Monday, April 13, 2009

Train Station Caper

by J J Cohen

This video has been making its viral way over the internet for a while: so far five friends have sent it my way, and I am always way behind on these things, so I would imagine that most ITM readers looked at it a month or two ago (that's several decades in Internet Time).

As a medievalist, though, I prefer the original. I often show this sequence when I'm teaching Marie de France, Terry Gilliam's medieval doppelganger. Both these artists repeatedly envision how the quotidian shatters as romance -- with its ardor for reconfiguring reality's rules -- erupts.

EDIT 9 AM: Before I show the clip from The Fisher King in class, I tell my students how different Grand Central Station was in 1991, when NYC was more associated with danger, homelessness, and AIDS than tourism, cosmopolitanism, and excessive wealth. They scarcely believe me -- and so the film (which is about danger, homelessness, and AIDS, among other things) loses some of its force. My students were infants at the time portrayed in The Fisher King, but I am sufficiently elderly to remember the renovation of Grand Central Station (rededicated in 1998, its new incarnation not without controversy for those advocating for the rights of the homeless).

I remember going to NYC with a friend for the Queer Middle Ages conference that generated this book. My friend's sister-in-law worked at the station, and he convinced her to take us along the catwalk that cuts through the middle of Grand Central's enormous windows. Looking down from that height and watching passersby unknowingly arrange themselves into fluvial patterns, the station needed no waltz to make its expanses seem enchanted.


Jennifer Lynn Jordan said...

I love The Fisher King! That scene remains one of the most beautiful things I've seen.

Anonymous said...

Professor Cohen:
I am interested in your comment about how you use the clip from Fisher King to set up a discussion of Marie de France. Can you say a few more words about that please? Thanks.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Jennifer: agreed.

Sure, Jeremy. In Marie's lai "Yonec," a young woman has been imprisoned in a tower by her aged and jealous husband. Her existence is dire, her future bleak. One day she says (to no one in particular):

I've often heard
that one could once find
adventures in this land
that brought relief to the unhappy.
Knights might find young girls
to their desire, noble and lovely;
and ladies find lovers
so handsome, brave and valiant
that they could not be blamed,
and no one else would see them
(trans. Hanning and Ferrante)

The lady has, in other words, been reading romances, where aventures (chance, destiny, adventures, "that which comes") arrive to transfigure the ordinary world into a space pregnant with possibility. The moment she speaks her desire, aventure arrives: a knight in the form of a hawk alights at her windowsill, announcing that she had only to ask for a world differently configured for that world's advent.

A similar transformation happens at Grand Central Station: once the plodding ordinariness of the end of the workday is viewed through Perry's romance-desiring eyes, the arrival of Perry's beloved can render a chaos of commuters a beautifully synchronized waltz.

Karl Steel said...

Although here I can't help but think of those people, wrenched out of their trajectories, by the fantasy of another. One thing I like about Yonec is, in fact, its antisocial conception of pleasure and desire--not uncommon to medieval literature--that Marie admires rather than condemns. And this antisocial world of desire, in which the young lady has been wrenched out her life by her desires, in which she and Maldumarac wrench each other out of their own lives, in which so many come to death, after being shaped into new trajectories for the sake of us, the reader, contributes finally to what? A youth, for whom Marie names the lai, holding a bloody sword over the corpse of his mother and the man he supposed to be his father, all, if I remember correctly, on the grave of his true father. A pile of corpses!

And yet Marie never condemns it.

Marvelous, and, I think (frankly), much smarter than Gilliam's unethically considered fantasy of the Grand Central ballroom.

But maybe I'm speaking too much here as a hurried New Yorker, someone who wants nothing more in the city than NOT to be bothered on the way to his destination...