Why Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible is a Great Film

I was 13 years old in 1996 and I had never seen an episode of Mission: Impossible. I remember Brian De Palma’s film was one of the highly anticipated films of the year. My friends and I went to see it without much context to the characters or the storyline. By the time the movie ended, I was thrilled by the action sequences, but totally confused by the plot.

However, despite my 13 year old brain’s inability to process the film, I kept rewatching the film when it came out on VHS. Something about it enthralled me and I eventually concluded that it’s a wonderful film for the following reasons:

It was filmed beautifully. Like his 1987 The Untouchables, De Palma created a fantastic look that fit the film’s genre. De Palma, like most directors, is inspired by other great films and paid homage to Battleship Potemkin (1925) in The Untouchables stairwell shoot-out.  Mission: Impossible‘s plot was a mix of mystery, spy, detective, and action and I think de Palma was inspired by The Third Man (1949). De Palma made much use of the European setting and filmed with Dutch angles to create tension.

The story fit the post-Cold War era of the 90s. It seemed many people who enjoyed the TV show were angry that nearly the entire team in the film was killed at the beginning. Team leader Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) betrayed his team, Ethan Hunt, and his country for money and greed. The Cold War was over and terrorism wasn’t Hollywood’s new boogeyman yet. As Phelps said, “Well, you think about it Ethan, it was inevitable. No more cold war. No more secrets you keep from yourself. Answer to no one but yourself. Then, you wake up one morning and find out the President is running the country without your permission. The son of a bitch, how dare he. Then you realize, it’s over. You are an obsolete piece of hardware, not worth upgrading, you got a lousy marriage, and 62 grand a year.”

The action scenes were awesome and looked good, really good. Even by today’s standards, the climax action sequence on top of the train still looks phenomenal. It lacked the artificiality that plagues CGI (Star Wars prequels, anyone?). The combination of accurate lighting and high-force winds created an action sequence that made you actually focused on the action, not on the CGI. And of course, you can’t forget the classic scene of a wire-hanging Cruise attempting to break into CIA’s most secure vault. Ridiculous? Yes. Fun? Absolutely.

It has one of Danny Elfman’s strongest soundtracks. I’m not usually an Elfman fan, but his action cues and limited use of the classic theme was incredibly effective. Other than the film’s beginning and ending, Lalo Schifrin’s theme was used only two other times: after the CIA vault break-in and before Hunt blew up the helicopter with the gum; thus, emphasizing the “impossibility” of the missions.

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What Makes Classroom Learning a Worthwhile Experience?

I had a moment of fear and dread this week during a faculty meeting about technology in the classroom. How we learn today seems vastly different that how I learned 10 years ago. It’s so easy to find knowledge at the tips of our fingers. Then what’s the value of the classroom experience?

Noam Shpancer (2004, .pdf) wrote a beautiful essay for Thought and Action, the NEA higher education journal, answering the exact question above. He said that despite all the advances in how we access knowledge, we still yearn for reciprocal interactions with one another and authentic dialogue. He argues that the days of “one-way knowledge transfer” in the classroom is gone. It’s been replaced by the  internet, TV, and textbooks. So what can teachers provide that is not already provided by these devices? Instead of thinking about what content teachers can provide, let us think about the experience. Shpancer challenges us to make the classroom creative, flexible, and unpredictable. “The classroom, in this context, is to the textbook what the live show is to the studio recording.” As much as we think the internet is “interactive,” nothing is more interactive than face-to-face interaction.

I have proposed that the classroom experience uniquely affords students direct, live access to trained minds as well as safe, face-to-face, and academically productive group interaction. In other words, the classroom is a great place to learn how to deal with knowledge and how to deal with people—both of which are essential for success in the world, and neither of which can be downloaded from Yahoo.

While nothing Shpancer wrote is revolutionary novel to the world of education, it does reaffirm my own faith in the classroom experience. Despite the marvels of the technology, social media, and Google, we can still make classroom learning worthwhile.

References

Shpancer, N. (2004). What makes classroom learning a worthwhile experience? Thought and Action, Winter, 23-35. http://www.nea.org/assets/img/PubThoughtAndAction/TAA_04Win_03.pdf

Three Ways the GOP and Conservatism Can Win Again

I’m going to put my liberalism aside and give three serious suggestions how the Republicans can renew the spirit of conservatism and bring life back into their party without conceding their conservative principles:

  1. Direct your low tax message to working-class minorities: Reverse the perception that the GOP is the party of the rich. Putting horse-owning millionaire Romney up as your presidential candidate didn’t help that perception. Minorities don’t trust that the GOP is looking out for them. It’s hard to blame them when people keep hearing from Obama that the GOP “only” wants tax cuts for the rich. The GOP wants tax cuts for all. So why not say that more? Direct anti-tax message to working-class minorities more and emphasize payroll taxes and income taxes. That’s where workers see it most clearly. If the GOP were to say ,”Keep more of your paycheck!”, that makes sense to everyday people. Not “Let’s cut the capital gains tax!” WTF is capital gains? And I emphasize minorities because they’re the demographic that the GOP needs the biggest gains to achieve more electoral victories in 2014 and 2016.
  2. Open doors for women, not lock them: Even though a principle of conservatism is to keep the status-quo, it doesn’t help the party when the House GOP voted overwhelmingly against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Women who are in the middle of the political spectrum are not going to find that appealing. Reverse the anti-women perception by being more pragmatically helpful and open doors for women (in other words, just don’t block things, like abortion and contraceptives). The GOP can still appeal to women by valuing the work of women, especially those who work-at-home. Examples: Support homeschool initiatives, ease regulations on home day-cares, give tax credits for young mothers who want to finish college, college scholarships for conservative female students. Oh yeah, all those crazy rape comments by your older white GOP politicians don’t help either. So, at the state level, how about harsher punishments for rapists and more funding for police to solve rape cases? Last time I checked, the GOP prided on being pro-law and order.
  3. Promote a “smarter” and “more efficient” government, not “smaller”: What’s the difference? Smaller implies people are going to get less from their government and people don’t want to lose what they’re already getting. Smaller isn’t an appealing term. However, everybody loves efficiency! And everybody hates bureaucracy! The GOP can indeed make “small” government more marketable to independents and liberals by promising reductions in levels of government bureaucracy. When people buy into that, that will then give the party the political capital to reduce the amount of workers in the federal and state government, thus decreasing government spending. Also, how about supporting more technology to make interacting with the government more palatable, like the DMV, which is universally hated? Win! 

 

 

The Myth of Scioscia’s Style

Once in a while, somebody will comment to me or on HalosHeaven.com that Mike Scioscia’s style of play (“small ball,” hit and run, speed, sacrificing, etc.) doesn’t suit the current Angels roster of power hitters, like Pujols, Hamilton, and Trumbo. That assessment would then usually be a platform for firing Scioscia because he doesn’t know what to do with a power hitting line-up. Here’s what I wrote a few days ago on my Facebook:

“I would argue that it’s not one style that wins, but the execution of the players that matters the most. In 2002, Troy Glaus, Garret Anderson, and Tim Salmon had slugging percentages of .453, .539, and .503, respectively. In 2013, only one player slugged over .500 (Trout!). Of the current regular starters, Trumbo was 2nd in slugging percentage at .453. So arguably, the 2002 team had more power than 2013. It’s not that Pujols, Hamilton, and to some extent Trumbo doesn’t “fit” Scioscia’s “style” of small ball. They’re just not hitting well in general. To make the point further, the 2002 team was superior because it got on-base more (.341 OBP) and scored more runs (851). By the way, those stats are almost identical to the 2013 Red Sox with .349 OBP and 853 runs, both league highs. The 2013 Angels had .329 OBP and scored only 733 runs. It’s hard to play small ball (steal and sacrifices) if batters aren’t getting on base.”

On top of that, Scioscia’s small ball in 2002 was lauded only because his players executed hitting very well. In other words, we overvalued his strategy. It wasn’t really Scioscia’s small ball strategy that helped with the Game 6 World Series comeback in 2002. It was the home run of Scott Spezio that got the team back into the game, the leadoff home run of Darin Erstad that got them closer, and the double of power hitter Troy Glaus to score the subsequent tying and go-ahead runs. All in all, it goes to the general sabermetric belief that managers don’t manage the game as much as they manage men.

‘Tis the Season of Giving

In this time of the year, many of us are compelled to donate to charity. Nobody wants to be a greedy Scrooge. While many Americans think it’s right to give to the needy, many think it’s wrong for the government to give to the needy. What’s the difference?

Bah Humbug! to giving

Bah Humbug! to giving

Antony Davies’ article, The Economics and Morality of Caring for the Poor, provides a compelling argument why charity works for individuals, but not for governments. Davies, an economics professor, provides a libertarian interpretation of Jesus’ teachings about feeding and caring for the poor:

When Jesus calls on the rich to feed the poor, it’s because both of them are hungry. Jesus’ “poor” are poor because they lack food. Jesus’ “rich” are poor because they lack love.

 

When we rely on the government to “feed” the poor, we dehumanize the poor by regarding them principally as needs to be met. …

 

When we rely on the government to “feed” the poor, we dehumanize the rich by regarding them principally as revenue sources.

Again, Davies’ argument is compelling. However, I would argue that while government can dehumanize, we should be questioning why this dehumanization exists. Dehumanization does not exist solely because of a system, like a government. Governments are products of human society. While Davies’ argument that government dehumanizes the impoverished may be valid, he appears to assume that government, in and of itself, is a dehumanizing system. I propose that it is not government that dehumanizes the impoverished. It is us–society–that dehumanizes.

Davies, like many political conservatives, speak of government as if it was an uncontrollable machine. Many of us understand this concern. The bureaucracy of government is overwhelmingly complex. We abhor the dehumanizing treatment of bureaucracies. The common complaints of the DMV and public education are simplified examples of complex government operations. Many of us Americans have lost a sense of efficacy in our self-government. That is, we believe these systems and institutions are out of humanly control. We believe the myth that it is not us that can dehumanize, but only systems, bureaucracies, and governments can.

This leads us to reflect about the role of government in our lives and this is the major ideological divide between today’s liberals and conservatives. According to Davies, government taxation is analogous to dehumanization (I’ve also heard the tactless analogy to slavery, as well). Thanks to the overemphasis on the tax revolts when we learn about the American Revolution, many Americans think we’re suppose to a low-tax haven (TEA Party, anybody?). The way I see it, the Revolution wasn’t just about taxes. It was about self-government and allowing American colonists to decide for themselves on the issues, such as taxation and trade regulation (a few of the Founding Fathers were illegal smugglers, like Samuel Adams. How about that for the “rule of law?”). Eventually, America’s Founding Fathers passed taxes like any other government, especially to pay off war debts to Europe (yes, even the Founding Fathers incurred government debt!). Our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was scrapped by the Founding Fathers partly because it was extremely difficult for the federal government to levy taxes.

But this also leads us to ask if the Founding Fathers ever predicted that we would have welfare and wealth redistribution policies. It doesn’t matter what they specifically wanted in terms of future policy. Simply said, they allowed for us to decide for ourselves. That’s the point of self-government! A majority of Americans love Medicare and Social Security, the largest welfare and most expensive programs in our federal budget. To dissolve these programs would be political suicide for our elected leaders. Democracy has allowed for these policies. Most don’t consider Medicare and Social Security as dehumanizing. In fact, dissolving (and failing to save) these socialist programs would probably be more dehumanizing by ending health care and income support for millions of elderly, disabled, and impoverished Americans.

In the end, what would Davies and radical economic conservatives propose in place of Medicare and Social Security? Trillions in voluntary charitable donations to the poor, elderly, and disabled? What free-market system would find it worth while (profitable) to care for the poor, elderly, and disabled who have little stable income?

We Accept the Reality of the World with Which We are Presented

Christof-the-truman-show-25357354-1920-1080

Christof, the creator of Truman’s artificial world

This was one of the lines in the film The Truman Show that I’ve always remembered. Christof spoke this line to explain why an ignorant Truman Burbank never questions his artificial reality (The Matrix had the same premise as well). It’s difficult for many of us to question our own realities. It’s especially difficult for Americans to think that we can live in a world with less guns.

It’s been engrained in our heads that guns are patriotic and owning a gun makes a person more American. We think it’s a vital part of the American culture. Granted, I really don’t blame Americans for thinking guns are part of the American culture. It’s one of the few items that the Constitution explicitly says we can have. Not even education, marriage, or privacy is explicitly written into the Constitution. But the Founding Fathers went out of there way to say something about bearing arms.

While I’ll save the majority of the historical and legal arguments against the expansion of gun rights in the U.S. for later, I think many of us Americans can’t contemplate a country with less guns. A society with less guns is a society that is less American, many of us think. We believe it’s a natural right because somebody told us so–somebody that lived over 200 years ago said it’s a natural right. And many of us don’t question that.

We’ve accepted the reality of the world with which we are presented…by a few lawyers that lived over 200 years ago. We’ve simply taken a law written by fallible humans and apotheosized it. We’ve taken the 2nd amendment and made it God’s infallible law because we think it’s a natural right. Do you know who said it was a natural right? Do you know what natural rights are?

I’m not simply being contrarian and say the Founding Fathers were completely wrong. They got many laws right, but that doesn’t make them perfect. They knew that. They knew they could be wrong eventually. Heck, they got the first constitution of the United States wrong. Remember the Articles of Confederation? It was so bad, they trashed it. They wrote a whole new constitution that included an amendment process. The Founding Fathers essentially said to future generations, “This is a good start. Make sure you make it better.” This is what the Founding Fathers meant by a forming a more perfect Union in the preamble of the Constitution.

Thanks to the amendment process, we’ve changed the Constitution to keep it up with the times. We amended the Constitution to end slavery, to expand citizenship to all races, and to enfranchise women. For much of our history, Americans accepted and wholly endorsed slavery, racial discrimination, and gender inequality. The Americans that lived during this time accepted the reality that was presented to them. Change and progress happened when people chose to question the reality and suggest that it’s possible to live a society where people of color and women could be socially and legally accepted.

I dare you to question your reality. Altering your reality can feel uncertain. It’s not easy. It takes courage and sacrifice. Will you choose to make progress in our society for a perfect Union or stick to the status quo? Can you accept a reality where owning guns isn’t a natural right, but an earned privileged?