Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I'D LIKE TO TALK ABOUT JACKIE BROWN; a movie I've always loved and a movie which seems to be finally finding the correct appreciation among movie fans. When it first came out, JACKIE BROWN was viewed as something of a letdown after QT had set the world on fire with his Oscar-winning (and Oscar-nominated for Best Picture) PULP FICTION. Personally, I always viewed RESERVOIR DOGS as the better film and the true "ground-breaker" with PULP FICTION merely more of the same. Be that as it may, Tarantino's knowing pop culture references and "homages", his use of sudden, horrific violence, his masterly choice of soundtrack music and his deft dialogue were the talk of the (tinsel)town. Inevitably, very soon after Hollywood bows at your feet, the backlash sets in and the knives come out; Hollywood "insiders" waited with Ides of March-like daggers to see what QT would do next. Seriously, it was a no-win situation. Critics and audiences constantly moan that they want something different but, when they get it, usually trash it because it's "not what they expected from so-and-so". But if Tarantino had given us all PULP FICTION 2 (in spirit if not in name), he would have been pilloried and would've long since disappeared from the movie-making scene. So first, Quentin took a pause -- a good couple years -- and wisely, I think, did give us something different -- and better. David Del Valle, in his recent excellent article on JACKIE BROWN at the Films In Review website, makes the (to some) startling statement that "Every film Critic has had to come to terms with the fact that JACKIE BROWN may be his greatest film. . ." Now, while that statement is debatable, when you come to think of it there is actually a pretty darn good case to be made for it. Over the years, I have always listed RESERVOIR DOGS as number one with JACKIE BROWN a close number two in my personal rankings (for those who are interested, I'll provide a complete list of where I place each film at the end of this article). However, I don't find myself revisiting DOGS very often; whereas I seem to rewatch JACKIE BROWN a hell of a lot. In fact, that's the impetus for this post: this week I happened to come across JACKIE while channel-surfing. It was just starting -- you known, the spectacular opening scene with Pam Grier floating along an airport causeway to the strains of "Across 110th Street". Well, I thought "Oh cool, Jackie Brown's on" and continued channel-surfing. But by the time I zipped through the rest of the 300+ cable channels, I ended up back on JACKIE BROWN and watched it to its conclusion. I can't say the same would happen if I'd come across RESERVOIR DOGS or PULP FICTION.
It is quite wrong to think of JACKIE BROWN as Tarantino's homage to blaxploitation films -- unless you've never seen blaxploitation films. If you had, you'd know right away that JACKIE BROWN is nothing like all the blaxploitation films we know and love. No, this film is Tarantino's homage to Pam Grier herself. He presented this film to her like a supplicant at the altar of Athena. In fact, Grier famously auditioned for PULP FICTION and was turned down by Quentin because he had bigger plans for her and told her to wait -- in much the same (if upside down) way Fritz Lang told Peter Lorre not to make a movie until Lang had something "truly big" for him; Lorre waited patiently and Lang presented him with the world-shaking "M". Grier waited as well -- one doesn't know exactly how patiently, though -- and retreated to Colorado from an unappreciative Hollywood -- and after a couple years was presented with the script for JACKIE BROWN. She quite correctly saw it as Quentin's appreciative love letter to her and signed on. Thank God, because it simply couldn't have been made without her. No, this is no blaxploitation pastiche. Far from it. The general boneheaded comments from the critics accused JACKIE BROWN of being too slow or too long and lacking all the gross-out screen violence QT was known for. However, everyone I ever talked to in "real life" said they really liked the film. The typical disconnect of movie critics as well as a total missing of the point: I never saw "gross-out violence" as a particular trademark of Tarantino. Sure, he used it but it was a lesser consideration and I never thought of it as one of the major reasons why he wanted to make films. The script of JACKIE BROWN (adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel RUM PUNCH) didn't call for it so it would've been stupid for it to be there. THEN it would've been gratuitous whereas in RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION is was required and was not gratuitous. Once again, we have critics judging a movie for what it's not instead of for what is IS! And that really gets up my nose! No, quite simply JACKIE BROWN is exquisitely timed and plays like a beautifully composed piece of music (aided and abetted by the equally exquisite use of song on the soundtrack). But no, I'm talking here about perfect timing; every moment of the film is perfectly judged as far as the proper "beats" on the screen. Take for example the killing of Beaumont. From the long discussion in which Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell Robbie talks Chris Tucker's Beaumont into the trunk of the car, we know what's going to happen to him (or at least have a strong suspicion). As Hitchcock once explained, it's telling the audience there is a bomb under the chair and then making them sit there and wait for it to go off. However, there's more here than that. Once Beaumont is in the trunk, the camera pulls back to a far shot and the rest of the scene plays out from a distance (to the strains of "Strawberry Letter 23"). Now, I don't know if Jackson himself was in the car driving but the use of time, of pauses and non-pauses, is jewel-like. Jackson shuts the trunk and climbs back into the driver's seat. He turns the key in the ignition, the tape of "Strawberry Letter 23" starts up and the camera pulls away to a "safe distance". The car is driven, not in a straight line, but in a curving arc. Robbie is not nervous, not rushed. He's taking his good old time. The brakes are hit; we see them from our position now behind the car. The "overheard" music from inside the distant car fades out as the car turns. Then the car comes back into our field of view and the music fades back in too. The car turns in and parks now somewhere over there. Robbie emerges (still from a great distance, now), walks around to the back of the car, opens the trunk and fires the gun at the hapless Beaumont. Trunk closes, Robbie gets back in the car and drives off. Really, the scene plays like a song itself. That's just one instance of the multitude of deft touches Tarantino brings to the film. And JACKIE BROWN is full to overflowing of such scenes.
I first fell in love with Pam Grier sometime in the mid-70's, I guess. Or maybe a tad bit earlier. Probably summertime when I had the run of the neighbourhood. I went to the movie theatre that was in the local mall and got a ticket for whatever was playing. However, I soon lost interest and snuck out of that movie and into the one next door. Lucky me, there was a Pam Grier movie playing. I have no recollection now which one it was (especially since I snuck in after the main titles and missed them) but I'm sure it was probably something like FRIDAY FOSTER or SHEBA, BABY or maybe even the beloved FOXY BROWN. These were the more relaxed 1970's so nobody came along and chucked me out of the theatre for being a 10 year old in a movie which probably featured Pam Grier getting her kit off. But from that moment to this, I've regarded Pam Grier as the bee's knees in the cat's pajamas! So, I was naturally pre-disposed to appreciate exactly what Quentin Tarantino appreciated in Pam Grier and why he wanted to make this movie for her. She was a strong role model who didn't take no stuff but she was also extremely feminine and stunningly beautiful; she had a sense of humour and she had a brain and a conscience. Dream Woman 101. So now, here she was in JACKIE BROWN but she was certainly not COFFY and would not have razor blades in her afro. No, Jackie Brown was a 44 year old flight attendant working for the lowest of the low cheapo airline; she was tired, she was jaded, she had seen life. However, when pushed or cornered the fire in her eye would be revealed -- maybe dimmer from age but still kindled. No, there were not a lot of gunfights and gore in JACKIE BROWN but instead there was a lot of what Tarantino is really known for: dialogue and characterisation. As Dave Sim once said, David Byrne was right when he called his group the Talking Heads because there is very little that is more interesting or involving that two people talking to each other. Car chases and fight scenes can get samey and actually dull; the real meat is when characters reveal themselves through dialogue. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT has nary an explosion but it's much more gripping than, say, IRON MAN 2! No, JACKIE BROWN is certainly not too slow or too long; in fact I'd say it's the perfect length without a single second that drags. And as I've said it's not an homage to blaxploitation films; in fact, it's an exploration of the humanity of the characters in all their faults and foibles, deceits and kindnesses. And it is also, in the performances of Pam Grier and Robert Forster (both giving the best performances of their lives), a very damn well effective meditation on what it's like getting older -- but still harbouring that younger you somewhere deep inside. I always loved the film but perhaps, now that I am the same age as Jackie Brown in the film, I'm beginning to see that angle much more clearly now than when I first saw the film in the late-90's. As for that cast, it's sheer magic. Robert Forster gives an incredibly nuanced, moving performance and Pam Grier is almost as great. Samuel L. Jackson plays Robbie as a dandy, yes, but he also has a genuine frightening menace which he did not display in PULP FICTION. Robert DeNiro plays the role of a loser wonderfully and its probably the last actual acting he's done in his career. Bridget Fonda immerses herself in the self-absorbed, petty surfer girl; her constant badgering of DeNiro during and after the "caper" are stunningly annoying and one can almost understand why DeNiro does what he does. In these three roles, Jackson, DeNiro and Fonda are not afraid to play unlikeable. To their credit. Of course, Ordell Robbie being the most evil character requires Jackson to also bring that immense charm that's needed for the role as well. Michael Keaton is also surprisingly effective as the twitchy but amiable cop. There's really not a dud performance in the film anywhere in the extensive supporting cast from Tiny Lister's bail-bonds "enforcer" to Sid Haig's cameo as a judge (brought in nicely from his many co-starring roles in Pam Grier's 70's films).
As David Del Valle also points out, JACKIE BROWN is a movie than can be watched over and over and the viewer will get more out of it each time -- sometimes new things one missed the first time around. That's happened with me and that's happened with most others I've talked to about the film (including Pam's old blaxploitation co-star Sid Haig with whom I spoke briefly about the film in 2003 and who felt it was underappreciated). And David Del Valle says that's the very definition of a classic. Who am I to argue? Thankfully, it seems the critics are now finally coming around to our point of view. Thanks, folks. What took you so long?!? And if you, gentle reader, have never seen JACKIE BROWN. . .you owe it to yourself to watch it. And if you haven't seen it for quite some time, you owe it to yourself to watch it again. Go ahead, gang. You're good people. You deserve a treat. As for my ranking of QT's films, here goes:
  3. KILL BILL (Sorry, it's one movie, folks)

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