Techne and Psyche: Midway and A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood rolls the end credits with the real Fred Rogers playing and singing one of the many songs he composed during the life of his TV show. It’s a song about sticking to tasks until they are complete, and it ties together the ideas of overcoming the challenges of learning new things, and personal growth. Greek has a word for how to do things: “techne”. In this essay, I’d like to consider the techne displayed in two films that I both looked forward to, and felt anxious about seeing this season. I want to compare the aforesaid film set in Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood (yes, there is a “u” in that word) with the historical pic Midway.
I won’t dwell on the fact that, even though Midway’s backdrop is one of the most awe-inspiring stories in the entire history of human conflict, the redemption story at the heart of the other film is a more intense, dramatic journey than the steroidal blather in the utterly heartless war epic. It is instructive that a film about someone who re-connects with his humanity by talking to a man who many (me included) first took to be a well-meaning simpleton is more gripping than a vastly expensive epic about the moment when America pulled through one of its darkest hours. It shouldn’t be surprising that a story about the changing of the guard in one human being’s psyche resonates on such a deeper level than mere action… but it is.
What really struck me, though, was that the tens of millions of dollars spent lovingly re-creating the ships and planes of 1942 was by degrees of magnitude a greater waste of filmcraft than the tens of thousands of dollars that was spent on the plaster-of-Paris set where Mr. Rogers practiced his artful communication with children. The comparison reveals everything we decry in the post-modern era of CGI: the little toy town is in fact more real than the Dauntless dive bombers taking off from the deck of a carrier. There is a moment in A Beautiful Day where the camera pans along the re-creation of the TV show’s miniature set, and we realize with delight that the set has been expanded to include a wider city-scape, and that we are being taken on one of those clever anime-to-real transitions that the post-modern filmmaker delights in. You know the shot: “see if you can spot the moment when the CG image becomes a real shot (wink, wink!).” But in Marielle Heller’s film, it’s very clear when we go from plasticine to concrete and brick. This was one of the first moments in the movie when I breathed a sigh of pleasure, and felt I was in the hands of someone who was trusting me with my own judgement.
Midway’s whole aesthetic screams at us: “Look what we can do! Look how real the rivets on the planes are!” Every green-screen shot challenges us to find the holes in the canvas. For those of us who have either an overdeveloped nerd-dom about WW 2 aviation or about mere physics, there are glaring holes. But I wouldn’t care if the techne were at the service of the story, instead of the reverse. Ultimately, a film that fails to amaze us with the mystery of courage —or the literally awesome play of plain Good Luck that led to American victory at the battle of Midway— is a film that misses the point of its subject. If you come out of a WW 2 movie with less insight into the soul of warriors than was provided by such crusty old American war films as In Harm’s Way or (for that matter) Midway (1976), you’ve paid for an experience no more meaningful than three hours watching Toons.
Fred Rogers composed a lot of music for his kids’ show. He had a surprisingly deep understanding of jazz idioms (much like Chaplin had a surprisingly deep compositional musicianship). Divorced from the playroom-set, the music is more sophisticated in its simplicity than you expect. One of the signature scenes is set in a subway car. Several school kids, realizing that the celebrated Mr. Rogers is riding with them, burst into an a capella version of the theme from the TV show. Everyone joins in, and you find yourself admiring how what first sounds like a simple ditty (“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood/a beautiful day for a neighbor/would you be mine”) is in fact as good a show tune as some penned by Richard Rogers. The cops and the bums join in, and you find yourself thinking, “yup, Americans would do this.” (Canadians would not.) “What a charming bunch. What a great display of open-handed community.” It is one of the best uses of music in the movies I can remember. Americans would also use orchestral music to beat you over the head in those flag-waving, emotionally manipulative moments of every blood-and-glory war movie you ever saw. The method is so predictable, so camp, that you might find yourself blocking your ears at several points in Midway.
The techne of A Beautiful Day… reaches so much more deeply into your psyche by using simpler, time-tested methods: at one point, Tom Hanks’s Rogers takes out two hand-puppets and tries to dig into the heart of journalist Vogel (Matthew Rhys) by addressing him through the voices of the puppets. The scene is familiar: the therapist gets the wounded child to talk to the less threatening cloth puppet. What is bittersweet about this scene is that the child in question is a deeply wounded, deeply cynical adult journalist. It causes genuine discomfort; the kind of discomfort that precedes psychological transformation. Somewhat later, the Hanks character asks the journalist, in the middle of a busy restaurant, to think for one minute about the people in his life whose love brought him to where he is. The clock starts ticking. Everyone in the restaurant falls silent, everyone in the movie theatre falls silent, the one minute of time distends… and you find yourself being forced into the same exercise as the character.
In live theatre, silence is a vital part of the techne, one of the writer’s, director’s, actor’s most powerful tools. The movies rarely use silence for longer than five seconds, partly because each of those seconds of film costs a great deal of money. It takes confidence and craft to mold silence into a fruitful moment, and this moment in the restaurant is infinitely more fruitful than the noise and bravura of bombs going off. It holds, as t’were, a mirror up to our nature, and we see ourselves more human in it.
As a fascinated, slightly distanced observer of America, the two movies provide a striking metaphor for the two ends of its political spectrum. On one hand, we have the much-ballyhooed, very expensive, rerun of triumphalism: America First writ large and loud. On the other, a story about a simple man who strives to reveal the better soul of the individuals who inhabit that nation. I know whose side I want to be on.