Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 15, 2018 6:56 pm 
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Broadcasting goodness

Fred Rogers for well over three decades, staring in 1966, ran a show for children on American public television. It came from WQED, in Pittsburgh. It was called "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." The show and Mr. Rogers became national icons. This documentary by Morgan Neville is about that show and the man, and the principles he stood for. These are best understood by beginning with the fact that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. His program was created out of Christian principles, kindness and love - and loving thy neighbor. He went into TV instead of the ministry after divinity school when he saw that TV was becoming powerful, and that shows for kids were displays of buffoonery, pie-throwing. His vision was of programming that would be good for children. He took on subjects that could be baffling and frightening to them, such as death, divorce, and assassination, and demystified them in a few simple heartfelt words. On the show he often expresses love for children and adults, and he notably declares that love is behind all things, "love, or the lack of it." Gently, Mr. Rogers speaks truth, advocates loving kindness, and dares to be himself vulnerable.

The show broke all the rules. It not only lacked pies-in-the-face, but was cheap, with simple props, a fake interior , with a closet where "Mr. Rogers" would remove his jacket and hang it up at the start of the show, and put on a zip-front cardigan, singing the same song, "Won't you be my neighbor?" He composed songs for the show that often expressed important points.

There was a little toy train. There was, as a central character, an unimpressive hand-puppet tiger called Daniel that spoke with a squeaky voice, one of ten voices Rogers did, and became his emotionally unguarded alter ego. And there were a few other people, notably Francois Clemmons as Officer Clemmons, a black policeman. (There were dozens of occasional guests, but the film highlights only a handful of them; otherwise it would become a mere catalog.) Mr. Rogers shared a wading pool with Officer Clemmons, to counteract Jim Crow-style racial segregation of swimming pools. When an opportunity came for fans to visit the show, children, black and white, came in droves with their parents.

Rogers was a brave man, as shown by his confronting of difficult subjects and his winning appearance before a congressional committee on public broadcasting funding when Nixon wanted to cut it, where we see him speak movingly and simply without notes, winning over the Senator in charge of the hearing, initially cold, who declares Rogers' statement "wonderful" and congratulates him, "You just made twenty million dollars." Rogers declares that as a child - when he was a chubby boy - "Fat Fred" - he had to endure bullying. A big goal of his work was to build courage and a sense of self-worth in his child audience, something that he never found easy.

A pioneer in television broadcasting and in his calm, slow style, in his unapologetic promotion of goodness and love, Fred Rogers was unique. But he was not in all aspects necessarily a trailblazer. When it emerged that Francois Clemmons was gay, Rogers didn't allow him to come out on the show, and furthermore forbad him from frequenting a local gay bar after he was seen cavorting there. Some people thought Roger himself was gay. Clemmons assures viewers that he was not. In the film we hear at length from Rogers' widow and occasionally from his two sons. Everyone confirms that "Mr. Rogers" was the same person as Fred Rogers. If anything Fred Rogers was nicer and sweeter than "Mr. Rogers."

From a distance, superficially, the show and "Mr. Rogers" seemed, to this viewer - who never saw more than a few moments before changing channels - to be namby-pamby, goody-goody, slow, silly, and rather effete. Even after watching this film there is a feeling that Fred Rogers seems too good to be true. So would Jesus, if he had a TV show. This film shows, to an extent that can draw tears, that Rogers was just like that. The prim, sweet look and manner were part of an indestructible and unwavering persona. He spoke to children. Yo-Yo Ma, several times a guest on the show in the Eighties, describes Rogers talking to him "from three inches away," which "terrified" Ma - but the cellist realized "that is what children do." Rogers' donning of a cardigan and putting on sneakers in place of leather shoes was a ritual to show he was letting his hair down (without his tie ever actually coming undone, or a hair falling out of place), entering by this ritual into the world of the children on the show or in its audience.

Another factor the film discusses is Rogers' sense of time, and use of silence. He could slow down, come to a stop. He and his guest sat and waited for a minute to pass, to show what a minute was like. This, too, is fearless, in broadcast terms. But it is also a way of making the program non-threatening in a violent world where everything is loud and fast. The silence reminds me of how that earlier American TV pioneer, Ernie Kovacs, once did a silent half-hour special on NBC.

Rogers had a long career with some challenges - a break to do TV for adults did not work out ; the September 11, 2001 attacks were tough to deal with; so was the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy. The film doesn't delve into Rogers' private or home life very far. There was some nastiness: Eddie Murphy and even Johnny Carson did parodies of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." When he died, protesters of the memorial service objected not to his being gay, but to his being gay-friendly. These responses are cruel. Inevitable. And, ultimately, irrelevant. Loving-kindness is an irony-free zone. Or at least Fred Rogers' version of it is.

Neville has made several good documentaries, notably the 2013 20 Feet from Stardom, which won an Academy Award, about the uncredited backup singers who make famous stars sound good. This one is nothing special, really, just the usual archival footage and talking heads. But it for me packs a quiet wallop because it makes you think. The sheer goodness of the man brings a lump to the throat. The moment that got me closest to tears is the famous meeting between Mr. Rogers and a kid in a wheelchair called Jeffrey Erlanger. They sing a song together. It is not mentioned here, but later Rogers said it was his most cherished memory. And Jefferey Ellanger, who was about to have a risky operation when he asked to be on the show, his parents explain, fittingly made a surprise appearance at Rogers' induction into the Television Hall of Fame. A tremendously moving moment, that first meeting. This deceptively simple little film leaves you with serious things to think about. I walked away from the theater feeling a little sad and wondering what it's like to this simple and pure and good a person. Fred Rogers was an extraordinary, saintly man.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?, 94 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018; fifteen other festival showings, all for US festivals, except Toronto. Limited theatrical release began 8 Jun. 2018. Screened for this review on its local release date in Albany, Ca, 15 Jun. 2018. Metascore: 85%.

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