Sunday, June 5, 2016

Baseball Watch: Field of Dreams (1989)

I didn't grow up in a baseball family.  We never watched baseball on television, and my baseball career lasted one season of T-ball.  I did make it to an Astros game and saw Nolan Ryan pitch, both a  great memory and maybe the single most common experience in baseball as the man pitched for about 8 decades.

During high school I returned to the Astrodome to catch a game, and it was there where I internalized that I really didn't know a damn thing about baseball.

But when I'd go see movies as a kid, baseball was no different to me than law-enforcement or flying an airplane - it was just something I hadn't learned about yet.  So why wouldn't I go see movies about baseball?

I did see Field of Dreams (1989) during its initial theatrical run.   Aside from a general appreciation for the movie, I'm somewhat surprised at the movie on this review, that audiences filled cineplexes to see it and it was a big enough movie that it became cultural shorthand, leaving us now only with the misquoted bit of "If you build it, they will come" (it's "If you build it, he will come."  And it's weird that should be misquoted given the underlying tension of the film.).   But that's comparing today's audiences to audiences of 2016 who wouldn't stand for this sort of thing.  Or, rather, wouldn't show up in droves for a movie about mysterious voices instructing people to build baseball fields.

Since 1990, the movie is far from forgotten, but I am unsure if people of my generation remember what a strange, lovely movie we've had here all along.  While everyone has seen it, I'm guessing it's been a while for most and the tone, if not the details, have faded from memory.  It had been maybe two decades since I'd last watched this movie, and seeing a movie lacking in cynicism either in the text or in calculation as product, that relies on magic and wishes to work, but somehow earns it was a bit of a minor revelation.  Maybe at 14 when I saw the movie the first time, I wasn't removed enough from the movies of youth, or maybe the meshing of fantasy and reality was just something I took for granted at that age.  But not now, and not with this sort of execution.

Yes, it's a commercial film, and you can sometimes feel the 80's-ness creeping through, and, yeah, it's from that period where the Boomers were realizing they were now in command and relishing the role both the role their generation had played in its youth and now looking toward the future it could make.  In fact, Boomers celebrating themselves was just hitting a fever pitch on the 20th Anniversary of Woodstock.  But that's all right, this was a movie for a certain generation that still works, because in the mix of themes, its also about the one constant in America:  Baseball.  That the gaps between generations can fall away and we can all have something in common when we're sitting on the baseline.

The movie may also be the last heir to the phrase "Capra-esque" that actually worked as something other than self-help realizations of the obvious.  I was unsure how this movie would play in 2016 to a version of myself who tends to roll his eyes at much of what plays for both sentimentality and appeals to our better nature in films released during my lifetime.  The efforts often come off as saccharine and artificial.

Maybe it's the bar the movie sets for itself, nothing too supposedly revelatory - baseball connects the generations, baseball is a common language, baseball reminds us of a better time - and only those who've hardened to the wonder in life see no use for nostalgia and sentimentality as those things point the way to what matters and how to do it right.

And, of course, the film features one of my favorite speeches in movies, near-nonsense though it may be.  But Thomas Mann's speech speaks to the spirit of the film, to relishing the best of the past - even an illusory one - to find the best in the here and now.  And that can build the future.

Of course the movie has highlights in the casting of James Earl Jones as J.D. Salinger stand-in Thomas Mann and Burt Lancaster as "Doc" Graham (a very real person), and I'll never complain about Amy Madigan showing up in anything.  Ray Liotta plays the real "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, one of the White Sox team who threw the World Series in the role that I believe more or launched Liotta as a known actor.

But there's no doubt the movie is an odd bit of wish-fulfillment fantasy, giving Ray (Costner's character) the ability to bring all of these things home with him.  He does risk losing his home and farm and earning the scorn of his neighbors, so not free of conflict for a movie with no true antagonist other than financial pressures (and during an era where the American agricultural industry was in dire financial straights).  But it doesn't feel toothless.  Ray Kinsella's journey is the story.

I dunno.  It had been some time since I'd seen the movie, and I was obviously pretty surprised it held up as well as it did.  Baseball fan or not, it's maybe worth a spin again in the ol' DVD player or streaming.


Stuart said...

Always liked this one for its somewhat dreamlike quality. There's no real conflict, but I still find myself enjoying the journey.

PS There's not too many of them anymore, but I'd also classify Ivan Reitman's "Dave" from a few years later as Capra-esque.

The League said...

Yeah. "Dave" was 1993, if memory serves. So, this kind of thing has definitely fallen by the wayside outside of twee TV movies on deep cable.

J.S. said...

Yeah, I always felt like there was more to this movie than I could quite put my finger on. There's something there about the idealism of the '60s running up against the harder realities of the '80s and the way that people have to invest themselves in something that seems, on a practical level, insane, if they're going to really bring about the best things in themselves and in their country. I've watched this movie many times (surprising even to myself, since I'm not into baseball). I'm sure much more could be said about it, but I can never really figure it out.