February 8th 2020


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Sensible environment policies can counter extremists

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Bushfires: Never let a good crisis go to waste

CANBERRA OBSERVED Submarine build gives us a sinking feeling

RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION Bill Mark II a shade better but still faulty

OBITUARY Wilson Gavin: Requiescat in Pace

WORLD AFFAIRS Central banks move to dictate climate policies

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Trump impeachment will end with a whimper

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Australia considers a Magnitsky-type law

SOCIETY The optimist vindicated? Er, no!

LITERATURE AND SOCIETY The poetry of Distributism

ASIAN POLITICS Changing of the guard: Taiwan votes

HUMOUR Legal X-clamation points and that

MUSIC Is there a way to virtue via the sublime?

CINEMA The Authentic Mr Rogers: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

BOOK REVIEW How little, low-tech militias stay under the radar of huge, high-tech armies

BOOK REVIEW First novel dips into depths of medical murder-suspense genre

POETRY

LETTERS

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Coronavirus: China must answer hard questions

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CINEMA
The Authentic Mr Rogers: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood


by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, February 8, 2020

Inspired by Tom Junod’s acclaimed Esquire article, “Can You Say … Hero?” A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood masterfully shows that Fred Rogers was so beloved because he lived what he said. Unlike the caricatures that present his philosophy as a meaningless niceness and softness where no one has to do anything, the film presents it as a demanding one, requiring constant practice and mindfulness, driven by Rogers’ deep Christian faith.

It’s 1998 and investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) has been tasked to write a profile on beloved children’s TV host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for Esquire magazine. This grates on Lloyd, used to writing hard-hitting exposés, as he sees it as a puff-piece on the “nicest man in America” where he won’t be able to do any real reporting.

But, as he gets to know Mr Rogers, he realises his exposé is on something he never thought he would cover – a genuinely good, decent man.

Framed as if it were an episode of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, the film draws on that show’s look and feel to create both a sense of nostalgia for childhood and an awareness that there is a lesson to be had. This allows for a great playfulness in the film that doesn’t detract from its heartfelt message.

Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, whose ministry was to children via television. He saw the bad that TV was doing and decided to do something about it. As he saw it, if children weren’t taught that they had an innate dignity, and there were good ways to deal with their feelings, then they’d grow up to be consumers, slaves to their appetites rather than free, self-mastering men and women.

This drove Rogers to deal with heavy topics – Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the Cold war and the Vietnam War, segregation – but in a way that was suitable for preschoolers.

As with Sesame Street, which was more focused on cognitive formation of children, there were no euphemisms on Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, because children take things literally. Telling a child their pet was “put to sleep” might make them afraid to sleep, because they might think that, like their pet, they’ll never wake up.

The Christian symbolism in the show’s title is obvious. Rogers emphasised unconditional love for each and every child – and each and every person. He spoke to them individually and directly.

The comments on popular YouTube videos are usually a toxic hell stew, but those on his videos are full of gratitude from those who grew up in broken homes and hard lives saying how much he mattered to them.

This is not the same as some sort of instant affirmation that allows people to wallow in their dysfunction. By giving unconditional love, by paying attention to others, Rogers encouraged them to face themselves.

In facing themselves they could start to do something about themselves. They could see how they were trapped by a false selfish idea of their selves, and that they could truly be themselves if they started focusing on others, if they started loving their neighbour.

What the film makes explicit is something often missed – that Rogers’ kindness and gentleness were the result of continual and deliberate practice. He worked at it; he worked at being present to others, of being still in the midst of the tumult.

His ethos was not that of a sappy feel-gooder but that of a warrior, a Stoic, a Desert Father. We don’t see that part of Mr Rogers because Fred Rogers didn’t want to talk about himself – he wanted to hear about you.

He knew he was not perfect and, as he was dying, he worried about his eternal salvation. His work may not have answers for every question we have, but then, neither do many similar works of a spiritual or philosophical nature. Such works focus on something more important – the living of a good life, something strived for, but something that no one can really say that they’ve achieved.

Mr Rogers opened every show by asking everyone if they would be his neighbour. He knew that being a neighbour took work, but that it was worth it. Maybe we could give it a try.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia.




























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