Wednesday, October 25, 2017



Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Screenplay: Phil Alden Robinson based on the book “Shoeless Joe,” by W.P. Kinsella

Somebody asked me once about what the first film to make me cry was, and a few films came to my mind. I'm honestly not sure, the first one I thought of to say was “E.T…,” but I don't know if I actually cried at that anymore, and then when pressed for another answer, I said “Plains, Trains, and Automobiles.” Then I thought, the real answer was “Home Alone”, and I just didn't want to say that out loud. All of the answers are true, (I’m not embarrassed at all with “Planes…” that is a tearjerker.) A few days later, I was reminded me of “Field of Dreams,” and I started to cry. 

I have seen the movie more times than I can count, and have always had an emotional connection to it. A lot of people do, and they really shouldn't. Myself included, I mean, just sitting back and thinking of the story real quick, how the hell did we get bought into this one?! How do we still get bought into it? Plot-wise, it's practically a religious narrative, "The Song of Bernadette", just replace God, with...- eh, baseball? It's a baseball movie, and, there's actually very little baseball in it. There's no big pennant race of save the orphanage kinda-whatever, subplot, (Well, technically there's a save-the-farm narrative, but it's not even a normal one of those.) no big game to win at the end. Hardly any games at all. And yet, there's this ridiculous pathos-filled ending, with something, that practically comes out of nowhere, that in any other movie, we'd be laughing our heads off and making jokes at the screen. Not in tears thinking about it. 

So, what is it exactly? It is in the truest and best sense of the term, a fairy tale, and it comes about at such an unbelievable way that the fact the film works at all has always been as surprising and enjoyable to me as the film itself. It does blindside you the first time you see it. The movie starts with a series of photographs that along with narration seem completely normal, generic even, but it's all set-up, for something, completely fantastical. out of the vast, blue foreboding sky. Ray Kinsella (Oscar-nominated Kevin Costner), the Iowa farmer standing in the middle of cornfield, thinks he hears a voice, telling him to do something. Build a church? Sorta, it's to build a baseball field over his corn crop, under the belief that Shoeless Joe Jackson, the long-since banned and dead baseball legend, would come to the baseball field. Even he thinks it’s crazy, but with his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) and daughter Karin's (Gaby Hoffman) support he does just that, and sure enough after some time, skepticism, and some scary bankers who came out of a Frank Capra film, Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) is on the baseball field, and he asks, “Is this heaven?” 

I don't know how this would play to some foreign audiences, who don't quite understand America's fascination with the great American pastime; I can't imagine a remake where say, it's a futbol pitch instead, I don't think it would translate exactly. Baseball has always been a game that's taught to us like other pieces of American folklore, we talk about people like Babe Ruth the same way we'd talk about Paul Bunyan, there's a spiritual and a mythic quality to the game that' regularly been beaten into us. I've had it, I distinctly remember a Middle School assignment where I had to take a picture and then write a poem, and I choose to take a picture of a baseball diamond and wrote a poem about the game, and I was lousy player and a Phillies fan; I was never making a career out of the game or anything. There is an instinctual and poetic haunting that attracts us to the game. In some ways, it does seem sacred to us, even if we lose track of who's playing for who anymore and only occasionally ever even watch a game that we then complain about for seeming too long and too slow. Perhaps it's nostalgia, perhaps it's generational, perhaps, it's just in our blood. 

The movie suggests that it might be in our genes. Just when the extraordinary image of the old 1919 Black Sox, the members of the infamous team that were banned for life, coming through the cornfields and practicing a bit have finished amazing us,  come about, another voice speaks to Ray, demanding him to go on another journey that he can’t understand and isn’t even sure he’s doing the right thing. And then another, and sure he's now collecting an old writer, Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) and an old ballplayer Archie Graham (Burt Lancaster, one of his last roles)
Thinking about the great and extreme reveal of what lies at the end of this spiritual journey is one that I remember to this day. I must admit that, when I first saw this film, I didn’t know about the film ahead of time, which I think does seem to help, but either way, this film is an emotional rollercoaster that astonishes you in a good way, and in a way that few films can. It’s a flight of fancy that most filmmakers would consider too unbelievable to be filmed, and correctly so. It was written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, somebody's who's had a strange and eclectic career, as a writer and director, although he's only made three films where he did both, this one, the little-remembers '80s comedy "In the Mood" and the heist drama "Sneakers"; he's currently the creator of "The Good Fight", and despite some notable screenplays like "Fletch" and "All of Me", this does seem to be the one indisputably great thing he's done. 

But then again, it seems like the most personal film and story he's done. You can tell he's put more care into this than anything else. Hell, the author of the original book, W.P. Kinsella, used his own name for the title character's, there's clearly an emotional cord to the tale, and I doubt he would've given the rights if he didn't know for damn sure that they were gonna make it count. This would've been easily to trivialize and just conform into some other filmmaker's style or some kind of traditional Hollywood narrative, but he plenty of those films, and we have plenty of Scorsese, Altman, and Billy Wilder-like works out there, but were really shorthanded in the modern-day Frank Capra department, and it’s because most of those stories don’t work now; we're too jaded and skeptical for something so simple and revealing; something that feels like it's not grabbing just our hearts and minds, but our souls themselves  and when one does, it should be cherished and honored for all to see. 

Sure, maybe you need to buy a ticket, but for a great film or a great game, but for something that's calling at you, it's always worth the price. 

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