Monday, August 18, 2008

History and the Movies: Let the Great Illusion Drown

No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read. - David McCullough.

I suppose that applies to viewing as well and I agree. But what McCullough is talking about is taking history and making it engaging without changing or distorting it. That's something the movies have never been good at. As a result, I don't go to the movies for history lessons and as a history buff I don't expect them. I'll get my history from McCullough and others and get my dramatizations from the movies. But sometimes, a movie can distort history to a point where it becomes problematic. That point is usually reached when the movie itself becomes popular enough that the majority of people start believing that the history in the movie is the real history.

I've written several reviews on these pages about narrative dramas and documentaries concerning the Manhattan Project of World War II. It's a subject I have had a deep fascination with for decades. I've read everything there is to read on the subject and seen most, but not all, of the relevant films (I've still not seen The Beginning or the End made in 1946 with Hume Cronyn as J. Robert Oppenheimer but I'd love to, if only it were available). The movie Fat Man and Little Boy is a classic example of a film so loose with the historical record that anyone familiar with the record (like me for instance) starts to wonder, "Was it an actual goal of this film to ignore every possible fact?" Hilariously, the director, Roland Joffe, famously stated that his was the most historically accurate account of the Manhattan Project ever made. "Why," he said, "we even have 'Dance of the Fairies' playing on the radio before the Trinity Test, just like it actually happened." Wow. It's true, they do have that (it occurred due to a reception problem with the P.A. system that picked up a local radio station) and lots of other tiny and utterly meaningless little "details" that add up to nothing. The big stuff, who Oppie and General Leslie Groves were, how they acted, what they said and did, is pure fantasy.

But who cares? Like I said, I don't get my history from the movies and since the movie was a flop I don't have to worry about people actually believing that Robert Oppenheimer squeezed an orange and came up with the idea of implosion (hahahahaha - that scene took the movie straight into the comedy genre for me. And by the way, implosion as an alternate way to achieve a runaway chain reaction was already being researched before they even set up camp at Los Alamos). And if I do want history from a movie I'll watch Day One yet again. You want history? That movie's got history. I'd have to say from all that I've read, including the excellent account by Peter Wyden upon which it was based, that a good 98 percent of what is in that movie is on the historical record. It's probably the most accurate historical film I've ever seen.

Then sometimes a movie mixes up its facts and time lines but still gets the right idea across. In fact, I'd say this is the most common of all the possibilities of the historical film. If you know or have read anything about General George Patton, you know that the movie Patton mixed up dates, deleted characters and generally played fairly loose with the facts about the General. And yet, they still did a good job of accurately portraying him. Filling the role with an astonishingly dynamic presence, George C. Scott gets to the heart of Patton so even if the movie isn't quite accurate, it is, if you know what I mean.

Or take The Right Stuff. Much of the information about the actual flight missions were authentic to a fault. If you've read Thomas Wolfe's account or seen any number of documentaries on the Mercury program, you know that Chuck Yeager did indeed break his ribs the night before his historic test flight and had to use a sawed off broom to close the door to his plane so that he could become the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Just like it is in the movie. But you also know that the Mutt and Jeff characters of Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum as well as the hilariously overplayed moments of frustration with LBJ (Donald Moffet) are probably more or less fictionalized. And so what? Again, they get the feel right. They capture the proper spirit, displaying the astronauts' courage and honor as well as their fears, egos, tantrums and generally childish behavior. The Right Stuff gets it right, even if the facts aren't all there.

But now I'd like to get back to how I started this post. That is, the movie that distorts the history and becomes popular enough to sell it as the real deal.

This time of year as the baseball season is heading into its final stretch I often think of Ken Burns' documentary Baseball, which I have on DVD. It's a thorough accounting of the history of the game, if not a thorough accounting of every player (they left out Rogers Hornsby?). Whenever I watch the third installment, The Faith of Fifty Million People, which covers the Chicago White Sox World Series scandal where eight players threw the game for a few thousand bucks, I start thinking about the movie Field of Dreams.

Now I'm not here to critique Field of Dreams, I'm here to talk about it's story concerning Shoeless Joe Jackson. (however if you want to read an entertaining story about the movie and its title I recommend checking out this post from Sheila) If you don't know the story of Shoeless Joe Jackson and have only Field of Dreams as your guide (and many people do) you'll come away with quite a different picture of what happened during that ill-fated World Series in 1919.

First there's the casting which is, to borrow a term from the game, straight out of left field. You need to cast an actor as a down home country ball player born and raised in rural poverty in Greenville, South Carolina and you cast ... Ray Liotta!?!???! Liotta, without saying a word, screams urban, tough and streetwise. When he says that line about Ty Cobb not being invited because everyone thinks he's an asshole followed by that Liotta Jersey cackle I cringe every time. And it's not even because Jackson and Cobb were friends and respected each other, although that's obviously a problem with the line as well, but because again, Liotta just doesn't convince me he's a rural poor boy. Kind of like casting Woody Allen as the Terminator. No matter how hard he tried, Woody just wouldn't convince me.

But the real problem for me is the way Jackson is presented. Similar problems occur in Fat Man and Little Boy too, but like I said, that movie flopped. Field of Dreams was a smash. And to this day I've heard people make arguments about Shoeless Joe lifted straight from the conversations of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in the movie. That bothers me. Not because I hate Jackson (on the contrary, I find him a sad figure and sympathize with what he went through) but because I don't like it when the whole story, in favor of just part of it, is swept under the rug because of a person's personality or popularity. And that's the tactic of Field of Dreams with Jackson. We don't get the whole story, just enough to turn him into a victim, instead of a man in control of his own destiny.

Kinsella and Mann talk about Jackson as a sainted figure. He was just a dumb bumpkin who didn't know what he was doing. And besides, if he was in on the fix, how come he played so great during the series? How come his series stats were so amazing? Good questions but not quite thorough enough. His stats were fantastic - offensively. Guess what? So were the offensive stats of the other players on the team. So are Kinsella and Mann saying no one threw the Series? What Kinsella and Mann don't mention, but baseball history books do and these characters appear on the surface to know their baseball history, is that the defensive stats were less than stellar. Why? For me it's simple - ego.

Defensive stats are important to a player but not like those offensive ones. The offensive stats (home runs, rbi's, bases stolen, etc) are the glamour stats and, thrown World Series or not, no one on that team was about to screw with their glamour stats. But when it came time to catch an easy pop fly Jackson stumbled. When he picked up balls in play he took an extra step or two before throwing them to the proper base and when he threw them they didn't have the same power they normally had. To be sure, he made some amazing plays defensively during the series too, enough to keep his stats in line there as well. But he stumbled when he needed to, he slowed down when it counted. And that was the difference. All of this was noticed by sportswriters, fans and one Christy Mathewson during the series. The shadiness of what was going on was somewhat of an open secret. *(see below)

Christy Mathewson was one of the games greatest pitchers before an accidental inhalation of mustard gas during training exercises for combat in World War I ended his career. During the 1919 World Series he was asked by a sportswriter to watch the series with him and let him know what looked fishy. Mathewson noticed things immediately, and they were all on the defense. You know, the part nobody talks about in Field of Dreams.

In the end, none of this matters much. It's innocuous really. But that's how it takes hold. If someone distorts the facts about a world changing event in history there's an immediate outcry and the public takes notice. If someone distorts the facts about a baseball game, well...

Still it bothers me and I think it bothers me more in a dramatic sense than in a historic sense. Imagine if the movie had gone with the Jackson as a man in control of his own destiny. Imagine if Jackson was shown to have helped to throw the series and thus lose the opportunity to ever again play the game he loved. And as a result, it cut a wound so deep in his soul that he had to come back from the dead to heal it, to make amends. Now that's compelling. Innocent victim? Not so much.

And all of this leads me to this scene, this favorite moment from the Ken Burns documentary. It is the Grand Jury testimony of Joe Jackson, the testimony in which he confesses to what he did and explains how it all went down. The testimonial record was conveniently lost and not recovered until after the players had been acquitted in trial. Hmmm.... wonder how that happened. The moment from the documentary has the viewer listen to Jackson (voiced by Keith Carradine) tell the Prosecutor about his payoff. The Prosecutor asks him if his wife knew and if so, what was her reaction. When Jackson tells it the full tragedy of his character is on display. You can hear a wife, in just a few simple words, trying desperately to steer her husband in the right direction, and a husband not hearing any of it. And when Jackson repeats the words on the stand you can imagine the deep regret he has that it didn't end that day. He should have listened to the better angels of his nature, but he didn't. And at that moment his field of dreams died forever.


*If you read the Wikipedia entry on Jackson you will inevitably find the section about his alleged innocence during the series. It is still an open question and I am not trying to outright condemn him in this piece. The Wikipedia entry however, unlike more thorough baseball history books, ignores the defensive stutters of Jackson throughout the Series as Jackson supporters often do. They also mention nefarious tactics by the Prosecutor and end with a statement by Lefty Williams that Jackson's name was only mentioned to give the plot more credibility. However, this does not tell the whole story either. What Williams meant by most accounts when he said Jackson's name was mentioned to give the plot credibility was that he knew Jackson had to be in on it because he was such a great player that if he wasn't in on it the fix might not work - They might not lose. Jackson was that good a player. Take all of this how you will, my main argument here is against the half-truths in Field of Dreams resulting in a less compelling presentation of Joe Jackson's motivations. My main points here are to the dramatic differences in the story if the full Joe Jackson history is used. If history proves Jackson to be completely innocent I will be extremely happy. In the end, Joe Jackson was kind man with immense talent who made one tragically big mistake.


Marilyn said...

I understand how you feel about this type of practice, Jonathan. I never expect historical pictures to be accurate. They are so influenced by the politics of the day - the need to demonize or lionize - and the exigencies of telling a story.

What I can't understand is why high-quality books need to be "reimagined". Yes, if you want to take a stinker with an interesting plot and make it better, go for it. But I will never forgive the liberties taken in the Preminger Abomination. The Man with the Golden Arm won the first National Book Award, yet so much of it was wrong, from the casting to the ending to the portrayal of hopheads. I know people like this film, some quite a lot, but if you read the book, you can see what a travesty the movie is to the greatness of Nelson Algren's achievement.

I've begun a project that will be intermittent on Ferdy on Films: I'm going to read works by Nobel laureates that have been turned into films and compare/contrast. I've started The Tin Drum and hope I can finish it in good time.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I can hardly wait. The Tin Drum is a great starting point. I'm not enamored of the film version ... but I will stop there because it would be rude of me to start critiquing something you're going to be critiquing on your own pages soon.

I've only seen The Man With the Golden Arm once, about twenty years ago, and it didn't make a big impression on me then. I have never been a fan of Sinatra the dramatic actor. I like Sinatra the musical actor and Sinatra the sixties actor in things like Ocean's Eleven or Tony Rome even if I wasn't crazy about the movies.

And as for demonizing or lionizing - that was an apprehension I had about this post which is why I have the long statement at the end after the clip. I fear people will show up ready to lash out because I have taken the position that Joe wasn't perfect. People want Joe Jackson to be perfect. They need him to not have been involved in any way with the fix. They imagine if he was involved that he is now a part of some evil cabal. Field of Dreams was too afraid to involve him in any way with the scandal and that bothers me. It makes for a less compelling story.

bill said...

What, nothing about JFK? Now there's a movie that did a lot of damage. I think a line can be traced from that film to 9/11 Truthers. Stone legitimized those people.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Well I was trying to stick with biopics and such and steer clear of conspiracy theory stuff because I don't want to start getting into fights with people about assassination timelines and Lee Harvey Oswald. But I agree with everything you wrote.

bill said...

Okay. Well, another good movie that plays loose with the facts, but which I think still fairly portrays the people and events is Quiz Show. In real life, Van Doren was in it from the get-go; he was told to take a dive, just like Stempel; Goodwin had almost nothing to do with any of it, but the film got the sense of it. It got the point.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I totally agree about Quiz Show a movie I've always liked. When I read up on it afterwards it was interesting how different it was factually from what really occurred and yet I didn't feel slighted in any way, oddly enough. It did feel like it captured what it was all about, ala Patton, without completely sticking to the facts.

Those are the kind I like, where it's interpretive history but not necessarily distorted history, like JFK that you mentioned, which felt like a bizarre alien encounter with history written by a cocaine addled editor.

By the way, ever think about the fact that Oliver Stone has two more Best Directing Oscars than Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Akira Kurasawa and Federico Fellini combined? There are plenty more that could be mentioned (Godard, Ozu, etc) but my main problem with Stone is not his conspiracy laden ideologies but the fact that I find his direction rather unimagitive. He seems pretty mediocre to have two Best Directing Oscars doesn't he?

Marilyn said...

Jonathan - You know that the Oscars reward mediocrity for the most part, not excellence, or sentimentality.

bill said...

Absolutely. I've heard more than a few times people claim that they don't buy into Stone's version of history as presented in JFK, but at the same time they can't deny the masterful filmmaking.

Well, I can. Stone has two styles: Nothing Special, and Nothing Special 2 (Sledgehammer Edition). Why is the fact that he uses various film stocks and so forth in JFK mentioned as something that is, in and of itself, a good and interesting thing? It's not. It's employed arbitrarily, there's no significance to it, and Stone comes off as a bored film school dropout who has no idea what he wants.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Marilyn - Yeah, I know but I'm just hoping one day I'll be proven wrong.

Bill - The different film stocks!!! Aaaarrrggghhhh!!! (that's an "aargh" in agreement with you).

Had he used grainy black and white whenever Garrison was trying to put something together or used overexposed color desaturated when showing re-enactments, and so on, then it might have felt like it had a purpose. Like there was a sense of visual storytelling ala Raging Bull (color for objective third person home movies, normal sound and speed for Joey and Vicki, slow motion and distorted sound for things seen through Jake's eyes, etc) but it didn't.

It's randomly employed throughout. It's a mish mash and a mess. There's nothing masterful about it.

Fox said...

Jonathan -

I'm curious as to how you feel about the depiction of Jackson in Eight Men Out vs. Field of Dreams.

My feeling in Field of Dreams was that Jackson was a device used to draw the audience in to the larger story surrounding Costner's character.

I suppose inaccuracies and liberty taking in fictional films bother me at times, but not as much as the flubbing and manipulation of facts in documentaries, films that pretend to true "documents" of an event when they are nothing more than commentary through editing.

bill said...

Jonathan, have you ever seen the sketch "Oliver Stoneland" from the old Ben Stiller Show? It doesn't really have anything to do with his style, but it's a pretty hilarious bit of satire anyway.

bill said...

Oh, I meant to ask you about Eight Men Out also. I love that movie, but don't honestly know how accurate it is.

Fox said...

Bill -

I'm sure you are aware of Alex Jones, but I live in the same town as him so I hear him (and his followers) A LOT.

Anyway... when World Trade Center came out, Jones often went on rants about how he though Stone was selling out by not going "JFK" with the 9/11 attacks.

So I think you make an interesting observation that JFK kind of ushered in that hunger for more mainstream, "serious" examinations of conspiracy theories. But then came Mel Gibson's Conspiracy Theory. Remember that one?? Oh mama!

Jonathan Lapper said...

Fox and Bill - Oddly enough I don't have that many problems with Eight Men Out despite the fact that Sayles also portrays Jackson as someone who didn't really know what was going on. For one thing, Jackson is cast correctly and played correctly. For another, Sayles doesn't outright cast him as a victim while at the same time not really confronting his guilt. He just kind of let's it lie there and leaves a lot of it up to the viewer. Considering the controversy surrounding Jackson's role in the fix, I think it's the best way to go.

And Bill, I've seen every episode of the old Ben Stiller show. I love that commercial. Mr Jim's Wild Ride ("Break on through, break on through, break on through), the Hall of Conspiracy ("We're through the looking glass people, black is white, white is black..."). Hilarious.

And "Cape Munster" with Eddie Munster coming back to torture his agent. That's a favorite. Or the U2 Lucky Charms commercial. Oh my.

Fox - I didn't even get into documentaries like the kind by Michael Moore or the Swift Boat documentary. Don't get me started on the anger those propagandistic distortions fire up in me.

Fox said...

My favorite character in Eight Men Out is John Cusack's. I don't remember who he plays - it's been a while - but I loved his gusto on the field.

I wonder if that film holds up now. It's really been a loooong times since I've seen it.

bill said...

Let us not forget "Jake Steel, Marionnette Cop". Or the line, "Manson! You're under foot today!"

Fox - I don't know Alex Jones, or, at least, the name's not ringing a bell at the moment. But I've heard that complaint about World Trade Center before. Whatever you think about that movie (I actually didn't think it was too bad), it's hard to deny that it's a rare example of Stone presenting historical/political material free of his usual crazed, fevered paranoia. I mean, God forbid!

One of my favorite moments from Eight Men Out is when, late in the film, Jackson hits a home run during a game they've already essentially lost,and the camera follows him into the dugout where he sits down and just sort of stares at the ground.

bill said...

Fox - Cusack plays Buck Weaver, who -- correct me if I'm wrong here, Jonathan -- really didn't take any money, and really did play the series straight. And I agree, he's the best thing about the movie. Which is saying a lot, because I've seen the movie a couple times in the last few years, and I think it holds up extremely well. Except for Sayles small role as Ring Lardner. Not much of a performance, but at least he looked the part.

Jonathan Lapper said...

He plays Buck Weaver, a character who figures in prominently, along with Eddie Cicotte, the pitcher, during that series. I like the way Sayles made Weaver feel guilty about what happened to Jackson, almost as if he was a big brother responsible for him.

I haven't seen it in a long time either so I'd like to again.

Even though I don't think I get many baseball people here, just a few quick facts: The main person in a fix of this kind is undoubtedly the pitcher, which is why Cicotte was clearly the most important person. But it's still tricky believe it or not to lose on purpose without showing it. If you pitch too badly the manager, who wasn't in on it, is simply going to take you out and not play you again. The Sox had a big roster of pitchers so Cicotte had to walk a fine line there.

Two, as detailed in the Baseball documentary, they totally screwed up by losing the first game. They were expected to easily win the Series and so the idea is if you bet on the Reds to win, you could come out a big winner. But when the Sox lost the first game the odds immediately dropped. They should have won the first two games in dominating fashion THEN start losing after the gamblers put their money on the Reds with 100 to 1 odds.

The whole fix was incompentently handled from beginning to end. It's no surprise it came to light so fast.

Fox said...

Jonathan -

The directing Oscar that irks me the most over the past 20 years is the one for Sam Mendes. ICK!

I suppose I should let the Ron Howard one bother me, but since he seems like a pleasant man, and he did the narration for Arrested Development, I tend to let it slide.

Actually, the category for Best Director always seems to be the one that irks me year in and year out. For some reason I don't really care about the others when they get it wrong.

Jonathan Lapper said...

When I say Buck figured prominently I meant that he was vocal from the outset about the severity of it all. And I think that's why he changed his mind and tried to get everyone back on the level and then felt so guilty afterwards.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Best Director. It's a washout. Sam Mendes, Kevin Costner, Richard Attenborough, Ron Howard. And going back in the way back machine F.W. Murnau losing for Sunrise or Victor Fleming winning for directing parts of Gone With The Wind while Selznick, Sam Wood, George Cukor also had a big hand in the direction.

Fox said...


Yes. Totally. The fix really relies on the pitcher b/c he's in the easiest position to screw up without anyone - besides the coach - noticing. The fans/press can just say "Ah... he's he's having an off day", but when guys start dropping pop flys or letting grounders go between their legs or over throwing second base ALL IN ONE GAME, then it gets really obvious.

bill said...

Oh, there have been some good Best Director Oscars. I mean, the Coen brothers work from last year was positively Melville-ian, and it was recognized. That's something, anyway.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Yeah, there have been plenty of good ones too I admit. And a lot of great directors have won, just for the wrong movie. Like Scorsese winning for The Departed instead of for Taxi Driver (for which he wasn't even nominated!!!), the Oscar going to John G. Avildson for Rocky instead.

Or Kubrick. He never won an Oscar! George Cukor was a great director and I'm glad he was recognized but not for his great thirties or forties work but for My Fair Lady over Stanley Kubrick for Strangelove.

bill said...

It may be that Scorsese shouldn't have won for The Departed (a flawed movie that I love), but who among us wasn't happy to see him get it anyway? I mean, come on, that was just a nice thing to see happen.

bill said...

PS - Although, while I liked that he was presented with the award by Spielberg or Coppola (so fortuitous a coincidence that I question the "coincidence" of it all), I will admit that I wish Lucas hadn't been up there. Little punk-ass bastard...

Jonathan Lapper said...

You should read Jim Emerson's post on Lucas on Scanners and MSN Movies. He jumped me on it. I was about to write a post about that very thing last week and then his post appeared and I figured, screw it, he said it all.

bill said...

I'll check that out later. I'm always up for some nice George "I-Just-Want-to-Make-Small-Experimental-Films-But-First-Here's-Some-Shitty-New-'Star-Wars'-Trash" Lucas-bashing.

Fox said...

I'm not a Star Wars guy, but I was at dinner with some friends and they just went off on how enjoyably terrible the reviews have been for The Clone Wars.

The thing is, I actually enjoy THX 1138, but then I saw the NEW version with the CGI monkey people and Ferraris and sh*t and it was really a drag.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I might still do something soon because there's a lot of wanted to write about Lucas that pisses me off for a while but I'll have to wait and see. While I loved Star Wars and Empire (and still like them, but not love them anymore) when I was younger I have gradually moved very far away from them indeed. Far, far away you might say.

bill said...

Me, too. The Lord of the Rings films were coming out at around the same time as the Star Wars prequels, and I remember taking note of the fact that the part of me that used to be excited about Star Wars no longer was -- at all -- and that all of that interest had funnelled into the Rings movies (which I still like a lot, but haven't watched in a while).

I also remember having the epiphany as a younger man that Jaws, that other blockbuster, was a much, much better movie than any Star Wars movie, including Empire.

Fox - I'm sorry to hear that about the THX-1138 revamp. I was willing to be optimistic about that one, largely because the DVD cover art is Criterion-level good. And THX-1138 is actually pure science-fiction, something you don't see on film very often.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Jaws is by far the better work. Lucas has clearly put everything he has into Star Wars. Everything he is and ever will be is defined by that universe. He is planning to 3-D all of them for re-release (I got that from Jim's piece). Dear Lord, where will it end?

Fox said...

Do you ever wonder what Lucas does in his spare time? I mean, is he so consumed by the Star Wars world he's created that he just sits around in big rooms of toys and plaques and posters and costumes and worship is empire?

What must it be like to live with that man? Does he watch any contemporary cinema besides his own??

As much as I don't care for his work, I sure would like to have a cup of coffee with the guy and ask him some questions. Hmm... maybe I should e-mail him.

Bill, you have his contact information, don't you?

Krauthammer said...

About Eight Men Out (a movie I was not expecting to love as much as I did): I think Sayles portrayed Jackson an the other Sox as "victims" but in very level-headed way. He seems to be saying that you cannot expect fair-play from an essesially unfair system.

The movie is actually pretty great as a whole, some scenes (Jackson training his eyes, the greek chorus of Spuds Turkle and Sayles, and one of the greatest "epilouges" I've ever seen) are burned into my mind

Jonathan Lapper said...

Fox - I'd like to ask him many questions about how the characters and story clearly became too convoluted for him to keep track of but I'm afraid he would be very angry with me after only about five minutes and walk out.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Krauthammer - I think you're right about the portrayal of the players in Sayles' movie. It's like how I said he portrayed Jackson. I think it was fair and levelheaded as well.

Favorite line belongs to Studs Terkel after the acquital: "That was a bigger fix than the Series."

Peter Nellhaus said...

Not that it's on the same level of historical importance, but I had problems with Stone's film, The Doors. I saw them live twice and no one acted like they did at a Beatles concert. (Not that I was ever actually at a Beatles concert, but I saw the movies, and I did see The Kinks surrounded by screaming fans back in 1965.)

As for what Marilyn wrote, I read Algren also. Walk on the Wild Side is even more unrecognizable. Also, I have a post coming up about a film based on a book by a Nobel prize winning writer!

Jonathan Lapper said...

I never saw the Doors in concert and I had many problems with Stone's film nonetheless so go figure but I thought Val Kilmer was terrific in the lead.

You and Marilyn should start a companion series on the Nobel writer movies with each of you taking turns, one trying to outdo the other. Whether you do that or not I'll read both of your reviews regardless, but a little competition would be cool.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jonathan: Frequent visitor but first time commenter. As a movie and baseball fan this post intrigues me. I’m with you that “Field of Dreams” distorts Shoeless Joe and that “none of this matters much,” beyond skewing the popular understanding of a historical figure (without folks even realizing it). So that’s why I’m surprised at your take that the portrayal of Shoeless Joe bothers you more “in a dramatic sense than in a historic sense.”

In “Field of Dreams,” Shoeless Joe – “real” or not – is a product, at least to some degree, of Ray’s imagination. Ray can’t believe that Shoeless Joe was a money-taking cheat and thus the Joe we see isn’t overly crooked. (Aside: I could take this farther and argue that the New Yorkness of Liotta’s portrayal actually works in this regard, considering Ray’s roots, but that’s a stretch and I won’t. It’s just indifferent casting.)

That said, I always felt that “Field of Dreams” hints that Joe took the money for all the wrong reasons. When he talks about how much he loves the game and that he’d play it for free, I’ve always sensed the regret of a guy who took what was offered to him and feels the regret. I feel he does need to make amends. (In one scene he tells Ray, “there were eight of us” and Ray responds that all the players are welcome. I don’t think Joe is simply including himself among the banned in saying “eight of us.” I think he’s admitting that he was in on it with them. Eight guys who need to make amends.)

Anyway, I feel the tension that you don’t. And I’m surprised that this treatment of the character gets under your skin because the movie isn’t about Shoeless Joe but Ray Kinsella. Still, the Liotta casting is curious, no question (and you didn’t even mention that he bats from the wrong side…I was waiting for that one).

As for films that have totally warped public understanding, I think Bill is right: “JFK” is king. I wrote about the effect of the film several months back. It still astonishes me – Stone pounds the audience so relentlessly that it’s almost impossible to maintain our skeptical defenses – though in his case he was playing upon a notion that already existed. “JFK” immortalized the phrase “back and to the left,” but it wasn’t the first to think the Zapruder film exposed a flaw in the official story.

Good post and discussion.

Jonathan Lapper said...

In “Field of Dreams,” Shoeless Joe – “real” or not – is a product, at least to some degree, of Ray’s imagination. But other people see Joe and the rest of the players as well. By the end, thousands are coming to see them. If it's all Ray's imagination why are all the players visible to so many others? That's why I take their appearance at face value - that they are literally the rematerialized spirits of the actual players. As such, Joe feels all wrong to me.

I do agree he is there to make amends, I just feel the movie does so much to claim his innocence that by the end the viewer must be wondering, "What is he making amends for? He didn't do anything. Shouldn't the folks who railroaded him be the ones having to make amend?" That's why it is more of a problem for me dramatically rather than historically. Historically, it can go either way since people from both sides still haven't completely figured out what happened. So if that's the story a movie wants to present I guess I don't have a huge problem with it.

But dramatically, it kills any reason for Joe to be seeking redemption. Now I admit, I have to watch it again to see the things you're talking about. I may well have missed them the last time I saw it. The tension built up by the inference that Joe knows he did wrong and took the money for the wrong reasons (but what right ones would there be if the end result is throwing the series?).

And batting from the wrong side? How did I forget to mention that? It's because he threw right and batted left that they probably got confused about how to show it.

Thanks for a great comment Jason. I'll check out your take on JFK. Thanks for the link.

Adam Ross said...

Great post, I think "Field of Dreams" has had affected a lot of peoples' perception of Jackson, as every year it seems some writer mentions how it's a crime that he is still banned from baseball (and thus not eligible for the Hall of Fame). I'm in this circle too, as I had never heard of his defensive shortcomings in the series, just his hitting stats. I do wonder though if his deeds merit eternal damnation from MLB, isn't a century enough?

I'm also a history buff and like to read up on the historical inaccuracies of movies. One that recently fascinated me was Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island, about Dr. Samuel Mudd's involvement with the Lincoln assassination. Ford paints Mudd as an entirely innocent victim, but it seems most historians agree that the government was correct in charging him.

bill said...

This is slightly -- but not entirely -- off-topic. I knew that Roland Joffe directed Fat Man and Little Boy, and now he's directed movies like Captivity, and I wondered if there was anything connecting. The answer? Possibly! After Fat Man and Little Boy tanked, he took another stab at the kind of prestige film he was known for and made City of Joy. Since that one didn't set the world on fire either, he moved on to the soft-core Scarlet Letter, and it's been all down hill since then.

I'm not dancing on his career's grave, or anything...I was just wondering.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jonathan: It would be interesting to see what you’d think on a repeated viewing. I don’t want it to sound as if I’m making a case that “Field of Dreams” paints Joe as a no-ifs-ands-or-buts villain. There’s Ray’s he-must-be-innocent analysis opposed by what is at most an ambiguous portrayal of Joe – so as a whole the movie leans toward adulation. Still, my reading from the first time I saw it as a youngster was that he was a cheater. That he took the money and that he was haunted by it, regardless of whatever stats he accumulated.

As for the real vs. imaginary: that’s a tough one. Some see the players immediately, others don’t. But if the entire enterprise has been about Ray reconnecting with his father, then it’s Ray’s story and Ray’s vision. Thus I think they’re still Ray’s manifestation, even if real in the end. But we could argue this one in circles.

As for batting from the wrong side: Liotta was a natural righty. I learned somewhere that the director wanted Liotta and then felt it was more important to have an athletic looking swing than to get technical about it. Ideally, he could have found an actor with both. But he made the right choice – dramatic accuracy over historical accuracy.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Adam, and everyone who has an opinion about Baseball History - I find Halls of Fame in sports to be ridiculous places to use as punishment for actions on the field myself but I know that all of them, from Baseball to Football, have mission statements to the effect that placement in the Hall covers both on field achievement and character. They use the character part to keep players like Jackson, Rose and others out. It will probably be used to keep McGuire, Sosa and Bonds out as well.

But here's my thing. I don't understand why you can't have Jackson and Rose in for their accomplishments on the field and also have included in their bio their flaws of character. I mean, it's stupid to me to claim you have a Hall that celebrates the top achievements in your sport and nowhere in that Hall is the man with the 3rd highest career batting average or the man with the most career hits. That's just moronic to me.

And as to character, well, Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby are two players with highly questionable character but they're in - and they should be, they're two of the greatest players to ever walk on a diamond.

As for the defensive stuff that's in a book I have on the deadball era and in the documentary Baseball as well as the writings of Daniel Okrent.

But, hey, as I say in the postscript, I'm not trying to condemn Jackson, just arguing for a better dramatic presentation based more on the history of the scandal and less on conversations in VW vans that focus only on one aspect of the game.

And I've never seen Prisoner of Shark Island but now I really want to. Thanks.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Bill - It does appear Joffe gave up after City of Joy. He kept trying to replicate the success of The Killing Fields but I think the success of that film came from the screenplay and the actors. The Mission and Fat Man and Little Boy were cinematically flat indicating that Joffe is the kind of run-of-the-mill director that requires a good screenplay that he can slap a directorial credit on and call it a day. Great directors can usually find a way to take even a mediocre screenplay and make it interesting.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Jason, I see what you're saying about the players being the manifestation of Ray's vision but for me that then requires me to believe Ray himself is a supernatural figure, able to conjure up dead people for others to see (and Haley Joel Osment's not even in the movie). I say, within the physical rules of the movie, they're the actual spirits of those figures. Besides, how would Ray have known to conjure up Moonlight Graham? But you're right, we could this one around in circles forever.

And a lot of times in movies with historical characters needing to be, say, left-handed but the actor is right, they just reverse the image. In the case of uniforms, they print them up backwards so everything will look normal once reversed. I wonder why they didn't just do this with Liotta. Then they would have had the natural swing but still had him batting the correct way.

Marilyn said...

This has relevance to this discussion:

"An Italian medical group has called for a ban on hospital-themed TV programmes such as ER and Grey's Anatomy over claims they are factually flawed.

"The National Federation of Medical Colleges has appealed to the country's main broadcasters to refrain from airing the shows - which also include U.S. hits House and Scrubs - when the new autumn TV schedule begins in September.

"Annalisa Silvestro, president of the organisation, says, "These programs are teaching viewers inaccurate views on medicine. They are spreading misinformation."

"The Order of Medical Professionals of Rome has voiced its support for the protest."

Jonathan Lapper said...

I don't think they'll get very far. That's crazy. I mean, I get annoyed at glitches with facts about history in movies but I don't want to ban those movies. Is there a problem in Italy I don't know about where tv viewers are attempting to perform surgery on friends and loved ones in their living rooms.

Oh those Italians. Almost as bad as the Greeks. Hey, wait a minute, I'm Greek-Italian, or as I like to say, "Greco-Roman." Makes it sound more romantic.

Jennythenipper said...

There was a really interesting memoir by Van Doren published in the New Yorker recently. Still Quiz Show is a good movie, and I think even Van Doren admitted that.

I think the thing is about the Manhattan project, was that it was such a sprawling effort. It wasn't just Los Alamos, but at least three other facilities as well as dozens of University labs that were involved. I don't think you accurately could portray that and still make anything besides a huge sprawling documentary. It was about dozens of little break throughs. Yeah, maybe someone had an orange juice moment along the way, but it was probably something far to arcane and complex to explain to the audience who knows nothing about physics, so they made it something they've heard of, "implosion."

As for hearing Dance of the Faeries, that is kind of cool, actually. I once was driving through Iowa in a Tornado and my radio picked up Herman's Hermit's "Henry the VIIIth." So in the biopic of my life, I hope Roland Joffe gets that right!

Jonathan Lapper said...

Jenny - The Manhattan Project was sprawling indeed. Day One did manage in it's three hours to cover Leo Szilard's breakthroughs in England, Arthur Compton's work, Fermi at the University of Chicago, Los Alamos, all of it. And the thing I have with implosion, and I know I've read all the literature so I should probably be more forgiving, is that implosion as a method of forcing a runaway chain reaction was known before Fermi achieved fission with the pile at Chicago. It was a problem of getting it to work which is why most favored the gun method, slamming two halves of fissionable material together at high velocity (method used in Little Boy, implosion was used in the Fat Man bomb) and so in Day One they use trying to figure out how to get implosion to work as the dramatic catalyst, not someone having a eureka moment.

Oh and I was slightly off in my post but I keep forgetting to correct it: It was the Dance of the Reed Flutes. My bad.