A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
October 2, 2020
Only a few decades ago, our media landscape was very different than our present one, which sometimes appears as full of partisanship, cruelty, and furor. This film gives us a measure of how far we have strayed from a gentler time.
A 2019 American drama, directed by Marielle Heller, with Matthew Rhys and Tom Hanks. Hanks was nominated in different venues for best supporting actor in this film, in early 2020. Opening at the Toronto Film Festival in september 2019, it was received with both critical praise and popular support. It was named one of 2019’s ten best films by Time magazine.
The story, based essentially on real life events, is set around Lloyd Vogel (fictional name), a journalist for Esquire Magazine in the 1970 and 1980 decades, who is preparing an article on TV personality Fred Rogers, who hosts a popular show for children, where kindness and mutual understanding are the main ingredients. Vogel is a quite aggressive journalist, so much so that most prospective interviewees reject his proposals to interview them, in his search to get to know public heroes, with the underlying intent to show that they are not quite worthy of their hero status.
SPOILER ALERT (do not read the following section if you want to see the unfolding plot of the movie for yourself)
While Vogel’s unstated goal is to question the merit of these popular heroes, he has to reset the initial intent of his article, because what he sees in the real Mister Rogers is genuine, authentic kindness, both on and off camera. This comes as somewhat of a surprise to him. In addition, Rogers helps out Vogel with some of the journalist’s personal issues of his own. The journalist’s relationship with his own father (Jerry) is indeed strained, and father and son even come to blows in a marriage ceremony for Lloyd’s sister. Later, when father and son argue about Jerry’s abandon of Lloyd’s mother during her terminal illness several years ago, Jerry (the father) suffers a heart attack.
At first, Lloyd refuses to visit his father at the hospital. But TV host Fred Rogers extends his diplomacy and kindness outside his TV show, and intervenes himself to mend the relationship between father and son, before Jerry’s death.
Lloyd’s article on Rogers turns out to be, as could be expected, but not as initially planned, a story on kindness and generosity, in what became Esquire’s lead story of that issue.
THE ELEPHANT BEHIND THE FILM
So much kindness, genuine interaction and authentic attention to others appears to us, in this 2010-2020 decade, so refreshingly …..different. To the point of appearing strange. It seems so alien to what we are living today in our media environment.
What, indeed, has come over us in the last fifty years in the world of media ?
Unfortunately, Canadian media analyst Marshall McLuhan is no longer with us to sort out what appears sometimes as a real cacophonic mess in the media world all around us: so much partisanship, one sided opinions, aggressive words, rudeness, and simple meanness, cheap shots and even cruelty. Examples even come from the highest political offices, where twitter artists are in a hurry to denigrate opponents, in one way, partisan tweets.
What in the world has come over us in the last decades ? How did we get here ?
There does not seem to be one large overall answer for such a complex and many dimensioned phenomenon. But, upon reflection, we do have some elements to help us understand.
First of all, the contemporary pertinent scale, increasingly, is not the neighborhood, where you could meet in person the individuals you may not have agreed with. That possibility, more and more absent, tempered us in many ways from extreme utterances and kept us more restrained, made us more civil. Now, we can argue with (usually against) people we have little chances of meeting face to face. More so, we now can find people on the internet that agree, perfectly, with our own idiosyncratic view of things, be they political, moral or social. What stands outside of this comfortable blanket is simply dismissed as fake news.
And so, it is not It so much television that has changed, although it has, also, but the overall media landscape. The media environment is now full of diverse channels, the internet, social (or a-social) media, aggressive talk radio, one-way partisan TV programs. In front of these evolving outlets, Mister Rogers’ program looks like a fairytale. We are in need of a fairy tale, if only to reflect on our current situation.
As McLuhan had pointed out in the 1970’s, there are also technical elements to be taken into consideration for understanding media. He had made a distinction between cool and hot media. Cool media is low definition, technically speaking, like television before high definition, where the poorly defined image elicited cognitive responses, in a two way interaction with the TV screen. And there was, on the opposite end of the scale, hot media, such as radio, where the message, cognitively, appears complete and unambiguous. Radio seemed to be prevalent in highly partisan and conflictual situations, such as, historically, the Second World War, notably in Germany, and in more recent tribal warfare in Africa. It would seem, in McLuhan terms, that our media environment has become awfully hot. Trash radio is the most telling example, but this overheated atmosphere is to be found all around our media scape.
THE BIG PICTURE
It is one thing to understand some of the elements of the media situation we are in. It is quite another is to see how we can advance this reflection further, even to the point of looking at alternatives.
The first reaction, under this overheated media environment, is to attempt at becoming de-sensitized to its excesses. It is now more and more frequent to see politicians and artists dismiss all the hate they encounter on the Internet by ignoring it or taking it in stride, as a kind of cost of doing business. After all, we would not pay too much attention to the rantings of teenagers making impolite and unverified comments, drinking a few beers too much in their parents’ home basement. So why bother with people who need to get a life ?
Another alternative is to make sure that what is on the internet is more easily identified as to its source, which would be one way to come back to the natural and salutary effect of a real, interactive neighborhoods. It would not be as ideal as Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, but it would be a step in the right direction.
Our site is predicated on the idea that all films are ultimately related to the present, even if they appear from another era. Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, in effect, serves us as a measure of our current predicament. We are in need of a gentler media scape. If Lloyd Vogel could change his view a few decades ago, why not us, today ?