The piano keys have a beginning and an end, they are finite; you are infinite. The earth is a ship too big, a journey too long, a woman too beautiful, a perfume too strong, a music he cannot play. The pianist at sea does not belong to the earth and is destined to drift on the ocean with that ship.
I watched The Pianist at Sea in college and fell in love with every piece of music in the film. The pianist, 1900, who had never set foot on land in his life, was at that transitional moment when he tried to make his way from the Virginian to the real world, taking only a few steps up the gangway before returning to his death on the ship.
As a young man, I could not understand what Nineteen Нundred was thinking as he stood on the gangway. How could he have known the world beyond the ship and decided not to go to that world when he had never been off it? Was the land world he imagined too beautiful, or was it a world of crises? Or had he already experienced the whole world in music and realised at that moment that his complete world could only be preserved on board?
Revisiting it more than ten years later, perhaps with more experience, the film also presented me with a multiplicity of meanings that were not yet evident in the past.
It is a film that begins with "nothingness"; 1900 is not born somewhere in the world, but on a ship. The name "Nineteen Нundred" suggests more a temporal than a spatial meaning. He has no nationality, no birthday, no family, no records in the land world. His birth is the most unique mystery before his introduction to music. The sea is both loved and feared, reminiscent of expanse and ravages: on land, life is precarious, like drifting on the sea; this drift is nothing for Nineteen Нundred.
On the ship on which he was born, the world moves on a scale that carries two thousand people per transoceanic round trip. There is desire here, but it cannot go beyond the space from bow to stern; Nineteen Нundred plays his happiness on a limited number of 88 piano keyboards. His adoptive father, a ship's mechanic, belonged to the bottom of the ship's purgatory, and he kept 1900 hidden at the bottom to prevent him from being preyed upon by the real world.
1900 was educated on board by the lowest class of cooks, sailors, mechanics and waiters from all over the world, who looked after him and gave him what they considered to be the best education; and by the passengers who travelled to and from the ship, who described the outside world to him and told him many stories.
Late one night he heard the "King of Ragtime", the black musician Scott Joplin, and became a member of the board. He became an untutored pianist after hearing the "King of Ragtime", Scott Joplin, play. He never recorded the music he played, no notes, no notation, just improvisation, music that existed only in the moment. That music never existed anywhere until he played it; when he stood up from the piano, it was gone forever.
The Virginian came at a time when Europe was emerging from the First World War and people, scarred by war and poverty, were yearning for America and a new life there. The ship thus carried with it a special meaning, a desire to reach its destination. People left their old world behind to pursue a new one; the balls and revels on board were celebrations before reaching their destination.
1900 peers at the earth: "The man on land wastes too much time asking why, never tired of travelling, always chasing the unattainable". He never arrives, he has no direction; for him there is no distinction between Europe or America, he exists only between the old and the new.
By the age of eight, Nineteen Нundred had already travelled between America and Europe more than fifty times. He had never disembarked from a ship and had never set a foot on land. He did not exist for the world: he had no identity card, passport, visa or document issued by any institution; from cities, hospitals, parish prisons, he left no trace of his name; he had no homeland, no hometown, no family, never having been officially born in human society.
The ship at sea was a "land outside the law", but not a primitive jungle, but a place where modern rationalisation ruled and institutions existed. The ship's leader, the captain, is a man used to living in uniform, and his thoughts often dissipate into it, declaring everything 'out of order'. 1900 is told by his adoptive father, who comes from the bottom of the ship. "Fuck the rules", and 1900 learns to rebel against them all in a sweet way.
When 1900 plays the piano, he is in a state of being somewhere else: he is here, but his mind is there. In his music, he "went to a beautiful country where the women had beautiful hair and the sun was shining everywhere, but the tigers were everywhere". He sometimes went to the heart of London, to the gardens of Paris, to wait for the sun to set on the Nafford Bridge, to see trains in the wilderness, mountains with snow up to their waists, to count the pillars in the world's largest church, to come face to face with the crucified Jesus.
It is through this divine travel that he knows churches, snow and tigers and can accurately portray the scent of Birmingham Street after the early summer rain has stopped. By playing the piano, he has breathed the air of the world, in his own very real way. He has spent nearly 30 years on this ship, never seeing the world ashore but always peering into it and falling in love with it, while it has stolen his soul through his music. He already has a map of the world in his head, a beautiful map with cities, bars and rivers, swamps, planes and lions.
As his fingers slid across the keyboard, caressing the arc of blues music, God took him on a divine journey across that map. He could also read people, just by looking at them from the sidelines, to read the marks of their identity, their voices, their scent, their homeland, their stories, to judge their character and their desires.
In the original novel by the Italian writer Alessandro Barrico In the original novel by Alessandro Baricco, the narrator, "I", from New Orleans, USA, boards the Virginian with a trumpet in January 1927. After the First World War, the centre of the world shifted from Europe to the United States. The war-wealthy United States entered the materialistic and flamboyant 'Jazz Age' in the 1920s, when Fitzgerald wrote 'The Great Gatsby'. The decade saw an influx of black people into New York, and their jazz music took over the streets, with saxophones playing the melancholy strains of "Jazz on Beale Street" all night. When "I" came on board with the trumpet, after playing it, there were a few brief words with 1900, who asked.
"What was that?"
"I don't know".
His eyes lit up.
"When you don't know either, that's jazz".
On a rainy night, Nineteen Нundred and I were playing piano on a stormy boat. It was also a dance with the sea - the sea was a crazy dancer, but 1900 had an extremely intimate relationship with it. The storm was his source of entertainment, and when it came, he danced in ecstasy, which is the essence of jazz music and piano playing. Those impending notes merged into his body with the swell of the sea and the movement of 1900's fingers and body, man and piano becoming one in a dance.
The imagery of the world that music brought him was engraved into his flesh, heart and marrow. When he saw through the porthole the innocent face of a girl from the countryside, he did not know how to express this love and quite purely turned her and his fondness for her into music.
This relationship with music that goes deep into the flesh makes 1900 itself a metaphor for jazz. This is perhaps the reason why he feels a mortal danger when he faces the real world: he must have smelled an unnatural death as he welcomed the urban jungle of New York and tried to walk down the steps of the "Virginian"; even the desire to go to a specific address in New York to look for the girl made him feel dangerous.
Another impressive scene in the film is the piano fight. It is 1931 when the black jazz piano player, who has achieved success in America, arrives on board. He shines like a light into the story, and then the light fades away while the complex desires that rush past trigger an earthquake inside 1900.
It was a 'duel' on the keys, an expression of love and hate, dignity and oppression. The black jazz musician who initiated the challenge was convinced that 1900 was in his rightful place. 1929 saw the outbreak of the lasting and profound Great Depression that swept the capitalist world from the United States, and with it, not only peace and stability, but also the decline of the values and institutions of 19th century liberal civilisation. The black man, who was still a lowly member of American society, found his place in jazz, and against 1900, the 'successor' from jazz was bent on total victory. The theme of the final round is "How to sink this ship".
Even in the realm of music, it is not uncommon for people in the real world, who are already discriminated against, oppressed and humiliated, to create their music from the lowest strata of society and, once they have gained worldly power, to override people and betray their musical intentions - not uncommon in an increasingly barbaric land.
It was only then that 1900 returned the favour with a magical phantasmagorical 'Enduring Movement', a tune from the classical era. When he lit a cigarette on a hot wire and handed it to his opponent, saying "I won't smoke", he saw an unbridgeable gulf between him and the coming age of extremes and barbarism - a gulf, not so much of the times, but of human nature itself in civilian society. It was a gulf built by the paradoxes of human nature in a civilian society.
In fact, in this limited journey of two thousand people, everything that was about to happen in the world had happened: hatred, rivalry, friendship, betrayal, decline, love and death. 1900 was in port ready to disembark in 1933. The short-lived peace was drawing to a close and the world was sliding towards another world war.
The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbett had written: "I am a citizen of the earth, heir not only to Rome and Greece, but almost to the whole of infinity. This is precisely what is cast into the magnificent picture of heaven and space-time, the pride and faith of mankind". The despair in his personal life was to find his own historical situation in a huge scale, to move between infinite space and time and the tiny individual. The Virginian, sailing on the sea, echoes Noah's Ark, but does not sail towards immortality, but towards natural death.
When he stood on the gangway, 1900 says, he did not stop because of what he saw, but because of what he was about to see. For him the keys had a beginning and an end, and the music that could be created on those keys was infinite. And that city on the continent was the thousands of keys that lay before him, that were not for mortals, but were God's piano.
"A woman, a house, a piece of land to call your own, a view out of a window, a way of dying, all these problems come to you and you don't know the end. Have you never been scared to death by the thought? I will never leave this ship, but I can choose how to end my life". In that glimpse of earth, Nineteen Нundred sees through the non-eternity and impermanence inherent in modernity, and he ceases to belong to it.
Towards the end of the film, 1900 tells "I", the trumpeter who revisits him, that he will never be able to give up the ship, but fortunately, he can give up his life. "Nobody remembers I existed anyway, and you're the exception, you're the only one who knows I'm here, you'd better get used to it". I think this line was and is Jazz's farewell to New Orleans. He eventually exploded with the steamer and died with it.
It ends with the trumpeter disappearing into the alleyways of the industrial age with his battered trumpet and a broken record of 1900. But I suppose 1900 is still alive, in that broken record, in this legend.