My Chinese student turned me on to the weird—and ultimately discombobulated—movie made by Italian-in-American-made film, The Legend of 1900.
Perhaps turned me on to the film isn’t the right phrase; rather, I watched this film with the hope that it would eventually find its solid footing and pick one thing that it wanted to be. As it was, it was one part romantic nostalgia of an unusual life, one part campy romp, and one part musical homage. All parts together, it was disjointed, and didn’t add to all it could have had it had an editor with a stronger hand.
The movie is part flashback told by Max, the best friend of the lead character, a man named 1900. Max wants to sell his trumpet—an instrument that once gave him pleasure, but now only gives him pain. At the shop, the dealer plays an old, patched-together record that Max said was made by his friend 1900 and later destroyed. In the form of a story within a story, we learn that strange story of 1900.
1900 was born onboard a ship that passed between Europe and the United States several times a year. His parents left him onboard and departed, leaving him to be raised by one of the ship’s workers. 1900 never departs the ship for fear of being taken to an orphanage, thereby developing a fear of land that never subsides.
In this way, the film sets up an interesting premise—that 1900 is some otherworldly creature because he doesn’t have a city or a nation, but only a ship. Because of this unique status, 1900 can make up similarly otherworldly jazz music, incomparable to anything on any continent.
This really unusual and intriguing premise is almost entirely squandered, however. 1900 is a talented piano player—he just sits down at the piano and can amazingly play—but his talent seems no different than a prodigiously-talented piano player born and bred on dry land. His prodigy is interesting, sure, but we never get to see the link between 1900’s sea life and his unusual talent. We understand 1900’s otherness, to be sure, but we don’t even get a clue to how this otherness makes him special.
Strange scenes of Max and 1900’s sadness and 1900’s wondrous talent oddly coupled with a scene of a manically rolling piano and a falling chandelier make you wonder the hell you’re watching. Most of all, it makes you wonder why it can’t all be better.