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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Of Downward Mobility and the New Evangelization

Everybody would be rich
if nobody tried
to be richer.

And nobody would be poor
if everybody tried
to be the poorest.

And everybody would be
what he ought to be
if everybody tried to be
what he wants
the other fellow to be.
~ Peter Maurin, “Better or Better Off”

Lots of money themes came together this week.

First, it was an interregnum of sorts between the last Sunday of the liturgical year and the First Sunday of Advent — the week, that is, between the Feast of Christ the King on the one hand, and the initial anticipation of the newborn King to come on the other. R01-unknown-artist-the-widows-mite-basilica-di-santapollinare-nuovo-ravenna-italy-6th-centuryoyalty, kingship, power — it’s all there. But not the kind of power you’d expect, and not the worldly wealth that you’d associate with royal rule. Instead, we have the exact opposite: Last Sunday, a bereft and crucified king whose court consists of a single condemned criminal; this weekend, hints and signals of that royal birth which we know will occur in homeless squalor.

Then, the Gospel for interregnum Monday was Luke’s story about the poor widow and her two mites.

When Jesus looked up he saw some wealthy people putting their offerings into the treasury and he noticed a poor widow putting in two small coins. He said, “I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood” (Lk 21:1-4, NAB).

The Lord’s message is clear, and it underscores the otherworldly themes from the Sunday readings that bracket it: Temporal wealth and prestige have no lasting value. Instead, humility and sacrifice are the riches adorning the Kingdom of God.

In contrast to the widow and her paltry offering we had Black Friday right after Thanksgiving — wait, make that Black Thursday — or is it Brown Wednesday? Add in Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and the fact that only Chick-Fil-A and liquor stores are closed on Sundays, and you have a bacchanalia of buying that obliterated our national observance of gratitude.

So, should we be surprised that in the midst of all that —Christ the King and widow’s mites, Thanksgiving and Black Friday, Advent and the anticipation of Christmas — the Holy Father releases an Apostolic Exhortation in which he calls on Christians to embrace poverty?

No, we shouldn’t. Least of all when the Pope’s name is Francis.

From the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has proven himself a different kind of modern pope. Skip the limo, skip the palace, skip the privileges, hang out with the folks — you know, the sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes, you and me. The Holy Father washes the feet of juvenile detainees and personally phones pregnant women in crisis. He chastises clergy with lavish lifestyles. He has spoken of wanting a poor Church, and he couldn’t teach any more clearly by his example.

And now, the Pope has set his populist approach down in black and white. His new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, translates all those sound bites and public gestures into a manifesto: “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor” (§198). In Francis’ view, the New EvangelizatioPope arrives to lead general audience in St. Peter's Square at Vaticann requires that we take better care of the poor, and, as a first step toward that end, the Holy Father seems to be telling us that we should become poorer ourselves. Literally.

Francis writes that it is “essential” that Christians “draw near” to poverty (§210), and he makes it clear that he’s not exempting anybody:

No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice (§201).

But does being “close to the poor” and drawing near to poverty necessarily entail becoming poor ourselves?

George Weigel doesn’t think so. Here’s his take on the Pope’s poverty challenge:

As he wrote in “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis is not a man of “political ideology.” He knows that “business is a vocation and a noble vocation,” if ordered to the common good and the empowerment of the poor. When he criticizes the social, economic or political status quo, he does so as a pastor who is “interested only in helping all those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking that is more humane, noble, and fruitful.”

Weigel embraces the idea of Francis as a “revolutionary,” but perhaps a revolutionary in gentler, abstract terms — more radicalized identity than radical action, at least when it comes to money.

Much as I respect Mr. Weigel, I’m not buying it.

For one thing, Weigel comments on just a sliver from the Exhortation’s section on “The economy and the distribution of income.” Here’s the full context for that sliver:

Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all (§203, emphasis added).

According to Francis, then, business, for Christians, is not just about turning a profit and the bottom line. It’s not just about increasing shareholder value and market share. It’s about serving the common good, and spreading wealth around, and a “greater meaning in life.” True, the Pope rejects statism and “a simple welfare mentality.” But rejected, too, is the “absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” The Holy Father seems intent on reshaping our attitudes toward money, how we get it, and what it’s for. And he’s doing it with the human person as his reference point — the poor human person to be precise.

Yet, Weigel argues, poverty isn’t always merely material, for it comes in a variety of forms.

But poverty can also be found in the soul-withering spiritual desert of those who measure their humanity by what they have rather than who they are, and who judge others by the same materialist yardstick. Then there is the ethical impoverishment of moral relativism, which dumbs down human aspiration, impedes common work for the common good in society, and inevitably leads to social fragmentation and personal unhappiness.

mother-teresaNo question. Indeed, Mother Teresa herself was famous for declaring that the spiritual poverty of the wealthy West was far more pitiable than the physical poverty experienced by the slum dwellers she cared for in Calcutta.

You, in the West, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is.

Clearly, though, the Holy Father isn’t calling the Church to be closer to those other forms of poverty, right? When Francis speaks of wanting a poor Church, or he writes about wanting us to draw near to the poor, can he be intending the poverty of materialism and moral relativism?

Of course not.

Instead of explaining away the Pope’s radical exhortations regarding our relationship to money, and the preeminence in our attention demanded by the material poverty plaguing our neighbors, it might be helpful to consider the deceptively simple teachings of Peter Maurin.

Maurin was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and Dorothy Day’s mentor and close associate. He was a devout and loyal son of the Church, and he believed passionately in the Church’s social mission of fostering a world “in which it would be easier for men to be good.” Peter’s Easy Essays — pithy, punchy, and always pointed — translated that social vision into memorable lines that became mantras for Catholic Workers everywhere.

As I read through Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation, Maurin’s Easy Essays kept coming to mind. In fact, I can’t help thinking that Maurin is a better guide than Weigel for insight into the Holy Father’s poverty mandates. Compare the following Easy Essay with what you’ve been reading in Evangelii Gaudium:

Feeding the Poor at a Sacrifice

  1. In the first centuriesmaurin at cw-sm
    of Christianity
    the hungry were fed
    at a personal sacrifice,
    the naked were clothed
    at a personal sacrifice,
    the homeless were sheltered
    at personal sacrifice.
  2. And because the poor
    were fed, clothed and sheltered
    at a personal sacrifice,
    the pagans used to say
    about the Christians
    “See how they love each other.”
  3. In our own day
    the poor are no longer
    fed, clothed, sheltered
    at a personal sacrifice,
    but at the expense
    of the taxpayers.
  4. And because the poor
    are no longer
    fed, clothed and sheltered
    the pagans say about the Christians
    “See how they pass the buck.”

The personal sacrifice and love recommended by Maurin seem to be exactly what the Pope (quoting Aquinas) is getting at:

Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programmes of promotion and assistance…. The poor person, when loved, ‘is esteemed as of great value,’ and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology…. Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation (§199).

Jump back, now, to that widow in Luke and her two small coins. Note that the narrative leaves out any mention of Jesus coming to the widow’s aid. We’re told that the woman gives everything away, and yet no apostle is sent to fetch her some bread or oil; no Judas is instructed to dole out relief from the communal purse. Nope. Just an object lesson and the Lord’s observation, and the widow shuffles off into obscurity.

Obscurity, that is, in a temporal sense, for it’s clear from the Gospel that Christ held up this anonymous widow in the highest esteem. She was poor to begin with, and her sacrifice made her even poorer. Yet her sacrifice was borne of love and gratitude, and her subsequent deepened impoverishment bound her ever closer to her Lord and his favorites. That’s the second lesson of Luke’s story: Voluntary poverty has intrinsic and ironic value, for it brings us closer to what is essential — that is, a greater dependence on God himself — and to those whom our Lord has favored — that is, the involuntary poor.

You’re still reading? Good. Either some of this resonates with thoughts you’ve had yourself, or else you completely reject what I’m proposing and you only wish to see how far I’m willing to take it. Either way, I’m almost done. It only remains to consider what form the aforementioned voluntary poverty might take, especially for those of us with families entrusted to our care.

First off, let me make it clear that it’s really none of my business. Maybe it’s an easy out, but I’m not about to lay out prescriptive advice regarding finances and money. Really, that’s between you and yours and God.

I will say this, though: It’s important to note that that poverty is not the same as destitution — a distinction Charles Murray made long ago in the pages of the National Review:

Being poor does not necessarily mean being malnourished or ill-clothed. It does not automatically mean joylessness or despair. To be poor is not necessarily to be without dignity; it is not necessarily to be unhappy.

moneyPoverty is relative, but any move in the direction of “poor-er” will automatically bring us closer to the poor — which is, after all, the Pope’s explicit request. Nobody is suggesting (least of all the Pope) that you quit your job, sell your house, don a cloak and sandals, and take to the road — like a latter-day John the Baptist or Francis of Assisi, announcing the Good News and preaching to the birds.

On the contrary. Keep your job and your mortgage. Keep your friends and hobbies and habits. Keep everything the same, in fact. But consider expanding your reach, especially in terms of charitable, sacrificial giving. The math is easy: The same income divided among a larger number of outlays means less left over — or none if you do it right. You’ll be in the widow’s mite league before you know it!

And if you’re married, one surefire way to reach that goal is having another baby — at least it’s worked out that way for us. Another baby affords you (and the world) the infinite benefit of welcoming another imago Dei into your midst, while at the same time dropping you another notch or two on the household wealth scale. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, consider ditching Dave Ramsey’s program for financial freedom. Try reckless breeding instead.

You won’t regret it. Among other things, it will bring you untold poverty, but I’ll bet you’ll find yourself richer beyond your wildest dreams.

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A version of this story appeared on Crisis.

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