Forgotten Films: Field of Dreams
(The power of narrative subtlety)
In this addition of my series: Forgotten Films, I am using the term “forgotten” somewhat liberally as I don’t believe that the 1989 film Field of Dreams has been completely lost to culture, but that the power of the film has slowly waned over the last three decades. Instead of a classic analysis I’d like to focus on why the film is emotionally impactful over countless screenings; mainly, I believe that Field of Dreams benefits from the art of ‘narrative subtlety’ in order to drain the audience’s tear ducts by the film’s climax and finale. It shouldn’t have to be stated after thirty years, but just in case there are young millennials in the audience: spoilers ahead.
There are three films that have the ability to make your humble author “ugly cry,” one of which is Field of Dreams while the other is Arrival. Both of these use similar structuring and tactics around—what I will refer to as “narrative subtlety”—to similar effect. Although I will not get into a detailed discussion of Arrival in this essay, both films distract and divert audiences down external narrative paths to create the major emotional reveal in the climax and denouement.
For those who may have not seen Field of Dreams the film seems deceptively simple and “about baseball.” An Iowa farmer, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), hears a voice while walking through his corn field telling him that “If you build it, he will come.” Unsure of the cryptic meaning or whether or not he had gone insane, Ray ignores the voice until its incessant hounding reveals to him that if he builds a baseball field the ghost of Joe Jackson will come back to play baseball once again (Joe Jackson was banned from baseball after his team, the Chicago White Sox, supposedly threw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds). Accepting the challenge he plows under his corn, builds a baseball field, and witnesses spectral ball players returning from the dead out of his field (not zombies). After completing this task the voice beckons Ray to “go the distance” and later to “ease his pain.” About to lose the farm due to plowing under his major cash crop for a baseball field, Ray goes on a quest to appease the “voice” and his own sense of adventure as not to turn into his late father who never chased his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player.
The synopsis sounds like a feel-good (perhaps boring?) film about a man chasing a voice and a dream to appear adventurous and spontaneous: throwing away his house, farm, and family to appease a spectral voice with complex and cryptic messages. So why is the film memorable and so damn sad? The answer is that the film was never truly about baseball, ghostly visions and voices, or the Chicago White Sox: In essence, the film is about a torn relationship between a father and a son, as well as Ray’s ability—unbeknownst to him or the audience—to bridge that gap. Its ability to distract the viewer with ghosts, voices, and seemingly heroic quests is what gives the film such emotional weight and impact during the climax and “reveal.” Let’s look at how this effect is achieved through narrative structure.
Field of Dreams makes the audience acutely aware of the film’s intention from the introduction only to venture down an alternate course in order to distract and build plot. The first shots of the film are of Ray’s father as a child with Ray’s voice over narration stating, “My father’s name was John Kinsella.” He goes on to tell the story of how his father loved baseball and played a few seasons in the minors but “nothing came of it.” He married Ray’s mother who died when Ray was only three. His father “tried the best he could” to raise Ray and told him bedtime stories of Babe Ruth and Joe Jackson, who was John’s hero as a young man. The two fought and eventually Ray moved to California where he met and married his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan). After this juncture in the narrative, Ray’s life takes center stage as he discusses meeting Annie, living in various apartments, and that his dad died in 1974. Karin, Ray and Annie’s daughter, is born and the introduction ends as the two are shown in grainy home video footage purchasing their farm and Ray explaining that until he “heard the voice, I never [did] a crazy thing in my whole life.”
The introduction subtly establishes the connection of the film with Ray’s father. His story is generally known to the audience but is told in Ray’s voice and plays on the viewer’s knowledge of classical Hollywood structure in that Ray’s voice is being used, therefor it his story that is being told. John’s life and death is siphoned through Ray’s voice, making it seem as if it is merely a stepping stone in the overall story.
After the introduction the film opens with Ray walking through his cornfield at dusk when he hears the spectral voice. This is the first instance of narrative diversion and distraction that leads the audience away from Ray’s deceased father to the ghostly (and creepy) voice beckoning him to build “it” so that “he” will come. Neither Ray nor the audience know what “it” or “he” specifically is. It isn’t until later that Ray is shown a vision in his field of a ghostly baseball field and the face of Shoeless Joe Jackson, his father’s hero. The audience are also shown these images in two sequential point-of-view shots that connect the “it” to a baseball field and “he” to the long-dead player.
It is true that Shoeless Joe returns to the field to play but after he appears Ray beckoned a second and third time by the voice to “go the distance” and “ease his pain.” Throughout the remainder of the film Ray solves the mysteries laid out before him by the voice. “Go the distance” implores him to drive to Boston and find the retired and reclusive 1960’s social critic Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) in order to reconnect him with this past love of baseball and “ease his pain” requires both Mann and Ray to venture to Minnesota in order to find Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster): a baseball player who only played one game in the major league. All of them return to the field where their “dreams” are realized.
However, each of the quests Ray completes metaphorically relates to his fractured relationship with his father. For instance, Shoeless Joe Jackson was John Kinsella’s favorite player and the catalyst for Ray and John’s fight (more on that in a minute); Terrance Mann wrote a social satire novel, The Boat Rocker, which caused Ray to quit playing catch with his father; and Moonlight Graham only received one chance to play in the major leagues before being sent back to the minors, something he could not stomach and therefor became a small town physician. Graham and Ray’s father played in the minor leagues during the same era (1920’s) and both passed away in the early 1970’s. Ray even mentions to Mann as the young—ghostly—Graham joins them on their return to Iowa that Kinsella had travelled around as a young man looking for baseball clubs to play in at night, another subtle hint at the film’s connection to his father.
Use of Narrative Clues
Hints of Ray’s father are sprinkled throughout the film, as mentioned above. There also are other clues that drive a bulk of the film’s plot and allow the audience to gradually equate Ray’s bizarre mission with that of his guilt surrounding his estranged relationship with his father. As the plot develops more information is given surrounding the circumstances of Ray’s departure from his father’s house. In the introduction he mentions that his father “died a little” when his favorite team, the Dodgers, lost the World Series and “died a lot” when they moved to California. This symbolically connects his father’s eventual death and Ray’s decision to move to California and attend the University of Berkley, which his father disapproved of.
While Ray attempts to convince Annie of building the field in the first act of the film he mentions not wanting to turn into his father who, according to Ray, never did a spontaneous thing in his life. Once the field is built Ray tells stories about Shoeless Joe’s retirement and how his father had once seen him play at a minor league team in the Carolinas. Annie informs Ray it was the first time she had seen him smile when mentioning his father. John is not mentioned again—mostly due to Ray and Shoeless Joe’s encounter on the field—until Ray encounters Terrance Mann in Boston. On the drive back to Iowa Ray informs Mann that his father had pushed him to play baseball as a child, which became a chore. Later in life he refused to even play catch with his father and eventually told his father he could never respect a man whose hero was a “criminal” (Joe Jackson) and that “the son-of-a-bitch died before [he] could take it back.” Mann later references that Ray’s penance for this separation with his father was what the film revolved around; another narrative clue that somewhat distracts the viewer from the inevitable conclusion.
At this point in the narrative, once Moonlight Graham, Mann, and Ray arrive at the field, a full baseball game is being played and Graham is able to complete a major play, which he never was able to achieve. Mann is reconnected with his love for baseball, which was rejected once he became a radical author in the 1960’s, and Ray begins to realize the voice’s purpose for his quests: to connect these long lost characters with their dreams that were sidelined for adulthood and reality. At least, this is what the film wants the audience to falsely accept.
The climax of the film details Annie’s brother storming across the field (he is unable to see the baseball players) and informing Ray that he has to sell the field or he will lose his farm and house. Ray refuses after being convinced by Mann and Karin that people will come to see the games and reconnect with their nostalgia for youth. In the end, Annie’s brother is able to see the players after he accidentally knocks Karin form the bleachers forcing the young Moonlight Graham to leave the game and transform into his old—local physician—self in order to save the young girl form choking. Unfortunately, Graham is unable to return to the game and disappears into the corn field. Mann is invited by Joe Jackson to join the dead players (it is implied that Mann may have died earlier in the film) and Ray becomes angry that he is not the one to go with them.
All of the narrative subtlety and clues revealed throughout the film combine in the climax as Ray is finally reunited with this long dead father in an emotional turn.
The Climax and Denouement
As the players leave the field, Joe Jackson is left alone with Ray and his family. Ray asks what he is staring at and Joe replies, “If you build it he will come.” An eye line-match cut reveals Ray’s young father (as he is depicted in the introduction) removing his catcher’s equipment (aside: earlier in the film when Ray is pitching to Shoeless Joe, Ray asks “Do we need a catcher,” to which Jackson replies “not if you get it near the plate we don’t.” Another subtle clue left for the viewer that can be glimpsed after a second screening as John Kinsella is a catcher. It symbolically connects Ray’s desire to reconnect with his father as well as the film’s overall goal.). Ray doesn’t know how to respond and repeats the past phrases given to him by the voice, “go the distance,” and “ease his pain”: each phrase implying what Ray had failed to do during his father’s life. Ray then turns to Joe Jackson as he leaves the field and states, “It was you,” supposedly implying that Jackson was the voice driving Ray to finally connect with his father. Jackson merely turns and replies, “No, Ray. It was you.”
The revelation works both literally and metaphorically: Literally: Ray completed the specific tasks required by the voice in order to reach the ultimate conclusion of the film, which is laid out from the first shot and line of dialogue. Metaphorically: each task represented Ray’s guilt and desire to reconcile with his father. Ray introduces John to Annie and Karin and then the two are left to walk the field at dusk together. There is a type of refrain uttered by both Shoeless Joe and John Kinsella in the film, “Is this heaven?” To which Ray always responds, “No, this is Iowa.” It is in the climax of the film with the reunion of Ray and John that Ray asks, “Is there a heaven,” and John replies, “Oh, yeah. It’s the place where dreams come true.” In a sense, the field built by Ray is that dream: He is reconnected with his father, has a wife and child, and was able to complete a pseudo-heroes journey in order to connect lost souls with their detachment from happiness. Again, the film metaphorically connects two seemingly disparate objects, only this time it is Ray’s field (contented family life) with heaven (the place dreams come true). As John is leaving to return to the cornfield Ray finally calls out to him, “Dad? You wanna’ have a catch?” The two finally play catch together and the film reaches its intended reunion and conclusion as the floodgates of viewer tears is wretched open.
Through the film’s use of narrative subtlety and distraction the audience finally connects Ray’s mission and struggle with his underlining guilt—first, wrongly identified as not wanting to become his father—of never being able to reconcile his actions as a seventeen year old. Perhaps unconsciously, the viewer identifies these pieces of his story and connects them to the final game of catch between a father and a son, yielding the emotional climax necessary.
Would the film be as powerful if the introduction was cut or Ray was sent on random excursions across the country with no connection to his father? I would argue, no; the climax and conclusion also would lack the emotional weight that was developed through Ray’s seemingly insane actions. It is in these symbolic connections between characters and quests that the finale resolves the two-decade-old anguish repressed by the seemingly straight-laced Ray. Let’s recap the clues and information given as the story progresses:
· Ray’s father loves baseball and Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray builds a field and Jackson returns)
· Ray informs Annie he doesn’t want to become his father (in a sense, Ray is becoming his father having bought a house and farm in order to care for his family. Building the baseball field is a rejection of this notion, however, it is this rejection that connects him with his father)
· Terrance Mann was the catalyst for Ray’s rejection of his father (Ray finds Mann and connects him to his past love for baseball now that his radical writing years are past)
· Moonlight Graham desired to play baseball but failed, resulting in a lucrative career as a small-town physician that helped children (Ray’s father also failed at baseball and retired in order to get a job and raise his son; essentially, sacrificing his dreams to raise Ray as a single father)
The field connects all of these symbolic strands that severed Ray and his father’s relationship. In the end, the film isn’t about baseball but the connection a son makes with his father through the sport and how life detours in strange ways, sometimes, with the inability to reconnect to past mistakes. However, Field of Dreams allows Ray to make amends with his dead father in a heart-warming game of catch played out atop James Horner’s emotional score (the similar theme is often heard as Ray speaks about his father throughout the film). This is the true connection the audience makes with the film and is only achieved through this narrative subtlety.
This past Father’s Day I attended a special screening of Field of Dreams. The theater was fifty-percent filled to capacity, yet, there were plenty of sniffles and attempts at drying eyes during the final ten minutes (including me). It wasn’t shocking that the theater was somewhat empty as the cultural acceptance of the film has seemed to slip from view (I still remember commercials during the 1990’s parodying the voice in order to sell products); however, it is unfortunate that the film is not discussed more. There are few reasons, I believe, for this lapse in accepting the film as a more serious piece of Hollywood gold than it currently is.
One: the film is extremely sentimental and was often criticized for it. In the vein of classic-Hollywood, Field of Dreams has a (somewhat) happy ending: Ray keeps his farm, reconnects with his dead father, and has a game of catch that finally assuages the repressed guilt of his past. I say (somewhat) in that his father is still dead and Ray never reconciled their relationship in reality.
Two: Overall, Field of Dreams has a conservative moral that is based around family, forgiveness, and responsibility. Throughout the film Ray is often seen connecting with his daughter Karin through the field, just as his father attempted to connect with Ray through his love of baseball. The film ends with Ray acknowledging that his field may be heaven as he looks upon his wife and daughter laughing and sitting on the porch swing—a distinctly middle-class American image. Also, Ray’s father attempted to raise Ray as a single father and ditch his dreams of becoming a baseball player. His parental relationship with his son was filtered through the sport he loved, which Ray incorrectly equated with his father living vicariously through him (ultimately the catalyst for his rejection). In the same sense, Terrance Mann’s counter-culture radicalism is displaced to a carefree love of “America’s pastime” after he is partially blamed for Ray’s rejection of his father. In the end, the conservative Reagan-era politics seems to reaffirm that traditional family roles are what fulfills dreams as Ray’s across country venturing leads him back to his farm, his family, and a re-connection with his dead father. This type of sentimental posturing seems at home with Frank Capra and out of touch with modern audiences; however, the film does illicit emotions that are distinctly human and timeless.
Field of Dreams should be regarded as a classic that merits multiple screenings (tissues in hand) for in the end, the film has an important message in regards to love and forgiveness; a lesson Ray Kinsella—and the audience—finally learn.