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Mister Rogers Goes to the Movies

May contain spoilers


Why in the world couldn't we use this thing called television for the broadcasting of grace through the land? - Mr Rogers

There aren't many films that have made me cry. "Brokeback Mountain" prickled my eyes. "Toy Story 2" caused a lone tear to escape my eyelids and creep across my cheek. "Dear Zachary" made me discreetly weep with silent despair. And two PBS documentaries about a children's TV presenter left me red-eyed and runny-nosed, my face swollen and my chest shaking, as I sat clutching Kleenex and trying not to dehydrate.

"Mister Rogers & Me" is available to buy on DVD and to download from iTunes. "Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor" is out of print on DVD.


The TV presenter was, of course, Mr Rogers. The documentaries were "Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor" (2003) and "Mister Rogers & Me" (2010, first broadcast on PBS in March 2012). I wasn't surprised they made me cry; anything to do with Mr Rogers tends to do that. The reason for this is one Roger Ebert has written about: in the movies, it is not great sadness that moves us most but great goodness. And I am not sure I have ever seen such a high concentration of goodness in one person as there was in Mr Rogers.

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If you're reading this, there is a strong chance you grew up watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and, if so, the idea that a man of my age did not grow up watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" may seem unthinkable. But I didn't. Until I was around 16, the only mention of Mr Rogers I ever heard was in a joke I didn't get on an episode of "The Simpsons."

Over the next ten years, I heard a few more jokes I didn't get on a few more American sitcoms, and eventually came to understand that Mr Rogers hosted some kind of kid's TV show. And that was all I knew of him until a couple of years ago when an American friend, flabbergasted by my ignorance of someone she (and, I was assured, everyone else in America) had adored for decades, told me to watch an episode of "Neighborhood."

Now I adore Mr Rogers too. Last year, I wrote this article for The Spectator's website explaining why and, after it was published, I was inundated with messages from people who share my affection for him. Their stories astonished me.

There was the thirty-something office worker who always insisted her lunch break was scheduled for mid-morning so she could sneak to the staffroom and watch re-runs of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on its TV.

There was the man who was about to be married and whose friends, knowing how much he and his fiancée admired Mr Rogers, wrote to the great man asking for advice for newlyweds. Mr Rogers replied, thanking them for caring enough about him to want his opinion and adding:

'To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now - and to go on caring through all the times. May you have a lifetime of caring and a lifetime of growing.'

And, most remarkably of all, there was the irreligious man, an aggressive atheist of the type who thinks Richard Dawkins takes it too easy on organized religion, who quietly confessed, "I don't believe there's a Heaven... but I hope I'm wrong, so that Mr Rogers can be there."

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I have a good story about Mr Rogers, too, but it is so corny I have never written about it before, afraid readers would either think it was an invention or think I am both soft in the heart and soft in the head. It took me five months after deciding I would write an article about Mr Rogers to actually write it. I dithered because I didn't feel I was worthy of the subject and because I knew so many people knew so much more about him than I did.

Then, one night, I was watching clips of Mr Rogers on YouTube and I saw six words to which I had a profound physical reaction. Under one of the videos, a commenter had written "lol mr rogers is a pedophile." I was so angry. I had never felt such sudden, vicious rage because of something someone wrote or said. I had read about "tears of fury" but I had never previously produced them. My anger made my eyeballs pulse.

I instantly decided I would channel all the unpleasantness I was feeling and marshal all my skills as a professional writer, and use them to compose a merciless reply to that comment that would rip its author apart. But, as I was logging in to YouTube to do this, I realized that it was, almost literally, the last thing Mr Rogers would want me to do. And so, of course, I didn't do it.

But I was still so upset I had to do something; I just wasn't sure what. And then I remembered one of my favorite Mr Rogers songs, about that moment when children can either seize their anger and direct it into something constructive or let it seize them and do something awful. The song is called "What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?" and - here's the corniest part - I thought, in exactly these words, "What shall I do with the mad that I feel?"

And so I began to write my article, in which I would tell anyone I could persuade to read it how much Mr Rogers meant to me and through which I would, I hoped, introduce someone in my mainly British readership to my new hero, the unassuming American TV presenter who injected such joy into my life, even though he died before I ever really knew he was alive and even though I was 25 years older than his target audience.

"We all have only one life to live on Earth. And through television we have the choice of encouraging others to demean this life or to cherish it." - Mr Rogers

What I implied in that article is what I will state outright here: Mr Rogers is the person I most wish I was like - and he is the person I most wish everyone else was like too. Watch "America's Favorite Neighbour" and "Mister Rogers & Me" and you will struggle not to share my opinion.

It is often said of some pleasant person who has died, "If we were all like that the world would be a far better place!" But of Mr Rogers it is true. Consider for a second a world - or just a village, a street, a family - in which everyone behaved half as well as Mr Rogers. It would always be a beautiful day in that neighborhood.

There are many fine people who are decent but ineffectual and, if we all imitated them, we wouldn't achieve much besides being quiet and inoffensive. But if we all imitated Mr Rogers most of us would achieve far more than we do. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was to so categorically disproved the idea that nice guys finish last. There was never a nicer guy than Mr Rogers and, judging him even in the harshest and most reductive terms, I'd say that his Emmys, his Peabody Awards, his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and his Presidential Medal of Freedom are pretty good indications of a man who finished first in his chosen race.

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"America's Favorite Neighbor" and "Mr Rogers & Me" make such an effective double bill because they complement each other so well. Although there are overlaps between them - they both use some of the same footage and photographs, and recount the same basic facts of Mr Rogers's life - they view their subject from different angles. "America's Favorite Neighbor" examines his work while "Mr Rogers & Me" examines its impact.

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"Mr Rogers & Me" was made, over seven years of snatched nighttimes and weekends, by brothers Benjamin and Christopher Wagner. Their mother was literally Mr Rogers neighbour: she spent her summers in the same part of Nantucket as Mr and Mrs Rogers. On Benjamin Wagner's 30th birthday, Mr Rogers came over to wish him many happy returns. Mr Rogers asked Benjamin - who calls himself "a PBS mind in a jump cut, sound bit world" - about his job as a producer at MTV and, during the consequent conversation, said the sentence that would change Benjamin's life: "I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex."

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After Mr Rogers died in 2003, the Brothers Wagner decided to discover, and to document, the influence Mr Rogers had on those who knew him and those who knew of him. The result is, as its subtitle suggests, "A Deep and Simple Film" overflowing with insights into a man who was overflowing with insights into mankind.

"America's Favorite Neighbor" is certainly not shallow and complex, but it is far longer and more varied than "Mister Rogers & Me." It runs for three hours (whereas "Mr Rogers & Me" runs for 70 minutes) and it is, at least as it appears on DVD, not so much a standard documentary on Mr Rogers as a compendium of material about him, which includes two self-contained documentaries: 2003's "A Beautiful Life in this Neighborhood" and 1967's "Creative Person: Fred Rogers." "Creative Person" shows a man so full of potential and earnest ambitions we would never believe he could possibly realize them if "Beautiful Life" hadn't already shown us that he did not just realize them but exceed them.

"America's Favorite Neighbor" is hosted by a former member of the floor crew on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." He's a man you'll recognize. Mr Rogers refers to him as Michael Douglas, before adding "He's called Michael Keaton out in Hollywood." There's a joke that floats across the internet: "Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then you should always be Batman." Michael Keaton got to be Batman in blockbuster movies and he got to work, unheralded, behind the scenes on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Having watched "America's Favorite Neighbor," I can say with total, if absurd, honesty that - given the option to spend my life doing the former or the latter - I would choose Mr Rogers' Neighborhood over Gotham City in a second.

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I feel that those of us in television are chosen to be servants... We are chosen to meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen. - Mr Rogers

If someone asks me what is the best film ever made or the best book ever written, I talk about the question to avoid giving an answer. But if someone asks me what is the best television program ever made, I give the answer because I know the answer. It's "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Brilliant as they are, there is no flash of satire on "The Simpsons" or subtly acted scene in "The Sopranos" that can compete with the profundity of Mr Rogers simply lifting a dead fish from his tank and helping a million children to be at ease with their mortality. And what is a perfectly executed story arc on "The Wire" compared to the knowledge that Mr Rogers loved generations of young minds enough to instill in them the conviction that there is no one in this world who is a mistake, no matter how different from you they are or how strange they seem?

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There comes a point in our assessment of any human endeavor - whether it is a film, a book, a politician's career or a person's entire life - when all the ordinary standards we use to measure success must be set aside in favor of the most crucial: the simple question "How much good did it do?" I know of no other program besides "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" that had such admirable aims and that met them so well, and so often, for so long. In short, I know of no other program that did, and continues to do, so much good.

"America's Favorite Neighbor" and "Mister Rogers & Me" both prove that Frank Lloyd-Wright was wrong when he said, "Television is chewing gum for the eyes." He would have been right if he'd said that what is so often shown on television is chewing gum for the eyes. Television has unlimited potential to provide viewers, and especially children, with nourishment - and Mr Rogers served only vital nutrition.

Though they never say so explicitly these two documentaries make an incredible claim. They suggest that Mr Rogers was one of the most important people of the 20th Century. This is a big boast to make about a man who hosted a kids' TV show but there is a simple equation that proves it, in my mind at least.

I believe that television was the definitive medium of the 20th Century and I believe that, during the 20th Century, Mr Rogers was the person who did the most important work in that medium. It follows, therefore, that he was one of the most important people of our time.

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The space between the television screen and whoever happens to be receiving [its message]: I consider that to be very holy ground. - Mr Rogers

Having watched "American's Favorite Neighbor" and "Mr Rogers & Me," I now know why that YouTube commenter wrote those ugly words about Mr Rogers. It's the same reason those asinine internet rumors saying he was a former Navy Seal sniper with dozens of confirmed kills are able to survive: when we see someone who does only good it is easier to push them away with doubt and mockery than to hold them close and let the light that shines from them illuminate our deficiencies.

Mr Rogers' life and career, and these two films about them, show us something it can be painful to accept: there exists within us the potential to perfect ourselves, and to choose to override our every instinct for pettiness and meanness and hatred. They show us that the debt of decency we owe our neighbors needs to be paid off every day.

"Mister Rogers & Me" is a challenging film. In fact, it ends with Benjamin Wagner issuing a direct challenge to the audience: "How will you contribute depth and simplicity to a shallow and complex world? How will you honor those who loved you into being?" Those are questions we should all ask ourselves. And they are questions we should all force ourselves to answer.

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Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me. - Mr Rogers

PBS has a new channel in Britain. I don't know why it doesn't seem to show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." And I don't know why, at some point in the last 40 years, another channel hasn't imported the program. British TV channels import "Jackass" and "Jersey Shore" and "Jerry Springer" and a hundred other shows that have never broadcast one moment's grace through our land.

I can't imagine it would cost much to buy in a few old episodes of "Mister Rogers" but it would be an investment in every child in the country who has access to a television. That Mr Rogers isn't well-known in the UK ought to be a national embarrassment. Indeed, my definition of a failing country is one in which at least one episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is not broadcast nationally every day.

I can see no downside to any child watching "Mr Rogers' Neighborhood" and I can see no downside to any adult watching both "America's Favorite Neighbor" and "Mister Rogers & Me." There is no one alive who would not benefit from being a little more like Mr Rogers. Worse men have been canonized.

Scott Jordan Harris is editor of The Spectator's arts blog and the books "World Film Locations: New York" and "World Film Locations: New Orleans." You can follow him here on Twitter.

Scott Jordan Harris

Scott Jordan Harris is a film critic from Great Britain. Formerly editor of The Spectator's arts blog and The Big Picture magazine, he is now a culture blogger for The Daily Telegraph; a contributor to BBC Radio 4's The Film Programme and Front Row.

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