The Mos Eisley cantina, or when Star Wars became Star Wars

I remember the exact moment Star Wars: A New Hope cast its spell on me for good. It was a dark and dusty bar in Mos Eisley, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and it was filled with aliens. 

So many aliens! Despite endless franchising ever since and a big diluting of Star Wars mania for me, I’ll always love that cantina scene. This couple of minutes of film is crammed with babbling extras and inventive aliens and it opened up that Star Wars galaxy wide, to be far more than just that farmboy Luke Skywalker and few chirpy droids. The cantina was everyone and everything. It was a universe, filled with mysterious critters and their stories. 

Literally every single character that gets a second or two of screentime in this sequence has since gotten a name and their own complicated story in the “expanded universe” – sometimes a few versions of it. There’s the fun 1995 paperback Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina which delves into dozens of backstories and sidestories for everyone from Momaw Nadon (Hammerhead) to Muftak (the multi-eyed bear thing). The more recent From A Certain Point Of View collection imagines several more side stories from the cantina and the rest of the 1977 movie, and a listing of the gazillions of other Star Wars retellings over the years is far beyond the scope of one mere blog entry. 

I have trouble imagining a single work that has had quite so much backstory and interpretation for every single mask-wearing extra later added into it. You’d probably have to look at the Bible or Shakespeare for something that’s been examined and reimagined quite so much. 

There were just four cantina alien action figures released by Kenner in their original wave back in the day – “Snaggletooth,” “Hammerhead,” “Walrus Man” and Greedo. Poor doomed Greedo is the only one who actually got a name, and later on the others like Walrus Man got less, um, kinda racist names (he’s actually Ponda Baba, and he’ll kill you just for looking at him funny). 

Back in elementary school, I remember friends and I trading our Star Wars figures and daydreaming about other ones they might make – we all wanted the cantina band, but they didn’t get action figures until the late 1990s. By now pretty much everyone who appeared in that cantina scene has an action figure. There is a part of middle-aged me that craves them all. 

Because there were less of them, these OG Star Wars figures were played with within an inch of their lives. When there were just 20 or so of them, old Walrus Man (sorry, Ponda Baba) got pulled out a lot. And don’t even get me started on the mysteries of Red Snaggletooth and Blue Snaggletooth. (A friend had a Blue Snaggletooth once, and to us Kenner geeks it was like a comics fan pulling out an Action Comics #1 or a Beatles fan pulling out the butcher cover.) 

That was the appeal of old school Star Wars – there was so much hinted at in it that you could fill in the gaps yourself forever. There was a great Marvel comic book and the action figures; no internet, no expanded universe yet. You expanded your own universe.

I still feel the cantina scene is what made Star Wars for me – lifting it from a cool Flash Gordon homage about daring heroes and princesses in peril to a passageway to a galaxy vast, strange … and full of an unimaginable bounty of stories. 

So far, 2021 is a very repetitive sequel to 2020

..I never thought I’d see the things I saw happen in Washington, D.C. yesterday outside of dystopian science-fiction and overwrought comic stories.

But it did, and hopefully some real soul-searching erupts from this nauseating display.

I wrote a few words about it all that were published over on both Radio New Zealand and Newsroom‘s websites yesterday. Go give a read!

And be kind, people, it’s the only way to be.

The best fairly recent books I read in 2020

Well, one thing you can say about 2020 is that there was a lot of time to catch up on one’s reading. The ones below are among the best I read, and are all “recent-ish” books, released in the last 2-3 years or so – and very much worth your time. Here’s eight I loved in 2020:

The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox – This sprawling fantasy epic by New Zealand’s own Knox is a dense, glittering exploration into the very meaning of stories themselves. A writer’s sister dies and it launches her on a journey between the world we know and one of demons and magic. With lots of Tolkien and Gaiman in its its DNA but distinctively in Knox’s own voice and grounded in a tense realism, it’s full of fascinating ideas – almost overstuffed – but holds together to be one of the best imaginative reads I had in a year where reality literally felt as strange as fiction. 

Antkind, by Charlie Kaufman. This first novel by the screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich is a marvel, like one of his twisting films unspooled into print. Loosely the tale of an unbelievably creative “lost film” and one man’s quest for it, it’s sprawling, chaotic and surreal, and often hilariously funny, like Thomas Pynchon meets David Foster Wallace. It may be a tad overlong and I’m still not entirely sure I understand all of it, but it it took me on a wild ride more than any other novel I read this year. 

Becoming, by Michelle Obama. I read President Obama’s memoir A Promised Land and it’s very good, but it suffers the syndrome that affects most political biographies – turning into an endless cascade of names and meetings. There’s some dazzlingly good prose in it, and it’s well worth reading, but I have to admit, Michelle Obama’s memoir moved me even more with its candour and ease. She tells her story with heartfelt emotion but also a sense of wonder, as a young Black girl in Chicago grows up to become First Lady of the United States. Twelve years on after Obama’s inauguration day, it’s still pretty cool to type those words. Sometimes, history works out OK. 

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley. I’m fascinated by the oldest of stories, the Beowulfs and the Gilgameshes. I’ve got two other translations of Beowulf, the 1000-year-old-epic, and the idea of a “modern”, more feminist translation at first sounds like a very very bad idea. But Headley’s edgy reimagining is faithful to the misty ancient past of the poem, while giving it a death-metal spin of passion that makes the story feel more alive. Her version starts out: “Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings!” Modern slang and ancient protocols wrestle in the text, giving it a heaving urgency. Now, that may sound silly, but once you get into her rhythms, Headley’s Beowulf rocks and boasts like a hair-metal epic, while never losing sight of what it is. It’s pretty hardcore, bro. 

Demagogue: The Life And Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy, by Larry Tye. We all know what “McCarthyism” means, but I only knew about the Wisconsin Senator and his grim legacy in broad strokes. This biography does an excellent job of filling in the story and bringing the Senator to life with all his flaws, hubris and arrogance, and putting his frightening anti-communist crusade in a broader context in American history. There’s so many echoes in the current US political scene that it’s almost disorienting to see the same things happening again. As Faulkner put it, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Imagine what might have happened if someone like McCarthy became President. Oh, wait… 

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake. Who doesn’t love a mushroom? The kingdom of fungi is a vast, strange place, stretching its tendrils into almost every part of our lives and yet mostly unknown. Sheldrake’s excellent guide takes a tour through the world of fungi, filled with fascinating facts and discoveries explained in clear, evocative prose. The future might very well be in fungi, and this is one of those cool books that leaves you looking at the natural world around you with different eyes. 

Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami. I know not everyone is a fan of Murakami’s very mannered, particular storytelling, but I quite enjoyed his latest, a long, meditative read about a painter whose lonely exile on top of a mountain is interrupted by mystery and obsession. I read this during the heart of NZ’s first and longest lockdown this year, and somehow its isolation spoke to me clearly in that suspended moment in time. Killing Commendatore is a meandering journey with few firm conclusions – kind of like 2020 itself often felt – but sometimes the journey itself is the point. 

Shakespeare in a Divided America, by James Shapiro. Shapiro has written a host of really fascinating Shakespeare scholarship books, but this one seems particularly relevant in 2020, looking at the complex relationship the Bard’s plays have had with American history. Did you know that 22 people died in a riot in New York in 1849 that was sparked by a performance of “MacBeth”? Shapiro draws history and literature together to create a fascinating read, culminating in the controversy of a Trump look-a-like being assassinated on stage in New York in 2017 – no fatal riots then, but it shows that the play’s still the thing, 150+ years on. 

Also worth noting: “Oscar: A Life”, Matthew Sturgis; “The Overstory,” Richard Powers; “The Nickel Boys,” Colson Whitehead; “All Who Live On Islands,” Rose Lu; “It’s Garry Shandling’s Book,” Judd Apatow; “2000ft Above Worry Level,” Eamonn Marra.