“If you build it they will come” revisited, or Field of Dreams in 2020

I was looking for an uplifting bit of escapism.

Field of Dreams is a film that I’ve always loved. It still moved me when I saw it this weekend but now in a totally new way.

One of the small consolations of the pandemic is the clarity we are offered. Because life as usual isn’t possible, because things have been slowed down, we see and hear our arts as if for the first time. But that’s not always a good thing.

I was vaguely aware of the politics in the story of Field of Dreams, but watching it this week as we saw Americans take to the streets protesting the murder of George Floyd, the resonances were impossible to ignore. I understand the story differently now.

Novelist WP Kinsella (1935 – 2016)

I hope you noticed that it’s not just about baseball, that the game is a backdrop rather than the real subject.

Field of Dreams is based on Shoeless Joe a novel by Canadian WP Kinsella.

If you’ve seen the film you’d probably enjoy the book, although there’s a great deal that comes across differently with the help of cinema, the actors & the music of James Horner.

I make no apology that I’m offering spoilers for a novel & a film that appeared more than 30 years ago, back in the 1980s.

The protagonist of the book has a similar surname to the novelist. The farmer we meet played by Kevin Costner is Ray Kinsella. Ray is not your usual farmer though. He seems like a stranger in a strange land, both on his farm, and especially when he starts to hear voices & see visions: leading him to build a baseball field in the middle of the corn on his Iowa farm. Ray’s father had been a ballplayer and an admirer of Shoeless Joe.

The Shoeless Joe of the title is of course Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was among the players given a lifetime ban from professional baseball by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first major league commissioner, and a figure determined to bring integrity to baseball.  The story of the Chicago White Sox players taking bribes to throw the 1919 World Series has become known as the Black Sox Scandal. If you want to know more about this, you must see Eight Men Out, a film that will give you most of the facts of the complex story of bribes and bettors. And in passing it will offer you the best performance of John Cusack’s career. Unlike Field of Dreams, it’s about the hard realities of the game & the business of baseball, surely the best movie ever made about the game.

The two films –Eight Men Out (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989) – might be yin and yang, a complementary pair of opposites. Argh now I have to pull out Eight Men Out and watch it again.

Field of Dreams is less about the business of baseball than the poetry of the game especially when understood in context with the value of real estate.  That juxtaposition seems very timely in a summer when artists are going broke because of a pandemic. It’s a story about possibilities, about ghosts & visions, more a tale of what one wishes would happen rather than what really did happen.

So let’s talk about Field of Dreams. The ghosts of the Black Sox players, beginning with Shoeless Joe, begin to appear on Ray’s surreal baseball field amid the corn. Are they ghosts?

Ray’s wife & daughter can see the players but Ray’s brother-in-law, who only sees the land for its real estate value, can’t, and thinks the others are crazy for seeing something that isn’t there.

It’s a highly theatrical film given that we’re dealing with discrepant awareness, and that that the discrepancy is political.

We’re taken on a bit of a road trip, as Ray first persuades novelist Terence Mann – originally JD Salinger in Kinsella’s book—to come with him to a game at Fenway Park in Boston. The two of them then go looking for Archie “Moonlight” Graham, a ballplayer whose entire career totaled precisely 1/3 of an inning, before retiring to the life of a country doctor. Circling back home –after Ray has a middle of the night encounter with Graham’s ghost back in 1972, perhaps the very night Graham passed away—Ray & Terence pick up a young hitch-hiker looking for a chance to play baseball, none other than Archie Graham.

The last few minutes of the film are almost too tidy, as they tie up the knots in the story.

  • Ray was estranged from his father, both because baseball had become like a chore rather than a game, and after reading a Terence Mann book (perhaps analogous to Catcher in the Rye). The book somehow would epitomize their quarrel
  • Ray regrets what he said to his father (that he couldn’t respect someone whose hero was a criminal, meaning Shoeless Joe), and that he didn’t get the chance to take it back before his father died
  • Terence Mann suggests that the whole ordeal is Ray’s penance
  • Archie Graham gets his chance to play, finally
  • Ray’s little girl is choking on a hotdog: leading to one of the great moments of the film, when youthful Archie drops his glove and again gives up baseball to become the old doctor Graham, saving the child’s life
  • Terence the troubled novelist is invited to walk out into the corn, perhaps to rediscover his passion for writing
  • The voices in Ray’s head had been saying “ease his pain”, which Ray thought of at first was the pain of Shoeless Joe; at the end we hear that it could just as well be the pain of Ray or of his father
  • We meet a youthful ghost version of Ray’s dad, at this point looking younger than Ray, looking in fact a whole lot like JFK, the dead father of this generation: at least for the liberal left.

In the last scene of the film Ray belatedly (because he never could do it during his actual lifetime) dares to ask his father’ ghost to play catch with him. I have always been conflicted about this scene. I have misgivings about this moment, which is so syrupy sweet you might need insulin.  Even so I tend to prefer to believe in a film even when it feels contrived. yes it’s a humongous metaphor.  I can live with that.

But that’s the thing. In their reconciliation, we could be watching the story of what’s still unfolding even now in America, the break between generations.  The split we see between right & left persists like a family schism. Fathers and sons are still estranged. But Field of Dreams feels today, alas, like a liberal fantasy because of course it’s from a largely-Canadian & northern perspective, largely disrespectful of the attitudes you see among those who wear the red MAGA hats, who might identify with the farmers of Iowa who mocked Ray for being crazy enough to plow his field under, wasting a precious cash crop and bizarrely putting up a ball diamond in the midst of the corn instead.  One might ask whose dreams are signified in this film.

While James Earl Jones may be a black man with a huge role, he’s the only black person we see in the whole film, admittedly because the action is in Iowa where every single person seems to be white. Twice in the film a white person asks “is this heaven?” and is told “It’s Iowa”.

How does that feel if you’re a black person watching this film? Is heaven a place with only white people? Or maybe I’m just a bit overwhelmed by what I see on the news this week.

The split inside Ray’s family (between those who are able and willing to see the ghostly ballplayers, and those who only see land that is worth money) is apparently healed when (after the choking child is healed) his brother-in-law now suddenly can also see the ghostly players, muttering “don’t sell the farm Ray”.

I wish there could be a real healing between the estranged and conflicting groups in America.  Are they included in this dream? I hope so.

And the last thing we see in the film as Ray and his dad play catch, are the cars, now lining up for miles across Iowa –a lovely image to be sure—lending support to the notion “if you build it they will come”, a dream for the artists & visionaries.

Miraculously Ray & his family dodge foreclosure & bankruptcy because as the little child said “people will come”.

If only.  It’s a beautiful dream, one that I always wanted to believe.  I guess I might seem a bit foolish to say it’s too good to be true. It’s a dream after all.  What I wish for is a real reconciliation, between MAGA & BLM, between Democrats & GOP, Liberals & Conservatives. The film hints at this, and maybe I’m asking too much.

But that’s my dream.

Yet in the summer of 2020 ballparks and concert halls are closed.  I miss live performance, I miss live sports, indeed, I am missing baseball and opera and many other things besides. The Stratford Festival and the Metropolitan Opera and many others are likely closed for the rest of 2020. Lovely as that image of the cars may be it’s hard to imagine anyone getting out of the cars, or filling the lobbies at Roy Thomson Hall or Four Seasons Centre or Bell Lightbox, let alone our actual churches, temples & mosques.

Transcendence awaits the all-clear signal. In the meantime, I will keep watching the films, enjoying the chance to escape.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Popular music & culture, Spirituality & Religion, Sports and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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