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Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

(Note: I wrote this post on Memorial Day, but I think its message applies just as strongly to Veteran's Day, when we honor all those who have entered into service for our country.)

On a day we rightly consecrate in order to remember those who have given their last full measure of devotion in the service of this country, I think it's appropriate to think about what it really means to support our troops. Obviously, truly supporting our troops means more than hanging a flag on our house or sporting a bumper sticker on our car.

Today, the Washington Post has published an article about the sacrifice our soldiers have made in Iraq. This article details the very real & painful price we ask of our military forces when we send them into conflict. But it also veers close to making an argument that I find very dangerous.

The dangerous argument is this: because we have lost lives in our military ventures in Iraq, we are obliged to stay there "until we win" -- which I guess means until we are able to install a self-sustaining democratic government there. (Or does it mean we have to stay until we have enacted sufficient vengeance on those who were responsible for 9/11?) In other words, to leave Iraq is to dishonor those who have died there.

This is the kind of thinking that enmeshes us in long, costly counterinsurgencies that end up wasting even more lives.

The truth is this: those who have served & died in the service of their country have earned the same amount of honor, whether or not the outcome of that service is victory or defeat. This is why American casualties of Vietnam deserve the same honors as American casualties of World War II. The outcome of a mission is something for politicians to worry about. Honorable veterans just execute the missions we give them.

To elaborate further, the decisions & policies that determine where we send our military are made by civilian politicians, just as those same politicians, as our representatives, also decide when we should end such endeavors. To put it another way, the military is our gun, and we decide where to point it, when to pull the trigger -- and when to put it back in our holster.

Think of when President George W. Bush stood on that aircraft carrier in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner a little over 7 years ago. That was an example of a politician saying one thing and doing another. The President acted as if we were putting our gun back into our holster when in fact the opposite was true. It was dishonorable political posturing, but it did nothing to diminish the honor of our military. Those who go where we send them in the service of their country have honor, no matter what our politicians say or do.

I like the way Senator John McCain refers to "blood & treasure" when he talks about our use of our military because it highlights the price that such use entails (though I disagree with him on lots of other issues). McCain's phrase also highlights how precious our military really is. It represents the best parts of us, and it deserves to be used wisely.

The question is: is it wise to continue to commit our "blood & treasure" in Iraq or Afghanistan? I don't pretend to know the ultimate answer to that question, but I can't help noticing the mounting evidence of diminishing returns in our wars in the Middle East.

And don't even get me started about the supposed benefits of these wars in our "fight" against terrorism.

I also think that we don't do enough for our veterans. They deserve better benefits & compensation. But they also deserve to be better used. Just because we've incurred casualties in a given theater of operations does not mean we need to stay there until every potential enemy of America has been eradicated.

One of the cornerstones of our democracy is the civilian control of the military. It's one of our vaunted checks & balances of national power, and it has served us well. But with such power comes much responsibility. It is up to us to ensure that we only commit our "blood & treasure" in endeavors that are worth their price.

This issue is complicated when much of the information about our military activities is hidden from those of us who are supposed to be the ultimate authority on military action. I can't help but think of President Eisenhower's farewell address, in which he warned us about the "unwarranted influence" of the "military-industrial complex" in determining our national priorities and policies. He left office urging us to find the "proper meshing" of military might and peaceful methods, "so that security and liberty may prosper together."

We must remain vigilant and decisive about when & where we deploy our military, and we must be just as vigilant and decisive about when we bring them back home. This is what it truly means to support our troops.

As I write this, NBC News is airing a story on Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where we inter those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's both heartbreaking and inspirational to see those rows of markers. They deserve our eternal remembrance.

Please take the time to remember the fallen on Memorial Day. And from now on, pay close attention to where we send our future fallen. These honorable men and women deserve no less.

jjwylie@gmail.com
www.jjwylie.com

Monday, May 24, 2010

Yet More Thoughts on Governance (& Armageddon)

As this year's campaign season heats up along with the weather, I'm starting to get bombarded by directed rhetoric. A man running to be my congressional candidate has robo-called me several times, and my mail sags with the weight of glossy postcards and brochures aimed at securing my vote.

It seems it's a bad year for incumbents, what with Tea Party mania sweeping the land and animating would-be voters, but I have to admit a certain disappointment with the lack of depth in most people's positions on issues. For instance, on last night's local newscast, I heard a liberal demonstrator use the exact simple-minded constructions to attack Sarah Palin that she uses. I realize I only have myself to blame for being surprised at ignorance and irrationality.

In another recent instance, I listened to a local citizen kvetch about the government's response to the oil welling up in the Gulf of Mexico, apparently thinking that "the government" possesses some capacity to control the disaster -- as if the Navy has warehouses full of booms and robotic submarines and chemical dispersants that they can deploy on a moment's notice, so long as the President gives the word. (Is there any more ludricrous analogy than calling the Gulf of Mexico oil spill "Obama's Katrina"?)

And such a view has no appreciation of the thorny legal issues involved in governmental interference in private corporate ventures taking place offshore. Sure, people died, and others needed rescuing when the drilling platform exploded & sunk. But, when construction workers got killed building our local CityCenter, where was the outcry for a government takeover of that project? (Okay, this analogy is simplistic, but that's part of my point.)

But what can you do about a worldview informed more by Jerry Bruckheimer than Thomas L. Friedman? No wonder such a person thinks we can just fix this latest catastrophe by calling in Bruce Willis & his gang from Armageddon. It's this kind of thinking that sends our precious military into the desert on the other side of the planet in the name of fighting terrorism & securing democracy, only to be surprised that we end up enmeshed in a decade-long counterinsurgency.

People have a simplistic view of government and the art of governance. The complexities of reality baffle them. The financial crisis was born of reckless deregulation, but efforts to correct that mistake have been met with reductionist rhetoric about "big government" and the inefficiencies of bureaucracy. Never mind the notion that doing nothing only sets the stage for further financial crises, however imperfect our legislative solutions may be, "government" is seen as a uniform evil -- until you need rescue from whatever catastrophe has exploded in your neighborhood.

Government isn't a vending machine, where you can walk up, put your money in and only select what you want. In order to have the protections and services you want, you have to understand that they come with attendant complexities, like bureaucracy and regulation. I'm all for checks & balances, and I believe democracy works best when an informed & vigilant citizenry actively prunes the tendrils of power. But the government isn't evil, and it isn't the enemy of liberty. It's as necessary as oxygen.

The free market is also necessary, as is free speech. But a completely deregulated market leads to predation & exploitation, as both our financial crises and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill evince. The market creates efficiencies, sure, but they are largely amoral, which nobody wants in charge. After all, only a fool wants amoral efficiency to determine how health care gets distributed.

And isn't it amazing that the same people who want to rewrite textbooks in order to insert their version of "moral certainty" are also largely the same people who advocate amoral, free-market determinism in their health-care? Could it be because they have the money to pay for doctor visits?

Actually, I am never amazed when people with money become selfish. It's human nature. This is why the nouveau-riche are so easily seduced by the sophomoric writings of Ayn Rand. Her "objectivism" appeals to their sense of personal achievement (& thus entitlement). In their view, less-successful people deserve their fates.

And, of course, the reason that multinational corporations like BP are allowed to cut corners and operate recklessly is that they're largely unfettered by regulation. Not only that, but enforcement of existing regulations is strangled by ever-tightening purse-strings. And these corporations are also protected by layers of liability bolstered by enormous profits. As free-marketers are wont to tell you, profits are moral, at least until they wash up on your beaches in a disastrous slick.

In the end, this is all just the latest tempest in our teacups. I wonder what future generations will think of how we spent our days and dollars. What's likely is that they'll be just as myopic as we are, complaining about their taxes but wondering where the government is when disaster strikes.

jjwylie@gmail.com
www.jjwylie.com

Friday, May 14, 2010

Goodbye Law & Order (?!)

So, news reports are everywhere that the TV series Law & Order has been cancelled after 20 seasons on NBC. Ken Tucker from Entertainment Weekly has a written a fine farewell here.


I have made fun of Law & Order's cookie-cutter episodes ever since it began. But I've also been a devoted fan. In fact, I regularly view both the original series and one of its spinoffs, Law & Order: Criminal Intent. (The Law & Order: SVU spinoff, though successful in its ratings, has sucked from its 2nd season on, and I have discovered there's a British version currently playing across the pond.)

And, even amidst this news about cancellation, there's been an announcement of a new spinoff, set in Los Angeles. The entertainment world sure loves its franchises.

My favorite actor on Law & Order was the late Jerry Orbach, though his super-long-in-the-tooth detective certainly strained believability in those last few seasons. Orbach possessed the rare ability to deliver even the worst lines with a paradoxical mix of absolute conviction and a kind of stoop-shouldered self-awareness that what he was saying was usually a complete cliche. After all, who among us hasn't slung their share of bullshit in the course of their job?

Another thing I like about the show is its episode-by-episode portrayal of the stark line between legality and justice. Sure, other shows make their living dramatizing the difference between right and wrong, but Law & Order is refreshing in its more realistic stance that vigilantism is not only wrong, but dangerous.

On this show, whenever someone took the law "into their own hands," things generally went very badly. It's a lesson about the complexity of morality that too few people have learned. The criminal justice system may not be perfect, but it's sure better than any alternative.


Ken Tucker writes that Law & Order "was never cool," and he's right. The show eschews stylistic trendiness, although it does specialize in "ripped from the headlines" plots that veer just shy of sensationalism. One of the more memorable plots involves a minor celebrity who hacked off the head of his ex-wife in a fit of rage. Sound familiar? There was even an episode based on the death and post-mortem custodial battles of Anna Nicole Smith.

In fact, this TV series has made its bread-and-butter by maintaining a certain, aloof distance from trendy fads, often lampooning them for dramatic effect. The excesses and hypocrisies of "reality TV" have provided ammunition for several episodes, and I remember one where the hotshot creator of a series of "Girls Gone Wild" videos is put on trial.

Sure, the plots on Law & Order were formulaic and derivative. Sure, the show's legal machinations were sometimes so improbable that they became laughable (such as when the Manhattan D.A.'s office indicted a South American general -- and actually got him to testify in a trial!). And, yes, the show had a particularly difficult time portraying IT technology. (Then again, what TV show doesn't?)

But, as broadcast entertainment goes, this show rocked. It was comfort television for me. Just hearing that tell-tale "Cha-CHUNG" sound that became the show's audio trademark would bring a smile to my face.

Here's another measure of Law & Order's significance: according to a post at the Atlantic (which quotes a New York Times story), the show provided 4,000 jobs and as much as $79 million per year in revenue for the New York City economy. Talk about a flagship! One can only hope that the new Los Angeles spinoff has a similar impact.

Law & Order already has a robust existence in syndication, so the show won't completely disappear after its final first-run episode. And I have a feeling that, before it dies, the series might do what Law & Order: Criminal Intent did: make the jump from NBC to basic cable, where it's dwindling audience could still be big enough to keep it afloat.

If so, I'll probably keep watching it.

an American television series
created & produced by Dick Wolf


jjwylie@gmail.com
www.jjwylie.com

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Today's Playlist (or why I don't listen to FM radio)

I have a large collection of music that goes back several decades. It started with LP's and cassettes, but almost all of it has now been converted to mp3's for use in my Iphone. And I manage my playlists daily. In other words, I am an active music listener.

In fact, I am one of those people who believes that life is better with a soundtrack. I have worn out countless pairs of earbuds as I rock out for hours each day.

Curiously (or not), I rarely listen to the radio. Between podcasts, audiobooks, and music, there just aren't enough hours in the day to listen to what I WANT to hear, let alone spend any time listening to the dreck on commercial radio. My local FM stations could burn to the ground, and I would barely notice. (Except for the NPR station. I might miss that one.)

"But, J.J.," you ask, "if you're such a fan, how do you keep up with the latest music?"

The fact is, I don't. I don't even try. I subscribe to Chuck Klosterman's idea, which I heard in an interview (but not this one), that I should make zero effort to listen to any music that isn't at least a year old.

Klosterman's rationale, as I understand it, is that there's so much new music coming out that trying to keep up with it is like trying to sip the ocean through a straw.

And if you get your musical tastes from commercial radio, I don't even know where to begin to help you. There are very good reasons why the vertically-integrated music industry is crumbling in the face of Itunes and internet piracy, one of which is an incredible lack of quality at the top of the radio charts. Taylor Swift has a fine voice and may one day develop into an interesting artist, but right now, she can't hold a candle to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Or Alison Krauss.

Also, borrowing from an idea that I think I first heard from the poet Auden (i.e, "Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered."), music that survives that first year has probably earned itself a listen.

So, the one-year filter cleans out lots of bad music. After all, life is short. Besides, even without being plugged into the heavy rotations of FM radio, I get plenty of new music news. From NPR to podcasts (like Sound Opinions) to friends, I still have sources pushing new music onto me. I just don't chase it like I did when I was a kid.

Still, I do love music. Its ability to change and heighten mood is invaluable. Music flavors life, as they say, and, I, for one, have always had a sweet tooth.

And so, for purposes of further discussion, I will now disclose the contents of today's top-20 playlist, randomly-generated by my Iphone. Judge me if you dare:
1. Social Distortion, "Ring of Fire" - From the same 1990 album that brought us "Ball and Chain" and "Story of My Life" comes this standout cover of Johnny Cash. It's a straight-up, stripped-down, uptempo homage to the Man In Black, and it rocks with a primacy and power that I think Cash would applaud.

2. Eric B. & Rakim, "I Know You Got Soul" - From their debut album, Paid In Full, which came out in 1987, this hiphop classic features a thumping bassline, cool samples, and flawless rapping. This song supplied the title lyric and signature sample for the M/A/R/R/S hit, "Pump Up The Volume." So it not only sampled greatness -- it provided it.

3. Jet, "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" - The lead single from their 2003 album, Get Born, this song is reminscent of Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" with its driving rhythm and in-your-face vocals. Bar-band flavored rock-and-roll at its best.

4. Daft Punk, "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" - Featuring robotic vocals and a danceable melody that develops and deconstructs through the course of the song, this tune is also surprisingly funky, given its automated base materials. Which just goes to show you: musical soul transcends instrumentation. Forget that Kanye West piggybacked on this song in "Stronger" -- the Daft Punk original is a masterpiece of club pop.

5. Squeeze, "Tempted" - This 1981 track helped usher me into the embrace of the New Wave in a way that still paid homage to the history of pop music. Unlike the punks, who seemed to hate all that came before them, Squeeze saw themselves as part of a larger, ever-developing tradition, and this song is a tasty bit of British R&B-tinged smoothness.

6. Rush, "Spirit of Radio" - From 1980's Permanent Waves album, this one is a personal favorite from my days as a wannabe headbanger, although Rush was more prog-rock than heavy metal. Lots of music from then has aged badly, but not this song. An all-time great track about a time when FM radio was a force for good, although it acknowledges the threat of corporate pressures. And its funky, final break, with its lyrical homage to Simon & Garfunkel, is the stuff of genius.

7. The Gourds, "Gin and Juice" - Snoop Dogg's classic tune gets the alt-country treatment here to incredible effect. When I first heard this song, I was told it was a cover by the Barenaked Ladies, but I was soon disabused. The song, however, totally rules, and the Gourds deserve more acclaim.

8. OK Go, "A Million Ways" - This 2005 release is the band's breakout song, riding the popularity of a YouTube video featuring some splendid homegrown choreography. They have a real pop sensibility, crafting nifty little gems of tongue-in-cheek drama. "Here It Goes Again" is one of my all-time favorite songs ever, but this one is a close second.

9. U2, "Desire" - This may be my favorite U2 song. It comes from Rattle and Hum and sports not just the usual pounding beat but a tight, traditional, un-U2-like structure, reminiscent of a Bo Diddley tune. From the band's "American roots" period, it begs to be sung along to.

10. Us3, "Cantaloop" - This 1992 chunk of jazz-rap bites off a piece of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" to very groovy effect. I love jazz, so the historic samples sprinkled throughout this song really bring me back. The catchiness of this tune is totally infectious & always brings a smile to my face.

11. Saul Williams, "List of Demands (Reparations)" - I first heard this song in a commercial, but subsequent listenings have made me appreciate its raw, insistent poetry. It's the declaration of an angry, ambitious soul rendered in noisy, marching beats. A song to get your blood racing and your fists clenching.

12. Al Green, "Let's Stay Together" - If I have to explain why this song is great, then there's no hope for you. No collection is complete without this song. Let the Reverend Green shine his soulful light upon you. Perfect for setting the mood when you're entertaining a guest, if you know what I mean.

13. The Roots, "How I Got Over" - A personal violation of the Klosterman rule, this new song is just too catchy (their catchiest since "The Seed (2.0)") to ignore, so I count myself lucky that I got an advanced copy of this tune, since the album won't drop for another month. The Roots have always enlightened me, so it's especially rewarding when they also entertain. (See, some new music does manage to find me.)

14. Jellyfish, "Baby's Coming Back" - Classified as one-hit wonders with this 1990 mid-level hit, Jellyfish nevertheless crafted a wonderful piece of power-pop that's both bubble-gum and timeless. The song has an immediate hook and great production, and the video (via YouTube) is a freakin' hilarious throwback to the days when videos ruled the airwaves. These guys got chops.

15. Joe Cocker, "Feelin' Alright" - The original Dave Mason tune is older than I am, and this 1969 cover by Joe Cocker is piano-powered, bluesy goodness. Cocker's raspy vocals are perfect for the paranoid lyrics and are offset by upbeat rhythms and a rousing backing chorus, creating a disjointed masterpiece. If I'm ever caught in a smoky karaoke tavern on the wrong side of town, having to sing for my bartab, this is the song I'll dust off. It worked well for Huey Lewis in Duets.

16. The Broken Bells, "The High Road" - Another violation of my Klosterman rule, I first heard this tune on Sound Opinions. This song, created by Danger Mouse and James Mercer (lead singer of The Shins), is a moody, electronically-inflected slice of darkness featuring cinematic production and dramatic vocals. For Danger Mouse, it marks quite a departure from the sound he creates in Gnarls Barkley, although its spiritual sense seems right in line. The same goes for Mercer and The Shins. This is a case of two ingredients mixing together to create a third, wholly-different thing.

17. The Clash, "Train in Vain" - Billed as "the only band that matters" in their heyday, the Clash were labelled as punk, but, as this straight-up rock tune shows, they were so much more. Incorporating a classic locomotive rhythm with love-song lyrics and harmonic vocals, this song couldn't be any less punk. And yet, for all its classic rock trappings, it retains an iconoclastic attitude, despite its catchiness. It's pure Clash, and it's a song I want played at my wake.

18. AC/DC, "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" - The original Australian stadium-rockers provide the bluesiest track from their Back In Black album. I recently read a book arguing that AC/DC is the greatest rock band in the world, and I kind of believe it. Their sound is instantly recognizable, and their licks are timeless. AC/DC are blue-collar to the bone -- all attitude, guts, and power chords -- and they've been that way for 30 years.

19. Cage The Elephant, "Ain't No Rest For The Wicked" - What starts as a herky-jerky alt-folk collage tune soon becomes a jangly, sharp-edged, full-throated narrative about the underbelly of human nature. It gets you clapping and singing along. This song deserves to be a hit, and I bet it's a gas in live performance.

20. Everything But The Girl, "Troubled Mind" - Tracey Thorn's voice just does something for me. Her cool, clear, plaintive tones are evocative without resorting to the overblown stylings that blight "American Idol". This song is great, but it's not even the best song on Amplified Heart, which isn't even their best album. They're that damned good, and I love this song.

It should be noted that this playlist is just what I listen to when I'm in the mood. And it changes daily, according to the algorithms in my Iphone. But it's a representative sample of my collection. Why do I say this? Basically, I'm bragging.

However, when I'm writing, I listen to a completely different list of songs featuring electronic instrumentals, jazz, and classical favorites. I can't have someone singing when I'm composing, or their voice just confuses my own. I got enough problems when I write.

Still and all, there it is: My personal top-20 chart for today. I know you've got one. How does yours compare?

jjwylie@gmail.com
www.jjwylie.com

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Non-Blockbusters at The Regal Village Square

I have previously written about Niels Arden Oplev's movie adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and I notice that it's still playing at the The Regal Village Square theaters here in Las Vegas.

I strongly urge everyone to see it. It's a great movie, and your time & money are better spent watching Oplev's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which stars the incredible Noomi Rapace) than they are on some piece of crap like Iron Man 2. (Or The Losers.)

Plus, I hear that an American adaptation is in the works, which kind of horrifies me. Look at what Christopher Nolan has done to Insomnia (the bloated, too-bright wreck starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank). I know Nolan is a Hollywood darling because of what he's done with the Batman franchise, and I am a fan of Memento. But the original, Norwegian Insomnia, starring Stellan Skarsgard, is a masterpiece of noir filmmaking. It needs no improvement for American audiences.

Now, I'm no eurocentric purist. I see & enjoy my share of crappy, domestic blockbusters, believe me. And I've seen Iron Man 2, so I know what I'm talking about there. But non-blockbusters like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or A Single Man (which I've also reviewed) need our patronage, too, if only to keep a little fiber in our diets.

Another non-blockbuster deserving of your patronage is City Island, which is also currently playing The Regal Village Square. It's a comedy starring Andy Garcia & Julianna Margulies set in a loudly dysfunctional household in an island fishing village next to the Bronx. It's far more entertaining & romantic than The Back-up Plan, I assure you.

The Regal Village Square is, I guess, what passes for art-house cinema in Las Vegas -- a venue where movies with smaller distributions get to go up against blockbusters. I applaud the management of this particular venue, and I hope it has continued success in broadening the selection of movies available to the Las Vegas audience.

Do yourself a favor. Peel yourself off the couch and head over to The Regal Village Square to check out a movie that's not a blockbuster. My guess is, you'll enjoy it.

jjwylie@gmail.com
www.jjwylie.com

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Single Man directed by Tom Ford

In the opening credits of A Single Man, elegant letters are set against a soft-focus, moving background of a body drifting dreamily through water. The music is elegantly orchestral, swirling and swelling. It's an important image. But then we cut to something truly surreal: A man walks slowly and stiffly into a snow-covered scene of an overturned car. The driver is dead, splayed out on the snow next to the stiff corpse of a little dog. The driver's eyes are open but are dull and lifeless. His face and head are caked with blood. The man looks down at the driver and then lies down next to him. The man leans over to kiss the dead driver. Our focus is pulled in close. The screen fills with the cold, dead eye of the driver. The man wakes up with a start.

Colin Firth is the man who walked onto that accident scene, and he earned an Oscar nomination and won a BAFTA for his lead role in A Single Man. He deserves the recognition. This beautiful and moving piece of art demanded an actor of great subtlety and control, and Firth has delivered a brilliant and meticulous performance. There's something magical about watching a great actor in a great role.

How does one act when an accident takes away the purpose & meaning -- the very soul -- of one's life, leaving behind an agonized husk to putter around in the wreckage that's left? In other words, what do you do when your life has been emptied of love? And when the strictures of society deny most modes of self-expression, especially to members of "hidden minorities," how does one cope with the tides of emotion that flow inside all of us? When the way you feel and the way you act are at odds, eventually something has to give, right? These questions animate Colin Firth's performance, and his reactions are poignant.

Directed by fashion designer Tom Ford and adapted from a novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man depicts a particular day in the life of an English professor in Los Angeles in 1962. The Cuban missile crisis hangs in the very air, but Professor Falconer is almost too preoccupied to notice. Eight months earlier, Falconer's longtime male lover died in a car crash, and Falconer has been in mourning ever since. His life, though outwardly elegant and perfect, is hollow. But on this day, Falconer has decided to do something about it. On this day, Falconer is going to make a change.

There's an old saying that life is what happens while you make other plans. This is an apt description of A Single Man, which follows Professor Falconer as he makes his way through the routines of his daily life, from his morning grooming to his drive to work, where he stands in front of his indifferent students, looking at them as if they were from outer space. He is prompted by an innocent question to give an impromptu speech about fear, which the class greets with numb silence. Falconer dismisses the class, and his day continues. Throughout all of this are flashbacks, triggered by memories of Jim, his dead lover.

Falconer encounters a wide array of people during this day, from a preternaturally observant little neighbor girl  (complete with pet scorpion) to his fabulously drunk best friend, a divorcee played by Julianne Moore, who has feelings for him, despite her knowledge of his homosexuality. Outside of a liquor store, Falconer bumps into a James Dean look-a-like and they share a few charged moments, which Falconer savors wistfully. In the most important encounter of all, Falconer is met by one of his students, who turns out to be anything but numbly indifferent to the professor. Throughout A Single Man, Falconer proves to be an excellent conversationalist, his words dripping with sensitivity, irony, and honesty. He is a decent man wounded by a broken heart.

As a director, Tom Ford is a master of detail, and his movie is an intricate composition of color and movement. Changes in timeline are signaled by changes in palette, as Falconer's drab (but well-pressed) present is interspersed with vivid remembrances of happier times. And, since Falconer is obsessed with the memory of Jim, almost everything triggers one. Sitting at the breakfast table, Falconer looks around and remembers the moment when he and Jim decided to buy their house. He revels in the memory, which is brightly lit and warmly-colored, but the phone rings, wrenching him back to the present. He lets it ring on, as his thought range over his plans for this day.

When the phone rings again, it brings back the memory of the phone call Falconer got that told him of the death of Jim. There are no histrionics at this devastating news. Instead, Falconer has a restrained conversation with Jim's brother while pain washes -- briefly, ever so briefly -- across his face. It's only after he hangs up the phone that he succumbs to his grief.

Later, we learn the story of how Jim and Falconer met, and of what their relationship matured into during their 16 years together. Being homosexual has never been fully accepted by society, and, in 1962, things were much worse. For instance, even though they have been together for so many years, Falconer gets the hint when Jim's brother tells him that the funeral is "for family only." Yet this movie is less about homosexuality than it is about love. It's an intensely erotic movie, even though there's no sex on screen. In fact, the most physically-intimate moment is that dream-kiss in the opening scene.

Instead, what Ford has fashioned in A Single Man is an erotics of minutiae. Beyond the exquisite clothes and sets and props, the story itself is built of small, telling anecdotes, none of which are in-and-of-themselves inherently dramatic. But they accrete. They accumulate until their overall effect is large and significant. As you notice their effect on Falconer, A Single Man becomes riveting.

I have heard criticisms of A Single Man that say its pace is slow, even glacial. But, after watching the movie several times, I have to disagree. Remember that this story is about the changes that Professor Falconer undergoes in the course of the day he has chosen to put an end to the empty, loveless life he has been living since the death of Jim. Such changes are internal and incremental, and they can only realistically register in the most subtle of inflections. This is not a movie where our hero takes off his glasses and dons a cape. This movie rewards sensitivity to nuance.

As I mentioned before, life is what happens while you make other plans. A Single Man is the story of a man who plans to ends it all, but is, instead, claimed by life. It's a conversion that's well worth watching.

directed by Tom Ford
starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult & Matthew Goode