Thursday, August 2, 2018

Reserved Seating Swings for the Fences: FIELD OF DREAMS

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo Timothy Busfield threw off the bleachers.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week we’re wrapping up the Kevin Costner baseball trilogy with my favorite of the bunch, 1989’s Field of Dreams, written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson (Sneakers, The Sum of All Fears). It tells the story of a flower child-turned-farmer named Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) who lives on an Iowa farm with his wife Annie (Amy Madigan, the Logan Marshall-Green to Holly Hunter’s Tom Hardy) and daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann). One night, Ray hears a voice in his field saying, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray interprets this cryptic message as him needing to convert many acres of his crop into a baseball field. Several members from the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, including Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), arrive to play on Ray’s field shortly after. Then Ray gets another message, followed by another. Along the way, we meet an influential 1960s writer named Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) and “Moonlight” Graham (played both by Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley), a doctor who came short of his dream to take an at-bat in the big leagues. Both men have a mysterious purpose that relates to Ray’s field. Ray does, too, but not in a way he’s expecting.

On this rewatch, I was really impressed by the fragility of this movie’s premise. It had to be in exactly the right hands for it to work or it would have been unbelievably silly. Luckily, it turned into one of the best fantasy movies ever made with a lot to say about universal truths and emotions. Rarely are even great films this magical. Costner, I’ve read, saw Field of Dreams as It’s a Wonderful Life for his generation. For me, this film is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I can easily find qualities about Field of Dreams that don’t entirely work for me, but none of the negative aspects matter in shaping my overall opinion of the movie. As a complete experience, I love Field of Dreams.
Rob: I was making my notes while watching, and I kept trying to find ways to best describe the movie’s premise and construction. Nothing I came up with was as good as “fragile,” which Field of Dreams absolutely is. It’s definitely a writer’s movie, one that will stop on a dime for epic proclamations on life, memory, and existence. It’s also an oddly segmented movie, with plot threads that don’t always feel like they fit together and which often run out of steam in awkward places (especially the first act, which ends with Ray essentially throwing up his hands and saying, “Okay, what should the movie be about now?”). There are gigantic leaps of logic — not to mention of faith — that keep the movie from ever feeling like it takes place on our planet, but the magic is what matters, and the magic is as powerful as ever. Field of Dreams presents Costner’s strengths (and weaknesses) as a leading man in full force, supported by stellar performances from Ray Liotta (who gets to do a Ray Liotta Laugh!), James Earl Jones (who has all the movie’s best lines), and Amy Madigan (who is ride-or-die to an absolutely fascinating fault).

At its heart, it’s a movie about reclaiming innocence that uses baseball (specifically the 1919 Black Sox Scandal) as a conduit. It’s about the way idealism often fades into dejection and cynicism as we’re slowly beaten down by the world around us. It’s about parents and children and things left unsaid. Of course, it could also be seen as a movie about a group of aging hippies slowly having a collective nervous breakdown, but we’ll get into that later. Despite the thousand little narrative nitpicks and questions I have about the rules of the movie’s space/time continuum (I have a list), I still really enjoy Field of Dreams.

Adam: You’re right about the continuous shift in focus with each act. The beginning has a Close Encounters of the Third Kind vibe to it, with an ordinary man compelled to follow through with something he knows is crazy. Besides wondering how Costner could build his own baseball field, I’m with the movie up to this point. In hindsight, I like that they didn’t dwell on putting the field together because who cares? I don’t need to see Costner, Madigan or friendly townspeople making runs to Menards.
The middle section, with Costner convincing James Earl Jones to buy into the fantasy and then later giving Frank Whaley/Burt Lancaster a shot to fulfill his dream, is probably my least favorite of the three acts. It’s not bad or anything, but it’s where the most speechifying takes place and those monologues don’t always land for me. The one James Earl Jones gives near the middle is the one I have trouble with most. It’s because (imho) baseball is great until you are telling someone why baseball is great. If you don’t get baseball, a speech will not change that and if you do get it, you don’t need a speech. Also, Jones is delivering this flowery statement while the ghosts of the entire 1919 Chicago White Sox roster are falling in formation behind him in the background. It looks like they’re about to attack the Kinsellas!

By the end, all of that is unimportant for me. The ending of this movie I think is something you either get completely and it makes you cry or it doesn’t register with you at all. I threw a baseball around with my dad all the time growing up and when Costner says, “Hey dad, wanna have a catch?” to his on-screen father (Dwier Brown), it’s an emotionally loaded and perfect movie moment. Combined with the gorgeous James Horner score and John Lindley’s dreamlike cinematography, the movie in just six words mends their broken relationship (or at least it does for Costner...I’m not sure if his father is a sentient being with feelings). As you said, I have so many questions about the rules involved in the fantasy elements of Field of Dreams (e.g. Are the ghosts aware of the passage of time?), but that’s part of the fun. Now that I mull over it a bit more, Field of Dreams sounds a lot more like a modern faith-based movie than a sports film. The film’s thesis, in the words of Belinda Carlisle, is “Ooh heaven is a place on earth.” Considering that hell is what usually spills over from the other dimension on film, it’s cool to get a movie where the exact opposite takes place.

Rob: I want to go back to what you said about Mann’s introduction. The PTA meeting with the whole censorship debate is really awful, and it’s the most backward-engineered part of the screenplay for me. The way Ray connects the dots from the field to Mann requires quite a leap (as I said, this isn’t a criticism of the movie. I’m bought in at this point. Just something I noticed). Plus the debate itself is really irritating, full of ad hominem attacks and false equivalencies. You know, just like modern political discourse!

I mentioned before that some of my issues with Costner’s acting come up in Field of Dreams, and I noticed this time how dry he is when he’s running over some of the comedic lines. Costner can be funny, but wordy dialogue is not his thing. For whatever reason, the Aw-Shucks aspect of his personality doesn’t translate super well in those instances. He’s better when he’s a posturing tough guy thrown off balance, like in Bull Durham. The joke kind of has to be on him, to an extent, or he has to be playing straight off of someone else. Just another nit pick. He’s still great in the movie.

Amy Madigan, though! She’s like, “Sure. Do it. Build a baseball field on our farm.” Cut to two weeks later: “Oh shit, we’re broke!” I appreciate that the movie never bothers with fake tension between them; she sees the players right away and supports Ray throughout his journey, but how suprised can she really be? There was no end game, no profit, no business plan with the whole field venture. Her brother comes in and goes, “Hey, sell this place and I’ll make you a tidy profit!” Madigan’s like, “Nah, baseball! Hey, little girl, don’t you see the baseball, too? We all see the baseball! The sixties! Free love! Get bent, narc!” I don’t blame Busfield, really. It’s like the EPA guy in Ghostbusters. He’s just trying to regulate the use of a nuclear reactor in the middle of Manhattan. I mean, come on.
Adam: Oh wow. I have a lot to say to this. I’m a pretty big fan of the Costner performance in Field of Dreams but I agree that he’s not a natural comedic actor. My favorite aspect of his performance is that he seems sincerely amused by the events and that brings a good-natured energy to the film. He just dives in. A more self-conscious actor couldn’t make this movie work. That’s one of Costner’s best attributes (his belief in what he’s doing), and this is an interesting bridge in how he used that quality throughout his career. In the ‘80s he did that with less vanity and in the ‘90s it was with more seriousness. He got back to a more carefree approach again starting in 2005 with The Upside of Anger. His walking back from being a lead to an interesting supporting actor has helped ensure his career longevity in a way that many of his contemporaries haven’t been as successful.

Your reactions to Amy Madigan crack me up. If I were Costner and saw my wife doing that shadowbox thing she does after telling off a butthead motherfucker in a PTA meeting, I would probably ask for some time apart. Kidding aside, I like their relationship in the movie because (as you said) she lets him do whatever he wants with almost no hesitation. If she acted like an actual human being, then Field of Dreams would be pigeonholed into a much more conventional movie and not the crazypants joy ride it is.

As for Busfield...worst uncle ever? He basically throttles poor little Gaby Hoffman and then chucks her off the bleachers like a trash bag full of laundry. Before he does that though, he has my favorite line in the movie. It’s after Hoffman says this flighty nonsense and Busfield just matter of factly replies, “What the hell is she talking about?” It makes me laugh every time. Want to hear an amazing Busfield behind the scenes story?

Rob: You had me at Busfield.

Adam: I’m going to copy and paste from IMDB trivia:

Burt Lancaster was unaware that Timothy Busfield was part of the cast, and had him fetching water and chairs, before realizing Busfield was going to be in the scene with him.

Rob: Oh, Burt. “Moonlight?” More like “Uptight” Graham #dadjoke. Before we talk about the rules of time travel, I want to bring up the poster. When we first decided to talk about Field of Dreams, we both mentioned that Costner’s stance would be an important topic.
Adam: Haha. Ok, the poster. It’s a parody of the Heaven Can Wait poster, right? I mean, it’s very similar. It’s like they were doing a photo shoot, Costner said, “I’m going to do something as a joke” and then the marketing department at Universal were like “THAT’S HOW WE’LL SELL THIS MOVIE!!!!” and Costner’s all “No, no, no.” And Universal is like “Next time we do a baseball movie…” Costner interjects “I show my dick!” and Universal nods and goes “You’ll show your dick.”

Rob: Haha. I mean, the whole parody thing would be a better explanation than, “Hey, I’ll just play this casual. Look how casual I am!” Especially since it doesn’t fit the character. If we were representing Ray accurately, he’d be sitting in his VW bus muttering to himself about which Brooklyn Dodger had the best batting average in 1949. Doesn’t seem quite as appealing, so I can see why they made this call. It’s all part of the magic of Field of Dreams.

Speaking of magic, I have some logistical questions. Now, again, this isn’t me tearing the movie down for inconsistencies. I’m bought in. My disbelief is suspended. But I’m genuinely curious about how time and space work in this universe. For example: Ray and Mann travel to find Doc Graham and discover that he died in 1972. Ray then takes a walk and finds (by way of The Godfather) that he’s been transported back to that year. He has a conversation with old Doc, who explains his lost Big League aspirations but declines to join them in Iowa. Ray leaves — presumably returning to the present — and picks up a hitchhiking younger Doc (Frank Whaley). Young Doc joins Shoeless Joe on the field for a game, becoming stuck within its boundaries until he crosses it to save Gaby Hoffman, which ultimately returns him to his older form (at which point, Timothy Busfield can now see the players). Ray tells him that he can’t go back to his younger form, but Doc says it’s okay, happily heading off into corn heaven. Minutes later, Shoeless Joe invites Mann to join them in corn heaven. Will he become a young man? Will he be able to see Ray again? Will Ray get stuck within the boundaries of the field if he keeps playing catch with his dad? Also, won’t he be harvesting that corn at some point? I mean, he’s still a farmer. This is like the end of Silent Hill all over again.

Adam: Haha. This movie doesn’t care. How else to explain the line of cars driving to the farm at the end of the movie to watch no baseball team play? Also, is James Earl Jones basically killing himself by walking into the afterlife? Why would he do that? Oh, heaven.

I’m also wondering if it’s a coincidence that the actor who played Babe Ruth in The Sandlot (Art LaFleur) plays the ghost of Chick Gandil, 1B of the 1919 White Sox in Field of Dreams. Is he going to steal their shit like he did with Benny and his baseball cards? Are you worried Liotta is going to break character and set the corn stalks on fire and do the Liotta laugh? Can you believe this was in theaters at the same time as Major League? What an embarrassment of riches!

Rob: How about when Ray tells Mann, “I am the least crazy person I have ever known.” Except, you know, for all the crazy shit I did in the first twenty minutes of this movie. Or when he says, “I’ll never bother you again! Not even for a Christmas card!” A Christmas card? That’s what he had as an example of something minor and innocuous?

I feel like we should bring up the whole Black Sox aspect, the Eight Men Out of it all. As a Chicago White Sox fan, does any of that play into your perspective on the movie?

Adam: I’ll dive into my feelings about the whole Black Sox scandal more when we cover Eight Men Out, but it doesn’t really factor into my opinion of Field of Dreams. Even though these men who were blackballed from baseball are given a chance to play again, it never really registers for me as their redemption story. It’s probably because they show no remorse for throwing the World Series during any point in the movie.
You know what does factor into my opinion of the movie? When Graham hits a sacrifice fly and the outfielder’s arm is so weak that he throws it to the cut-off man even though the play is at home plate. That bugs the shit out of me. Making matters worse, the next shot is a cut to James Earl Jones-Kevin Costner-Amy Madigan doing The Wave. To see my favorite actor doing The Wave is fucking heartbreaking.

Rob: At least he’s not doing it on the poster.

Adam: We’ve gone a little crazy joking about this movie, so I want to make sure I say the main reason I love it. It reminds me of my favorite two episodes of The Twilight Zone, which are "Walking Distance" and "A Stop at Willoughby." Both of those episodes and Field of Dreams explore the melancholy but irresistible nature of an alternate reality. That’s a theme that always hits me deep.

Rob: I’m not too familiar with those episodes, but I agree with the appeal of alternate realities, especially when it comes to righting past wrongs. You mentioned earlier how much the movie’s final moments get to you, and I wholeheartedly agree with that, as well. It’s not really the players’ redemption story, like you said, but rather a man trying to apologize to his father for something he said when he was young and stupid, something that cost him more than he’d ever have imagined. The field is as much a gift to John as it is to Ray. Now I’m getting teary-eyed. Will you have a catch with me when you come out to Philly?

Adam: Hells yeah. I was supposed to play catch with Adam Thas this summer, but he lost his glove (true story). Can I ask you some questions about Monster-Mania Con?

Rob: Please do.

Adam: Which celebrities are you going to meet? My list right now is Billy Zane, Justin Long and Lisa Wilcox.

Rob: Carl Weathers, of course. John Milius! Probably Dee Wallace, too. I also want to see the line for Rob Schneider. I don’t want to join it. I just want to see what kinds of people stand in line for Rob Schneider.

Adam: Who do you think will have this year’s version of the Ethan Embry party booth, where it looks like he’s not even signing and instead just doing jello shots off every person at his table?

Rob: My first instinct was Pauly Shore, but I’m going with Andrew McCarthy. Who are you thinking?

Adam: I think since we’re going on the last day of the con, it will be Barbara Hershey and she’ll bait us with Hershey Sundaes. We’ll be eating ice cream and talking about how sad it was when she died in Beaches.

Rob: I read the “Hershey Sundaes” bit in Con-Chino’s voice. I’m excited for his triumphant return. “Hey, Barbara! Don’t skimp on the hot fudge!”

Adam: Con-Chino will return for sure. What are we writing about for next week?

Rob: Let’s take another trip down movie memory lane and dig up some more old ticket stubs! Wanna know exactly where I was when I saw Sweet Home Alabama? You’re about to find out. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.