Ethereal and interconnected in Los Angeles, circa 1991 (left to right) : Mary Louise-Parker, Mary McDonnell, Kevin Kline, Steve Martin, Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard, all star in "Grand Canyon", directed by Lawrence Kasdan.  (Screenshot by Omar P.L. Moore/ via Twentieth Century Fox)

"Grand Canyon": "Crash" Before "Crash", In 1991 Los Angeles
By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
November 16, 2008

1991.  The first war in Iraq under the first President Bush.  The BCCI Savings And Loan Scandal.  The Keating Five.  Rodney King.  These were some of the major news stories in the U.S. that year, the same year the film "Grand Canyon" was released.  Seventeen years ago on Christmas Day, Lawrence Kasdan's film about six strangers in Los Angeles whose lives were intertwined through fate hit theaters, and although film critics weren't so kind to it in some publications, the film still has a strong effect today, especially in the context of a changing America, which almost two weeks ago voted for its first African-American president.

Many decent films about Los Angeles have been made over the years (see below) and Robert Altman's ensemble films have influenced Mr. Kasdan, who gave us "The Big Chill", "Silverado", "Kansas City" and "Mumford", among others.  Three years ago though, "Crash" burst onto the scene, with Paul Haggis' film about racism and racial tensions searing through Los Angeles.  The Oscar-winning film, it could be argued, was an epilogue of the unheeded warnings of the characters of "Grand Canyon".  The L.A. police were harassing black men in 1991, as seen in Grand Canyon, and the small contingent known as the thug element in the black community caused their share of trouble, and these elements increased tenfold in "Crash", which also had several intersecting stories.

Some of the most important dialogue from "Grand Canyon" is spoken by Steve Martin's character, Davis, a violence-loving movie producer and director who experiences an epiphany after being shot by a thief on a street in the City of Angels.  "You know what everyone is trying to control?  Their fear."  Davis nailed truth into the ground with that comment, and "Crash", born fourteen years later, was an extension of his comment.  "Grand Canyon" had less racial conflict in it than "Crash", though its opening scene is so racked with tension, anxiety and fear that you could feel the movie theater audience collectively holding its breath.  Many audience members black and white can relate to what Kevin Kline's character goes through during that opening, and it is a thermometer tester of a moment in the film.

"Grand Canyon" is more of a philosophical and ethereal film, with the music score by James Newton Howard punctuating the feeling.  The film is one that the new incoming Obama Administration would likely agree with.  The film is a call to close the chasm between the haves and have nots, the blacks and the whites, the powerful and the powerless.  And while some would characterize "Grand Canyon" as schmaltzy, idealistic and liberal, the film is littered with several characters who violate the essence of the pay it forward ideal that they preach by betraying the very people they claim to be helping or preaching to.  The film while somewhat polished and squeaky clean, isn't perfect.  The veneer of do-gooders is punctured but not beyond repair.  (Next month, Will Smith stars in "Seven Pounds", playing the role of do-gooder as he affects the lives of seven strangers in Los Angeles.)

Danny Glover is Simon, a divorced mechanic with a deaf child who lives in Washington, D.C., Mr. Kline is Mack, an immigration lawyer unhappy in his marriage and career, Mary McDonnell is Claire, a psychologist isolated in her marriage to Mr. Kline's character, while Mary Louise-Parker is Dee, a secretary of Mr. Kline's who is lovelorn.  Alfre Woodard is a friend of Ms. Parker's who is looking for love.  "Grand Canyon" is a well-meaning film about adults trying to find their way and just getting through each day in one piece.  "If you're going you've only got a split second to do it otherwise the cross traffic will whack you.  It's difficult stuff.  Making a left turn in L.A. is one of the harder things you're gonna learn in life," says Mack to his son Roberto (Jeremy Sisto) during a driving lesson on a busy street.  "This town stinks," Mack adds, hardly a ringing endorsement of Los Angeles amidst the film's vaunted optimism.  As an interesting contrast, Davis, who has been condemned to walk with a limp for the rest of his days, says of L.A., "this town is great".

In the final analysis, "Crash" is likely a more accurate depiction of 21st century Los Angeles -- a balkanized, separated, sprawling metropolis, with people nervously driving past the exits in the city that they think they have no business exiting on.  "Grand Canyon" is less bleak and pessimistic, with hope springing up around every corner of tribulation -- and this was in the midst of the first Bush Administration in the late 20th century.  Twentieth Century Fox released "Grand Canyon", which symbolically ends in Arizona, not Los Angeles.  "It's not all bad," Mr. Kline's character relents.  Neither film really unearths or examines the plight of the poorer members of the black community in Los Angeles -- not that they necessarily have to, they merely -- at least in the case of "Grand Canyon" -- glimpse them.  Compare this to the attention-getting film of 1991, "Boyz N' The Hood", John Singleton's Oscar-nominated debut film that so powerfully got to the core of the life of black youth in Los Angeles.  Two years after that film, the Hughes Brothers made an even more viscerally powerful film ("Menace II Society") about black working class life in Los Angeles and wayward youth trapped in poverty, crime and drugs.  "The hunt is on!  And you're the prey!", declares Charles S. Dutton during "Menace".

Where the comparison of "Grand Canyon" is concerned, the complexities of "Crash" are more believable, with Matt Dillon's racist cop character full of gray shade, and while his private troubles hardly justify his public ones, he is more authentic than the police officer who talks to Ms. Parker's woebegone character in "Grand Canyon" and convinces her that adultery happens but is afraid to tell her that it is morally wrong, even though he mentions that he is single and "hasn't found the right girl".

Ironically, the power and intensity of "Crash", "Boyz N' The Hood" and "Menace II Society" are all reflected in Davis' penultimate comment in "Grand Canyon": "I'll tell you this though, there's so much rage we're lucky we have the movies to help us vent a little of it."

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.

Note: Some good films about or set in Los Angeles over the years: "Sunset Boulevard", "Chinatown", "L.A. Confidential", "The Player", "Boyz N' The Hood", "Menace II Society", "Memento", "Heat", "To Live And Die In L.A.", "Magnolia", "Changeling", "2 Days In The Valley", "Mulholland Drive", "Collateral", "Grand Canyon", "Inland Empire", "Crash", "Beverly Hills Cop", "Shampoo", "Pulp Fiction", "Terminator 2: Judgment Day", "Shopgirl"

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