Take a look at these few minutes of cinematic rapture from Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), featuring Robin Williams, Amanda Plummer and New York Central Station.
Isn’t that transporting? A vision that magically – intensely – ephemerally – transforms the alienated bustle of Central Station into a ballroom of waltzing couples, with only two people unpaired: the lover and the beloved, oblivious to the swirling romance that surrounds them.
The Fisher King is not a musical, but this scene has many of the hallmarks of a musical “number”. Narrative is suspended so that sound can become music, movement can become dance, location can become setting… all those transformations of the ordinary into the extraordinary, that lovers of musicals love most about musicals.
The music swells and the couples form, until the whole world becomes a waltz.
Stylistically, though, those transformations present a problem for film-makers. How do you get from one mode (narrative) to the other (number)? A common solution is to do it incrementally. Someone snaps their fingers or taps a foot or hums a tune, and gradually the rhythm or the action or the sound builds up into a full-scale musical number. That’s what happens here, with the music swelling and the couples forming, until the whole world becomes a waltz.
But the other direction, from number to narrative, is trickier. In pretty much all cases I can think of, when the number ends, the scene ends. You can’t transition easily from someone belting out a high note, or beaming at camera, or swinging round lamp-posts in time to music, to a scene where everyone is acting normal. The narrative mode has to restart rather than fade back in. It’s as if we can step up from narrative to number, but going the other way requires a jump.
The Fisher King number is different, and that’s partly why it is special. This number does dissolve back into the narrative. Sure, it’s a quick transition, but it’s not a jump to a different scene. The number fades out as it had faded in: dance turns back into movement, music into sound, stage into location. The extraordinary becomes ordinary again, and all within a single continuous scene.
That works here because, a little heartbreakingly, the narrative world never went away. The waltz number may be blossoming around them, but Robin Williams and Amanda Plummer do not go to the ball. They, alone, remain in the station. So when the dance is over, the world is the same as it was before. The vision has come and gone, and nothing has changed.
I love that scene.
Ok, being criticky, I’m just going to say the one thing that niggles me about this scene. In a ballroom, the line of dance is anticlockwise. In this scene, the couples go clockwise. I know – lighten up, it’s a fantasy scene, not a frickin’ documentary! – but I notice it every time.