neighborhood of make-believe

On Sunday I watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which I borrowed from the Homewood Library, a place that Mr. Rogers visited during one episode.

Fred Rogers at Homewood Branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

The places he visited in his neighborhood were often located around Pittsburgh; the WQED studio is just a couple of blocks away from my office on campus.

The film itself is puzzling and marvelous, continuing to resonate with me. One YouTube commenter wrote an incisive one-line review:

This movie isn’t a bio pic. It’s a feature-length episode of the tv show—for adults.

Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers. Matthew Rhys, whose work I admired on The Americans, plays the skeptical Lloyd Vogel. I am using the word play here in the most powerful sense, in the sense of how a child at play is performing the most important task to the child at that moment: deeply immersed in being creative while exploring thoughts and emotions. Making and believing.

One lesson of the film is to remind ourselves that it is important to listen when you are with someone else, to attend with your whole heart. Learn from the other person. When with a child, remember what it was like to be a child.

The director Marielle Heller employs magical realism, sometimes in jarring moments, as when we first see a photograph of Lloyd Vogel. The film invites us to reflect on the unity of Fred Rogers’ public persona and his private life, the studio set and the living room, actual buildings and tiny models, the televised neighborhood and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the film on screen and viewers like us, ourselves and our better selves. It does not merely bridge these as though they are divided — it shows how they belong together.

We also come to realize Mr. Rogers is special in part because he is supported by the love of those around him. He is possible because of them; they are possible because of him.

On Tuesday I watched the Presidential Debate. It is easy to observe how the words and emotions entering our homes that night displayed a horrifying absence of kindness. It was like staring into the void. My stomach unknotted when it was over.

On Wednesday, yesterday, I received the most lovely email message. It concerned a pain and confusion that someone felt — a confusion and pain that I share. (I am being vague here to preserve privacy.)

I asked friends for advice on how I should respond. They said that I would respond graciously and thoughtfully, as always. I am still not sure how to do that, in this particular situation. I know I am not always gracious and thoughtful — why would my friends believe otherwise?

The film provides a lesson here too. Mr. Rogers was in many ways a living saint. But his empathy required an incredible amount of practice and care on his part. The film does not dwell on this, appropriately so. Yet the message is clear: being a better person requires mindfulness towards one’s conduct, to recognize that differences can be celebrated because we are all neighbors in this together.

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