After more than two years, we’ve finally ended up in the year 1900. Our bumpy ride is nearing its end. What will the Rear-View Mirror present us with when we look at it this week?
As you will soon see, this is a special instalment of the Rear-View Mirror. And to celebrate that big, scary, exciting number, we’ve asked several of our contributors to write about 1900. You’ll find the results below the “Read More” button, but let me already whet your appetite: coming your way are World Fairs and films with actual, honest-to-god sound, ocean pianists and historical epics, maps of Europe and Swiss musicians and actors. So, curtains up! and enjoy our trip back to 1900!
Lumière et Or – The Golden 1900(s)
The Eiffel Tower was painted golden yellow for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. Welcome to the World Fair!
It was a massive undertaking, eight full years in the planning, but only ran from April 14 through November 12, after which most of it was torn down. Méliès himself is reputed to have made an entire documentary series on the World Fair, which is tragically now presumed lost.
In the Gallery of Machines, the Lumière brothers presented their films on a massive 21 by 16 metre screen. The Phono-Ciné Theatre premiered films … with sound!
And in the première of the Cinéorama, the public could get a simulated ride over Paris in a hot-air balloon. It consisted of a circular screen, 93 metres in circumference, on which 10 synchronized projectors depicted the landscape below. It may have been more than a little dangerous, as there were grave concerns it might catch fire.
Cinéorama also had the patent on the ten 70 mm projectors that made a 330 degree picture of the famous Loie Fuller, muse of Art Nouveau. Lumière is known to also have made films depicting her Serpentine Dance, in colour. We like to talk about “firsts” in film. The first talkie, the first close-up, the first colour film, the first film in 3d. The 1900 Paris fair teaches us that there was sound before The Jazz Singer, colour before The Gulf Between, and 3d before The Power of Love.
1900 – a double confirmation for Morricone’s soundtrack genius
1900 finally offered me a chance to solve my confusion concerning two Italian movies, both of which feature a soundtrack by recently deceased composer Ennio Morricone: 1900 (1976) by Bernardo Bertolucci and The Legend of 1900 (1998) by Giuseppe Tornatore.
At first, the two seem to have nothing in common except Morricone’s scores and their titles: Novecento is both the title of Bertolucci’s movie and the novel by Alessandro Baricco that Tornatore’s film is based on. Bertolucci’s epic film was released as 1900 internationally but split into two parts in some countries due to its monumental length. Tornatore’s film was titled The Legend of 1900 internationally but La leggenda del pianista sull’oceano in the original, possibly to avoid confusion.
The titles might be strikingly similar but the stories couldn’t be further from each other. 1900 chronicles the life stories of two very different friends (played by Robert de Niro and Gérard Dépardieu) in the course of 20th century Italian history, from the death of Giuseppe Verdi to the rise of Fascism and the Second World War. The movie featured an overwhelming international cast including de Niro, Burt Lancaster and Donald Sutherland for the English-speaking markets, as well as Dépardieu, Alida Valli, Dominique Sanda, Ellen Schwiers and Stefania Carsini for the respective European markets. Its epic scope and visual grandeur was reason for much admiration, but its unapologetic depiction of violence and sexuality (some even accused it of moments of paedophilia) also caused scandal and censorship.
The Legend of 1900, was a different animal altogether, chronicling the life of a mysterious, legendary pianist (Tim Roth) aboard the SS Virginian, simply called ‘Novecento’ when found as a baby in a box in the year 1900. The film follows his rise as a famous musical talent aboard the ship and his friendship with Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who tries to lure him from the ship before the legendary steamer is scrapped. Novecento, however, decides to remain where he was born. We get to know the story in flashbacks, told by Max and a shopkeeper, who has recently aquired Novecento’s old piano together with hidden treasures inside.
However different these two similarly titled movies starting around 1900 may be, music plays an integral part in both and each film is a showcase of Morricone’s unique scoring talent, making music not only the emotional bond between us and the stories but weaving soundtrack and source music into one. Whereas 1900 takes its initial cues from references to Verdi’s own music, Morricone also manages to find a voice for the political and emotional upheavals of the first half of the 20th century, notably with a rousing march (Romanzo) that echoes all the nationalist glory of the 18th and 19th century and even became the rallying cry of anti-fascists in post-Franco Spain in the late 70s. Just as rousing is Morricone’s love theme (“Tema di Ada”) for Dominique Sanda’s character, as well as the theme variations for all the historic moments between 1900 and 1945. So even if one can’t get through five hours of Bertolucci, Morricone provides us with an equally epic musical journey on the soundtrack album.
Morricone showed his unique ability to adapt to each of the films he scored just as well in Tornatore’s Legend of 1900. His heartfelt score is understandably heavy on piano but extends its lovely melodies into jazzy woodwind and brass segments, as well as an emotional solo on the viola, echoing Tornatore’s own Cinema Paradiso as well as the orchestra playing with Novecento on the many ocean voyages of the film. A strangely anachronistic touch might be the contribution of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters on the film’s song Lost Boy Calling, even complete with a solo by Eddie Van Halen on the electric guitar.
If anything, 1900 thus also allows for a double confirmation that 120 years later, we may have lost one of the greatest film composers of the 20th century but each of his (over 500!) scores is alive and breathing. The two very different stories taking 1900 as their starting point are just two very strong pieces of evidence for this!
The More Things Change
Ok the first thing I tried to do was to think about the cultural landscape in 1900. Weirdly though, I couldn’t really find much in the year that was inspiring. No cultural event that I could then use to illustrate the times and how they’ve changed. (or not.) But during my research I did see something that did – a map of the actual landscape. And especially Eastern Europe.
It’s almost unrecognisable compared to today. Huge monolithic empires carving out the region. No sign at all of many nations that were yet to be, and even a few that have come and gone. And the places reminded me of something that keeps coming up when you look at the Golden Age of Hollywood. That so many of those that created it and consequently shaped the Twentieth century came from the giant blocks of colour that no longer cover the region. Any research into the family of the Warner Brothers, David O Selznick, Val Lewton, Samuel Goldwyn, Erich Korngold, Emeric Pressburger and many, many others will reveal birth locations in defunct Empires and their quirky Imperial vassals. In cities whose names have completely changed when the political landscape changed around them. As a geography nerd, the research into the lands that people came from is often as fascinating as their lives themselves. I mean, you can’t say someone came from the Margraviate of Moravia and not find me wanting to know more as to what that place was.
It does though, inevitably, remind you that all this talent left or was driven from these lands by the nationalistic and political convulsions that were to destroy those borders. The fact that they were all Jewish was sufficient across all the Empires pictured to justify the prejudice and violence that made them flee to the USA. It’s not so much the image of Europe in 1900, but what is going to happen to it and why it is now so spectacularly inaccurate, that is going to prove such an important part of the cultural story in the years to come.
A Tale of Two 1900s
There’d obviously be a lot to write about concerning the year 1900. It’s when Spencer Tracy was born, and Luis Buñuel, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill… and too many Nazi grandees, sadly. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz came out, the first film adaptation (of sorts) of Hamlet saw the light of day, Joseph Conrad published Lord Jim and Theodore Dreiser Sister Carrie. Friedrich Nietzsche died, as did Oscar Wilde.
Yet, like Sam a few paragraphs earlier in this post, when I read the number 1900, what I think of is twofold, though both of the things I think of carry the same name: Novecento. The first of the Novecentos (Novecenti?) is Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, a sweeping epic about 20th century Italy, starring those two famous Italians, Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu.
According to Wikipedia, “1900 has become widely regarded as a cult classic” (take that, Rocky Horror Picture Show!), and I’ve always wanted to watch more films by Bertolucci, as The Last Emperor (1987) was one of the earliest ‘grown-up’ films I saw at the cinema, as a twelve-year-old, after Amadeus (1984) and The Name of the Rose (1986). One of the household tasks my wife has taken upon her is to check the upcoming TV programme for interesting films, and a few years ago she spotted Bertolucci’s 1900 being shown on BBC Two or Film Four, so she recorded it. A couple of weeks later, on a Friday or Saturday evening, we decided we’d watch it. We plonked down on the sofa, switched on the TV and the sound system, pressed play… and ten, fifteen minutes later I turned towards my wife, she turned towards me, and we gave each other the Look, that is, the look that signifies that neither of us really wants to continue watching whatever we’re watching. Since this was a fair few years ago, I don’t remember what it was, but I remember disliking pretty much all the characters on screen, in particular the men.
I should probably go back and give Bertolucci’s 1900 a second chance at some point, but in the meantime I’ve seen the other Novecento twice and loved it both times. No, not the film with Tim Roth – the dramatic monologue by Alessandro Baricco, produced for the stage by Jürg Kienberger and the Atlantic Jazz Orchestra. Having read the Baricco (in a German translation – I’m afraid my Italian isn’t up to reading much other than menus and ordering pasta, pizza and hopefully nice glasses of wine, both red and white), I can say that the staging took some liberties with the original, turning it into a strange, musical reverie, both goofy and melancholy.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I can say about the year 1900: very little. But I can say that for me Novecento – the musical stage play, not the Bertolucci film we woefully failed to watch more than fifteen minutes of – is a surprisingly fitting representation of the Rear-View Mirror feature that we’ve been running for more than two years now, of the playful messiness, of not knowing what the next week would bring, of all the contributors perhaps not playing the same tune, key or rhythm, but still being in sync when it comes to looking at the past and improvising on its meaning to us in the present. Sometimes these glimpses at bygone years were pure escapism, sometimes we found something surprisingly reminiscent of the present. But always, always, we found emanating from the Rear-View Mirror: a damn fine tune.