Grand Canyon (1991)

Lawrence Kasdan

Religion, Experience, Discernment

Grand Canyon (1991).  Directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Co-written by Meg Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan.  Starring Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Steve Martin, Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, and Mary Louise Parker.  Rated R; 134 minutes.

So when do we know it’s the real “real thing”?  If we can know that for sure, that is.  That, to be sure, is one of the hardest of all questions.  Specifically, when do we know that some intimation of the divine—that God by some means is “speaking”–is really the real thing, a veritable “showing” of the Holy One, or instead, just the delusionary self-glorification of one’s own ego? Those questions abound always–ever since Abraham, at the very least–but seemingly rarely more so than in the present.  Naturalism’s proselytizers insist that all is delusion, usually inevitable given chemical trickery in the genes or the brain, if there be any difference.

Worse still, and closer to home, American evangelicalism has thrown aside its own heritage, both religious and moral, forswearing biblical assessment of both for the “feel-goodism” of cartoonish appropriations of god-speak.  Alas, “it feels so good and right (to me), it has simply just really got to be God.”   Pervasive radical subjectivism has indeed come to trump biblical knowledge and biblical models of religious self-knowledge.  Worse still, literal cross-checking has gone quite by the boards.  Scripture’s case of cognitive humility amid its dramas and exposition is pretty resounding, though few hearken amid these days of trouble, acrimony, and a sort of spiritual narcissism in which the whole counsel of God matters little.

Remarkably, movies sometimes offer wonderful clarity on these murky life questions, whether by parable or head-on.  Grand Canyon (1991), ostensibly a quite “secular” film, offers some common-sense clarity, though of a speculative sort.  In other words, when running in the miraculous or holy, try some sensible cognitive humility before announcing the Parousia.

First off, there’s Mack (Kevin Kline) who’s rescued from a teen gang by a black tow-truck driver, Simon (Danny Glover).  To him it seems, well, miraculous, extricated from mounting danger by a stranger in cowboy boots and golden light (his truck’s flashing warning light).  He wonders whether if this was indeed some sort of intrusion from beyond.  That idea has some credence because years before, as recounted in flashback, he was saved by a stranger’s hand grabbing his shirt collar just as he was about to step in front of a bus.

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When he tried to thank the smiling woman in a baseball cap, she simply smiled, said “you’re welcome,” and flitted off, never to be seen again.  And there are the portents aplenty, that rescue taking place near the Mutual Benefit building on what is known in LA as the Miracle Mile.  In any case, Mack wonders if something or another from a World Beyond reaches into the mundane ordinary confines of daily life to, well, address and mend by astounding means the human predicamentAnd to his credit, he is not prone to climb rooftops to proclaim how much God or Whomever has done for him.  Check it out he does, and then works hard to nurture the fruit of whatever has come his way, specifically a potential lifelong relationship with this heretofore-unknown black tow-truck driver.

The film is full of a host of benign coincidences for major and minor characters, most notably Mack’s wife Claire (Mary McDonnell) who, while out jogging, receives mysterious counsel from the deranged mutterings of a scraggly and seemingly deranged homeless passer-by.  She turns in surprise, a look of utter astonishment upon her face, a reaction that Kasdan films in close-up and then freezes.  What she hears is vital for the lives of many, and especially for an abandoned little girl.

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And then there’s the other side.  The central question in Grand Canyon turns on whether there is some sort of benign intelligence in this universe that means well for human beings.  After Simon rescues Mack, the two share a coffee outside an all-night garage.  A thoughtful (and selfless) nightshift tow-truck driver whose job has given him access to the darkness of contemporary urban life, Simon mulls aloud the meaning of the Grand Canyon, concluding that despite its splendor, the big hole in the ground represents nothing at all except human insignificance within a harshly Darwinian world. Life is hard, cruel and meaningless, especially if you are a black person in LA.  His own demanding life seems to support that reading.  He tends to his ghetto-bound single-mom sister and her young daughter and teen-age son, Otis (Patrick Malone), a gang member who does not expect to live to his 21st birthday.  At one terrifying point in the film, Simon’s sister and family barely survive a drive-by shooting that decimates the house.  Simon’s only child attends faraway Gallaudet College, the nation’s only higher ed institution exclusively for the deaf.

What to make of this unlikely friendship between the black fellow with a truck and the fancy lawyer?  Their only commonality is their mutual love of basketball.  With regard to Simon, Mack’s wife Claire argues that, opposing Mack’s skepticism, Simon may turn out to be Mack’s new best friend, taking the place of the increasingly narcissistic and despicable Davis (Steve Martin).  “How do you know,” she insists, “that he won’t be your best friend for the rest of your life?”  And so the riddle goes.

As for Davis, he is a preening ego maniac who’s made his living on “splash films,” meaning movies that spill gallons of gore and blood all over set and screen.  He drives a red Ferrari and wears a long orange duster coat.  The only real mystery in the film is why he and Mack are friends in the first place, or still.  Even, Davis, though, is not wholly impenetrable, though it takes a nasty gun shot to his leg and ensuing blood loss to get through to him.  Indeed, sitting in the early morning on his hospital bed, Davis for once in his life realizes that life is a gift and it is wondrously gorgeous, and he gives thanks and ascribes the recognition to God himself.

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For a bit, this “revelation” even turns Davis into a relatively nice person, promising to marry his really nice girlfriend and leaving a huge gift for his surly nurse.  Throughout, though, a pompous egoist he remains.  In no time at all, still manic because he’s still alive, Davis is exalting and embellishing his deliverance with a storm of thees and thous.  Mac’s wife Claire (clear) can hardly keep a straight face at the self-inflation.  It is, after all, all about him, no matter what.  What Davis encountered there was true enough, for sure, though he soon enough flips its truth on its head.

In no time, though, the “holy” buzz wears off, and Davis is back to his old ways, looking for ways to cheat on his new wife and bemoaning the limp he will have for the rest of his life.  No longer a golden gift, as he saw early one morning, it is now a dark canyon, such as one finds in the Grand Canyon, a clear link to Simon’s pessimism early in the film.  Tellingly the last glimpse of Davis comes as he disappears into the darkness of an enormous soundstage, swallowed, as it were, by its cavernous darkness.  After all, Davis has come even to exalt the sort of macabre violence he makes as accurate ultimate rendition of the human condition.

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The answer, insofar as there is anything wholly clear, lies in the closing sequence, as well it should. For one, it quickly confirms that things have changed for the “much better” for many of the people in the film.  A good number of them pour out of a passenger van and stand in awe observing, yes, the Grand Canyon.  There’s Mack and Claire and that abandoned baby, and their son, and there’s Simon’s gang-banger nephew Otis, still scowling from the long drive but taken aback by the wonder of the expanse.  And, of course, there stands Simon with new girlfriend Jane (Alfre Woodard), a blooming relationship initiated by a blind date arranged by Mack.  So what do you think now, asks Mack of Simon?  “Not all bad,” or dark, says Simon, after which the camera departs in ecstatic musical flight over the canyon.  This is, for sure, the way it is supposed to be.  Alleluia, and amen.

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written by Roy Anker