Monday, November 05, 2007

The One That Got Away

It's tough when you're looking for your soulmate but you feel like you've already met her and it doesn't seem like there's any way you'll ever end up together.

This story begins in the summer of 2003. I'd recently hooked up with two guys from South Dakota writing sketch comedy. They lived downtown and uptown (Mpls., of course). I was coming to the end of a year living with my parents in the 'burbs. (That was where I crash-landed after crapping out in Chicago for 2 years, my first post-collegiate experience.)

The guy who lived downtown (Hans) moved in with the guy who lived uptown (Casey). During that gloriously boring summer (the weekly brainstorming sessions with Hans and Casey were my only salvation), they had a housewarming party. Obviously, I attended. That was their 2nd party of the season. I believe those were the only truly social events I attended that year, besides my own birthday, which they very generously hosted in the fall.

I'm not sure if the number of partygoers ever broke double digits. The apartment's decor was spartan. A single thrift-store table was the locus of the dining room (that doubled as a foyer), around which some folding chairs gravitated. There was indie rock on the stereo nearby in the living room, where 3 people chatted on a futon. I was sitting in a folding chair, trying not to feel incredibly awkward about the silence enveloping the group of people around me.

That's when Liz arrived. Casey answered the door and must've hugged her or gotten a hug from her. When I saw her, I just thought, "Wow. She's really cute. There's no way she'd ever go out with me." Her top was a khaki green t-shirt with bright orange(?) lettering on the front. I don't remember what it said, besides "I was purchased secondhand." That was all I needed to know. She sat down at the folding chair nearest mine, which was still a few feet removed. She just sat there for a few minutes, didn't say anything, no one said anything to her. The chairs were spaced too far apart to encourage conversation over the blaring stereo, and everyone was too socially uncomfortable to move their chair to a more accomodating location.

After a few minutes of this agony, I thought, "There's a really cute girl sitting all alone a few feet from you. She's WAY out of your league; therefore, you have nothing to lose. Just talk to her and you can go home with the satisfaction of having talked to a really pretty girl." I leaned slightly in her direction and inquired, "Do you like music?" In my mind, this was a brilliant joke. Who doesn't like music? (Only the soulless.) Unfortunately, she didn't hear it. I believe her exact word was "What?" But she said it so kindly and with such a generous smile that repeating myself felt like a privilege she had bestowed on me. So I scooted my chair closer and repeated the question. Apparently, it lost its humor in repetition. She said "yes" warmly, and we set off on a conversation of our favorite bands.

Luckily, the music of the Flaming Lips was extremely dear to both of us. She talked about their tour with Beck and how he supposedly covered some of their songs on the nights when he opened for them (they alternated), which pissed them off because it prevented them from playing those songs in their own set. I was extremely disappointed in Beck. I distinctly recall saying, "Oh no! But I love Beck!" She did too and was also disappointed. I told her of my dream of forming a Flaming Lips tribute band. She must've been supportive. (I can't imagine her being anything else.)

After a half-hour or so, the conversation ended and she left. I left soon after. The talk was good, but not the kind of life-changing event you'd expect to have with your soulmate. I asked Casey about her once or twice in the following year. The questions were just about what she was up to. I didn't wanna tip my hand too blatantly. It would've been too embarrassing. I didn't want them to think I actually thought I had a chance with Liz. They might've feared for my sanity. She was in her senior year at Creighton University in Omaha. As it so happens, my cousin and long-time best friend Erin attended Creighton. This was a pleasant coincidence.

In the summer of 2004, our sketch comedy troupe (the Half Windsors) performed our first revue at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. (That show had premiered at the Acadia Cafe in the spring.) Afterward, Liz and a guy and a girl chatted with us outside the BLB's front door. She was standing next to me and playfully said, "I bet you don't remember my name." I smiled shyly (it felt like my face turned a little red too) and answered, "Of course I do..., Liz."

Then she smiled.

One year later, as I was slowly climbing out of a deep emotional hole blasted open by a nervous breakdown, that moment when Liz smiled at me suddenly seemed like the defining event of my life. After two years of just having a crush on her, I immediately became convinced that she was my soulmate. The few seconds of that smile turned into something out of a movie, a transcendent instant when everything else in the universe ceased to exist and her face was the sun, blinding in its beauty and love.

But, at the time, it didn't seem to have such a profound effect on me. It felt amazingly good, but not necessarily transcendent. I wonder if my extraordinarily vulnerable emotional state the following year invested that memory with a significance it didn't really have, or if my extraordinarily open emotional state allowed me to openly feel, for the first time, the strong affection for Liz that I hadn't allowed myself to feel, out of fear of rejection.

Soon after my soulmate "revelation," I sent a voicemail and e-mail to Casey, pleading for any contact info for Liz. Eventually, he e-mailed back that he didn't have any. I still find that hard to believe. The truth, and his potential motives, remains a mystery. I'd left the Half Windsors the previous year. I only heard from them in occasional mass e-mails promoting their shows. They're in NYC now trying to make it in comedy, so the question of the integrity of his friendship is moot.

I didn't have her last name, rendering my internet searches pointless. I actually tried to guess her last name, based on nothing but a hunch. My attempts to track her down online went nowhere, and, as the months passed, my infatuation faded.

Flash forward to the summer of 2007. I was walking home with two of my best friends, Marc and Sadie. I mentioned Liz and my desire to see her again, if only to learn whether that moment when she smiled at me meant something to her too. They suggested looking her up on MySpace or Facebook. I felt pretty dumb for not thinking of that before and said I'd try it. The next day I got an e-mail from Sadie saying "Is this her?" It was a link to her MySpace page. It was her. She wasn't quite as beautiful as I remembered. (I don't think the camera can capture that kind of beauty.)

I wanted to e-mail her, but I paused. According to her page, she was "in a relationship," and there was a guy in two photos who looked like a boyfriend. (Predictably, he was much more handsome than I.) I wasn't sure I could handle seeing her now if we could only be friends. But I e-mailed her anyway, nervously. Two years had passed since our last (and second) meeting. I tried to jog her memory and otherwise played it safe. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I never heard back from her. Maybe it'd been too long. Maybe I never meant that much to her. Or maybe, just maybe (Damn that bitch goddess, Hope!) she felt the same way about me and couldn't put herself through the agony of seeing me again while still pledged to someone else! (For the record, that last theory has about 1% support in my brain.)

So that's where I stand. I can't help but think this fate was preordained. I've always been a star-crossed romantic. I'd rather pine for a girl who seems angelic from a distance than get up close and risk having my hopes dashed on the rocks of reality. How could I be so obsessed with a girl with whom I've spent less than an hour of my life? What kind of God would cast me in this tragedy? Or is it my fault for passing up my chances with her and other girls for the risk-free escape of fantasy? I've got my money on the last theory.

(Author's Note: None of the names has been changed. Hopefully, that will not come back to haunt me. The song you should listen to after reading this story is "Simple Twist of Fate" by Bob Dylan, the 2nd cut off of Blood on the Tracks. That's how it felt.)

Friday, February 23, 2007

My Review of the 1960 Movie "Pepe"

On President's Day Morning I leapt out of bed like a kid, hurrying to see what Uncle Sam had left under our plastic, flag-bedecked Liberty Bell. When I saw that the living room was as barren, lifeless and bottle-strewn as usual, I realized that my President's Day fantasy had merely been a fever dream brought on by my second bout of stomach flu in 2 months. (That last part's true. Thank god this case was much milder than the last.)

In lieu of a patriotic bounty, I found a cinematic oddity on cable. My choice to watch this film was determined by its status as a musical (as indicated by the DIRECTV on-screen guide) and the involvement of Shirley Jones. I've greatly admired her work for just over a year and a half now, since first I had the pleasure of watching her in Oklahoma!, Carousel and The Music Man. She has a beautiful voice. Plus, she was dreamy back then.

The star-studded project Ms. Jones chose to lend her name to is entitled Pepe. It's a love story, specifically, the love between a man and a horse. Cantinflas, the Mexican Charlie Chaplin (but for the talking and the moustache that exists only on the edges of the lip and not at all in the middle, the polar opposite of the Chaplin/Hitler), plays the titular character, a horse trainer who leaves Mexico for L.A. when Don Juan, the magnificent white stallion he has raised from infancy and calls his "son," is sold to a movie producer. Pepe can't bear to be separated from Don Juan, so he goes looking for the horse's new owner in La-La Land.

Thus begins a long string of luminaries who are confounded by the simple, linguistically-challenged Mexican. The first victim is Ernie Kovacs as the border security official who is thoroughly flummoxed to learn that Pepe's son is a horse. Even Kovacs' legendary, world-weary mug can't salvage this routine. Unfortunately, the bits don't improve much on the first one, and there are roughly 5,000 cameos in this film. Paying all those celebrities must've taken up most of the budget. It doesn't seem like there was much left over for the script.

Clearly, this isn't a movie meant to be savored for its plot. It's like a Three Musketeers bar in which the star-gazing represents the fake-mousse filling and the musical comedy represents the chocolate shell. My problem with the picture is that it lasts TWO-AND-A-HALF HOURS! Sure, there are many intriguing scenes, which I will shortly relate to you, but nothing that justifies a running time of ~150 minutes. The plot would be blown away at the slightest breath. The characters would fall flat at the softest touch. It's just amazing to me that they would make a piece of celluloid so long and yet so thin. Oh well. It's still way better than Gigli. (Or so I've heard.)

So anyhoo, Pepe goes to the backlot of the studio where the producer who bought Don Juan works. There he meets Shirley Jones, a hardened waitress whose parents failed to realize their showbiz dreams. It's kinda funny listening to Shirley give a bitter, street-smart screed on the naivete of Hollywood hopes, given her peaches'n'cream screen persona and the fact that her career is proof of the (albeit rare) fulfillment of big-screen ambitions. Pepe soon runs afoul of Bing Crosby and Jack Lemmon, who's in drag, presumably for Some Like It Hot. The best reference to a star's screen work comes when Pepe delivers flowers to Janet Leigh while she's taking a bath. I found it an amusing nod to her shower scene in Psycho.

Pepe visits Shirley at her cafe, a subterranean cavern full of beatniks where the coffee is hot and the jazz is hotter. Bobby Darin entertains the crowd with a cool tale of love and murder. I don't think real beatniks found Bobby Darin all that "hep," but their silver-screen facsimiles really seem to "dig" him. The next number is a modern dance piece that bears an uncanny resemblance to West Side Story, with chain-link fences, back alleys and desperate, attractive youth. Shirley portrays a girl on the short end of a love triangle. Just when the tension between her suitors starts to heat up, a concerned Pepe intervenes to "save" Shirley. This throws the entire club into chaos, forcing Bobby Darin to cut the epilogue of his song short as projectiles whiz by his head and smash the windows behind him.

At this point I'm going to drop all attempts to reconstruct the plot. As I said before, it's not worth the effort. I'll just stick to the interesting scenes. One highlight is when the movie producer is trying to write the script for his new film. It's important to note here that he's a recovering alcoholic, and, in a moment of weakness, he removes the cap to a rubenesque liquor bottle covered in a wicker(?) mesh. Two tiny Mexicans emerge from the bottle and float down to the tabletop. They're wearing big sombreros that hide their faces, but in the course of their dance we discover that it's Cantinflas and Debbie Reynolds. The song they're dancing to is "Tequila," and I must say the scene rivals Pee Wee's Big Adventure for best dance number ever performed to this song. The Mexicans dodge a huge pencil and other giganticized objects in a drunken, acrobatic dance as the leviathan face of the producer looms over them in a state of stupefaction.

Pepe hitches a ride to Las Vegas to find the producer, who's embarked on a bender after his plan to direct his script was rejected by Edward G. Robinson. (The "producer" seems to be more of a writer/director, but I've been calling him the "producer" for too long to stop now. I thought that's what he was called in the movie.) Pepe finds the producer and learns that he needs $250,000 to make his movie. With the money in his piggy bank (Yes, he brought his piggy bank to offer it to the producer. That's Pepe!), Pepe proceeds to win $250,006 at the Sands (I don't remember what the extra 6 bucks was for. He gives it to Frank Sinatra, one of the owners of the casino, as a thank-you gift.) while driving the entire Rat Pack (plus Jimmy Durante) to distraction.

Now that the producer has the money for his movie, he begins filming in Acapulco with Shirley Jones as the star. (Earlier, Pepe managed to bring together the producer and Shirley on this project. It was quite a feat, too, considering their stubbornness, her distrust of showbiz types and his alocoholism. But Pepe's a people person. SPOILER ALERT: Shirley and the producer's relationship will evolve beyond its initially professional scope ;-) The triumvirate (Pepe, Shirley and the producer) take in a show at a fancy club in Acapulco featuring Maurice Chevalier and a bevy of beauties. Pepe and the producer join M. Chevalier on stage for a dance, after which Pepe asks the Frenchman for advice in love. Unfortunately, this leads Pepe to believe he has a shot with Shirley, an utter absurdity to anyone with half a brain. (Sorry, I didn't mean to be so mean. I'm kinda bitter when it comes to romance.)

After picking out an engagement ring with help from Kim Novak, he goes looking for Shirley only to find Edward G. Robinson, who tells him that Shirley and the producer are engaged. Pepe tells Robinson to give Shirley the ring and that he's going back home. Robinson quickly runs into Shirley and the producer and gives them the ring and the news. The couple feels understandably awful about their treatment of Pepe, and try to catch him before he leaves. Predictably, they do, and the whole sha-bang is wrapped up in a funny, touching, heartfelt denouement which I can't recall. The final scene is Pepe leading Don Juan (the horse, remember?) and his foals (including a cute little burro) down the dusty dirt streets of what appears to be a shantytown. So, even though Pepe has achieved financial security, he seems to be back where he started. But isn't that what we all hope for, really?

I realize that I broke my promise about not discussing the plot, but, in my defense, the problems with continuity in this essay mirror the movie's. To dig myself deeper I'll describe another scene in the film. It takes place in Acapulco, before Pepe buys the ring, I think. The producer yells at Pepe for interfering with the filming of his movie, and Pepe wanders off glumly with a concerned Shirley in hot pursuit. They stumble onto a street festival of floats and kids in their Sunday best. Pepe forlornly paces in the entrance of an old Spanish basilica while Shirley watches from the steps. Taking matters into her own hands, she gets a stick puppet from a vendor and begins singing the praises of her Mexican friend to a gathering of adorable local children, using the puppet as a stand-in. Pepe is heartened by the kind words, but can only beam from between black iron pikes, as the basilica's gate was shut behind him. Eventually, the entire festival is swept up in the song. Pepe somehow manages to escape the basilica grounds and joins in the chorus:

Children: "P-E-P-E!"
Pepe: "Pepe! That's me!"

The scene sounds better (and funnier) than it is. But it's still pretty funny.

You may be asking yourself, "If you can't believe that 2 1/2 hours of celluloid were devoted to the recording and preservation of this film, then why did you waste so many words commenting on it?" I wish I could answer that question. I really do. The best I can do is admit that I'm fascinated with pop culture of previous decades and that my life is quite boring.