Present At Creation: Star Wars, George Lucas & Me

When I was younger I couldn’t read very well. In second grade I was put in a program for students who weren’t reading at grade level. If you know me now, you’ll find that very surprising, but it’s true. Now I can’t be sure why, but it’s most likely because of the cerebral palsy, which I’ve had since birth, playing haywire with my visual-spatial skills. I knew what the words meant; I just couldn’t make sense of them on the page. I had the same issue with comics until perhaps tenth grade, putting the images in proper order was something my brain just couldn’t handle.

The same, strangely enough, could not be said for film. Although it’s a very visual medium, I always “got it”, the story it was trying to tell, even the shot composition. It’s like going down a corridor of double-bolted doors and finding one that’s miraculously open.

I’m lucky, at least relatively so. My CP is mild, I don’t need a wheelchair, and I can speak and move reasonably well. I am “mainstreamed”. In other words, I can go through the week and not think about the fact that I have Cerebral Palsy. And yet… there are things that are a massive struggle for me to do, things I will never be able to do that others will find relatively easy. If I were to try and describe it: imagine the tree of life, a basic thick and sturdy trunk, and the branches, the things that one can do, activities and interests. Only for me, some of those branches are missing, destroyed by some hidden saboteur, or are rotten and treacherous. If I try and go out I will fall pretty far.

Sometimes those branches will magically grow, like my reading abilities; sometimes they will remain stunted, like my science skills. I love science, I fucking love science. I love it for a very simple and selfish reason; I’d be dead without it. If I’d been born, say before 1970, in the exact same conditions as I was in 1991, there’s no way my premature self would have survived. It was technological progress that saved me. That experience has informed my opinions on everything, but my first principle was that the past was mostly terrible, and we should look to the future.

So I was a kid who liked science, but couldn’t read very well, so that left me with two choices, the classic binary, Star Wars or Star Trek? It may seem slightly strange, given that I just spent the last paragraph singing the praises of the future that I would like the former over the latter, but Trek’s utopian socialism just left me cold. I mean Trek is… fine, I admire many of the stances it took, to its stand for racial equality (and that famed interracial kiss) to its casting of a female captain in Voyager. But what kept me at arms length was its seeming betrayal of the human condition. In the future there was no poverty, no war, everything was great on earth[2]. That never made sense to me, technology can make the future better, but it can’t change who we are as human beings. Star Wars understood that. Space is dirty Luke is a eking out an existence as a moisture farmer, the Empire takes a technological marvel and uses it to blow up a goddamn planet. Its not some weird alien species doing this, its us. Star Wars connected to me in a way its impossible to describe to anyone who doesn’t feel the same way, my best attempt is only one word: Joy, pure unadulterated joy. (Sonia Saraiya does a much better job). I didn’t connect to one character, I connected to them all, I connected to the entire world, the entire universe. And, if I’m honest with myself, the idea of “the force” was very cool to a kid with CP, the idea that one could overcome their physical limitations by tapping into a (non religious) greater power.

Many people have memories of when they first saw Star Wars. I do not. As far back as I can recall I’ve had Star Wars, in a way, it’s my second oldest friend.

And then the prequels came out.

The prequels did not, contra to hyperbole, “ruin anyone’s childhood” nor were they “cinematic war crimes”. Most simply though, they were movies that were not very good. But to me this was in tune with finding out that one’s god is not omni-benevolent. The same man who created Luke Skywalker also created Jar-Jar Binks. I still loved Star Wars, just not as much. But then something interesting happened, Star Wars saved me from Star Wars.

Maybe a few years after The Phantom Menace I was given a Star Wars comic book, (something I struggled to read). But it was Star Wars, so I dug in. The comic was about something called “The Rouge Squadron” whose members had crash-landed on a moon. They then had to fight off some kind of force wielding sorcerer, who was mind controlling the natives. (My memory is kind of fuzzy on the specifics.) I had no idea who any of the characters were, or what the overarching story arc was, but hell, it wasn’t any of the movies, my interest was piqued.

Because, the genius of George Lucas wasn’t that he created a story, it was that he created a world, a massive sandbox that others could play in. I was introduced to the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

I was born in October 1991. In June of that same year the book Heir To The Empire was published. Officially licensed by Lucasfilm and written by Timothy Zahn, it chronicles the doings of Grand Admiral Thrawn, an Imperial who schemes to destroy the nascent New Republic that our heroes had built at the end of Return of the Jedi. The book, which served as the first in a trilogy, was basically Episode VII before there was an Episode VII. And it was better then the prequels, parsecs better. It introduced many a cool character who were on par with those of the original trilogy[3] and showed that there was more to Star Wars then just Lucas. Serendipitously, perhaps a year after my comic book excursion, something in my brain switched, and I could read, and so I read Star Wars. Some of EU is brilliant, some of it is garbage, but it isn’t George Lucas.

In the documentary film Star Warriors, which tells the story of the Star Wars fan organization the 501st Legion, George Lucas appears at a gathering of the group. He is immediately cheered, because what else are a group of hard-core Star Wars fanatics going to do? The film was shot in 2007, when all the prequels had been released, we all knew what they were, we had dissected them, laid bare their flaws, and yet still, cheering. Almost no other author of a creative work is as both loved and as despised among their hard-core fanbase. Because, without Lucas, we wouldn’t have Star Wars, but then, after we loved his world we watched in horror as he spat out a twisted vision of an idea upon it, and then he did it again, and again. Here was our demiurge stomping through our garden, wilting the flowers and not even realizing it.

What had happened? Had Lucas been kidnapped and replaced with an imposter? Had he never really been that good? Those were the questions people asked. For me the answer lies in the idea of the American Dream. Stay with me.

In the annals of United States literature theory, there is the concept of the “Great American Novel”, a national epic that perfectly embodies the themes of the US, and its dreams. Star Wars is that novel, and George Lucas is that dreamer. Because, if America is about anything, its about creating something new, breaking the rules, and making your own way in the world, un-beholden to the shackles of the old. A Farm boy becomes a fighter pilot who saves a planet, a rougish smuggler becomes a great hero, and a princess becomes the leader of a democratic rebellion. And so it was with George Lucas, born in Modesto California to a middle class family, he had an idea, and stuck with it against all odds, beating the established interests at their own game to quite literally take it to the bank.

But there’s a darker side to America of course, we abolished de jure privilege with the Revolution, but there is still the idea that rich people have more power then the rest of us, and that those who are rich, tend to stay rich. Their ego growing in proportion with their money[4], and so it is with Star Wars, the aristocratic Jedi Knights passing down their knowledge to only a select few, the ranking system, the counting midi-chlorian levels. And so it was with George Lucas. His money made him arrogant, instead of recognizing his strength and weaknesses; he decided to do everything himself, hamstringing the prequels. He bought into his own propaganda, the idea of a lone visionary.

That was never true, while there wouldn’t be Star Wars without Lucas, there also wouldn’t have Star Wars without Ralph McQuarrie, Lawrence Kasdan, Marcia Lucas, Irving Kirshner, Leigh Brackett, and so many more., There wouldn’t be Star Wars without us, the fans. Lucas’ seeming contempt for us a fan base seems amazing. When he sold to Disney (for a mind boggling four billion dollars) part of his reasoning was that he didn’t want the criticism from the fans if he made another Star Wars. His vision was too much for us rubes. So he sat back, a dragon on his hoard. And then he had the chutzpah to declare The Force Awakens “too retro” and regretting that he sold to “white slavers”. I could tear into him for saying that, but it really doesn’t even deserve a response.

And yet, despite all that, he’s George Lucas. And some part of me will always love him. The best thing he ever did was creating a world that could live beyond him. And it did. Because the great thing about America is that it can always reinvent itself[5], Star Wars did the same thing, Episode VII had a Jewish writer(s) and director; its three new main characters were played by a Guatemalan immigrant, an afro-britishman, and an English woman, (who can deadlift 176 pounds) at its center. Groups that sure as hell didn’t have power when this country began, or even fifty years ago, are now headlining the biggest domestic film of all time. That’s the future, and its the one I’m looking forward to.

[1] With apologies to Dean Acheson

[2] And Yes, I know it was more complicated then that, stories thrive of on conflict, but that was Roddenberry’s vision.

[3] If Felicity Jones is somehow playing Mara Jade in Rouge One I will literally scream.

[4] Beginning in 1986 he engaged in a anti-competitive scheme with Steve Jobs, then of Pixar, to drive down employees wages.

[5] [5] That’s what those racist and sexist troglodytes will never understand.

(Originally published on 1/16/2016)