Of Highlander, Pig Brains, and Easter: Saint Beuno of Wales (d. 640)

Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe’ (Jn 20.27).

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All Hands on Deck: Of Kids, Confirmation, and Confronting Calamity

Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.
~ St. Thomas Aquinas

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Those Empty Pews: Thoughts on Mass Attendance

We always offer the same Lamb, not one today and another tomorrow, but always the same one. For this reason the sacrifice is always only one.
~ St. John Chrysostom

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A Marxist Christmastide: Celebrating the Season with Silliness

Christmas is not only a feast of children, but in some sense a feast of fools.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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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.

Compression of Character: The Two-Hour Test

Two hours of life are always two hours. A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.
~ Robert Louis Stevenson

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Two Movies at the Vickers in Three Oaks, Michigan

War and peace start in the hearts of individuals.
~ Pema Chödrön

Arthouses are largely a thing of the past, but they were a big part of my teenage cinematic tutelage. I can still remember with great clarity sitting my brother in a tiny Boulder, Colorado, theater, wide-eyed and mouth agape, as I tried to make sense of Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963). A similar arthouse in Seattle is where my brother and I took in My Dinner with André (1981) and David Lynch’s utterly confounding (and disturbing) Eraserhead (1977).

Truly, they don’t make ‘em like they used to – and, in the case of Eraserhead, I’ll add, “and then some.”

Yet, alas, now we’re pandered to by multiplexes that dish up recycled schlock year after year. And here, in the Midwest, anything fresh and creative (and, let’s face it, commercially untenable) won’t get to us for months after its release on the coasts – if at all. When a gem does make it to a local theater, it’ll hang around for a week or so, and then be gone – *poof* – to be shipped off for DVD or Netflix processing.

Ah, but here in Michiana, we have a rare alternative: Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks, Michigan. It’s a glorious relic of arthouse culture that somehow – thankfully! – stays afloat, despite its relative geographic isolation. It’s only a short hour’s drive away from our South Bend home, and it hosts a remarkably diverse selection of films – the kind of Sundance and Telluride entries you read about, but never really think you’ll get a chance to see on the big screen.

Aren’t you jealous? You should be!

For instance, I checked out their listings a month or so ago (as I do periodically), and I watched the trailer for Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018). I mean, with a title like that, how could I resist? The trailer turned out to be as enticing as the title, so Nancy and I made the trip to catch the whole film.

It was a stunner. I hesitate to use the word “wow” in a capsule movie review – it seems lazy and more than a bit trite – but…wow all the same. Don’t Worry is a biopic of sorts, but it’s fierce and raw. It traces the alcoholic and then sober-alcoholic history of John Callahan (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a talented artist and cartoonist who also happened to be a quadriplegic. His irreverent, often offensive drawings appeared in numerous publications, and no topic was taboo – not even his own disabilities. He’d been paralyzed from the chest down from a car wreck, but he still managed to realize great commercial and even critical success before his death at age 59 in 2010.

But, based on the film, I imagine Callahan would argue that his sobriety was his greatest achievement. His drinking had started in childhood, accelerated in adolescence, and his disabling injuries at age 21 only added fuel to his self-crippling alcoholic fire. It wasn’t until Callahan gave Alcoholics Anonymous a chance that his life started to turn around, and, as a part of his recovery, he managed to figure out a way to get pen to paper as a creative outlet for his pent-up anger, frustration, and other emotions.

Don’t Worry is a story of redemption. Despite some rough edges and graphic images – it earns its “R” rating – it’s well worth seeing. A powerful narrative of hope and recovery in the face of overwhelming odds, it’s all the more powerful because it actually happened.

Sound interesting? Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait for the DVD because Don’t Worry is long gone from the Vickers. Their tight margins, you see, won’t let them hold onto their artsy selections indefinitely. I know this from repeated experience – the most recent being a mere two-week run of another great film, American Animals (2018), that I also discovered through the Vickers’ listings. It was whisked away all too soon, but we didn’t have to wait long before the disc showed up at the library and we screened it at home.

Directed by Bart Layton, American Animals is another stunner based on real-life events – this time, a wildly improbable heist of extremely rare books from Kentucky’s Transylvania University in 2004. The culprits were four college students who, for various reasons, were looking for…something. Something to disrupt their humdrum routines and open up new vistas of, well, meaning? Opportunity? It’s hard to tell. Certainly they didn’t need the dough. One of them, Chas Allen, might’ve been speaking for all of them when he confessed, “I just knew I wanted things to be different.”

For more clues, we have the testimony of the four men themselves woven into the film. The narrative shifts back and forth from dramatization of actual events to interviews with the criminals – now ex-cons trying to piece their lives back together after their prison sentences. At times cocky, the guys settle into wistful recollections of their caper and they display considerable regret – particularly with regards to the physical harm they inflicted on the rare books’ sole librarian-guardian, not to mention the emotional harm that came to their families.

In that sense, American Animals has much in common with Callahan’s story: Both pivot on a disaster that makes possible interior transformation and redirection. It’s a pivot referenced in Callahan’s New York Times obituary: “A friend, Kevin Mullane, said in an interview that the drinking came closer to killing [Callahan] than the accident did. ‘Ironically, the crash may have saved his life,’ Mr. Mullane said.” Similarly, the failed robbery of those rare books in Kentucky may have saved the lives of four disillusioned students, for the ending scenes in Animals indicate they’re all pursuing more constructive and creative means of making their marks.

One of them, Warren Lipka, is studying filmmaking. I sure hope one of his films ends up at the Vickers. I’ll be first in line.

4 Agonizing Movie Scenes and What I’m Still Learning From Them

There’s so many good things.
 ~ Peter Falk

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The Childlike Appeal of Murder Mysteries

There is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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The Summery Gift of ‘The Snowman’

The whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day, and it was on that day I made the Snowman.
~ Raymond Briggs

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