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[whitespace] Tim Roth
Waxing Roth: A reclusive piano genius (Tim Roth) goes by number, not name.

Birth of The Blahs

Tornatore's 'The Legend of 1900' induces seasickness

By Richard von Busack

IT SEEMS CERTAIN that an American filmmaker who learned Italian and made a film about Italy inspired mostly by Italian films would create a weird pastiche. It would be neither Italian nor American, simply peculiar. The Legend of 1900, Giuseppe Tornatore's first English-language film, is such a case in reverse: an elephantine fable about American jazz, movies and the solitude of an artist.

It's the story of a foundling, discovered in 1900 aboard the Virginian, an ocean liner. Danny (Bill Nunn), an African-American coal stoker, decides to bring the baby down to the furnaces and raises him there. The waif's benefactor is brained during an accident, and the child grows into a piano player who dazzles the shipboard crowd.

It's the choice of "1900" (Tim Roth), as the musician is named, never to leave the ship. His life exhibits a forced pathos. He's a great piano player who records only once, falls in love with a girl he sees only a few times and loses forever, and never performs for the rest of the landlocked world.

His buddy Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince, from Heavy) is more practical and coarse, the fat Sancho Panza to this thin piano-playing aesthete. Max narrates the end of the story to a sympathetic music-store owner as he tries to pawn his trumpet for the price of a meal.

When the fable is lightest, the film is most agreeable. But Tornatore prefers the artistic heaviness. He ponders the ship in decline, in the wrecker's yard. He takes seriously 1900's insistence that dry land is too vast for him to visit, and he writes for the pianist a speech of true Anthony Newley flatulence about his upcoming welcome in heaven.

The Legend of 1900's CGI graphics are a little shoddier than even the ones used in Titanic. There's the harsh yet sickly white light pouring in the portholes--not to mention the exhausted, smeary, metallic colors that make even a new print of this film look like a second-generation dub from a VHS tape.

The only record of the pianist's music is a master recording, and he breaks it in a fit of pique: "My music isn't going anywhere without me." The lost song (by Ennio Morricone, not at his best) sounds like the piano accompaniment for the end credits from Search for Tomorrow, but it's supposed to be the only surviving legacy of a genius.

The music deserves further note. It ranges from some OK rags to a mass-market nod--a song by Roger Waters with guitar solo by "Edward" Van Halen--and some violently anachronistic quotes from Miles Davis. In The Legend of 1900, piano-playing genius is characterized by speed, just as it was in Shine. Speed equals talent. It was this kind of logic that made Liberace a star--that, and the sequins.

In the film's most loathsome moment, the pianist uses sheer velocity to win a contest with a braggartly, obnoxious Jelly Roll Morton (the great musician's memory is profaned by Clarence Williams III). I'm presuming Tornatore wouldn't know how offensive this scene is to Americans, especially African Americans; it's the worst thing of its kind since Ralph Macchio used Mozart to beat Steve Vai's blues-playing demon in Crossroads.

The essence of this adolescent view of perfectionism is preposterous. If Tornatore believes that a real artist chooses obscurity, why didn't he just burn the only print of this movie?

I may be taking the metaphor too literally; Tornatore could be referring to the scarcity of recordings of the geniuses of the early jazz era. Fans know all too well about how the entire life work of some great musician can be reduced by time and neglect to a lone beat-up 78. And it's our own national embarrassment that so many geniuses of this era are only available in their native country on foreign-based labels.

But the point of this fable--you Americans don't know your culture--is destroyed by the scene of Jelly Roll Morton being put in his place. Listen to a sample Morton recording--say, the 1926 record of "Dr. Jazz," recorded by Jelly Roll and His Red Hot Peppers--and the ebullience and brilliance of the performer wipe out both any memory of Williams' grandstanding and Tornatore's shockingly misconceived epic.

'The Legend of 1900' (R; 123 min.), directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, written by Alessandro Baricco, photographed by Lajos Koltai and starring Tim Roth, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Bill Nunn, opens Friday at the Los Gatos Cinema in Los Gatos.

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From the November 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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