The Rear-View Mirror: Jackie Brown (1997)

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.

Jackie Brown

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Disappointment. The ‘D’ is silent.

Waltzing with ChristophI want to say, “It’s not you, Quentin. It’s me.” But I couldn’t say it with much conviction.

What’s happened? Why the sad face on my part? It’s this: ever since first watching Pulp Fiction, I’ve been a Quentin Tarantino fan. This doesn’t mean that I love everything the man’s been involved in – I wasn’t too keen on From Dusk Till Dawn or Natural Born Killers, for instance – but I’ve greatly enjoyed his directorial work. While most people would go, “Yeah, I dig Reservoir Dogs, but fuck Jackie Brown, man, what a bore!” or “Kill Bill Part 1 rules, Kill Bill Part 2 drools,” I came away from all of them with a big grin on my face. Yes, even Death Proof, apparently the litmus test for Tarantino fans.

So what was wrong with Django Unchained? Let’s mention the positive first: I found the film very entertaining. It was funny, it had its tense moments, it was well crafted, it had good performances. Christoph Waltz was a joy to watch, Jaime Foxx was effective in the part, Samuel L. Jackson played a very different role from what I’m used to seeing. It’s just… I expect more than “very entertaining” from Tarantino. I remember sitting in the cinema for Jackie Brown and being hooked in the very first scene, thanks to the perfect combination of actress, visuals and music. I remember being pulled into the film immediately when Kill Bill started with a black and white close-up of the bloodied Bride and Bill doing his “Do you find me sadistic?” monologue, followed by the blackout and Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”. With Death Proof it took longer – up until the halfway point I was prepared to hate the film for, well, finding it sadistic, but then things fell into place in the second part. And the first scene of Inglourious Basterds is pretty much perfect in how it creates tension and then ratchets it up to unbearable levels.

I felt giddy about all of Tarantino’s earlier films, sometimes due to the sheer exuberance of what he was doing, often because of the virtuoso way in which he remixed styles and genres to amazing effect, usually because the films had a sharp wit and intelligence that might not be apparent at a first viewing. Django Unchained, though? I never felt giddy. I never felt excited at what Tarantino was doing. The closest the film came was Christoph Waltz’s character and performance, which were pretty much pitch perfect, but other than that the film was strangely flat. No surprising juxtaposition (and no, it’s not enough to have Ennio Morricone and 2pac on the same soundtrack any more), not much in the way of subtext. Especially after Inglourious Basterds, which did some pretty intriguing things with its revenge plot(s), Django Unchained is strangely, disappointingly straightforward – and often it’s the lack of straightforwardness, the eagerness to stray of the most direct path, smell the daisies and cut them to shreds in an ironically postmodern homage to grindhouse gardening (“Alan Titchmarsh stars in The Gardener and his Hoe!“) that make Tarantino’s work stand out.

I’m wondering whether some of my disappointment comes from slavery being much more of a cultural issue in the States, and accordingly it wouldn’t resonate with me in the same way that it might with an audience that is still confronted with its racial past. Perhaps that adds an element that simply wasn’t there for me. Or perhaps Django Unchained is Tarantino light, at least with respect to the things I like best about Tarantino. Anyway, I’m in no particular hurry to see the film again (I saw both Kill Bills three times each at the cinema), but perhaps the film will grow on me if/when I sit down to watch it again. And in the meantime I’ll finally see what Pulp Fiction looks like on my TV…

Better than being hit over the head with a baseball bat

Quentin Tarantino loves cinema. If anyone ever doubted that, fifteen minutes of Inglourious Basterds should put that doubt to rest.Also, Quention Tarantino knows cinema. He knows its history, he knows films, he knows how to construct a scene, how to film it, how to make it work. As I’ve argued before, he is in control of his material like few other directors.

He may also just be the most radical of the big-name film makers working in Hollywood today.

Now, “radical” does not mean “independent” – or, more aptly, “indie”. The current indie film scene in the US, while gems keep coming out of it, is disappointingly generic, with quirky comedies about geeky weirdoes we’re supposed to love having become as predictable and stale as mainstream romantic comedies. What makes Quentin Tarantino radical is he doesn’t pander to his audiences. In the end, he makes films entirely for himself. If the audience enjoys them, all the better, if not, well, fuck them.

Which may go some way towards explaining why Tarantino is one of the filmmakers who is either loved or hated. If you don’t like what he’s doing, his films will grate like mad. There are no compromises for a broad audience. Tarantino is a lucky bastard (or “basterd”) who can be indifferent to what test audiences may say about his films. (Actually, I’d be curious as to what test audiences would make of his movies.)

Not a Basterd in sight...

One of the things that is most striking about Inglourious Basterds is how little the Basterds are actually in the movie, and how, in the end, they are not the heroes of the film. That honour goes to Shosanna Dreyfus, played to perfection by Mélanie Laurent. The Basterds themselves are pretty much a team of goons and thugs, a bunch of self-admitted terrorists, and they are only seen as the good guys because they go after Nazis (or “Nat-zees!”, as Brad Pitt insists with over-the-top relish), perhaps the easiest target in cinematic history.

And that’s where the second intriguing thing comes in: while the Basterds remain cartoony and one-dimensional, Tarantino takes a number of “Nat-zees” and humanises them. He doesn’t make them into the good Nazi, they’re not Germans with hearts of gold who happened to end up, against their will, wearing Wehrmacht uniforms – but they become human beings. While the surface of the film is all about Our Heroes wreaking terrible, deserved revenge on the Hun, the subtext – which may even be more prevalent than the text – is much more ambivalent.

In occupied France, the Germans would get their kicks by sticking post-its on their foreheads. Silly foreigners...

And that’s what may be most radical about Tarantino: he’s managed to fool a large part of critics and audiences into thinking he’s a B-movie geek with an affinity for trash and violence, when his films are intricatedly crafted, wittily written, much more complex (and much less violent) than they’re given credit for. Many people have watched his films and seen only slickly made trash. He’s been hiding with incredible success that he’s that most elusive of cinematic beasts: an auteur. God bless his narcissistic, self-centred, infuriatingly post-modern little heart – and may he make many more films!