The Legend of 1900

January 10, 2009

Giuseppe Tornatore, 1998


It’s probably fair to say that interpretations of works of art reveal as much, if not more, about the spectator as they might about the work itself. So, no one can subscribe a definitive meaning to any artwork, given that one’s understanding of it depends to a great extent on what one brings to it. This is as true for opera as it is for the visual arts, music, literature, theatre, dance, and of course cinema. Like all art forms, cinema offers opportunities for reflection, so if we accept that subtext, allegory, and metaphor are central to cinema, then our appreciation will be greatly enhanced if we ‘read’ films with our ‘subtext antennas’ fully engaged.


The downside to developing a ‘subtext antenna’ is that films with no subtext, those with nothing to offer beyond story and plot, become increasingly boring. Films we may have once thought to be great when seen again might appear shallow and empty. One might also notice the manipulative and duplicitous ‘social engineering’ function of films designed to placate and reassure while affirming the values and agendas of power and privilege. I realise that this might imply that film companies across the globe are involved in conspiracies to control the minds of the masses through escapist entertainment, which of course is an absurd notion. And yet, one could be forgiven for thinking so given the endless stream of diverting nonsense that fills the multiplexes, and of course the best way to hide a conspiracy is to have it dismissed as a ‘theory’.


But the up side of an active subtext antenna is that multiplex diversions can be surprisingly revealing. Giuseppe Tornatore’s THE LEGEND OF 1900 (La leggenda del pianista sull'oceano) is one such film, a flashy large-scale entertainment with typically large-scale production values that tells a rather dumb and improbable tale about a baby who is abandoned by his immigrant mother on a luxury liner bound for America. The boy is adopted by one of the boiler men, who names him Nineteen Hundred after the year of his birth – as you do. The boy grows up to be Tim Roth, a brilliantly talented piano player who has not only spent his entire life aboard the ship, but has also vowed to never leave it.


The film was made at the time when movie industries worldwide were celebrating the first 100 years of cinema, and given that Legend was directed by the man who made Cinema Paradiso, it would be reasonable to surmise that "the cinema" is one of its central themes. Indeed, one could easily read the film as a metaphor for the lost glory of cinema. Just below the narrative surface lies a resigned nostalgia for the ‘age of great movies’, and like a big old rusted ship consumed by an indifferent ocean, the implication might be that the brilliance and splendour that was once 'the movies' has been reduced to endless repetitive cycles of dead-in-the-water entertainments, one lumbering Titanic after another.


Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a trumpet player who spent years in the ship’s band, narrates the story (nay, ‘legend’) of 1900 in flashback. When, near the end of the film, Max (the embodiment of expedient commercialism) learns that the ship will soon be sunk, he tries to convince 1900 (the embodiment of artistic conviction) to abandoned the ship (the wreckage of cinema) and move to dry land (commercial mainstream crowd-pleasers). Max describes ‘dry land’ as a place of infinite choice (the reward for selling out), but 1900 prefers to reject mediocrity and vanish into the watery abyss of history with his beloved ship. The implication being that there is no longer a place for cinematic art, which is an irrelevant and discarded fantasy. Yep, it’s as corny as it is depressing.


It’s hard to say whether Tornatore made The Legend of 1900 in the vacuous style of its worst excesses so as to denounce them, or if he simply made a vacuous film. Either way, this "fairy-tale for grownups" demeans both fairy-tales and grownups. At one point 1900 says, "You're never really done-for as long as you have a good story and someone to tell it to", but what he should have said is 'someone to sell it to'! 



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