Lisa and I went to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor today—the recently released documentary of Fred Rogers’ work. I’m not going to spoil anything about the specifics of the film here, so you can read on without great fear there. But I am going to talk about how this has made me feel and why I think this is a valuable film for you to take in.
If you’ve seen this film already, this post will probably make more sense. If not, well, the worst that can happen is that you waste a minute or two’s read. Not too horrible, right?
I suppose it says something about how the world works that Lisa and I have recently gone back and watched the movie Fight Club. Actually we read Chuck Palahniuk’s book first (which is fantastic), then watched the film again. Life is strange. Why did we do that just now? Random chance, I suppose. But, still…
As you’re probably aware, Fight Club is the book/movie that spawned the latest reincarnation of the term “snowflake” that gets bandied about by the harder right conservative folks these days, as well as the book/movie that exposed both the roots and the ills of hyper-masculinity. You may not be aware that a not-so-small group of people see embedded in this story only the roots of that hyper-masculinity, and not the ills. They wield these roots as justifications for their actions, and the story itself like it’s some kind of playbook. For those people, Tyler Durden’s exhortation that “You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else” is a mantra of life that builds on the idea that no person has any merit unless they have worked for it—and even then there are doubts.
I’m just guessing these people are not the core audience for Won’t You Be My Neighbor—though, with every fiber of their being, I think they should be.
So, yes, Lisa and I just went to see the film.
Purely as a story, it’s is a good piece of work. The format is classically formed and uses film clips interspersed with recent interviews which are all interesting. Every time you think you’ve got a hold on what a person is saying, there’s a new piece of them that changes the conversation later. Which is part of what makes this a great effort. So that’s good.
But what sets this work apart is that it’s not really a documentary so much as an exploration of philosophy and a deft setting of that philosophy into our times.
I mean, like most good documentaries this film will take you back. Watching it lets you be a kid again, remembering the impact of Mr. Rogers, seeing the stage and the various puppets and characters. And there’s a chronological thread through which the history of Fred Rogers’ entry and work in television is told. So, sure, there’s history here. Assuming you watched his show, that alone can make WYBMN interesting. But really, this film is something bigger. It’s a discussion of social issue through the eyes of the world’s greatest advocate for the future—what is a child, after all, if not the future?
This documentary is an ode to how big our problems are—and, really, how long of a struggle us humans have in front of us as we try to create a world where we can have compassion for and belief in each other. How we are our own worst enemies.
To me, this is what Fred Rogers was trying to achieve, and I think this documentary does yeoman-like work getting to that fact.
In a sane world, this documentary might be required viewing.
Alas, we do not live in a sane world.
Anyway, as Lisa and I walked out of the theater I found myself thinking about Fight Club, and how Palahniuk’s message was taken in different directions by various people. That’s the nature of art, which is what both Palahniuk and Rogers were doing. At some point, it doesn’t matter what the artist had in mind. What matters is what people do with it—and sometimes that’s a hard thing to watch.
So, yes, as odd as it may seem, both Fight Club and WYBMN are dealing with the same theme, and they both actually have the same basic position—you are a unique and beautiful snowflake worthy of kindness, respect, and—yes—love, regardless of what you look like, where you come from, or what your capabilities might be.
The difference is that while both films reveal how big our problems are, only one shows you what that philosophy looks like in action.
So, those are my thoughts.
All I’ll add is that if you’re interested in Mr. Rogers at all, you’ll enjoy this film. And if you aren’t interested in Mr. Rogers, well, you should probably see it anyway. It might be that you could use a little bit of his message more than you think.