Imagine that you are a boy, the age is ambivalent, but you are old enough to understand everything that is happening around you, yet young enough that you should not be alone at your mother’s bedside as she is dying. Your father, who is very much still alive, should be there. He isn’t though, because your mother didn’t want him around while she was dying because he’s been screwing a string of other women while she’s been suffering. The day your mother dies is not a peaceful one. You do not hold her hand and quietly cry as she goes gently into that good night, you watch her scream until she passes out.
Pause here a moment and scream until you pass out, just so you can see how long something like that would take.
Okay? Recovered? Let’s go on.
Your mother is revived and immediately begins screaming again until she actually dies.
OK, now, really, really consider that. I mean, run it around in your mind. You are a child watching your mother die. You know your father is not around because he’s probably f*cking some b*tch he met in a bar. And you are alone with your sister watching your mother die in the worst agony imaginable.
This is the background for Lloyd Vogel’s story as told in the new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
One of my favorites terms in Sociology is “social norms.” This one term explains so much to me. “Social norms” is the reason a woman is supposed to suck it up after she’s raped. “Social norms” is the reason a man isn’t supposed to admit he was ever raped. “Social norms” allows a parent to reject their LGBT child and even consider them dead. “Social norms” insists abused children love their abusers.
“Social norms” is the enforcement of behavior by the culture around you and it has never been beneficial to the victim. Social norms, instead, almost always promote the more powerful in society, think kneeling before a royal or a pontiff. Social norms never benefit the victim or the poor or the worker.
Social norms is what A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is all about.
I’m gonna say, at the outset, that Mr Rogers never once tells Vogel that he must go hang out with his dad and reconcile. I would hope if Mr Rogers knew Vogel’s story about his mother he would have been compassionate enough to at least not do that. Mr Rogers seems to be trying to help Vogel work through his anger. Which is incredibly important. And, when Vogel caves to his wife, Andrea, and goes to sit at his dying father’s bedside and get all cozy with him, Mr Rogers supports Vogel, but you can tell he would have supported whatever decision Vogel made.
In the end, when Vogel’s wife is reading his article she says, “This isn’t about Mr Rogers, this is about you.” Which is really what this film is about. Mr Rogers plays a role, but the film is about Vogel and his decision to conform to the pressure of social norms placed on him by his wife to ignore his own suffering, stuff it deep down inside, and cow to his father.
I’m going to go through this film, point by point, to show how Vogel’s wife dismisses his pain, perhaps in desperation, I’m not sure, but she basically tells him throughout the movie that what his father did to him doesn’t matter and he’s a brat for not just shrugging it off. After, I will talk about the father.
First instance: When Vogel and Andrea are discussing his sister’s wedding, she drops the bombshell that his father will be there. She tells him it will be good for their son to meet his grandfather.
Second instance: At the wedding, when the drunk father comes to meet Vogel and his wife and baby, he dismisses her by calling her “doll” and telling her to scram. Vogel defends his wife but she concedes to the father.
(In this moment, the father knows he has established dominance over Andrea and will continue to use that to his advantage throughout the rest of the film.)
Third instance: Several weeks later, Vogel comes home and discovers his father is in his apartment. The loser has brought his current girlfriend with him. And demands his son sit down and talk with him. “They brought pizza,” is Andrea’s excuse for allowing the intrusion and we see that she is truly dominated by her father-in-law. In her defense, it is likely due to a lifetime of conditioning by her own family and our society that blood is important, and that parents have the right to do whatever they want to their child and still demand respect.
Fourth instance: At the hospital later that night, after Vogel’s father had a heart attack in the apartment, she tells him, while he’s obviously suffering from flashbacks to his mother’s death and is about to have an anxiety attack, that he should stay in the hospital with his father.
Fifth instance: (and this was really the end of the film for me) When Vogel returns from his trip to interview Mr Rogers again, he apologizes for leaving the way he did at the hospital and she complains to him that she left the hospital at midnight and couldn’t get a cab and had to take the subway with their baby.
(Moment of silence so I can collect myself instead of screaming and pulling my hair out.)
OK, that’s garbage. Sweetie, you do not get to complain about taking the subway at midnight with your baby while telling your husband that the severe psychological trauma of watching his mother die while simultaneously enduring his father’s abandonment is of no consequence.
Now, the father:
Vogel’s father plays like a textbook abuser. But you probably don’t know that because no one ever bothers to educate themselves on abusers and their very typical ways. There is nothing unique about an abusive person. It’s almost like they operate on a mind-hive.
First instance: At Vogel’s sister’s wedding, the very drunk father imposes himself on his son. No apology. He demands his son listen to him and when his son asks him not to talk about his mother, he continues and continues knowing full well he will incite his son. It works and Vogel’s father walks away looking like the victim.
Holy bat wings, Batman, that is right out of the abuser’s playbook.
Second instance: He immediately follows that up by ambushing Vogel outside his son’s apartment. Vogel rejects him and refuses to give in to his demand to be invited up so they can “talk.” In fact, Vogel uses the term “ambush” to describe what his father did. He is correct. And, most importantly, he is in the right.
Third instance: His father stalks him. Literally stalks him. I don’t know if that was legal in New York in 1997, but it isn’t legal in California in 2019, and it’s never been right. He stands outside Vogel’s apartment all day, and he sleeps in his car outside Vogel’s apartment at night.
This is psycho-stalker behavior. And that NO ONE saw this when they were writing it is disturbing.
Fourth instance: Realizing he will get nowhere with his son who stands up for himself (as he has EVERY RIGHT TO) Vogel’s father, who has already established dominance over Vogel’s wife, uses her to get inside the apartment.
Fifth instance: This is a two-parter. A) Once Vogel arrives home, his father refuses to listen to him. He goes into a rant about how Vogel made his father sleep in his car like a homeless person. Blaming Vogel for his own behavior. B) It is obvious that his narrative is the only one that is important to him. He never once asks for his son to talk about the pain he was caused. So his son takes it on himself to describe the scene I opened with. His father begins to yell at him to shut up.
My god, if the audience hasn’t figured out by this point that his father is a complete a**hole, they never will. You cannot be truly sorry for the shit you did to your kids if you can’t face the horrible anguish your abuse caused them.
6th instance: This is also two different parts in the same scene. A) Throughout the film, Vogel does not drink. Good idea. You’re a self-aware man, Vogel. It’s never good for the child of an addict to try on their parent’s addiction for size. In this scene near the end, Vogel’s father finally gets him to have the hard stuff. He smiles. Victory acheived. He now has total dominance over Vogel which is exactly what he wanted in the first place. Then he goes in for the classic kill to see if he has truly won. B) He tells Vogel, without truly ever apologizing or even acting contrite, that he has always loved him. Vogel replies submissively that he loves his father.
Dad wins. Gets to f*ck whoever he wanted, be as drunk as he wanted, and treat everyone around him like sh*t. Then he gets all the love when he’s dying.
In closing: This. Film. Sucks. It is classic victim blaming. But this film is not about Mr Rogers, it is about Vogel, and it is about how society’s social norms must be complied with.
For further reading on how abusers act, please refer to the works of Lundy Bancroft who has written extensively on the subject of abusive men. http://lundybancroft.com