And then Umberto Eco came to town.
I was no longer an academic struggling with the semiotic/post-structuralist/postmodern revolution. I was a mild mannered reporter for The Daily Planet. Actually, I was now a writer at a city daily and it was my job to write about Eco, who was coming to promote his semi-autobiographical novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.
The book delighted me, for it included elements from movies and comic strips from my own childhood. Eco had grown up under Fascism and I under a Latin American dictatorship. He noted his admiration for one of my comic strip heroes, Mandrake the Magician. In a fascist culture that worshipped the notion of a man with a gun, he observed, how marvelous to find an unarmed hero who resolves things "with a gesture." This I had never considered, even though I devoured the strip every Sunday and had seen countless magicians wave their hands. Marvelous indeed.
There was a delay in my receiving a review copy of the book, which resulted that by the time of the interview I had not finished it. I did my best, published the advance story and went to his talk. There I realized that all the wonderful things he'd told me and I had published came from the lecture he had prepared and was now giving. It wasn't the first time this had happened, but it was still irksome. Ah, but I was carrying a concealed weapon.
I don't think I could be a Fascist, but I can certainly be a douchebag. By the time of the lecture I had finished the book and I had found that Eco had written something I could contradict. A phrase about Fred Astaire kissing Ginger Rogers. I knew, or thought I knew, those gorgeous films well. In them, Fred and Ginger are in love but misunderstandings keep getting in the way. Thus, "a fine romance/with no kissing." In the last shot they may be about to kiss but a door opening or closing, or Fred's top hat, comes between the lens and the smooching couple. It's well known that their romance is always worked out by dancing (which, frankly, looks more swooningly satisfying than any kind of sex) and that Astaire's prudish persona and Rogers' all-American sensuality result in a wonderful tension that helps propel what are basically very silly plots.
That was my film-geek concealed weapon. I stood in line after the lecture to shake the great man's hand and after a couple of pleasantries I fired my parting shot. "By the way, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers never kiss."
He gave me a look that was half the vulnerability of a slaughtered lamb and half the pain of having to endure an asshole. And he said, in an exasperated tone, "you win!"
I walked away feeling like I had just committed a crime. I had gratuitously given in to the impulse of topping the world's leading intellectual. No one heard our exchange, nor would anyone have cared. WTF was this? Some animal impulse to best the alpha male? I got nothing from it. Nothing but the guilt I've carried with me all these years, the memory of his wounded face, all of it exacerbated by knowing that he is now dead and I am now the age he was then. Topping an alpha is not a talisman against age and mortality. It's just fucking dumb.
And it got worse. A few years later, casually revisiting one of my beloved Fred and Ginger movies I see them . . . kissing! Oh shit. I was wrong, he was right. But I allowed him to yield to the assumption of my superior film geekiness. It was all in vain, but then, what isn't?