Friday, March 23, 2012

Favorite Films: "Field of Dreams"

I didn't grow up in a "sports family," though in high school and college I fell into friendships with people who loved baseball.  I tried to learn the game, but it didn't take long for me to realize that I would never love baseball, not like they did.  It was their intense passion for the game, their unwavering commitment that drew me to them.

Watching Field of Dreams again, now that a lot of life has passed, made me think of them and their love of the game, which is at the core of this staggeringly good fantasy. You may know the justifiably famous monologue delivered by James Earl Jones late in the film: "The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time." Hearing it again got me thinking ...

If I never had a particular fondness for baseball, what is it about this film that resonates so deeply?  I think back to those friends -- obsessed with baseball, defined by baseball, just as I was obsessed with and defined by movies and others, I would come to discover, were defined by other things: comic books, music, politics.  Indeed, replace the word "baseball" in that speech with any of those things and it remains just as valid: "It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again."

Isn't that what defines anyone's passion?

Its ability to be simultaneously about baseball and about, well, anything that moves Field of Dreams way out of the realm of sports movies and into a completely different dimension.  Field of Dreams has at its big, generous heart something that today's Hollywood dares not touch: faith.

The "Ray" mentioned in Jones's speech, of course, is Ray Kinsella, played with low-key affability by Kevin Costner, who has never been better than this.  Though he lives in Iowa, he's a Berkeley-educated liberal who faces a remarkable test of faith.  That's a remarkable point to consider given that, two decades on, Hollywood (if not the rest of the world) acts as if faith is reserved for Southern conservatives.

It begins when this near-broke farmer hears The Voice, which sends him the memorable words: "If you build it, he will come" -- not bothering to offer any helpful pointers like what those pronouns might mean.  The greatest strength of Field of Dreams may be its willful insistence to explain absolutely nothing that happens on screen; even among fantasy films, it's rare to find one so confident that it moves straight through the story, never trying to clarify what is inexplicable.

Ray's solution leads him to find reclusive writer Terrence Mann (Jones) and the long-dead Doc Graham (Burt Lancaster, impossibly charming), who in turn underscore the film's real subject: It's not about baseball, it's about dreams.  It's about how life changes what we look like and how we think, but cannot change what we believe and what we yearn for.

In a film brimming over with emotionally honest scenes, none is better than the interplay between Ray and Doc Graham, who almost achieved his dream of becoming a professional baseball player, but didn't.  Ray is incredulous that the missed opportunity didn't result in a life of regret and bitterness.  No, the doctor explains, the real shame would have been if he hadn't lived the rich and happy life that came after.

It's in that quiet moment, a scene that ends with a smile that is at once mysterious and altogether genuine, that Field of Dreams proves why it remains such an extraordinary, rewarding movie.

In ways I never realized before, it's quite a brave film, particularly when seen in today's culture of reality-TV-driven instant fame and obsessive need to succeed. Filled with characters whose lives seem, on the surface at least, to have been ruined by the very thing they love the most, Field of Dreams presents us with a hard-won truth: that happiness and fulfillment are obtained not by achieving material success, but by believing in impossible dreams.

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