Top Five Movies: Grand Canyon

One of my favorite movies is Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon. My list of Favorite Movies changes slightly every time I look at it. Nevertheless, Grand Canyon is in the Top 5 just about every time. Here's the deal.

For me, Grand Canyon has two interesting themes.

  1. It uses the actual Grand Canyon as a symbol of the gaps in real life.
  2. It answers the question, "What might real Angels look like in our time."

Movies often use cinematic1 symbols as a context, background or counterpoint. For example, rain is a common symbol for sorrow (rain = falling water = tears = sorrow). Grand Canyon seems symbol rich to me. Many elements appear to mean more than just what you see on the screen.

Caveat Emptor

The difficulty with analyzing Art is determining what the Artist meant. All of this is guessing.


Grand Canyon

The obvious primary symbol is the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA. The Canyon is essentially just a big gap in the ground, but it has an interesting distinction. You really don't realize how honkin' big it is, until you actually see it. It really does take your breath away.

The film explores the grand gaps between aspects of life. The most key gap being the difference between the way it should be and the way it is. The film's most prophetic character actually has a line that says just that.


Another symbol seems to be the helicopter. The movie begins with the sound of a helicopter; then the opening title sequence starts. During the film, we see helicopters several times, which draws our attention to the symbol. Any pattern that a filmmaker repeats is often worth questioning.

Interesting Elements

Opening Sequence

The first few minutes of any film are special, because filmmakers often take it as special. Many films make a statement of some kind in their first few minutes. Sometimes, like a good paragraph, a film expresses its intent in the first "sentence". (If films "speak" to us, then the first few minutes are its opening sentence.)

Grand Canyon begins with a group of black men playing basket ball on a playground. That first footage is black and white and slo-mo. The men are having a great game, every shot we see "swishes!" In fact, there is no sound, except the swish. This world expands to include women watching the men; everyone seems to be having a good time.

What's noticable is the grace of the basketball players. The slow motion creates the feeling of a silent ballet. The 100% swish rate says the guys are good; the laughter shows the joy of the moment.

Once that symbol is established, we add another symbol. Now we begin to see other images: street kids engaged in an apparent drug deal; a young man walking alone on the street not having a good time; gang members. There is a gap between the initial peaceful game and these new symbols.

The black and white photography changes to include tints; there is some color to the image.### (Perhaps a symbol of real life leaking in?) Then, for the first time we see a ball strike the rim of the basket.### The moment it does, we cut to the Fabulous Forum where a Laker game is in progress. And in that cut, we jump to full color.

### I am unsure whether they were there all along, or were slowly added during the sequence. ### I'm not sure I have this correct

These players also seem to be having a good time, but the flavor is different. We meet Kevin Kline's character, Mack, and Steve Martin's character, Harris.### Mack seems as interested (or more so) in the women in the crowd as he is the game. This time the slo-mo ballet is of beautiful young women, the targets of Mack's gaze.

### ???
The Gap Theme

So the film begins by showing us the large gap between the stadium and the street games. And on both sides of this main gap, we find more gaps that echo it. The purity of the street game contrasts with the corruption of the street. The purpose of going to a stadium game contrasts with Mack's real interest. The abilities of the professional ball players contrasts with that of the street players. The small "girlfriends" audience of the first game contrasts with the huge audience (TV?) of the second. Even the change from black & white photography to color is part of the gap symbolism.

These gaps set up a primary theme; the gap between what should be and what is.

Gap symbols also represent the contrast between the haves and the have-nots. Essentially, this is the gap of class. We also see a related gap, the one between have and want; the gap of longing. Another kind of gap is the one between what might have been and what is given some choice or event.

Simon, A Biblical Name

In a film, sometimes the characters actually tell us what the theme is. It's not uncommon for early dialog to set up the cause of the film. In Grand Canyon, the first scene with dialog is with Kline, Martin and Martin's girlfriend after the game. Martin talks about "control", making the point that Mack 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.

Later, Mack impatiently takes a shortcut to avoid traffic, but his car breaks down, and he encounters a street gang. Danny Glover shows up in time to save him (or at least his wallet and dignity). Glover's character, Simon, has a significant line in this early scene. It comes when he's addressing the gang leader. This is when Simon talks about the difference between the way life is supposed to be and the way it is.

The name, Simon, evokes biblical imagery, and Glover's character is prophetic. Many of his lines state basic themes of Grand Canyon.

Angels In Our Time

As Simon drives Mack to the garage, Mack experiences a brief flashback (literally a "flash"). For just a split second we see a busy daytime street corner and the image of a woman walking away. Later turns out to be the woman in the Pittsburgh Pirates hat, but in the brief flash you only catch a glimpse.


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 hurrly burrly 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).

Often, in story-telling, the main character is imperfect.

There are those that will tell you that no story is interesting UNLESS the main character is flawed. In tragidy, the "fatal flaw" often destroys the character (cf. HAMLET, KING LEAR, et al.), in drama it often is the growth or over-coming of the flaw that is the point of the tale. In GC, 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 daughter is good, he's seems at peace with his wife leaving him, he's good in a relationship, he accepts Kline'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. The juxtiposed scenes with Simon's nephew and Kline'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 "slow lane" so to speak (sleeping on the couch), while Kline's wife is very much in the "fast lane" -- she doens't seem to have a career, but we see her synchronizing three different calenders (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 some 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 Kline suggests to his wife at one point (or did she say it to him? (no matter, it's all really Kasden))?

Mack's wife 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? An history figure named Simon?)

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).

In fact, now that I think of it, that's possibly it -- the canyon between their lives despite the apparent early similarities.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we're treated to a bit of somewhat heavy-handed symbolism. Steve Martin's character is a film producer who specializes in extremely violent films. In an early scene, in a screening room, he want's "brains on the window". But random, senseless violence enters his life. And 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).

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: Kline's wife determines that she will adopt the baby. Why her? Because of fate. The same reason that Kline befriends Simon (more contrast/comparisons). "A simple twist of fate."

Another character, Kline's secretary -- a somewhat unbalanced young woman who's 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 Kline was blameless either -- she was right, he wants everything he does to be 'okay' (but don't we all??).)

The Canoga Park move was a little heavy-handed, I thought.

That the nephew should experience what he did 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. I just wish we'd followed up on what happend to him after the scene where Simon finds him with (someone else'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.

Two similar shots puzzle me (and lead me into what you wanted me to watch for all along -- the 'coptors). 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 Kline's secretary's apartment.

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

One possibility is along the lines of, "Is there a God up there watching us? No, just the light fixture." And the coptor 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 helicoptor for a moment). But it is certainly an important aspect of the film.

Several interesting datums: One big deal about Grand Canyon is the helicoptor rides (which have caused some controversy -- the noise is thought to damage the bio-ecology). Another is that helicoptors are an important part of the Los Angeles police force. LA has lots of hilly, inaccessible parts that are well-served by coptor. Consider that we only once see a coptor 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 like 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 helicoptors as a major componant? (Think of the traffic reporter's line!)

If you can't guess, watch any of these movies: APPOCOLYPSE NOW, FULL METAL JACKET, PLATOON, HAMBURGER HILL, et alii. If you guess Viet Nam, award yourself 50 points. Helicoptors were a major part of the Nam (jungle) experience.

I believe the helicoptor 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 (Kline watches one while waiting by his dead car). The film STARTS with the sound of one, Kline'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 coptor, never shows us one (or even the shadow of the one doing the photography -- a common occurance they'd have to plain against!).

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

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 (isn't Simon a jewish name?). The central image of the film. Martin's character mentions it, Glover 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 had "3" on the brain, but might have been 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 GC, 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. And we are treated to a tour of the canyon during the final credits (another contrast to the opening ones).