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Beyond the Box Office: The Natural (1984)

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A continuing series designed to look a little closer at the intersections of baseball and film history. You can read last week's entry here.

I've often wondered when it was that baseball and nostalgia first became connected at the hip. John Thorn reminds us, in the second episode of Ken Burns' Baseball, that as early as 1900 urban masses were flocking to ballparks with an urge to "get a taste of country pastoral air, that their lungs would expand from cheering, and nonsense like this." It was, perhaps, an unconscious urge from a rising industrial class to return to those archetypal American cornfields and wooden cabins that had been all but destroyed by railroads, concrete, and mass production. A trope which was seen on screen as early as 1920, when "Babe Ruth" crafted a bat from a felled tree in his own, mythical rural American homestead.

But then again, I think something radical happened to nostalgia around the mid-to late twentieth century. By 1984, urban American modernity had left the industrial revolution to pass through multiple catastrophic economic crises, two world wars, and the rise and fall of a prosperous manufacturing-based middle class--only to land on the other side with urban decay, vast unemployment, and political unrest at home and abroad. If we're talking about culture and art, this is essentially the theory of postmodernism: that something changed enough between the end of the nineteenth century and the middle of the next that all forms of representation have had to effectively change along with it. Which brings us to today's film.

naturalhopper

Barry Levinson's The Natural was based on Bernard Malamud's novel of the same name, regularly appearing on the top of best-of lists since it first hit screens in 1984. It is to this viewer, the quintessential instance of what Fredric Jameson, who some credit for popularizing the thesis of postmodernism, would call a nostalgia film:

Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it into a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation.

Take a look at the opening shot of the film up there. Robert Redford, as our archetypal American hero Roy Hobbs, is waiting for a train in some late-twenties rural American train station. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has him lit as if he's sitting in an Edward Hopper painting--not because he likes Hopper (he might), not because it necessarily does anything for the story (it could), but mainly because when you see it, it brings that indescribable comfort back to your innermost being, you know--back then. This shot sets the stage for everything which is to come after: those immaculate wool uniforms, the retrofitted minor-league ballparks, the slang and the mitts and the baseballs that some PA noted had to be stitched with both red and blue yarn.

If you've seen The Natural you know what comes next: a remarkably concise sequence which tells us everything we need to know about where Hobbs comes from (and where, by extension, we did as well). Some vaguely-old-timey American farm held together by wheat fields, our archetypal father figure outlining the strikezone against an old wooden fence, his vaguely metaphoric life lessons espoused seconds before collapsing from cardiac arrest--and then, when night falls for the first time, rain, fear, adulthood, the tree breaking apart from the shot of lightning as if to light the path out from the past and into the destiny which awaits us all. It's heavy handed, but it's all done in three minutes, which is just crazy when you get right down to it.

I'm going to have more to say about nostalgia in the final installment of this series, but I do want to contrast this to what we saw in Headin' HomeWhile Malamud's purported inspirations for the novel could fill their own book, what we really have to work with here are its effects--a legendary mythos which would go on to define the game, a bildungsroman about the modern subject, a canonical work exploring twentieth century Jewish identity. Of course, many things had to go when it was adapted to the big screen in the eighties--but perhaps one of the most important changes was in restructuring the timeline from the fifties into the thirties, complete with its near-complete shedding of the novel's catalogue of famous nods to baseball history such as the Black Sox scandal and Merkle's Boner.

Of course, some of these moments remain in the final film itself: the Babe-Ruthian chararcter of "The Whammer" comes to mind, as does the bribe, and one has to note Bump Bailey's on-field death, which was originally meant to signify the Ray Chapman incident in Malamud's novel. But none of these little nods to baseball history necessarily need be about baseball itself--Jameson would call this the "evacuation of history" from modern representation. We just have all these famous stories and images floating around in our cultural consciousness, up for grabs to be put towards whatever end we want, like that Hopper painting up there.

Key to this kind of a reading is the most glaring change from page to screen, as Malamud originally has Hobbs striking out and losing the series thanks to his unconquerable tragic flaws which serve as a warning for his modernist novel. But you obviously know how the film ends.

In a conversation with Rob Neyer over at JABO (RIP), Turner Classic Movies host (and grandson of Citizen Kane scribe Herman J.) Ben Mankiewicz situates this shift within the film's contemporary moment, which is, I think, central to this entire postmodern nostalgia running through the film. Mankiewicz states

I...also felt obligated to be in the "I can't believe those crass Hollywood faux artists changed Malamud's ending" camp, even though I'd never, you know, technically read the book...Now, I get changing the ending. It was an artistic choice in step with the time, with Ronald Reagan's America. And even now, 30 years later, it still feels like the right decision. I did not want to see some kid look at Redford and ask "Say it ain't so, Roy." Not a chance.

This is, I think, the end of the American twentieth century in a nutshell: the aura of mythic achievement, the hero's journey, greatness, overcoming the odds through that adversity-hardened will which sits inside each and every one of us, as long as we know just where to look. This is not the spirit of a world torn asunder by world war, in which mere survival in the face of mass death is all we can ask for. Nor is it the despair of the post-sixties, which saw factories shuttered, jobs lost and economic crises standing in tandem with geopolitical turmoil the world had yet to be able to comprehend.

This is a nostalgia not for what actually was, but an idea of what we wish had been, a thirties which tell us less about the years of the depression and more about the restructuring of the nation as it headed into the twentieth century. A game about failure, funneled through fantastic hopes which are, perhaps, all that gets us out of bed at the start of each day.

To some, it is perhaps all we can ever hope to have. But in the bottom of the ninth, with a full count and two outs on the board, someone is always waiting to walk off the field, their head pointed at the ground. You just hope, this time, it isn't you.