Phillips: ‘Neighborhood’ a much more complex place than it appeared

By: 
David Phillips

Just a few days after I wrote my OK, boomer/millennial divide column, I did one of the most quintessential boomer things possible: I took a dip into nostalgia to watch the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”

It really wasn’t nostalgia for me since I actually don’t have strong memories of the popular children’s television show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran from 1968 to 2001 and includes the time when my children were growing up.

My memories of watching television with my children focus more on “Sesame Street” with its vibrant colors, constant stimulation and shiny lights that likely paved the way for our attention-deficit society that is prevalent today.

Since I didn’t have that strong familiarity, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I entered the dark theater two weeks ago. Like the skeptical writer featured in the movie, I expected a puff piece about a kind man who was adored by children merely because he was a nice guy.

Still, I figured that was probably worth the price of admission since kindness seems to be a novelty today when so many people, from our president on down, glorify hatred, divisiveness and putdowns.

The opening scene brought back memories of almost all that I remembered about the children’s show: Fred Rogers opening a door and immediately changing his clothes, putting on an old sweater and changing his shoes to sneakers, even though he didn’t ever move fast. It triggered memories of the puppets, which looked homemade — nothing like the “Sesame Street” ones — with his voice obviously mouthing their words. It also brought back memories of the songs that sounded like they were just made up on the spot.

However, when I walked out of the movie, I definitely had a much greater appreciation for Rogers, even though the movie wasn’t really a documentary, true to life or even mostly about him. There was so much more below the surface of this plain-looking, seemingly simple man with a kids’ show that, on the surface, appeared so old-fashioned.

It’s not just that the movie was so well done, seamlessly shifting between the television set and the outside world, making it seem as if it is all one and the same. And, it wasn’t just that lead actor Tom Hanks, probably the nicest actor in Hollywood, played Rogers.

The movie struck a chord because it allowed the sincerity and moral clarity of Rogers to shine through. It also gave us much to think about as we maneuver through a society that is attracted to flashy visuals and values quick, easy answers.

On his show, which was specifically aimed at kids, he talked about feelings, including anger, abandonment, pain, isolation and even death.

He also didn’t gloss over the fact that life can be hard.

In one scene, he had so much trouble putting up a tent on the set of his show that we could tell he was frustrated. The director wanted to cut the scene and have it set up for him so he could go right to his message. However, Rogers declined and made that his message.

“Some days, doing ‘the best we can’ may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect on any front — and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else,” he once said.

In the movie, the subject of anger came up frequently, particularly as it related to the writer who had a broken relationship with his father. Like many people, the writer bottled up his anger, his sadness and other feelings.

“People have said, ‘Don’t cry’ to other people for years and years,” Rogers once said, “and all it has ever meant is ‘I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings’ . . . I’d rather have them say, ‘Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.’”

Rogers clearly had anger, but he didn’t bottle that up so as not to upset people. Instead, he used strategies, such as pounding the low keys of a piano, to work through the anger.

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable,” he said. “When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

Rogers, who seemed awkward and shy, always spoke slowly and softly — on purpose. He left spaces for people to react, to think.

More importantly, he gave everyone his undivided attention, whether they were a writer who is hurting or a child looking for answers. He always made people feel like they were the most important person in his world.

That’s a unique trait today when we are constantly distracted. So many people barely acknowledge others in the same room as they focus on their screens or anything else besides the person in front of them.

I’ve been guilty of that myself and it seems all too easy to explain away with excuses. Yet, Rogers, in his sometimes awkward slow-moving way, shows there is another way that can eventually produce magic, although he would never call it that.

“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person,” he said.

We could all be part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood if we really tried. It may sound hokey, or just another nostalgic memory, but he was onto something quite profound, even if it was hidden — at least to some people — in a children’s television show.