“Ray Kinsella, child of the sixties, builds baseball field and at end of movie meets his dead father.”
-Japanese tagline for Field of Dreams, paraphrased by writer/director Phil Alden Robinson
Beloved for its family drama, revered for its sporty caché (at least among those who can forgive a rightie Shoeless Joe), Field of Dreams is generally less recognized for its cultural-historical importance. It was one of the crucial films signifying a late 80s trend: the ascension of the baby boom generation to Hollywood's height of power, accompanied by a burst of 60s nostalgia which helped (re-)define the era for a generation. Preceded by "thirtysomething" and "The Wonder Years" on TV, big hits like The Big Chill and smaller films like Running on Empty (among others) in the cinema, as well as cultural events like the 20th anniversary of Woodstock and the release of the Beatles catalog on CD, Field of Dreams arrived at a crucial crossroads. In 1989, the Berlin Wall was crashing down and a new world was being born - for many in the West, the first time such a sensation had arisen in two decades. Meanwhile, the baby boomers were all hitting or approaching 40, many heading nuclear families and holding professional jobs they never would have foreseen, or so we were told.
The Reagan era, encapsulating a strong reaction to the 60s counterculture and New Left, was coming to an end, with President Bush half-heartedly promising "a kinder, gentler America." As the Wall crashed, and conservatism tentatively relaxed its hold on the American consciousness, pop culture experienced a renewed burst of creativity. New filmmakers like Spike Lee and Oliver Stone emerged to point a light at the country's darker aspects; TV suddenly grew adventurous and subversive with "Twin Peaks" and "The Simpsons"; postmodernism exploded from an academic subculture into the dominant media approach; meanwhile, a reversion to authenticity in mainstream rock was just around the corner. At the center of all these phenomena (except for the last) were baby boomers, who after plugging away and working their way up had finally emerged as mainstream trendsetters. Not only did they point the way forward; they also looked back at their own history, which was ripe for mythologization and nostalgia after a decade in the "dated" bin. Field of Dreams, with its attempt to synchronize America's National Pasttime and the Age of Aquarius, its yearning to fuse youthful dreams, old traditions, and adult responsibilities, may be the quintessential film of this moment.
Field of Dreams engages with boomer mythology in three ways. These are: direct reference to 60s touchstones (musical cues, explicit dialogue, set decor), thematic resonance both obvious (Terence Mann as the embodiment of lost idealism) and universal (father-son reconciliation, a perpetual theme with special resonance for those who came of age during the "generation gap"), and stylistic devices ranging from unconscious (visual strategies born of the 60s but reflected in virtually all films since) to the at-least semi-conscious (the mystic tone of the images and music during the cornfield "revelation"). While some of this was accidental, there was a conscious effort on the filmmakers' part to evoke the 60s - from the screenplay to the art direction to the soundtrack, writer/director Phil Alden Robinson and crew made sure to foreground this generational context. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is not merely a Mr. Everyman Farmer (as he easily could have been, given the Capraesque connotations of the story), he's a Berkley graduate, a hip young man of the soil with his free-spirited, opinionated wife Annie (Amy Madigan). He's also full of contradictions: a rebel looking for his way home, a family man trying to reconcile impulse and duty, a proud father and a wounded son.
Shoeless Joe, published in 1982, was a novel about a man who hears a mysterious voice ("If you build it, he will come") and constructs a baseball diamond in his cornfield, where he is visited by disgraced baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson and eventually his own father (in the book, it's an identical twin brother in need of reconciliation, not Ray himself). Written by W.P. Kinsella, who shares his main character's last name, the book does not mention the 60s at all: Kinsella was ten years older than the oldest boomers, and the book emerged at a time when that decade, too recent for hagiography, too distant for relevancy, was out of fashion. But when Phil Alden Robinson, a young screenwriter (responsible for the acclaimed Steve Martin comedy All of Me), read Shoeless Joe he experienced one of his generation's trademark "flashbacks". Later he claimed:
To me the book was just suffused with the 60s. I tapped into it and I thought with this character, I wanted to give him a little more of that identity and so we say Ray was a student radical in the 60s but he settled down. ... I've always been fascinated by the notion of what people of our generation, who came of age in the 60s do with those ideals as we get older. It was easy to walk around in bell bottoms and love beads and talk about breaking the rules when you're in college or when you're young, don't have any responsibilities, but now as we get older and we have families and responsibilities, how do you maintain some connection to the ideals that identify you as a generation? And so I think this scene [in which Ray discusses his fear of "becoming like his father" with Annie] speaks to a large part of the audience - it's talking about an issue that a lot of people are dealing with now which is how do I keep some spontaneity in my life, how do I keep from turning into an older generation that we always criticized for being conventional and predictable?The question arises, with all this talk of the 60s: which 60s, whose 60s? It goes without saying that the 60s in question is not that of the older generation, nor the "squares" among the young, but rather those who felt "tuned in" or "turned on" by the counterculture and/or the New Left. However, there's also a bit of a day tripper vibe to Ray's identification - when his wife wonders if the voice was an acid flashback, he responds "I never took acid" ("Maybe it's a flash-forward and you will," she responds in trademark quirky fashion). Keep in mind that while Ray says he "majored in the 60s" at Berkley, he also tells us he was born in 1952 - which means he probably enrolled in the fall of '70, the semester when the campuses finally calmed down after years of revolt. The 60s he name-drops is marginally politicized, but only in broad terms (in the opening narration, "I marched" is thrown in alongside "I smoked some grass, I tried to like sitar music"; we see brief snippets of protesters with placards intercut with hippies dancing in a circle). The focus is very individualistic, both in Robinson's commentary and Ray's self-analysis: fulfilling the lost dreams of the decade is synonymous with self-realization, and resistance to authority takes on an explicitly familial overtone.
Still, there is a collective if also commercial tinge to Ray's utopian baseball park ("they'll come from all over..."), and the invented figure of Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), a reclusive writer whom Ray kidnaps (after the voice tells him to "ease his pain"), serves as a reminder of the decade's political as well as personal rebellions. In Kinsella's original story, the kidnapped scribe is J.D. Salinger himself; Robinson, concerned that Salinger would vociferously object to being depicted onscreen, took the opportunity to invent a Mr. 60s. In Robinson's words, "It was great fun coming up with a fictional cultural icon...he invented the phrase 'make love, not war' and he hung out with the Beatles..." Mann also embodies post-60s disillusionment; when Ray shows up at his door, he sarcastically proclaims "Peace, love, dope" and intones with mock solemnity, "Oh my God - you're from the 60s! Back, back - there's no place for you here in the future!" while chasing Ray with an insect sprayer. Mann is also African-American, a fact never explicitly mentioned but notable in a movie which depicts only white players on its heavenly field (Robinson calls this oversight his one looming regret about the movie).
Aside from Mann and the opening narration, the first half of the film is suffused with 60s iconography. The film opens with that aforementioned grainy footage of protesters and freaks; after a screening Robinson observed, "During the montage people were kind of settling in and [wondering] what's this gonna be about? And when that 60s footage came up I remember people really laughing like they knew how to react to that." The next forty-five minutes or so expertly play on late 80s audience associations: a VW bus, peace insignias, LSD jokes, Pop Art Marilyn Monroe posters on farmhouse walls, a "Farms Not Arms" T-shirt, a Lovin' Spoonful needledrop, a town meeting in which Annie shouts down a "Nazi cow" bookburner (after defending Mann's book from being banned, she enthuses to her husband, "God, it was just like the 60s again!"). Many picked up on this aspect of the work (albeit usually just in passing): an executive watching a rough cut insisted that "you gotta use some 60s music" when Ray and his "hostage" drive cross-country from Boston. Accordingly, Robinson added the Doobies' "China Grove" to the soundtrack - "audiences always cheered when the Doobie Brothers come on here," he observes on the DVD commentary. This complements the use of "Jessica" by the Allman Brothers as Ray drives into town; incidentally, both songs were released in 1974.
A telling detail, both for the inaccuracy of the resonance and the way it resonated anyway - these are gestures which read well even if they have more to do with (mis)remembrances than actualities. (In the same spirit, the film manufactures farming details which don't actually exist: Ray is seen hoeing his crop for no apparent reason, just because it gives him a bit of business, and the homey, sun-dappled feed store he visits looks nothing like the Home Depot plazas were farmers actually buy their grains. By the way, the summer of '88 - when Field of Dreams was filmed - was actually a year of intense drought, the worst since the Dust Bowl, so even those plentiful crops are a Hollywood invention!) Anyway, "China Grove" is the curtain call for the film's fling with 60s memorabilia - with the hunt for old-time amateur batter Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster/Frank Whaley) the film will dig deeper into American history for its nostalgic kicks. By the time Mann is interviewing senior citizens in a small Midwestern town, to the tune of Duke Ellington's "Lotus Blossom", the boomers onscreen, behind the camera, and in the audience have moved from amused immersion in their own history to a more longing engagement with their parents' and grandparents' bygone eras.
Indeed, Field of Dreams partly utilizes the 60s in order to "get over them" - to transcend the trappings of a generational zeitgeist and facilitate a rapprochement with a plainer, yet more deeply rooted national spirit. But as this very desire is part of a post-60s culture, the film remains shadowed by the era. Just as the Mann character is a father figure who bridges the worlds of mentorship and rebellion, so the film's generational conflict never escapes its historical context (Ray declares that his falling-out with his father occurred after reading Mann's iconic novel The Boat Rocker). Ray's relationship to his dad is obviously the linchpin of the movie, and while this particular generational conflict stretches from Oedipus to Freud, it is given a 60s spin with both personal and collective connotations. On the one hand, it is expected that many in the audience will relate to Ray's struggle with the legendary "generation gap", exacerbated here by the fact that Ray's dad was already in his fifties when Ray was born - many boomers had parents who were World War Two vets but Kinsella the elder served in World War One. (This is obviously a holdover from the book, in which Ray was older; and it's essential as Ray's dad was a crushed fan of Shoeless Joe.)
More importantly, the relationship has a metaphorical edge - the tension exists not just between father and son, but between an old America and a new one; hence Mann's epic monologue (which James Earl Jones humorously expected to end up on the cutting room floor, though he took the part hoping to deliver it anyway). Building up to a crescendo, Mann bellows, "The one constant through the years has been baseball." The movie aches with a palpable desire to reconnect to a hazily-perceived, purer, more ethereal America, not by rejecting the 60s but by incorporating them into the great mythology of the striving American Dream. When Ray plays catch with his dad in the film's closing minutes, it isn't in another magical land (the ballplayers won't let him cross the threshold, taking Mann along instead). It's on Ray's farmland, the diamond he built with his own two hands, on the ground he struggled to work over and pay for, surrounded by the wife and daughter he's supported and who've supported him. And it's not in the past, not in the America of the teens - when Ray's father was a young man - nor the 50s - when Ray was still a boy and could play ball with his father in the yard. It's "now" - in 1989 when the baby boomers have emerged as the generation "running things" (from business to movies to, soon enough, politics), when the 60s have become an indispensable part of pop culture, when a generation on the cusp of middle age seeks to synthesize all the confusing elements that shaped them, boiling them down to a simple game of catch.
Finally, the movie itself is a product of the 60s, in ways both intentional and inevitable. Following the montage, which represents the decade in its external "look" (the grainy, handheld 8mm) we get shots which seem to call forth the decade's internal "feel." Awesome cloudscapes, spread above a yawning landscape, with spine-tingling music resounding on the soundtrack, a mixture of classic orchestration, New Age soundscapes, and American folklore. When the Godlike voice emerges over this Peter Max swirl of orange and green, it's only one last touch: already, visually and aurally, the film has evoked a mystic mood. This mood existed long before the 60s, but is bound to have certain connotations for those who came of age amongst calls to "return to the land," accompanied by mind-expanding drugs and a fetish for road trips. The air of magic which floats over the rest of the film also has an oft-identified flower child vibe: this is probably what Robinson had in mind when he declared that the otherwise 60s-less Shoeless Joe was "suffused with the 60s."
What's more, in order to represent a 60s "mood" the film utilizes devices and techniques developed and/or popularized during the era. The wide-lensed photography of the cornfield reminds one of European cinematography of the era, a look which found its way into Hollywood films eventually (alongside the even more ubiquitous telephoto compositions). The movie also variously employs jump cuts, rock-scored montages, fixed-camera/wandering-actor stagings, and other approaches which exploded on New Hollywood around the time of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, after percolating for years in the French New Wave, avant-garde underground, and direct-cinema documentary. In using these tools, the film was hardly unique; this is the "inevitable" I spoke of earlier, and I mention it only to point out how the movie, consciously about the 60s, also grows out of that era as a condition of its own existence. It was created in a post-60s environment - given how many cultural, technological, and conceptual breakthroughs occurred around the same time, the film would have been shaped by those years even if it hadn't taken them as its conscious theme. Perhaps this seems a moot point to some, but I find it fascinating: it's like a child who purposefully (and somewhat awkwardly) mimics the behavior or speech of a parent even while uncannily recalling them in physical features and inadvertent gestures.
After Field of Dreams, the 60s flashback meme peaked and slowly dissipated. Probably its last high-water mark was Forrest Gump in 1994; also created by boomers and cultivating a sense of shared in-jokey nostalgia (a "we were there" winkiness which later 60s period pieces eschew, for obvious reasons), the film nonetheless shifted away from Field of Dreams' warm if simplifying regard for the era. Beneath Gump's nostalgia-infused soundtrack is a streak of incredulity and even hostility towards the perceived excesses of the age. After Gump, 60s recreations took on a slightly stale air, as if rather than mythologizing a remembered past, they were copying a copy. No longer were filmmakers drawing on their own experience - even when old enough to (as with Julie Taymor in Across the Universe) the distance of time and interference of numerous other interpretations intervened to prevent fresh reminiscences. This pattern has happened with other periods as well - think how the 70s were obsessed with the 50s, and how our recently passed decade rehabilitated the 80s. In the first case, doubtless to be repeated in the second, kitschy but authentic nostalgia eventually gave way to ossified, second-hand clichés.
Meanwhile the boomers, having slowly risen to the top of their various professions, held on for a while and then, about five or so years ago, began to fade away. Growing up in the 90s, I recall a time when middle age was synonymous with having been "there"; greeting cards for 40th birthdays invariably featured graying hippies and the like; classic rock and oldies stations played an endless hit parade of rock's golden age. That time is now over: indeed, a person turning 40 today was not even alive yet in the 1960s, let alone a teenager or young adult in the thick of things. The boomers are not the midsection of the population anymore, running the society; they are approaching or entering retirement. Nor are they young parents marveling at their slow usurpation of authority and responsibility, they're grandparents whose own kids have now grown seamlessly into adulthood.
To those born in their immediate wake, the perpetually irritated-with-the-overweening-60s-legacy crowd known as Generation X, the knee-jerk response might be, "Yeah, so what?" This may also be the slightly more amused but no less dismissive instinct of many of the more self-deprecating boomers themselves, including both those who never saw themselves as one of "the crowd" (eschewing either the rigors of political commitment or the experimentation of the counterculture, or perhaps both) and those who did but have since grown to regard themselves as young fools, however endearingly. But for those of us born well after the 60s - in that very period when it was fresh enough to strike a chord but far enough back to evoke a sense of mystery - there will always be something enticing about our parents' generation and the mythos of the time they inhabited. For us, a movie like Field of Dreams, inaccuracies, generalizations and all, tells us a great deal about how many boomers saw themselves or, more to the point, how we first came to see them.
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