Monday, 16 April 2012

Field of Dreams (1989)

Dir. Phil Alden Robinson
Starring: Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta

Another state, another sports movie. Or so I thought. Hoosiers was definitely about basketball. Field of Dreams is about baseball. Or dreams. Or regrets. Or fatherhood. Or all of the above. Get the hankie ready…

Field of Dreams gives us one of cinema’s most famous lines: “If you build it, he will come.” This is the instruction heard by farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) as he walks his rows of corn. “If you build it, he will come.” Visions show to him a baseball diamond superimposed over his fields and an image of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the legendary batsman who was banned for life due to his part in the 1919 ‘Black Sox’ game-fixing scandal. He becomes convinced that the mysterious voice wants him to plow under his corn and build a baseball pitch in the middle of his farm. Incredibly, his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) permits him to do this. And so he tears up his cash crop and spends all their savings on building a regulation baseball ground, complete with flood lights and bleachers.

And then, one night, a figure is seen on the pitch. It is “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta). He and Ray have some batting practice before Jackson melts away into the corn. The next day he returns, bringing the other seven players suspended as a result of their involvement in the Black Sox scandal. In heaven, or hell, or limbo, or whatever form of afterlife they inhabit all they want to do is get out and play baseball once again.

Then the Voice returns. “Ease his pain” it says. This sends Ray on a quest to Boston, to find reclusive ‘60s author and activist Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones). Dragging Mann to Fenway Park to watch a game they both have a vision of Archie ‘Moonlight’ Graham, who only ever played part of one game and never got to bat. Following his trail they journey to Chisholm, Minnesota, only to find that Graham has now passed away himself. After his brief flirtation with the big time he had returned to his hometown and became a doctor. Ray has a vision of meeting Dr Graham (Burt Lancaster) in 1972 and offers him the chance to make his dreams come true by coming back to Iowa with him. The doctor declines the invitation. Confused, Ray and Terrence head back to the Kinsella farm. En route they pick up a young hitchhiker (Frank Whaley); his name, he tells them, is Archie Graham. Arriving back in Iowa they find that Shoeless Joe has brought two full teams to have a proper game. Graham is invited to play. And so Ray, his family, and Terrence sit in the stands to take it all in.

So the film is about baseball. But more than that, it is about dreams and regrets. Shoeless Joe and his teammates seem to regret throwing the World Series as it deprived them of playing the sport they loved. Their dream is to play once more. By following his dreams (or, more accurately, the voice in his dreams) Ray gives them a chance to do that. Terrence wrote that he dreamed of playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. What he actually seems to regret is turning his back on the openness and innocence Ray still represents to him. Doc Graham’s dream is that he never got to bat in the Major Leagues, and Ray is able to fulfil that dream too. But as for the good doctor’s regrets… he has none. When Ray tries to persuade Graham to come with him he states that “Fifty years ago, for five minutes you came within… You came this close. It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they’d consider it a tragedy!” Graham merely replies “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes…now that would have been a tragedy.” And when Ray’s daughter Karin (Gabby Hoffman) has an accident the younger version of Graham does not hesitate to run to her assistance. Crossing over the field’s boundary line he transforms into the older version; this is an irreversible process. He cannot go back to being the young baseball player and he does not mind. He has saved a life.

And what of Ray’s dreams? Well, he wants to be a good husband and a good father, but by following the voices and the visions he puts their future at risk. He uproots their corn and spends their savings. But he has one very real regret. He has unresolved father issues. A child of the ‘60s, he rejected everything his father stood for. He left home at age 17 with a barbed insult on his lips. He never saw him again until the man’s funeral. And one of those ghostly players turns out to be the young John Kinsella. The final scene of the movie shows father and son having one last game of catch. Ray built it, and his father came; he has eased his own pain.

Baseball is merely a metaphor for dreams and regrets. We talk of ‘the American dream’ and baseball is part of that. Baseball has the capability to make people forget the worries of today and hark back to a simpler, more innocent, time when they could believe in the future. “The one constant through all the years, Ray” Terrence tells him, “has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.” A little bit nostalgic, I thought, given that a central plot point surrounds professional baseball players who cheated for money. But baseball is that uniquely American metaphor. Spending quality time with one’s father is synonymous with playing ball with one’s father.  

Not your usual corny sports movie...

What have I learnt about Iowa?
“Is this heaven?”
“No… it’s Iowa.”

Iowa, certainly as seen in this film, is a land of endless fields stretching as far as the eye can see. The green corn grows shoulder-high, and the farming supply shops are populated solely by crusty old timers.

In general Iowa doesn’t seem to have had much counter-culture. As Annie says, they didn’t experience the ‘60s, they “had two ‘50s and moved right into the ‘70s”. Which may explain why the film shows the citizenry as being pretty reactionary, with the public meetings to talk about banning books from schools.

Oh – and if you go to Iowa City you will be bored…

Can we go there?
The actual baseball diamond from the film still stands. It was operated for many years by two neighbouring families (the pitch was built over the dividing line between two different farms). It is located in eastern Iowa, at 28995 Lansing Road, near Dyersville, Dubuque County. The  genuine Field of Dreams can be visited between April and November. There is no entry charge, just a souvenir stall.

The school used for the PTA meeting was the Western Dubuque Elementary / Jr High School in Farley. Scenes were shot in Boston, most notably the match at Fenway Park watched by Ray and Terrence (the crowd that night also contained two youngsters by the name of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck). They don’t go to Chisholm, Minnesota, however. The 1972 street scene was instead filmed in Galena, Illinois. Galena is in Illinois’s north-western Jo Daviess County, which adjoins Iowa’s eastern Dubuque County.

Overall Rating: 4/5

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