Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Boomer Baseball: Field of Dreams & the American 60s

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Boomer Baseball: Field of Dreams & the American 60s


“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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24 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

"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."

Ah, the Age of Aquarius! I got a genuine dose of this movement last night at the Al Hirshfeld Theatre in Manhattan, where my wife and eldest daughter accompanied me to take in the Broadway revival of HAIR. It was quite the trip down Memory Lane, and an enthralling interactive experience!

As far as FIELD OF DREAMS, count me as huge fan. Your essay here, exhaustively examining the film's deep-rooted historical and cultural influences, is one of the greatest pieces I've yet laid eyes on, and I commend you for enrichingh the literature and in giving what I consider as the greatest baseball film ever made (and one of the best sports-themed films in fact)this kind of magisterial treatment. It's quite the riveting read too. Your political underpinnings are brilliantly perceptive.

Thomas Newman's plaintive, minimalist piano-laden score is an in calcuable component in transcribing the film's elegiac tone.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Sam - sounds like I caught you at the right moment in the wake of Hair...

I don't think I'm as wild about the essay as you, though I'm mostly happy with it - I'm just glad it finally came together! As you recall, it was an idea I mentioned to you earlier in the spring; I watched the film a few times, read the original novel, and watched all the special features on both versions of the disc - then I sat down to write, and a rather lugubrious meditation on the 60s, boomers, and 80s media spilt out, ultimately much ado about nothing. I abandoned the piece but recently returned, trying to start from scratch and just focus on the movie.

Even so, I was spending paragraphs musing about definitions of "the sixties" and it was still too meandering. Finally I was able to focus my thoughts and write a relatively straightforward analysis of the movie & its 60s connections. I would have given up a few days ago, but when I found that great still from DVD Beaver (I love the lighting and color scheme, and goes quite well with the new dark-blue sidebars for The Dancing Image) I didn't want to give it up, and I knew I had to write the damn essay if I wanted to use the picture!

Thanks as always for your support and enthusiasm, Sam, you are in sports parlance, a real champ.

J.D. said...

Great article! I know that this one has been a long time coming as we've had discussions about it on my blog so it was great to see it finally come to light in any shape or form. You really did a fantastic job dissecting what makes this film tick. There was something in the air around the time this film came out with BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and IN COUNTRY also coming out around that time and all exploring the 1960s whether it was during that time or its aftermath.

This article is rather timely as I was just watching a fascinating documetnary on WOODSTOCK last night. As a Gen-Xer myself, growing up I was oddly fascinated/bored with '60s nostalgia, but as I've gotten older, I find myself revisiting music and film from that decade more and more.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, J.D. Yeah, your work on In Country and especially Running on Empty a while back helped inspire me here. While writing the line about Gen-Xers, I thought to myself "Well, J.D.'s certain an exception to this!"

I get the sick-of-the-60s thing too, but I think it has more to do with being exposed to spiritless reenactments or distanced memories than really being able to describe the era itself as "overrated", culturally speaking. One can't live in the past, so in a sense the cynicism is correct - but one also doesn't want to forget that, according to numerous witnesses there really was "something happenening here" however unclear, in Stephen Stills' words.

My dad was born in '48 and my mom in '52 so I've always been fascinated with the era. Besides which, something about its sensibilities - the darkly visionary, mystic, and adventurous spirit which seemed to animate the whole slew of manifestations, be they political, aesthetic, or social - has always accorded to my own more than that of, say, the 00s whose flatness and enclosed nature I tended to find frustrating.

Glad you enjoyed the piece.

MovieMan0283 said...

Btw, for those reading the comments - here are J.D.'s reviews of Running on Empty and In Country, which I mentioned earlier:

http://rheaven.blogspot.com/2009/03/running-on-empty.html

http://rheaven.blogspot.com/2010/03/in-country.html

Jamie said...

You know how I feel about any kind of revivalism so I won't rehash to much (and it helps as I don't have to restate), but it's curious to me--maybe 'curious' isn't the word--maybe 'strangely postmodern' is a better term that you, a person born in 1980 (more or less) is writing about a baby boomer nostalgia trip. Almost a double whammy of a film glossing over the turbulent past in a rather cliche way and you not knowing any better then to comment and dissect these myths. Bare in mind I don't mean to sound negative, as I think it makes for an interesting idea: second hand analysis on twenty to thirty year old myths. Perhaps this was unintentional, but it's quite a conundrum to think about.

_ _ _ _

A few things you note I've always thought about, and I believe two of these are interrelated: "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)"

and

"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."

I think this is, and should have been more the central crux of the film. Ray is more 1950's 'Rebel Without a Cause'/Jack Keroak then Berkeley hippy. Now this could be his midwest sensibility, his father confrontations or whatever, but the interesting idea is that he's a 50's character, or even earlier (see Capra) but he's lived through or has knowledge of, the 1960s.

_ _ _ _ _

Another idea that I never liked (and I guess this speaks to my thoughts on revisionism, or cheery eyed nostalgia trips) is the difference between fact and fiction. Or not even 'difference' but rather a complete disregard of the 'other' past. I mean 'other' as pre-1967, a time that many of the principal players came from. From Mann having dreams of playing pro ball squashed by his skin color (implying an America pre-Jackie Robinson), and Mann then being confronted with mythological players like Shoeless Joe, who was illiterate and despised African Americans in real life by all accounts. All this in a blender should lead to something dynamic but it doesn't. Instead we still get a rather entertaining film, that is in the end very emotional and fulfilling. I just wonder what could have been. This also would make the Mann speech 'about there always has been baseball' much more interesting and somewhat confrontational. Who has baseball been for for this era?

J.D. said...

Thanks for posting the links!

Yeah, it's funny that it took me so long to fully embrace my fascination with the 1960s. I think it really started with all of those Vietnam films/books/TV shows in the 1980s but I didn't really fully appreciate the music from that era until much later. Not sure why except that I think music was so good in the late 1980s and into the mid-1990s that I just couldn't be bothered with music from the '60s but I've come to appreciate it much more over time.

MovieMan0283 said...

Jamie, thanks for commenting - I've had moderation turned on since the onslaught of spam hence the non-immediate posting.

"Almost a double whammy of a film glossing over the turbulent past in a rather cliche way and you not knowing any better then to comment and dissect these myths."

Can you clarify what you mean here? It sounds like you're saying I unintentionally swallowed the myths whole, but in fact part of the reason I wrote this essay was to "comment and dissect these myths" and I think I did so, within the limitations I set for myself (believe me, if I posted the extracts and abandoned threads they'd be longer the remaining piece!)

"I think this is, and should have been more the central crux of the film. Ray is more 1950's 'Rebel Without a Cause'/Jack Keroak then Berkeley hippy. Now this could be his midwest sensibility, his father confrontations or whatever, but the interesting idea is that he's a 50's character, or even earlier (see Capra) but he's lived through or has knowledge of, the 1960s."

Great point - indeed part of the film's "recapturing" of the 60s is to reframe the youth rebellion in a more classical, familiar way - the wounded son of the James Dean film. (Of course, this is not entirely a reframing, as many young people of the era doubtlessly saw themselves in that light; still it does not capture the whole picture, as you note.)

Great thoughts to on the possibilities for a more aggressive, unsettled film. If we have a difference in the end, it's less in our perceptions of the movie than the fact that I'm coming at it from an observational more than a judgemental view (not that either approach is "wrong"; both have their place). Mostly, I'm just intrigued, sociologically as well as aesthetically, by what the picture is and why it is what it is. As you say, an entertaining picture and definitely a gloss on the era. But this gloss in itself says something about where America was in the late 80s...

Perhaps you should write an "alternative" Field of Dreams - one which faces up to the messy past of baseball & the 60s. (I'm serious, btw, and I don't mean a Bizzaro World FoD but rather one which riffs on the ideas Field presents in a somewhat different context.) "The best way to criticize a movie is to make another one," etc. I think I'd enjoy it - especially that Mann speech!

If you're looking for a more acerbic, cynical take on the film, check this out:

http://benweasel.mu.nu/archives/189302.php

I enjoyed it, despite the fact that I quite like this film and he seems, to put it mildly, to loathe it!

MovieMan0283 said...

J.D.,

I always liked 60s music but an oldies-radio type of way (humming along to the catchy hits) until college. Then I (re-?)discovered the albums of the era, and was hooked on it a whole different way.

It can be hard to see the appeal at times because it's become so familiar to us all, but if one steps back and looks with fresh eyes the music of the era really is outstanding.

MovieMan0283 said...

P.S. Jamie -

Swap "judgmental" for "critical" as I did not mean to imply a negative connotation, indeed the first word is to, well, judgmental...

Jamie said...

"Can you clarify what you mean here? It sounds like you're saying I unintentionally swallowed the myths whole, but in fact part of the reason I wrote this essay was to "comment and dissect these myths" and I think I did so, within the limitations I set for myself (believe me, if I posted the extracts and abandoned threads they'd be longer the remaining piece!)"

That's why I tried to state what I meant twice, as I didn't want to come off as I thought you were being short, incorrect, or anything to that affect. Here's a third time from me (and I think the most clear) on my initial idea:

You, a person born +/- 1980 knows nothing of the 60's but the myths from people like the Kinsella's (or any boomer really that views the the 60's in a positive light), and you-- using these myths (unintentional and intentional) as a description of the time offer a critical analysis of a film also contemplating the time period.

Now this could be different if you were dissecting a time based on factual accounts, but in this films case (and so much of baby boomer nostalgia) is based on a 'feeling' of that time (that various with every person)... it's like fiction (your understanding of a time not lived in) on fiction ('Field of Dreams'). this is why I find it so interesting-- it's almost post-postmodern. You aren't wrong or right and I think that's the exact point. It reminds me of a section of Don DeLillo's 'White Noise' somewhat. If you've never read it here's the complete section:
(Exert from p. 12-13)

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides—pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
He fell silent once more. People with camera left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.
“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforced the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crack of levers that advanced the film.
“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re apart of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.”
He seemed immensely pleased by this.


_ _ _ _

Jamie said...

_ _ _ _ (had to post in 2 parts because blogger is lame)

Your thought here kind of gets on my point "One can't live in the past, so in a sense the cynicism is correct - but one also doesn't want to forget that, according to numerous witnesses there really was "something happenening here" however unclear, in Stephen Stills' words."

Something was definitely happening there (as is true for every second of every day), we just need to value facts over anything else, and examine all eras with equal importance (as they all contributed equally getting us here).

Another interesting thought? Maybe the 60's wasn't as interesting as we're told and rather the high volume of materials we get about that time has more to do with the actual large numbers of baby boomers ready to buy up anything waxing poetic about there past (something you touch on, about todays 80's boom-- these trips are more about era's coming into economic affluence and having consumer power in the minds of the producers). In this regard a marxist analysis would be more affective-- the sixties didn't change a thing, no era does really, really it's just another 10 years to better streamline the consumer culture.

_ _ _ _

My take on 'Field of Dreams' hmmm. Would be fun, I was once a huge baseball fan, read history books (hence my knowledge on Jackson ect), we'll see. I actually have a story in the beginning stages (pre-script stuff is done just needs to be written) that tackles my thoughts on race, class, and isolation. Wouldn't there be to much overlap? lol

MovieMan0283 said...

Oh sorry, thought the double-post was because you thought the first one didn't go through.

You are correct that my paradigm here is not factual, since what I'm interested in is the "feel" of the era, i.e. the subjective experience rather than its outer trappings (much of my excised commentary dealt with this notion). Such experiences are elusive, but I suppose what separates me from the postmodernists (am I pre-postmodern, post-postmodern, I'm not sure!) is that I think we can at least approach and tangle with these experiences, if never penetrate them completely. And I think the effort is a worthy one.

I like the DeLillo excerpt in part because (and maybe this is just me reading too much in it; haven't read the book, don't know the context) Murray's obsession with "not being able to see the house" seems to have more to do with him not seeing it than any notions he's discussing. Self-fulfilling philosophy, one could call it...

I've thought about the whole demographic thing vis a vis the 60s before, but in the end I don't really buy it, except inasmuch as the demographics played a part in creating the era (the large size of youth creating the space for a counterculture). Partly because the "testimonials" seem too convincing, partly because I myself get a vibe from the artifacts of the era which suggests that there was indeed "something there."

And of course, factually speaking there was a lot of stuff going down at the time, but that's a whole different article!

Jamie said...

I like the Murray quote too, because what you say, AND that he's discovered that there is nothing there to see... the aura, the mystique is everything. Without the 60's mystique it's another turbulent decade in American history, like every other decade in American history.

You'd love 'White Noise', it's one of my favorite 5 novels or so. A stone cold brilliant work. I've read as much delillo as possible because of it.

Sam Juliano said...

Wow, some heavy artillery here guys!

Fascinating stuff!

Bob Clark said...

Joel, because I'm in the middle of another marathon coding stretch, I'm going to keep my comment short. This is a great, insightful essay, but I think there's a blind-spot worth capitalizing upon. Ever see Phil Alden Robinson's follow-up movie, "Sneakers"? It basically ties in completely with your perspective of "Field of Dreams" as a post-60's Boomer-ascension narrative. Granted, it's a pretty soggy, overly safe-feeling pseudo-spy thriller (think of it as "Hackers", only with fugitive Weathermen-era radicals standing in for Angelina Jolie in her ultra Gen-X mode), but it's still pretty fun.

MovieMan0283 said...

Bob, oddly enough as "Sneakers" was a favorite among many of my friends growing up, I myself never saw it! I had no clue it had a boomer - let alone Weathermen - angle; now I'm intrigued... Thanks for the reco...

Bob Clark said...

Joel, it's not Weathermen exactly, but in the same general ballpark (does that count as a pun?). Robert Redford is an old student radical in exile now working as in a corporate security firm with ex-Fed Sidney Poitier, blind hacker David Straithairn, conspiracy theorist Dan Akroyd and young protoge River Phoenix (for some reason). I forget the specifics, but they get involved in this case involving a computer-gizmo that's a skeleton's key for the internet, or a black-box for all the government's dirty secrets, or something.

It's nothing great, but it fits in exactly with the whole post-60's framework here. At times the whole Boomer thing is a bit more strained than it was in "Field of Dreams" (I'm thinking of a particularly lame "free love"-era joke from an actress whose name I can't remember-- the one who played the schoolteacher-turned-President on the "Battlestar Galactica" remake), but it all gels surprisingly well for what it is. It really does make for an interesting companion piece both to Robinson's previous film and "Hackers", which is very much the same kind of movie for another generation.

MovieMan0283 said...

"(I'm thinking of a particularly lame "free love"-era joke from an actress whose name I can't remember"

Around the time I was first looking into writing this article, I watched some other 60s-in-the-80s type movie/shows - this reminds me of a lame joke in "thirtysomething" where some yuppie (who was probably was too young to be an activist in the 60s anyway) cracks a line while walking into the park like, "gee, it's weird to be out here without tear gas, isn't it?" Like she hadn't been in a park in 20 years!

Bob Clark said...

Some more thoughts on the temporal disconnect of "Field" as a 60's-era meditation, despite the fact that its main character actually came of age in the early 70's. I think this is actually pretty common, where an audience tends to make the most concrete observations and associations of any given time period without necessarily being tied to the actual calendar dates. Primarily I'm thinking of "American Graffiti", which most people remember as a look at the 50's, despite the fact that it takes place in '62. Nostalgia has a weird way of clouding the important details of exactly where an era begins and ends, or maybe it's just the nature of human memory, which tends to be marked far more by watershed events than yearly numbers. We may tend to view "The 60's" less by the actual decade mathematics itself, and more as a bracket of time bookended by JFK's assasination and, say, Nixon's resignation. It makes more sense to us as a narrative, provides more closure to us, in a spiritual sense. Sometimes a "psychic decade" can be longer than ten years, or it can be shorter-- is it possible than in the future we'll look at "The 00's" (or whatever name we come up with) less as the ten years from 2000 and 2010 and more as the time period between the attacks of 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama?

I suppose this is just a very roundabout way of saying this-- human beings don't remember things in numbers and dates as much as they remember them in collective-memory events. Whenever somebody asks if you remember where you were when something happened, that's where decades really begin and end.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yes, I agree completely. Another part of that excised commentary noted that "the 60s" was not really defined as Jan. 1, 1960 - Dec. 31, 1969 but rather as stretching from roughly the assassination of Kennedy/the arrival of the Beatles/the birth of the West Coast counterculture to around the re-election of Nixon.

In that sense, the only reason Costner's college years are worth mentioning is because the campus unrest really did drop off dramatically in the fall semester - spring '70 had pretty much been the height what with the student strikes surrounding Kent State and the Cambodia invasion. Of course, one could point out there were still more demonstrations and activity than there had been, say, three years earlier which is true, but it was still a waning period.

And for the Doobie and Allman songs, '74 seemed safely enough removed from any concept of the 60s (though musically, I guess you could say the 60s did not end till the arrival of punk, which is a stretch but plausible) that the irony seemed worth pointing out.

Indeed, it's kind of ironic that "the 60s" gets called by a deccenial monikor since the actual decade would be hard to encapsulate under one single rubric (not that any decade is, but this one especially so with the dramatic shift in everything from politics - starting with a relatively apolitical youth and establishment Cold War liberalism firmly entrenched and ending with a radicalized student population and a - relatively - conservative president - to movies - starting with Hollywood works which were largely black-and-white and employing a classical style and some form of censorship which was breaking down but still resolutely un-explicit and ending with mostly color films, and an "anything goes" attitude towards both style and content - to fashion - I mean, really put a college kid up from 1960 and one from 1969 and they'll look like they came from different centuries!)

Then again, that very dramatic change itself might be the reason for focusing on a "decade" perspective - still it makes it hard to have a fixed object in mind when looking back nostalgically...

MovieMan0283 said...

Good point about American Graffiti too, btw. Have you seen the sequel "More American Graffiti"? It's pretty terrible, but sociologically interesting in this whole "representing the 60s" thing - unlike the first film, it actually does engage with the later 60s, dividing its time between four characters (not including Dreyfuss, who was too big now for the movie) each dealing with a certain aspect of the decade, more or less. Oddly enough, its structure is echoed pretty closely in Wong Kar Wai's 2046 (another sequel to a film taking place in the early 60s). I wrote about it here:

"The prime example that comes to mind is More American Graffiti - the justly forgotten 1977 follow-up which pursued different characters from the original on successive New Year's Eves in the late 60s. In its story structure, 2046 is remarkably similar - to the point of depicting nearly the same exact dates (Dec. 24 of '66 through '69 versus Graffiti's Dec. 31 of '65 through '68). Luckily, 2046 - unlike Graffiti - focuses its yearly adventures on one character and doesn't try to crosscut the different stories."

I have to assume this is a coincidence but fascinating nonetheless! Or who knows, maybe Wong is a MAG fan...?

Bob Clark said...

MAG strikes me as a movie that's rather compelling as a narrative/stylistic experiment, weaving multiple stories, time periods and even aspect-ratios (split-screen for Woodstock, handheld 16mm for Vietnam). But it doesn't really work, primarily because the wrong guy is behind the camera. Had Lucas himself been the one personally writing and directing the movie himself, instead of delegating it as he did all his work from '77 to '99, it might've been a really impressive feat.

MovieMan0283 said...

I agree - fascinating in concept, terrible in execution...