Film Review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”

If there is one film everyone should go out and see right now, a feel-good yet socially meaningful film, it is the new documentary about Fred Rogers, a.k.a. “Mr. Rogers,” the beloved television host and children’s advocate. Morgan Neville’s film does not waste time going into much detail about the characters in the show or production; rather, it explores the interior life and personality of Fred Rogers, examining his character through his own life as well as the comments of others. The film really revolves around “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” as the representation and platform for Fred Rogers and his message.

What is so unique is that Rogers’s strength was in his quiet conviction. That often-mocked voice belied a Zen calm and integrity that was so powerful in its lack of aggression. Rogers was truly extraordinary for his time: a man who was willing to discuss emotions and feelings, to be genuine and authentic, and who truly treated children with complete dignity and respect and love. He was probably one of the best children’s advocates America has ever known. By listening to them, by validating them and including all of them, he fostered a sense of self-esteem that many critics have misunderstood. By telling children that each of them was “special,” he was not promoting narcissism or entitlement (which is what so much of today’s culture does). What he was trying to do was to make children feel a core of self-esteem and self-worth that was not contingent upon external appearances or achievement, to teach everyone that they are lovable even when they felt flawed. His ideas are worth revisiting as adults.

There are and were children who disliked Mr. Rogers, even when I was small. I can only attribute this to a dislike of that which is genuine, sensitive, and vulnerable. Fred Rogers was kind, by all accounts. He operated from deeply Christian principles, as well as a strong sense of having felt invalidated as a child by family and peers. The documentary so beautifully captures all of the emotions around the man, and his many talents. My one chief criticism of the film is that it could have featured much more about the music on his program. The songs were a major vehicle for conveying his messages of self-love, empathy, etc. and the lovely melodies and jazz arrangements (not to mention that heartwarming celesta that functions as deeply as any olfactory memory) remain in our minds’ ears and hearts even as adults. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment of the documentary is seeing him win over Congress with his sincerity, reading the lyrics to a song. It would also have been nice to hear commentary from other cast members, but perhaps they declined to participate or may be deceased.

In any case, this film is a must see for anyone who grew up with Mr. Rogers and has fond memories of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Or perhaps simply a must-see for anyone in these miserable, hardened, extremist, cynical times.

Advertisements

The 2018 Hay on Wye Lit Fest Part II

Here are some notes on the speakers I heard (due to illness, unfortunately I was not able to attend all the events for which I had registered). I took actual written notes on the two fiction authors; hence, my discussion of them is much longer.

Ian McEwan: One of my favorite modern writers, he addressed the question of how he would write a political novel. He said, were he to write a Brexit novel, he would inhabit the mind of a character – likely a pro-Brexit character, and take a sympathetic position to him/her. He said that inhabiting the mind of a character was imperative, else the novel would sound like a big polemic on the part of the author. This was extremely interesting to me, and has made me think about how to do such a thing in the future. One excellent example is 1984: if we think about it, we come to understand the oppression of society by Oceania only through Winston Smith’s experience of it. McEwan emphasized that we mustn’t treat novels as sociology: they are about particular people.

When asked about screenwriting the recently released “On Chesil Beach” he noted that the screenplay gave him a chance to add scenes that were not in the novel. McEwan also had high praise for the young actress Saoirse Ronan, saying that he sees her now in his characters she has portrayed when he rereads his novels. One very interesting point he made was about the form of the novella, and that novellas are perfect for adaptation. In McEwan’s opinion, Joyce’s The Dead is the most perfect novella ever written, and that it should have not been placed in Dubliners with the other stories. He praised John Houston’s film for being a perfect adaptation of the novella.

About five years back, The Guardian featured an article about McEwan losing his faith in fiction. When asked about this, about what he does when he feels jaded about literary fiction, McEwan said he goes back to an Updike novella with a line that reads something like “cognac…a knight’s move of consciousness” and this detail always inspires him. (I believe the original quote comes from Nabokov.) He also draws on Shakespeare, from whom he finds some phrase or nugget (“fondle the details”) that inspires him. McEwan said to always turn up at your desk, no matter what you feel. It is important for writers to feel a “determined stupor.”

Margaret Atwood: What a thrill to see the grande dame of letters talking on her seminal work, The Handmaid’s Tale! As always (from what I have seen in interviews), Ms. Atwood was elegantly eloquent and calm, good-humored, and tremendously intelligent and complex in her thinking. The lecture was begun by women who entered dressed as handmaidens in the red cloaks and white habits! She noted that The Handmaid’s Tale was written in conversation with 1984 (as that was the year she was writing her novel), and also with The Diary of Anne Frank and other survivor literature. She also mentioned that the novel was written around the time of the totalitarian regime in Iran, before the Shah was overthrown, the bombing of Afghanistan, as well as the beginning of the AIDS era. Everything has a historical referent in the novel, and she noted that the idea that we never know who’s on our side had cultural relevance. A film was made a few years later, and was launched at the fall of the Berlin Wall. East Berliners read the film politically, whereas West Berliners read it artistically. Not being allowed to read is a historical motif, she said, as there were 19th century discussions on how much education women should have, and also remember the fact that it was illegal to teach slaves how to read. The distortion of Biblical texts is a big part of the totalitarian control of reading. Various regimes and groups all misquote the Bible, Marx, Freud, etc. The novel also has origins in the ethos of the Puritans, who espoused a very rigid worldview and behaved oppressively toward others who did not fit their rules.

Atwood did not spend much time on discussing the techniques in writing the novel, but frankly, I was more interested in the discussion of the politics in the novel relevant to our current times. She did mention that the voice and tone are very strong in the novel, as the voice is so intrinsic to the idea of the plot. Writing and removing passages is what creates voice, according to Atwood. Her use of color-coding dates back to Medieval/Renaissance aesthetics, as the Virgin Mary is depicted in blue (which was an expensive color, given the dyes), and Mary Magdalene is red. She discussed the use of naming of the characters, such as Offred, and how she put Of- with various men’s names. Atwood joked that “Ofkeith” did not sound right! The novel’s heroine’s name also suggests “offered.”

The other major topic of discussion was about the new television series of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I have not seen this, but have heard that it is done quite well. The interviewer asked Ms. Atwood her opinions and feelings about the way in which the television series diverges from the novel. Atwood first mentioned the film made from her novel in 1990, and how she had very little control over that, its release, and the various distribution issues. With this new television series, Atwood has had some input, but she was surprisingly relaxed about the fact that it is out of her control. She simply said that if you have an interpretation of a book that fits, and you can justify it, then it is valid. The end of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” series is not definite, hence why the series is continuing for a second season. Dickens wrote in serial form to keep readers reading, and used cliffhangers! So she understands why the TV series is structured differently than her novel.

Atwood also mentioned that the novel 1984 ends on a positive note: the ending section is written in the past tense to show that Newspeak is over. Thus Gilead ends at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood comes across as extremely well versed in international politics and socio-cultural phenomenon. This talk was extremely inspiring to me, as I have always been interested in the intersection of politics and literature (Salman Rushdie has discussed and of course written much about this). She is not only an important literary figure, in my opinion, but also a cultural figure who always has her finger on the zeitgeist or pulse of current issues.

Simon Schama: It is hard to know what to write on the brilliant history professor (and fellow Columbian!) Simon Schama. He seemed to take the ball and run with it when delivering the Founders Lecture, expounding on many different topics, all under the general theme of how art is what connects us as human beings, and promotes empathy. He cited the example of a well-known woman art historian (whose name escapes me) who encouraged Jewish children at the time of the Holocaust to make art. She then saved many of their paintings and drawings after the children were put to death, and the children’s legacy is something that leaves us hope that art is truly a force for good. Professor Schama also discussed various time periods and cultures throughout history and their creation of art. Schama is a famously animated lecture (an enjoyable contrast with classic British reserve) but also comes across as warm and generous, as when a young woman in the audience who mentioned that she will be attending Columbia University in the fall, she was met with great encouragement by the professor. Schama’s knowledge is simply encyclopedic, and we are very lucky to have such a man of letters.

Martin Griffiths: This Welsh astronomer who has worked for NASA but now spends time with his research and projects in Wales was truly a delight to listen to, not the least for his Welsh accent! Griffiths talked about the overlap between astronomy and Welsh mythology, about the constellations and myths. As someone in the audience pointed out later in the Q & A, it is rare that an astronomer will discuss mythology, combine science and the arts. I found it especially fascinating to learn about Welsh mythology, as it is not something that we have so much exposure to in the US. I also realized how in our modern world we have such a dearth of mythological thinking as part of our daily lives. Growing up as a Hindu, I really enjoyed (and still enjoy) mythology, as it link humans to something much larger, to universal themes and to Gods with extraordinary forces.

Griffiths is currently involved in anti-light pollution work, with Dark Sky Wales, and is a very active lecturer.

 

 

The 2018 Hay on Wye Lit Fest Part I

I have been on hiatus, as I was overseas! I had the great fortune to attend the Hay on Wye Lit Fest in Hay on Wye Wales, UK. Sadly, this event is not publicized in the US; I happened to come across it when looking for literature events online six months ago. The scale of the event is massive: 10 days of nonstop speakers in the arts, humanities, politics, music, etc. that draws some of the biggest names in the world. Margaret Atwood (more in a minute) for example, and Bill Clinton many years back. The scope and scale of the event is simply stunning, and I can’t think of a single event to the United States that compares.

http://www.hayfestival.com/wales/news.aspx?skinid=1&localesetting=en-GB

The Festival: Dubbed “The Woodstock of the mind” by Clinton, it is indeed a massive, Woodstock-like festival set up in a small village of “tents” in a dairy meadow with walkways between them (in reality, it is really a small village that happens to be covered by very sturdy, structured, tenting material with several auditoriums). The festival, I was told, draws tens of thousands of people, and there is an actual office there that deals with tickets, logistics, etc. as well as a security check. The festival office and staff at the event are extremely professional and organized; they make things run smoothly (which is not an easy task, given the scale of the event. Kudos to everyone involved.) There is a massive food hall that features everything from British cuisine to Spanish to organic vegan to Indian and more. It is a truly socially progressive environment, as they compost and promote a sense of positive energy (one of the stages for events is called the “good energy stage!”)

One of the perks for students like me is that you get five free tickets to events (the festival wisely does not charge a flat rate admission fee, but rather just for the events you attend.) Accommodations book up even a year in advance, so those interested would do well planning far ahead, as many people come from both the region as well as elsewhere in the UK. Many people are repeat visitors, and it is easy to see why.

The Town: The festival is set just outside the town of Hay on Wye, a charming, beautiful little Welsh village that has over 20 bookstores (for real), a book town like you cannot believe — imagine one bookstore dedicated entirely to poetry! Richard Booth’s bookstore is the landmark and I was told the largest secondhand bookstore in the world. Unfortunately, I did not have much time to spend in this beautiful village, but it is definitely worth coming back to. The surrounding areas are gorgeous and hilly, and a bus ride to my inn after dark was simply magical. Foyles of Glasbury (in Glasbury, a neighboring village) is simply my favorite place at which I have ever stayed. A charming inn with just 12 rooms, the beauty, coziness, and also the staff made it a wonderful experience, especially as I was ill for half a day.

It is tricky to stay outside the village of Hay without a car, as though there is a shuttle to the festival, it is not very frequent. I would recommend travelers to hire a car if possible, for it will also allow them to explore the surrounding areas.

Overlapping with the Hay Lit Fest, simultaneously over one weekend, is another festival called How the Light Gets In that focuses on philosophy and music, and attracts such luminaries as Noam Chomsky. Unfortunately, I did not find out about this until right before I left for my trip, so I did not included as part of my plans. I hope that they too will publicize this event in the US.

Constructive Criticism: One of the logistical drawbacks is getting there. Though only 160 miles from London, it can take over 3 1/2 hours to get there by car, and over 5 1/2 hours to get there by two trains and a bus ride. This is very exhausting, and it is unfortunate that the festival does not run some sort of coach service from London and other big cities. Trying to coordinate accommodations and transportation is quite difficult. There is a local tourism office that is certainly quite helpful, but what is missing is some sort of online forum or chat page on which those of us who are coming from overseas could get in touch with other visitors and try to organize travel plans. It is, frankly, not so well set up for international visitors. The festival organizers would do well to try to make it easier.

My other main criticism is the complete lack of diversity among the festivalgoers. I was there from a Sunday-Tuesday (with Monday being a bank holiday), and while it is possible that people in their 20s-40s were not able to take off the time to go there, to my eye, the typical festivalgoer was older (possibly mid-50s and up), very white, and I am guessing very educated middle to upper-middle-class. There were hardly any minorities in the audiences or events I attended: I hardly saw anyone in their 30s and 40s or younger, with the exception of a couple of college students here or there. There were a few families, as the festival does have quite a number of events for children. The lack of ethnic diversity was really quite surprising to me, and I think the festival organizers really need to work on their outreach. The speaker lineup is wonderfully diverse, however. Given that the speakers are really the cutting edge and forefront of arts and culture, I expected the audience to be. I cannot guess with certainty how many writers there were in the audience, but my impression is that the audience were more literature and culture lovers rather than makers. That said, I did meet some incredible festivalgoers, such as an international AIDS expert surgeon-turned-priest Dr. Anne Bayley, and a London-based Indian woman who is a fiber artist and weaver, Rachna Garodia.