Thursday, March 15, 2007

Year of Tori Amos

Is Franz Ferdinand now the greatest Scottish rock act of all time? Al Stewart beat back the challenge from Big Country and the Proclaimers, but “Take Me Out” is a better song than “Year of the Cat,” I fear.

Speaking of “Year of the Cat,” the finest thing I have found so far on YouTube is a fuzzy clip from 1991 of Tori Amos backing up Al Stewart on that song… Stewart looks and sounds like a total gump, but Tori looks beautiful, sounds beautiful, and radiates sheer joy from the ecstasy of her playing.

This is really what YouTube does best: All those Daily Show clips are nice to have, but this little home video would have probably been lost forever without a place to put it online. The taping is so low-tech Tori’s hands appear to get lost in the maw of the piano, and she shimmers and threatens to disappear altogether at one point, but all that shakiness just adds to the intimacy of the moment. (The way her solo piano replicates the entire orchestral middle of the song prefigures Brad Mehldau’s later covers of Radiohead, wherein he handles the whole breakdown section of "Paranoid Android" all by his lonesome on the piano.) Her first album wouldn’t even be out for another year, but it’s clear from this clip that Tori was going to be a star. And that Al Stewart didn’t have much of a career left.

* * * * *

If you haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent, made in 1936, you might think it’s a larky little romp, a la North by Northwest, or maybe a knotty battle of spies with ever-shifting identities. It’s kind of both, but it’s also addresses the question of what happens to the humanity of people forced to betray and even kill others in the name of a larger struggle. The ever-gorgeous Madeleine Carroll is originally thrilled about what appears to be her first assignment, posing as the wife of British secret agent John Gielgud, but she quickly sours when it appears that actual death will be involved. Robert “Father Knows Best” Young plays both a devil-may-care playboy and a ruthless German spy, and you probably never expected him to do either.

I got it along with eight other Hitchcock movies from his pre-Hollywood period on a three-DVD set at a grocery store. The box boasts 13 hours of footage, which isn’t that much for nine movies. Hitch is nothing if not brisk. So I don’t know exactly why that was such a selling point, but it was only $9.95, which makes it just over a dollar a movie. Even if you only count the movies really worth watching, it’s still about two bucks per. Pretty much all you want to see from Hitchcock’s British period is here, including the original Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes (no Waltzes From Vienna,though).

I’ve watched them all except for Rich and Strange, which sounds like a Nick and Nora-ish romantic comedy romp, and The Lodger, which is silent. As soon as I get a pipe organ installed next to my DVD player, I’ll check that one out.

Secret Agent is about the median feature on the bill, not quite up to the standards of those three mentioned above or Sabotage, but about at the level of Murder. (For one thing, Gielgud is not all that gud, but merely Gielmediocre.) The most compelling reason to see it is that Peter Lorre is made up to look exactly like Spike Lee. There’s the jheri-curled hair, the wispy semicircular mustache, the heavy lids, and the single hoop earring. Unfortunately, he never asks Gielgud, “Is it the shoes, Sir John?”

Peter Lorre, of course, is name-checked in “Year of the Cat.” Clearly, “Year of the Cat” towers over our modern culture like “The Waste Land” did over that of Europe between the wars.

1 comment:

MJN said...

They're not Scottish, but nobody ever used bagpipes more effectively than AC/DC on "It's a Long Way to the Top."