Film Society Selection
'WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?'
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Tuesday 18th June 7.30pm
FILM RECEIVED 45 WINS AND 33 NOMINATIONS
Neville, US, 2018, 95 minutes
Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Betty Aberlin, François Clemmons
A thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the life, lessons, and legacy of beloved children's
TV host, Fred Rogers. Winner of over 45 international awards, this entrancing, poignant film,
suggests some people actually aren't too good to be true.
we ever needed a man and a TV show like Mr Rogers's Neighborhood, it's now
America, I Think?
Director: Matthew Armitage, UK, 2017, 70 seconds
Take a journey across America through fragmented memories.
One of the many stand up and cheer moments in Morgan Nevilles enchanting documentary, at least for me, is when cellist Yo-Yo Ma describes his first meeting with the man who will forever be known as the proprietor of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. He scared the hell out of me, says Ma. I felt vindicated, because when I was a kid, Mr. Rogers terrified me too. He made me nervous, a condition exacerbated by my cousin telling me that he was actually a serial killer. According to her, Mr. Rogers lured people on his show and then decapitated them with the Museum-Go-Round.
Whatever Mr. Rogers was up to, watching his show made me uneasy; he was just too mild-mannered, too quiet and too calm. That felt odd, because the environment of my upbringing was anything but calm and quiet. My sister thought he was magical, though, proving that old adage about girls figuring out things long before boys do. Eventually, I came around to her way of thinking, and it only took 24 years before I realized just what it was that made Mr. Rogers so beloved and so effective.
More on that later. Wont You Be My Neighbor? puts to rest many of the most common rumors about Mr. Rogers. It does so in the same blunt yet understated way that its subject dealt out information to kids. The torso full of tattoos rumor is addressed by showing Mr. Rogers swimming his daily mile in the local pool. To my chagrin, theres no mention of on-set violence featuring buildings from the Land of Make Believe, but the film makes up for that by revealing the inspiration for the puppet who lived inside the Museum-Go-Round. Its a hilarious moment that shows that respectable Mr. Rogers could also be mischievousand petty!
Rather than rely on celebrities or viewers espousing what Mr. Rogers meant to them, Wont You Be My Neighbor? makes judicious use of a few people closest to the man or his neighborhood. These include his wife, Joanne and their children plus castmembers David Mr. McFeely Newell, François Officer Clemmons Clemmons and Joe Handyman Negri. Negri in particular makes the neighborhood set sound like a riotous party, but everyone leans into the idea that, under Mr. Rogers' sweet exterior was a true radical. And maybe even a clairvoyant: In a clip from the Neighborhoods first week on the air, the Land of Make Believes benevolent monarch puppet King Friday XIII issues a proclamation to build a wall to keep undesirables out!
Wont You Be My Neighbor? makes this hes a radical idea credible. After all, a troublemaking idea existed in the titular song that Mr. Rogers sang to the kiddies at the beginning of each show. Here was a White man inviting everyone to live in his hood, regardless of color. I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you, he sings, a sentiment that wasnt shared by most Americans in the still-segregated era when "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" premiered. (Eddie Murphys brilliant parody, Mister Robinsons Neighborhood, excerpted here in a brief clip, seizes upon this Fear of a Black Neighbor notion and runs with it.) But Mr. Rogers true genius was showing by example, and Neville highlights two memorable instances of this.
The first is Mr. Rogers early appearance before Congress on behalf of funding for LBJs newest creation, the Public Broadcasting System. Facing an adversarial Senator Pastore, who had already made up his mind to pan PBS, Mr. Rogers makes his argument by simply reciting the words to a song he had written for his show. Pastore folds immediately. Youve just earned your $20 million, he says. You wouldnt buy this in a Jimmy Stewart movieand God help us if this had to play out in todays Washington D.C.yet you can find this fascinating footage on YouTube.
The second instance of Mr. Rogers leading by example occurs with the character of Officer Clemmons. As an African-American, Clemmons was at first hesitant to play a cop on the show, but he realizes the importance of kids of color seeing a friendly, familiar-looking face as law enforcement. Even more importantly, he participates in a bit where Mr. Rogers basically gives the finger to the notion of segregated swimming pools by inviting Clemmons to join him in a very small wading pool. Neville intercuts this scene from the show with footage of White lifeguards pouring bleach into a pool where Black kids were swimming.
Clemmons also figures in an incident where Mr. Rogers wasnt so enlightened. Someone from the show discovered that the then-closeted at work Clemmons had been to a gay bar. I had a good time! says Clemmons, who was then told that any future bar visits would result in his termination from the show. I can only imagine which Land of Make Believe puppet got tasked with informing Clemmons that Mister Rogers Neighborhood did not have a Castro District. (I hope it was Henrietta Pussycat saying meow meow gay bar meow meow nuh-uh meow meow fired!) But at least Clemmons informs us that Mr. Rogers eventually came around to acceptance.
Love is at the root of everything, Mr. Rogers tells us in an early clip, or lack of it. Like his fellow puppeteer and PBS colleague Jim Henson, Fred Rogers used puppets to deliver much of his message. His first puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger, serves as an animated avatar between segments because, as Mrs. Rogers points out, Daniel was an evocation of her husbands childhood feelings of insecurity and his need to be loved. Its hinted that Mr. Rogers was bullied as a heavyset kidhe was called fat Freddie and picked on, which may have led to his insistence in adulthood that a childs feelings were as important as any adults. Folks are quick to point out, however, that while Daniel represents innocence, Mr. Rogers also does the voice of King Friday XIII, who clearly represents that adult need to always get ones way.
Looking at Mister Rogers Neighborhood with adult eyes is rather fascinating. You notice that theres a clear distinction between imagination and realitywere never lead to believe that the puppet segments are anything but pretend, for example. Mr. Rogers never talks down to his viewers, nor does he really sugarcoat uncomfortable things like anger or death. Hes very matter of fact, and his manner was deliberate, constant and repetitive. Which leads me to my moment of Mr. Rogers clarity.
Many years ago, Id come home from my Wall Street job in a state of great agitation and upset. I was stressed out, worn out and miserable beyond measure. I absent-mindedly turned on the television and went into the kitchen to make dinner. For some reason, my TV was on PBS and I could hear Mr. Rogers talking from the other room. Despite paying only half an ears worth of attention, I suddenly realized what it was that earned the undying love of kids like my sister: Mr. Rogers made you feel like someone gave a damn about you. He said you were special. He did NOT, as the jackasses at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal claimed in hideous failure-blaming articles, promise you success or glory. He just told you that, no matter what you looked like, how able you were or how much money you had, that you had value.
Extracted from a review by Roger Ebert