Field of Dreams (1989)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in All Play and No Work | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Even if you explain to your kids that the ghosts of their favorite players won’t show up, they’ll still want you to build a baseball field in the backyard.

“If you build it, he will come.” It’s a phrase everyone knows and uses intermittently – even people who haven’t seen the movie. Well if you’re one of the sad few who haven’t seen it, make time in your schedule and watch it. For those who have seen it, make time and watch it again.

To leave some of the mystery to this family film, I’ll be brief in describing the plot. A middle-aged farmer, Ray (Kevin Costner), is walking in his cornfield around dusk. His wife (Amy Madigan) and daughter (Gaby Hoffmann in her first film) are playing on the porch nearby. Suddenly a voice whispers, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray is the only one who hears it, and obviously thinks he’s insane. Eventually Ray convinces himself that the voice wants him to build a baseball field to appease the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the infamous eight “Black Sox” players banned from baseball for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series for gamblers. Ray does so at the risk of losing his farm and reputation in the neighborhood. Over the course of the film the voice makes other ambiguous demands (“Ease his pain,” “Go the distance,” etc.), each of which lead to extraordinary results and the appearance of a new character. First it’s Jackson (Ray Liotta), then a reclusive author based on JD Salinger (James Earl Jones), then a short-lived player-turned doctor (Burt Lancaster in his final film role), and finally, you know what, I’m not going to spoil it.

As long as you’re willing to 1083_019971.jpgsuspend disbelief – and, believe me, it’s easier than you may think after reading the ridiculous plot – Field of Dreams is extremely enjoyable (and for the whole family, no less!). Written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson (also writer/director for Sneakers), Field of Dreams has stood the test of time … literally. The studio built the field in Dyersville, Iowa and the family that owned it decided to keep it for visitors passing through and neighborhood kids to play on. As of two decades later, the field still stands. When I tried to join the Wisconsin Arts Board’s effort to convince the governor of the value in keeping tax incentives for filmmakers (a fight we eventually lost), I cited Field of Dreams as an incredible example of what it can do for tourism. When I think of Iowa, I think of corn and that field. Even the Iowa Tourism Board released a bumper sticker with a quote from the film (“Is this heaven?”).

The quote references a religious theme that plays on throughout the film. There are ominous voices, visions, ghosts, rebirth, and a father and son who are one in the same. But Field of Dreams doesn’t draw literal connections to religion so much as it argues that baseball is the game of the gods. Jackson describes the sounds and smells, the feeling of holding a ball or glove close to your face, about how there’s nothing that comes close to it. With the help of James Earl Jones, in the finest role of his career, Dreams argues baseball as a sport above the rest, a game that means much more than the final score. It’s Jones’ eloquent, show-stopping speech at the end of the film that drives this message home.

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s 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. It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again.”

I don’t mean to say that Dreams has enjoyed the same universal success as its most memorable quote. In fact, it’s kind of a love-it-or-hate-it situation. The Oscars loved it (nominations for adapted screenplay, best picture, and James Horner’s score). The American Film Institute loved it (ranked sixth on greatest fantasy films and 39th for best quote – guess which one). Channel Four loved it (ranked No. 9 for best tearjerkers). Even WP Kinsella, whose book Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa was the basis for the film, loved it (his only complaints in a review were that the villain wasn’t bad enough and the daughter didn’t look like her parents).

Premiere magazine hated it (ranked it among the most overrated of all time with the likes of American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, and Forrest Gump). I guess the nay-sayers don’t think it deserves the status of iconic fantasy or sports movie, alongside the likes of Hoosiers, Caddyshack, and Star Wars. I’d say a more likely explanation (because Field of Dreams really doesn’t fit with those genres that well) is that haters have contempt for its utopianism (close in that respect to the films of Frank Capra) or even that it’s “unrealistic.” I always love it when someone uses that argument, because I get to use my favorite James Agee quote: “If you go to the movies looking for realism, turn around and look at the people behind you dribbling into their popcorn. If you want to be entertained, look at the screen.” Case closed.

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