Thus far in this blog series, I’ve suggested that maybe you can’t make a movie where God or angels literally show up without it seeming somehow cheesy, absurd.
I’ve suggested that you can get around that by embracing that sense of absurdity, talking about the existence of evil in contrast to God, talking about the strangeness of God or using Christ figures to talk about God metaphorically.
Another possibility is you can talk about God by showing actions he may be involved in. You can build a story around events which could be freak chance, coincidence or just maybe miracles.
Roy Anker argues that one film which does this well is Lawrence Kasdan’s film Grand Canyon.
Kasdan commented in an interview about his work on the Star Wars films, “in my own philosophy or religion, such as it is, I believe there is so much more going on than we can see or perceive, that we’re not alone in this space.”
Grand Canyon follows that idea, showing a group of people in Los Angeles who experience what seem like miracles.
A businessman’s car breaks down in a bad neighborhood, just as thugs are about to attack him, a tow truck arrives. Later the businessman remembers another stranger who saved his life three years ago.
The businessman’s wife finds an abandoned baby. A homeless person she randomly sees on the street tells her, “keep the baby. You need her as much as she needs you.”
More events follow, and as the characters get to know each other better, they start asking whether what’s going on simply chance or something reach down to help them.
At this point, it might be fair to ask what makes Grand Canyon different from films like God’s Not Dead and Facing the Giants.
Plenty of Christian filmmakers have tried making movies about normal people having miraculous encounters, and some of them show unconnected people who bump into each other as the movie goes on. However, those movies tend to fall flat — they’re only convincing if you already believe in Christianity.
Given that this whole blog series is about how to show divinity in film in a compelling way, what sets Grand Canyon apart from those films?
For starters, it doesn’t sanitize reality. Kasdan shows Los Angeles as a tough place, filled with “muggings, drive-by shootings child abandonment, eternal traffic, terror, and glory flicks that celebrate it all” (Anker 320).
One character talks about the Grand Canyon as a way of showing how small and pathetic human beings are.
Anker wryly notes a scene involving traffic jams: “When a helicopter traffic reporter looks down on [Los Angeles’] hydra-headed freeway system and comments, ‘It’s hell down there,’ he is talking about more than the traffic” (320).
Harsh as this movie’s depiction of Los Angeles is, it makes the idea of miracles that much more powerful. “Against all odds, even in Los Angeles, in quiet sure ways, love constantly breaks in to redeem sundry people from distress and isolation” (Anker 336).
In addition, Grand Canyon doesn’t go for a completely happy ending. Many characters understand they’ve had some kind of miraculous encounter, but one person completely rejects the experience.
Miracles turn out to be something you have the free will to accept or reject, a moment God wants you to accept willingly but he gives you the freedom to decide how you’ll respond to them.
This is miles away from films like God’s Not Dead where everyone finds faith by the end, and it keeps the film from “becoming a Pollyanna mush of happy-ending sentiment” (Anker 336).
Any thoughts about this? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear them.
Also, stay tuned for the next article in this series, where I examine another possible way to show divine encounters in films.