Friday, June 28, 2019

The NC-17 Mr Rogers Connection

I made a weird connection a while ago. Bear with me.

Mr Rogers is back in the zeitgeist these days, with an upcoming film where Tom Hanks plays him, and a documentary about the real man coming out last year. When the trailer for "Won't You Be My Neighbor" came out, a snippet of music caught my ear.

Catch it at 1:05.

Those horns rang a bell for me, thanks to a song from a CD I once had recommended to me by the guy at a Hongdae music shop. It was an album called Whiskey by Jay Jay Johanson. It was alright: my clearest memory of it was one of my coworkers viscerally hating it. But a song on it titled "I'm Older Now" sampled the song where that beautiful bit of horns first appeared, which is why I recognized it.

Here's the Jay Jay Johanson song.

And here's the original song, titled "Fish Beach" by Michael Nyman, who writes music, including the scores of some films you've probably seen.

I was thrilled to discover this song... it's like a glass of cool water, it's like putting headphones on after a chaotic day, or finding an empty table in a loud food court. So I googled it, because wanting to know everything about something is the way I show affection to inanimate things. This is a normal human activity and should raise no suspicion.
I am a human and not a robot, just like you. Source
Turns out, one of the most famous uses of "Fish Beach" is in a film, titled "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" by arthouse director Peter Greenaway.

The film is remembered as one of Peter Greenaway's best, but it is also known for its rating controversy: its intentionally shocking content contributed to the invention of the NC-17 film rating, as it was not straight pornography (which X-rated films were generally considered to be), but its creators recognized it was a little, um, heavier than your regular R-rated fare. Directed by Peter Greenaway, it stars Helen Mirren, and Michael Gambon (known to today's audiences as the actor who played Dumbledore in Harry Potter films 3-8). Artistically, it is a truly accomplished film: the lighting, the acting, the writing, and especially the music all hit their marks; almost every frame is as carefully composed as a Renaissance fresco.

But the mark they are hitting, in Helen Mirren's own words, made viewers exit the film feeling "like they'd been mugged" (source). The opening scene includes a man being stripped naked and force-fed dog shit. The film contrasts moments of ugliness and moments of beauty but the ugly is very, very ugly. The film was intended to be an allegory and protest against the cynical, exploitative and vulgar mood of Margaret Thatcher's England. (analysis) It is also a sensual barrage, ornate as a painting: the color, the music, the imagery and composition of every frame are crowded to the point of surreality and assault the viewer relentlessly.

Most of the music is like this:

Embodying that vulgarity was Michael Gambon (the Thief) in an absolutely remarkable acting performance. He plays Albert Spica, a gangster whose wealth has given him pretensions of refinement, such that he purchased a fine French restaurant and now dines his thugs at the main table, braying on about how cultured he has become, but shriekingly unable to hide the boor that he actually is. He talks almost the entire length of the film, and dominates and bullies every single moment he is on screen.

Helen Mirren plays his poor, put-upon wife, and the title of the movie refers to the affair she has with a bookish man-he can be spotted in the clip above. The moments they are together, in the film's visuals, the music, and the blessed relief from Spica's endless bullying, are an extreme contrast with the rest of the movie, which is simply a barrage of color, noise and vulgar talk.

The contrast between the clip above, and the one below, is massive.

So did that music turn up in the Mr. Rogers documentary by mere coincidence, or is there more meaning to it? I try to be cautious when I start making connections like this: those screenshot-heavy conspiracy analyses are mostly silly, and mostly prove you can find anything if you look hard enough, and you've already decided what you want to find.
"The Joker's first line in The Dark Knight are an anagram of the opening sentence of The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. He licks his lips three times in the scene with the gangsters, and part THREE of The Tibetan Book Of The Dead says..."

But here's the other thing:
As I watched "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," it occurred to me that the character of Albert Spica was almost exactly, "A poor man's idea of a rich man; a weak man's idea of a strong man, and a stupid man's idea of a smart man" ... a little exergasia (Word of the day) that has been deployed on the internet lately to describe Donald Trump.

...and it fits. Watching "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover" is being trapped in an elevator with a vulgar boor who thinks he's the pinnacle of class and culture... and won't stop telling you about it. Which is exactly how I imagine it would be to spend a day with Donald Trump.

In the film, the music, and the scenes where it appears, stands as the blessed escape: entering the air-conditioned cafe on the hottest day in July, finally getting that cool shower after running frantically all day, shutting the soundproof door. In contrast with the way the rest of the soundtrack, and the entire rest of the film, never stops flying at you and clawing for your eyes, it is even more beautiful and peaceful than it would be otherwise. We crave it, wish to flee towards it. Would pay a price to reach it.

And that, too, is how I feel about this new use of the same music: the Mr. Rogers documentary. For whatever else it is, the Donald Trump presidency is exhausting. When the world's most powerful man is also the world's loudest man, and everything he does is intended to draw attention back to himself, and manipulate its focus; when he piles outrage upon outrage until we are inured to it, until no news story surprises us anymore, until accusations and confessions that would have been the end of other presidencies, barely get three days of news coverage (*kudos to this article for coining the phrase 'Presidential sexual assault fatigue"), readers, we crave, we wish to flee towards the things that remind us there is (was) a world outside (before) this toxic media echo chamber of US news and English language social media. And what better symbol of a world of kindness, honesty, simplicity, humility and decency -- the exact antithesis of The Trump Era -- than Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood?

Seriously... is there a better cure for Trump exhaustion than a Mr. Rogers break? I honestly can't think of one.

Perhaps Fred Rogers' finest moment:

In The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Helen Mirren's character Georgina needed this respite. She needed the breath of cool air after being harangued, humiliated, and bullied nonstop by her vile husband. Spoiler: the affair doesn't end well, but second spoiler: she gets revenge in the end, and Spica gets his comeuppance at long last. Was it worth it? No. Not a bit. Along with the awful things he does during the film, she'll be recovering from the trauma of simply being married to Spica for the rest of her life. But we can't begrudge someone in such a dire spot needing a break. Her affair is like sneaking to the fire escape for a cigarette during a tough day at work, drinking a pint of cold ale before going home after a long day, the bedraggled parent sitting on the toilet with a smartphone watching cat videos for a bit: sniff at the choice of activity, but let a person have their mini-escape before they get back into the soul-killing grind.

Mr. Rogers might be just the man we need right now: our heroes are all wonky. I mean... no disrespect toward Robert Downey Jr. and the Chris's, but punching aliens and demigods just isn't the kind of heroism we need. It's not aliens separating kids from their parents, looking on as world leaders murder journalists in their embassies, or decline to take any action to protect the integrity of the world's most powerful country's elections. Who are the models of decency, gentleness and empathy that the world looks to now? Who floats above politics and reminds of the things we share by being human, rather than our divisions? It's fun, but I don't think the MCU is doing that.

Mr. Rogers could look at a tough topic like death, and deal with it in an honest way that acknowledged our feelings, and helped us to cope with them, even as kids.

And I'm torn. Part of me wishes Mr. Rogers were around today, to call us back to our humanity, to pull us away from the SNS rabbit-holes where we screech at our "enemies," and the mass media sharpens our divisions instead of pointing us toward some kind of civic solidarity.

Here's a video where Mr Rogers talks about Kennedy's assassination. 

Part of me is glad Fred Rogers passed away in 2003, so that he doesn't have to be around to see what we've become, and because it would break my heart to see 89-year-old Fred Rogers addressing kids in 2016, "You may have heard words you don't know on the news these days, like 'I moved on her like a bitch' or 'grab her by the pussy' or 'fake news.' And it's confusing when the people on TV sometimes lie but pretend it's the truth..." 90-year-old Mr. Rogers saying, "You know that every place has rules, and you might get in trouble with your parents or your teacher if you break them... well today we have a special guest on the show. His name is Bob Mueller, and he's here to talk about what happens when people think the president might have broken the rules."

It's OK to spend some time meditating on a person like Fred Rogers, if that's what it takes to stay grounded, and recharge, before re-entering the fray.

Or cool down...

That's a kind of self-care that might be needed. Nostalgia is fine: it's going around (Sesame Street did a TINY DESK CONCERT!) It might help to watch a re-make of a film I loved as a kid (or another, or another, or another lordy, things are tough aren't they?). Remembering better times is fine, but not if we give up on the world we have now, and the work that is yet to be done.

Is it weird finding music from an NC-17 movie in a Mr Rogers documentary? Maybe it is. But it is the music of finding something desperately needed in a desolate waste, and that's kind of what Fred Rogers is in the soul-sucking atmosphere of today.

Mr. Rogers is no longer with us... here's his video saying goodbye to the world. Have a hanky ready.

But don't forget that while things seem bad right now, relationship, decency, honesty, humility,  connection, and love for the people around you: those are the things that make the fight worth fighting. And if Fred Rogers is what it takes to help us remember that, so be it.

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