Today we had the best family laugh session in a while, thanks to Hulu.

Did you know that before the Flash Gordon of 1960s fame, there was Flash Gordon, the 1936 theatrical serial?

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Not only is it hysterically bad, it is awesomely important.

A Great and Noble Legacy

For instance, just by watching the first episode, “Planet of Peril”, you know that Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas both saw it and were impressed. So many classic points of the Star Trek and Star Wars systems are present: the necessary torn shirt in the battle scenes, the laughable monsters, the actors leaping hither and yon as their craft encounters turbulence, the scale models, the ray guns, the trap-door-accessed “Pit”.

And you hear some really decent screaming. Heroines hardly scream anymore, and when they do, it’s more of a shriek.

Perhaps even more enlightening than the clues pointing towards the sci-fi boom of the 1960s-80s (which, huh, kind of coincides with NASA developments…what a coinkydink!) was the sudden realization that there is a great chance that my grandparents went to see this in theaters.

A Not-So-Great and Noble Legacy

The film reflects some deeply entrenched storylines that are pretty classic: hero goes to save the world, saves pretty lady, yaddah yaddah. But deeper than the significance of archtype storylines through time and culture is the significance of the expression of the plot.

The villain, of course, is Asian. (Not a real Asian, of course, because Hollywood didn’t hire any Asians for a very long time unless they were female, highly sexualized, and villainous. I had a class on this, people. A rhetoric class, which is like English cubed – so this stuff is legit.)

The hero, of course, is a blond-haired, large, All-American chap who has an overdeveloped need to protect women (who wouldn’t need help if they weren’t required to scream and faint all the time) and a peppy attitude that can get him out of the darkest doldrums. Combine with said tough-but-easily-overwhelmed female, a questionably-charactered Russian-esque scientist, and a radioactive planet hurtling towards Earth, and you’ve got yourself a movie.

And your point is…?

“Of course!” you say. “I mean, it was made in the 1930s!”

We’ve come a long way in some respects: the heroine wouldn’t be caught dead fainting, and the audience would shoot her themselves if she screamed. But Asians — of any ethnicity — are still hard-put to find an opportunity to be a hero, and Russians are still the villain de jour (unless, of course, you need a terrorist). And in the same way that “Asians” have now become Chinese, Korean, Viatnemese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Filipino, etc., someday “Middle-Eastern” will become Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, Arabian, and Israeli. We are much more aware of our prejudices than we were 75 years ago, so perhaps we can get over them and on to the next one faster than we used to.

“They’re just stories!” we say. But if we don’t think about the stories as stories, we have a hard time when reality turns out to be not so real after all.

Movies, of course, are just stories. But all stories are dangerous. One of my favorite characters, Granny Weatherwax, knows that stories are important because they are what people tell themselves to enable them to deal with reality. Whether or not the stories are true, people treat them as true.

Are you sure you didn’t major in Sociology?

Stories have extreme power to alter our perception of reality: what is true, and what is untrue. We tell ourselves stories all day long. That person cut us off ’cause they’re a jerk. What if we changed the story? That person cut us off because they didn’t see us. The same situation is reflected in two ways: a reflection of malice vs. a reflection of accident.

Both stories may be true, and we have no way of knowing which one is. But which version turns into reality? Whichever one you choose to believe. We then react to that reality, that story we’ve told ourselves, and science has proven that our bodies physically react to our thoughts. Sad, angry thoughts put stress on our bodies; happy thoughts relieve stress.

Should we choose then to accept “happy” stories, regardless of other options? An English study reported by the BBC aimed to delve deeper into relationship expectations created by Romantic Comedies — a genre that has changed little in the past 100 years — and found that people weren’t editing any of the stories they were being told based on their own experiences. They therefore chose to believe the happy reality of the relationship working out no matter what, and this resulted in a large number of relationships failing.

On a different track, prosecutors are becoming more frustrated with jurors’ incorrect assumptions about legal procedures based on popular T.V. and movie dramas, dubbed the “CSI Effect“.

The moral? Whatever reality you describe to yourself, make sure you constantly edit it to reflect new experiences and information.

Some More Thoughts, notably about Buttered Toast

Should we get rid of stories? Absolutely not! They’re dangerous, sure. But so are knives, dogs, and buttered toast (don’t laugh – those crumbs can kill you!). But by accepting their power, you can maintain control of the stories you tell yourself and the stories you accept as true. Movies are more potent stories because of their similarity to the reality experienced by the viewer.

Think about the movies you’ve seen recently. What are they telling us about peoples and places? Relationships?

*I’m* going to continue to watch Flash Gordon — all 13 episodes — and enjoy them all thoroughly. I think I will also ask my grandmother what she thought of them.