I’ve had an idea in my head for weeks that it would be fun to go see a movie by myself. When I was younger, that would have seemed incredibly depressing. I would have felt like a loser at the movies alone, and I suppose that might have been how it looked. But somehow as you get older, any time you get alone is so precious that it shifts. Going to the movies alone means you get to choose exactly what to watch, and why did I ever care who was with me? You don’t talk to the people you’re with at the movies (if you’re a civilized person that is, I’ve seen it done).
But my friends have been incredible during this hard time. In the month that I’ve been home helping my mother in her last days, I’ve hardly had a single night go by without heroic efforts and invitations from my crew. So, the movie idea has gone by the wayside. Then, Monday night, I suddenly found myself alone. I decided to go down to the ancient, relic movie theater at University Mall across from George Mason. It’s amazing that it still exists, like a tuatara or a coelacanth clinging to a weird ecological niche after all the larger, more promising venues have gone extinct. I know the theater almost closed a few years back. I even donated a bit to keep it in business, which is not a thing I do. But here we are in 2020 and the theater that looked doomed in 1989 is still there, still holding Rocky Horror Picture Show nights every Saturday. (I’ve never been, which seems like an omission now).
It’s a second run theater. So, my choices were limited. I had already seen Star Wars, so my first impulse was to see The Joker. A friend of mine counseled me that it might be too intense for someone dealing with the kind of issues of morbidity and fate that I have in my real life. So that left A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the Mr. Rogers movie. I walked out to the car and stopped. It’s only a mile to the movies, and the rain had finally lulled for the first time all day, so I ran to the mall. Now I had combined exercise with eating a bucket of popcorn by myself; virtue and vice in harmony.
I was the only person in the theater, which isn’t surprising for a 9:40 showing of a second run movie. The movie opens with a sequence where Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) runs through the usual opening of the show and right there I remembered why I had liked the show. There are a lot of deep psychological and emotional reasons to like Mr. Rogers, but the thing that captured my attention when I was little was the ritual aspect of the show. He walks in the door the same way, puts on his sweater the same way, and changes his shoes the same way every day. Maybe I had a particularly chaotic childhood, but I think all kids like that kind of routine. Life is a confusing babble of unpredictable input for little brains and I think they crave a bit of repetition. Why do you think kids always watch movies so many times?
There was also something about Mr. Rogers’ routine that reminded me of my grandfather (who I lived with as a small child) coming home from work every day. They even looked a little alike. The movie plays on the expectation of routine by jarring the viewer with a photograph of a man with a black eye and a bloody nose. The photo pops out of a picture board that otherwise has Lady Aberlin and King Friday behind its doors. I could not understand the format of the movie at first. Was this a run through of the show? Was it a standard biopic and the opening would run into a flashback? It was unclear for the first thirty minutes how the story of Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys from The Americans) would connect to Mr. Rogers at all. Soon though, it dawned on me that the movie wasn’t really about Mr. Rogers. At least not in the sense of a narrative about his life.
Instead, the film follows the author who wrote a long form article about Mr. Rogers for Esquire magazine. The real author has been changed for the movie, but it’s closely based on reality. I hadn’t expected that. The movie is based on the effect that Rogers had on Vogel. I had expected something much closer to the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which I had recently watched. Clearly that piece was a huge influence, emphasizing some of the same points, such as the intertwined, almost surrogate relationship that Rogers had with Daniel Tiger. This film also includes a sequence where Mr. Rogers ask Vogel to take a moment of silence to “remember the people who made you the way you are” that was taken directly from the documentary. In the background of the restaurant where this scene takes place, I recognized a cameo by Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife, from just having seen her in Neighbor.
So, the filmmakers were influenced by the documentary, but the structure is nothing like I expected. I think the prominence and recency of Neighbor probably played into the choice not to make this a traditional biopic. That would have just been dramatizing and rehashing all the same material. It was a good documentary and the job didn’t need to be done a second time. Instead, the film was like a show within a show. For instance, Lloyd’s job is introduced through a sequence that shows how magazines are made, with actual footage form inside a factory, a scene that seemed like something right from the TV show. That was very meta.
I made a note to myself to look up how much of this story was true, mainly because I found the family aspects of the plot to be a bit maudlin. I was relieved to learn that much of the background matched the movie. You can’t help a story being maudlin if it’s real, right? The author really did have an estranged father (Chris Cooper) who had cancer. Of course, this brings up one of my main problems with choosing this movie. How bad could Joker possible have been? I literally left the house where I’m watching my mother go through the last stages of cancer to watch a movie where the protagonist loses first his mother, and then his father to cancer. Nice night out. I’m going to have a talk with my friend.
I left the movie in an odd mood, which I suppose was predictable. It had started raining again of course, but I decided to walk home instead of running. It was a light rain, the kind quiet enough to fall on leaves with a sound like crumpling paper. I didn’t listen to music or podcasts, and I didn’t hurry. I put my hood up and trudged along with a million thoughts going through my head. Yes, the story of the movie had been a bit sappy, but one line from the end stuck in my head. No one wanted to talk about the father’s death and grew really quiet until Mr. Rogers spoke up. He said no one wants to talk about death, but death is human. Nothing human is unmentionable, and anything that is mentionable is manageable. So, yeah, I’m talking about my mom a bit in this blog even though it’s uncomfortable. I just hope talking about it makes it a bit more manageable.