out of his mouth while the cheerleading chick throws her head back ecstatically.

The glance the longhair and Johnny toss each other has just the right undercurrents of sexual innuendo (who's been fucking whom? both the same cheerleader, that's who, and doesn't that bind the two boys? and isn't it funny how the two of them get to get naked together?) to catalyze the full-on perversion of high-school stereotypes. This flavour of perversion is cognate with Procter & Gamble deodorant commercials depicting stunningyl fit guys' armpits. Peretz didn't tank with the casting, either: The typical error is to (mis)match buxom babes with some dipshit guy, since all the director, and the assumed heterosexualist male viewer, is interested in is the chick. (I think Hollywood starlets, up to and including Julia Roberts, will know what I'm talking about here.) No, Peretz – he plays in the Lemonheads (!) and directed "Big Me" – thankfully gets it right, making everyone but the longhair a god(dess). And heck, even the longhair has a kind of Jordan Catalano appeal.

Of course, I only like this video because, if I had it to do all over again, I would have been a cheerleading chick. I doubt I would have also been popular, but I sure as fuck would have the best pair of tits in the school.

Back to the list of videos.

Orbital's "The Box"

Benstock & Cowsey, directors

Never mind that it's a music video: "The Box" is quite simply a paragon of nonverbal filmmaking. And it stars the incomparable Tilda Swinton as a wartime aviatrix blasted back to the future. As she walks jerkily around London dressed in her '40s-era trench coat and leather cap, the aviatrix mutely witnesses case upon case of the ongoing violation of nature: detritus in the river, expressways and overpasses, disorienting trams, the madding crowd, overflowing garbage.

Not just any detritus, and not just any kind of jerky walking: The detritus is a rectangular frame of chicken wire from which a wooden leg is suspended, pivoting forward and back at the knee to an uneven tempo that clearly does not match the wind that's causing wavelets on the river's surface. Does that sound like the stop-action animation of the Brothers Quay (Cf. His Name is Alive and Tool videos)? Sure does to me. And the jerkiness is uneven: The aviatrix takes slow irregular steps while the rest of the action in the frame whizzes past as if in time-lapse. (How'd they do it? Here's my theory: Instruct Tilda to move with extreme slowness. Duplicate one frame of Tilda's movements for several frames. Skip a few of the original frames. Clone the next frame you choose just as you had done with the previous. Keep going. This theory mostly accounts for the disparity between Tilda's motion and everyone else's, but the real means by which this was achieved remains mysterious. Imagine – a three-minute music video more cinematographically engaging than Alien 3.)

The aviatrix makes her way past a fast-food shop, with a homeless young man seated outside, and evinces sorrow. She is drawn to a window display of TVs, in whose green fluorescent glow she bathes. The jumbled televisions display chaotic staticky images and the occasional maxim, the first of which is a real heart-stopper: REMEMBER EARTH CLEARLY. Like for when we lose it. Like for when she goes back to wartime and can warn her friends. (That maxim, by the way, was likely heisted from Generation X, where it appears as a chapter title.)

As the music – a wordless amalgam of jungle and piano – propels onward, the aviatrix walks the centre island of a foggy motorway, turns for one last look, and disappears into the past, leaving nothing but a slab of an office building visible in the distance, the same building before which she materialized at the outset. The building is emblazoned MILLENNIUM.

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The Chemical Brothers' "Setting Sun"

Dom & Nick, directors

Absolutely the most astonishing videoclip I've seen in five years, "Setting Sun" morphs human vocals by Noel Gallagher into sonic constructs as abstract as the music that accompanies them. I'm a fan of psychological filmmaking (In Cold Blood, for example, though Dressed to Kill was too disturbing to watch), and "Setting Sun" collapses a lot of id, ego, and superego on its four-minute trip through a woman's fantasies and subconscious.

The video opens and closes with the woman, blond hair tied back in a braid, collapsing on an empty field after sunrise. Tracking crazily and hazily through the field, the camera stops on a few cops in checkered-pattern caps, leaning on their official cars (including a Range Rover) and eyeing us as though we're up to something. Suddenly back at home, the woman's black cat looks up from its milk dish as its mistress peers through a Venetian blind at an oblivious elderly man and woman immersed in TV even while young kids, including an Isabella Rossellini type in a skimpy top, dance avidly behind them.

Take off your orange sweater. Pop into the bathroom. Peel off your shoes. Relax. Undo the corkscrew braids on either side of your head and let your hair fall back. Run your hand across the bathroom mirror, which copies the Orphée poster behind you. Blaze through the woods for a while accompanied by Gallagher's distant vocals. Your cat is still curious. Lie down in front of the TV (was that a dog?), zoom into an underpass, the light at the end of whose tunnel becomes the TV frame, and witness cops beating up ravers as you chomp on potato chips and Gallagher's voices mingle with the siren-like music, stretched and overdubbed and echoed into incomprehensibility.

Zoom through city streets, around corners, to your own front door. A shadow rears up next to your Les Vacances de M. Hurlot poster. Rise. In walks your doppelgänger, still dressed in the orange sweater and with her hair in corkscrew braids, also decked out in eyeliner. Lock eyes. Blink. Rotate camera all the way around you as the music winds down to a squeal, like a phaser blast heard through a Doppler filter. A nighttime rave magically appears behind you. You are there. The drummer's wearing a leopard-skin suit. You should be having fun. Everyone else is. You're confused, walking anxiously through the swaying bodies. The elderly couple are still oblivious to the rave around them. She looks like the Queen Mum; his tongue lolls out.

The cops are here, their cars' blue cherries spinning. In their high-visibility yellow raincoats they look especially ridiculous breakdancing and trying to act half their age, and on the other side of the law. Was that a dog? Yes. A pit bull, held back by a black man with pinpricks for pupils.

This is too much. Lights out. Collapse on the grassy field, your hair a mess. It was all a fantasy. Or a memory. But whose? Hers? Ours? Dom & Nick's?

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Luscious Jackson's "Naked Eye"

Another video predicated on trickery, but frankly, I love trickery and don't get enough of it in my own life. And I will confess something more: It can now be exclusively revealed that I am a Citroënist. The Citroën DS is, as its French name suggests, a goddess. The Citroën SM, a Citroën/Maserati collaboration yielding an immense coupé, was my favourite car growing up, and I suffered near-cardiac arrest in my mid-teesn witnessing Burt Reynolds driving a priceless SM into the drink in whatever loser movie he starred in that year.

"Naked Eye" doesn't merely feature a Citroën CX. That would be enough for me to swear undying love. No, the young man in the fedora and shades who closes the CX's trunk at a French airport – just after the porter removes a brown leather hat box – is none other than Max Perlich, who finally has a role for which he's a natural.

Luscious Jackson consists of four women, one of whom, if memory serves, is a dyke, another a bisexualistrix, the other two hetero. In a clear echo of Fahrenheit 451, in which François Truffaut instructed Julie Christie to play two different roles exactly the same way, the four lusciousjacksontrixen act as one being, with each of them appearing at different times as Perlich and the jacksontrixen walk through the airport, guarding the hat box with their lives. But it's not four trips through the airport, it's a single trip; the lusciousjacksontrixen are interchangeable. (The alternative reading – a single lusciousjacksontrix and four maxperlichen – is unsupportable. Watch it carefully.)

They're trying to evade the porter, whom they spot in an adjoining corridor. But Perlich has a plane to get to, aided, as in all airports, by pictographs. An elevator icon, a departing plane (on a red background, errantly), and, while on an escalator, a tantalizingly plausible pictograph custom made for "Naked Eye" – an eye icon over a baggage icon. (You know, as in customs.) We're not on the lookout for a hat box, are we? And why was a man filming Perlich with a Super 8 camera on the opposite escalator? Has anyone made off with the Citroën?

The jacksontrixen, dressed in glossy ice-blue knee-length belted smocks and apparently nothing else, accompany Perlich – now hand-in-hand, now at a "casual" distance – through the maze of corridors.

Perlich purses his lips and gives good face, the freckles of his ruddy skin matching his chic brown leisure suit. (I am not being ironical. It truly is chic on Perlich.) Some lusciousjacksontrixen lip-synch en route, which would utterly destroy the narrative were everything else not so overwhelmingly right-on. His shades stay on until they round a corner into a hallway that greets their arrival by flickering its overhead lights in an inchworm pattern up and down the hall. Perlich stops his lusciousjacksontrix, takes off the glasses, utters something like "Sit tight a minute" accompanied by body language that communicates character traits more efficiently than a Cameron Crowe script, then walks away down the corridor with the hat box.

No, belay that. Perlich walks back to the lusciousjacksontrix, head bowed, empty-handed. He looks one in the eye. Another (the dyke, I think) grabs him and kisses forcefully. He pushes her off, annoyed. He blinks; she hands him a letter. Coast is clear. Time for a clean getaway. Hug a lusciousjacksontrix. She won't let go of his hand. Now she relents.

Back down the corridor, hat box in hand again. Perlich pauses, haloed in the blinding sunlight of the departure gate, the V of his open collar pointing up his chest hair, the expression carefully blank. Lusciousjacksontrixen walk away, one nearly in tears, the dyke stoic, a third swaggering and on top of the world, the last pensive. Swaggerertrix proudly remounts her sunglasses and strides off, descending the escalator fully composed. A lusciousjacksontrix emerges from the airport, climbs behind the single-spoke steering wheel of the Citroën CX, and drives off, the car's rich black paint dappled by the sun and contrasting against the hashmarked asphalt. A jet engine roars.