The film’s childhood-centric poignancy is underscored by the depravity of today’s kindergarteners having to be concerned more with the logistics of hardened desks or evacuation drills thanks in part to assault weapons’ promotion by the marketing geniuses of late capitalism. Or their free time likely preoccupied with “connectivity”-learning. There simply is no way in hell the Fred Rogers we see – moving in the mezzotinted amber of a kinder world left far behind – could ever even be CGI’d to make sense of it. We lack the moral vocabulary.
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We must be prepared to infer a heartrending corollary from a thesis put forth by Walter Benjamin in his fragment “Theory of Knowledge” (written in 1920-21). It has to do with the disjunct, or brokenness, he perceives between an act and what he calls “the now of knowability” (das Jetzt der Erkennbarkeit). “The now of an act,” he writes, “its authentic existence in the perfected state of the world, is not, like that of truth, also in the now of knowability. That existence in the perfected state of the world exists then without context, and even without any connections with this state of the world.”1 When we act, in other words, we cannot know acting’s full meaning. Acts do not take place in “the perfected state of the world.” How could they? For an act is unperfected (unlike in a play). And the “perfected state of the world” is surely not the same as “this state of the world.” An act, by contrast, with an “existence in the perfected state of the world” cannot have real-world context: i.e., the kind of factual detail and background and explanatory causation we ascribe to acts once they are “complete” and have been assimilated by our information culture. Corollaries: Acting is not knowing. Knowing is not acting (though it can be a form of power). And: The only perfected state of the world we “know” is childhood. Childhood, or play, is when acting and knowing had not yet split apart. The tug of childhood, well after the qualia of it and for its adult exile, derives from its lost unity. Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus.
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Each person who watches Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – the filmmaker’s documentary on the life of child development theorist-TV personality Fred Rogers – will differently summon the present (the now of knowability?) out of which the documentary lifts them during its refreshing 94 minutes. In the main, however, most are unlikely to disagree about its power to do so. Or not to feel stirred and drained by the light of its day’s contrasts with our own. An artifact takes on such power only once knowability has drifted to an insurmountable distance from the past – a past that once unfolded in its own now of non-knowability. Only then can the past’s reconstituted but unreachable memories exert their cathartic pull, like starlight.
The irony in this case is that the memory fragments are lifted from a medium credited not only with making the present bearable, but with wedding us to it as never before: television. By this day the curated televisual bears marks of its antiquity every bit as quaint as the colors of a Polaroid – or the frame of an old masterpiece. They’re subtle but unmistakable. Certainly we register the most instantly signaled distance through images in black and white. Of these there are a good number in this film, which includes segments from Fred Rogers’ shows that preceded Neighbor: The Children’s Corner (1955) and Misterogers (1961, developed in Canada, and brought home to Pittsburgh). To follow these, and the later color sequences, feels quite natural for a Baby Boomer; perhaps slightly tedious or monochromatic for the digitally quickened and instantly gratified.
This is a world in which little dramas – Rogers’ give and take with kids, adults’ narrations about his gentle give and take with them, the conversations (or monologues) of Daniel Stripèd Tiger, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, King Friday the XIIIth – co-depend on the words uttered. As the movie observes, kinetic elements don’t move faster than the hand and feet and mouth and props can make them. Back in the day, it was the brain that “moved,” processing words and actions. One of the contrasts with our times of which every frame poignantly reminds us is the degree to which our media now does so much of the work of movement, anticipation, conclusion, distraction for us. As (I think it’s) Susan Stamberg who observes, Rogers does just enough to leave the kids to their own devices – when they had “devices” that were not literally devices. His critiques of pies-in-the-face and far more violent, mindless kinetics in cartoons were prescient. Even more so his insight, “What we see and hear on the screen is part of what we become.” Television was for Rogers a serious, woefully underused or misused, tool.
The conservative thinker Roger Scruton makes much of his Adorno-like conviction that “there are two ways music can provoke a response: either by triggering it, as laughter is triggered by tickling, or by providing a proper object of it, so as to inspire a reflective form of sympathy.” What holds here for music holds likewise for the kinds of slow-burn interaction, demonstration, and play in which Rogers engaged. The seriousness of his mission is brought home because of the realization that in few if any excerpts from his shows are children seen laughing. (Smiling, yes.) They’re not triggered, or tickled to, laugh – but led on, gently, to some of the ways of the unkind world and their own thoughts about it. He could gauge the avid curiosity and the progress in their eyes. Luckily, the camera in these shows captured it too.
Thus the film serves to remind that the great pedagogue has lived the experiences of his material. Not so much the hero-teacher like Ulysses or Hercules or Dante who’d been down there and come back up to tell us about it, but the Socratic, whose footsteps were already imprinted and led where we might go too. Neville unemphatically follows how the show grew out of Rogers’ own experiences and insecurities as “Fat Fred” – or the time he’d spent when very young in bed recuperating from chronic illnesses and inventing characters. (A character on the show, postman Mr. McFeely, bore Rogers’ middle name. His wife Joanne remarks that it’s curmudgeonly King Friday who became his avatar in old age.)
This doesn’t mean that the unforeseen and spontaneous didn’t confront Rogers daily, or that he didn’t spend his adult life pondering, occasionally doubting, the mission. Among the film’s abundant strengths are his outside-the-show meditations, captured in footage or in reminiscences by associates. His demonstrating (for adults) chords on the piano keyboard in analogy with the child’s having to move psychically between the difficult “modulations” of life – where the playing fingers are called on to contort into a trickier configuration – shows how intuitively communication and analysis themselves came to this well-educated and soft-spoken man. But the inevitable shift back to a child listener as the most receptive explains his short-lived enthusiasm for his experimental TV show for adults. Or why volunteer work with prisoners at a State penitentiary might have proven, in the long run, the less magnetic calling. (He ended up arranging for a playroom area there so that children could keep busy while visiting their incarcerated parents.)
Rogers was originally from Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It’s curious that a parallel with another wholesome American icon from that state hasn’t been much noted. Jimmy Stewart, though hardly saintly in his personal life like Rogers, captivated a watching audience of adults not unlike Rogers’ charisma with children. Perhaps there was something about the deliberateness of Stewart’s drawl, the hands always busy with something like his hat, the way he listened to other actors, even the lanky build and cardigan sweater in middle age – adding to Kim Novak’s father-fixating attachment to Scottie in Vertigo? – that suggested Rogers-like approachableness and decency. Rogers fascinates with both his reliability and an edge of utter conviction into which a cynical age can’t help but read unstated perversion by its very transparency. A creature of habit, he was proud of weighing the same 143 pounds his entire adult life. In only a slightly less guarded moment, he comments on transfering and dispersing feelings of aggression to his fingertips on the piano. It’s as if both bland and natural personae – Stewart’s and Rogers’ – combined a perfectly habitual and reassuring stability with a hint of differentness, which may be the secret of their enduring iconic familiarity – for boys and girls and adults.
David Edelstein writes in his review of the film, “The odd thing is that I was going on 11, past the age most kids would admit to watching the show, but I’d go back and forth between the ol’ neighborhood and Dark Shadows, along with other noisy, violent programs. Neville’s documentary brought it all back.” I must confess to being old enough to have watched, instead, Captain Kangaroo. But I was aware of the show in the ’80s when it offered such a becalming, slow-paced oasis from the hyperactive and dumbed-down videosphere fast becoming kids’ daily diet. This limited exposure to the show gave no clue that Rogers was a lifelong Republican and ordained Presbyterian minister. They meant something different then.
This brings us back to the film’s unbridgeable remove from what we’ve become. It’s pointless trying to hold back tears during a number of sequences. The Challenger disaster footage. Tastefully hinted-at 9/11 atrocity. Associates and family who knew Fred, themselves overcome. Or the gestures of kindness and affection when Rogers sits next to and is hugged by Koko, the female sign-using gorilla who sadly passed away on June 21 not long after the film’s release. (Anyone doubting that the primitiveness of children and the intuitions of primates are continuous on the spectrum need only note this footage. Yes, the phrase “feral youth” can be abused, depending on its speaker’s intention. Yet trans-species affection is not what’s wild, but what’s domestic. Aggression, by contrast, is the path not of least but of most resistance. But we have enabled it infinitely via our technology.)
The film’s childhood-centric poignancy is underscored by the depravity of today’s kindergarteners having to be concerned more with the logistics of hardened desks or evacuation drills thanks in part to assault weapons’ promotion by the marketing geniuses of late capitalism. Or their free time likely preoccupied with “connectivity”-learning. There simply is no way in hell the Fred Rogers we see – moving in the mezzotinted amber of a kinder world left far behind – could ever even be CGI’d to make sense of it. We lack the moral vocabulary. All our communicative means are the technical means of overkill. And emotionally? Even memed outrage over kids separated from would-be immigrant parents is unlikely to take on the patient, loving phrasing or simple movements Rogers brings to a dead goldfish. We have too much access to images and phrases and emoticons to correlate with and polarize states of mind and feeling. We hyperventilate in pixels more than ever, but cultivate less the introspective skill of asking why out loud. As so many commentators point out, there’s a religious near-sacredness to his ordinary rituals, and an awe at their toleration of silence, unmatchable in our digital-visual-polemical-shared cacophony. I’d argue that Rogers, in the US, was not unique in making his shtick telegenic. A Bob Hope or a Carson, by combining rituals with branded music, pulled off a more reflexive and superficial version of themed appearance, retrieving the sweater from the closet and tying the tennis shoes. Play and ritual intertwine. And there were other naturally silken-voiced celebrities like Carl Sagan or younger Cosby to entrance millions of viewers.
Those in our own day we seem, however, dead-set on compromising if only because the simple kindnesses of Rogers-like individuals we may appreciate in our personal lives have become, by definition, a nullity. It’s as if we want those we “follow” to be flayed by a scandal-mongering age of information saturation. They’re constantly caught having “crossed the line.” There’s just no one any longer to tell us where the line is. Children may recognize it better than adults.
No matter how mature society expects them to be, however, I’m not sure this fully applies yet to children. One of the most moving witnesses in the film involves walking across the street to brainwashed picketers at Rogers’ funeral who are incensed by his tolerating homosexuals. As Tom Junod recounts this in Esquire,
What I do remember was how their children looked, and the keen and nearly overwhelming sense of loss the appearance of their children elicited. There were so many of them, for one thing; the Westboro congregation turned out to be a young one, and even some of the lank-haired women holding signs and spitting epithets turned out be, on closer inspection, teenagers. And they were all so poor. I’m not speaking simply of their clothes, and their teeth, and their grammar, or any of the other markers of class in America. I’m speaking of their poverty of spirit. Whether they were sixteen or six, they looked to be already exhausted, already depleted, with greasy hair, dirty faces, and circles under their eyes that had already hardened into purplish dents. They looked as if they were far from home, and didn’t know where they were going next. They looked, in truth, not just poorly taken care of, but abused, if not physically then by a belief inimical to childhood—the belief that to be alive is to hate and be hated.
In this witness – as with so many of the Rogers’ confiding acolytes who are pillars in this documentary’s architecture of homage – inspiration by that lamb-like man in a cardigan revives the hope intrinsic to at least diagnosing the ills of our own day. We can still read and sense them surely in the way we treat not only children, but childhood itself. The facts presented in this documentary enter our now of knowability. Does the child’s contact for a few moments vitalize self-esteem and a sense of security for life? Not even Fred Rogers knew that. The mysteries of contact this film captures make the commands of its now, in a factual sense, unknowable. Except perhaps for this actor’s truth, glimpsed in any era, that with each significant real encounter, to act is to unknow.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film or the TV show.
- Rodney Livingston, trans., Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Vol. 1, 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Harvard U.P., 1996, p. 277. [↩]