Monday, September 10, 2018

"Won't You Be My Neighbor?": review

I was plunged right away into memories from my childhood the moment I began watching the 2018 Morgan Neville documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"—which is about Fred Rogers, the kindly man who was a quiet powerhouse behind one of the most iconic children's TV shows in US television history, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."* While I wasn't a constant or consistent watcher of "Neighborhood," being more of a "Sesame Street" kind of kid, I saw enough episodes of "Neighborhood" to know most of the recurring characters and even to internalize some of the show's lessons.

"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" covers both Fred Rogers, the man, and "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," the show, as both evolved over the years. Much of the material pertaining to the man's and the show's latter years was new to me, and it was interesting to hear the insights and opinions of people close to Rogers, including his wife, his sons, and several production assistants. But it came as an utter shock to hear, about ten or fifteen minutes into the documentary, that Fred Rogers was "a lifelong registered Republican." I think my brain did a startled somersault inside my skull when I heard that: the first few minutes of the documentary would have led any sane person in 2018 to think that Fred Rogers was a flaming liberal—a committed peacenik, a laid-back hippie, a war protestor who happened to wear slacks, a starched shirt, and a cardigan. The documentary shows a moment in one episode of "Neighborhood" in which King Friday, alarmed by all the changes in the world, decides to build a wall. This footage from the show is obviously included in the documentary as a not-so-subtle rebuke of our current sitting president, the wall-loving Donald Trump, and I saw it as evidence of Rogers's liberal leanings. But no: Rogers was indeed a Republican, and I suppose a Republican/conservative could look at the history of the man and his show and conclude that he preached virtues recognizable to conservatives.

At the same time, the documentary deals with the weird notion, apparently bandied about by other conservatives, that Mister Rogers and his show were somehow creating a generation of pampered, spoiled, lazy, and over-entitled children who had all been taught by Rogers that they were each special, and that such specialness didn't have to be earned or striven for. In other words, there were people who saw Fred Rogers as contributing to the moral degradation of the country. Some of the people interviewed for this film politely took issue with that idea, artfully responding that a failure to recognize each individual's specialness is a step toward dehumanization. For Rogers himself, his conviction was that all children need nurturing adults to help them understand and function in the world—people who will provide wisdom along with a sense of safety and security.

I was impressed by many of the quotes by Rogers that got captured on film and video. "Love is at the root of all things," Rogers says in a profound, Zen-masterly moment that reminded me of another cultural icon: Ben Kenobi, at the moment when he's telling Luke that the Force "surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together."

The documentary also gets into the parodies of Rogers and his show, including the crueler ones by comedians like Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey. Rogers was ambivalent about these digs at him; I got the impression he wasn't personally offended—the man was simply too kind for that—but he was disappointed to see television used as a medium for vicious insults and other ways of tearing people down. For him, television was at its best as a constructive, educational medium; Rogers hated most of what he saw on TV because so many shows fell short of his ideals.

Rogers's relationship with children is front and center as a major theme throughout this documentary. His genuine care for children stands out—especially right now, in late 2018, when the world is once again being rocked by priestly scandals, and religious authority figures are proving hard to trust. Family members affirm that the Fred Rogers who lived off camera was very much the same as the Fred Rogers who appeared on camera: quiet, personable, and caring to a fault. Interviewees, time and again, speak of Rogers's ability to relate to children... and one son even talked about how this spilled over strangely into family life: if Fred Rogers ever wanted to say something un-Mister-Rogers-like, he would use the voice of someone like Lady Elaine to express his thoughts and feelings. This sort of behavior occurred on camera, too: there are clips of Rogers sitting with perfectly serious, stodgy interviewers, and interacting with them through the means of hand puppets and high voices.

All of this leads to some questions about how normal and sane Fred Rogers was, and thankfully, the documentary faces these questions down with thoroughness and frankness. One interviewer from back in the 70s or 80s comes right out and asks Fred Rogers, on camera in front of millions, whether Rogers is gay. The man is not, after all, the typical picture of masculinity for that era. There are questions about how normal it is to interact with people by using puppets and voices and cute songs. But through it all, the documentary makes clear that Fred Rogers is the real deal: this is not a Pee-Wee Herman-style pose in which the character actor becomes his true self once the lights dim and the cameras stop rolling.

"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" also takes a moment to deal with the hilarious urban legend that Fred Rogers, far from being an ordained Presbyterian minister, was actually a Navy SEAL with many kills to his name—that he wore those long-sleeved cardigans to cover the arm's-length tattoos that festooned his skin and marked him as a stone-cold slayer. Several interviewees are laughingly dismissive, noting that the man could barely use a screwdriver, much less a sniper rifle. The documentary also shows Rogers in the swimming pool, doing laps as part of a disciplined health regimen, and it's obvious during those scenes that there are no tattoos on his skinny arms.

It's possible that the documentary, in the way it's edited, in the material it's selected, strays into hagiography. We viewers are certainly left with the impression that Fred Rogers was nothing less than a saint: there's never any talk of family drama, of how disappointing he was as a father, of how driven he was to be in front of the camera (along with appearing as Mister Rogers on his show, Fred Rogers also did most of the puppetry and voices), of how he might have gotten into heated disagreements with anyone. Any negativity takes the form of Rogers's varying degrees of disapproval of what he sees on television.

I came away from this documentary with a profound appreciation for all the good that Fred Rogers did for children, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit to having a lump in my throat throughout at least half the running time. There are many, many clips of Rogers interacting with kids who obviously love him, and of Rogers meeting adults who used to watch his show as children, and who now tearfully thank and hug him. The man changed lives. Yet at the same time, I don't think I'd be happy living in a world taken over by Fred Rogers's rather bland, milquetoast sensibilities. There's no room in his utterly safe, Nerf-like world for hard-edged humor at the expense of other people, which is arguably the most common form of humor on the planet. So while I appreciate Fred Rogers's message of the need for the nurture, protection, and guidance of children, I'm not sure I agree with the larger moral universe in which that agenda is housed. There is, in fact, a rather telling section of the documentary that covers Rogers's attempt to create a TV show aimed at adults: the show bombs, mainly because Rogers is incapable of connecting to adults the way he does to kids. There's a certain important transition that we must all make from childhood to adulthood. Rogers, for all his compassion, stubbornly kept one foot planted in the realm of childhood and childish things. That's great for all the children he helped and influenced, but it doesn't mean as much for us adults, who can do little more than look back at Fred Rogers with fondness, and maybe a measure of appreciation for his role as a sort of father/guardian figure from the past.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
—1 Corinthians 13

*A grammatical quibble, here: I'd prefer that the possessive be written as "Rogers's," but like it or not, the show's official title is what it is. The general rule, for most names and words ending in "s," is to add an apostrophe-S when forming the possessive:

the lens's capabilities
her kiss's magical power

Specifically for names, add only an apostrophe for ancient/classical names, but an apostrophe-S for modern names:

Xerxes' minions
Jesus' parables
Moses' pronouncements

the Woods's car (this could arguably be rendered "Woodses'")
Linus's blanket
Mr. Rogers's neighborhood

[NB: I haven't researched this, but it could also be that the show's title is a reflection of the grammar rule that was operative in the 1970s.]

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