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


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.


An Archaeological Thriller

jonesMy guess is that “archaeological” and “thriller” are two words that were rarely linked prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Generations of moviegoers have grown up on Indiana Jones’ exploits, spellbound by his death-defying feats, and enthralled by his (usually) noble sacrifices on behalf of his museum, his profession, and, more broadly, the entire civilized world.

Yet, even with three sequels, a TV spinoff, and constant exposure via DVD, Netflix, and cable reruns, Jones’ fictional output is still shy of overcoming the assumption that actual archaeology is basically dull.

Maybe so, but I know of at least one exception.

Right around the time that Harrison Ford was supposedly liberating the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, a real-life adventure took place that also featured relics, intrigue, and ancient tombs: The hunt for the final resting place of the Fisherman, the first pope. John Evangelist Walsh wrote a book about it, The Bones of St. Peter (1985), and recently my wife presented me with a reprint as a gift. “I remember you talking about this once,” she remarked, “and I thought you’d enjoy reading it again.” She was right.

Many years ago, my pastor gave me a copy with the suggestion that every Catholic convert should know the story. “It’s all true,” Fr. Simon murmured mysteriously. “We have his bones.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but he got my attention, and I dived in.

The story sounds plain enough, but it reads like a cliffhanger. Longstanding Catholic tradition had always placed the Apostle Peter’s martyrdom and burial on the grounds of the Vatican, with the final resting place of his bones somewhere beneath the Basilica’s high altar—a fitting testament to Jesus’ declaration that He would build His church “on this rock (petros).” During renovations to the basilica’s crypt in 1939, a series of ancient tombs and grave markings were discovered, and Pope Pius XII authorized further investigation.

No doubt, the Holy Father would’ve been cautiously optimistic that the experts would discover Peter’s remains where tradition had always located them, and that there would be enough empirical evidence to make a solid case that went beyond faith and piety. Still, he was willing to take a risk that the science might prove tradition wrong—itself surely an act of heroism and fortitude perhaps rivaling anything Indiana Jones attempted.

As the diggers made their way through the underground pagan necropolis, they encountered more and more Christian imagery and graffiti, but they encountered obstacles as well. One big problem was water, seeping into their excavations from leaky conduits deep in the walls. Plus there were personality conflicts, rivalry among the researchers, minor mishaps, major blunders—not to mention the commencement of a world war.

In time, the Apostle’s remains were indeed discovered, and in the very spot tradition led the team to believe they would be—directly beneath the high altar. In 1968, Pope Paul VI joyfully announced to the world that the Apostle’s remains had been found.

Of course they were found under the high altar,” the skeptics cry. “Where else would Catholic archaeologists working at the behest of the pope find St. Peter’s bones? How convenient!” What’s more, unlike the opening of the Ark in Raiders, there were no meteorological theatrics, no apparitions or ghostly terrors accompanying the tomb’s discovery—so no supernatural verification, you might say. In terms of human second opinion, there were plenty of naysayers, and scholars continue to squabble over the authenticity of the grave and its contents to this day.

So. Does it matter?

Let me shift gears a bit—to a children’s book, the Newberry classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967). It’s a story of runaway siblings that uncover what they think is a secret regarding a controversial Michelangelo statue. Is it a fake? Is it real? Claudia and Jamie think they know, and they seek out Mrs. Frankweiler, the original owner, to confer with her.

In the end, their definitive evidence isn’t so definitive, and even Mrs. Frankweiler’s more solid proof is open to doubt, as she tells them:

What they’ll do is start investigating the authenticity of the sketch…. They’ll analyze the ink. And the paper. They’ll research all his illustrated notes and compare, compare, compare, compare. In short, they’ll make a science of it…. They’ll poll all the authorities, and probably the majority will agree that the note and the statue are really the work of Michelangelo…. But some stubborn ones won’t agree, and thereafter the statue and the sketch will appear in books with a big question mark.


After digesting this, and sensing Frankweiler’s resignation, Claudia probes further and asks why she doesn’t want “the last little bit of doubt cleared up.” You can almost hear the art patron’s heavy sigh as you read her negative reply and simple justification: “Because I’m eighty-two years old. That’s why.”

Now, back to Peter’s bones: Are they genuine? Is it really his tomb? The evidence is compelling, the Pope confirmed it, and I believe it—I have no reason not to.

But would my faith be shaken should new discoveries shift the weight of evidence in the other direction? Would we have to doubt the Pope’s authority? Doubt the Church Herself? Don’t we need to know for sure—that is, in Claudia’s words, to have the last little bit of doubt cleared up?

No. Why? Because the Gospel is not about extinguishing doubt. New Testament translator J.B. Phillips wrote of this in his comments on historical Christianity:

I am not in the least concerned with what may or may not be proved by the dexterous manipulation of texts. Indeed, I think we are all of us indoctrinated more than we know by being led tendentiously from one text to another in our impressionable years. But I am concerned with this new quality of living which has as its spearhead the personal visit of God to this planet in the Person of Jesus Christ.

In other words, the Church has another agenda—an agenda of faith, hope, and love. We can’t prove those are Peter’s bones or that Peter was the first Pope; we can’t prove Apostolic succession or Transubstantiation; we can’t prove the Incarnation or the Resurrection. But why would we Luca Giordano, The Crucifixion of St. Peter (c. 1660)want to? A faith of mere proof isn’t really faith, and, besides, the Gospel is primarily about love—and you can’t prove love.

You can show it, though, and that’s Peter’s true legacy. After screwing up royally over and over, Peter finally met up with his risen Lord at the seashore. Three times Jesus asked him to confirm his love, and three times the Apostle did so, but words were not enough—action was required, ultimate action.

‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, ‘Follow me’ (John 21:15-19).

As Peter tells Jesus elsewhere, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Love invites us to follow as well, bones or no bones. Our own thrilling tale awaits.


A version of this story appeared on The Catholic Thing.

%d bloggers like this: