Monday, May 19, 2014

Why I never saw "Field of Dreams," and more follies

Joe Posnanski has an interesting piece out about the baseball movie Field of Dreams. (H/T Right Field.) I didn’t know that a lot of people absolutely loathe Field of Dreams, although I'm not surprised to find it out.

My own relationship to the movie is more amorphous; when it first came out, it was a movie that I very much wanted to see – the mysticism and existentialism appealed to me.  Then Dances With Wolves came out.  It was a movie I was predisposed to hate, and hate it I did.*  There were, I thought, only two good things about Dances With Wolves – the performance by Graham Greene, which was Oscar-worthy, and the score by John Barry.  (But then, c’mon - it’s John Barry!  You were expecting someone playing a xylophone maybe?)

*I didn’t want to see it; I was more or less forced to go to it because my wife and I were invited by one of her best friends and her husband.  Of such sacrifices are successful 20+ year marriages made.  It's also how I talked my wife into going with me to see the re-release of Apocalypse Now.

What I disliked the most, perhaps, was Kevin Costner.  It wasn’t just Costner’s acting, which was wooden at best, but the fact that he’d produced and directed the movie, which I thought an overstuffed, elongated piece of propaganda.  At that moment, I decided that I didn’t want anything to do with Costner or any movie he was in.* And since that included Field of Dreams, there went that.

*Excepting JFK, which we, once again, were forced to see along with my wife’s friend and her husband.  I suppose that says something about their tastes in movies.  I actually thought JFK was pretty good, providing you understood you were watching a fantasy movie.  Much like Field of Dreams, I suppose.

I realize that so far this piece, which started out to be about Field of Dreams, has in fact been about anything but.  So to bring it back to topic: Posnanski talks about how he understands all of the negatives that the film’s haters bring up: the sentimentality (which crosses over the fatal border from nostalgia), the hokie, saccharine dialogue, the Capra-esque themes (Capra being another director I don’t much care for), even the part about making Shoeless Joe Jackson right-handed instead of left-handed.  But, for all that, it was his father’s favorite movie, and it’s about one of Posnanski’s favorite things – baseball.

Poslnanski describes Field of Dreams as “not only the strangest baseball movie ever made, it’s one of the strangest movies ever made.”  And as you read his description (if you haven’t seen the movie), you’d have to agree with him.
A man in a cornfield hears a voice. The voice tells him to build a baseball diamond so that the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson can come back and play baseball again. The voice tells him to go find a famous and reclusive writer (in the book, it is J.D. Salinger; in the movie it is someone named Terence Mann) and take him to a baseball game. The voice tells him to go find a dead ballplayer who only got to play one inning of one game.
There’s more, but I think that gives you the flavor.  All of this sounds like something I’d have been inclined to like, or at least be intrigued by.  The thing about it, he says, you have to open yourself up to a movie like this, to run the risk of being burned or confused by a movie that’s “so unapologetically hopeful.  It is so unapologetically optimistic.”

And maybe that’s where the idea would lose it for me.  Perhaps had the movie been written by someone like Rod Serling, it would have been a bit different.   Serling was no stranger to sentiment, as anyone who’s seen the Twilight Zone episodes “Of Late I Think of Willoughby” or “Walking Distance” would attest.  Serling’s magic, when he wasn’t busy being didactic, was that he could give a scenario like this an edge, some kind of twist that convinced the protagonist it was time to stop looking backward and start looking forward.  That didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate the past, or learn from it, or even keep it close to him – just that you can’t live in the past for more than the length of time you spend in it, the truth being that the present becomes the past almost instantly, and we have enough trouble keeping up with the present.  Vintage Serling could have taken this fantasy concept and honed it with the edge that would keep people from gagging on the dialogue or the music; he would, in fact, have shown that the only place a field of dreams can exist is in the Twilight Zone.

In the end, though, I’m left critiquing a movie I haven’t seen, and probably won’t.  And the whole point of this piece, my piece, isn’t Field of Dreams, or JFK, or Kevin Costner, or even Rod Serling.

It’s Posnanski.  It’s how good a writer he is, that he can compel you to spend some time thinking about, and writing about, a movie you haven’t seen, and probably won’t.  The fact that a writer – strike that, a good writer – can do that is one of the things that made me want to be a writer in the first place.  And so if I ever do see Field of Dreams, I’ll probably have him to thank for it.  (Or curse him for it, depending on what I thought of it.)  But it’s a reminder that every writer needs every once in a while, the reminder about the power of the written word, the reminder to keep writing.

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