Friday, April 13, 2012

Field of Dreams: the Costner Baseball Movie Trilogy

The Mariner's begin their home season today! They have been on the road for a month if you count back to their opening in Japan. To celebrate the beginning of baseball I would like to meditate upon how we think about baseball as reflected in our national narratives in the movies. Over a couple of entries I will talk about the Kevin Costner baseball movie trilogy--—Field of Dreams, Bull Durham and For Love of the Game.

Costner moves like an athlete. His lanky and lean body moves with grace and surety. As he ages, he thickens and feels more careworn, but careful, but still fluid and competent. He was made for baseball movies, and his presence gives credibility to athlete roles that often actors cannot carry off. He embodies a type of laconic, flawed authenticity that lies at the core of so many American dreams.

Many fans regard Field of Dreams as one of the greatest baseball movies. It’s based upon a fine book called Joeless Joe by W. P.  Kinsella, and the struggles of the movie center upon a vaguely disillusioned and failing farmer living in Iowa with his wife and child trying, not very well, to make her old family farm work.

Costner does not even play a baseball player. The myth of baseball drives the movie, not baseball itself. In the movie a Platonic form of baseball lies just beyond an almost Celtic permeable boundary between planes of existence. Anyone who has experienced the beauty and joy of gazing upon a baseball diamond knows how the space and rhythm of baseball places us one remove from life. A rip in the fabric of space-time permits great baseball players of the past to sneak through to play in a farm field in Iowa. Some like Joeless Joe Jackson emerge from the cornfield for redemption; many others come to play the game.

Costner’s farmis  going broke but he barely seems to notice. His own alienation and the loss of his father haunt him. He remembers his father as broken and sad but who once played as a minor league player. Costner’s character Ray Kinsella rememberers refusing to play catch with his father in pique and rejection and bitterly regrets the action. He seems so preoccupied with his own pain he barely recognizes the pain he is inflicting upon his loving family.

A Voice, yes, a voice, calls him to “build it and they will come.” Later the voice calls him to “ease his pain.” This begins an odyssey where Kinsella over the violent objections of his practical brother-in-law and despite the deep misgivings of his wife risks his family and livelihood to plow up acres of superb Iowa farmland to build a baseball field. The players do arrive, although they will not let Ty Cobb play because everyone hates him. Yet only Ray and his daughter and wife can see them play.

Called to “ease his pain,” Ray  heads on a road trip and kidnaps a J.D. Salinger like novelist Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones to bring him to Iowa. Mann vehemently denies ever writing or caring about baseball until he truly sees the players in the Iowa field and admits it. The road trip ends by picking up Moonbeam Graham a young player who had only one at bat and ended as a beloved country doctor. Moonbeam later crosses the boundary and returns to his youth to play with the major leaguers he worshiped.

Ray answers the voices and creates a space for baseball players to play amid the Iowa sun, but his farm careens towards foreclosure. His loyal and loving wife has reached her limits with him and is about to see her farm destroyed. His daughter barely understands the tensions in the family and wonders at his absence even when he is physically present. Ray's dreams that baseball will redeem him are destroying his real life, and his brother gloats as he gets ready to take over the farm. 

Ray builds the Field Of Dreams, and they do come. Into that dream space of Platonic truth, players arrive for play and redemption; the novelist arrives to be reminded of his own passion and abandon his seclusion; and Moonlight Graham gets to bat in the big leagues.

In a central moment for the film and American memory, the farm will be saved because Ray built it and people will come from miles away to be there. Terence Mann’s monologue sums up the mythical role of baseball:  

Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person.….And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has 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, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.
The movie portrays baseball as a medium of identity and renewal for people. The combination of individual achievement and integrated teamwork capture an abiding American narrative. The movie highlights how powerfully we Americans link identity and history through sports. Ray Kinsella, Terence Mann and Doc Graham find meaning through baseball that eludes them in other aspects of their life. For many American fans, it matters not the sport, loyalty to team and following the team’s triumphs and failures moors identity and meaning in their lives in powerful and scary ways.

The Costner trilogy, however, insists that sports cannot provide the deepest meaning and importance of life. Baseball brings us together, but the critical decisions involve relations with others. Mann enters the Platonic dimension to rediscover wonder; Doc Graham again leaves baseball to save a human being, but in the end Ray makes the deepest discovery.

He risks his farm, his future and thoughtlessly his wife and daughter for a dream, a dream for him to come and to ease his pain.While reality falls apart and while others find renewal in baseball, Ray discovers his young father playing with the dead guys. He introduces himself, and his father asks, “Is this heaven?”

Ray answers, “No it’s Iowa.” He turns and looks at the house and sees Amy Madigan who plays his wife with his daughter and reconsiders, “maybe it is heaven.”

Ray discovers  sports and our relation to sports makes no sense to us unless it brings us back to the real ground of our humanity—family, friends, and love.

As his father walks back to the Platonic field, Ray hesitantly calls, “dad, would you like a catch?”
His dad replies, “yes I’d like that.”

Only baseball could reveal this insight. Only at baseball can people actually watch the game and talk, converse and deepen friendship. No other sport permits that amid their noise, violence and hurly-burly. 

The movie ends with an endless line of cars moving to the Field of Dreams while Ray and his father play the game of catch that has haunted Ray all these years.

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