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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Star Trek; Some Cool Linguistic Nomenclature; and Zombies


Star Trek

OK, so I've now seen JJ's Star Trek. Hey, I liked the movie even before I saw it! See my previous post on the matter. Well, now that I've seen it, the movie is indeed spectacular - in some ways amazing. I seriously doubt that there is a single other director who could've pulled this off.

By way of background, I was never a true Trekkie (Trekker, for those trying to retain some self-respect) growing up. To me, the true Trekkies, among other things, (i) carried around their ST fact manuals, (ii) discussed episodes nonstop during class breaks, (iii) engaged in incessant trivia contests, (iv) knew every episode name together with its number, and (v) knew the dimensions of the shuttlecraft bathroom (OK, that one's apocryphal). Having said that, I thought the original series was terrific, and I probably fashioned a portion of my theology around its. (Hmm, maybe I'm not a Trekkie because I simply defined my way out of the label?)

I always felt that what distinguished the original series was the fullness of the characters. The stories were great, but secondary. I think that's why the cheesy effects and sometimes silly plots were acceptable. Revisiting the original would surely prove tricky. I awaited this movie with great trepidation, especially after Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That completely awful movie might hold the prize for the movie with the biggest gap between how great it should have been and how dismally terrible it was.

It turns out that the new Star Trek does a remarkable job of preserving the characters while delivering a much-needed style update. I've heard rumblings that the movie is action-heavy; however, while there is no shortage of action, I think the movie stays true to the character-driven approach. The channeling of the original cast by the new cast, without overly lapsing into parody, is well executed. McCoy comes closest to the proverbial imitation, but it works. Arguably, Chekov came most dangerously close to lapsing into abject parody, but even he was tolerable. Simon Pegg, whom gave us Shaun of the Dead, was hilarious and Scotty-like as Scotty (although I do so hope that they get rid of that silly poor-man's Star Wars sidekick they gave to him).

Ultimately, the key, besides Abrams, is Chris Pine (who IS this guy?!) as Kirk. Zachary Quinto as Spock was fine, and the mindbending subplot involving Nimoy was pretty cool; the Pike tie-in (with the always serviceable Bruce Greenwood) was great, too. But the lynchpin was the way in which Pine honored Shatner's portrayal, drawing on the original style while at the same time making it his own. Of all the challenges here, this one is the one I would have thought to be the most unbeatable. Well, Pine completely nailed it. Even the obviously Shatneresque swaggering at the very end worked extremely well.

On a personal note, the special thrill for me was introducing my children to this franchise with a movie that they both appreciated and embraced. This multigenerational reincarnation of something from the past was different than others I've experienced. The closest thing I've seen is the new thread of Bonds we have with Daniel Craig, but that's different, too, in that Bond never really went away.* (Sorry, but TV's Enterprise, and the last couple of movies, do not qualify as having kept ST going, in any meaningful sense.) I also was able to show my kids Kiss, but that was really Kiss qua dinosaur.

Indeed, up 'til now, to my substantial frustration, my kids viewed the whole ST thing as one big joke. Unlike, for example, The Twilight Zone, ST just didn't translate for them. For whatever reason the original series just didn't work for them. Now, they get it.

And, maybe more than ever, so do I. As the movie unfolded, I found myself feeling that I was watching background information that was always there, but which was unavailable to me until now. It didn't feel like a latter-day fill-in; it felt like a vehicle for the provision of heretofore existing but missing information. I had to remind myself that I hadn't missed the information being conveyed. It became possible to forget that, until now, this background didn't exist. I found all of that pretty amazing in light of how well I already knew these characters. The movie's vision of the characters' younger selves fits like a glove, as though this past always was. To me, this aspect as much as any other shows Abrams' genius.

In terms of the storytelling, nowhere is Abrams' creativity more evident than in respect of the clever use of an alternative timeline as a sort of deus ex machina** that allows Abrams to free himself of the details from the original show. I have always been . . . fascinated . . . by TNG's view of alternative time lines, particularly as embodied in the Tasha Yar chronicle (compare TNG with Lost; Twelve Monkeys), and they're used them here with extraordinary effect. By being placed down a new road, this new cast can boldly go, without the need to worry about integration with things that happened in the show, whether before or after. Spock and Uhura?! Nothing's there to stop them (including television's purportedly first-ever interracial kiss, between Kirk and Uhura). Note that, in several short years, this cast will be as old as the show's during its prime, with the result that both versions will be transpiring simultaneously. It was thus absolutely critical that the new stories be free of the old.

Another approach to avoiding the need to be bound to conformity with prior material could have been to shoehorn the existing material into the later vision. In effect, the prior material would be rewritten as need be in the later work to fit the later vision. Such a rewriting of history would have been difficult if not impossible to pull off here, given the arguably unique loyalty and devotion of the existing fan base.

That technique is eschewed here, with the result that the movie is not a prequel at all. It's the telling of earlier and eventually concurrent and later independent stories, with a substantially unchanged set of existing characters. Has that ever been tried before? However one might want to classify the new Star Trek (if I could coin a phrase of my own, I'd coin "paraquel"), the thought that Abrams has now given me and my sons the ability to retake this ground together over the years to come is a reason to smile. I look forward to the next ST, and the undoubtedly great storytelling that will come with it, with great anticipation.

Retcons, Backronyms and Other Cool Linguistic Nomenclature

The technique, referred to above, of taking facts from an earlier fictional installment and altering those facts in a later fictional installment has been given a name. What they (the ubiquitous "they"!) are calling it is "retcon," for retroactive continuity. The concept is (dare I say) fascinating. It's a liberating concept, to be sure, but one which risks dislocating and alienating those familiar with the prior material.

An arcane example of the retcon phenomenon that jumped out at me involved the living-dead thread that started with Return of the Living Dead. This underappreciated branch of the Living Dead saga, which is not a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, proceeds on the basis that the Romero flick was a fictionalization of actual occurrences. One of its key theses is that zombiism is spread not by bites, as Romero had imagined, but rather by other forms of contamination. By the time they get to Return III, which is really not that bad, the no-bite approach is apparently too cumbersome, and so, completely ignoring this fundamental thesis of Return I, they go back to the bite-and-spread paradigm. Retcon!

While we're on the subject of cool linguistic nomenclature, I recently came across a discussion of non-acronyms that feel like acronyms. For example, take "wiki." The entrance of the "wiki" prefix into the mainstream can be traced back to Ward Cunningham's use of the Hawaiian word for "fast" to describe an efficient, collaborative effort.*** A natural inclination would've been to think that "wiki" is some kind of acronym, causing one to try to figure out an underlying phrase that makes sense. Such retrofitting could arise because people genuinely believe that the non-acronym is indeed an acronym. In the "wiki" case, some have apparently retrofitted the snippet, "what I know is." A non-acronym onto which a phrase is later grafted has come to be known in some circles as a "backronym." Gotta love it.

Do the people who come up with these things take some level of satisfaction from interjecting them into the language? How cool is it when a name, catch-phrase or similar thing in pop culture truly embeds itself in broadly used language? Sometimes the source is a major movie, show, book or other release, and sometimes not. Sometimes, there can be a mere offhand comment. Here are some of my personal favorites:

- Rocky/Rambo - We now commonly talk about Rocky stories and going into a situation like some kind of Rambo. Hats off to Stallone for inserting himself (literally) into our language not once but twice! You can laugh at him all you want ('cuz I guess we want to deride those who have reached high levels of success), but let's see you do that! Usage: In ERISA more than in other areas, the story of the small-school ERISA lawyer who makes it can be a real Rocky story; and it's really something when that lawyer turns into Rambo and starts laying waste to adversaries in the way.

- 15 minutes (of fame) - "15 minutes" has become a two-word magic buzzword used whenever anyone who's not-so-famous brushes up against fame. And it's all because of visionary Andy Warhol's 1968 statement, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." (Hey, while I never really "got" Warhol either, anyone who gave us Lou Reed - as well as the "15 minutes" thing - can't be all bad.) Usage: You sure do get your 15 minutes if you're a senior IRS or DOL person at the time of a major benefits-related legislative initiative.

- Jumping the Shark - Wow, John Hein (now of Howard Stern fame), you really gave us a keeper of a phrase here, causing everything whose time has passed 4ever to refer back to Fonzie's Happy Days shark-riding exploits. Usage: So, when do you think ERISA jumped the shark?

- (The) Perfect Storm - How often do we hear that reference for fortuitous convergences, from the not-so-great movie (in turn based on the book) of the same name? Usage - The devastating market crash, the timing of the QDIA regs., a failure to get real investment advice to plan participants, etc., etc., were part of a Perfect Storm resulting in the present 401(k) debacle.

- Sliding Doors - The cool concept of parallel, alternate time lines (thanks to Star Trek TNG for that gem) gets a cool name by virtue of a not-so-cool movie. The fact that Geithner's nomination got through before Daschle's blew up presents a real sliding-doors scenario. See also my earlier post on the issue.

- Six Degrees of Separation - Here's the now-ubiquitous phrase for being not-so-far from someone else, based on a not-so-great book and later movie, sometimes (i) with "six" being reduced in scale and (ii) with the substitution of "Kevin Bacon" for "separation," as a result of the dalliance of college kids, Craig Fass, Brian Turtle and Mike Ginelli. Usage: I'll bet if I speak to a present-day member of Congress I'm only one or two degrees of separation from the people who wrote ERISA .

- Spam - I just love the fact that someone's reference to Monty Python's repetition of the word as a quaint reference to the repetition that is the hallmark of junk email (and who first put "e" or "i" in front of everything electric or internet?) stuck so thoroughly, completely and permanently. See, e.g., CompuServe v. Cyber Promotions, 962 F. Supp. 1015, 1018 n.1 (S.D. Ohio 1997). Thx (?) to Phoenix lawyers Canter and Siegel for their 1994 foray into what we now know to be spamming, with the result of inciting someone to come up with this too-cool turn of phrase. See generally Brad Templeton's post on the point. Usage: Whether your regard an email for an ERISA seminar as spam may depend on the how much value you place on such seminars.

- Blog - Wouldn't you just love to be the first person (Justin Hall, maybe?) to have put "web" and "log" together to get "blog"? Usage: There's at least one too many ERISA blogs.

- Scrooge - The word for every cheapskate, thx to Dickens, from his story of unsurpassed creativity, A Christmas Carol. And, as much as I don't really get him, Shakespeare had such talent that his characters - it seems like every one of them - become words and reference points. The stories in the bible and from Homer and Aesop are similarly clever. Usage: Whoever wrote "those" regs. was sure a real Scrooge.

- Heavy Metal's Devil Horns - VH1 Classic teaches us that Ronnie James Dio gave us this now-ubiquitous hand signal, having gotten it from his . . . grandmother!! (Gene Simmons claims it comes from his hand position on the Love Gun cover. Much as I love 'im, that's pretty funny.) Usage: It's what you would do with your hand if 409A were to be repealed.

- Southpaw - I'm not sure this one really fits on the list, but it has been said that Chicago's Finley Peter Dunne's first used the term in 1885 to refer to a left-handed pitcher, who, while facing home plate to the west, would throw using his . . . southern arm. It's a cool story which I choose to believe - notwithstanding that there apparently may have been prior use in the world of pugilism as early as 1848 referring to a left-handed boxer. Usage: When Obama finally signs health-care reform into law, it will be as a southpaw.

- Paraquel - Oops, sorry, I just tried to coin that one above.

Language is people-alterable in the context of the legal landscape as well. I find it interesting that someone drafting a statute or rule may wind up establishing or changing the nomenclature that people use to refer to a particular concept, maybe even permanently. I suspect that the recent and current crops of our friends at Treasury and the IRS have a veritable harvest of phrases and acronyms in 409A alone - short-term deferrals and S-TDs,**** legally binding rights and LBRs, "good" and "bad" "good reason," etc., etc.

Take the case of ol' Sen. William Roth who, having finally ascended to chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, in a remarkable pique of hubris changed the name of backloaded IRAs to "Roth" IRAs in what may have been the final turn of the late-90s bill that eventually added Roths. My guess is that his people did a find-and-replace substituting "Roth," on the one hand, for "backloaded" and "Super," on the other. Hey, it worked - Sir Roth's legacy is that his name is EVERYwhere!! It's good to be king, to the victor goes the spoils, and all that rot. And now there're even Roth 401(k)s!

In a similar vein, there's the "Keogh," generally referring to a retirement plan for a self-employed individual. For the longest time I thought "Keogh" was an acronym; I almost fell into the backronym trap discussed above. It turns out that "Keogh" is nothing more than Rep. Eugene Keogh's last name.

I wonder how many of the people who come up with these things, once they stick, say to themselves, "Hey, I did that," every time they hear them used. Does the person who coined "benefit plan investor" in the "significant" participation rules in Section 2510.3-101(f) of the DOL Regulations feel that way? Even private practitioners can get into the act, as in the case of whoever came up with "controlling persons" to describe in financial-product disclosure those who aren't counted under the 25% test in Section 2510.3-101(f). (I have a sneaking suspicion I know the downtowner who gave us that one.)

Zombies (and Their Music)

Return of the Living Dead and its progeny are discussed above in the context of the retcon phenomenon. When it comes to zombie sequels, the one I really like is one that no one seems to care much about, 28 Weeks Later. The soundtrack, while maybe not quite at the levels of Carpenter's efforts in Halloween and Escape from New York, is one of my favorites and really drives the movie, especially at the end.*****

And the best Zombie movie of all time? To me, it's the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Romero's original Dawn was a clever commentary on malls in suburbia, I suppose, but -heresy - I think that the movie was goofy and completely disposable. Snyder's remake, on the other hand, has terrific energy, great plot twists and some tight acting turns (the casting is right on the button).

The devastating ending, uniquely coming as it does after the credits, is well-crafted and uniquely delivered. What nails it for me is the way the movie is woven around its soundtrack, most notably, around Disturbed's Down with the Sickness, culminating at the end. I actually think that Snyder may have more artfully used music to help construct his movie than even Tarantino ever did. Early in the movie, we get the lounge-lizard version of that song to convey the absurdity and incongruity of our heroes' predicament. I had assumed that this version of the song was cut especially for the movie, but it turns out (thanks go to Richie W. of The Howard Stern Show/Howard TV for alerting me to this some time back) that it's Richard Cheese's clever turn.

Later, over the first part of the credits,****** we get People Who Died, a song that's as original as it is great, by Jim Carroll of The Basketball Diaries fame. Then, squaring the circle started with Cheese's Down with the Sickness, we get the original from Disturbed, to propel us through the true post-credits ending of the movie. The lyrics of both dovetail completely with the substance and style of the movie. I could hardly believe that two of my favorite songs were bookending this dynamite finale. Bravo!
* I recognize that those who liked Star Wars have been able to share the prequels with their kids, but Lucas never aspired to reinvigorating Star Wars as an ongoing perpetuation of the franchise. The James Bond thing is quite incredible. There is no comparable precedent for what they've accomplished. They've made over 20 movies, in the same thread (there are several spurs, but those can be ignored without diminishing the point being made here), without material interruption. That they've done it with different stars (and survived George Lazenby) makes it more, not less, amazing. Think of all of the amazing characters and movies throughout the years (remember the Rocky XXXVIII poster in Airplane II?), and not one of them comes within miles of generating a franchise as prolific and continuing as Bond.

** I always have wanted to use that phrase since seeing Tony Randall use it on TV's The Odd Couple (which, by the way, was better than the movie, at least once they went in their own direction).

**** It's amazing what you can find on Wikipedia, including the incestuous etymological derivation of the use of "wiki"). Thank goodness everything in there is always 100% correct - just ask Ted Kennedy, Steve Jobs, et al.

**** I refuse to use that one without a hyphen as a legal term; you can almost hear Beavis and Butt-Head giggling ("he said, 'STD' - huh huh ha heh heh").

***** The best soundtrack for any movie ever might well be Morricone's for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There are long stretches of the movie, including the climactic scene, in which the music IS the dialogue. And, back to another point relating to horror-movie music, I'd like to know if, as he's suggested, Harry Manfedini produced a backing track for Friday the 13th that really said "ki ki ki ma ma ma" and did so as a clue that Jason's mom (ma), rather than Jason, was the one to kill (ki) all those Crystal Lake victims.

****** Did you notice that Heather Langenkamp is listed as being in the production crew? 

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