On the surface of things, it would seem that I ought to love the more baroque works of Giuseppe Tornatore — by which I mean Cinema Paradiso (1988) and The Legend of 1900 (1998). They’re over-the-top, beautifully designed, thrillingly shot, utterly stylized, excessive — in short, all things that appeal to me. But — and I know this is heresy — Cinema Paradiso has always been what is called “too much of a muchness” for me and leaves me cold. On the other hand, The Legend of 1900 might be called “too much of a nothingness,” and it left me feeling drained to no real point. While filmmakers like Fellini, Ken Russell, Baz Luhrmann, and Joe Wright dazzle and sweep me up in their films, Tornatore just seems…well, fussy. He invariably is obviously trying too hard in a way that never feels sincere. The two films of his I’ve seen that I liked the most were A Pure Formality (1994) and Malena (2000) — both of which are pretty straightforward. The Legend of 1900 in particular is anything, but straightforwward. It is busy, busy, busy in a futile effort to obscure the fact that it’s a thin — and preposterous — anecdote trying to palm itself off as a grand epic.
Now, it is worth noting that The Legend of 1900 has its admirers. The IMDb is filled with people gushing over it — in that particularly hyperbolic “greatest film ever made” manner the the internet seems to generate. I approached it knowing nothing about it — not even its premise — and was prepared to like it. And goodness knows, it did everything it could to make me like it — too much, in fact. It wasn’t long before it struck me as a beautiful bore that was going nowhere at a terrific rate of speed. But beautiful it is — even at its phoniest. It looks like something from 20 years earlier. In fact, it looks a lot like Ken Russell’s 1977 film, Valentino — something that is helped by the presence of Peter Vaughan in the cast — but it has none of that film’s energy or point. In fact, I have no idea what the point of Tornatore’s film is.
What we get is an increasingly absurd yarn about a baby born and abandoned on an ocean liner — and named 1900 — who is raised by a ship’s stoker (Bill Nunn) and when he’s killed is raised by…I’m not sure who raises him to manhood, but he gets there and is played by Tim Roth. Turns out that 1900 is a natural musical genius who pounds out jazz on the keyboard without knowing what it is. He becomes a huge attraction in the ship’s orchestra, achieving such fame that Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III) comes on board to challenge him to a piano duel. In this duel — a surprisingly bitter and unpleasant event that paints a nasty picture of both men — 1900 plays jazz so hot that he lights a cigarette on the piano strings. (I am not making this up.) The real hook of all this is that 1900 never sets foot on land and ultimately chooses…well, no, I won’t tell you that.
The whole thing is supposed to be some kind of profound fable — and it might have been if there was any real emotional investment in it. But there isn’t. Apart from the fact that the film tells us we should care about 1900, it gives us no reason to do so. Instead, it gives us a framing story where 1900′s only friend, a trumpet player named Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), tells the story to a sympathetic shopkeeper (Peter Vaughan), who has unbelievably ended up with a pieced-together wax master of the only recording 1900 ever made. (And a singularly unmemorable tune it is, despite the fact that everyone oohs and ahhs over it.) None of it works — at least for me — because nothing about it ever earns the sympathy it wants us to feel. Still, if you want a couple hours of some spectacular imagery, this is it.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Legend of 1900 Sunday, June 8, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.