Cinema: Swinging for the Fences

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Up to a point Director Barry Levinson (Diner) seems to understand all this. His actors assuredly do. As Hobbs, Robert Redford has never been better. The good lines are in his face now, and they reflect experience knowingly squinted at. A lefty who moves like the ballplayer he once wanted to be, he has, like all the truly great movie stars, the ability to appear as if he has transcended acting and can now simply behave a part like this. Robert Duvall, as the sportswriter-cartoonist who thinks truth is to be found only in facts, plays crudeness with enormous subtlety, and Glenn Close provides similar service by hinting at the complexity inherent in what is often referred to as simple goodness. No actors have played the dry wisdom of age with more youthful juiciness than Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth as the skipper and the coach of the Knights. The rest of the cast, and the brilliant production designers as well, have also found their ways to emulate Malamud's disciplined illusionism, hewing to a realistic line and letting the mythic chips fly (seemingly) where they may.

It is, however, the curse of the aesthetically aware that they must (a) demonstrate the quality they most highly prize in themselves and (b) make sure those they fear may be sleeping in f the back of the class catch their ; drift. Therefore Malamud's intricate ending (it is a victory that "looks like a defeat) is vulgarized (the victory is now an unambiguous triumph, fireworks included). But long before that, all the linkages between far-flung people and events, which the novel was content to leave looking coincidental, have been neatly knotted, so that watching this movie is all too often like reading about The Natural in the College Outline series. Its academic air is further thickened by the visual style Levinson has adopted for it. Backlighting and diffused light, shadows, silhouettes and slow motion, all the camera tricks that signify a departure from ordinary movie realism and the presence of symbolic meaning in a shot, are indiscriminately, even promiscuously thrown at the audience. Quiet everybody! The professor is interpreting for us. And even when he is just outlining the plot, Levinson is illustrating it with slides that look like Hopper paintings and Farm Security Administration photographs, while imitation Copland burbles out of the phono graph in the corner. Yes, the material is mythic. But it is an American myth, Bub, and don't you forget it.

The Natural prompts some thoughts about the difference between a creative and an interpretive artist. In his youthful strength Malamud could stride up to his material looking free and easy and swing away at it. Hoping for a single, he was probably as surprised as anyone when he hit one out of the park. Following him, Levinson must have felt he had to swing for the fences. He can be forgiven for choking up with all The Natural's fans looking on dubiously. In fairness, the official scorer must credit him with a single. And Redford with an RBI.

—By Richard Schickel

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