Friday, March 13, 2015

A Waltz with Vienna: A Major Motion Picture

Because some experiences feel more like movies than real life, I bring you the screenplay adaptation of our night at the ball in Vienna. So grab your popcorn and sit back. The show's about to begin.

{{Opening Scene}}

Two American girls living in Paris take a train to Austria to attend the annual Rudolfino Redoute ball in the Hofburg Palace in the very heart of the capital city. One girl, Reagan (played by Emma Stone), hunched under the weight of an overstuffed backpackers pack, the other, Rue (played by Kate Winslet), dragging almost too-perfectly matching luggage along the gravel-littered sidewalks of Vienna.

They arrive at their breezy downtown airBNB rental; the walls are covered with relics from all over the world, and princessesque canopy bed commands the central space. It is a stark difference from the first apartment they stopped by with smoke-ridden halls and a grouchy, wheezing neighbor who hobbled to the door on his stumps (no legs to be seen) to offer to them a formidable growl, amongst other more formidable body sounds. Street names in German can sometimes be longer than the streets themselves--apparently they mixed in an extra "brunne" to the address. Never again.

They spend their first day and a half getting lost in the glorious architecture of beautiful Vienna. With its sparkling white buildings, rich history in arts and music, and strict adherence to discipline (jaywalking is a criminal offense), it has none of the overstated frivolity of some capital cities. It doesn't need to overstate its place in the world, it is a great beautiful queen standing amongst silly, impulsive princesses. Even so, the two American girls feel like the latter in this great impressive city.

But the true test of nobility would be at the ball that evening. These two hapless Cinderellas have no fairy godmother to spin out a gold pumpkin carriage. (And four white mice will never be four white horses.) For that matter, they can't even get the nearest bus to arrive at its stop on time. There is nothing left to do, they decide, but walk. So there they are, two giddy Americans traipsing through the streets clad in full-length ball gowns, white gloves, and sparkling masks, bringing on cheers and heckling from the locals wherever they go.

They have another near-miss moment when the doorman at the palace asks for their student IDs to check the student tickets they had purchased. The poor fellow quickly realizes his life is at stake if he doesn't admit these two girls already frazzled from a mile and a half in heels. They assure him on their word of merit that they attended college. Once. A long time ago….

Then it is ascending the red carpet on the grand staircase and bathing in the golden light of overhanging chandeliers. (Austria is home to the Swarovski crystal, mind you.) Photos were snapped by the photographer, and then it was into the royal ballroom. 

Ladies draped in cascading finery and hiding coquettishly behind fanciful masks, gentlemen donning their coattails and bowties and cummerbunds. Barely room to sway on the overcrowded dancefloor, the great hall undulates in 3:4 time to the live orchestra playing at the far end of the hall. 

In another room, disco lights and a steamy saxophonist offer ball attendees a slightly hipper twist on the evening (or not, they do play YMCA once…). 

The other rooms are for dining in style or finding a new partner at the local bar scene. After a stroll of the grounds, the girls are ready to mingle and dance. And dance they do.

The following characters are all based on real people the we encountered at the ball. They have not been embellished for storytelling purposes. Although we couldn't practically take pictures of these characters in the moment--one doesn't "selfie" at a royal ball--I have listed the appropriate actor with each character to better help you visualize the cast. Read on.


Manfred, the 4th generation Hungarian: He is a short, stout, red-faced man with blondish salt-and-pepper hair and perfectly groomed moustache who asks Rue to her first mambo, rhumba, waltz, and jive, with all the styling of a well-bred gentlemen. (Played by Jeff Daniels)

The Californian: The only guy sporting a man-bun and serious scruff at the ball. Reagan sees him at the modern dancefloor and dares Rue to ask him to dance. Never one to turn down a dance, she immediately plunges through his group of friends and commandeers him. He turns out to be a law student from Laguna Beach who turned down reality show roles to help normal people and use his career to stick it to the Man. The angstiest character at the ball, he would rather be in the basement smoking. (Played by Josh Holloway, "Sawyer" from Lost)

The General: The antagonist of the story, this decorated Austrian general puts you in mind the evil king on the prowl for his next conquest, namely one of the maidens of his kingdom. With his gleaming chest of medals and his invitation to visit him in his box at the Wimbledon, Rue imagined if he had a monocle, it would be glinting. The remainder of the evening is spent playing cat and mouse through the massive halls. (Played by the face Jeff Bridges and the voice of Shir-Khan from the Jungle Book.)

The Good Professor: The Good Professor is the protagonist of the story. He makes his appearance early in the night, and is the closest thing the girls find to a knight in shining armor. A man of manners long forgotten but enormously endearing, he spends most of the evening in conversation with Reagan, or looking for her. He is a splendid dancer, and uses all of his 6 ft 4 frame to swirl both girls around the dance floor. Between being "smashed" by Rue's latin hips during the mambo and rhumba numbers and saving Reagan from the ever-pursuing General, the man has his night cut out for him. (Played by Benedict Cumberbatch)

The Good Professor
Mr. Collins: Let's pretend for a moment the world is a fair place where every pretty girl at the ball finds a charming suitor to escort her for the evening. Jane Austen knew such a world does not exist, and all of us Elizabeth's must suffer our occasional hand-wringing, social awkward yet painfully foreword and clingy cousins. Mr. Collins also appears early in the evening. Like a wriggling puppy waiting for a spare weiner schnitzl, he paws at Ruth's hand for a dance at midnight after the unveiling of the masks. He is so piteously awkward that one feels almost wicked for being annoyed as he murmurs his "1-2-3, 4-5-6," stomping on toes and trying to show his partner her obvious missteps. He can be scene for the rest of the evening nervously waiting in the background. (Played by David Bamber, the truest Mr. Collins the world has ever seen, from BBC's Pride and Prejudice)

Woof: Reagan passes off this tall, happy, bumbling German to Rue in a classic lamb-to-the-slaughter move. The German is too friendly to be disliked, despite his two left feet. He especially loves the name of his new partner. "Your name is WOOF!" coming onto his toes in enthusiasm as he repeats it. Ruth cringes and glares at Reagan who is disappearing to another hall with a smile. (Played by Seth Rogen)

The Teenagers: In between dodging Mr. Collins and The General, the girls are taking a breather in the main corridor, when two pimple-faced gangly youths excessively inebriated corner them and ask them to a drink. Feeling oddly cougarish and motherly at the same time, they watch helpless as a round of wine is delivered. It's not long into the conversation before the one talking to Rue slips and discloses he is just finishing middle school. Ruth smiles sweetly, immediately drains her glass, and makes the motion to Reagan to bail. They make a clumsy excuse about needing to "meet a friend" and flee incarceration like their lives depend upon it. (Played by the newest dime-a-dozen up-and-coming Disney stars.)

The Hungarian Prince: She has had her eye on him all evening, but it isn't until late in the evening when Rue is alone on the staircase into the royal ballroom that he whisks her onto the dancefloor. He is the finest dancer at the ball, grace and poise and dignity fit for a king. Or a prince, in this case. To dance with him is heaven. There is a moment she looks up, and, watching the chandeliers like stars above her blurring with paintings of cherry-cheeked cherubs, she thinks,  "This is the moment I'll always remember. The moment I felt what it was to fly."  (Played by the younger, hunkier Tom Selleck)

The Vampire: Straight from her cloud of celestial bliss, Rue is apprehended by the dark side. Dragged to the dance floor by a rather drunk young man, he discloses to her that vampires are the best at dancing because they have been dancing for over 500 years. She struggles to keep a straight face as he ashamedly admits he is not a vampire. When she assures him she only dates vampires, in a thick accent she swore had traces of Transalvanian, he drawls "Eef I vhas a vampire, you know vhat I would do right now?" When she stiffens, he smiles wickedly, "Vvvyyy ahre you afvraaiiid? I vill not bite you, I just vill show you… vhwhere I vould bite you." And with that, Rue is running off the dance floor. (Played by Elijah Wood. Same eyes.)

Zorro: Coming out of the shock of almost being bitten by a wannabe vampire at a royal ball, Rue decides to once again brave the dancefloor. This time, he comes with no words, no introduction. Zorro is a swarthy dancer dressed in black. He sweeps her back to the world of "The Blue Danube" with all the lightness of foot of a matador. As the dance ends, with a kiss to the hand, he is gone. (Played by Joseph Gordon Levitt)

The Flamboyant Showman: Immediately after this I was apprehended by my most colorful dance of the evening, a German who spoke English in the most outlandish British accent, and assured me he was "positively gay" so I wasn't to think him "devilish" when he showed me how to be a snob about the Viennese waltz. "You just need to think, Look at us, aren't we better than everybody!" He was the friend of the mystery man, and assured me his friend was positively not gay. "Your bid!" he jabbed with a wink. At the end of the dance, the point when all the ladies are spun out into the curtsy, the orchestra has died down, and floor is quiet for a moment, he chooses then to announce to the floor at top volume "WHAT A PLEASURE!" Ruth freezes halfway up from her curtsies, all eyes falling on her. She smiles gratefully to the compliment, and slinks away. At 4 in the morning, she is not looking for attention. (Played by Neil Patrick Harris, with a British accent)

The Sequel:

The ball ends after 6am, and Rue, Reagan, and the Good Professor make off for the much anticipated champagne breakfast held every year at the end of the ball in the hosting fraternity home. Since Germanic fraternities are far more social clubs than party pools, they expected the equivalent at the frat house. Silly Americans. It is cheap beer and meat sandwiches, and a sausage fest that awaits them. They make quick work of their appearance there, and move on to a nearby cafe. It is 10:30am before the girls finally crash their tired heads on the canopy bed and gain a few precious hours of rest before heading to the Opera that evening.

At 7pm they are standing in line for 3€ standing room tickets to see Swan Lake at the Vienna Opera House. They are reliving all the ridiculous moments of the night before when Reagan spies ahead in line a small hand waving as fast as it will go. This hand is attached to an arm, and the arm to no other than… MR. COLLINS! He is also fancying an opera on a meager budget. The girls find spots on the opposite side of the balcony, but do not escape without his violently affection assurances a delightful time he had, eyes glowing at Rue. 

The show is beautiful, but catching only bare glimpses of the first act in the crowded standing balcony, they leave during intermission for apple strudel and chocolate cake at Cafe Sacher. There are real tears of happiness from this gastronomic experience. The night is full and beautiful and young as they waltz their way home.

The next morning at the train station, reality crashes in. They discover they have mixed up their trains to Innsbruck and must now pay triple the price for a last minute ticket. Cinderella returned to her cinders. Trying to cheer each other as they board a train they weren't even supposed to be on, they again begin giggle at the awkward passes of Mr. Collins, the glowering stare of the General, and all the charms of the Good Professor. But just as the train is getting ready to leave, Reagan's face falls flat. Rue turns to where she is looking looking. It is THE GOOD PROFESSOR! He has jumped aboard their train in the last minute. "Of all the train cars in all the train stations in all the world… he walks into ours."

He is returning to his university work in Munich, and their train just happened to be his way home. The odds. As he goes to fix his tickets, Reagan and Rue burst into a flurry of girlish squeals and exclamations. "Why is he on the train? Where did he come from?! Is this real life?! Is he a serial killer? Is he coming back?!" Opposite their seat quad, a mother and daughter eat up their antics with open enthusiasm. The Good Professor has returned. 

The scene abruptly settles when he returns and sits beside Reagan. They pass the next two and a half hours in happy conversation with the Good Professor, who continues to be ever the gentleman, with an unexpected ornery streak. Before he makes his train switch, he is sure to make every attempt to secure another audience with us, and then he is off again, into the bustle of the Salzburg station. 

As the credits begin to roll, the girls fall into a stunned silence. A character in their movie has breech the barrier of the screen and stepped into their lives. This whole thing was not a dream or a fantasy or a movie. It means it was real. It means that once upon a time, in real life, they really were princesses for the night at a royal ball in Vienna.

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