Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
Car trunk shot, bare feet, vintage tunes, Samuel L. Jackson: Jackie Brown is clearly a Quentin Tarantino movie, there’s no doubt about that. At the same time, while all the telltale features are there, the film is an odd one out in Tarantino’s oeuvre. Where Tarantino’s movies often have a jittery, adolescent quality in their characters, language and use of violence, Jackie Brown feels like a more… is “mature” the word? … a more mellow film. Compared to the excesses of Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and Death Proof, there’s a grown-up quality (for lack of a better word) to Jackie Brown that is sadly underestimated by some of the director’s fans. At the same time, it would be a huge mistake to think that because of this Jackie Brown lacks the exuberance of Tarantino’s other films – and this is shown beautifully, in miniature, in the movie’s title sequence.
When you read Internet comments on anything concerning Quentin Tarantino, you quickly realise two things: 1) You shouldn’t read Internet comments unless you get some sort of masochist enjoyment out of sustained idiocy; 2) Quentin Tarantino is considered a hack by lots of people who, by extension, think that Tarantino fans are wannabe hip wankers.
Now, I understand that QT’s films aren’t to everyone’s taste, and he’s definitely not one of those directors/writers who can do no wrong. But I would think that anyone with half an eye and a minimum of appreciation for movies should appreciate that Tarantino is anything but a hack. Pulp Fiction still holds up amazingly well 14 years after it came to cinemas. Jackie Brown is a bit of an odd one out – its relationship to the rest of QT’s oeuvre is roughly like that of The Straight Story to most other David Lynch movies. Many people who loved Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs found Jackie Brown boring, and people who hated Tarantino’s earlier films (or Kill Bill, if they started from the other end) probably didn’t even see the movie.
We started watching it yesterday evening – for the first time since the DVD came out, in my case – and from the very beginning, the Miramax logo appearing on screen to the strains of Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, I got the same giddy feeling that I got from most of Tarantino’s movies. Apart from anything else, the guy knows how to use a soundtrack to accompany and reinforce his images. The film’s intro is one of the coolest in all of American cinema, and its simplicity makes it even cooler. Pam Grier, seen through Tarantino’s lens, is both a real person and utterly iconic. Neither the music nor the images without the other would work nearly as well:
What I only realised yesterday was that, once that intro is over, it’s half an hour before Jackie Brown (the title character!) is back on screen. But that introductory sequence has burnt her into our mind’s retina. It’s her film.
But it’s also the rest of the cast’s film; most if not all of the main characters are played brilliantly. I still haven’t warmed to Bridget Fonda, I have to admit, neither in this movie nor in most others (except A Simple Plan), but it’s fascinating what Tarantino does with Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro. In a way it’s a shame that Jackson was so good in Pulp Fiction, because in most films that followed it he did minor variations on Jules Winfield only, becoming a self-parody. He was never less than cool but neither was he more than Samuel L. Jackson(tm). Robbie Ordell, though, is different. Not wildly different, but he takes his earlier character and makes him into something colder, more real and more frightening.
Robert De Niro, though, is an actor who has rarely impressed me in the last ten years or so. He too has been playing reduced versions of his earlier parts, also becoming a caricature of himself in so many movies. His Louis Gara is a comic figure in his slowness, yet it’s much more differentiated a performance than you might think at first. And his scene with Bridget Fonda is one of the most cuttingly funny sex scenes in American movies. For now, I’ll leave you with it: