A Garage-Sale VCR: Three Picks from the Video Archives

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The most beautiful journeys are taken through the window.
~ Last line in King of Hearts

My neighbor across the street had a garage sale recently, and she was closing up shop late Sunday afternoon. She spied Katharine, my fourth-grader, rummaging through the trinket table, and she told her to save her pennies. “I’m packing up what’s left as a donation,” my neighbor told Kath. “Take whatever you’d like.”

“Papa! Papa! She’s giving stuff away now,” Katharine breathlessly announced running into our home. “Pictures and toys and everything – can I get some?”

That’s a magical moment for a grade-schooler, and I was impressed that Kath had even thought to ask permission first. “Sure, sure,” I reassured her, “but not too much.”

“Don’t worry – there’s only a couple of bird pictures I want, and a nice basket,” Kathy explained. “Maybe you should come, too. There’s lots of books and movies.”

I crossed the street with her to check it out. No books that intdisneyerested me, and no DVDs – only a bunch of VHS kid videos. “We’ve got lots of Disney left,” my neighbor said. “Are you sure you don’t want any?”

“No, we’ve got all the Disney videos we can ever use,” I replied, and that was the truth. When our old VCR was still operative, we were still buying movies from thrift shops for a dollar or less. In fact, at one point, the local Goodwill was so overloaded with tapes that they’d only sell them in lots of thirty. If you found a single title you wanted, you could purchase it for a buck, but only if you took another 29 tapes along with it. Consequently, we were swamped with movies, and we had duplicates (even triplicates) of just about every Disney film ever made.

All the same, it was a small price to pay, because we amassed some beauts that way. With the advent of disc technologies, and now streaming video and Netflix, most everyone has pretty much dumped their VHS collections, and my semi-Luddite household has reaped the bounty. As long as the old VCR was still working, we had access to virtually limitless and extremely cut-rate cinematic entertainment – score!

Then the inevitable happened: The VCR conked out. Our vast hoard of VHS tapes was relegated to the basement, and used DVDs began to proliferate instead – although at a much slower and costlier rate. And so, as I poked about my neighbor’s movie table, I paid little heed to the VHemersondvdS offerings, aside from the slight melancholy they induced insofar as they reminded me of our defunct player….

But what’s this? I thought to myself. A silver, oblong case with dual drawers in front – one larger, one smaller. Could it be…yes! It was! A combo VHS/DVD player! “Does this really work?” I asked.

“Well, yes, it does…,” came the tentative reply.

“Oh, I wouldn’t expect you to give it to me for free,” I hastily clarified. “How much are you asking?”

“How about five dollars?”

“Sold!” – how could I pass it up? I rushed home with Kath – she with her treasures, me with mine – and I hooked it up. I think the first tape we inserted was a Hanna Barbara cartoon that my neighbor threw in at the last minute…and it played! A new lease on life for our humble home theatre – and at such a miniscule expense!

Down into the basement I flew. I pounced on the VHS stash and filled my arms with classics to release from exile. Star Wars was an obvious pick – tstar_wars__130504182746he original three episodes, of course, along with The Phantom Menance and Attack of the Clones. (I don’t think we’ve ever even owned a copy of Revenge of the Sith – who’d want to watch that again?) I also grabbed a few Disneys and Veggie Tales, and then, in my enthusiasm for having recovered the anachronistic mechanical link to our collection, I snagged three more videos for my older kids to watch.

At the moment, it was like blind emotion – “Quick! I’ve got to get them to watch these particular movies before we again lose our tenuous technological capacity to do so!” – and I didn’t give much conscious thought to my selections. Since then, however, I’ve pondered that pile – they’re still sitting there on the mantle, waiting to be electronically revived (teenagers are exceedingly busy people these days) – and I’ve wondered: why those three? Did they just happen to be on the top? Or were there other, more subtle factors at work?

For what it’s worth, here’s the list along with some observations. I’m no movie critic, and I have no pretensions in that direction. Instead, these are the comments of a cinephile father who wants his kids to benefit from older flicks they might otherwise pass over. See if my selections resonate with your own film-watching recommendations.

  1. Ulee’s Gold (1997). Peter Fonda plays Ulysses (Ulee), a Florida beekeeper with family troubles, and his performance is arrestingly understated. A single father doing his best to provide what stability he can to an unraveling family, he is battling plenty of peter-fonda-ulees-golddemons – both inside and out. The bees are his prime solace, providing routine and even a kind of liturgy, amid his chaotic, dangerous circumstances. Like every film, every story, it’s about sin and salvation, and it mixes in a healthy dose of enlightenment for stoic go-it-alone fathers everywhere. As a bonus, Ulee’s bees produce that rare ambrosia known as tupelo honey, which provides an excuse to include Van Morrison’s masterpiece of that title in the soundtrack. This movie is worth watching just to connect its images of hope with that incomparable love song.
  2. The Trip to Bountiful (1985). Based on Horton Foote’s 1950s play, this is a story about an aging widow, Carrie Watts, who feels increasingly alienated from the son and daughter-in-law she lives with in Houston. Mrs. Watts (played by Geraldine Page in this version; Cicely Tyson stars in a more recent TV production) longs to return to Bountiful, Texas, her childhood home that has taken on an Eden-like connotation in her imagination. It’s no surprise that when Carrie does eventually get there, she’s disappointed – a classic tale of “you can’t go home again,” as many have noted. Even so, it’s a rich journey, filled with illuminating encounters thatriptobountifult foster the notion that we do well to gently carry our homes and histories with us – a notion that “wherever we go,” in the words of critic Desmond Ryan, “will always be true.”
  3. King of Hearts (1967). Alan Bates plays Scottish soldier Charles Plumpick, a World War I carrier-pigeon wrangler who is mistaken for an explosives expert. After German forces abandon a French village, Plumpick is sent in alone to defuse whatever booby traps lie in wait. Between the Germans flight and Plumpick’s arrival, the inhabitants of a local asylum take over the village, and their histrionic portrayal of various townsfolk leads to much revelatory mayhem. The blurb on the VHS box claims it “became the longest running film in U.S. history,” which is apparently true: “King of Hearts” ran continuously for five years at a theater in Massachusetts, although it tanked when first released in France. In any case, it has risen to the “cult film” stratosphere, and so, by definition, it’s not exactly popular fare – in this case, a tri-lingual (sub-titled) quasi-farce about war and peace, sanity and madness, and the mystery of love and communion.

And speaking of communion, that brings me to my rather obscure reason for holding onto old video tapes at all – to wit: They preserve human connections in a concrete way. Take our VHS boxed set of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) for example. Sure, we have the DVD version now, but it was those six individual video cassettes that first introduced us to Simon Langton’s masteP&P VHSrful achievement. What’s more, it was those actual six tapes that we played at the end of several pregnancies – one episode at a time, one a night – as well as being the medium through which our youngest children themselves came to know Darcy and Elizabeth.

In other words, those six tapes have acquired a sacramental character – almost like relics that keep us in touch with former times and circumstances. “Perhaps in our technological age, the whole idea of relics may seem strange,” writes Fr. William Saunders, but “all of us treasure things that have belonged to someone we love.” In this case, it’s not only the content of those ancient tapes that we treasure – especially given their ready availability in updated formats. Instead, we treasure them because it was those particular cassettes we recall handling and watching and sharing with each other.

As such, they can mediate real encounters, bringing them forward from past to present, and that’s a good thing in this disembodied media age. It’s like Ann Packer’s description of “The Moth,” a popular podcast. “There are moments when, clearly, the storyteller has done something that a listener can’t see,” writes Packer. “It emphasizes the fact that this was something that happened in space and time somewhere.”

Exactly – like watching a particular video tape in an actual time and place, along with actual friends and family.

Pass the remote.
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Of Practice, Perseverance, and Carnegie Hall

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“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising.”
~ Jane Austen

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Same Ol’ Same Ol’ (Gethsemani II)

We started Pride and Prejudice. Again.

Priorities for our recently acquired “big screen” have been zombie-slaying and romantic comedies, but my wife and I pulled rank to start watching the six-hour BBC epic for the umpteenth time. We had plenty of other options to choose from—piles of VHS tapes from the Goodwill (30 for $1 these days), and readily available blockbusters at Redbox. Still, we opted for P&P, and we even had a couple of kids join us (voluntarily!) as we got out our well-worn boxed set.

five daughters-pride-and-prejudice-1995-6152061-1920-1080Well-worn indeed, after who knows how many viewings, yet still fresh somehow. The music and characters and dialogue are all so familiar, but with each screening you catch something you hadn’t before—a hitherto unnoticed face in the background framed by other faces in the foreground; an arched eyebrow on Lady Catherine de Bourgh that had escaped your prior attention; an obscure nod, smile, or shrug—minute details already frozen on film, but only detected (and appreciated) this go around.

Just as importantly, though, is the fact that it’s a shared encounter. Sure, Simon Langton’s brilliant re-telling of Jane Austen’s story is magic, but what’s even more magical is to come back to it time and again as a family, experiencing and exploring over the years the multilayered nuances—of both the story and the production—in each other’s company.

Among other things, it has definitely contributed to shaping our family culture, at least insofar as lines are routinely quoted (and expected to be understood) at opportune moments. For example, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without somebody plopping into a chair after dinner, and then declaring to all assembled Lydia’s memorable line, “Lord, I’m so fat!”

All this is possible because we have sat through it over and over and over, and we’ll keep doing so. It’s pleasurable, it reveals something new each time, and it binds us together—like the liturgy.

Yikes! That’s a jump, but hear me out—and think especially of monastic liturgical prayer. In addition to daily Mass, the monks gather together seven times a day to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, and what St. Benedict called the “work of God” (opus Dei). There’s routine and the rhythm, the recurring cycle of readings and Psalms, the sameness of the Hours, day in, day out, year in, year out—the usual. Doesn’t it get boring? Doesn’t rote recitation (and “recitation” is a legitimate term here according to the Catechism) lead to cynicism and spiritual torpor? Doesn’t familiarity, in other words, lead to contempt?

Far from it. The Liturgy of the Hours is largely a structured way of praying through the Scriptures, and so it is an encounter with the Word Himself. That being the case, can it be reasonable to talk of too many repetitions of such encounters? The problem isn’t the repetition—the problem isn’t with God in other words. Rather, the problem is our limited capacity to benefit from the repetition. Chesterton puts it this way in Orthodoxy:

For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.

Monastic life, among other things, is oriented to cultivating that divine delight in reiteration through a life given over to prayer “without ceasing.”

So, the Divine Office (and the liturgy in general) is itself a recurrent encounter with the Word Himself, but it’s also a preparation—a conditioning that makes even deeper forms of prayer possible. Specifically referencing the Divine Office, the Catechism notes that the cycles and routine of liturgy can “reveal more deeply the meaning of the mystery being celebrated and prepare for silent prayer.” St. Benedict also hinted at this in his Rule when he urged his monks to be diligent when praying the psalter so that “our minmonks1d may be in harmony with our voice.”

While the foregoing comparison of P&P with the liturgy is admittedly oblique and strained at best, at this juncture there is no comparison at all. For liturgical prayer always has value for those partaking, even when they don’t feel prayerful or spiritual. Contrarily, we can only delve into the BBC mini-series (and enjoy it) when we’re in the right frame of mind—no such requirement attends the Divine Office, or any part of the Church’s liturgy. In fact, many saints and sages tell us the exact opposite—that we actually accrue more value from our prayer when we are not feeling especially pious or prayerful. St. John of the Cross, for instance, wrote:

Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.

The Carmelite mystic went on to write that “Love consists not in feeling great things”—an idea that can’t be emphasized enough these days, especially in reference to God.

And here, the P&P connection can be revisited. The wedding scene at the close of the series includes a rehearsal of some very traditional language regarding Christian marriage—that it is, for example, an institution “signifying unto us the mystical union that is between Christ and His church.” The priest goes on to list the three ends of marriage: First, fertility; then, fidelity; and finally, “mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”

Prosperity and adversity; richer and poorer; sickness and health; even what may seem like tedium interspersed with highs and lows of comedy and tragedy. Day in, day out, year in, year out, no matter what—the vow and the relationship holds. Feelings, in other words, have very little to do with it. The object of marriage is not happiness (a fleeting feeling), but rather holiness, wholeness, and joy, and those are only realized within the context of a promise kept through time. It is not an emotion, but an action.

As with prayer. The Church gives us the liturgy as a ready-made shell for actualizing our meager inclinations to prayer. It’s an astounding fact that our paltry attempts to seek Him out are met with His extravagant self-giving—like the father who “ran and embraced and kissed” the Prodigal Son “while he was yet at a distance.” All He requires is our tentative, even rote, step toward Him; He will do the rest.

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