Movies: Grand Canyon

Grand-CanyonYesterday’s post was a rant; this one counters with a rave. The bad news is that it’s my even earlier writing chops from three years prior to the Stargate review, plus — as this was essentially an email — the writing is especially informal and unstructured.

The original plan was to write a new piece on Grand Canyon, because it’s one of my all-time favorite films, and I wanted to do it proper justice. The “review” you’re about to read I wrote shortly after seeing the film for the first time, so it lacks any thoughts I have about it after 25 years and many viewings since then.

But I’m all about clearing my weblog backlog (the blog bog), so here it is in all its informal gushy glory.

To set up the context, a work friend had seen the film with her girlfriend, found it very interesting, and wanted to know what I thought of it when it came up that I planned to see it the coming night.

So I did pay more attention to it than I might usually. For all my background in storytelling and filmmaking, I’m actually more prone to let a story take me away — that’s kind of what I love most about stories!

[And that’s exactly why I get bitter and angry when an author does such a poor job that even my best efforts to suspend belief are for naught. I have steel cables for suspension disbelief hanging, but some authors seem to have acetylene torches!]

Anyway, I wrote this rather long email about the film for my friend the next day. I’ve edited the more egregious spelling and grammar errors, but it’s mostly what I wrote in 1991. (I found it impossible to resist a few tweaks.)

Grand Canyon

Very good, and very interesting, film! Enjoyed it tremendously!

There was a great deal of symbolism — not the least of which was the helicopter. Don’t know if you remember, but the very first thing the movie gives you is the sound of the chopper… then the opening title sequence begins.

And that open title sequence was interesting in itself. Any time a filmmaker gives you a special title sequence (in other words, not just titles over opening actions (but sometimes even then!)), there is a message — often an important message. Sometimes it’s just something visually cool and related (recall the opening titles for Terminator II).

But in Grand Canyon, we start with a group of good-looking, black male hard bodies playing basket ball on a playground lot. That footage is black & white and also slo-mo.

The men are having fun — all their shots seem to be sinking — in fact, most of the shots don’t touch the rim! There’s no sound — except the swish of those perfect shots! The men are smiling and having a good time.


We see Simon (Glover) playing basketball in the title sequence.

Then we begin to include other (camera) shots — images of young black women watching them and talking among themselves — also having a good time.

Those are the visuals. What I got from them was the grace and incredible beauty of the basketball players – it was a kind of visual ballet. And the point — to my mind — was that these guys were good. And everyone was happy.

About this time, the camera begins to show us somewhat different images — some street kids engaged in what was surely a drug deal; a young man walking alone on the street and clearly not having a good time; gang members.

Also during this a degree of color shading in the black & white photography (real life leaking in?).

Then (and I’m not sure I have this exactly correct), for the first time the camera sees a basket ball strike the rim of the basket, and at the exact moment it does, we instantly cut to the (Fabulous) Forum where a Laker game is in progress. And in that cut, jump to full color.


Mack (Klein), Simon (Martin), and girlfriend (Tina Lifford).

These players also seem to be having a good time, but the flavor is different. The camera introduces us to Mack (Kevin Kline) and Davis (Steve Martin). Mack seems as interested (or more so) in the women in the audience as he is the game. Davis is with his girlfriend.

Once again, we’re treated to a slo-mo ballet, but this time the subject is the beautiful young women that Mack keeps eyeing (literally a roving eye).

So what does all this mean (I kept asking myself)? What is the point (if any) here? Is it just visually cool? To some extent, I think that’s the case, but what’s visually cool is the contrast between images (remember your high school English assignments: “Compare and Contrast…”).

And contrasts is the major thing this film is about!

Specifically the contrast between what is and what should be – Danny Glover’s character, Simon, makes this point in his first speech (but I’m getting ahead of myself) — the contrast between real life and fantasy.

And what separates contrasts, but a gap… sometimes a very, very large gap… say a large gap the size of, oh, the Grand Canyon! (The Grand Canyon symbol is obviously central to the film, and I’ll get back to that, but we haven’t even left the title sequence.


A cinematic study in contrasts and gaps.

Anyway, contrasts. Black/white (the colors), black/white (the humans and the lifestyles that each enjoys – the kind of lives a white person can have in this society verses the kind of lives most blacks can have, and the film illustrates this time and again).

The contrast between an informal basketball game on a playground lot and a pro sports game played in a national venue — for that matter, the contrast between the onlookers at the playground verses the onlookers at the Forum.

The contrast between Kline’s and Martin’s characters; the contrast between the Kline-Martin friendship and the Kline-Glover friendship; the contrast between Kline’s son and Glover’s nephew, the contrast between film violence and the real thing.

And most centrally, the contrast between what life could, or should, be and what it really is. [Ed: Weltschmerz!] It is also about fate and the contrast between what our lives would have been like (except for any given instant of fate) verses what they are, in fact, like.

In a film like this, we can generally count on the characters to tell us (in their dialog) what the theme is. And this often happens in the early stages of the film.

The very first scene with dialog occurs as the three leave the game. Davis (Martin) is going on and on about “control” – making the point that Mack (Klein) is always trying to be in control, that every one seeks to be in control, but that it’s all a false hope and you’re better off to realize this and go with the flow.

(Another contrast — Davis’ car verses Mack’s. Which is really just another facet of the contrast between the two characters.)


Simon shows up in the nick of time.

Then, of course, Mack tries a short cut, gets lost and suffers a car breakdown (I know that neighborhood — I went to high school in that area.). And Simon (Glover) shows up in time to save hiss ass (or at least his wallet and dignity).

Glover’s character, Simon, has two significant speeches around this time. The first one is with the black gang leader. We first see that Simon knows his way around the streets — knows how to talk to the gang — knows that he will only make headway talking to the “right guy” (i.e. the leader).

And the focus of that conversation comes when the gang leader asks Simon if Simon’s respect is due solely to the leader’s gun. This is when Simon talks about the difference between the way life is supposed to be and the way it is.

“You don’t have the gun, we’re not having this conversation.”
“That’s what I thought… that’s why I always have the gun.”

As Simon and Mack drive to Simon’s garage, did you notice the flashback (and I do mean “flash”) that Mack experienced?

He turns to his left and looks out the window of the tow truck. For just a split second we see a brightly lit (daytime) busy street corner, and the image of a woman. This of course later turns out to be the woman in the Pittsburgh Pirates hat who saves Mack’s life. At the time, I wondered what the hell it was!

At the garage, Simon has his second important speech, and here he talks about Grand Canyon; about being there and how it makes all the hurly-burly of life seem insignificant. How shallow and meaningless the vital and important aspects of our day-to-day lives are compared to the lifetime and majesty of the Grand Canyon (not just a canyon, mind you, but a Grand Canyon… The Grand Canyon).


This is one of the key statements of the film!

Usually in storytelling the main character is imperfect. There are those who will tell you that no story is interesting unless the main character is flawed.

In tragedy, the fatal flaw often destroys the character; in drama it often is the growth or over-coming of the flaw that is the point of the tale. In Grand Canyon, Klein’s character, Mack, isn’t fatally flawed, but neither is he perfect — he bopped his secretary, he seems interested in other women, and the whole story happened because he was too impatient to wait in line with all the other cars.

My point is that Simon is not the main character because he is much less flawed. He is the eye of the storm, the “rabbi” figure in many ways. He is calm, strong and capable (he was in the opening sequence shooting baskets, and we see him sink an empty coke can in a dumpster that wasn’t all that close — do you know how hard it is to throw an empty coke can accurately?).

His relationship with is (deaf) daughter is good, he’s seems at peace with his wife leaving him, he’s good in a relationship, he accepts Mack’s extension of friendship in a rational, wise way. Simon is the one possessed of wisdom in this story.

From here on, we are treated to contrast after contrast.


Helicopter symbolism.

The juxtaposed scenes with Simon’s nephew and Mack’s son both returning home to their mothers; they seem very similar – both young men seem intelligent and loving. Yet we later see the differences between them.

And the mothers are very much the same, and very much different. Simon’s sister is in the “blue-collar lane” so to speak (sleeping on the couch after a hard day at work), while Mack’s wife is very much in the “white-collar fast lane” — she doesn’t seem to have a career, but we see her synchronizing three different calendars (presumably, hers, his and the kitchen’s).

And the idea of picking her own son up from school is problematical (yet this is the very son she abhors losing — another contrast). Both women are “watching” the same TV show (the game or the news).

At one point, another theme is introduced – the idea of fate and happenstance and the roles they play in our lives. The “there but for the grace of God go I” idea. And the question is, what meaning do we attach to these events. Are they “miracles” as Mack suggests to his wife at one point (or did she say it to him? (no matter, it’s all really Kasdan))?


Interesting (spiritual?) use of light here…

Later Mack’s wife Claire (Mary McDonnell) finds an abandoned baby while jogging. I haven’t figured out what the central symbolism is there. Perhaps it’s just another life-changing random event. Her equivalent (or contrast perhaps) to Mack’s event of meeting Simon.

(I keep wondering about the name Simon and whether it references anything… Simon says? A historical figure named Simon? [Ed: It’s a biblical name, obviously!])

I’m also puzzled by the summer camp scenario. A contrast between the son and the nephew? We can bet the nephew never went to a summer camp like that and found a pretty girl like that. But is there some other meaning? And what about the scene where he comforts the young boy? A contrast between his father’s way of trying to help people and be “the good guy”?

Or maybe just action so we can get to know that this is a thoughtful, intelligent kid (contrasted to nephew who never had the chance to explore his capabilities). Now that I think of it, that’s possibly it — the canyon between their lives despite the apparent early similarities.


…and here when Davis (literally) sees the light.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we’re treated to a bit of somewhat heavy symbolism. Steve Martin’s character is a film producer who specializes in extremely violent films. In an early scene, in a screening room, he wants “brains on the window!”

But then senseless random violence enters his life when he’s mugged and shot in the leg. In contrast to his movies, it’s horribly, horribly ugly; he pisses his pants from the pain and shock and vomits on himself.

And at first, it changes him. But after a (fairly short) while, he’s back as what he was… and finding seemingly rational justification for doing what he’s doing. One change does seem to be that he finally is going to marry his girlfriend (although we never see him again after he enters the fantasy world of Stage 20 and the huge (protective?) doors close behind him).


Martin’s speech justifying his films as a response the rage people feel is one of my favorite parts of the film and has elements of truth going for it. Certainly the observation of the rage and its cause was correct!

This also is a theme of the film — that we’ve gotten to where we are because we’ve ignored what’s happening. We’ve become, as Kline’s wife says, “used to” all the pain and horror. And even when it sometimes forces its way into our lives and — for a time — changes the way we think, we often forget the lesson and return to our own fantasy “stage 20.”

Other happenings: Mack’s wife determines that she will adopt the baby. Why her, Mack asks. Because of fate. The same reason Mack befriends Simon (more contrast/comparisons). “A simple twist of fate.”


She later ends up a widow selling marijuana!

Another character, Kline’s secretary — a somewhat unbalanced young woman who is in love with her boss. She’s a rather, to my mind, pathetic figure, blaming Kline for her feelings.

We can only hope she and the cop hit it off and got married and lived happily ever after. (And, no, I don’t think Mack was blameless either — she was right, he wants everything he does to be ‘okay’ (don’t we all?).)

The Canoga Park move was a painted with a broad brush, I thought (the nephew experiencing all that on the first day). On the other hand, films compress reality — they must to tell the tale and make the point. And what happened to him (with the cops) is entirely realistic.

[Ed: Sigh. So little has changed since 1991.]

I just wish we’d followed up on what happened to him after the scene where Simon finds him with (someone’s) blood all over him. “I’ve seen some bad shit.” he says. Still, we do see him with the family at the end of the film, so we can assume he’s back with his mom.


Something along the lines of Ceiling Cat, maybe?

Two similar shots puzzle me (and lead me into what you wanted me to watch for all along — the ‘copters). Twice in the film, the camera shows us a ceiling light fixture. First time, it starts on the light in Mack’s and wife’s kitchen and pans down to wife dealing with this baby she’s found. The second time it (if I recall correctly) pans UP to the light on the ceiling of Mack’s secretary’s apartment.

Now what the hell was the point of that? And what do the helicopter images mean?

One possibility is along the lines of, “Is there a God up there watching us?” “No, just the light fixture.” And the copter is just a (somewhat silly looking) man-made toy. Not, to my mind, a deity-like image at all (think about visualizing God as a helicopter for a moment). But it is certainly an important aspect of the film.

Several interesting points: One big deal about Grand Canyon is the helicopter rides (which have caused some controversy — the noise is thought to damage the bio-ecology).

Another is that helicopters are an important part of the Los Angeles police force. LA has lots of hilly, inaccessible parts that are well-served by copter. Consider that we only once see a copter during daylight — and this one, in contrast to the others, is a traffic reporter’s chopper. And that traffic reporter has a significant line, “It’s a jungle down there.”


Also, consider the age of the characters in the film. In their lifetimes, what were/are some of the most high-impact events? Specifically, what major world event in the lifetime of these people had helicopters as a major component? (Think of the traffic reporter’s line!)

If you can’t guess, watch any of these movies: Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and many more. If you guess Vietnam, award yourself 50 points. Helicopters were a major part of that experience.

I believe the helicopter is a background image — a symbol of the “war” that day-to-day life has become. For the most part, the characters ignore its presence (Mack watches one while waiting by his dead car). The film starts with the sound of one, Mack’s dream starts with one, and in his flying dream he seems to emulate one.

But interestingly, the photography of Grand Canyon, although shot by copter, never shows us one (or even the shadow of the one doing the photography — a common occurrence they’d have to plain against!).

If the Grand Canyon is from God (which I don’t know that it is in the film), then if the copter symbolizes God, shouldn’t it have been evident at the end? Or maybe the real Grand Canyon takes the place of the “messenger” of God? Who knows.


Really big, really old, really impressive symbolism!

And now, I’m at the end of the film, at the Grand Canyon. This is the “rabbi” Simon’s wise gift to his new friend, Mack. The central image of the film. Davis mentions it, Simon talks extensively about it, it’s mentioned on an episode of Cheers we see on a TV, and I think another character mentioned it (I thought there were three mentions, but might be including the TV).

Does it symbolize the gap between things? Or does it symbolize the ephemeral aspects of mankind? Both perhaps.

If you’ve ever seen the Grand Canyon, you know the feeling Glover talks about. It was interesting to watch the character’s reactions to seeing it for the first time. The nephew, the son, Kline, his wife, his son.

And the camera finally swings around to show us what they’re seeing. And it is incredible.

We are treated to a tour of the canyon during the final credits (another contrast to the opening ones).


The Grand Canyon

If you thought my posts ran long, now you see they’re trimmed down from how I used to write!

Re-watching this 1991 film I’m powerfully struck by how acute its message was and by how relevant it still is. Lawrence Kasdan created a brilliant examination of modern life. (That’s not entirely surprising given Kasdan’s obvious ability as a storyteller. He wrote Star Wars episodes V and VI and gave us Body Heat, The Big Chill, and The Accidental Tourist.)

Mack’s wife, Claire (Mary McDonnell) has a significant speech:

The world doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I mean, what’s going on? There are babies lying around in the streets. There are people living in boxes. There are people ready to shoot you if you look at them. And we’re getting used to it. The world is so nuts it makes me wonder about all the choices that we’ve made.

And that’s one of several key bits in a film that, after 25 years and many viewings, still stands strong as one of my all-time favorites! It’s astonishing how much there is to unpack in this film. (My piece here really doesn’t do it justice. It really deserves a scene-by-scene analysis.)

So,… I guess someday I’ll still have to write that piece on it…

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

4 responses to “Movies: Grand Canyon

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: