The Natural ★★★½

When I was a teenager, Barry Levinson's 1984 The Natural was one of those fabled movies that made up my first early film education, because of being on heavy rotation on cable at a time when there were barely any video rental stores in my hometown; and I kind of fell in love with it because of its gorgeous, very deliberately attention-calling cinematography, and for the clever way it played with the idea of Baseball As Literal American Myth. (In my defense, I was 15 at the time, and Reagan was President.) But my view of the movie changed profoundly after finally reading the 1952 source novel by Bernard Malamud last week; because Malamud presents this story as a whimsical tall tale, basically a Mid-Century Modernist version of a Paul Bunyan story, using baseball as the subject merely because this was one of America's most popular pastimes in the era it was written; and I found Malamud's version to be really delightful, a sort of tongue-in-cheek ode to the fanciful tales told in barber shops in small towns across the Midwest ("He did not hit the stitching off a baseball!" "He did too hit the stitching off a baseball!"), from a second-generation Russian Jewish immigrant who had never lived anywhere outside of Brooklyn until just three years before he wrote this book.

So when I revisited the movie tonight, then, for the first time in thirty years, I found it impossible to see it any other way than as ridiculously over-serious and hamfistedly pretentious; and much worse, upon hindsight I realize now that this movie was the start of the "Overanalytical Academic White Males Ruin Baseball" streak that reached its nauseating apex ten years later with Ken Burns' 18-hour PBS documentary on the subject. (But for more on the subject of "Overanalytical Academic White Males Ruin Things That Used To Be Fun," see jazz, comic books, whiskey, et al.) It's still a very pretty movie, don't get me wrong, and worth checking out if you've never seen it before, especially if you know that you're never going to get around to reading the novel; but after the fact, I realized that I liked this story a lot more as a deliberately outrageous exaggeration, with an oversized, slang-spewing meathead at its center, rather than the portentous Oscarbait starring a badly miscast Robert Redford that Levinson turned it into. Keep this all in mind if you're going to pick it up yourself soon.

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