Kasdan: Grand Canyon (1991)

Grand Canyon was Lawrence Kasdan’s spiritual sequel to The Big Chill, a vision of baby boomers at the cusp of the 1990s as they try to locate themselves within an increasingly unfamiliar version of the America they grew up with. More specifically, as a study of Los Angeles on the brink of the 1992 Race Riots, and cross-section of a city in which “everyone is…trying to control their fear,” it helped to kickstart a taste for Los Angeles ensemble dramas in indie cinema, and on the indier fringes of Hollywood, that would last the best part of the decade. Yet to say that Grand Canyon offers anything like a true cross-section of Los Angeles would be a misnomer, since in many ways the fear of the film is precisely that this kind of cross-section will become available, as never before, to the white demographics that have previously been immune to it. Like The Bonfire of the Vanities, which it frequently recalls, Grand Canyon spoke to a moment at which it became impossible for middle-class suburbia to pretend that the poorer and blacker enclaves of their cities didn’t exist, or that they weren’t inevitably implicated in an ensemble that stretches far beyond their own lives.

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In a foundational figurative gesture, Grand Canyon uses the recurring motif of police helicopters to capture this alarming, escalating porosity between class and race barriers. Usually, a return of the repressed comes from below, from something buried, submerged or sublimated, but here that reminder comes from the air, almost like a prophecy or religious pronouncement, as the omniscient rotors threaten to give voice to all the communities typically sidelined and streamlined by Hollywood representations of Los Angeles, and of American suburban normality. In that sense, the use of helicopters, as a connective device, is very different from in Boyz n The Hood, released the same year, where they speak to the omniscience of police surveillance and the oppression inherent in white efforts to segregate and compartmentalise the cityscape. Their valency is also different from later in the decade, especially in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, where they open the film as purveyors of pesticide, rather than police surveillance, in a parodic riff on their role as keepers of the peace. Indeed, if the helicopters in Grand Canyon recall any other film, it’s probably Blade Runner, especially when paired with the film’s soulful saxophone score, both of which inject an apocalyptic, slightly science-fictional sheen across the surface of Kasdan’s mise-en-scenes.

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Within that landscape, Kasdan offers a series of interlocking narratives, all of which are driven by the sense that the city has somehow exceeded the capacity of any one individual (read: any one white individual) to understand it, and that what’s now required is some kind of salvational or messianic figure who can provide the perceptual augmentation required for the metropolis to cohere into a meaningful whole. At the heart of those narratives is Mack, a dentist played by Kevin Kline, who forms a friendship with Simon, a tow-truck driver played by Danny Glover, after his car breaks down in a lower-class black neighborhood. While Mack and Simon develop a rapport that eventually links their entire families and transforms Mack’s outlook on life, it’s perpetually presented as a reprieve from their first traumatic moment of connection, when Mack saves Simon from being robbed and murdered by a gang of young black hoodlums. Not unlike The Bonfire of the Vanities, there’s a primal fear here of somehow ending up in a black neighborhood, and being let down by the regular segregations of the city, that inevitably frames this relationship through a white lens, no matter how emphatically it may be presented as a blueprint for a post-racial future.

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Two other key narratives structure the film, both of which are directly related to Mack. The first involves his wife, Claire, who discovers a young child abandoned near her house, and finds herself descending into a mid-life crisis after realising how distant she has become from her own husband and young son over the last couple of years. The second involves his friend, Davis, played by Steve Martin, an obnoxious movie producer who experiences a series of fairly nebulous visions after being shot in the leg by a mugger outside his office, and finding himself faced with the prospect of living the rest of his life with a limp. While there is also a subplot involving Simon’s family, including his sister Jane and her wayward son Otis, it doesn’t feel honest to include this as one of the main points of focus in the film, just because the screenplay inflects everything so emphatically through Mack’s crisis in the wake of his breakdown, and the way it is mediated through his wife and best friend. In other words, and put more concisely, this is not really an ensemble drama in the conventional sense of the word, since for all its sprawling address, lengthy running time, and expansive yearning to comprehend the city, virtually all the action is confined to one nuclear family structure, and the way in which people, space and institutions outside that family structure all define it by their difference.

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Of course, the film doesn’t feel this constricted – at least not initially – just because there’s such a pervasive longing for connection, a wandering, yearning, searching vibe that sees each character on the cusp of a revelatory communion with and through the city around them. Every scene is suffused with mysticism, wonder and apprehension, and yet it’s a very bourgeois wonder, and quickly starts to feel constrictive in itself, outlining a demographic who can register individual experience and a wider, nebulous, transcendental ether, but who can’t – or won’t – register any truly collective spirit or impulse within the city as a whole. No character quite encapsulates that outlook like Davis, so it’s perhaps no surprise that this performance is Steve Martin at his most ponderous and pontificating, so enraptured by his “visions” that the film almost seems to be suggesting that being shot, and recovering, is the only way to properly mediate oneself through the city as a whole, a privileged fantasy if ever there were one. On the other side of the racial divide, Simon is often fantasised as a kind of black messiah, a mediator capable of protecting white people from black neighborhoods while also offering a point of entry and communication, so it’s no coincidence that his relation with Mack is the most emotionally charged part of the film. Yet it’s also, inevitably, the most condescending as well, trafficking in the kind of liberal mysticism that I can only imagine would make the film’s casual racism all the more intolerable to a black audience. All in all, the most compelling messianic moment is probably Claire’s discovery of her Moses-like charge in the bushes outside her house, while the nadir sees Mack flying over the city in the middle of the night, in what should be a beautiful sequence formally, but even on its own terms feels quite trite in the context of what was going on in the streets and houses below him at this particular point in Los Angeles’ history.

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As that might suggest, much of the screenplay is devoted to platitudinous statements and mystical aphorisms, and yet while they get repetitive pretty quickly, their sheer scope and scale of reference does encapsulate a certain sense of impotence in the face of the city, and its racial divides, that suggests the film is continually yearning to exceed its own constrictions and biases to come up with something more authentic. In particular, the Grand Canyon quickly becomes a kind of placeholder for what can’t or won’t be conceptualised or visualised within the ambit of the film, as does the all-pervasive spectacle of basketball, which functions as a point of imaginary consensus, and in many ways is the real grand canyon of the film, especially the steep walls and cavernous sightlines of the Lakers’ home stadium, which finds various echoes across the various spaces traversed by the characters. From the opening sequence, which transitions from black and white into colour as it transitions between street basketball and a Lakers-Orlando fixture, Grand Canyon is perpetually troubled by the capacity of this particular sport to cut across class and race divides, but also – even more disturbingly to its liberal ideology – the fact that there may be certain differences that even its consensus-generating spectacle can’t fully assuage.

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Unfortunately, these differences are built into the fabric of the film itself, to the point where the omnipresent spectacle of basketball often feels like a tacit reproach to the film, rather than an integral part of its own structure. Narrative and character-based differences aside, Los Angeles dramas tend to be differentiated more broadly by how they envisage the connective tissue of the city, and the extent to which they are prepared to situate their particular stories within a wider ensemble fabric. In the case of Grand Canyon, that ensemble fabric is both everywhere and nowhere, with Kasdan – in true baby boomer fashion – framing the impending crisis in the Los Angeles cityscape as a crisis in white bourgeois marriage. Yet this equation ignores the fact that the trauma of this particular cityscape is precisely that black people can’t hope to aspires to bourgeois life in the same way as white people, if only because bourgeois life is coded as white from the outset, and embedded in urban patterns that reflect decades of informal segregation along those lines. In other words, for all its liberal inclusivity – or because of it – black figures and neighborhoods are excluded by the very fact and address of Grand Canyon itself, which can’t conceive of an ensemble drama outside white suburban life even as it aspires to offer a universal Los Angeles experience, or universal Los Angeles affect. As Kasdan tries – and fails – to equate the futurity of the city with the futurity of the white family, it’s hard not to feel that the film is often working directly against itself, attempting to welcome and include black demographics using vocabulary that in itself is destined to exclude and alienate them.

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Nowhere is that clearer than in Davis’ tortuous trajectory, all of whose “visions,” “revelations” and “manifestoes” end, quite blandly, with his decision to marry his younger lover and start a family. Up until this point, he’s seemed like something of an exception to Mack’s middle-class family, partly because of his role as a movie producer, but at this point it becomes clear that the film’s complicity with Hollywood and its complicity with white suburban life amount to the same thing, and preclude it from offering a genuinely radical racial vision, no matter how good its intentions. For what we really have here is a film about the L.A. Race Riots, or at least the conditions that produced them, that is still grounded in those conditions as a normative outlook on the world, to the point where all of Kasdan’s breathless longing comes to converge on this inexorable perceptual limit to white bourgeois life itself, and its thresholds to what can be fully conceptualised or visualised. At the same time, however, it has to be said that this contradiction is often quite embarrassing, and that it is actually the most ludicrous and oblivious moments in the film that most authentically capture this class and race divide. In one scene, Kasdan’s cross-cutting seems to equate homelessness with Mack cutting his finger while preparing gourmet tomatoes, while from the way he presents it you’d think that the most serious ramifications of West Coast earthquakes was chandeliers falling down in Bel Air, forcing the wealthiest of the wealthy out onto the streets, and into some momentary, fleeting collective apprehension of the cityscape around them. Early in the film, a single cut says it all, as we move from Mack contemplating when to get married and have kids to Simon wiping blood off the sidewalk in front of his house – two images that no amount of liberal humanism can fully reconcile.

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To his credit, however, Kasdan makes these cuts the real subject matter of the film, along with the transition between scenes more generally. In part, that’s because he’s brilliant at capturing the small textures, rhythmic sweep and atmospheric syntax of the city, evincing such an intuitive taste for the connective tissue between one moment and the next that these transitional sections more or less take the place of the elaborate narrative conceits that more typically sustain ensemble dramas about Los Angeles. At times, these “hinges” in the narrative expand out into fully-fledged dream sequences, or sequences that fuse dreaming and waking life, as if to suggest that the unimaginable contiguities that constitute the City of Angels can only be properly formulated somewhere beyond the film’s own conception of realism. As strange as it may sound for a film that can be so milquetoast in other particulars, these dreamlike sequences are often quite Lynchian in their vision of Los Angeles, and frequently feel like a point of reference for some of the more surreal segments in Mulholland Drive. Indeed, one scene actually features Jeanne Bates, the actress who appears at the beginning of Mulholland Drive and then meets Betty again at LAX, while the most extended dream sequence could play as a blueprint for one of Lynch’s most iconic scenes – a homeless man, credited as “the Alley Baron,” clad in eerie face makeup, suddenly emerging from the back of a building.

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Even when they don’t turn into fully-fledged dream sequences, however, Kasdan’s pans often recapitulate this recourse to connective tissue within a single scene or space, while his escalating montage sequences turn the transitions within the city into a spectacle in itself, moving us away from a liberally synthesised city to a city that is constituted by nothing more than its internal divisions, differences and cuts. It’s at these moments that you really feel Kasdan’s experience in music video, especially in the pans, which yearn to condense the ebb and flow of Los Angeles into a single camera movement, or to exceed the optic of the film itself, often finding their point of departure in encounters that can’t or won’t be assimilated to the suffocating white suburban lens that governs it all. By the time we get to the end, it feels as if Kasdan himself is trying to escape this optic, and its synchronicity with Hollywood, culminating with the terrific penultimate scene in which Mack takes his son Roberto for his first driving lesson in Los Angeles, and teaches him to negotiate left-hand turns, the most basic connective and syntactic unit of the city (“Making a left turn in LA is one of the hardest things you’re gonna learn in life”). For all that he is enmeshed in a liberal Hollywood matrix, Kasdan does his very best to make that left-hand turn as well, if only through his connective segments – the one part of the film where the camera can really soar free above the screenplay – as his (white) characters perpetually grasp at something around the corner from wherever they happen to be, something that still remains at a perpendicular remove from the tenets of well-meaning white suburbia that hold them enthralled and enraptured.

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Ye there is just one substantive part of the film that is never domesticated or contained by this perceptual matrix, and which accordingly becomes equated with its most marginal, mystical and science-fictional moments – the depiction of gangsta culture, and the next generation of black masculinity. Not only does this remain thoroughly alien to the white characters, but it also remains inexplicable to Simon and his extended family, whose more “humanist” form of blackness is much more amenable and assimilatable within white suburbia, as evinced in their eventual movement to an upscale neighborhood with Mack’s assistance. Once there, Jane’s son, Otis immediately and instinctively flees, as if inchoately aware that the upwards mobility tentatively and ceremoniously granted to his mother and uncle is not going to extend to his generation without the assistance of an adequate middle-class black father figure. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that this gangsta mentality is the blind spot of the film, the phenomenon it can’t process or liberalise, since if the last twenty-five years of gangsta culture have revealed anything is that it’s easier, in the United States, for a young black man to become a celebrity than to attain middle-class status, normality and security. Even some twenty-five years after its heyday, the gangsta impulse still insists that black masculinity can’t fully identify with middle-class mobility, so it’s no surprise to find that it’s the part of the film that can’t be processed by the film itself. If Grand Canyon doesn’t address black audiences, then, it is prescient of the possibility of black audiences as something that unsettles the supposed universality of its worldview, and it is that unsettlement, and unease, that is its most enduring factor, even if Kasdan has to reach considerably farther towards the margins of his auteurism than in The Big Chill to evoke it.

About Billy Stevenson (667 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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