(Guest post by Greg Forster)
”Do you know what that means? To forgive?”
Adults only. I’m not joking.
Go see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood in theaters. It is a masterfully made film, using every inch of the screen and every decibel of the soundtrack to accomplish its nefarious purpose – to invade your defenses and subvert your cynical expectations. This is not so much a movie as a lived experience invoked by means of a movie. (No, they didn’t spend $100 million on CGI to make Tom Hanks look exactly like Fred Rogers. Get over it.)
But do not take anyone under 13 to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. And 13 is marginal. Not because of language, violence or nudity.
Feelings can be much more obscene than any of that.
”Someone has hurt my friend Lloyd.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie about death, betrayal, secrets, hatred and hand puppets.
It’s a movie about a man who is so angry at another man that he wants that man to die. So much that he still wants that man to die even as the man is actually dying, painfully, right there in front of him.
A man who must make a choice to release another man from his feelings of anger, but does not realize that he must do this, and does not contain in himself whatever it might require for him to come to that realization on his own.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie about what we can do with the mad that we feel. About what it takes to take the armor off.
But it’s also a movie about what kind of man it takes to help another man make a choice to release his feelings of anger.
“Until recently, my eldest son didn’t tell anyone about me. He’s a very private person. And that’s okay.”
In this movie we watch Fred Rogers do for a grown-up who is in a very (very) grown-up situation what he did for millions of children in their juvenile situations.
An investigative journalist is sent against his will to interview Fred Rogers. Rather than write a simplistic “puff piece,” he feels responsible to figure out what really makes Fred Rogers tick.
That requires the journalist to push Rogers to open up and be vulnerable.
And Rogers, with a divinely innocent cunning and ruthlessness that I can only describe as a good mirror image of Hannibal Lector torturing Clarice Starling for confessions, turns the reporter’s demand for vulnerability against him.
Rogers will reveal himself, alright – he reveals himself by compelling the reporter to reveal himself. Rogers could not reveal himself in any other way, because that is who he is.
Be careful what you wish for.
The singular mystery of Fred Rogers is not that no one but his wife seems to have known what he was really like. Plenty of great men are like that. They’re like that because they’re coy, they’re disciplined not to take risks, they’re always on stage – always have their armor on, lest a vulnerable moment damage whatever great work they’ve set their hands to.
The really singular mystery of Fred Rogers is that he was a completely open book – walking around all day with no armor, making himself vulnerable to other people, talking about things that nobody wants to talk about (“to die is to be human”). That transparency and vulnerability, taking the armor off and keeping it off, was the great work he set his hands to.
And even so, nobody but his wife seems to have had the first clue what he was really like.
Because it takes divine power for one man to carry the burdens of another man’s sins.
“Let’s take one minute and just think about all the people who have loved us into existence.”
Some right-wing culture-war morons have tried to farm clicks (I refuse to link them) off the fact that Fred Rogers’ Christian faith is only referred to obliquely, a couple times, in this movie. But that is of course the whole goddamned point here.
(Of course nothing that follows releases Christians from the obligation to express their faith verbally. But there is such a thing as a story, and such a thing as the point of a story, and such a thing as things that are beside the point of a story.)
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that the people in the fictional world of Lord of the Rings don’t have religions because that fictional world is itself an expression of religion. If Aragorn and Frodo and Eowyn and all the rest had religions, the story about them would become something other than religion.
Fred Rogers walked around all day taking on the burdens of other people’s sins, and never seemed to mind bearing the burden. And that made him a complete mystery, because nothing in natural human life is like that. No one who is living a natural human life is like that.
But Fred Rogers was like that. And I can think of another person who was like that.
“I can see that you are a man of conviction. You know the difference between what is wrong and what is right.”
The final image and sound of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – Rogers at a piano – suggests the price Fred Rogers paid for the life he chose to live. Even the greatest beauty must be disrupted to release the sad and mad feelings our human experience of suffering creates.
But it suggests, also, the price we have all paid for the sin of humanity. A world without injustice would be a world of uninterrupted beauty, a beauty that would never have to be disrupted to release the sad and mad feelings. And that’s just not the world we live in.
Sometimes people are good
And they do just what they should
But the very same people who are good sometimes
Are the very same people who are bad sometimes
Go see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. In theaters, where the divinely innocent cunning and ruthlessness of the filmmakers can do its work properly.
Leave the younger kids at home.
Leave your armor at home, too.