Field of Dreams (1989, Phil Alden Robinson)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
Let’s break this down as dispassionately and philosophically as possible. At the outset, Kevin Costner in his usual laconic voiceover — all these years later when those roles from the height of his success run together you half expect him to start rambling about “Two Socks” — lays out the white Boomer version of American history circa 1969 to 1987, or around ages 18 to 36 for his character. He left home, went far away to Berkeley, and told his baseball-adoring dad off because of “the ’60s.” It’s literally no more specific than that, and this nebulous matter is invoked at multiple stages for multiple reasons: it’s also the reason one of this film’s two female characters is compassionate and the other isn’t. He also “tried to enjoy sitar music,” which is great; we can all have a good shared laugh at the all-American resistance to challenging art, something that the working class midwestern farmer can surely get behind, a rite of passage for all 36 year-olds as of the late ’80s being the unloved Ravi Shankar album.
Working class midwestern farmers aren’t built for Indian music; what they’re built for is, well, baseball. A character eventually calls it “the only constant” in our universal culture. And while the specific narrative convolutions of Field of Dreams are their own subject to pursue, the underlying ideas are really quite basic — it’s about a longing for perceived, innocent moral simplicity. It revolves around characters who flirted with the danger zone just beyond the parameters of conformist life, who read serious books and thought serious thoughts for a time, but with the rigors of farm and family have retired into a certain complacency and a basic yearning for a conservative, sheltered vision of life and most specifically American life: to coin a phrase, they were so much older then, they’re younger than that now. Idealism has unraveled into not just the comfort of routine but the acquisition of empathy toward once-loathed values and the parents that held them. It’s not an unfamiliar scenario and was wrestled with quite frequently in the American films of the ’80s, when the Boomers were really the dominant cultural voice, either explicitly (in The Big Chill) or somewhat coyly (Working Girl, which accidentally dramatizes its own director’s transformation to showboating bore). The world as presented in mainstream cinema looked very different in 1989 than it did twenty years earlier, although part of the reason for this is that the mainstream had by now corrected any tendency it once held to really engage with any brand of counterculture. 1989 at the Oscars, in fact, would prove a more brazen illustration of this than any year since Coming Home and The Deer Hunter vied for the top prize, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Costner’s narrator is Ray Kinsella, who’s having an early midlife crisis and feels like he’s lost his chance to live out his dreams, being anchored down by a house, a farm, a blandly supportive wife who says yes to his every command with almost no resistance, and a daughter who comes in handy as a plot device, an exposition receptacle and a third-act crisis and otherwise may as well not exist. Ray, still crowing about being somebody and the classic yuppie fantasy of “achievement,” is presented as a stand-in for all thirty-six year-old white men who dread turning into their fathers. It’s a curious kind of paranoid, hyper-defensive masculinity that’s not unusual in this era of Hollywood cinema — I’m a year older than Ray now and I can promise I will never be as old as he is. He is Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger except without the depression and dread and actual sense of aging out, instead a relatively sprightly guy who’s got absolutely nothing to complain about, but veers toward life ruination for his whole family anyway by obeying the words of a convenient disembodied voice ordering him to “build” something so that “he” will “come.” Rather than interpret this as the erectile dysfunction metaphor that’s clearly intended, he chooses the path of gutting his cornfield to put up a baseball field in the middle of nowhere, weighing his patient young daughter down with endless facts about baseball history all the while, at which point a legendary dead White Sox player named Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) — and yes, I am so clueless about sports that I had to stop and verify that he was a real person, but any fellow laymen reading this will know him for his dubious involvement in the 1919 World Series scandal that led to the famous but apparently apocryphal “say it ain’t so, Joe” confrontation — shows up and starts practicing.
Joe is gradually followed by a whole horde of dead baseball players emerging from the set of Depeche Mode’s “It’s Called a Heart” video, standing in for the afterlife, who are grateful for the opportunity and keep asking if it’s Heaven, and he is very proud of the “no, it’s Iowa” response he cooks up so he repeats it three times. We also learn that only certain people can see the players, including Ray plus wife and daughter and, eventually, James Earl Jones as a beloved but reclusive author. (He, unlike the various baseball players in the film, is fictitious.) This all happens within the first half hour. Everything seems to transpire apropos of nothing and it’s all just accepted; it feels like a quick and rather dire Amazing Stories episode, but then there’s more. A rather lopsided series of complications and distractions ensue — the voice tells Ray other stuff and he simply has to comply, like Mario looking for the Princess, and the entire community takes a rather bizarre interest in what he’s up to and why, which doesn’t speak well of the degree of entertainment available in rural Iowa — but the real essence is obvious from there: of course there are threats of foreclosing on the field (the Evil Land Developer, in this case, is Ray’s brother-in-law), and of course Dad reappears, as does Burt Lancaster in a cameo as another real-life player who retired after a single inning in 19something then became a well-loved community doctor, the sort of person you are contractually required to recognize as an unambiguous hero despite having no idea who he was an hour ago.
As with any screenplay that gets described as “winning” and “triumphant” by critics who aren’t particularly difficult to impress, you can see the writer’s-workshop tools at play here, but one thing that is somewhat unique about Field of Dreams is its strange quest-based structure, whereby Ray’s gradual acquisition of cohorts generally seems disconnected and episodic, like if Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto threw in a supernatural element. The incredibly uncomfortable sequence in which Ray kidnaps James Earl Jones’ character Terence Mann is hard to reconcile with the hazily sentimental baseball story taking place before our eyes twenty minutes earlier, and the same for a completely incongruous time travel scene that requires about fourteen kinds of verification before Ray accepts that he is in the faroff land of 1972. (It’s not enough that a movie marquee reads “The Godfather,” and not enough that it says underneath it “One of THIS YEAR’s best films” (my caps), Costner has to push this over the top by reading that bit aloud, placing extra emphasis on the all-caps bit, and then frowning and shaking his head. This is Stanley Kramer territory.)
Confronting one’s own aging and attendant loss of passion is not an awful or offbeat premise for an incisive narrative; but what makes Field of Dreams such an irksome example of this kind of rumination is that, while relying extensively on multiple varities of cultural shorthand and actually showing us virtually nothing about the world it pretends to occupy, it sentimentalizes the replacement of the “naive and bad” idealism of the generic ’60s with the apparently upstanding, bootstraps-pulling rugged idealism of the ’80s through its pushing of the narrative that really, our mean and uncomprehending parents were right the whole time and we were the ones who were the assholes, what with our Civil Rights marches, Vietnam protests, hula hoops, beat music and refusal to play catch with Pops. Both worldviews may have been laced with a kind of shallow trend-consciousness when practiced by utter knuckleheads like Costner’s character, but if you can’t see the glaring difference between these two extremes and the emptiness of fetishizing some sort of balance between them, well, let me just invoke what the journalist Stanley Booth once wrote when covering the Rolling Stones’ last tour of the ’60s: “Many people thought then that dancing and music could have a major role in changing the structure of society. They may have been naive, but they were much more interesting than the sensible people who came along later.”
I mostly thought Field of Dreams was boring and corny and goopily schmaltzy as a kid who was just then immediately prior to my teen years learning to hate goopy schmaltz, and I don’t even remember my dad liking it much, probably because he was just as bored by sports as I was. (We watched it together, which is now ironic because he, like the film’s deceased patriarch John Kinsella, never ended up meeting his daughter-in-law; in my case, the reasons were unrelated to my reading Vonnegut or whatever.) It is all of those things, but on revisiting it nearly three decades later I now found myself seething with anger at its very existence. I so wanted to tear it to shreds, point by point, that I considered tracking down the purportedly acclaimed W.P. Kinsella novel (yes, he used his own family names) Shoeless Joe in order to help pin the blame in all the right places. But life’s too short. So I have no idea whether it’s Kinsella or the film’s writer-director Phil Alden Robinson who decides to pay lip service to the hippie righteousness of the Boomers’ glory days by inserting an almost completely pointless sequence that takes place at a PTA meeting, where Ray’s wife Annie (Amy Madigan, charming despite the role’s limits) bites back against a local busybody who’s flipping out over reading material that she considers to be licentious being peddled in the school library. It’s telling that this one moment in which the film reverts to the sociopolitical stakes of the ’60s makes sure to do so in such on the nose, cartoonish terms that it can scarcely avoid seeming more like a farce than a triumph. The ostensible purpose is to cause Ray to “remember” who the author Terence Mann was and that something tells him he is the one who needs to be sought out and taken to a baseball game (??) but if Mann’s books were as bad as his speeches later in the film, maybe they deserved to be banned.
Mann is the one example of (presumably) Kinsella’s love of creating shorthand people to create generic pathos, making much of his being constantly bothered by people making pilgrimages to his doorstep to ask him the meaning of life and such, that doesn’t interfere with real life; this movie isn’t as bold and crass as the later Forrest Gump which would tug at the same collective-memory-magical-realism heartstrings so it does indeed trade in either invented or relatively obscure souls, but the intended effect is much the same. Old baseball men, tainted by scandal and early retirement and otherwise, long to play again because it’s the entire meaning of their lives because that’s what we’re told; Lancaster’s Moonlight Graham is a beloved and sainted figure because we’re given the information to craft him as such in some of the endless, arbitrary expository dialogue rampant throughout the film — he also has healing powers and you know he’s important because of who plays him, not to mention the way the camera dramatically reveals his face. In other words we don’t come about the film’s carefully dictated emotions organically at any point because the characterizations at every level are so threadbare and generic; we have to be told, point by point, how we’re meant to feel, with no room left for ambiguity or error. The film even single-handedly absolves Shoeless Joe of wrongdoing in the White Sox fixing scandal, which is evidently hardly a settled question over a century later.
It’s manipulative, sure, but lots of movies are; more to the point it’s simply bad writing, with most of its silly conflicts clearly only intended to pad out the running time — there’s an especially strange, seemingly Close Encounters-derived sideline toward the finale that has Costner throwing a shockingly childlike tantrum when he isn’t invited along with Mann to be wished into the cornfield with the boys, apparently missing the memo everyone got in the film’s first ten minutes that the cornfield represents death. There is then an exchange along the lines of “Is there a heaven?” “Oh yeah; it’s the place dreams come true.” It doesn’t stop there, but I won’t burden you with the rest. And finally, the foreclosure problem is solved thanks to the magical little girl who knew all along that people would drive from all around, motivated by some unseen force, to line up and go to the baseball field, but to see what, one wonders? Will they somehow be able to observe the ghost players who are invisible to most parties? If so, why was their invisibility — which arbitrarily ended when the young Karin fell from the bench — a source of conflict in the first place? It makes no sense, which is not what makes it shapeless drivel, sloppy and dramatically facile, but simply underlines that everyone involved had so much confidence in the empty pleasure buttons of its vague, hokey image set, the superficial therapy it offers for aged-out hippie imitators who disappointed themselves but won’t admit it, that a coherent story wasn’t actually required.
And they were correct; the film proved successful, popular and critically lauded. And more besides: there is a surplus residual shame from the 62nd Academy Awards, much of it reported and commented upon at the time. The largest controversy was the snubbing of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, easily the most resonant American film of that year and quite a popular one at that. On top of that humiliation, the big winner of the night turned out to be the distressingly old-fashioned white savior fantasy Driving Miss Daisy, a film that feels more like a relic than Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life and has vastly less to say about the cultural fissures it attempts to address. Comparing the two in terms of their sociopolitical content, intelligence and vitality is nothing short of laughable. Three of the other nominees in the Best Picture category scarcely deal at all with the hot-button matter of race at the center of Do the Right Thing, or simply ignore it; they were Peter Weir’s full-length expansion of this movie’s embarrassing anti-censorship scene, Dead Poets Society; Jim Sheridan’s routine misery porn exercise My Left Foot; and Oliver Stone’s Ron Kovic biopic Born on the Fourth of July which covers Kovic’s childhood in much the same misty-eyed nostalgia as Robinson’s film covers everything. Certain exhausting trends in awards bait of the time are obvious just from these examples.
But lastly there was Field of Dreams, only otherwise graced with a token Screenplay nomination within the major categories. This film does very obliquely acknowledge race despite its setting and its outmoded attitudes. It has a major Black character who, despite his intellectualism and Jones’ formidable performance, is essentially a Magical Negro figure, even if one who’s impatient with the distinction, so to say that it “deals” in any sense with the same explosive questions as Do the Right Thing would be an egregiously tonedeaf argument at best, but it is not nearly as painful in this regard as Driving Miss Daisy, which feels like a holdover presentation from an earlier generation, not just earlier than Costner’s (born 1955), Robinson’s (1950) and Kinsella’s (1935) but older even than Lancaster’s (1913). What’s more bothersome about Field of Dreams is that unlike Daisy, it does seem to fancy itself a modern story, a story specifically for the ’80s as an outgrowth of the ’60s, and demonstrates that none of those involved have any empathy for the universal urgency of youth as opposed to the urgency of their specific youth — they can collectively declare “the ’60s,” like some monolithic device, to have been a well-intentioned time in which we all had some pleasant ideas but simply went too far afield from the values of our elders, who should’ve been treated with honor rather than aggression.
But this ignores that the social advancements of those times, alluded to only very superficially in the film itself, which you’ll remember pretends to actually be concerned with 1919 rather than 1989 and 1967, really were matters of generational schism — read an op-ed page from 1965 or watch any stock footage of an integrating school or mass protest if you’d like to remember why “anger” toward “parents” wasn’t just an adolescent rite of passage but was often a matter of justice and moral righteousness, much as it is today when we’re still faced with new variations on the same issues, still at the same fever pitch and the same tendency of corporate-mandated mainstream culture to either whistle past all of it or emptily court its buzzwords. Someday, if we all survive, we’ll get another Field of Dreams and those who faded into the woodwork when the going got tough will pat themselves on the back for fully participating in its grandiose hollowness.
That’s why the most infuriating moment in this awful film is its final seconds, with a title card proclaims that it is all “FOR OUR PARENTS.” It doesn’t specify if it means the cast and crew’s parents, or the collective society’s parents, surely intentionally. Somehow the one-dimensional smugness of that dedication is what really twists the knife; the mere memory of Do the Right Thing or, maybe more pertinently, of Agnès Varda’s 1968 documentary Black Panthers or of Costa-Gavras’ fellow Best Picture nominee Z, even of Monterey Pop and James Brown’s Live at the Boston Garden or any given footage of the ’68 Chicago riots, and on and on, is enough to inflict visions of the celluloid frame containing this message simply incinerating, preferably along with the entire film. But here’s an important message about growing up for you: as adults we decide what occupies our time, and I look forward to spending the rest of a hopefully lengthy life never again seeing or even thinking about this piece of shit. Whoops, I forgot to be dispassionate and philosophical.