Intellect and Love: “Won’t You By My Neighbor?”

I wonder what Fred Rogers–known to the world as Mr. Rogers–thought of George Herbert and John Donne. I wonder what those two poets would have thought of Fred Rogers. Watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), a bio-pic documentary directed by Morgan Neville, brought those questions to mind. It brought a lot else to mind, including memories, convictions, and a little bit of cynicism.

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The film begins with one of the most interesting moments of the film. Fred is talking about playing the piano, but it doesn’t take long to figure out he’s talking about more than just music. I’m going to quote at length to give you a sense of his point, and more to the point, his method of thought:

Come on over a minute. I’d just had some ideas that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while about modulation. It seems to me that there are different themes in life, and one of my main jobs, it seems to me, is to help, through the mass media for children, to help children through some of the difficult modulations of life. Because it’s easy, for instance, to go from C to F. But there are some modulations that aren’t so easy. For instance, to go from F to F sharp, you’ve got to weave through all sorts of things. And it seems to me, if you’ve got somebody to help you as you weave. . . Maybe this is just too philosophical; maybe I’m trying to . . . to combine, uh, things that can’t be combined, but it makes sense to me.

Fred (I’m calling him Fred, because for obvious reasons calling him Mr. Rodgers just sounds weird),  . . . Fred is making a very clever connection here between the modulation of piano chords and the difficult patches in a person’s life. He’s saying, sure, kids don’t need help with the simple parts of life–playing outside and then coming in to eat lunch–but they do need guidance with the more difficult parts of life. Sometimes those more difficult parts are domestic–fights with families, pets dying, bullying, meeting new friends–and sometimes they are social and political events that seep into the lives of children, if only as dark shadows of something distant that they don’t fully understand.

And this documentary shows how Fred approaches fearlessly, but also with sensitivity and care, these challenging modulations. He tackles what it means to doubt one is worthy of care and love from others, what death means, the difference between make-believe and reality, conflict, getting lost, political assassinations, and tragedies such as the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. A beautiful sequence of the film describes his song, “Sometimes I Feel That I’m a Mistake.” One of his puppets, Daniel Tiger, sings, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake/I’m not like any one else I know.” Lady Aberlin replies with her own lyrics: “I think you are just fine as you are / I really must tell you I do like the person that you are becoming.”

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But here’s the thing, the song doesn’t just end there, as if to imply that one’s doubt can be so easily assuaged, as if to imply that Daniel’s fears have gone away. Instead, Daniel starts to sing again, and then, as he sings, Lady Aberlin jumps in to sing a duet. All this is to imply that the doubts don’t easily go away, easily–or even, ever–but words of affirmation from ourselves or others can quiet them. There are two voices, one of doubt and one of affirmation, singing in harmony, reflecting our own fears and inner strength. The film makes this observation, letting you know how thoughtful Rogers’ construction of the song was.

The film’s observation about this clever song reminds me of something Alexander Pope once wrote about how form and function merge to make well written verse: “The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” In other words, the structure must reinforce the meaning of the poem. That’s what we have here in this duet. And that brings me back to John Donne and George Herbert.

Herbert and Donne were metaphysical poets. Metaphysical conceits are unusual–even counter-intuitive–comparisons between two things, at least one of them being metaphysical. For instance, in George Herbert’s poem, “The Pulley,” he compares God’s love for humanity to the way a pulley works. The poem addresses why there is pain in the world, and how that might bring people closer to God. In his poem, “Easter Wings,” he cleverly compares the shape of a bird to the Christian redemption of a believer. John Donne used conceits in his poetry, as well. But the point is that they made clever, unusual comparisons that encouraged their readers to think about something old in a new way.

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It strikes me how Rogers was a metaphysical poet in his own way, too. Think about the way this film began–with what was essentially a metaphysical conceit comparing life’s challenging moments to chord modulation. Or think about the way the sound and sense of the duet, “Sometimes I Feel I’m a Mistake,” connect in a way that functions as a conceit. Calling Fred Rogers a metaphysical poet is more than a passing comparison; it gets at two of the main points that this film emphasizes about America’s favorite neighbor.

Fred Rogers was a minister of love and a soft spoken man of sharp intellect, and those two traits of his were intertwined. Over and over again, this film shows Fred Rogers as authentically loving–it wasn’t just an act–but also bold and insightful about how to use television. To focus on silence rather than noise, to focus on stillness rather than movement, to focus on vulnerability rather than strength.

This film is a loving tribute to Mr. Fred Rogers, but it’s also a sense of how he became the figure we know, and how his show didn’t shy away from powerful historical moments, such as the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy or, as I mentioned, the destruction of the Challenger Space Shuttle. It, also, shows Fred Rogers as a master rhetorician, whose soft sell–a tour de force–helped save funding for PBS during Congressional hearings that could have gone very wrong (or, at least, that’s the portrayal the film gives). The film portrays Rogers doing what virtually no one ever does: authentically persuading someone to change their viewpoint on a topic, a political topic, and publicly to boot.

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The movie turns at the end from a focus on Rogers to a focus on us, a move I thought that was well done and very much needed. There is a valorization of Fred Rogers in our society, especially within the last few years, that feels like a form of projection to me. He has been nearly canonized as America’s first television saint, and the impulse to do so I suspect says more about us than it does about him. We are putting onto him our anxieties, our fears that we are losing whatever makes our society wholesome. The look back at Mr. Rogers can be a very good thing, but it can easily transform itself into a form of escapism. It appears to me a symptom of a country, much like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), content to walk in the empty halls of the past, rather than move into the future. The film ends with an emphasis that the best way to honor Fred Rogers’ legacy is to look forward and to ask how we can be a better neighbor, and I do not feel that that was a mistake.

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Other Observations

    • The film could have done more to talk about how Mr. Rogers brought children out into the every day world, showing them how different parts of their world–carpentry, making crayons, baking bread–were done. That was a part of his show and it wasn’t highlighted as much.
    • It was wonderful to be able to learn more about the beginning of Rogers’ career and to see the ebbs and flows of the show and how it evolved.
    • The interviews show how deeply people cared for him at the time and how they still care for him now.
    • One thing that is missing is a focus on Rogers outside of the show–his home life. I think that’s fine though, as what was most needed with this documentary was the description of a landmark television show, an analysis of what the show meant, and a testament to what its creator and star did for children’s lives and for America’s sense of self.

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