Monday, July 8, 2013

Movie Review: Field of Dreams From My Father

Field of Dreams seems to be a movie about regrets, second chances, and vague notions of long lost goodness.    It's a movie made of sentiment, by sentiment, for sentiment.  The more vague and general the sentiments are kept, the more we can relate to them.  It borders on the Christian in its theme of second chances.  As Michael Moriarty says.
Field of Dreams is a beautifully made film of forgiveness and reconciliation … for everyone.  It is ultimately everyone’s field of dreams in everyone’s most childlike reveries.
Michael Moriarty goes on to criticize what he sees as the philosophy of the film in his thought-provoking article on Field of Dreams, made all the more interesting by his own link to baseball in his family history.  I don't necessarily agree with all that he reads into the film, but I want to mention some things that made me question where this movie is coming from.  I agree with Moriarty that
Field of Dreams is not only more palatably radical than any other American baseball film but more heart-warmingly revolutionary than any other American film in recent history.
However, I don't think that it is nearly as philosophically deep as what Moriarty attributes to it.

Something that has always bothered me about the movie, something that seemed at first like it didn't even belong, a distraction from the story, is the PTA scene where Ray realizes that he should go see his childhood hero, the reclusive writer Mann, an epiphany that hits him as parents bicker over whether to allow Mann's infamous book in the school curriculum.

When I first saw the movie as a teenager, I wondered why the filmmakers seemed to think the exchange was so meaningful, why trying to get this wonderful book was included at the school library--and putting down the ignorant yokels that don't want it--was such a blow for freedom.  Ray's wife is all charged up for freedom after calling a local townswoman a "Nazi cow," and revels in re-living her 1960s revolt against "fascism."  This is all the more a triumph because she also got all the other parents in the room to fall for her false dichotomy between eliminating Mann's book from the curriculum and upholding the Constitution.

Perhaps even more important is how obvious Daisy Jo Bookburner is supposed to convey the Left's caricature of conservatism to the audience:

The so-called novels of Terence Mann promote promiscuity, godlessness, the mongrelization of the races, and disrespect to high-ranking officesrs in the United States Army.  That's why right-thinking school boards across the country have been banning this man's [sh** spelled out] since 1969.*
There it is, all in one sentence: Leftists have been using film and television to associate conservatism with racism, control over religious beliefs, control over sexual morality, and authoritarianism--all things that have very strong ties to the Left.  Even without following all that with the curious phrase "right-thinking" (how subtle!), it is all too obvious what the intent is.

And Annie Kinsella makes it pretty clear that she wants Mann's books used in order to inculcate pacifism in schoolchildren.  (You know, for all the Nazi references in this part of the film, did fascism get stopped by pacifism? Or did it instead allow Hitler to take over France easily?)  And she hints that Daisy Jo Bookburner didn't experience enough of the "free love" of the 60s.  The school board tries to defend the choice of Mann's book for the curriculum by invoking the authority of the Supreme Court!  Sorry, parents, the Court's definition of pornography and deviancy is what matters, not yours.  We hereby invoke the authority of the Nine Geniuses to tell you what is appropriate for your children.  Hmmm.  Authoritarianism invoked against the community.

In the script Terence Mann blames his cynicism and his loss of faith in humanity on Nixon as much as on the JFK/MLK assassinations.  This is what shakes him out of his anti-war (and presumably Fonda-esque anti-American) activism.   The story Shoeless Joe was published in the early 80s; the decision to make the movie made at the end of Reagan's Presidency.  Terrence Mann, his faith in humanity finally restored:
America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.*
Ah, the America that was.  Before Hitler, Nixon, Reagan, and Daisy Jo Bookburner ruined it for everyone.  But cheer up: America was once good, and might some day be again, if we can just believe in hope and change.  Maybe some day we'll get a President who'll finish what Wilson, FDR, and LBJ started.  A fundamental transformation.

Terrence Mann was a fictional stand-in for Kinsella's original choice of J.D. Salinger.  That isn't the only discretionary decision-- there is also the choice to make Terrence Mann an activist from the 60s.  Salinger wasn't much of an activist, and he was more an inspiration to the Beat Generation, I think.  But whatever he represents to Ray Kinsella is fundamental.  Author W.P. Kinsella wanted to call his story "The Kidnapping of J.D. Salinger."

In the film, it comes out that Mann's writing somehow created a rift between the young Ray Kinsella and his father.  Mann's writings convinced young Ray of something, instilled an attitude about his father's generation, that made him turn down an opportunity to spend time with his father in a meaningful way, something that has caused a deep sense of regret.  Ray tells Terence that he didn't want to play baseball with his dad after reading Mann's classic novel that embodied rebellion against "the system."  I guess Ray's father was a conservative.  That might explain a lot.  Maybe like Daisy Jo Bookburner, Ray's dad didn't truly experience the freedom of the 60s and instead had himself "two Fifties followed by the Seventies."

In real life, those that become alienated from their parents' generation through some false moral superiority in stories of teenage rebellion don't generally get a second chance to play catch with Dad in a magic cornfield.  Maybe we will get that chance in the afterlife, but maybe an ounce of preventative respect for parental authority and conservatism, as unappealing and unflattering as it is to the false omniscience of the adolescent, is worth a pound of postmortem treatment.  Maybe the older generation has some perspective and some relevance.  But the 1960s "movement" was largely about disowning cultural heritage and all mores as so much baggage.  It was about not understanding the previous generation and instead embracing alienation.

Convincing a bunch of parents to deny their sensibilities in favor of literary experts and a bunch of omnipotent judges is not freedom, and has absolutely nothing to do with the Bill of Rights, other than pimping it.  The Bill of Rights was ratified by state legislatures to ensure that communities would have precisely that sort of self-governance, the kind of self-governance that seems to horrify all sorts of progressives.  If most parents in that particular community don't want it taught to their kids, don't teach it.  If they don't want it in the school library, don't have it there either.  If the book is that wonderful, get your own kids to read it at home. This is the same honor afforded to the Bible, a book that is banned even if 99% of the parents want it in the classroom.  And yet Field of Dreams thinks the Bill of Rights hinges on a small minority of parents deciding what everyone's kids will read in the name of freedom.

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