Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Woman in Full


It took a long time for filmmakers to recognize the droll comedy in Elmore Leonard's novels. They were always in love with his plots, but lacking the comedy, most movies based on Leonard are but pale shadows. For Leonard himself, the plots are an excuse to study his characters. Once asked about his top five crime novels, Leonard listed George V. Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle five times. That book is ALL character study. In any event, sometime in the mid-1990s, someone discovered the comedy, but it wasn't until Quentin Tarantino's 1997 adaptation of Rum Punch, retitled Jackie Brown, that anyone discovered the character study. Perversely, this breakthrough came from Tarantino's decompression of the book's plot, which he films from multiple angles (both chronologically and from points of view). The plot is still there, but the plot is secondary to watching the characters interact and it grows from these interactions. This is the kind of movie that takes time out to watch its characters have dinner or shop for clothes (this last in the midst of its most difficult plot points). A lot of movies tell us what its characters do for a living. This one tells us how much they make and even how much money they have saved in their 401k plan. It's rich with details, a fact that surely contributes to complaints about its length, though not from me. I wouldn't want this to be any shorter. Hell, I could spend another hour with these characters without noticing the time.

Of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, I wrote: "and Shoshanna, as played by Melanie Laurent, is basically Marlene Dietrich to Tarantino's Von Sternberg." In retrospect, that honor properly belongs to Pam Grier as the title character in Jackie Brown. Tarantino is in love with all of his actresses, to be sure, but I think he held a special fondness for Grier, the action star and baddest mother fucker of his fondest imaginings. When he read Elmore Leonard's book, in which the character is a blond white woman, he imagined it for Grier. She responded in kind with the best performance of her career. She's Foxy Brown and Coffey fading into middle age, still holding her looks, but having to rely increasingly on her brains. Fortunately, she's also smarter than anyone around her. She's smarter than Ordell Robie, played with amiable menace by Samuel L. Jackson, for whom she smuggles money from Mexico. She's smarter than Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton), the ATF agent on Robie's trail who views Jackie as an instrument to trap him. She's probably smarter than Max Cherry (Robert Forster), her bail bondsman, but she never has to match wits with him given that he's smitten with her from the moment she walks out of jail and into his life. This is something pretty rare, actually. It's a movie about a 44 year old black woman and a 56 year white old man who have a relationship and plan a caper. I mean, has there ever been another character like Jackie Brown holding the center of a movie? Honestly, I can't think of one. Tarantino's willingness to stop long enough to really look at his actors enhances their performances. It doesn't hurt that all of them have interesting faces, none more so than Robert Forster, who, like Grier, also does career-best work here.



As cinema, this is Tarantino's most assured movie. He's not trying too much. He no longer needs to make a splash--he did that with his prior two films--so he doesn't have to overreach himself. One wishes that he had learned something from this experience, because in his subsequent films, he loads his palette almost to the point of bursting. In Jackie Brown, he's content to observe. A director noted for scenes of graphic violence, he keeps all of the violence in this film out of the frame or at such a distance as to cushion the blow. More than that, though, he's willing to let his lead characters fall in love. This is the only one of Tarantino's films in which the characters realistically relate to each other in the ways that adult men and women relate to each other, and he does it independently of the plot, too. Oh, the plot uses this, sure, but it doesn't depend on it. It also slows down to let its characters think things out. Action, in this movie, is no substitute for thought. The actions that occur without thinking--the scene where Robert DeNiro's character shoots motormouthed Bridget Fonda after she nags him a couple of words too far, for instance--precipitate disaster.



This is also the least "meta" of Tarantino's movies. Oh, the meta level is still there--it makes me smile every time I see Sid Haig play a judge sending Pam Grier to jail, for instance--but the director elides most of it, as if it doesn't matter to the movie. Most of it is in soundtrack cues. Oh, and my, heavens, does this have a killer soundtrack, from the opening shot scored with Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" to the diegetic appearance of The Delphonics to a catalogue of heavy soul from soul's golden era. Some of the soundtrack cues come from Pam Grier's other movies. None of this really advertises itself the way that, say, the red light and soundtrack cue from Ironside mark the Kill Bills.

In any event, it's disappointing to me that Tarantino hasn't gone back to this mode of filmmaking. He's gone back to being a provocateur, which is fine, I guess, but on the evidence of Jackie Brown, that impulse squanders an immense reservoir of talent. For Jackie Brown's part, it remains the director's best film, even if it's the one that fans of his more outre films tend to ignore.

12 comments:

Darius Whiteplume said...

Jackie Brown is probably my favorite QT film. I was thinking of this today, as I was listening to "The Lion and the Cucumber" from both Jackie Brown and Vampyros Lesbos. I wonder if we'll ever look back on QT as another Jess Franco? He already has "The Horseradish Factor" - people either love or hate him, very few are on the fence.

On a tangent, I was a bit shocked when I accidentally watched "Out of Sight" and saw Michael Keaton as Ray Nicolette again. I had never heard of that one, despite its fairly star-studded cast (George Clooney, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Jennifer Lopez, SLJ, and Nancy Allen).

dr.morbius said...

Hi, Darius. I love Out of Sight. It's a terrific movie. I love that freeze frame that starts the movie. I remember laughing out loud when Keaton showed up. You may notice that he's changed jobs, though. In Jackie Brown, he worked for the BATF. In Out of Sight, he worked for the Marshall service.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I'll have to try catching it again.

Pam Grier is one of my favorites. She can even make a movie with a small part, like Jawbreaker. She's in it for, what, five minutes? You don't forget she was there, though.

dr.morbius said...

My own favorite Pam Grier role--Jackie Brown aside--is the Dust Witch in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Caroline said...

has been on my profile list of favourite films since day one.

Characterisation has been replaced by mayhem and explosions in today's movies while here is a perfect example to learn from.

Caroline xxx

Zelda Rose said...

I had to see this when it first came out, and I wasn't disappointed. But I knew the rest of the audience was looking for "Pulp Fiction II" and didn't get it. Maybe this is part of why I don't go to theaters anymore...

Lin said...

Jackie Brown is her best performance, but possibly my PG character is Charlotte in "Fort Apache, The Bronx"--she scared the hell out of me.

Lin said...

Of course, I meant to say "my favorite PG character"--brain faster than my fingers.

dr.morbius said...

@Lin: that performance in Fort Apache, The Bronx is a-MAY-zing. The only thing that keeps it from being my favorite of her performances is the fact that the movie itself isn't worthy of her. Still, she's a force of nature.

cinemarchaeologist said...

Sorry, Doc, JACKIE BROWN beats out even DEATH PROOF as the absolute worst thing Tarantino has ever made.

You're quite correct about the Leonard adaptations of the past--they always lost the humor, and it always left them pale shadows of the books. Tarantino made his own film adaptation into a pale shadow of its (very good) source book in a different way. On paper, QT adapting Dutch Leonard should be a match made in heaven--that great dialogue he writes is cloned from that of Leonard. Unfortunately, nearly everything QT did to make the story his own--the "decompression" of the book, those long, long, irrelevant asides, etc.--sink the movie like a stone. He took a really good, brisk, involving crime caper/character study and turned it into this long, leaden, pretentious, painfully dull bore of a movie that this normally-hearty enthusiast of QT's work can't even bear to look upon, much less defend.

Particularly baffling is QT's ending; the reason the bondsman and Jackie Burke/Brown run off together at the end of the book was because this was the logical end of their character arcs. The reason QT ended his movie with Jackie leaving the bondsman is apparently only because he wanted a reprise of "Across 110th Street" at the end, and it would have been incongruous with that ending. So he slaps a downer ending on what he'd already turned into a downer of a movie.

I, for one, am glad QT has never returned to this kind of filmmaking (though, to be fair, his DEATH PROOF was torpedoed by the same kind of unchecked self-indulgence that did in JACKIE BROWN, so perhaps it can be said he returned to it once).

cinemarchaeologist said...

OUT OF SIGHT is a blast, because it--like GET SHORTY--was made by people who understood what made Leonard work. I think QT understands Leonard, too--more than one of his movies are basically just redesigned Dutch Leonard-style tales. He just lost sight of it rather spectacularly with JACKIE BROWN. I really like Pam Grier, as well (along with a lot of the JACKIE cast), and wish that movie wasn't such a--let's just say it--turd.

DeAnna said...

I have a difficult time picking the film that I think it QT's best, but I've always suspected that Jackie Brown might be it. Sadly, when I saw it on the big screen, I was too young. It is a film I appreciate now, but it is overshadowed by his others in a way. I need to spend some serious time with JB one day.

I really think KBv1 is my favorite. I know it is 100% meta, but it does it so well. There's something about the pace and the use of sound and music that is always so spot on that it takes my breath away. And QT proves that he can film an action set piece which gets him very high marks in my book. Plus, being raised on westerns, nothing chokes me up more than the tales concerned with the nobility of revenge. yes, vol 1 makes me cry at several points.