Affective Mood as a Narrative Tool in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Addressing the audience, Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) presents the case of Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) as a lesson in anger management for adults
Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) appears on the surface to be a simple, feel-good family film. Its uncomplicated plot follows an investigative journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), as he embarks on a short piece for Esquire magazine about Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Early in the film, we learn that Lloyd carries a deep anger directed towards his father (Chris Cooper), and, as we might expect, his experience with Mr. Rogers teaches him compassion and forgiveness, leading us to a happy ending. However, the complexity of Heller’s film resides in its aesthetic imitation of the educational children’s television series it is inspired by: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. This aesthetic transplantation brings with it not only a charming familiarity, but the intangible serenity that characterizes both the film and the original show. It is this mood, created by the aesthetic, that makes Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood so uniquely timeless, and it is the same mood that transforms A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood from a family flick to an introspective masterpiece. By implementing the same affective mood borrowed from its source material, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood communicates its moral thesis to an adult audience.
Before we can explore affective mood, we must first define it. In their essay, “What is Film Phenomenology,” Christian Ferencz-Flatz and Julian Hanich claim that “trying to answer this question forces us to overlook a wide field, the contours of which seem to be as vague as the foggy landscapes in an Antonioni or Angelopoulos film” (1). Along the same lines, Robert Sinnerbrink writes regarding mood that “I know what it is until I am asked to explain it, but then I find I do not know. Mood is one of those elements of cinema whose obviousness, like that of the everyday, is deeply mysterious” (148). Indeed, it is difficult to concretely define the physical, mental, and emotional experience enacted onto us by a well-crafted film. As Steven Shaviro articulates in his essay “Affect vs. Emotion,” mood differs from emotion in that it is “longer-lasting and more stable, providing a general background to our more immediate experiences” (Shaviro). Moods “are conditions that come over us, or in which we find ourselves. They are states of mind that we experience directly. They tend to color and inflect — or even set the conditions for — nearly all of our other perceptions and actions” (Shaviro). This “direct experience” is often not just mental, but in a strange way physical; in the same way one’s stomach might clench in fear, an affective mood is embodied as much as it is felt mentally (Shaviro). Sinnerbrink, citing film theorist Lotte E. Eisner, writes about mood in terms of the German word “Stimmung,” which names an experiential mood that “encompasses both the expressiveness of the film and the affective responsiveness of the viewer” (149). It is this “expressiveness of the film” that causes mood to “come over us” when viewing a film; just as a cleverly constructed metaphor in a poem or a careful stroke of a paintbrush might cause us to feel a way that is both universal and yet often difficult to describe, so too do the aesthetic choices of the film medium. As an audience, we become passive victims of the film’s design, impacted by the aesthetic choices present in the film as they work together to create a mood we unconsciously embody. In the case of a successfully translated affective mood, the viewer has little autonomy over how they experience the film. Rather, affective mood is an inevitable consequence of a film’s aesthetic design; it acts on us and affects us against our will (hence the name affective mood). It is the use of affective mood that allows A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood to convey its fable.
The film is inspired by the real Mr. Rogers, and it borrows heavily from his famed children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The show, which sets out to teach children how to deal with their emotions, particularly negative emotions like anger and sadness, is characterized by its slow, contemplative tempo. The soft, grainy look of the camera and warm, even lighting, which subdues the childlike colors of the misè-en-scene that would otherwise pop, sets the gentle tone of the show. Preferring slow, steady pans and zooms over quick cuts, the show’s long takes seduce the audience into a hypnotic, almost dream-like state, rushing nothing. There are frequent extreme close-up shots on small, tactile details that subdue us further as we marvel over the simplest of objects, like a key or watch. Much like the image, the characters onscreen share a physical softness that we cannot touch and yet still manage to feel. From the puppets, like Daniel Striped Tiger and Henrietta Pussycat, whose fur appears worn in such a fashion that suggests they have been well-loved, to the human characters like Mr. Rogers himself, who is dressed in a soft blue sweater, each character’s gentle costuming enhances the affective mood, causing us to experience the same physical ease and comfort one might associate with being wrapped in a warm blanket. Even as the show addresses characters who feel hurt, angry, or jealous, a lilting piano soundtrack remains throughout, maintaining the peaceful feeling established by the cinematography and misè-en-scene. Entranced and overtaken by the humble stillness of the show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood lures us into a quiet, contemplative patience. It’s a feat that is known to be difficult to inspire in an audience of children, and yet, as A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood points out to us, can be even more difficult to accomplish with 21st century adults. It is this serene mood created by the technical, medium specific attributes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that allow Fred Rogers to instill his lessons, as the soothed, contemplative audience is made ready to receive them.
A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood implements and expands on the same aesthetic techniques as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in order to reinvent its affective mood. The film is framed by the original show, opening on a fictional episode narrated by Fred Rogers. Each scene that takes place within an episode imitates Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood down to the minutia, framed by the original 1:33:1 ratio and shot with the same PAL Ikegami 323 & NTSC HL-79E cameras to recall the gentle, affective look of the image (Dillon). The blue and orange color scheme is re-muted by similarly warm lighting; the puppets and costumes maintain the same worn look (a look that is even discussed by Fred Rogers and Lloyd Vogel during one of the many brief interview scenes in the film). The camera moves slowly, once again gradually panning across the set to follow Mr. Rogers, and maintaining long close-ups on tactile details. Traces of these aesthetic choices are not limited to the scenes that directly reference the show, but seep into the rest of the film. Long, slow moving shots accompanied by almost uncomfortably intimate closeups and soft lighting maintain throughout, and major scenes are bordered by tranquil shots of the familiar miniature trolley that transition us in both the show and the film, asking us to pause and consider what we just saw as we are gently prepared for what we are about to see. In borrowing the show’s aesthetic, the film is able to borrow its mood, enforcing the same comforting patience that makes the audience more receptive to its message.
As difficult as it may have been to instill patience into a child when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on the air, the challenge has become tenfold in 21st century adulthood, as “in the current age of fast-paced modern technology and social media, it’s no wonder that adults … are unable to focus their attention easily” (Bhat). It is not just the overstimulation of the internet age that the film must combat, but an increase in anger as well. Comparing the experience of online anger to road rage, Dr. Adam P. Stern writes that if we “accept the premise that separation and relative anonymity increase the potential for rage, imagine what the anonymity and dehumanization of the Internet does to virtual interactions,” (Stern). As such, in order to break down the barriers built by the modern attention span and quickness to anger that is ingrained into most adults who cannot escape societal reliance on technology, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood expands on the original mood by invoking the power of nostalgia. It is assumed by the film that the audience has previously seen Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, most likely during their childhood. As such, the same aesthetic tools of the original show repeatedly take on an additional meaning as they evoke distant memories. As Morgan Neville explains in reference to his own documentary film about Fred Rogers Won’t You Be My Neighbor, “most of us who watched the show growing up were around two- to seven-years-old. Part of that exists in our pre-consciousness. Our relationship with him predates our sense of self, our sense of identity, of labels. So, in a way, watching the film and spending time with Mister Rogers today takes you back to a part of yourself that you haven’t maybe accessed in a long time,” (Neville qtd. in Boo). This invocation of memory applies a bittersweet nostalgia to the already contemplative mood that makes us vulnerable; this vulnerability, which overtakes us almost instantaneously as the opening shots appear, is essential to retelling Mr. Roger’s original message to an adult audience. It is the film’s careful attention to detail that returns its adult audience to a uniquely unguarded state, leaving us open to the same patience and comfort that allows us to reprocess certain concepts — how to be kind, how to be patient, how to process our anger — that we were taught in childhood but have been long since forgotten.
An essential component to the development of this affective mood that we have not yet touched on is performance. As Tom Hanks himself comments, in response to a question about whether Fred Rogers was “performing” on his show, “‘he was performing the same way a great essayist is trying to communicate and examine a theme without becoming didactic … if he wanted to proselytize a very specific philosophy, he could have done it. And he never did. That is the performance, I think … He was going to be his message as opposed to speak his message,’” (Hanks qtd. in Simon). Indeed, Rogers’ embodiment of his message of patience and kindness was present in every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The slow pacing of the camera that we previously discussed was led by the soft, slow speaking pattern of Mr. Rogers, whose voice maintained a hypnotic drone, never rising above a certain pitch. He took long pauses to emphasize his statements, allowing both himself and the audience time to deeply consider new thoughts and ideas. Each aesthetic choice the show made followed his equally odd and yet soothing persona, a persona that benevolently placed us in a malleable, dreamlike state. For A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood, it was Hank’s task to “‘re-create who the man was’” (Hanks qtd. in Simon). For the film, Hanks adopted the same, slow pacing as the original character, and, as with the show, the camera followed. And yet, in contrast to the vulnerability instilled in the audience by Hanks’ portrayal, the character of Mr. Rogers maintains a certain impenetrable guardedness throughout the film. In one interview scene, Lloyd asks Mr. Rogers how the burden of his audience’s problems affects him; Mr. Roger’s dodges the question. In a later interview at a diner, Mr. Rogers asks the audience to stop and take a meditative minute to consider everyone who has “loved us into being.” All of a sudden, everything in the film seems to go still; the fellow diners at the restaurant fall silent, standing in for us as the audience as we are trapped into taking the same meditative moment. During this moment, we spend a long time on a close-up of Mr. Roger’s face. And yet, in contrast to traditional close-ups, which as Balasz writes “strip the veil of our imperceptiveness and insensitivity from the hidden little things and shows us … the most subjective manifestation of man” (Balasz 275), Hanks expression reveals little of the inner workings of Mr. Rogers’ mind, imploring us only to think about ourselves. This resistance to the revealing power of the close-up reflects our own feelings rather than allowing us to investigate the character’s, while also leaving us with a lonesome sort of melancholy.
Thus, the film, in contradiction of what we might initially expect, does not present us with an exploration of its titular character. Instead, the film follows Lloyd, who serves as a stand in for the audience. Any moments in the film that deviate from the serene mood to one of anger or impatience are driven by Matthew Rhy’s performance; it is his inner workings that we are permitted to perceive and relate to. He fills the film’s darker moments, both narratively and literally. We see him shadowed in a fashion that contrasts with the bright, even lighting of Mr. Rogers’ scenes, and we are allowed to process his feelings during moments he shares only with us. It is Lloyd who serves as the dynamic, growing character, and it is his emotional growth that we empathize with as it imitates our own while watching. As Lloyd changes, Mr. Rogers remains static, a beacon we return to when the mood set by Lloyd deviates too far into darkness, guiding us back into the affective comfort that allows us to slowly process the feelings dredged up by our relation to Lloyd.
Shadow, color, and mise-en-scène underscore a melancholic mood embodied by Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks)
In two key scenes, we are briefly allowed to see deeper into the character of Mr. Rogers. Early in the film, when Lloyd is watching a taping of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, he navigates the crew to peer behind the set, where Mr. Rogers is hidden as he puppets Daniel Striped Tiger. In this moment, through Lloyd’s eyes we intrude on a private moment; Mr. Rogers’ face is contorted in an odd expression, full of unexplained sorrow and anger that fills us with a strange, sorrowful feeling that we cannot quite identify, a combination of melancholy at the sight of a beloved person so distraught and shame at invading his privacy. At first, we may be led to assume that we have caught Mr. Rogers out of the act, as Lloyd does, and will be allowed later to understand what we saw. However, this moment is never explained to us, and is only clarified by the final scene. In this scene, we have left Lloyd and his family, now healed, and partake in what we assume is a simple, joyful wrap-up, framed by the taping of another episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. As the taping ends, and the crew begins to shut down the set for the day, we follow Mr. Rogers from behind in a long take as he exits the stage, saying goodbye to people in the friendly manner we are accustomed to, before taking a solitary seat at a piano, shadowed in darkness, with a single light on his half-turned face. Alone, he begins to play a gentle melody, and the camera slowly begins to pull away, rising further and further as he plays. Despite the lonely blue of the back light, we maintain a contented peace, satisfied with a happy ending, until, suddenly, Mr. Rogers stops playing, and slams his hands aggressively into the keys. Suddenly, just as we are about to exit the film, we are jolted into the same mysterious melancholy from earlier. Yet this time, although Mr. Rogers returns to playing after a long silence as the last light goes out, his pain never revealed to us, we understand it. A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood does not expect us to be devoid of all negative emotion, but seeks to instruct us on how to process and deal with that anger. In accordance, Hanks’ performance maintains an affective melancholy even in its last moments, but does not reveal to us the source of that melancholy; we do not need to understand it to receive the film’s message, merely feel it. Thus, Tom Hanks’ Mr. Rogers fulfills the same purpose that the real Mr. Rogers set out to fulfill, serving to create an affective mood that allows us to enter into a state of deep self-reflection and growth, but never allowing us to get too close.
From a distance, A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood appears to be a simple Hollywood narrative, happy ending and all. However, through the implementation of a carefully constructed affective mood that closely references the original Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the film unexpectedly draws out intense feelings, impacting us in surprising ways, and instilling a moral lesson that many of us learned as children but have since forgotten. A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood reteaches us grace, something that Tom Junod, the journalist Lloyd Vogel is inspired by, wrote even Mr. Rogers “can’t define”; instead, the film teaches us through mood rather than words, reminding us that, as Mr. Rogers says, “you were a child once, too” (Junod).
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