“Man, get yourself to the Grand Canyon,”Danny Glover, as Simon, spoken to Kevin Kline, as Mack, in the movie Grand Canyon
Lately, and for good reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about the movie Grand Canyon (1991). It’s a film I’m willing to wager few of you have seen and even fewer remember. The reason I’ve been pondering it of late is that I recently “got myself to the Grand Canyon” while vacationing in Northern Arizona. My motivation for visiting this one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World was recreational; whereas, Mack’s need to go was existential. More on that later in this essay.
For my money, Grand Canyon is a vastly underappreciated film (There’s a link to the trailer below). Although it received mostly positive reviews from critics, including four stars from Roger Ebert, it made only a minor splash in the American zeitgeist. In some ways, I think the film was a tad before its time, and its themes are more resonant today, nearly thirty years after its release. For example, consider the following quotation from Steve Martin’s character, Davis, a disgruntled director of action films who has grown tired of playing to the puerile expectations of moviegoers:
“The point is there’s a gulf in this country; an ever-widening abyss between the people who have stuff, and the people who don’t have shit. It’s like this big hole in the ground, as big as the fucking Grand Canyon, and what’s come pouring out is an eruption of rage, and the rage creates violence, and the violence is real, Mack. Nothing’s gonna make it go away, until someone changes something, which is not going to happen.”
You have to admit that the film’s writers, Lawrence and Meg Kasdan, were seers. They even included a scene in which the police profile as suspicious a Black man jogging in an upscale neighborhood. Sadly, like Cassandra of Greek mythology, their warning has gone largely unheeded and their prediction has come true as the gulf in this country has only widened, not only financially but also politically. Although I wholeheartedly agree with this observation, it is not the focus of this essay. Instead, let me return to Simon’s urging Mack to “get to the Grand Canyon” and his reason for sharing such advice.
Kline’s Mack is a wealthy but unfulfilled entertainment lawyer in L.A., who is forced to reckon with the purposelessness of his existence in the cosmic scheme of things when he mindlessly strays into a rough neighborhood and finds himself on the business end of a handgun being brandished by a Black mugger. Glover’s Simon happens upon the scene and is able to defuse the situation, but Mack has had a Scrooge-like epiphany regarding his meaningless pursuit of wealth and the basic insignificance of his being, as a simple squeeze of a trigger could have ended them both.
As Mack and Simon sit on a curb and perform a sort of post-game analysis of Mack’s near-death experience and recalculate his future, Simon hits him with some cryptic advice: “Man, get yourself to the Grand Canyon.” Simon’s point is one of perspective. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, one’s problems, which seem so massive and insurmountable in daily life, can’t help but shrink to an infinitesimal smallness in comparison to the wonder that is the Grand Canyon, and coming to grips with the relative insignificance of one’s tiny place and role in the grand scope and time of the universe is a blessing, not a bummer.
“When you sit on the edge of that thing, you just realize what a joke we people are. What big heads we got thinking that what we do is gonna matter all that much. Thinking our time here means diddly to those rocks. It’s a split second we been here, the whole lot of us. And one of us? That’s a piece of time too small to give a name.”
I admit that, at first, this notion can be disconcerting. However, upon further rumination, one should understand that admitting his/her own personal insignificance is freeing. The pressure is off. No one is watching. The truth is most people are too caught up in their own shit to think or care much about anyone else’s; therefore, there’s no need to impress anyone. Nature shrugs her shoulders at our petty problems with the certainty that one day we’ll be gone, not just as individuals but as a species, and she will carry on as before. So, in the big picture, it really doesn’t matter if you get that party invite, that promotion, that raise, that bigger house, that fancier car. It really doesn’t matter if the whole world knows your name.
Ultimately, what matters is that we don’t play to the grandstand as Baudelaire warned and, contrarily, that we do follow Thoreau’s advice and live the life of our own imagining. If that includes that party invite, promotion, raise, bigger house, or fancy car, so be it. Just be sure that you have defined that need for yourself and that you’re not chasing after someone else’s notion of what is important and what is tantamount to success.
If you don’t believe that we are all a nearly-immeasurable speck in a universe expansive beyond our imagination and that it is a truth that only magnifies the need to get life right while we have it, do me a favor and “Get yourself to the Grand Canyon.”
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