Monday, August 13, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Full disclosure and true confession: I was nearly 13 when the first Mister Rogers' Neighborhood aired in Pittsburgh in February 1968. Because the show was generally intended for children around ages 2 to 5, perhaps up to 8, even by the time I'd heard of it I had no interest in it. It was for babies. Down the line, when Sesame Street and Electric Company came along and grew popular I looked in at them all out of curiosity. By then I was maybe 21? Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was the one I liked least, and honestly, something about Rogers's immaculate imperturbability gave me the willies. He was hard to watch. I experienced some of that again in about the first quarter of this remarkable picture by veteran documentary producer / director Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, 20 Feet From Stardom). Fred Rogers is so matter-of-fact about looking square into the camera and saying things like he wants to be your friend and he likes you just the way you are, that it makes me squirm, still. In fact, as the movie went along, I started to realize he actually has quite a bit in common with Jonathan Richman, the eccentric singer-songwriter who abandoned an amazing rock band 40 years ago to go his own way, writing songs like no one else writes about summer sadness, dancing in lesbian bars, and Vermeer. The affect presented to the world by both Rogers and Richman is so open, naïve, and sincere that it's hard not to wonder about things like mental illness. There's a great clip here from the old Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder where Snyder tries to pierce the facade and finds that's all there is. What you see is what you get with Fred Rogers. Clue: He's not the one we have to worry about being mentally ill. Our cynicism and other psychic poisons make us mean and suspicious, and the hardest thing to see and understand at all is just that. Rogers flew right at questions like "am I a mistake?" and issues like death, divorce, disability, loneliness, rejection. This movie is full of absolutely fearless moments from his TV show and it is uncanny what he produced. Two days after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, for example, Rogers went on the air with a segment where his Daniel puppet suddenly asks, "What does assassination mean?" It is a moment that only deepens into itself. Somehow it captures the shock and the grief of the time. The immediate response, even more than 50 years later, is palpable relief that a taboo subject has at last come into the open. There is a kind of catching the breath for what happens next (the cynic in me also wants to call attention to what great TV it is, even or especially in our reality TV era). I never knew Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister—a non-flaunting Christian, the best kind. And one thing that everyone seems to agree on about this fellow is that the more you know about him the more you respect and love him. All it took for me was the hour and a half of this amazing documentary.

1 comment:

  1. Yay for nice people. May they prosper and multiply. More quickly, please. (Is there an emoji yet for irony?)