Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Lucas Land, Part 2: Welcome to Tatooine

In Lucas Land, Part 1, I mentioned an old magazine article I had penned upon my return from Tunisia, where I visited many of the shooting locations used to create the original Star Wars movie. I did manage to unearth that piece (albeit in physical form—somehow I can’t locate the 20-year-old Word file) but I was rather disappointed to find out that it dealt a lot more with the Star Wars Customizable Card Game than with the North African journey itself. It’s basically a gaming article peppered with references to the trip. And since that wouldn’t be much of a fun thing to reproduce here, I’ll dig deep into my memories and try to lift the veils of Time so that I can offer a humble summary of my Tatooine adventures, circa 1997.

As was to be expected, just getting there was part of the fun.
I linked up with our intrepid guide, archaeologist David West Reynolds, in Pittsburgh before flying across the pond for a quick layover in London. It happened to be on that day that a new air corridor was being inaugurated, and with a brand new Boeing 777 to boot. So not only did the plane offer the most quiet flight I’ve ever experienced (it truly is amazing), it also had that brand new car smell to it, having never welcomed passengers before we showed up to soil its carpeted floor and leave snack crumbs all over the seats. The flight itself was uneventful, as was the next one, which took us from London to Tunis. But we still had one more hop ahead of us, in order to land deep into the heart of Tunisia. And that flight, my friends, made me feel like Indiana Jones taking off from some forgotten runway in the mid-1930s. (Not the only connection to Indiana Jones during the trip, as it would turn out.)
It was an old, rickety aircraft packed to the rafters with Tunisians—we were clearly the only tourists onboard. I could hear poultry somewhere in the back, there was some high-pitched local song playing on the PA system, and a thick, spicy smoke filled the entire cabin. When the plane ran out of asphalt and aimed at the sky, the big machine groaned under our collective weight. Not for long, however: we were to land about half an hour later, emerging from a craft bursting with foreign music, animated conversations in Arabic, and laughter. So much laughter. It was the happiest flight I’ve ever been on, the most communal 30 minutes I ever spent trapped with strangers in a tin can. A startling contrast to the high-tech comforts of the Boeing 777, which seemed very sterile by comparison.

Upon arrival, we were assigned a Toyota Land Cruiser and a driver. Both were rugged and reliable, and while the vehicle resembled something you’d see deployed on the front lines, the man behind the wheel was a warm, friendly chap who always had a good story to tell. Communications took place in French, so I found myself acting as translator for my American companions. (When I had to switch to German for one particular encounter, it wasn’t long before references to C-3PO started popping up. Reynolds still calls me TalkDroid to this day.)

Not a Jawa in sight.
Our archaeologist had already mapped out most of the shooting locations during his own, personal trek the year before, which allowed us to proceed without delay. One of the first places we came upon was the cantina. Now you have to understand that when George Lucas and his production team departed Tunisia, they left a great many things behind. Bits of set dressing, building extensions, backdrops: most of it stayed there and was repurposed by the locals. Take the cantina, for instance. The building that would become the iconic Star Wars watering hole was an adobe construction that was already there: set builders just added a small extension, built a Star Wars-looking door and threw plastic domes on top. When we disembarked from our trusty Land Cruiser, the look of the cantina was unmistakable, although the flimsy extension was long gone and so was the door; but the plastic domes had survived and were used as protective covers in the back yard. 

When we visited the troglodyte (i.e. underground) hotel in Tataouine (you read that right) that served at the Lars’ homestead in the movie, some of the set dressing was still there, 20 years after the fact. Reynolds and I had breakfast at the table where Luke ate with Owen and Beru, and we re-enacted their famous disagreement with great relish. (“But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”) I even stood in the main courtyard, looked up at the huge circular opening, and started yelling “Luke! LUUUUUKE!” like a complete nitwit. (I would have regretted not doing it for the rest of my life.) 
Sulking at breakfast.
(Notice the set dressing in the arch above my head,
still present 20 years after shooting. The motif painted on the
ceiling was already there when the production crew arrived.)

My view of the courtyard lacked a couple of vaporators.

The exterior of the homestead was shot somewhere on the outskirts of the Sahara Desert: the mock adobe domes had been removed but the scars in the ground were still there, 20 years after the fact. So was the circular ridge where Luke rests one of his feet as he gazes longingly into the twin sunset. (I’m sad to report that only one sun shone down on us during our visit.)

Waxing introspective in the middle of nowhere.

We trekked our way to many minor shooting locations, including the cliff where Obi-Wan points to Mos Eisley in the distance, declaring it a “wretched hive of scum and villainy”—the three iron rings nailed to the rocks and used to latch the camera tripod into place were still there, patiently waiting for us. Our driver would always shake his head in disbelief when I asked him to drop us off in the middle of nowhere and come back to fetch us four hours later. But he was always on time, and no doubt surprised to find us all still alive.

Not a bad spot for Sand People snipers, don't you think?

We retraced Skywalker’s steps to the spot where Obi-Wan revives him (yes, we re-enacted that scene as well…) but Reynolds was still one location short: the exact spot where they filmed the Tusken Raider attack on Luke. We knew it had to be close by so, armed with production photos and trading cards (!), we started walking around, scanning the horizon for a peculiar break in the rocky formations. I eventually spotted it and hastened to stand right on the spot where the attack had been captured on film. As if on cue, a donkey (that must have been barely out of sight) started braying, which froze the blood in my veins for a second: the first part of its call, echoing through the canyon around me, sounded exactly like (and was indeed used for) the Tusken Raider war cry.

I emerged unscathed and we eventually made our way to Obi-Wan’s home, which is really a fisherman’s hut, just a few meters away from the Mediterranean. It wasn’t altered at all for its movie role, but was filmed using a low angle to conceal the vibrant sea frothing behind it, and make it look like it’s standing deep inside Tatooine’s barren land.

Standing in front of Obi Wan's humble abode...

... right next to the sea.

You know what? Let’s take a break here and rest our feet while we enjoy a glass of blue milk. I have to catch my breath before I launch into the infamous cantina door story and retell those Indiana Jones tidbits…

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Monday, November 7, 2016

And Now, For My Next Trick

I’ve been performing magic longer than I’ve been dating or driving. I am not alone: even in the mid-‘80s, when magic was far from the relatively mainstream “thing” it has since become, the arcane arts attracted their fair share of adepts. Back then, of course, one learned from books: teaching DVDs were but a dream, and DropBox videos would lay dormant for two more decades.
Gatherings proved equally problematic in those pre-Internet times. Whereas nowadays each and every geek can reach dedicated online fora—no matter the subject matter—in olden days, magicians were only afforded two avenues. The first was a handful of select clubs (such as the fabled Magic Castle in California) where a personal invitation was the only thing that could get you in; not the most realistic prospect for a budding legerdemain. But option 2, despite its more accessible trappings, was no less intimidating.
I’m talking about the magic shop.

Entering one of those special lairs was a sort of test. The location of magic shops was not kept secret, nor was a password or special handshake required to gain access to the premises. But the minute you walked in, you knew you were being judged. Evaluated. Weighed. Were you the tourist, wandering in as you might any other strangely inviting shop? Or perhaps the casual performer, looking for a new self-working trick to have fun with friends and coworkers? Or maybe, just maybe, you were the serious student, questing for the next move to add to your arsenal, the missing tool from your box, the final feather in your cap. Whoever you happened to be, you were welcome in there, and the old wizard tending shop would see to your particular needs.

I’ve always loved those exotic places, but it took me a while to grasp the exact reason. Many other establishments sold items I was excited about. Why did magic shops hold me spellbound in that regard? It eventually dawned on me that these surroundings made me feel like a kid all over again. Everywhere I looked, amazement waited, barely contained. A new mystery to solve, a new world to explore, a new question to answer… And I know it’s precisely what keeps calling to me, after all those years.

Over the course of my magical studies, I’ve come across quite the array of spectators. I know all the types: the easy-going guy who just enjoys the show, the girl who won’t stop screaming in excitement, the broody kid who wants you to fail, the know-it-all who calls the shots in advance, the guy who feels insulted because he can’t comprehend what he’s seeing, the pleased grandfather who wears a smile as big as his hat, the grandmother with a hand to her chest who looks like she’s about to faint, the alpha male who fumes at seeing his girlfriend melt at your fingertips—it takes all kinds. But I have to say that the vast majority of spectators are on the magician’s side and genuinely want the experiment to succeed: they understand it’s a little collaborative lie we’re telling ourselves, and that it functions best when everyone is onboard.
Similarly, I’ve encountered a wild variety of magicians, from the smug performer who assumes an air of superiority at being the only one in the room with any knowledge of what’s really going on (or so he likes to think), to the shy illusionist who almost apologizes when something out of the ordinary happens (which it’s supposed to!). Again, I’m happy to report that most magicians are a friendly bunch whose only desire is to entertain in a mystifying way.

To my absolute delight, I have found myself performing in several different settings. In a darkened corner at a fundraiser for a friend’s theater project (where a passerby ripped the deck out of my hands, looked at one of the pasteboards and shuffled it back in with the others, before handing the whole mess back to me and daring me to find his card); on a bumpy cab ride en route to Heathrow airport (during which bad lighting conditions both helped and hindered everything I did); at a large wedding in San Francisco (a completely improvised affair at the request of the groom, and one which was met with such enthusiasm that it derailed the proceedings and earned me the eternal wrath of the wedding planner); as part of actual magic shows (it does happen!); in the middle of an open-air market in Tunisia (where I was dragged from one stall to the next—with live chickens flying and clucking out of the way—so that I could repeat my demonstration for a friend or a relative); in multitudes of friends and family gatherings; and so on.

Now there is no denying that I enjoy the art of magic as a whole, but close-up magic holds a special place in my heart—and my hands. To me, magic has always been about the connection with spectators, and there’s no better way to connect with them then a close-up performance. The impossible happens right under the onlookers’ noses, sometimes directly into their hands: they are part of the event in a very personal way. I have specialized in card manipulation, always with a completely ungaffed deck: no shenanigans, no secret thing added or taken away, no special cards. Pure manipulation and misdirection. Not because I look down on special apparatuses—many of which are incredibly clever and allow for mindboggling miracles—but because I like to use a borrowed deck of cards, or else give mine away after I’m done. People actually enjoy this: their cards have gone through “something special,” and/or they walk away with a magical souvenir most of them will cherish for years to come.

So what does all of this add up to? The simple fact, I guess, that people from all walks of life, in all sorts of situations, will usually react the same way when presented with an entertaining demonstration that they can’t possibly explain. Their brains will look for a solution in column A, then in column B, maybe in column C (where all the clutter accumulates), and realize there’s none to be found. What they’re witnessing can’t be filed anywhere. And at that moment, that truly magical instant, their mouths will part in a toddler’s grin and their eyes will light up like those of an infant witnessing the world for the first time. Something ethereal will emanate from their features, something profound and beautiful. It’s there for just a second, but it (almost) never fails to show up. No matter where you are in the world, no matter whom you’re performing for. It’s there.
And I am hopelessly addicted to that unique something, that primordial look in their eyes. Like a vampire on the prowl for human blood, I keep performing magic to stimulate that response, so that I may quench my special kind of thirst, if only for a little while.
(At the same time I feel a bit guilty because everyone is busy looking at me: I’m the only one who gets to look back at all of them and take in that luminous glory.)

Living legend Paul Harris often refers to magic as “the art of astonishment,” a phrase that sings in its exactness. People are not just puzzled: they are SO puzzled that they revert to a state when everything was still new and full of wonder.

So the next time you see a magician at work, sacrifice your own enjoyment for a moment and look at the person next to you—especially towards the end of a trick. That is where the true magic happens.

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