Tuesday, June 02, 2009

FIELD OF DREAMS (USA, 1989, Robinson)

FIELD OF DREAMS (USA, 1989, Phil Alden Robinson, W.P. Kinsella novel)
Is this heaven?
It’s Iowa.
I coulda sworn it was heaven.

Late in my work-weary third decade, God sent a book that rekindled a vital spark that hadn't fired me up since my childhood. It would be going too far (a lot too far) to say He drew me back to my first love, but it was at least a childhood crush that got stirred up again, and it kindles my heart in a way that has sustained me through some very tough years.

I didn't find this inspirational classic in a religious bookstore. Even though it's done as much for my spirit and my soul as a shelf full of devotional literature, it wasn't recommended by my pastor, or even a therapist. My muse was a scratchy voiced radio announcer, who very clearly said to me – well, to me and however many other hundreds of thousands of CBC listeners had tuned in that afternoon – "If you read it, your life will be changed." (Well, not in so many words. But I know what I heard!)

I went straight to the used bookstore and got myself a copy of a book that began;
My father said he saw him years later playing in a tenth-rate commercial league in a textile town in Carolina, wearing shoes and an assumed name.
He'd put on fifty pounds and the spring was gone from his step in the outfield, but he could still hit. Oh, how that man could hit. No one has ever been able to hit like Shoeless Joe."
And I was hooked. I read Shoeless Joe three times through before I started devouring everything else W.P. Kinsella had written; The Thrill of the Grass, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and lots more as they issued forth from the pen of this prolific baseball prophet.

I'll be honest here: Kinsella would be appalled to be considered the mouthpiece of God. I don’t think he even likes Christians that much (apart from his red-headed wife Anne, with whom he is smitten, and who, interestingly enough, happens to be a devout Christian. Go figure....) and that dislike comes through in his books. But he understands calling, loves life and the "Behold it is good!" glory of the created world, and the way these simple earthly joys are caught up in spiritual mysteries as close to hand as a cornfield or a ballpark. If God can speak through donkeys, if rocks and stones can praise Him and the trees of the field can give Him a standing "O," surely we can hear from Him through a baseball writer, or find heaven in a blade of outfield grass.

When the film version came out, I was astonished. Even though they changed the title (yet another attempt to strike Shoeless Joe from the history books, I couldn’t help thinking) and plenty of other stuff, it worked. An amazing book became an amazing movie, using film language to do what written words did a different way. We lost the narrator's voice, so droll and beguiling and expressive, but we gained that amazing final shot, and lots of other gorgeous, evocative images. They moved things around, had to cut other things – but what we lost in J.D. Salinger, we gained in the amazing James Earl Jones. And the heart of the thing, the thrill of the grass and what it feels like to be called to fulfill an impossible, impractical, maybe-divinely-inspired dream, was all still there. I'm only one of many who watch this movie through tears (see, there is crying in baseball!).

It's a film about the price we pay for obedience – and the higher price we pay for its opposite. About the tough choices involved in discerning between enthusiasm and calling. It's about fathers and sons (what baseball movie isn't?), husbands and wives and daughters, restoration of the fallen and how it feels to get some good wood on the ball on a green field in a summer evening. And if you think this is just sentimental wish-fulfilment about playing ball instead of living life in the real world, don’t forget Moonlight Graham stepping across that white chalk line.

The story is so well known, I won't lay out the details. And anyway, if you're one of the lucky ones who can still go see it for the first time, I'm not going to be the guy who spoils even one of its wildly imaginative, deeply inspiring plot twists. Don't bother to find out more about it, don't talk to your friends, don't even read the back cover of the video – just rent it, and watch it.

Maybe all you'll get out of it is an enjoyable evening at the movies. Or maybe you'll hear another voice, whispering to you in the middle of a cornfield. I know I did. A voice that came in a weary time, giving me back not only baseball – abandoned since my childhood, a blessed release from the pressures of day-to-day responsibility – but even more, a deepened certainty that my sometimes pointless and seemingly inescapable day-to-day toil is actually a God-breathed calling. And that He can use it to ease people's pain. My own included. That what we're building here may be a field of dreams, a little corner of the kingdom of God.


Available at Videomatica


Peter T Chattaway said...

Hey Ron, just wondering, is this a reprint of an older article? I vaguely recall that Kinsella had a Christian wife (might have been Anne) when Doug Todd profiled him in the early '90s, but by the mid-'90s Kinsella was in a fairly public relationship with Evelyn Lau, and according to Wikipedia he "currently lives in Yale, British Columbia with his fourth wife, Barbara".

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite films. A movie I can watch over and over again. And the only one that captures the spiritual significance of a game of catch.

I discovered Kinsella in my teens and, coupled with my parents cable which allowed me access to WGN, I fell in love with the Cubs. Still haven't seen their Iowa based farm team, even though sometimes come out this way to play the Canadians.

Ron Reed said...

It's a piece I wrote for my book project, posted now because of a passing reference to the film in Mike Hertenstein's new [insert awestruck adjective here] article over at filmwell, "Rushdie, Kansas & Oz (Oh, My!)." Yes, I had heard about the Lau affair, but nothing further on his marital status. I believe he also had a traumatic road accident (very much like Stephen King's, if I'm not mistaken) that disrupted his life and writing. "Not in Iowa any more..."

Jason, have you read lots of Kinsella's baseball fiction? There's so much of it that's so great, isn't there! The New Play Centre (now Playwrights Theatre Centre) once produced three one-acts adapted from "The Thrill Of The Grass."

Anonymous said...

I read a lot (all?) of his baseball fiction when I was a teenager (as I recall). So much of it has faded from memory, though.

(I remember reading it when I was growing up in White Rock and then discovering that he lived there! That was a thrill.)

Now I'm really curious to look up those plays...