This Neighborhood: Film Commentary

Mister Rogers? That hokey little kid’s show?

Now we know: It was a stealth operation.

Early in the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood we see a lumpy little diorama built up of gaily painted wooden toy images, all of fields, and rivers, and trees, and houses, and animals, and the steam towers of a nuclear electric generating station, and the Twin Towers in New York. It’s 1998, and the Twin Towers were standing then.

I would almost have expected those last two images to have been left out, shied away from, labeled as “too negative,” or otherwise bowdlerized. But they were not.

I had never watched the TV show Mr. Rogers when it was on. During most of those years I was living in places where we had no television. From vague remembrances of random talk at the time, I would have expected the show to be mere useless filler for bleak daytime television, all aimed at consumers who the advertisers assume to be helpless, obese, and brain-dead. But if the new film here is to be believed, Mr. Rogers had genuine substance beneath its cuddly-toy exterior.

Who do you know, what neighbor do you have, who seems particularly dysfunctional and just plain weird? Yeah yeah I know, Donald Trump, and whoever is still going to vote for him in 2020, right? — though it’s a fair bet that Fred Rogers did not design his show to speak specifically about The Donald. Fred Rogers’s schtick, as portrayed in this film, is capable of addressing, and maybe even ‘curing,’ a wide and well-known range of destructive behavior.

Can you make choices? Can you deal with details, and follow through? Can you actually listen to what your neighbor is saying? These activities are portrayed as central to the message of that TV show. Useful in the effort to stop a climate catastrophe? — or help people to avoid evictions? — or end wars? — or end any number of other atrocities? I’m thinking, probably Yes!

Picture of hand-made sweater worn by Fred Rogers, on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. Photograph by Rudi Riet from Flickr, Creative Commons License.

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