As he had done hundreds of times before in solitude and with close friends, Alan Scott Craig celebrated a perfect throw of the red dragon boomerang by twisting in the air and catching it behind his back.
The voice of German director Percy Adlon pierced the evening desert air like an Aborigine killing stick.
"That's not in the script, Alan," Adlon barked over the chuckles of the camera crew.
Craig shrugged and took another fling at the scene. The boomerang again circled a yellow water tower and dutifully returned to Craig, who this time didn't hot dog, and caught it between his palms.
As long as he had his red dragon along, this acting stuff came natural to Craig, who landed the part in Adlon's critically acclaimed comedy "Bagdad Cafe" solely because of his skill with a boomerang. It seemed every boomerang-brandishing member of the Screen Actors Guild who tried out for the role bombed upon having to actually throw the thing. So Adlon went with Craig, who threw circles around the others and tossed out the 11 speaking lines without a catch--despite having no acting experience.
"They didn't show me as God's gift to boomerang throwing, as I'd hoped," says Craig, a 23-year-old who has lived in Thousand Oaks for 14 years. "But after seeing the movie, I'm glad they didn't. It wasn't my magic act. It was Marianne's."
Indeed, the modern-day Mary Poppins role of Jasmin played by the rotund, endearing Marianne Sagebrecht provides most of the magic of "Bagdad Cafe," which is set under the searing Mojave desert sun. Sagebrecht wanders into a grimy, desolute motel and enchants a weird collection of drifters--Craig included.
Boomerangs whirling against the backdrop of an orange desert sky with mountains silhouetted in the distance punctuate several scenes. In one, the camera cuts from a Sagebrecht magic trick to a boomerang in mid-flight. Later, she leaves the motel temporarily, taking the magic with her, and an errant boomerang clanks into the water tower and drops to the ground.
The motel's proprietor, played by CCH Pounder, is a bitter woman abandoned by her husband. Her vitriolic invectives at others are clearly targeted at herself as well. The boomerang serves as metaphor--Craig is the target of every measured toss.
"Percy Adlon is the first person I've known in the movie industry who sensed the fascinating, mystifying qualities of boomerangs and was not interested in exploiting them," says Jerry Caplan, a former director of the United States Boomerang Assn., who served as the movie's boomerang adviser. "Until then, all of my experiences with movies projected boomerangs as lethal weapons. People's reaction is, 'What can you kill with it?' But 'rangs are simply objects of wonder; aesthetic things of beauty."
Caplan, also of Thousand Oaks, met a 12-year-old Craig more than a decade ago while both were experimenting with homemade boomerangs on a playground. Their friendship has endured, and it was Caplan who suggested Craig for the part in "Bagdad Cafe."
Caplan and Craig took Adlon and his wife, Eleonore, who co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, out for a throwing demonstration. Adlon offered Craig the part that day.
It wasn't long before Craig, an easy-going sort who makes artistic boomerangs by hand and sells them for a living, began playing the part of an actor--a fickle, exasperating actor who routinely upset the shooting schedule.
'Rangs make their own rules, Craig kept insisting. "They wanted me to throw in places I couldn't get it to return. I drove them crazy," he says through an unapologetic grin.
Throwing at a 50-degree angle to the right of a 3-10 m.p.h breeze--no more, no less--is essential for a boomerang to return to the sender, and patience was exhausted during extended periods of waiting on the Barstow set for wind to either pick up or die down.
Everybody's patience but Craig's, that is. As something of a Lord of the 'Rangs, he enjoyed a perverse sort of leverage.
"Like, they kept reminding me, time is money in movie making," he says with glee.
Craig hopes to continue an acting career based on boomerang-related roles. He says the producer of a science fiction film has discussed him playing a roller-skating warrior who, naturally, flings futuristic boomerangs at foes.
Although he may not let it stand in the way of the roller role, Craig shares Caplan's concern about the benign boomerang being portrayed as a weapon. "That's a major misconception," Craig says. "They are for play."
According to "Boomerang," by Benjamin Ruhe and Eric Darnell, boomerangs evolved from killing sticks, sharp hunting devices that flew true but did not return to their point of origin. The first boomerang--invented by Australian Aborigines some 14,000 years ago--was probably a mistake, a warped killing stick that circled and frightened the nose ring off the unwitting hunter who had let it fly.
The same accident of aerodynamics apparently was repeated independently in several primitive cultures. Ancient boomerangs have been discovered in Egypt, southern India, North Africa, northern Europe, and North and South America.
Fright gave way to fascination, however, and the world had a new sporting good.
Boomerangs also proved versatile. Besides being thrown for recreation and by youths training as hunters, they came in handy as levers and as tools for digging. Clacking them together made for a crude musical instrument, and decorative boomerangs were objects of art.
Craig, who dabbled in ceramic art before coming around to boomerangs, carves them out of birch and paints them. His first creation at age 11 was two Popsicle sticks held together by a rubber band ("It worked," he says). These days, his 30 or so designs include two kissing parrots, tigers, toucans and a four-armed Western style 'rang-ler carved into the skull and horns of a steer. Two of his boomerangs are part of a large collection at the Smithsonian Institute.
Don't Ask Him
Even Craig's most unlikely shaped creations complete a circle when thrown properly, but don't ask him to explain the aerodynamic nuances. The fact that principles of Bernoulli's law, Newton's laws of motion, gyroscopic stability and gyroscopic precession are at work is of no concern to Craig.
"I see my job as making 'rangs and making them work, not scientifically figuring out how they work," he says. "Part of the mystery and fun is not knowing exactly how it all happens."
And fun, ultimately, is what boomerang throwing is all about. The uncontrollable giggling of Sagebrecht and Pounder upon watching the red dragon circle the water tower is a common reaction.
"People who see a boomerang in the air are so fascinated that they become obsessed with making it work for themselves," Caplan says. "Here is this primitive, inexplicable piece of wood silhouetted against a sunset and it comes back to you. It transforms adults into children."
And on at least one occasion, it transformed a loosely organized group of 'rang-loving rogues--including Caplan--into a U.S. boomerang team that rang up victory over the Australian team on its own turf in 1984. The Sydney Daily Telegraph reported the sad news to Aussies thusly, "We should hang our heads in shame. Boomerangs? They were invented here. It's enough to make any self-respecting Aussie go bush."
But tournament competition is less than fierce, Caplan maintains. More than anything, tournaments provide a social activity for these kindred spirits.
"My only problem with tournaments is that they take something away from the essential nature of throwing," Caplan says. "There is an inner principle of unity that gives boomerang throwing a meditative quality."
Solitude, in fact, is a large slice of that essential nature. One person stands in a quiet, open setting tossing the object to himself. And cameras are rarely rolling, as Craig understands.
"I spend a lot of time standing out in the middle of a field talking to myself--and my boomerang," he says.