Thursday, June 21, 2018

Love, or the Lack of It: Morgan Neville's Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers with the Neighborhood Trolley on the set of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. (Photo: IMDB)

As a Canadian kid, Fred Rogers wasn’t supposed to be my children’s television mainstay. The afternoon kiddie slot for my generation was the realm of Mr. Dressup (played by Ernie Coombs), whose lighthearted show about costumes, arts & crafts, and puppet pals effortlessly won the hearts of my peers (and inspired more than a few people I know to refer to any large container in their home as their own personal “tickle trunk”). But I didn’t love Mr. Dressup the way most Canadian kids did – I was much more entranced by an American import shown on our local PBS channel about a kind, quiet, genial man, his friends and neighbours, and the things they learned and shared in their neighbourhood. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired right alongside Sesame Street, but it didn’t need to live in such good company to endear itself to me. The show, in the same gentle, unassuming way as its host, did that all by itself.

Thus it was with a level of interest that’s uncommon (but not absent) among my Canadian peers that I watched Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, about the life and work of Fred Rogers, and I was floored by its sensitivity and emotional power (just as I was, and still am, by Rogers himself). And the same unusual sense of subversion I felt as a Canadian who preferred an American kid’s show pervades the film, which depicts Rogers’s kindness and empathy as qualities that probably shouldn’t feel as radical as they do.

The film explains that in the mid-1950s, Rogers was set for a career in the Presbyterian ministry when television presented itself as a (potentially) more effective tool for spreading the word than glad-handing in his local parish. But his faith, though it was an enduring force throughout his life, wasn’t the focus of his efforts. He wasn’t interested in using TV to proselytize – he instead watched the glut of loud, thoughtless drivel that passed for children’s entertainment and saw an opportunity to make real connections with kids across his country. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opens with frank, almost candid footage of a young, bright-eyed Rogers – speaking in the soft, drawn-out drawl he’s known for – expressing his doubts that these ideas of invading the airwaves with kindness and compassion would make sense to anyone but him. And Margy Whitmer, Rogers’ lifelong producer, agrees: you take all the elements that make for good TV, she says, and you do the opposite, and you’ll have Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It seems like the show shouldn’t have worked, with its low-budget, simplistic sets, and extremely unlikely star. But it did. It worked like gangbusters.

Archival footage of Rogers meeting with fans of his show. (Photo: Jim Judkis/Focus Features)

It’s not a knock on Mr. Dressup, but when Rogers speaks about his approach to then-nonexistent children’s TV programming by saying that he never felt he needed to wear a silly hat or clown around to form a relationship with a child, you understand why Neighborhood worked so well. In his gentle, welcoming way, Rogers emphasized the importance of recognizing and expressing our own feelings, and listening to others who do the same. His show delighted in the little curiosities and challenges of life, but was more often a vehicle for understanding how and why we feel the way we do (which was the entire point of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, by the way, where Rogers could express his own greatest doubts and insecurities through the woebegone Daniel Striped-Tiger more honestly than he could in person). And what’s more, he offered an antidote to the obnoxious alternative: Neighborhood often luxuriates in long stretches of silence while Rogers feeds his fish, or waits for viewers to contemplate something he’s said, or (in a sequence in Neighbor that's edited with beautiful comic timing) simply sits and reflects on how long a minute actually is. His message, captured in the song “It’s You I Like” (which Rogers himself wrote), is that everyone is special simply for being themselves – a notion which our collective cultural cynicism has poisoned by telling us that this helpful push towards self-acceptance has raised a generation of spoiled, entitled brats. I think we all know that Rogers would reject that idea outright.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? depicts these simple concepts – humility, self-love, compassion, empathy, curiosity – as audacious because, I think, it’s the only way a modern audience will be able to comprehend them. But Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood itself didn’t shy away from radical topics. In the racially-charged 1960s, Rogers invited his pal Officer Clemmons (played by Fran├žois Clemmons), a black man, to share his foot-bathing pool on a hot day, directly addressing the segregationist policies of the time (which had come to a head that year when a Florida motel manager dumped acid into a pool of black swimmers). And Rogers fearlessly broached the topic of death on numerous occasions, even addressing Robert Kennedy’s assassination in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.  All this was in the belief that children have feelings, powerful feelings, just as adults do, and they need to be expressed and dealt with even when they’re hard to understand. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? paints a portrait of a man who didn’t think goodness, inclusiveness, and the ability to see people of all ages as people were radical ideas – merely difficult and worthy goals to strive towards.

Rogers with Officer Clemmons, enjoying their momentous shared foot-bath. (Photo: Getty)

Neville’s documentary is never fawning or saccharine, but primarily focuses on Rogers’s life and philosophy, leaving little room to discuss the production of the Neighborhood show itself. I would have enjoyed a deeper look at Rogers’s aptitude for music, for example.  He wrote many of the show’s songs, including the titular theme, and his collaboration with jazz musician Johnny Costa made music an indispensable part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Each transition from location to location was set to a small refrain of "Won't You Be My Neighbor," accompanied by a tinkling of piano and vibraphone; you’d hear synthesized strains as he walked to the store, a dreamy celesta as he welcomed guests into his home, and toe-tapping cool jazz to accompany films shown on the Picture Picture. Costa was apparently a controversial choice for musical director, since show runners considered his style too complex for children’s programming, but Rogers believed he was one of the most talented musicians he’d ever heard, and Costa maintained that kids were smart enough to understand good music. It’s easy to see why Rogers jumped to his defense – I can’t imagine the Neighborhood without its music, and as a child raised on it, I can confirm that Costa was right.

The interview segments are the most illuminating part of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, where you can watch people involved in Rogers’s life physically light up as they describe their interactions with him. Their disbelief that someone so genuinely good could exist, their skepticism (he must have a dark ulterior motive), and their gratitude when they accept that he really was as wonderful as he seemed, are sympathetic moments that glide through the screen and seize your heart. Candid interactions across the camera line, between interviewee and the unseen interviewer, pull back the curtain – if only for an instant – on the emotionally charged production of the film, where Neville and his crew don’t always bother to maintain a reserved distance from their subject. Probably the most enduring question about Rogers is whether or not he behaved in real life the way he does in the show, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? dispenses quickly with this question: yes, yes, of course he did. Only someone behaving as his truest and most honest self, and doing so in the belief that it was the greatest gift he could give, could have created something like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and enriched the lives of generations as a result. It was his belief that love is at the root of all things; love, or the lack of it. Neville’s sweet and touching documentary reminds us how important it is to strive for love in everything we do, and to be more like Fred – which is to say, more like ourselves, free of judgment and self-loathing – in every waking moment.

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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