Field of Dreams opens inside a photo album, the kind your grandmother kept underneath the coffee table that you would flip through while the grownups exchanged big words over tea. The kind you stopped to read one last time while packing up her house, the screech of its mylar sheets detaching from the contact paper as if it were the voice of whoever was depicted in the underlying photograph, lost to time. Here is the opening shot:
The first photo is of John Kinsella. It's an Irish name, Kevin Costner's Ray Kinsella reminds us, and this photo of his father quickly bleeds into other depictions of the senior Kinsella's trip through early twentieth century American life. His beloved White Sox, and the pain of baseball's original sin. A fruitless trip through the minor leagues, the birth of Ray. The sixties, Berkeley, Ray's sweetheart Annie, and the birth of yet another with the same name. Unlike the cinema, the protagonist of a photo album is in the blood of the beholder.
The America given to us by Field of Dreams is not that unlike the America given to us by The Natural: Midwest cornfields, magic hour photography, yellows and browns and celluloid grain washed over the screen. Whispers from the past swirling around our eternal present in cacophonous infinitude. A past-ness that embeds the desire for return into a collection of mundane, everyday objects such as that house up on top of the hill, a baseball bat, or a worn out glove like the kind they used back in the olden days which can nevertheless still cradle a ball made to twist, spin, curve, wobble, rise, or fall away.
The story is simple, and you know how it goes even if you've never seen it. While walking in the Iowa cornfield he never felt at home in, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) hears a mysterious voice telling him to build a field so that they will come. He does, but the project almost ruins him in the process. The whole thing appears to have been for naught until one day he has a vision of Shoeless Joe Jackson, he of the damned 1919 White Sox, mysteriously walking out from the outfield cornhusks which now appear to separate our reality from that of the afterlife of collective American memory.
After about one-hundred other lightly-signified anxieties about a mythic lost past emerge, Ray finds himself faced with the choice of tearing the field down or keeping it up, which would risk having Danny from The West Wing repossess the property and all its promises of a place not tainted by the failures of greed and the unstoppable flow of time. All of which brings us to this:
Like the photo album which opened the film, the real subject of Jones' speech here is not Ray: it is instead this fictive we he is truly addressing, a fictive we not united by familial blood but by a blood composed of shared memory, regret, and a longing for a time when it all seemed to just make sense. It is a powerful speech, to be sure. There is a reason you hear it before the first pitch of each new season, with all the possibilities of requisite maybe this years articulated in one shared ritual, reaching its arms two hundred years into a yesterday we will never again have.
They'll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.
But the real story of the Chicago Black Sox scandal does not end in a mythical cornfield set outside of time in the great American Midwest. It ends with a man spending the last thirty years of his life screaming his innocence at ears all but closed to the contrary. It ends with a man who would later work to delay racial integration of the game suddenly consolidating his power into one exaggerated drop of a metaphoric gavel, drowning out the retorts of jurists who had ruled to the contrary mere moments before.
And they'll walk out to the bleachers, and sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.
This is, perhaps, a bit unfair. Field of Dreams is fully aware of its mythologization of the Black Sox scandal, its use of history as a malleable substance to mold into whatever shape it need, or might one day, be. It is utterly uninterested in relaying any anything outside feel-good aphorisms about The Nature of the Game, and the Meaning of the past when it is ritualized in the present, inside a simple bat-and ball game. Released less than a year earlier, John Sayles' Eight Men Out chooses instead to actually tell the story of the thrown 1919 series, to bring us Buck Weaver (John Cusack) and Shoeless Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), to display the disinterested and tight-pursed management of Charles Comiskey which may or may not have led to the scandal in the first place.
But even Eight Men Out revels in stretching the truth, an act which should never be the litmus test for identifying great works of art throughout cultural history. Comiskey's causal relationship to the gambling scandal has long been under dispute, and the infamous line blurted out from the blubbering lips of a child who just had every last preconception of his world shattered in an encounter with human failure--say it ain't so, Joe!--is entirely too good to be true.
But truth is not for sale in the cinema, only a series of views, camera positions which produce and are produced by the light that enters the frame to be imprinted on the sensor hidden deep down inside the apparatus. What matters is not what the boy actually said--what matters is that the story doesn't end in reserved seats along the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.
And they'll watch the game, and it'll be as if they'd dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they'll have to brush them away from their faces.
Jones isn't wrong here. Memories are, perhaps, all there are, and all there ever will be. But memories of what? The first pitch leaving the fingers of Felix Hernandez in three days won't bring back anything you have left behind as time whooshes under you to take you away into the ever-unfolding present. And memories cannot build ballparks in the mysterious cornfields out of some similarly protean past. Moonlight Graham remains, and will continue to remain, always and forever hitless.
Field of Dreams only takes place at two times of the day: the hazy twilight before the setting of the evening sun (you know, innings one through four), and night, during which the game is won before you walk back to your car parked in the dusty field across the outfield berm. Shadows are long and tall. This is due in part to the relative position of the sun to the horizon, but it's also a way of suggesting these mythic heroes quite literally exceed their two-meter physical frames, stretching out from the field which we cannot occupy in order to touch us, watching and waiting in the stands.
Eight Men Out, by contrast, looks like controlled chaos. Each shot is doused in light, but it is not light from a single source of intelligibility and exposure. It looks like light bleed from an old lens wrapped in shoddily constructed casing, allowing for daylight to leak into the frame to give the whole thing an unearthly quality that screams imperceptibility--just like the memories the film seeks to activate in its circle of damned men. In this shot, as the White Sox players descend a staircase following their last great memory before the scandal, their shadows are instead themselves, quite literally standing between us and the light behind as if to blur our attempt at making things known. So thick we have to brush it away from our faces.
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.
As we slowly watch the scandal unfold, we are treated to surprisingly accurate depictions of gameplay, certainly some of the best we have seen as this project unfolded. Nobody seemed to have much faith in the project: Sayles didn't even have enough money to parrot The Pride of the Yankees' lefty/righty mirror image reversal technique to match actors to the handedness of their particular hitters.
But one particularly impressive shot shoes Joe Jackson hitting a triple framed from behind the back left corner of the batter's box. Jackson runs deep into the frame to reach first, and as he rounds for second, the camera follows him in parallel motion down the third base line, eventually landing square into the same plane of vision to remind us that Jackson could hit--he could really hit. He hit triples. And yet the eventual conclusion is just as tepid as the hope of that little boy exposing his innermost being to the man himself, whose most recent dagger to the heart came from the one and only Rob Manfred just six months ago.
Eight Men Out suggests a number of things: that some of the players didn't want to go along with it, that Buck Weaver sincerely tried to win the World Series that year. It suggests that opinions changed as the prize money became more tangible, that collective anxieties gave way to personal failures, that we may never know precisely who was at fault for what, at what times, and how. But mostly it suggests that baseball, for some, was not forever. That the game was not a constant through all those years, but rather was for some nothing but a memory, a single unit of regret locked away in the mind of an illiterate liquor store proprietor.
Baseball has seen a lot come and go. Steamrollers of change have rolled by, unfurling phases of political unrest, racial turmoil, progress, and regression. But it isn't baseball that marks the time--it that single moment when we think we are accessing the past, watching that first pitch land square in the glove of the receiving catcher like we've seen countless times before.
But each pitch is unique, and there are thousands, millions of pitches yet to be thrown both on the fields upon which we watch, and within the minds we use to remember. What we are accessing is not the past, reminding us of all that once was good, and which could be again. What we access at that moment is a face to face encounter with the truth: that we can never go back, that the tomorrows of yesterday have themselves faded into the pages of well-worn photo albums held under the coffeetable of those who have preceded us into the void.
They will come, Ray. People will come.
Eight Men Out's best scene is its last. After Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis banished from professional baseball the members of the 1919 Sox, a group of fans find themselves back in the stands of an independent baseball game, their faith in the institution restored and their love of the game made new again by the most cynical of ideological ruses then available.
They watch as a strange colossus of a man first chases down an uncatchable fly ball to the warning track for the last out of the inning, then tosses his mitt to the scoreboard operator for storage before heading to bat. Who is that guy? they ask. It's him! It's gotta be him! It's Joe Jackson!
One man refuses to believe his ears. The memory of the scandal is still too fresh, too real to forget. And why would he? These rough-and-tumble independent players make peanuts for a living--Jackson made a fortune on those games, he reminds us. But still, it is not enough to sway those already convinced, convinced by the memory of pictures and games they never actually attended in the first place.
But Buck Weaver is in the stands. Buck Weaver--himself banned from baseball now watching a rag-tag team of amateurs try and stop this mysterious colossus steamrolling their chances on the afternoon. Unaware they are talking to a man who actually shared sweat with the figure in question, they demand answers from a spectator, lucky enough to be there back when he actually roamed the diamond before disappearing into the tall cornfields which line the horizon.
I saw him play, Weaver says.
Yeah? replies one of the other men. What did you think?
He was the best.
Run, hit, throw, he was the best.
A pause, as if to process the words hanging in the air with the weight of spring rain.
So what do you think? he asks. Is that him?
The colossus readies his bat in the box, a pound of chew protruding from his bottom lip almost the size of his hat brim.
Nah. Those fellas are all gone now.
A crack of the bat, the puff off a cigarette, the colossus heading to third standing on two feet. A triple. Then, a suggestive smile, eyes pointed towards the ground.
Who's Joe Jackson? a boy asks.
He was one of the guys who threw the series back in '19. One of them bums from Chicago, kid. One of the Black Sox.
The colossus tips his hat. The fans are cheering. They do not know. They will never know. We will never know.