REVIEW: Shakespeare in the Park — Love’s Labour’s Lost

 

Well, that was the best play I’ve ever seen.

To be fair, I’m hardly a seasoned theater-goer, but I have gone to a few plays, including last year’s Shakespeare in the Park performance of “Into The Woods,” “West Side Story” on Broadway, an excellent off-Broadway production of “Our Town,” and 3 college plays of varying quality which were subsequently analyzed in my acting class. Ergo, I am an expert.

I’m basing my “best play I ever saw” declaration on the fact that out of all the plays I’ve seen, this one kept me the most consistently entertained.

I will freely admit that I am not a person with much patience for musicals. I find most musical numbers in plays to be too long and indulgent, and they often make me wish the play would just get on with the story. Also sometimes they could really use subtitles.

Not this one. The songs were so perfectly integrated into the story and necessary to the plot that I never found my patience being tested. There was also so much going on with the choreography and the costumes and performances that even if you spaced out a bit on the music or the lyrics, the hilarious visuals — a guy dressed in nothing but a fire-engine red speedo and cape, a singing tapdancer in only sequined sparkly short-shorts and vest, the four male leads spontaneously jumping into boy-band formation and serenading the girls with a 90’s pop ballad — would keep you engaged.

The utter ridiculousness of it actually made my British friends say, “This would never have been written in England. It is SO AMERICAN.”

I’m also not a big Shakespeare person. It takes a lot to make Shakespeare plays entertaining to me. Even Joss Whedon only succeeded in that sporadically for me with his “Much Ado About Nothing.”

This play kept me completely entertained. Most of the dialogue is the original Shakespeare, but it is interspersed with the songs, which are entirely colloquial, and there were occasional interjections of modern spoken dialogue as well, just enough to keep me from getting annoyed with the old-fashioned flowery stuff. (There are two uses of the F-bomb, just so you know.) The comic timing was great on all fronts, and like I said, the costuming and visual flair added so much.

I want to single out the performances of the male and female leads, Colin Donnell and Patti Murin, because they were fabulous. Murin’s “Princess” is like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde if Elle Woods were a Shakespearean princess with slightly more guile, and Donnell’s “Berowne” made me think of Hugh Jackman. He’s got a similar physique, similar facial structure, similar hair, similar voice — basically, he’s really really hot.

My only complaint is about the last five or so minutes of the play — it suddenly takes a turn for the Very Serious. I’ve been told by friends who know the original that that’s how Shakespeare wrote it, and I understand it on an intellectual level, but tonally it was extremely jarring to shift that suddenly from almost two hours of madcap, hilarious fun to five minutes of deathly seriousness, and it ends the play on a pretty flat note.

But, for the sake of not ending this review with a similar misstep, I’ll go back to one last major positive: the play is constantly snarking at itself, breaking the fourth wall, being incredibly meta about its playness. For example, in a song where one of the characters mocks rich people for being academic and snooty and privileged, there’s a line that goes something like, “Rich people pay for better plays that should be free!” (All of us enlightened citizens watching this free play hooted in appreciation.)

Those kinds of references and some other touches — like one of the actors pulling an audience member onto the set in the middle of a song without missing a beat — make me wonder if this play will ever be performed or filmed in any other venue aside from the Delacorte Theater for Shakespeare in the Park. I asked one of the actors, Bryce Pinkham (who played “Longaville”), outside the theater after the show, and he admitted he didn’t know, and that it did seem like a play designed for Shakespeare in the Park and nothing else.

Which would be too bad, because it’s the sort of play I’d pay full price to see again and that I’d love to show all my friends.

It’s only playing until August 18th. GO SEE IT.

Rating: 5/5

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REVIEW — Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

I’ve been working my way through all seven seasons of Deep Space Nine on Netflix on-and-off for the past 10 or so months. Because a girl’s gotta have goals, right? And guess what? I finished it this past weekend!

DS9 was my dad’s least-favorite Star Trek series. In practical terms, this means that we never had any old VHS tapes of recorded episodes (complete with commercials) lying around the house when I was growing up, whereas with every other Star Trek series, we had quite a few of those (although not necessarily of very good visual or story quality — I recall watching an incredibly grainy version of “The Lights of Zetar” once upon a time), plus a bunch of actual purchased VHSs and DVDs, not to mention the tie-in novels and other such goodies. But DS9, nope. I’d never seen an entire episode of it until I started watching it on Netflix lo those many months ago.

So I have to say, given how low my expectations were set, DS9 was a million times better than I thought it would be, though it did have some notable weaknesses. It also had some really wonderful strengths, mostly due to it being more serialized than other Trek series.

Strength #1: Character continuity and development.

This wasn’t necessarily taken as far as it could have been — there are certainly plenty of standalone episodes that are never referenced again and never have major consequences for the characters — but often I was very pleasantly surprised to see elements that I thought were one-off concepts return and be developed in interesting and relevant ways. I’m not going to give specifics because *spoilers* but there are quite a few, especially surrounding Dr. Julian Bashir.

And then there’s the fact that the characters themselves are given arcs and journeys that genuinely change them, bringing them to entirely new psychological territory between the beginning of the series and the end of it. The standouts to me in this area are the aforementioned Dr. Bashir, and Nog, the young Ferengi. Bashir starts out as a cocky, motor-mouthed, frankly annoying manchild, and evolves into a serious, idealistic, genuinely charming dude. (I’ll admit, by the end, I was quite fond of Julian Bashir.) Nog’s transformation is even more extreme — he starts as a stereotypical Ferengi: scheming, manipulative, irritating, an overall no-goodnik. He ends as the first Ferengi in Starfleet, a conscientious officer, even a war hero, and it all happens in a slow and natural progression that is convincing to watch.

Strength #2: Two words: Kira Nerys.

I have such a mad crush on this woman that I intend to write an entire post about her alone. Stay tuned.

Strength #3: Interesting, multidimensional villains.

This area could be especially spoilertastic, so I’m not going to go into much detail. Suffice it to say, very few villains do not switch sides in some way at least once, and sometimes the good guys can go bad, or at least go rogue. And not in the typical sci-fi, possessed-by-aliens way. Real, voluntary choices made under conflicting pressures. Good stuff.

There are of course many more strengths — if you’re a fan of serialized plotting with a huge big-picture arc that spans an entire series, you’ve definitely got a lot to sink your teeth into in DS9 — but those are my faves.

Now, the bad.

Weakness #1: Avery Brooks as Captain Sisko.

I hate to say it, but it was almost always painful to watch Brooks onscreen. Throughout the series, he is wooden, has very little range of expression with his face, he makes strangely deliberate-seeming choices with his movements and facial expressions that rarely feel organic, but worst of all is the way he has the character speak. He pauses in odd places, huffs out some of his words, emphasizes others unnecessarily, and just overall sounds like a bad, scripted actor who doesn’t know how to make the lines sound like something a real person would spontaneously say. It’s unbelievably distracting. The show is infinitely stronger when it focuses on characters other than Sisko, or on plots so strong that even his involvement can’t trip them up too much (“In the Pale Moonlight” is an ep that comes to mind in that department).

Weakness #2: Mysticism.

This section is pretty spoilery, so skip it if you don’t want any of that.

The show basically invents its own religion, practiced by the inhabitants of the planet Bajor, surrounding aliens that live in the wormhole right next to Bajor and the Deep Space Nine space station. The aliens are referred to by the Bajorans as “the Prophets” and the more we interact with them during the series, the more it seems that they are built on the God-concept of “powerful but limited beings with unfathomable motives and little concern or understanding of the average person’s day-to-day life, but with influence over the big picture.” I understand that this is certainly a God-concept in plenty of religions, but I find it hard to believe that the vast majority of Bajorans would be totally cool with this, and that the population is so united religiously. Then again, in Babylon 5, every alien race is portrayed as having one major religion, so maybe it’s just a sci-fi trope.

The bigger problem with this God-concept, though, is that the rules and limits regarding The Prophets are so vague that the writers can pretty much do whatever they want with them. Over and over and over again. It often feels like a cheat, and makes me wonder if a better story could have been told without the religious/mystical angle, because having it at their disposal means the writers can essentially use magic to solve their problems when they feel like it, instead of coming up with complex and satisfying solutions.

Weakness #3: Ferengi.

…Yeah, Ferengi can be really annoying, and there’s a lot of Ferengi stuff on DS9. Surprisingly it’s not bad all the time. DS9 actually made a few Ferengi-centric episodes that I found enjoyable. Quark is multi-layered character, thanks largely to Armin Shimerman’s nuanced performance, and the writers did give some character development to characters who initially seemed like they’d just be walking punchlines, like Rom and Nog. But yeah, sometimes Ferengi are just REALLY ANNOYING.

Those are my main pet peeves about the show. They can interfere with the enjoyment of quite a few episodes, unfortunately, and often the show seems to be great despite them, not because of them. But the show at its best is great, and at its worst is still pretty darn okay.

Rating: 4/5

The Newsroom — Character Evaluation Post

I’ve been dreading this assignment all semester long, because apparently I’m supposed to write 500 words on one single character from The Newsroom, when one of my major gripes about the show is that I don’t like the characters and that they don’t change in significant ways and just repeat themselves over and over again to the point where they are utterly predictable. You know, that whole definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? That’s basically every character. Until maybe the season finale when a couple of them tried something different just because someone must have sent them a memo that it was the season finale and they should stop pulling the same old crap.

 

I can just picture it:

 

Network executive: “Y’know what we were thinking would be great? If you could have these characters behave in a way we haven’t seen before. Like, have an arc. Make progress.”

Aaron Sorkin: “Like what?”

Exec: “Well, you could have Maggie stop being an annoying wide-eyed idiot who’s in denial about her feelings for Jim and have her break up with Don for good this time?”

Sorkin: “Hmmm. I see what you’re saying. Maybe the denial part could change a bit. But we can’t have her break up with Don. She’s far too insecure to leave a man, and besides, we need to have that in place for next season or I might have to come up with an entirely new storyline for her.”

Exec: “Ah. Flawless reasoning. Well, maybe then you could have Jim stop being such a sad sack and actually try to move on with his life?”

Sorkin: “No, don’t you understand? Sad sackiness is Jim’s entire appeal. He has like nothing else going for him. Ladies love sad sacks. Take that away and he’ll be just another boring dude.”

Exec: “Well, I’m sure you know what the ladies like; far be it from us to question that. So never mind Jim and Maggie. How about Mac? Do you think maybe you could have her work on getting her meltdowns under control?”

Sorkin: “But that’s what makes her relatable to the viewers. No one can empathize with a coolly professional, endlessly competent woman — it’s all her constant screw-ups that earn sympathy, and her hysterics are adorable.”

Exec: “But do you really think it’s realistic that a person so prone to hysterics in stressful situations would have been able to earn two Peabody awards for work in Afghanistan?”

Sorkin: “Hmm, what did you say? Sorry, I was counting my money.”

Exec: “Maybe her hysterics are a manifestation of PTSD. That could be explored, right? In therapy? You like putting characters in therapy, right? Will MacAvoy in this show, Josh Lyman on The West Wing. . .”

Sorkin: “I suppose. Maybe next season. But Mac in therapy would take time away from Will’s therapy screen-time, and Will’s the main character so we can’t have that.”

Exec: “But it would be a great excuse to have more David Krumholtz on the show!”

Sorkin: “Can’t argue with that. Ladies love David Krumholtz.”

 

 

Basically, the only character that seemed to have a substantial arc was Will. Two basic arcs, personal and professional.

Professionally, he started off in the first two minutes of the show being blandly inoffensive, then exploded and we saw his true opinions on the state of American journalism, then was convinced by Mac to become a crusader for the Greater Good of News. This held true for the entire season, where every episode was essentially more of the same of this idea of Better News, whether that meant bashing the Tea Party or insulting people for watching trashy reality TV, until the season finale, where Will was forced to doubt the effectiveness of his actions for this cause. That lasted about half the episode before he returned with renewed conviction. The finale also contrives to show him that he is having his desired effect by bringing back a character from the beginning of the show who has now been inspired and fundamentally changed because of Will’s proselytizing. So this arc was designed to test Will’s beliefs and reaffirm them. Kind of like high school was for me, not a transformative experience but more of a, “Yup, I was right all along. Glad I never have to go through THAT again.”

Personally, he started off insisting that whatever he and Mac had in the past was completely and utterly over and that he hates her to the point of taking a pay cut in order to ensure that he can fire her any time he wants, although it is obvious to the viewers that he will never fire her and that he has unresolved feelings for her that he sucks at dealing with because he’s a repressed, arrogant jerk who will never admit to weakness, and forgiveness is weakness. Will thrives on self-righteous anger. I am of the opinion that if no one in the world ever did anything wrong or stupid again, Will would implode for sheer lack of anyone to lambaste and feel superior to. I can’t say I don’t understand that — life is easier when you feel like you have a better handle on the world than the people around you — but it’s not pleasant or entertaining to watch, at least not in the way it’s been portrayed here.

Will makes incremental progress on his relationship with Mac throughout the season, progress that is so incremental that it often seems completely frustratingly absent. It’s clearest when Will confronts his psychiatrist, David Krumholtz, toward the end of the season and demands, “Why can’t I forgive her?” At that point, he had heard enough apologies and been around Mac long enough to know that he still has feelings for her and she still has feelings for him and that they might still be able to have a relationship, and part of him wants to forgive her, but he can’t. And by the end of the season, it’s unclear if he has still not forgiven her or if he is simply too proud to tell her.

So sad, y’all. And yet I completely lack sympathy for Will. I’ve talked about this with my brother and we can’t figure out if it’s the writing or the acting — is the character just so fundamentally obnoxious that no matter what Jeff Daniels does as an actor, he can’t make him sympathetic? Or is Daniels’ completely warmth-less performance partially to blame? Or maybe it’s because I just can’t stand Mac and can’t root for anyone to be with her.

 

The crux of the matter remains this: as with the rest of the show, the characterization contains a lot of interesting ideas. Sorkin is an incredibly talented, smart, articulate, witty guy — let that be stated for the record. But in this show, his ideas, in plot and character, never cohere into a satisfying and entertaining whole. As Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com puts it: “I understand wanting to believe in the message here. I just wish I didn’t dislike so many of the messengers.”

REVIEW: In-class viewing of “Good Night and Good Luck”

I have to say, there is definitely something lost in the viewing of a movie like this in a classroom setting. What do I mean?

I mean, look. George Clooney and other handsome men in suits? Robert Downey Jr. in crisp black-and-white close-ups? (Seriously, there was a Buzzfeed list about why Robert Downey Jr is the sexiest man ever and it is a travesty that there was not one mention of how incredible he looks in black and white. I mean, for real:

Mmmmmmm.) Point is, in a classroom setting, there’s no one around to squeal with you about these wonderful gifts of cinema, and that’s just tragic.

Okay, I’m emerging from the shallow end of the pool now.

On a more intellectual level, I would compare this movie extremely favorably to The Newsroom, and consider it to be about on par with House of Cards, which, if you’ve read my reviews, is high praise.

It’s better than The Newsroom because it features the same message but gets it across so much more effectively and less annoyingly — instead of having characters rant and rave and speechify about how idealistic they are and how much better the news should be and explain over and over again what they’re going to do to make it better, the characters in Good Night and Good Luck just do it. When they know they’re going to lose advertisers over a controversial segment, they just immediately agree to pay the difference out of their own pockets. Actions speak louder than words, yo. Consistent problem with Newsroom is that its words far outweigh its actions.

The House of Cards comparison is mostly on the level of pacing. Both are what I’ve heard people refer to as “slow” but are what I tend to think of instead as “atmospheric.” There is such a thing as too much atmosphere and not enough story (see: Star Trek: The Motion Picture), but in my personal opinion (and hey this is my blog so who else’s opinion were you expecting), both House of Cards and Good Night and Good Luck found a good balance for the stories they were telling. While watching, I felt completely immersed in the world of the movie/show, and felt like the story unfolded and developed at an appropriate speed. In politics and newsmaking, things don’t happen all at once, people don’t constantly shoot spitfire dialogue back and forth, high drama isn’t constant, and I enjoy its depiction here.

REVIEW: House of Cards — Episodes 3 and 4

 

A weird thing started to happen during this 2nd episode block. In the first couple of episodes, I was getting my bearings, seeing how the characters inhabit their world, and feeling intrigued by the psychological insights and manipulations, but it was still a fairly detached viewing experience. I found the characters interesting, but I wasn’t pulling one way or another for events to turn out in their favor or against them; I was content to just see what happens.

That kinda changed in these episodes. Not totally — I still don’t know who I want to win in the end — but often on a scene-by-scene basis, I found myself rooting for an outcome, or against an outcome, and feeling on the edge of my seat not knowing. And what’s more, I wasn’t even rooting for the same characters all the time. In some scenes, I wanted Frank to win, to get away with his blatant and shameless lying in front of a church full of devout Christians mourning the loss of a young girl, and in others I wanted him to lose, like when he makes Peter Russo sell out the interests of his district to serve Frank’s political ambitions. And even though I think Frank is a terrible person, when I thought his wife was about to cheat on him, I starting shouting at the screen for her to stop it stop it STOP IT!

It comes down to good writing, plain and simple. The writers are slowly chipping away at each character’s armor, showing us their weak points, and also their good points, even while leaving their dark sides fully visible, and in that way, they earn our sympathy.

For example, Peter Russo, the congressman with every vice imaginable, is given a moment alone in his bathroom where he pulls out a small bag of cocaine, holds it for a few moments of agonized internal debate, and then dumps it down the sink. And suddenly I’m on his side and I want him to change and I want to believe he can change. And then when Frank bullies him and he folds under the weight of the blackmail, and then he folds again under the weight of his guilt and resorts to alcohol and/or drugs, you really get it this time. So it’s actually pretty devastating to see his girlfriend leave him after that relapse, because for once he had a reason. Two episodes ago, I would not have cared, but within just a few hours, my mind was changed. Other reviewers have commented that Russo slowly becomes a tragic figure, and that the binge-viewing model that Netflix has set up for this show (which may or may not be good for business) is ideal for watching the progression of character development.

The other thing that holds the show together for me is Kevin Spacey’s acting. Now I really want to see more of his work. He entirely inhabits the character of Frank Underwood. He makes no apologies, no attempts to justify himself or make you like him; he just steamrolls right along. The show also uses an unusual technique of having Frank occasionally turn to the camera and say his thoughts straight to the viewer, baldly and without frills. It pulls you in; we are this man’s confidant, we know exactly why he’s saying X in this scene, we know his plans, we know how deep the lies go. We know that this ostensibly mild-mannered middle-aged man with the folksy southern accent is a twisted, power-mad, pathological liar, but we’re the only ones who know, and so we get a gleeful thrill out of seeing how badly he can fool everyone around him. Or at least, I do. Others have disagreed or been less enthusiastic.

You’ll have to decide for yourself.

 

Rating: 4.5/5

MOVIE REVIEW: Gattaca

I freaking love this movie, I’ll just get that out there right from the start.

It is tightly written, it is alien but scarily plausible, it is well-developed down to the fictitious slang terms the characters use, the objectives are so clearly defined, the characters are likeable, the details are precise and painstaking (the letters in GATTACA are all letters from the genetic code, entirely appropriate for a movie about a dystopian society where everyone is judged based on their genes), the stakes are high, every scene adds something to the overall picture . . . it is just a thing of beauty.

This was my third time seeing this movie — the first was in AP Bio after we’d taken the AP and class became basically party time, the second was when I forced my dad to get it from Netflix and watch it (he fell asleep grrrrr) — and even on my third viewing I have only three minor complaints:

 

1)   The murder victim whose death shifts the movie from fascinating setup to whodunit mystery is not someone we viewers ever meet. This is a minor quibble, because meeting him is obviously not necessary, but I really would have liked to know who he actually was and why he opposed the mission he was killed for opposing.

2)   The final confrontation between the narrator, Vincent, and his brother Anton kind of turns into a testosterone fest. There was a great line about motivation — Vincent says, “I never saved anything for the way back” in order to explain how he could swim farther than his genetically advantaged brother — that almost makes it worth it, but I’ll admit the scene is kind of silly.

3)   I’d have liked to have seen more of the world outside the Gattaca institution and its astronauts. How do the other genetically perfect people spend their time? What futuristic jobs do they do? I don’t know where this would have fit in, but I am CURIOUS.

 

Things I loved that far offset these tiny criticisms:

 

1)   The concept of exceeding your preordained potential. As Locke from LOST would say, “DON’T TELL ME WHAT I CAN’T DO!” I’m pretty sure Vincent says that verbatim at one point.

2)   Jude Law is fantastic as the wheelchair-bound Jerome. Favorite role I’ve seen him in by far. (To be fair, the only other Jude Law movie I can recall seeing at the moment is Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but still.)

3)   Uma Thurman is stunning. Also, her performance is very poised, but she conveys so many nuances in every slight change of her expression. Makes me want to see more of her movies.

4)   The fact that once people perfected genetic engineering in this universe, they apparently stopped bothering to find cures for things. Like Jerome broke his back and there is no surgical procedure even suggested in order to fix it. It’s a culture of disposability — like going to an Apple store with a problem with your laptop and instead of fixing it, they just give you a new one.

5)   The doctor is played by Mason from 24.

 

So what I’m saying is, if you haven’t seen this movie, you’re missing out big time.

Heroes

I originally posted this last week as a note on my facebook page, but it sets the tone for this media-criticism-oriented blog, so I figure it’s worth a repost.

Image

It’s Martin Luther King Day, so I feel like I should write something. Because for some reason, Dr. King’s story and assassination struck a particular chord with me when I was younger. More specifically: he used to be one of my heroes.

I remember cramming for the SAT II subject exam on American History in eleventh grade. I hadn’t taken the course, but I wanted to get the exam out of the way, so I was racing through a review/practice test book, attempting to learn the entire curriculum in a few weeks. Decades zipped along in bullet points — World War I, the roaring 20s, the Great Depression, the New Deal, Pearl Harbor, World War II, and so on until the Civil Rights Movement.

Everything was treated with the same cursory lack of depth. African Americans did this, did that, Dr. King said this, organized this boycott, led this demonstration. All the stuff you learn in elementary school. But even — or perhaps especially — in the review book’s simplistic format, you could feel the momentum, the change, the progress, and it was kind of exciting.

And then the section ended with the briefest: “King was assassinated in 1968. The impact he had on the Civil Rights Movement cannot be measured.”

And that was it. Not another word about him.

I remember reading those two sentences and my own reaction completely blindsided me: I started to cry.

I once impulse-bought Dr. King’s posthumous, unauthorized autobiography at Barnes and Noble, because it was right there on the table and I just had to have it. I went around reading it for weeks afterward and always made sure to have the cover facing outward when I held it, because I wanted people to know who I reading about, because I took such pride in it.

We take pride in our heroes. We fancy that who we admire, who we idolize or value or remember, says something about our own character. I’ve become hyper-aware of this during my past couple of weeks in Hollywood — there are literally thousands of stars embedded in the pavement on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, and you cannot possibly take pictures of all of them if you want to get anything else done. You have to pick and choose, you have to prioritize. Who is worth stopping for? Whose star is worth taking a picture of?

And then comes the question: Why is ANY star worth taking a picture of? It’s a hunk of concrete. You could probably google any star you want and find it in five seconds; why bother stopping and snapping your own photo?

For me, I think it’s about personal pride. I think each star that I’ve personally chosen to take a picture of says something about me, or about someone I care about. I took a lot of pictures of old-time movie stars’ stars, not because I have much of a connection to them, but because I know my mother loves Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn and Gregory Peck. I took some pictures of stars that reminded me of friends who are fans of those actors/musicians/etc. And of course I did come across a bunch that have personal significance to me because I am personally a fan of them: the cast of the original Star Trek, Rascal Flatts, Kevin Bacon, Tim McGraw, Neil Patrick Harris. (And then there are pictures taken ironically because you kind of can’t believe so-and-so has a star on the Walk of Fame: Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, the Olsen twins, Charlie Sheen.)

My point is, we at least partly identify ourselves by our heroes. If I’m a fan of old-time actors, I figure it says that my tastes run toward the elegant and the classy. If I’m a fan of the cast of Star Trek, and can recognize all their names from Shatner to Doohan to Nichols, it means I’m a nerd. If I’m a fan of celebs like George Takei and Neil Patrick Harris, it means not only do I value their talent; it means I value and respect the work they’ve done for the LGBTQ community. And so on.

And here’s where I’ll stop using the word “hero,” because, as I mentioned in my last note, I don’t believe in heroes.

I think that people are people, and that elevating others to a higher plane is just setting yourself up for disappointment. Everyone screws up, and if you look hard enough, you can always find the ugly side of people. So if you hold someone to a higher standard and expect more from them, you’ll probably just end up feeling betrayed and let down. Illusions are comforting and reassuring, but I prefer the truth, and the truth is that people are flawed.

For the record, here’s useful distinction from a writing blog I once read on the difference between “imperfect” and “flawed” — imperfections are innocuous, like pimples or clumsiness; they show that the character is not a perfect construction, but they do no real damage to anyone. They are comfortable and safe and too many writers use them because of that. Flaws are ugly and unpleasant and cause genuine harm and pain to others. There is nothing safe or comfortable about them and writers are reluctant to use them because of that. Truly believable characters must have flaws, because all people have flaws.

I can’t remember where or when I first learned that Martin Luther King Jr. was a womanizer who cheated on his wife.

I do remember feeling devastated when I found out. And I remember feeling angry, not at him, really, but at the people who left that out of my education and exalted him so much, and at myself for falling for it when I already knew that what you see in history books is never the whole truth. (I learned that lesson when I was about 10 years old — I had, several years earlier, read a kiddie biography of Andrew Jackson that extolled his virtues and leadership capabilities, and so I thought for a few years that Andrew Jackson was a pretty awesome dude. And then in fourth grade I was assigned a report on the Cherokee Indians, and read about the Trail of Tears and how Jackson disobeyed the ruling of the Supreme Court and consequently led thousands of people to their deaths. To say I was pissed at the nameless author of that kiddie biography for failing to mention this would be a charming understatement.)

We feel betrayed when our so-called heroes fall. Betrayed by them and betrayed by the world that somehow conspired to raise these people in our consciousnesses, when they were in fact unworthy. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who right now are feeling this way about Lance Armstrong, who have felt this way about any athlete who cheated or has been strongly linked to cheating, whether it was Mark McGuire or Sammy Sosa or Roger Clemens.

I think it’s important not to let the ugly human flaws undermine people’s legitimate achievements. Does Dr. King’s tireless work for civil rights, a cause he died for, somehow mean less because he was a cad? It shouldn’t, but honestly, it’s hard for me not to feel like some of the shine is gone. Is the money Lance Armstrong raised to fight cancer somehow tainted? Does the cancer care where the money came from? “Yo, cancer? Do you care that this money that’s killing you was raised on the basis of an athlete’s falsely inflated reputation and image?” Cancer: “What? I can’t hear you, too busy being killed over here . . .” *gasp* *choke* *gurgle*

But it’s not easy to separate the person from the achievement, and the feelings of betrayal from the actual crime.

A commonly proposed solution to such a dilemma is “empathy.” Empathize with your fallen hero, and be forgiving, and then perhaps you can still appreciate their legacy without the dark clouds shadowing it.

This may surprise some people, but I’m not big on empathy. I was not blessed (or cursed) with an abundance of it. The fact that I cried while reading a history textbook that one time was shocking to me. With very rare exceptions, I am not one of those people who can feel someone else’s pain.

I was, however, given an abundance of understanding, which is not the same thing. Empathy is emotional; understanding is rational. I understand so many things that I cannot fathom emotionally. I can recognize patterns and draw parallels and see people’s behaviors and environments and common themes threaded repeatedly through human nature, and the circumstances surrounding people’s actions, and just get why they do what they do, no matter how outlandish or inexplicable it might seem to some. A relatively new acquaintance once said to me, “It’s like you’re reading my mind from the future and saying things before I think them,” and a different friend once said of my writing, “It’s like, these are my thoughts, but you’re wordifying them.” I don’t in any way claim to speak for everyone, but I seem to have a knack for getting inside people’s heads using nothing more than logic. I understand things, but I can’t empathize.

So that’s my approach to heroes, or to the people society might consider to be heroes. I try to keep them firmly on the ground so that they remain people, and people can be understood, either rationally, or (if you happen to have the wiring for it) emotionally. Understanding is the first step to forgiveness, and forgiveness is one of those vital life skills that isn’t taught in school but is needed to survive, because not only are all people imperfect, but they are also flawed.

Happy MLK Day.