Mr. Rogers, American Animals, and Being Special: A Contemplative Perspective on Three Current Films

Mr. Rogers, American Animals, and Being Special: A Contemplative Perspective on Three Current Films July 2, 2018
Image Credit: Unsplash

A few months ago my wife and I jumped on the MoviePass bandwagon. We don’t spend every night at the movies — but we are getting out on average about once a week, which is more often than we used to go see films in the cinema.

One of the interesting consequences of being a MoviePass subscriber is that, now that I’m seeing more films, I’m beginning to look at how the individual films we watch seem to contribute to a larger conversation.

Here’s a case in point: this past weekend, we saw three films: Friday we saw the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor; Saturday we saw American Animals, a true-crime story about four college students who attempt to steal rare books from a university library; and on Sunday we saw Ocean’s Eight, which of course is the latest installment in the “heist movie” genre — the very genre that inspired the young men who went after the rare books.

We didn’t choose these movies for any reason other than each one, individually, appealed to us for various reasons. We knew Ocean’s Eight would be a potboiler but we like Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock; American Animals appealed to us because of rare book angle, and while neither my wife nor I watched Mr. Rogers when we were kids, our daughter loved him and that was reason enough for us.

So how interesting that the three movies all seemed to have something to say about similar themes: about ethics, about self-esteem, about what it means to be special, and about how to navigate life in our complicated twenty-first century.

Good Neighbors

Won’t You Be My Neighbor is simply a delight. Part of what makes the story of Fred Rogers so interesting is how thoroughly he broke all the rules of television: from low-tech production values to how “square” and unfashionable he remained throughout his career, Mr. Rogers nevertheless managed to become one of the most wildly popular hosts of children’s television in a career that spanned from the 1950s to the early 2000s (even though it seemed as if he himself — and his show — were stuck in the 1950s).

The documentary explores how Roger’s faith — he was a Presbyterian minister — and his mid-century approach to child psychology (he was cut from the same cloth as Benjamin Spock and Carl Rogers, presumably no relation) combined to shape his message: that all children are special, that adults are responsible for keeping kids safe, and that kindness, compassion and neighborliness are important, timeless values, worth celebrating and passing on.

The documentary suggests that many of the most familiar of the sock-puppet characters on the show — from Daniel Tiger to King Friday the XIIIth — were on some level alter-egos to Mr. Rogers. It’s also honest about how the show was easy to make fun (complete with footage of Eddie Murphy’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood”), and acknowledges that Rogers insisted that a gay cast member must remain in the closet while working for him (which, to be fair, was pretty much the norm for television in the 1970s).

What also caught my eye was another brief acknowledgment — that Rogers’s “You are special” message had its own critics, among those who felt that this message contributed to raising a generation of narcissistic, entitled youth.

Bad Neighbors

So the following night, when we went to see American Animals, it struck me as almost a case study of how the “You are special” message could be misconstrued.

Despite being a Presbyterian, Mr. Rogers could be called the “anti-Calvin,” for he replaced the reformer’s teaching of “total depravity” with his “you are special” message. But as I watched the frankly quite sad and somewhat disturbing story of four confused, but very privileged, young white men who attempted to rob the Transylvania University Rare Book Room, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mr. Rogers would say to them.

I’m not sure what disturbed me the most about the movie: how it methodically described a toxic set of relationships where the four friends basically egged each other on to commit grand larceny, or the painful-to-watch reenactment of just how badly botched the crime turned out to be, or the footage in which the actual men were interviewed (after serving years in prison) — although each man seemed contrite, their efforts to explain or rationalize their actions made it appear as if they still had not fully come to grips with the implication of their actions.

And when one of them made a comment to the effect that they had been taught they were special, and so their attempt to steal the books was just a way to be special — I thought I could hear echoes of Fred Rogers rolling over in his grave.

But that’s not the whole of it. For at the end, this movie was about more than just a botched crime or the narcissism of four entitled young men. It was a case study in social privilege. This became glaringly obvious in a scene where the FBI arrested the thieves; one of them brandished a gun at the law enforcement officers, and they didn’t shoot. They gave him the chance to drop his weapon.

Does anyone really believe that a person of color, in that situation, would have been given the same consideration? (And by saying this, I don’t mean to single out law enforcement officers for being racist — but rather to acknowledge how structures of racism and privilege infect every aspect of our society — including how the law is enforced.)

These guys assaulted a librarian, broke into secure cases to steal rare books worth millions of dollars, and attempted to fence the stolen goods. Sure, all of them spent over seven years in prison, and now they’re felons for life — but they did get out, and the movie made a point of showing how each of them is attempting to put his life back together. In fact, aside from about thirty seconds of footage interviewing the librarian they assaulted, most of the film has almost a “wink wink nudge nudge” tone about it, suggesting that this is a story of naive stupidity.

But it’s not. It’s a story of how bored, privileged youth get treated in privileged ways. If these guys were black or latino, would they get a movie made about them?

Even Worse Neighbors

I suppose going to see Ocean’s Eight after American Animals was almost a recipe for seeing the movie in a starkly different light. I saw the George Clooney remake of Ocean’s Eleven on a transatlantic flight years ago; I never saw the Rat-Pack original version of that film, nor its sequels. But when the trailer for Ocean’s Eight came out, it looked like it would be a fun film — and hey, with MoviePass, why not go see a potboiler once in a while?

Ocean’s Eight is really just another remake of Ocean’s Eleven, only with women pulling off the heist, and the setting being the Met Gala rather than casinos in Vegas. Sandra Bullock replaces George Clooney; Cate Blanchett replaces Brad Pitt, and so on down the line. The movie is stylish, glitzy, fast-paced, tongue in cheek, and is meant to be a lot of fun. But after seeing the train-wreck of a crime documented in American Animals, it seemed more sad than anything else.

What struck me the most about how Ocean’s Eight differs from Ocean’s Eleven — in the earlier film, the target of the heist was an unscrupulous casino magnate who had a reputation for crushing his competitors. The subtext: stealing from this guy was okay, since he was a crook to begin with. It gave the film just a whiff of Robin Hood-esque morality. But in Ocean’s Eight, that ethical nuance is missing in action: the mark is Cartier Jewelry, with no suggestion that the company is anything other than, well, the victims of the crime. And of course, they pass it off to their insurance company, represented by a buffoonish claims adjuster played by James Corden. The implication: who cares about theft, since insurance will cover it anyway?

I find this dumbfounding. Have we become a society that is so enamored with anti-heroes and romantic outlaws that we find a story of eight beautiful and well-dressed women getting away with a nine-figure theft to be, well, popcorn entertainment?

Apparently so. And lest I seem too moralizing here, I freely admit that I stood in line to see this film just like millions of other consumers. As Pogo so eloquently put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The Contemplative Take-Away

As a catholic, contemplative Christian, I disagree with John Calvin’s teaching that humanity is totally depraved. I’m broadly sympathetic to Mr. Rogers and his efforts to communicate to children that they are worthy and valuable just for being themselves.

But there is a librarian in Kentucky who can tell you that at least four kids who were motivated by “feeling special” made some pretty bad choices.

Meanwhile, since we live in a culture that does a better job at telling some people they are special than others, we have an entire system in place that creates tiers of social privilege, involving the color of our skin, our gender, our sexual orientation, our religion, our economic class, and our level of education. The more privileged we are, the less likely we are even able to see how the structure of privilege divides us into insiders and outsiders.

I wonder, what is the relationship between “you are special?” and “you are privileged?”

Finally, Ocean’s Eight is one of the top-ten highest grossing “heist” films of all time, showing that our love for glitzy, glamorous outlaw-antiheroes is not going away anytime soon. If anyone questions just how morally adrift we are as a society, as a culture, just reflect on the moral ambiguity (or vacuity) of the films we watch. How special is that?

Contemplation, spiritually speaking, is learning to see clearly (among other things). For me, watching these three films in quick succession helped me to see that our cultural obsession with glamour and crime, with privilege and wealth, really does have real-world consequences. Thank God for Mr. Rogers. Maybe we’re not all as special as he said we were, but at least he spent a lifetime reminding us that there is another way.

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