' ' Cinema Romantico: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

The image of Mr. Rogers – the cardigan, the sneakers, the precise part in the hair, the soothing voice – is so frozen in the mind that the danger in making a movie about him is pre-deification. You sit down already ready to cry because you know who he is and what he meant and what he did. You know what you are going to feel because you have probably already felt all these things at some point in the company of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, the show that ran on PBS for 30 years, beginning in 1968. Director Morgan Neville solves this conundrum by forgoing a hagiographic Greatest Clips collection, as well as by resisting the impulse to do the opposite and try to unmask Fred Rogers the man as something provocatively apart from what we already know. No, Neville hones in on the message Mr. Rogers espoused. And while the movie might believe that message to be true, it is less interested in simply asserting that truth then wondering if the rest of the world, the one in which Rogers lived as well as our present-day, believed it to be true too.

If most television saw children as mere consumers, Rogers saw children, as he would eventually evangelize, just as they were, people with thoughts and feelings who needed to be talked to rather than pitched. This attitude, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” shows, came out of Rogers’s time in the seminary, though he forewent the ministry to instead minister through mass media. It was not only idealistic, it was radical, and he brought that radicalism to life with a conservative aesthetic. He used puppets and simple props, and he reveled in silence. One brief clip shows Rogers sitting at his kitchen table and stacking cups. If it felt out of step then imagine what it looks like now.

This radicalism extended to the show’s politics, which were not presented explicitly or authoritatively but in a graceful, kid-friendly manner indicative of the whole show. Neville lingers over the moment when Rogers invited the show’s African-American police officer played by Francois Clemmons to cool his feet in a kiddie pool, juxtaposing this easygoing intimacy with images of what inspired them – that is, African-Americans being chased out of whites-only swimming pools. Rogers isn’t scolding or even explaining, but simply demonstrating just how damn easy empathy is. This polite crusade culminates, in a way, with Rogers’s famous 1969 testimony before a Senate subcommittee about whether to eliminate federal funding for PBS where Senator John O. Pastore essentially becomes a viewer, lullabied by Rogers into benevolent agreement.

Yet if Rogers knew just what to say in 1969, as time went by, the greater the struggle for him to find the right words became, which we see when he is enlisted to offer reassurance in the wake of 9/11. Though he eventually does, it is the moment just before, visually uncomfortable as he struggles to think up comforting verbiage that resonates. It’s an image underscored by a voiceover suggesting that this sort of evil might have been beyond even the enlightened purview of Mr. Rogers. That sort of evil is also seen in obligatory Fox News windbags criticizing Rogers as well as the belligerent Westboro Baptist intolerants that picketed Rogers’s funeral. This gradual turn does not exactly override “Won’t You Be My Neighbor’s” sunny disposition, but it nevertheless still casts the documentary in a different light.

It is perhaps unfair to compare anyone to George Washington, even someone described, jokingly, as “the second coming of Christ” in his own documentary, but as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” wound up, and various talking heads wrestled with what sense Fred Rogers might have made of our present-day situation, I could not help but flash back to the last years of Washington’s life. The Father of our Country had grown distant from and confused about the place he did so much to sculpt, as if he no longer recognized his image in it. And if Fred Rogers were here, I wonder what sort of kindly counter-attack he might muster, of if he would even want to.

If that might elicit accusations of topicality intruding into a movie review, well, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” invites that sort of ruminating and reckoning, asking its talking heads to consider the actual impact of Mr. Rogers’s legacy and by extension turning those questions back around on us. In its own way, the conclusion of Neville’s documentary reminded me of the end of “Malcolm X” wherein Spike Lee implemented a montage and voiceover as a means to leave the past behind and demonstrate that the eponymous character’s struggle was continuing into the present. Indeed, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is no nostalgic time trip, but urgent of the moment advocacy, transforming the question its title poses into a cordial rallying cry of compassion.

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