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…

… but I gots to be that kinda blogger

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 hasĀ  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: