When it’s on: Sunday, 2 August (1.35 pm)
You’ll forgive me if this one is a little meandering (Reader’s voice ‘You don’t normally apologise for that‘), but I really love Field of Dreams and, as is often the case with favourite movies, some of the reasons are personal as well as because of the picture itself. For one thing, it’s a baseball film, linking the sport to wistful memories of more innocent and youthful times. I’m unsure how that works, not being American and frankly failing to see the appeal of what to me looks like glorified rounders, but then I don’t suppose the identity of the sport really matters. And when it comes to baseball, I call to mind Don DeLillo’s epic novel Underworld, with its nostalgia-fuelled opening chapter and the game’s purpose as a running theme. Here’s a quote from the book:
‘That’s the thing about baseball, Cotter. You do what they did before you. That’s the connection you make. There’s a whole long line. A man takes his kid to the game and thirty years later this is what they talk about when the poor old mutt’s wasting away in the hospital.’
Very evocative, possibly true, and really I can picture this being the case with my ‘old man’ and me someday, not discussing some ancient baseball game but possibly the first Middlesbrough match we took in together (a 6-0 win over Leicester City, since you’re wondering, and no, it never got close to being as good again). For baseball read football, or indeed any sport of your preference, I guess. I even get the point about simpler times made by the film. In Field of Dreams, the baseball diamond built by Kevin Costner’s character ends up showcasing great players from the past, notably ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and the seven other White Sox members banned from the sport in light of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Shoeless Joe (Ray Liotta) reveals that not only was the ban an injustice (it was; the players were acquitted in court but the ban was upheld by the League’s commissioner) but the money and fame meant nothing. All he and his compatriots wanted was to play, to experience the food smells from the stands, the touch of the grass, the joie de vivre of just being out there. It’s an uncynical statement that’s supposed to evoke memories of a time in baseball before the money involved became too great, the sponsorship and TV rights dictating everything and thereby robbing us of the simple pleasure of enjoying the sport. It’s impossible not to see a similar sentiment among football fans, the era before the Premiership came into being and Britain’s national game fell into the pocket of Sky’s cash-rich owners. One of my best memories of that game against Leicester was that the home team discovered its scoring touch. Each goal provoked a mass celebration in the stands, notably the Holgate End at Ayresome Park, which was just a big terrace. The crowd would surge forward, a big wave of humanity crashing into each other, and it was exhilarating with a slight element of danger. That has gone, as has Ayresome. Middlesbrough’s current ground, the Riverside, is an all-seater stadium. You’re pretty much told when you’re allowed to stand up, piped in music punctuating every goal. Something’s been lost. The spontaneity, I think.
So perhaps something has gone from the game, and whilst it’s a more exciting sport to watch the connection we felt with the players from the past is not there much now. The film closes with cars snaking to the Kinsella farm, lured on by the promise of experiencing some magic from the past, which watching old baseball players will evoke. It’s a nice message, reminiscent of old Frank Capra pictures in many ways by using fantasy elements to conjure a sentimental resolution, and there’s nothing wrong with that. One of the things I really like about Field of Dreams is its blank refusal to explain why the events in it unfold. Whose is the voice? Who tells Ray (Costner) to build his baseball field? Why rope in long lost 1960s author, Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), along with a Doctor from some Minnesota backwater, Archibald Graham (Burt Lancaster)? The answers are elusive and up to the viewer’s interpretation, and I rather like that. We understand why Ray receives the message; he’s the sort of uncomplicated fellow who grew up in the sixties and is just about willing enough to go along with the crazy plan, despite the misgivings of his fellow corn farmers and with unresolved father issues to deal with, and the field will give him that opportunity eventually.
The cast in Field of Dreams is universally fantastic. Any fan of Star Wars is automatically a worshipper at the altar of Jones and this is almost certainly his career best performance, drawing out all the world weariness of his character’s retreat from the glory years, and then having this stripped away as he joins Ray’s quest to meet the field’s ‘demands’. Mann is presented as a complex man, but one who’s in touch with the potential of baseball as a unifying influence. Lancaster was talked into taking the part of Doc Graham (his last movie role) and plays it wonderfully. Aged 76 and cast beautifully as the Doctor at the end of his practising days, there’s a glint in his eye that hints at his mental acceptance of the fantastic story Ray’s telling him, which is consistent with the appearance of his younger self (Frank Whaley) as a callow rookie to play with the big boys and show the potential he never realised in actuality. Graham’s character is a great sop to those of us who’ve come close to achieving our dreams, but only close. The field can make them come true.
Amy Madigan floods her underused character with bags of fiery personality, and I also like Timothy Busfield as her brother, the closest Field of Dreams comes to in providing a villain as the voice of reason, warning constantly of the financial risks involved in tearing down valuable crops for a ‘useless’ baseball diamond. But the film lives or dies with Kevin Costner, at the time on his way to becoming a big star with Dances with Wolves a year away and the likes of No Way Out and The Untouchables showcasing his talent at playing clean shaven good guys. Costner was reluctant to accept the part of Ray as he’d recently made a baseball film, Bull Durham, but saw the potential of Field of Dreams to be ‘this generation’s It’s a Wonderful Life‘ and indeed brings an easy-going charm reminiscent of James Stewart to the part. In his mid-thirties, Costner was just right – old enough to know better, fanciful enough to pretty much go for it.
I realise I haven’t said a lot about the film and what happens in it. My feeling is that it’s better to approach it fresh, soaking up the story as weaved by director Phil Alden Robinson and going with the flow. Robinson saw Field of Dreams very much as a pet project, a labour of love, spending several years working on it before it came to life, and he ensures that its events move along at a fair lick so that you don’t have time to question the film’s logic as it jogs on to the next plot point. It doesn’t do to think about it too much, rather viewers are encouraged to just enjoy it, the sense of idealism and wonder that it carries. There aren’t many films made that contain the latter. We’re a jaded bunch and want our fantasy to come with hard-bitten truths. But sometimes, a movie comes along that’s just nice, wears its heart on its sleeve and asks us to take a journey. ‘Wonderful’ sums it up rather nicely, I think.
Field of Dreams: ****