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 interested 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 VHS 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 – the 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.
- 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 demons – 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.
- 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 that 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.”
- 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 masterful 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.