Ten Random VHS Tapes: Connecting with a Video Heritage

Exhuming fragrant old corpses from the crypt isn’t a new development in entertainment, of course.
~ Joe Queenan

It was bachelors’ day at our house yesterday, just me and Nick. My wife took Cecilia, our high-school junior, to a science symposium in Indianapolis, and Kath, our 7th-grader, spent the day with her aunt. Since our other kids are in college (or graduated college in Ben’s case), that left me and Nick to fend for ourselves – and fend we did! Junk food, liberal and unapologetic belching, and, of course, videos.

One of Nick’s choices was A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), and he was convinced that we only had it on VHS. “Are you sure?” I asked. He was positive, so I went down to the basement to search it out in our vast video tape collection while he got the snacks ready.

VeggieTale after VeggieTale, Wiggles and Spot and Blue’s Clues, not to mention tons of Disney classics – there was a lot to sort through, and I just couldn’t locate Charlie Brown. Then I spied How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1967). “That’ll do,” I thought to myself, and I snagged it off the shelf.

When I brought it upstairs, Nick was disappointed. He was looking forward to watching a family staple and enjoying with me our favorite parts – the funny dance scenes, for instance, and Linus reciting St. Luke’s Nativity narrative.

“But don’t you like the Grinch?” I asked.

“I’ve never seen it,” was his reply.

I was shocked. How could that be? It was the movie equivalent of discovering how few snapshots you have of your youngest kids – especially compared to the shoeboxes full of photos of your oldest kids. This was an oversight that had to be corrected – Nick was already in 8th grade! No Becker kids should grow up and launch into adulthood without seeing the original Grinch Christmas special. At the very least, they’re certainly not going to see the current remake in the theaters without first getting some animated holiday TV special historical context.

Besides, the 1967 original features Boris Karloff voicing Dr. Seuss’s redoubtable Grinch, not to mention the creative genius of director Chuck (Looney Tunes) Jones. Plus, our VHS version includes Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who (1970) as a bonus animated add-on. Seriously, why even waste your time on wannabe Jim Carreys or Benedict Cumberbatchs?

Anyway, this video epiphany moment was in my mind as I glanced through the Sunday comics this morning, including Jump Start by Robb Armstrong. “I’m going to toss this old box of your VHS movies,” says the elder dad to Joe, his adult son. Recoiling in horror, Joe strenuously objects. “Pop! They’re collectors’ items!”

“Collecting dust in my attic,” Joe’s dad replies. (Nyuk nyuk.)

It was a dad-joke harbinger, and it got me back down to the basement. I gathered together a stack of VHS staples to dust off and put in the to-watch queue. Our VCR is still operative. My three youngest are still at home and a captive (if not always receptive) audience. Those stars won’t all be aligned much longer, so I best get cracking. Our decaying family video treasures aren’t long for this world, and tracking them down in another format would be, well, cheating, don’t you think?

The pile was pretty random, so I present them here in alphabetical order.

  1. Billy Elliot (2000): OK, it might seem strange to start off with a rough, R-rated drama in a list of videos I want to show my school-aged children, but alphabetical is alphabetical, and Billy comes first. The colorful vocabulary in this film is plentiful, and the family tensions it depicts – financial hardship, generational divides, sexual uncertainty, crushing grief, crushing life circumstances – are hard to watch. But it’s a remarkable film, a tremendous tribute to human tenacity and artistic vision, although I’ll be holding onto it for my youngest kids until they’re well into high school.
  2. Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1973): My wife and I disagree on this one. She thinks it’s a smarmy, hippie send-up of an otherwise inspiring hagiographic history, but I still like it. Who cares if the Donovan songs are dated, oh so dated. Who cares if 13th-century Assisi comes off as a medieval Woodstock? As a convert to Catholicism, I watched this film with wonder and enthusiasm. It’s certainly not one of Franco Zeffirelli’s best, but it nonetheless communicates the saint’s otherworldliness and invites the viewer to reconsider his own priorities.
  3. Cyrano de Bergerac (1990): I suppose there are numerous film versions of Edmond Rostand’s 19th-century play about the dashing, dueling romantic with the big schnoz, but why bother checking? This is the definitive treatment, and Gérard Depardieu’s performance is both exhilarating and profoundly moving. A love story like no other, fleshed out like no other, you’ll soon forget you’re reading English sub-titles, and you’ll allow Rostand’s poetic French to sweep you away.
  4. Field of Dreams (1989): I can’t help thinking of my buddy, Johnny, when I think of this Kevin Costner redemptive baseball fantasy. “Ah, Broomfield, Colorado,” Johnny used to say of his adopted hometown. “The Field of Brooms.” Johnny wasn’t just a comic, however; he was a dreamer as well and he would’ve found himself quite at home in Costner’s Field, a celebration of idealistic impracticality if there ever was one. You don’t have to love – or even understand – baseball to enjoy this quirky, mystical tale, and cameos by the likes of James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster sweeten the ride.
  5. Local Hero (1983): Here’s another numinous gem that includes Burt Lancaster in the cast, and it, too, conjures up a memory. Shortly after Nancy and I first met (and fell for each other), spring break interposed, and Nancy left Steubenville to visit her family in Nebraska. Local Hero had come up in conversation before she left, and I urged her to watch it at home in Omaha. To me, it’s a glorious story of possibility and risk-taking – anything can happen! It’s filled with eccentric hermits and disillusioned industrialists, telex machines and the Northern Lights. Oh, and a mermaid. To Nancy’s folks, though, who watched it with her, Local Hero was an indicator that their likely future son-in-law was a weirdo. Even so, I stand by it as one of the most beguiling movies you’ll ever see.
  6. O Brother Where Art Thou (2000): This Coen brothers classic is on my VHS to-watch pile, but I know most of my kids have seen it – or are at least familiar with it. The superb Americana soundtrack (produced by T Bone Burnett) accompanied countless rides to and from school. In fact, I remember once down at Conner Prairie, my Joan, a middle-schooler at the time, asked a couple performers if they knew “In the Highways, In the Hedges” from the film. They shrugged and started playing, and Joan started singing it from heart on the spot. Joan, now a humanities scholar at Notre Dame, also came to appreciate the movie’s loose interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey. Me? I go for the skewed slapstick and other Coen brothers signatures. George Clooney’s renditions (plural!) of “Man of Constant Sorrow” are priceless.
  7. October Sky (1999): During the heady days of the space race, a handful of young visionaries in a West Virginia coal mining backwater decided they wanted to contribute – and make a mark. This film, based on a true story, follows their quest, from experimentation to science fairs and beyond. It’s the rocket science equivalent of Rudy (1993), and it’s just as satisfying, complete with resolving father-son tensions, persevering camaraderie, and a soaring score (by Mark Isham).
  8. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993): When Crispin is home from Purdue, he’ll sometimes challenge me to a game of chess. He does this despite knowing that I’m hardly a formidable opponent – or maybe because of that – but I’m still honored. And sometimes I win! (Or maybe he just lets me win….) Anyway, I like dabbling in chess because I’m aware that it’s not just a game. It’s an art that draws on intellect and emotion, strategy and psychology, history, culture, and raw nerve. Bobby Fischer taps into all those layers and manages to simultaneously relate a very human story. It’s about chess, to be sure, but it’s also definitely about courage, kindness, and fatherhood.

That’s it for my pile – well, except for In the Name of the Father (1993), starring Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s another one based on real events and real people – this time, the Irish Troubles and the unjust 1975 jailing of the Guildford Four – and I grabbed it along with the other tapes listed above. Yet, it’s pretty intense and not something I’ll be showing my kids any time soon – not even in high school.

Instead, I want to set aside time for Nancy and me to watch it again. Seeing it on the shelf reminded me of the first time we viewed it together – another benefit of holding on to all those old VHS tapes. It’s nostalgia and ready-made date nights, all rolled into one.
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