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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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.
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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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Our Universal Recipient: The Divine Blood Type

He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be His own Blood, from which He causes our blood to flow.
~ St. Irenaeus

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God’s Digit

But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you (Lk 11.20).

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Coming to a Theater Near You! (or not…hopefully)

After Ted Turner bought the rights to the MGM library in 1986, he started digitally colorizing old black-and-white classics – much to the dismay of cinephiles, critics, and filmmakers alike. When Orson Welles’s masterful Citizen Kane was due for the same treatment, however, the outcry really spiked. “Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons,” Welles pleaded before his death, but Turner started color-tinting Kane anyway.

Although the project was never completed, colorization itself has become standard fare – we’re totally used to it now, and entire generations will grow up and grow old without ever seeing the B&W originals. That’s too bad, for the color tinting represents an additional layer of interpretation and artistry that the filmmakers themselves did not intend. “Black-and-white films aren’t automatically better or worse than color films,” Vincent Canby wrote of the controversial process. “They are different.”

The same goes for books and the films they’re based on – which seems obvious, but maybe not in Hollywood. I got to thinking about this the other day after Meg arrived home from college for spring break. As soon as she walked in the door, we started peppering her with invitations and tentative plans – including movies. “We haven’t seen Black Panther yet – you want to go?” I asked.

Meg made a non-committal shrug, and then her sister Kath jumped in. “We haven’t seen A Wrinkle in Time either,” she suggested, referring to the newly released film version of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 novel. “How about that one?”

“Maybe,” Meg replied cautiously. “I don’t know. It’s such an important book to me. I’m worried that I won’t like how they did it.”

Got that – totally. Books change lives, and we revere the ones that change our own lives, so it’s always tough to see Hollywood treat them as hit-fodder. There are exceptions, but it seems like filmmakers and producers are generally less interested in faithful, inspired screen adaptations than in filling theater seats, earning accolades, and auctioning off streaming rights.

That’s why I dreaded what director Peter Jackson was going to do to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for example. The Middle Earth cycle is among a select set of books that I have re-read on a regular basis for decades. It helped form my sacramental imagination after I converted to Catholicism; it buttressed my courage as I launched into the unknown (namely marriage and fatherhood); it provided me literary respite from the stresses of nursing school and my first nursing jobs. Tolkien’s books have been a lifeline and a comfort for me, and I was nervous about seeing them translated into film. In fact, I seriously considered skipping the movies altogether – just in case.

But I succumbed in the end, and I have to confess (begrudgingly) I was pleasantly surprised. Although overlong, the three Rings films were largely successful in telling Tolkien’s epic tale and capturing its spirit. Plus, I was pleased that the movies spurred my own kids to pick up the books to actually read – score one for Hollywood! Too bad the magic didn’t last when Jackson tackled The Hobbit though. Why he dragged out the comparatively brief narrative to fill another three overlong films, let alone adding all manner of invented characters and confusing sub-plots along the way, is beyond me. Was it just money – more theater seats and DVDs? I hope not.

Anyway, Meg’s hesitation about Wrinkle got me thinking about other books from my re-reading canon that I’d be anxious about seeing theatrically updated and “cinemized.” I just think some stories just weren’t meant to be made into movies. Here’s three of them – see if you agree:

  1. A Confederacy of Dunces (1980): This New Orleans Pulitzer-winning revel by John Kennedy Toole has my vote for America’s premiere sui generis novel. Truly, there’s nothing quite like it. Starring Ignatius J. Reilly, an anachronistic anti-hero, Confederacy grabs the reader from page one and sends him packing on a wild frolic that would be near impossible to replicate onscreen. In fact, there have been several attempts that have all fizzled, leading director Steven Soderbergh to remark that the endeavor is “cursed.” Besides, Toole packed Confederacy with so many memorable characters that finding somebody to fill the lead role of the idiosyncratic Ignatius would only be the first of innumerable casting hurdles. Best skip it.
  2. A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959): Part sci-fi thriller, part monastic tragi-comedy, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s Canticle is a post-apocalyptic epiphany. The world is recovering from nuclear devastation, and its tenuous hold on the remnants of civilization is guarded – or, rather, shielded – by the cowled sons of St. Leibowitz. The novel captures the cyclical character of human folly – both on a personal and societal scale – and dramatizes its consequences in a mysteriously inaccessible way. “I had read the book with the first of the pricklings of excitement I was to feel on successive readings,” Walker Percy once wrote of the novel. “When I tried to track down the source of the neck-pricklings, my neck stopped prickling.” Percy goes on to write that “the book has a secret, (but) the secret can’t be told. Telling it ruins it.” I’m afraid any effort to turn it into a film would do the same.
  3. Mr. Blue (1928): My conversion to Catholicism was spurred by reading Dorothy Day’s powerful biography, The Long Loneliness, and I used to give away copies of that book by the boxful to help friends and family – even strangers – understand my enthusiasm for the Church. In short order I discovered that Dorothy Day’s gritty Christian vision isn’t for everybody, and so I started handing out Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue instead. It’s the story of a saint-in-the-making, but it’s narrated by a reluctant fellow traveler whose reservations about Blue’s eccentricities and extravagances make him the ideal companion for the wary reader. At the novel’s outset, the narrator writes Blue and urges him “to get a good job with a reliable firm or he would end up in the poorhouse” – sensible enough, right? Here’s Blue’s response: “That will be glorious…. I will become the troubadour of the poorhouse.” Voiced on the screen, lines such as these would sound trite and tawdry; on the page, they’re gripping and dangerously inviting.

Ironically, given my thesis here, Myles Connolly himself worked in the film industry and contributed to the creation of over 40 films. Could Connolly have nudged Mr. Blue in the direction of cinemization? Did he try and fail? Maybe, but it’s noteworthy that he embedded a Hollywood-style pitch – a “story for a motion picture” – smack dab in the middle of his novel. Blue lays out a vision for an end-times thriller akin to Orwell’s 1984 – or, better yet, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Freedom has been superseded by servility. There’s no joy, no hope, no God in the new world-state; only grim compliance and soulless subsistence. But hiding out in the midst of this horrific future is a lone priest armed with wine and wheat. In a desperate, almost suicidal act of defiance, he isolates himself on a tower’s pinnacle and begins the liturgy. “He was keeping his promise to bring God back to earth,” relates Blue with passion. “Can you see that heroic figure in the twilight of the world saying Mass in the citadel of the Antichrist?”

Yes, I can. And I can close my eyes and see it on the screen – hear it in a theater. I think Connolly’s movie within a novel hints at a way the book-to-film challenge can be handled – to wit, instead of tackling entire books, filmmakers could shave off select portions for film treatment. That’s what screenwriters Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger did with their Oscar-nominated adaptation of Betty Smith’s glorious A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – another book I would’ve thought incapable of celluloid transmutation. By zeroing in on a mere fraction of the novel’s narrative arc, the screenplay – and thus Elia Kazan’s 1945 film – succeeds abundantly.

What’s more, it entices viewers to pick up the actual novel to get the rest of the story. And that, in my book, is worth all the cinemization in the world.
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Keeping the Showman Great: Of P.T. Barnum, Vows, and Fatherhood

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The father-son paradigm is ageless….
This is truly the key for interpreting reality.
~ St. John Paul II

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