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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Based on a true trailer

Since we’ll be leaving the United States in just over 32 hours, we thought we’d check out another movie, if only for the experience of sitting in a movie theatre armed with a double espresso shot caramel macchiato and an apple fritter. I’ll never eat in this town again.

The film itself, Burn After Reading, was decidedly so-so. I think my main problem with several of the Coen Bros. comedies is that the characters are painfully flat and, as a result, I simply don’t care much. (The Big Lebowski gets around this by making its characters quite endearing and strangely poignant, which should be an impossibility with such a far out, potheaded plot.) Same here: apart from very few moments, all of the protagonists remain cartoons – added to which there simply isn’t much of a plot to hold everything together. While the individual situations are comical, there’s a “ooookay… what should happen next? dunno…” quality to this film.

So, since a lot has already been written about the film, let me talk about more interesting things: the trailers. Four of ’em, and all of them intriguing.

I’m not a big Meryll Streep fan, although I acknowledge that she’s a good actress. Much of the time she seems too much like “Meryll Streep acting her little cotton socks off”, just like Robert de Niro, even at his best, tends to make the strain of acting very visible. It works in some films, but I prefer acting that almost vanishes – or otherwise make it very overt acting that doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it’s an act. Having said all of that, this trailer made me look up. Added to which it’s got Philip Seymour Hoffman. Colour me intrigued.

Trailer no. 2. Okay… on the surface, this looks like it’s trying way too hard to win Oscars. Disability. Troubled musician. Based on a true story. Directed by the guy who brought you these middlebrow tearjerkers. And yet, and yet. Robert Downey Jr. can make most middling films interesting and Jamie Foxx definitely knows how to act. Also, based on the trailer the film looks beautifully shot, without going for the glossy, strings-swelling-triumphantly, one-step-away-from-Hallmark visual style.

I’ve only seen one film by Gus Van Sant: Finding Forrester. Yes, I like Anna Paquin, but that didn’t make it a very good film (although it was one of the weirdest, coolest, loveliest evenings and nights in my life that followed that film). Okay, I’ve also seen the vignette he directed in Paris Je T’Aime. I have no idea whether I like him as a director or not. Mostly I’ve read reviews of his films and thought, “Um… right.” (I am uncannily interested in Gerry, mind you.) Then there’s Sean Penn who, for me, is very hit-and-miss. When he’s good he’s very, very good; when he’s on a mission, he’s annoying as hell. But, I must admit, this trailer looks fascinating.

Finally, Frost/Nixon. So far I wasn’t interested at all. And if I’d remembered the director, my disinterest would have doubled, nay, trippled. Is there a more competently nothingy director than Ron Howard? But this may be just the right film for a bland director who nevertheless knows how to get good performances out of his actors. Added to which: Matthew Macfadyen. Yep – it’s Tom Quinn. It’s Henry IV. It’s one-eyed guy with bigass scar. (That last one was Enigma, in case you just went, “Huh?”) And the trailer doesn’t look like “Talky sort-of-historical film based on a play, with actors who wish they hadn’t played in those vampire movies” – it looks like a proper film.

So: main feature – meh. Trailers? Gimme more of that!

… 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: