Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Tori Amos: Fade To Red

I've really enjoyed the Directors Label music video compilations, and while I'm waiting for the next series of those, I decided to pick up Tori Amos' video compilation DVD, Fade to Red. It's a really different experience watching the videos from an artist perspective rather than a director one, for one, I like pretty much all the songs, but at the same time, you don't get as consistently interesting videos as you would from a Gondry or Jonze.

However, there's still a strong sense of authorship, even if she doesn't come up with the concept for the video, it's clear that Tori has a lot of themes she's interesting in exploring, and on the whole, this is a great bunch of videos. One complaint about the DVD is that the videos seem to be placed in a completely random order, but I'll talk about them in chronlogy.

The videos for Little Earthquakes are not too good. I'm not sure if it's the DVD or the videos themselves, but they all seem to be shot on third generation VHS, really grainy, especially on the movement. 'Crucify' is a great song, but the video is very pedestrian, just a bunch of images with nothing in particular connecting them. I do like the stuff with the bathtub and her medieval dress, but the stuff at the end with the cheerleaders is just goofy and doesn't work.

'Silent all these Years' and 'Winter' are similar to 'Crucify,' same white background, bunch of random stuff, no cohesion to the video. I guess they're designed to showcase Tori's performance, but we don't need to see her play the piano to know that she's a good musician. There's some good images in here, but they don't really go anywhere. 'China' is a bit different, but equally goofy. Here, Tori wears a jumpsuit that looks like rocks and she sits on a beach. It's a bit goofy looking and doesn't work so well.

From these inauspicious beginnings, she moved on to more ambitious and interesting videos for Under the Pink. The video for 'God' doesn't quite cohere together, but it's got enough really interesting parts to be a success. I love the image of Tori with all the rats running over, and the finale with the religious ecstascy and the snakes is fantastic. The slo mo shot of that woman hitting the tambourine is a highlight. It reminds me of an X-Files episode, which also focused on evangelicals and snakes.

'Cornflake Girl' is one of my favorite Tori songs, and it gets two videos. Both are good, but I think it's tough for the video for a really special song to live up to the song itself. It reminds of Anton Corbjin's video for U2's 'One,' a good video, but one that doesn't quite capture the grandeur of the song.

The UK version of Cornflake girl has some nice black and white photography and a bunch of crazy images. I love the houses and people twisting through the void of the starfield, spinning out of control. The thing this video really made me aware of is Tori's huge vocal range, to see her go from the high "You bet your life" part to the really low "Man with the golden gun" section is incredible. It's a crazy song, and this video captures some of that.

The US version is a better video, focusing on the thematic content of the song, infighting between women. This video has a lot of stuff going on, but it doesn't always come together. I really like the synthetic Western landscape where the video is set, and the guy in the pot surrounded by the dancing women is a really strong visual. Clearly, there's some phallic symbolism going on there, with the guy cutting up a carrot while the women pull out their lipstick to fight him. The end of the video, where Tori is playing the piano on herself is a bit goofy, but on the whole I liked this one.

'Pretty Good Year' is a bit of a step back, returning to the white world seen in the Little Earthquakes video. I think the dance sequence towards the end of the video works, but on the whole, there's not much notable here. 'Past the Mission' also deals with male/female conflict, here seen in the rebellion of a bunch of traditional village women. It's an effectively dramatic video, and I think the image of the priest walking over the women lying on the ground is a nice visual encapsulation of the video's theme.

Moving onto the videos for Boys for Pele, things keep getting better. 'Caught a Lite Sneeze' is like 'Cornflake Girl' (UK) in that it's basically an exercise in greenscreen, superimposing Tori onto various locations. There's some really strong moments here, like the giant bald guys rising out of the sea, but some of the CG doesn't work so well. The best stuff is the scenes in the house.

'Talula' is a video I really like because it's got a lot of the elements I really like, the scientific experimentation in particular. The primary image here, Tori trapped into the plastic box is really effective, and would be used to even better effect later in 1,000 Oceans. I really like Tori dancing in the box, and the look she has as they're examining her is priceless.

A crucial element to all these videos, the earlier ones in particular, is Tori's personality, this sort of innocent joy at playing the music and being in whatever world she is. In the early videos, it's her performance that keeps you interested, even when not much is going on. I've read that she was an inspiration for Delerium in Sandman, and in some of these videos you can see that sort of childlike playfulness.

Next up we're getting into the Golden Age of Tori videos. 'Hey Jupiter' is a simple scenario, Tori is trapped in a burning building and a little girl brings her out. What makes the video so powerful is the way it's shot, which gives an epic grandeur to everything. The whole video seems to take place in slow motion, which better allows you to take in the images. Tori's makeup here is critical to making the video work, because it sets her up as someone who's so utterly broken that she just might stay in this burning building and let herself burn with it.

However, the little girl, an angel, comes along and takes her out of the building to safety outside. I love the way the people watching the building burn are photographed, the way Tori just seems to slip by them and leave with the girl. On her commentary, Tori talks about how the little girl is meant to be an angel, and the video shows Tori moving from one realm to some kind of higher plane. You could read the building as hell and the outside as heaven, or you could look at it as a representation of her emotional state. The video works either way and that's one of its greatest strengths, it's a really simple story and you can read into it whatever you want to. You could even say that Tori died in the fire, and the little girl is taking her off to heaven, that would explain why no one seems to notice them when they exit the building.

Now we're onto the videos for 'From the Choirgirl Hotel,' which features Tori's three best videos. She was on a ridiculous roll here. The first video was for 'Spark,' and this is the primary reason I bought the DVD. I saw this online and I figured that having this video in DVD quality alone would be worth buying the disc for.

'Spark' is about a woman who's been kidnapped by some guy, and wakes up in the woods, blindfolded and bound, then struggles to free herself. This is one of those videos where image and music work perfectly together to create a really unique world. The images here are striking and powerful. I love the opening, Tori lying on the ground, blindfolded, singing in closeup. From there, we feel her struggle to escape him, running through the woods, and eventually making it to the water. The moment where she falls under, then triumphantly rises, as the song crescendoes is a highlight, and that's followed by an astonishing helicopter shot which moves through the woods, catching up with her as she's running. We're completely behind her as she tries to make her escape and that moment is exhilirating.

The end of the video throws everything into perspective, after this triumphant escape, Tori encounters two girls in a car, who drive away, leaving her in the middle of the road, still bound. It brings you out of the fantasy world of the video into harsh reality, this woman may be able to escape, but she's still an outcast in some ways.

On the commentary, Tori talks about how the video was inspired by Twin Peaks. It certainly reminds me of Ronette Pulaski, and a lot of stuff from Fire Walk With Me. Like Hey Jupiter, the video works because it takes a simple scenario that can be read literally or in a multitude of allegorical dimension. You could read it as Tori escaping the patriarchy, only to betrayed by women who hold to traditional ideas of subservient femininity, or you could see it as just an action movie type scenario. It's all about what you read into it. However, what I take away from it is the moment, Tori slipping under and the blindfold falling off, the finale with the car blowing up in time to the music and the final closeup of blood falling on a leaf, the impact of her ordeal finally coming home.

'Jackie's Strength' is another great video, a video with a narrative that loops through time in a really interesting way. The basic premise of the video is that Tori is going to get married, but decides to keep driving instead of stopping at the church, and as she drives, she sees people she knew from the past, different time periods crossing over each other. It's a video that takes a couple of viewings to get, but the primary idea seems to be showing a bunch of women at crucial moments of choice in their lives, none more so than Tori herself who has to decide whether to go back and get married or keep moving on.

The most striking thing about the video is the gorgeous black and white photography, which, combined with the vintage Kennedy footage, gives everything a very nostalgic, 60s feel. The final moment of the video when Tori encoutners her younger self is great, and uses the time disjunctions to provide a strong emotional conclusion for the video. I guess the thing I find most interesting about the video is the way that she uses all these different women to create a kind of meta-narrative of femininity in the twentieth century, contrasting the hopes and dreams of youth with the settling that inevitably happens when you get older. So, the ending is a meeting of these different periods, and by reconnecting with her younger self, old Tori will rediscover some of the fire that drove her earlier in her life.

The other video I bought this collection for is 'Raspberry Swirl.' Even though she specifically cites Spark as drawing influence from Twin Peaks, if there's one video that's pure TP on here, it's 'Swirl,' which opens on red curtains and an odd little boy who's dressed like the kid with the mask from Fire Walk With Me. This is an incredible video, both technically and content wise. The images here are very striking, I love the jump cuts from Tori standing still to Tori dancing.

The sequence with the old man and the people dancing feels very Lynch, and is simultaneously unsettling and exhilirating. The people dancing are setup almost like a museum exhibit, and the main characters seem to flash through that space thanks to the great fade to black cuts. Tori's performance here is critical, her exuberance ties the emotion of the music to the odd visuals. The conclusion with the table and the pigs is fun. I think this might be the most Lynch thing I've seen that wasn't actually directed by him. A lot of people try to imitate his style, but it's usually not captured this well, the video really seems to take place in the Twin Peaks universe. This is the rare case where the video for one of my favorite songs not only lives up to the song, but actually enhances it, a perfect visualization of what's going on in the music.

Those three videos for From the Choirgirl Hotel are unquestionably the highlight of Tori's video career. They're all quite different, but each do a brilliant job of both telling an interesting story on their own, and also matching up perfectly with the emotion and thematic content of the song.

Starting off To Venus and Back is the concert video 'Bliss.' Normally, I would slag them for making a concert video, but this one works. I think a large part of it is the energy of the song, the upbeat intensity is the perfect accompaniment to the images of adoring fans. I like the mix of black and white and color, and the video does a good job of conveying the feeling of the concert it's chronicling. I think there was a lot of potential for a different kind of video for this song, but as it was, it turned out ok.

The next video from that album was '1000 Oceans,' which again takes a very simple concept to create a strong allegorical narrative. Here, we've got Tori in a glass box on an L.A. street, looking out at life going by. The video has a phenomenal mood, this completely melancholy feeling. It reminds me a lot of 'Hey Jupiter,' in the way that slow motion is used to both spotlight the phenomenal visuals and submerge you in this atmosphere.

The way I saw it, the glass box represents the filters we put up between ourselves and the world. So, she witnesses all this trauma, but she can't put herself at risk to try and change things. The defenses we create to guard our emotions also prevent us from connecting with the world at large. So, she can't help the people who pass her. At the end of the video, she finally connects with someone emotionally, the family who looks in at her, and she's at peace. The violence could not penetrate the box, but the love and compassion of this family could. The glass box is such a strong visual metaphor, it's a fantastic video.

Next up was Scarlett's Walk, and 'A Sorta Fairytale.' This video also tells an allegorical narrative, but it doesn't really work for me. The basic premise is that Tori and Adrien Brody are just limbs without bodies and they need to get together to make each other whole. The effects are pretty good, but they still end up looking a little freaky, and that weirdness makes it difficult to respond to the video. It's well made, and definitely conveys its point, but the aesthetics undermine the mood they're going for.

And that brings us to Tori's most recent album, The Beekeeper. 'Sleeps with Butterflies' is another greenscreen extravangansa, with Tori superimposed in Japanese art environments. The first time I saw it, I wasn't that big a fan, but I watched it again and really liked the aesthetics. The look reminds me a bit of Dave McKean's stuff in Mirrormask, which isn't that suprising considering her and Neil Gaiman are tight. I suppose there's some significance to the twin imagery, but mainly this is about getting lost in the visual world, and in that respect, it's successful.

The final video unfortunately ends things on a bit of an unnotable note. 'Sweet the Sting' is another performance video, it's just Tori rehearsing with a gospel choir and hanging around. After the majesty and ambitiousness of some of her videos, it's a let down. But, it's a catchy song and the video is well shot.

Along with all the videos, you get a Tori commentary on each one. I was really struck by the way she talks, you get no idea of her speaking voice from her singing, and her style is unlike anyone I've heard. Maybe it's because I'm from New York, but Tori seems to talk very slow, and most notably, she never says "um" or "like." Your average person, even if they know what they're talking about drops a few ums, particularly in commentaries. However, rather than say um, Tori will just be silent and then continue the thought. I suppose it reflects a certain confidence, like people will wait around to hear what she has to say, the need to fill every moment with sound is indicative of the need to keep people listening. It's a unique vocal quality and I think she could do a good spoken word album, or in particular, she could do a great relaxation tape.

The other interesting thing on the commentaries was hearing her talk about "Tori" as a character. She would rarely refer to herself on screen in the first person, usually she would talk about Tori's motivation, what Tori was doing. I always find it interesting to hear commentaries and see whether an actor refers to themselves on screen as "I" or by the character's name. Here, there's no real line between the character and performer, in theory, it's supposed to be Tori herself in the video, but she creates this wall, which is probably necessary considering some of the stuff that happens to the Tori character.

Listening to all of her stuff in a row, you can clearly see her development. She started out as very piano driven, prone to hard rock outbursts. This changed with Boys For Pele, which led to an experimental, electronic period. However, with Scarlett's Walk she fled from the electronics, and by The Beekeeper, she seems to be pretty smooth, with the edges worn down. Of course, I haven't heard all of Scarlett or The Beekeeper, so I may be off with that generalization.

On the whole, it's a great video collection. About half the videos here are masterpieces, perfectly capturing the song, and all the others have at least something of merit about them. I only hope that with her next chunk of videos she gets back to the narrative style of the middle electronic era. We shall see.


Kamagra said...

Interesting! I think I have just seen a couple of Tori Amos videos, so, this collection really caught my attention. Thank you! said...

It won't truly have success, I suppose this way.

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