Houdini and Field of Dreams


One of the many things I love about this Houdini book I'm writing now is that people have powerfully different views of the man.

There are those who see him as the ultimate magician ... and those who don't see him as a magician at all.

There are those who think he was a hack who couldn't even do a basic card trick with any style or grace ... and those who think he, more than anyone of his or any time, captured the very essence of magic: Doing what seems to be impossible.

There are those who find him to be an egotistical boor who bullied his way to fame through his advanced understanding of public relations ... and those who find his ambition, work ethic, imagination and unbreakable spirit to be an inspiration 90 years after his death.

And so on; a modern biography of Houdini is really many biographies because Houdini was so many things to many different people. Mostly, though, I think he was and remains an IDEA. One of the things that staggers me is how often Houdini, even in his own time, was referred to in jokes or newspaper one-liners or completely unrelated stories about escape from an impossible trap. As far back as 1899, long before Houdini had achieved any real level of national or worldwide fame, there were references to prisoners trying to pull a Houdini or musings about how nice it would be to Houdini our way out of some problem or other.

In so many ways, this is what my book is about: This man, who came from nothing and had nothing, not even an interesting name (he was, you probably know, Ehrich Weiss), whose father was a Rabbi without a congregation, who never made it past the sixth grade, who ran away from home at 12 with no prospects, who began working in a tie factory in the New York garment district when he was 13, who so struggled as a young magician that he tried to give up magic just months before he caught his big break -- this man grabbed on to this idea that still enraptures us.

All of which brings me to Field of Dreams.

You probably know that Field of Dreams is taking a beating again. This seems to happen every so often -- someone who had a visceral reaction to the movie is reminded that other people like it and so they unleash their fury, reminding everyone that, no, that movie SUCKED and was STUPID and MADE NO SENSE and MADE THEIR TEETH HURT and so on.

And also: Whatever feelings you may have had watching that movie were manipulated ... and you should feel pretty stupid for having them.

That, I suppose, is what bothers me about the anti-Field of Dreams rants. Look: It's a lousy movie in so many ways. I know a lot of people who love it like I love it, but I don't know a single person who avoids this obvious part. We all feel uncomfortable that the producers didn't put at least a couple of Negro Leagues players on the Field of Dreams. We all know that Shoeless Joe Jackson was not a righty-hitting, lefty-throwing man who sounded like Henry Hill. We all know that much of the dialogue is overbearing, and Burt Lancaster set a new land-speed record for overacting, and the plot doesn't always follow, and the music, yikes, the music attacks you like Gremlins in the movie theater.

And we know that the Terrence Man character, who idolized Jackie Robinson, seemed a bit too excited seeing Shoeless Joe Jackson, who did, after all, take money to throw the 1919 World Series when baseball was all white.

So why do we love it? I'll tell you why: It is because Field of Dreams, like Houdini, grabs hold of a sensation that means something to us. With Houdini, the idea has something to do with escape. With Field of Dreams, it has something to do with connection. My old teammate Craig Calcaterra writes a ferocious takedown of Field of Dreams which he builds on the premise that the filmmakers had no real father-son story to tell here and were only trying to manipulate people into buying in:

You don’t like ‘Field of Dreams’ because you never played catch with your dad!” is a common refrain one hears from defenders of the movie. My response: “This movie is not about you and your dad. It’s about Ray and John Kinsella, and they are total ciphers about whom it’s nearly impossible to care because the filmmakers decided their story wasn’t really worth telling.”

But this is exactly wrong. It was nearly impossible for CRAIG to care, which is fine, his business, I'm not telling him or anyone else to like the movie. But for many of us -- many, many, many of us -- the relationship of Ray and John Kinsella (and the relationship of Ray and his daughter Karin) touches something deep in us, something that no other movie really gets at, fathers and children and baseball.

Corny? Sure. The movie in unapologetically corny.

Maudlin? Sure. The movie is unapologetically maudlin too.

You don't have to buy in. I could give you a million reasons why you shouldn't buy in. Any Field of Dreams fan can. I mean, the guy plows under his cornfield to build a baseball stadium because a ghost told him to do so. Then he kidnaps a famous writer and drags him to Fenway Park because a voice told him to do so. Then they go to Minnesota to find a dead former ballplayer who played in one game because a voice told him to do so. Field of Dreams is a cynic's dream, it offers every opportunity to feel superior because you didn't fall for its mawkishness, you didn't overlook its myriad flaws, you didn't let its oversentimental sweetness suck you in. No sucker you.

"Field of Dreams," Roger Ebert wrote in 1989, almost 30 years ago, "will not appeal to grinches and grouches and realists. It is a delicate movie, a fragile construction of goofy fantasy after another. But it has the courage to be about exactly what it promises.”

I admit it: I cried when Ray and John Kinsella had that last catch. It made me think of the many times I played catch with my Dad. I don't begrudge anyone who saw that scene and rolled their eyes and put their finger in the mouth in the universal "I want to throw up," gesture. You're 100% right to feel that way. I just prefer how I felt.