I’ve Seen the Action Figure and He Is Us: Blue Snaggletooth

Blue Snaggletooth

Officially, he doesn’t exist. He has no past, no story — he’d be prime black-ops material if he wasn’t part of the most visible cultural phenomena of the past two centuries. And, then again, he isn’t really visible at all. They say he’s a mistake.

Who is Blue Snaggletooth?

Ever see Star Wars? Yeah, well, he’s not in it. But he’s of it. He’s an action figure — a totem, an idol, a symbol — without a referent. In the world of Star Wars, let alone the world at large, there was never meant to be Blue Snaggletooth. He isn’t in the movie, he’s not “canon” and he was pulled from the market as soon as the mistake of his existence was realized. He does not belong.

One of his problems is that he’s just not cool. I mean not in the way that Boba Fett, say, has always been cool. Fett can credibly affect the same sangfroid as The Man With No Name (apparently Clint Eastwood’s eponymous character was a model), but Blue Snaggletooth? He’s got the face of a pig and poor orthodontia to boot.

At most, he can be a symbol. Or at least, I’m trying to pretend he’s one — he’s my symbol for Generation X alienation, and by extension, my gig as a professional observer-qua-outsider. Maybe my interest in this particular action figure has led to an over-identification. Perhaps I am become Blue Snaggletooth.

The relationship between action figures and Gen X was strained since its inception. The notorious “empty box” campaign was the first great con perpetrated on our generation. (The second was also kind of Star Wars-related — at least in name — thanks to the spin doctors behind the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.) The action figure promo was known officially as the “Early Bird Certificate Package,” which one online wag likened to a diner breakfast.

The Early Bird Certificate Package. Courtesy of theswca.com.

Kenner, the licensee for the toys, was caught off guard by the blockbuster that Star Wars proved to be and could not produce and ship action figures in time for the 1977 Christmas season. So, they hawked a “$10 piece of cardboard that promised you the first four action figures as soon as they were ready,” Chris Taylor observed in How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise. 18 years later a replica version of this original set was released. But it’s not the same. It doesn’t include an original Blue Snaggletooth.

Popular lore says the artist who sculpted the figurine only had a partial black and white photo for reference. How this person managed not see the most popular film in the world in 1977 is hard to fathom. Had they actually seen Star Wars, instead of a tall blue figure in silver boots, they would’ve created a small red creature with naked, clawed feet — Red Snaggletooth. He can be seen in the film squeaking his drink order, barely able to see over the bar.

All subsequent renderings of Snaggletooth, onward from 1979 we re “corrected,” which is to say made shorter, redder and sans footwear. His official name is Zutton. In 1995, a hired gun kept the Expanded Star Wars universe expanding with a backstory for Zutton anthologized in Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. No matter how many times I thumbed through the book, I couldn’t find any mention of Zutton. Then I realized, what’s the point? Whatever I’d turn up wouldn’t be about Blue Snaggletooth anyway because, duh, he doesn’t exist.

Blue Snaggletooth, where are you?
Courtesy StarWars.com

Blue Snaggletooth wasn’t included in the original Early Bird promotion, instead he appeared as part of a promotion via Sears, which was then pushing the Creature Cantina set. One was on display — under glass! — in a Sears department store in Santa Rosa, California. The toy department was cannily located on the second story next to the women’s department, where moms, including mine, would shop the latest in 70s women’s wear. The toy department was like de facto child-care and it also meant that no kid left empty-handed, lest mom’s new loudly-printed, permanent press blouse become stained by greedy little tears.

Destroyer by Kiss
This is probably where Blue Snaggletooth got his boots.

I’m sure my mother had some reservations about purchasing the cantina for me. It is a bar, after all. A bar filled with unsavory characters. Children aren’t even allowed in bars, but in the 70s we could play with them. What tipped it in my favor was the fact that she was a fan, not of Star Wars per se, but of cultural phenomenon in general. I remember trying to comprehend the album art for “Destroyer” by Kiss, which was in our house simply because my mom thought it was, as Annie Hall would say, “neat.” Star Wars was also neat. And so was its bar. If Kiss toured outside our galaxy they would’ve drank there.

Recollections by Star Wars’ cast hold a dim view of the cantina scene. Located somewhere within the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” of Mos Eisely, the cantina was regarded as little more than kiddie costume party by those on set. In the first trilogy documentary, Empire of Dreams, Mark Hamill made the withering observation that the cast of budget characters looked more like they belonged in the Nutcracker Suite than an alien watering hole.

To Gen X, however, most of whom were far from double digits, the cantina was the most exotic scene we’d ever seen. The wolfman and NASA astronaut, notwithstanding, Mos Eisely’s local color had all the eye-grab of a carnival freakshow. Here’s a partial roster from memory: A hammer-headed creature that grunted, a devilish fiend with horns, a walrus-like fellow (whose action figure would suffer the ignominy of being called “Butt Face” by us kids), some sort of Yeti smoking what looks like a cigar, someone who looks like a watermelon wearing a gas mask, a pair of rubbernecking Cleopatras, an asshole with terrible rhinoplasty who’s proud of the death sentence he’s evaded on 12 systems, and a fey ectomorph puffing on a hookah who just can’t be bothered.

What a scene. It’s a cosmic Casablanca. Perhaps Hamill’s objections were merely an echo of Bogart’s: “I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.”

Casablanca
Casablanca is the ur Cantina.

Blue Snaggletooth Was Not in The Nutcracker Suite

Though the costume department hadn’t lived up to Hamill’s expectations, to a five-year-old it was an intergalactic model of “diversity” that would make the United Colors of Benetton look monochromatic. If it was the Nutcracker Suite, it was one staged in Studio 54, with the same promise of adventure, intoxicants and intergalactic sex.

I’d later see the spiritual echo of this scene when I first attended The Rocky Horror Picture Show and witnessed my first Transylvanians both onscreen and in the women’s bathroom where couple of Goth girls (before they were called such) dolled me up and led me to a mass display of public affection in a pantomimed swimming pool. Mind you, this was a good several years before the candy-scented travesties of Teen Spirit, so I was soon intoxicated by a bouquet of girl sweat, AquaNet and clove cigarettes. It’s left me permanently yearning for “creatures of the night.” And in those moments of writhing limbs and mock-makeouts, the innocence of my childhood died a little, going from womb to tomb to teenage tumescence in a galaxy much farther away than a Tatooine cantina. Sure, maybe that joint didn’t serve droids (racists!) but I’m sure it’s where my appetite for the recherché was whetted. And eight years later, there I was (and many more like me) in a junior high realm of the senses. In such a moment, who isn’t Blue Snaggletooth? Who isn’t dying to be played with?

It should be noted that while Blue Snaggletooth was being officially vanished by LucasFilm, Ltd., Red Snaggletooth went on to have thriving post-Star Wars career. He next appeared on the notorious Star Wars holiday special where he danced with Bea Arthur (who mysteriously had taken over bartending duties).

In 2012, Red Snaggletooth cameoed in a Volkswagen Super Bowl ad that revisited the cantina. Blue Snaggletooth wasn’t invited to either party. A Blue Snaggletooth action figure did cameo in ET: Extra-Terrestrial with his pal Greedo (an appearance probably scrubbed with the guns in Spielberg’s digitally-“enhanced” reissue) but otherwise he’s seen little if any action for an action figure. He is the “What ever happen to…?” trivia question that no one ever asks.

As a kid in single digits, the closest experience I ever had to the Cantina scene was during a birthday party of a childhood friend with Down’s Syndrome. My then single-digit memory recorded a menagerie of misshapen faces, missing fingers, bent, twisted and otherwise odd children. At that age, I had neither the experience nor politesse to make a more charitable observation. My younger brother and I were among the few “normal” children present. We lived in a track home subdivision. Our mother drove a Honda Civic hatchback (the “Anderson for President” sticker notwithstanding) and worked at a bank. Our dad did some kind of top secret government contracting.

As the older boy, it prevailed upon me, as it always did, to comport myself with a maturity beyond my years, a decorum as much cribbed from Wally in the Leave it to Beaver reruns I’d seen, as the Englishmen imported into our living room via PBS. I was expected to be an example to the others. In this context, I was the model boy and consequently, in this sea of relative weirdness, I was an outsider. I was the Blue Snaggletooth.

Adding to the surreality of the birthday party was a magician – precisely the sort of schticky tuxedo-clad trainwreck that would gig at child’s birthday party. I sensed that he too was somewhat overwhelmed with the spectacle of his audience, none of whom could sit patiently through a traditional show, so he waded among them in his cape and top hat, solemnly performing sleight of hand tricks as one might leave flowers on a grave. He made coins spout from the distorted nose of a boy whose allotment of fingers were arrayed such that he was permanently throwing devil horns. I remember thinking it might be rude for the magician to draw more attention to this kid’s nose by turning it into a slot machine. I’m sure I’m the only kid who noticed his nose looked like the twisted schnoz of Cornelius Evazan, the cantina’s barfly blowhard with the dozen death sentences.

As I was then an aspiring magician, I asked for the man’s autograph and received my first dose of postmodern self-parody: On the scrap the magician signed for me, he followed his name, whatever it was, with the sobriquet “the mystic,” which he first wrote as “the mistake,” crossed out, then “corrected.”

For some reason, I’ve thought about that gag frequently in the decades since. But, more to the point, yes — yes, he was a “mistake,” or at least had made some along his magical way, to find himself there and then. I relate. More now than then, but still.

Blue Snaggletooth Lives

Blue Snaggletooth
Je suis Blue Snaggletooth. Courtesy worldofvintagetoys.blogspot.com

I no longer have the autograph but I do have Blue Snaggletooth. He lives on a mantel in my bedroom. He’s in remarkably good condition and could fetch a quick $300 on eBay if I ever had the need. But I doubt I’d ever part with him. It’s not that I’m a collector or even much of a Star Wars fan beyond what’s expected of a man of my vintage. I keep Blue Snaggletooth because I dig the Zen of his inside-outsiderness and outside-insiderness. To me he is not a mistake — he’s the mystic. Maybe he is in the cantina, hunkered down in some forgotten alcove over an espresso that glows like antifreeze. Maybe he’s contemplating the amazing accident of his blue existence; maybe he’s jotting notes whilst watching his contemporaries in the Nutcracker Suite; and maybe he’ll let you read them because that makes him feel like he’s really not so far, far away afterall.

Here’s a music video I made for my brother’s project band Falcon that uses only footage from Kenner’s Star Wars action figure commercials.

In The Waste Land Between a Day Job and Dream Job

Wasteland

I work in the wasteland. Not T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land but a literal wasteland: My office is sandwiched between a dump transfer site and a wastewater treatment plant. So, yeah, I’m a writer, whose work manifests somewhere between garbage and shit.

And that’s just the day job — where I’ve been writing about school and prison design, which have more overlap than can be contained in a single joke, so I won’t even try.

Then there’s what I’ll call the Life of Brian-situation, you know, like the Monty Python bit with the warring “Judean People’s Front” and the “People’s Front of Judea.” I’m down the street from the Marin Sanitary Service and the Central Marin Sanitation Agency. Two different entities — and one poor little mail carrier. Someday, someone is gonna complain one too many times about getting the wrong shit mail and the carrier is totally going to go postal, to invoke the term of art.

Now, if this went down in a school or a prison, you could take cover behind a bufflehead, which is architectural parlance for a short, protective wall. It’s also a species of duck — and there’s some architectural wit in action — “bufflehead,” a duck, as in “duck and cover.”

Cheap humor, right? Nah. I just made that up. Or did I? Come back after going down that Wikipedia wormhole and we’ll compare notes.

So, just across the freeway from my wasteland is Kerner Blvd., which is meaningless unless you’re a nth-level Star Wars fan. Then you would know that it’s the thoroughfare where George Lucas moved his Industrial Light & Magic special effects studio — you know, where they pioneered the effects for the latter movies of the original trilogy.

The former, discrete location of ILM on Kerner Blvd. in San Rafael, CA (from The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back by J.W. Rinzler. The former, discrete location of ILM on Kerner Blvd. in San Rafael, CA (from The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back by J.W. Rinzler.

And it’s thinking about that crappy old office park, not unlike the one I do my day job in, that keeps the dream alive for me. Actually, the Kerner Blvd. location isn’t that crappy anymore, it’s been reborn as 32Ten Studios, whose new owner is a Lumavillain like me. And there it is, the hope of Hollywood North just across the eternal traffic of the 580. I think about crossing it everyday, like some existential, mental game of Frogger. Not that I want to work on Kerner but I dig what it represents — all the magic and mayhem of making movies.

But here’s my salvation, in three weeks, we begin production on Pill Head, my first feature film as a writer-director.

And you may ask yourself, well, “How did I get here?”

Nine months ago, I was out of a job, fricasseed by my own wee media market, and generally peeking down the double barrel of “destiny, interrupted.” I was at the lowest point I’d ever been, which is saying something since I was a teenage telemarketer. I was lower than Dante’s Inferno, I was Dante’s Intern, I was his mid-40s intern, filing broken dreams and lost self esteem in Hell’s circular file.

After one of my bipolar bottom outs, my partner and collaborator Karen Hell asked me what I really wanted to do. What did I really want to do? What did I really wanna do? And what did that really mean? I took it at face value…

Well, what I really want to do is direct, I said.

“Let’s do it,” she said. Let’s do it — those are the three, second best words your partner can say to you.

And now we’re doing it.

From “Fade In” to “Fade Out,” this was an act of self-preservation as I wrote myself out of the hole, handhold by handhold, word by word.

Like a cathartic spin on the old proverb, “Physician heal thyself,” as creative people, we already know how to do this, but sometimes we need a friend to come up with a prescription. I gave myself a 95 page dose of Pill Head. (Incidentally, in the movie, Karen plays a pharmacist).
Now we’re making the movie — me, Karen, and our 24 trusty collaborators. And maybe you, if you get behind our Indiegogo campaign, which you can reach via PillHeadMovie.com.

We’re not asking for much, but if you too are somewhere between the garbage and the shit, if you’re playing psychic Frogger, or in need of an imaginary bufflehead to hide behind, or you’ve been demoted to Dante’s Intern and need a leg up to what you really want to do — you’re one of us, you’re our people, my people. Come on down, throw us a few bucks at PillHeadMovie.com, and join the fray.

Because even if you’re in The Waste Land, mixing memory and desire, stirs more than dull roots, and maybe, just maybe with us, you might remember what you really want to do…

Han Shan Meet Han Solo

Han SoloWith the recent announcement that Harrison Ford will be reprising his role as Han Solo in J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars VII, all manner of Solo-themed notions have loomed large over the culture. It’s brought to mind another Han who has inevitably benefitted from a spike in collateral search traffic. Han Shan, the 7th century Tang Dynasty poet might see an uptick in Google-love but not just for being a typo.
Han Shan (wandering poet) and Han Solo (itinerate space cowboy)  share some biographical details as well. Both were traveling rogues and occasional heros, they both consorted with royalty and each had a trusty sidekick (though Shan’s was a hirsute poet named Shide instead of a wookie).

Continue reading “Han Shan Meet Han Solo”

Star Wars 7 Plot

Ever since the possiblility of a new Star Wars trilogy became a reality, the Internet has been abuzz with speculation about what the Star Wars 7 plot might contain. Let’s hope the team behind the latest (greatest?) threquels learned a few lessons from the last three:
Don’t use kids. Don’t use amphibians.

Given the sense of “ownership” fans have for the Star Wars universe, the filmmakers might consider somehow including a fan or two. Like me. To help out, I’ve written up some notes for you, Mike, to make writing me into Star Wars 7 as easy as shooting womp rats back home.

A long time ago, in a pipe dream about 15 minutes from here…

Obviously, anyone who’d pitch a Star Wars flick based on themselves would hail from the oilier side of the galaxy. I accept this. There you’ll find me as Lando Calrissian’s PR guy, having somehow discredited myself as a reporter at the Dagobah Post Dispatch (we’ll get back to that). I’d have my own humanoid protocol droid (“E-3PO,” the snarky silver one from The Empire Strikes Back the tells C-3PO to eat his heart out) and maybe a pet Ewok with a drinking problem (for comic relief).

Things are copasetic, that is until house-sitting Lando’s bachelor pad gets out of hand. Let’s just say a small house party for a couple hundred close friends turns into mayhem when some wookies crash it. Meanwhile, Rivoche, the ravishing adopted daughter of Grand Moff Tarkin seduces me and makes off with my boss’s prized Kyber Crystal, the ultimate McGuffin in that it enables practitioners of either side of the Force to raise the dead. But we don’t know this yet. No one knows this, which is why it’s just sitting on the mantle.

So, I’m basically screwed when the boss comes back unless… Rivoche calls – she’s blackmailing me for the crystal. She agrees to meet me and my droid at some fancy Coruscant bar to discuss a price. And she brings her partner in crime, Boba Fett. Unfortunately, he’s all business. Our negotiations don’t go well (Boba doesn’t negotiate so much as nod his head a lot and shoot stuff). E3 panics and farts a smoke bomb. We run. They follow. We get in the Millenium Falcon (Lando left the keys) and they get into his Slave One. Space chase!

Some Wretched Jive about Bums and Japery

E3 and I crash Lando’s beloved Falcon on some desert shithole called Tatooine. There, we evade capture by Boba by disguising ourselves as Jawas. This leads to the inevitable line, “Aren’t you a little tall for a Jawa?” from the plucky slave girl and eventual love interest we meet at Bib Fortuna’s nightclub while on the lam (Mike, at some point, Boba should fall into the SarIacc Pit again and say something pithy like “Deja vu all over again!”).

I try to do something chivalrous for the slave girl like unchain her from the stripper pole but quickly learn I’m messing up her months-long investigation. Turns out she’s an undercover space cop for the New Republic. And a probably a princess. BUT NOT MY SISTER. She’s been tracing a Sith-led conspiracy to bring Darth Vader back from the dead. And they need the Kyber Crystal. Hijinks ensue in which I make the Kessel Run in 11 parsecs (that’s right, 11, suck it Solo) and I blow up the third death star (“Third time’s the charm”) and then, you know, I defeat a reconstituted Darth Vader with – get this – Ben Kenobi’s lightsaber (the irony!), which the slave-girl-space-cop-princess gave to me. Also, she tells me …wait for it… it was her dad’s. Chills, man.

At the end, E3 is shined up, the Falcon is repaired, my Ewok gets sober and I put the Kyber Crystal back on the mantle just as Lando opens the door. He walks up to the crystal, takes a hard look at it, then says to me: “Why, you slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler.” Then he laughs and gives me a big hug. The Force is with me. Fade to black.

Yeah, it’s basically, it’s Risky Business with the latter half of the Harry Potter series and some other shit i liked. But, you know, set in Star Wars. So, Mike, whaddya say? Help me, J.J. Abrams, you’re my only hope.