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Field of Dreams is a popular Film Blanc baseball fantasy from 1989, the one with the magic cornfield. Universal's beautiful new Blu-ray edition will erase memories of visually undistinguished cable TV showings. I know people who will re-watch this picture just to take in its relaxing visual of the farmhouse next to the baseball diamond.
Writer-director Phil Alden Robinson's goes after and achieves an appeal that might be described as neo-Norman Rockwell. The leading characters are written as ex-counterculture types but are really throwbacks to the conservative innocence of 1930s fantasies. As Marshall MacLuhan said, "We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future." What subject could be more nostalgic for Americans than baseball?
Ex- Berkeley activists Ray and Annie Kinsella (Kevin Costner & Amy Madigan) are doing okay with their Iowa farm when Ray repeatedly hears a voice while tending his crop: Build it and he will come." Seeing a vision of a baseball diamond in the cornfield, Ray decides that he should do what the voice says. With Annie's support Ray goes into debt to construct the playing field, even erecting bleachers and light stanchions. Before the field is completed the Kinsellas have become the laughing stock of the county. Worse, Ray can no longer earn enough to pay off his bank loan, as he's plowed under a sizeable chunk of his cornfield. Ray can't expect anyone to understand his reasoning: he thinks that by building the field, he'll be visited by Shoeless Joe Jackson, the baseball star expelled in 1919 for allegedly attempting to throw the World Series.
Ray's voices return, sending him on more mysterious missions of faith. He stays true to his dreams, and pursues them to their end.
Field of Dreams avoids most of the traps of modern Films Blanc by keeping its concept simple and its theme hazy. Ray Kinsella meets several other characters equally in search of personal dreams, all of which are answered. To protect the innocent from spoilers, I'll just say that the strangers are played by James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Ray Liotta and Dwier Brown.
Fanciful baseball stories have always been popular, especially whimsical ones about Angels in the Outfield or an inventor who creates a baseball that can't be hit (It Happens Every Spring). This 1980s update, from a book by W. P. Kinsella, is more of a "gee whiz" fantasy than a comedy. It shares with Angels in the Outfield the idea of invisible baseball players, the kind that can only be seen by spectators imbued with the appropriate Faith in Baseball. Ronald Reagan's 1980s produced a resurgence in baseball films. Costner came fresh from the rather adult Bull Durham. A few years before Robert Redford represented the Spirit of Baseball fighting corruption in The Natural. Audiences for Field of Dreams might just have seen Eight Men Out, John Sayles' anti-capitalist retelling of the Shoeless Joe Jackson story.
Field of Dreams pretty much nails the big disconnect in Middle America that expects all problems to be kept at arm's length. All we want is to be left in peace, but with a big house, a beautiful family and no money worries. Middle Americans expect their movies to fulfill their dreams and aspirations. If space and time must bend to resolve family problems, so be it. Ray Kinsella's family already seems to have avoided the pitfalls of American life just by being what they are: they're decent people, they own real estate and they're doing good honest work. Heaven's gates are supposed to open wide for folks like that.
Ray Kinsella's baseball experience has all the trapping of a religious miracle. The voices heard from nowhere are like Noah commanded to build an Ark or Abraham told to sacrifice his son. But Ray's visions are not exclusively his own. Apparently anybody can, if they have a heart ready to "hear and see": i.e., faith. At the end, an exodus of yearning Americans (that all hold baseball as the key metaphor in their dreams, I suppose) descends on Kinsella's farm. Although Field of Dreams makes no mention of religion, this miracle story is easily interpreted as standing in for a mass conversion to Christianity.
The similar Close Encounters of the Third Kind has the same quasi-religious underpinnings, with the aliens coming from outer space instead of "baseball heaven". Field of Dreams follows the CE3K pattern fairly closely. Puzzled strangers gather at a "holy site" to witness heavenly visions. One human even goes "into the spaceship", perhaps never to return.
Field of Dreams is a good Film Blanc in that it's well written and carefully directed to deflect sarcasm. It's almost impossible not to like it at some level. The acting stays in a pleasantly pure Gee-Whiz mode. The film makes literal references to Harvey (imaginary friends) and The Wizard of Oz (an irrational journey to discover one's destiny). The only difference between Phil Alden Robinson's fantasy and a Frank Capra picture is that modern society is no longer a comfortable place to be. Our heroes face their problems alone, without lovable neighbors to help them. When the hero goes to town, the other farmers stare at him and smirk behind their backs.
The movie pretends that gold old-fashioned Americanism can reconcile political divides. Amy Kinsella carries the torch for "the sixties", which here translates into standing up for decent human rights. The book-banning meeting is a spirited attempt to revive the specter of CapraCorn. Annie magically turns an auditorium of conservative book-banners into civil libertarians, just by calling her vicious debate partner a "Nazi cow". Anyone attending a civic meeting of any kind will find that the Nazi cows are usually a vocal and belligerent majority. (What, me cynical?)
Nostalgia for baseball will make Field of Dreams a must see; it's perfect for anyone who ever thumbed through a deck of baseball cards. The Kinsellas' dreams may seem shallow to some, yet Field of Dreams is neither insulting nor politically loaded, as are so many late-century Films Blanc. What Dreams May Come makes a whining mess out of a story of the Afterlife. The soft headed, revoltingly retrograde Forrest Gump says "nothing matters" but takes time out to blame liberals for everything. The recent The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a gimmick film that executes special effects miracles only to say absolutely nothing at all.
To produce a conflict, Ray's obnoxious brother-in-law threatens to seize the farm, like a corn-belt Simon Legree. I'd like to know what corner of Iowa is still broken up into small family farms. Obviously there must be more than a few, but we get no inkling of the existence of vast corporate farms that swallow up little property owners by buyouts, politics or economic strangulation. In that regard Field of Dreams resurrects a nostalgic la-la land. The real miracle is that the winning players and clever script keep our mind off politics and economics.
Kevin Costner is a good "gosh shucks" James Stewart clone, minus the speech tics and spastic gestures. The woefully underused Amy Madigan makes the chore of carrying all the "cute" dialogue baggage seem a privilege. James Earl Jones is always charming, despite being occasionally overused as a conduit for the author's deep thoughts. In one of his last films, Burt Lancaster is properly authoritative, mysterious and magical. Actually, the winner in the "supernatural elegance" category is Ray Liotta, a player more often associated with menacing psychos. Liotta seems to embody the soul of baseball's appeal. Young Frank Whalley fills in a key magical role as well. Ray's ball field becomes a sort of Grand Central Station for souls in Baseball Limbo, an arena where guys who were thrown out, never allowed to play, or refused to play catch with Daddy, get a second chance.
Field of Dreams caught on big with 1989 audiences that loved the notion that the spirit portal to the afterlife / heaven / Baseball Limbo could be entered just by walking into a cornfield. This visual conceit connects with the opening song of Oklahoma! It also connects with the horror notion in the Twilight Zone episode (and Twilight Zone: The Movie) about the demonic kid that "wishes people into the cornfield". Who knows what James Earl Jones will find in there?
Universal's Blu-ray of Field of Dreams makes the most of cinematographer John Lindley's relaxing images. Except for Ray's road trip most of the show takes place in the cornfield ball diamond or in Ray's house. 1 The film's picture and sound have been handsomely re-mastered. Lindley joins director Phil Alden Robinson on a feature commentary.
The disc extras were made for a DVD special editions in 1998 and 2004. Reversing a trend on its library Blu-rays, Universal has not dropped any of the featurettes. Scrapbook is an older making-of piece. Passing Along the Pastime is a collection of interview bites of actors and baseball players praising the movie, a theme that runs through all the extras. In Roundtable Kevin Costner hosts a home screening with baseball celebrities Johnny Bench, George Brett, and Bret Saberhagen; more wistful discussion of Field of Dreams ensues. Galena, Illinois Pinch Hits for Chisholm, Minnnesota takes us to the set of the town where Costner's character finds Burt Lancaster's character. And A Diamond in the Husks visits the farm used in the movie. The ball field is still there; the owners conduct visitor tours, without charging admission.
Phil Alden Robinson introduces a number of deleted scenes, some of which add unnecessary cute pieces of business to Amy Madigan's character. Finally, the disc contains an entire Bravo: From Page to Screen TV show on the movie.
Field of Dreams did respectable business and is a quiet favorite of many, a sleeper hit in all respects. The disc cover art is the original, which I always thought was patterned after the key art for Moonstruck.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Field of Dreams Blu-ray rates:
1. I have this theory about houses in movies. American audiences can't get enough of shows with pleasant houses that they can't really afford -- home ownership is a distant dream for a huge chunk of the population. They rarely resent movies that show people with modest jobs living in designer digs. That also may be why audiences resent scenes in which houses are gratuitously destroyed, like 1941.
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