Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our eighty-third guest was the author of Drink to the Lasses who wrote the notorious article ‘Can Lucas Be Trusted With The Star Wars Universe’ – Mary Beth Ellis.
Lightsabre – Mary Beth, welcome to Lightsabre.
MBE – Oh my goodness, I’ve generated a “notorious.” Thank you. Now I have something to put in my diary other than “Attempted to avoid chocolate today, failed completely.”
I’ve truly enjoyed discussing this article with other fans. For the most part, I’ve been hearing from people who agree with me but haven’t heard this expressed in the mainstream media. I did get an email from somebody who was quite put out by the fact that I used the word “fart.” That hurt.
Lightsabre – You caused quite a stir in the Star Wars community with your MSNBC article ‘Can Lucas Be Trusted With The Star Wars Universe’. But you are a Star Wars fan yourself. How do you reconcile the two points of view?
MBE – There’s no reconciliation required, my son. I feel this way because I’m a Star Wars fan.
As I discussed in the article, the growing fan anger towards Lucas started with the re-releases and built steadily throughout the prequels. This goes beyond quibbles of “No, I liked it better when the Death Star blew up into little bits without this big fire ring. Down with the fire ring!” Obviously, not many people are going to be sitting in front of A New Hope sighing, “Man, I just really miss that Vaseline smear underneath Luke’s landspeeder. Bring that s*** back!” Very few people are going to argue with digital cleanup and sound enhancement.
What Lucas did over the past decade was tear open the fuse box of the Star Wars universe as we’ve known it for thirty years and start rewiring the whole works. This was going far beyond cosmetic touch-ups; he was fundamentally changing, and in some cases blatantly contradicting, what he’d established so beautifully. For instance, in the original trilogy, Yoda indicates that the Force is a matter of consistently choosing right over wrong, others over self. Then in Episode III, we’ve got Obi-Wan Kenobi hollering that only Sith speak in absolutes. What? The reassuring strong lines of good versus evil were part of the mythology that helped Star Wars click so well across many cultures, and now we’re told that Grey Is Good. That’s a chainsaw to the foundation of the entire series.
Really, this is a question of artistic ownership and whether creative work, once released into the wild, truly continues to belong to the creator in the spiritual sense. Last year an essay I wrote about my struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder was published in an anthology by a major house in the U.S., but one of the conditions of inclusion was that I had to sign over all the rights of the work over to the publisher. I sat in front of the contract with a pen in my hand for a very long time. I felt like I was handing over a starving kitten I’d found wandering the streets and with great care raised into a healthy cat. But I ultimately signed, because I could put that essay up on BlondeChampagne.com or publish it with a literary magazine, and it might be seen by a few hundred people, and that would have been great, but here was a chance to widely distribute a piece that I hoped would help other people who had similar problems. I wrote this piece to be read, and clutching it too closely would smother it. That incident taught me there’s a great deal more to creative ownership than legal rights and trademarks.
Lucas obviously feels that since Star Wars is his creation, he has the right to rearrange the DNA at will. And yes, it’s his vision and his sweat, and he took several risks to make the movie when nobody else wanted any part of it. But at this point, is that universe really his, or has it passed into the hands of the culture, to those of us who have been hanging out there in our imaginations for so long?
There’s this feeling of betrayal that the universe we’d come to know so well just wasn’t what we’d been told it was–or that maybe Lucas wasn’t paying attention to the rules of play that he himself had established. You can pull this off with, say, Jurassic Park, because while those films were popular, they are in no way embedded in the culture the way Star Wars is. It was as if Lucas built this playground that we’d been romping through for thirty years, and all of a sudden we woke up one morning and he’d removed the slide and the swings and left a note announcing that there were never any slide and swings there to begin with.
Lightsabre – Tell us something of your career. Where did you begin in writing and what led you to where you are today?
MBE – Well, it helps that I’m utterly incompetent at anything else I’ve ever tried. When I was a little girl I wanted so desperately to become an astronaut, but then I ran into high school algebra and it dawned on me that NASA might prefer pilots who can add. Sentence construction, I can do. I enjoy bravely serving my country by typing. My family, my husband of three months—they’ve all been vastly supportive. I would be curled in a gutter clutching a tiny, broken model of the space shuttle right now if it weren’t for them.
Lightsabre – There is often a divide between original trilogy and prequel trilogy fans. What was the dividing point for you?
MBE – Actually, it is page… whatever of Vision of the Future in the Hand of Thrawn duology, when Luke Skywalker proposes to Mara Jade. If you ask me, absolutely nothing happens in the Star Wars universe past the point where they began a relationship. That was where the franchise went places I absolutely could not follow it. I could not in any way come to terms with the fact that Lucas had green-lighted marrying off Luke when the Jedi had been this powerful monastic order for thousands of years and then brought down by… what? By a Jedi who ultimately turned to the dark side in order to keep a particular person around for his own needs and comfort. My understanding was that the reason why Jedi were taken to the temple to train as infants was so that they wouldn’t grow overly attached to a family unit; they were to direct emotions of love and tenderness towards the universe as a whole. Therefore, by greenlighting Luke’s marriage in the EU, Lucas ripped the basis out of the entire “knight errant” structure of the Jedi. I refuse to believe that Luke, with a fledgling new Jedi Order under his leadership, would even entertain the notion of making the same mistake. Robed bros before hos, Luke.
Now, I just spun off this semi-drunken diatribe because the Star Wars universe contradicted one of my fundamental understandings of it. For me, like a good Catholic, that trigger point was undermining the monastic structure of the Jedi. The fans who refuse to acknowledge the prequels or certain aspects of the Special Editions, I think, do so because Lucas violated whatever issue was most cherished for that particular person. My theory is this is why the “Han Shot First” controversy became the symbol of fan upset over the “new” Star Wars; Han was beloved by many because he was such a badass, and reworking that scene robs him of his essential badassery. That, understandably, flipped out a lot people.
As to the two trilogies, I find something to enjoy in each of the prequels. I think the Kenobi-Maul-Jinn lightsaber battle is the finest of all six films. Even in the nightmare that was Episode II, I can sustain myself through the epically bad “I hate sand” scene by coveting Natalie Portman’s multicolored dress. That is some dress, people. It is almost exactly like a woman-sized version of a gown that came on my Happy Birthday Barbie many years ago. If I ever go to a state dinner at the White House, I’m finding a seamstress to replicate that dress even if it puts me in debt forever.
MBE – Mortgage payments. DttL is my pimpin’ site. It’s a place for people to go to learn about my first book, Drink to the Lasses, which is a memoir of my four years at a women’s college—available at DrinktotheLasses.com or a bookstore near you! Visit today!
Lightsabre – If, as you say, Lucas has lost sight of what Star Wars is about, who would you put in charge?
MBE – You know what? Nobody. Leave it alone. Just leave it. The man who created it isn’t the same man any more. I don’t take issue with role playing games or authors exploring, say, the Old Jedi Order and peripheral original trilogy characters, but I think the traditional main characters should be left to conduct their bad-boy romances and construct their lightsabers in peace.
I’ve read that Lucas has said that Star Wars was only maybe 25% of what he wanted it to be in 1977. What I think would have been interesting was if he had decided not to plunge back in and change what was there, but perhaps leave the original trilogy be and start all over again—new Luke, new Leia, all the JarJar he wants– now that he had the cash and the technological toys to do what he really wanted. That way there would be, in a sense, parallel universes that wouldn’t touch or affect one another, and the more conservative fans wouldn’t feel so personally violated.
In that sense, we wouldn’t maybe have all the anger and division the fans are experiencing. There’s a podcasting operation out there called Rifftrax, which is run by the fellows who did Mystery Science Theater 3000. They’ve recorded commentaries for all three prequels, and man, the anger towards Episode I is just palpable. I don’t think it’s a matter of failed expectations—it’s that Lucas gave us something many of the fans just couldn’t process, or refused to process.
Lightsabre – What were your feelings on Revenge of the Sith? Of all the prequels it was the one generally accepted to have bridged the gap between the ‘warring factions’ of fandom. Did it work for you?
MBE – Well, your mileage may vary, but I think that Episode II was such a load, such a poorly-dialogued CGI cartoon show that Lucas could have filmed a decomposing deer and it would have been better.
Sith was indeed an improvement, if a marginal one, and in a way everything that happened past the point of Padme’s funeral—those last two minutes, the hiding of the Luke and Leia—are heartbreaking because they fulfilled the potential of the prequels in a way that the other 2.95 movies did not. Those scenes destroyed me. They are phenomenal; the acting, the significance, the quietness of them. The CGI is very much in the background as a tool, not the star. It’s all character and plot, as it should be.
Or maybe it’s simply fact that there was an utter absence of dialogue. No opportunity to hate sand.
Lightsabre – The feeling in fandom is that Lucas has surprised himself with how much he is enjoying the challenge of making the two new shows. Doesn’t that give you hope for a great show? Or does it make your toes curl with dread?
MBE – He’s this Lucas 2.0 that I don’t even understand anymore. The bright spot for me is that he’s indicating that the series will deal with minor characters. This way, if he’s still around the bend, it won’t affect the core of the universe so deeply.
Lucas is a brilliant visionary, a big-picture guy, but he can’t write dialogue worth crap, conduct nuances of script, or bring out the best in his actors. If he’s learnt his lesson to draw the larger plan and let others who are better with smaller details come in behind him to do the shading work, it will be a great show. But I doubt it.
I’m interested to see the new Indiana Jones movie. Since that trilogy is historical fiction and not so much its own universe, I want to find out how or if this self-destructive tendency will manifest itself in the set of “rules” he and Spielberg have established for Indy. If they have him exchanging the hat for a jeweled headband or toting archeological finds to Antiques Roadshow, then I’ll really start to worry.
Lightsabre – Which of the myriad Star Wars characters do you feel the most affinity for?
MBE – In the original trilogy, it’s the Return of the Jedi form of Luke Skywalker. What a gorgeous job Lucas did with his character development. He truly went from whinging teen to struggling student to a man at peace with his skills and decisions over the course of the trilogy, as opposed to Leia, who, like her mother before her, started out as a strong female character and then disintegrated into a template sexual fantasy for twelve-year-old boys.
Where the prequels are concerned, I vastly enjoyed the overall treatment of Obi-Wan Kenobi; as a matter of fact, my entrance into writing about the Star Wars universe came from an article I wrote for MSNBC.com about him, and based on the feedback from that article, I’ve been writing for that publication ever since. So I owe Obi-Wan a drink. Ewan McGregor seemed to genuinely have a good time in the role, and I could certainly see how young Obi-Wan could grow into the Sir Alec Guinness interpretation of the character.
Lightsabre – Tell us something of your other interests outside of writing?
MBE – I’m actually having a bit of trouble paying attention to this interview because the Breeders’ Cup, the Super Bowl of American thoroughbred racing, is screaming at me to watch it. Watching stampeding big horses with little tiny men in horrid colors on top—that’s a good time for me. Other than my love affair with the space program, I’m also an awful wine snob and a history and politics freak. I love the American West, flying with my pilot husband, and enjoy sewing and scrapbooking but always somehow manage to come out of every project with this mangled mass of thread and glue on the other end. Other than that, I am the proudest aunt in the world. You think I can generate a high word count about Ewoks? Ask me about my nephews sometime. I adore aunting. It’s all the good bits of parenting without the constant vomit.
When I have the time and the cash, I want to start up figure skating lessons and maybe compete in adult amateur competitions. That’s everything I love in life—sequins, loud music, and a spotlight.
Lightsabre – You have a blog. As a writer, what is the attraction of blogging, and why do you think it has taken the world by storm in the manner it has?
MBE – One of my graduate school colleagues, reality show expert Andy Dehnart, did his thesis on blogging back in 2001, and I remember sitting in the audience listening to him and wondering what in the world he was talking about. Little did I know the impact blogging would have on my own career.
Since the age of fourteen, I’ve wanted to be a syndicated humor columnist. In those days, it was newspapers or nothing. I struggled a great deal right after I graduated from university because hard journalism just isn’t for me, but at the time I kept slogging because that was the only way to enter the profession. What an enormous blessing to live in an era in which this avenue is open to me. Now I really am a humor columnist at BlondeChampagne, and with far more freedom and a sense of immediacy than the old media model would have provided me.
Blogging plugs into two elemental aspects of Western culture: the desire for fame, and the concept that just one person can make a splash in the pond, that power is granted from the masses to the leaders, not the other way around.
I’m thirty years old—the same age as Star Wars, as a matter of fact—and I was raised in the self-esteem generation. All our lives we’ve been told that each one of us is special and wonderful. I think a sometimes we struggle with the concept that everyone is special and wonderful, and for Generation X there’s often this feeling of, “Hey… where’s mine?”
I don’t think it’s at all a coincidence that the rise of the blog corresponds almost exactly with the reality show explosion. We see these perfectly ordinary people becoming famous simply for appearing on television, and there’s simultaneously a sense of frustration and hope with that. So now I live in a world in which people receive cash for eating rat brains, but also in which total strangers read my blog, felt they’d gotten to know me, and then find and fill out my online bridal registry. It’s an astonishing era, dismaying and thrilling.
Lightsabre – What lies ahead for you in the future?
MBE – A nap and a bout of the usual self-hatred. Then, lunch.
Beyond that? My ultimate career dream is to write books and go on regular speaking tours, maybe do television. Like many creatives, I dread all interaction with people unless I’m standing in front of them with a microphone. And the original dream of a syndicated newspaper column is still there; that’s tough to put away entirely.
Lightsabre – A quick question about our site, Lightsabre. Any comments?
MBE – It contains not a single mention of Paris Hilton, nor does it blast Nickelback music at me as the page loads, so I’m a fan for life.
Lightsabre – It’s been a great interview, and thanks for being our guest on Lightsabre. Just one final question. You are sitting on a panel at Notre Dame and three people come into the room. George Lucas, a spotty geek and a rabid fanboy. You have to decide which one gets the job of running the new Star Wars television series, but which one do you choose, and why?
MBE – Notre Dame is a place for miracles, even miraculously bad football teams, so I’m pointing my finger at Lucas and transforming him back into the bearded ball of flannel who gave us the C-3P0 who kicks R2-D2, not whose cartoon head becomes fused to an entirely different body. We miss you, George.
Many thanks for the opportunity, and for your kind words. I owe you a drink, too. I’ll get Obi-Wan on the horn and we’ll find a good pub.