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Accept No Substitutes

By Drew Morton | Film | August 14, 2009 |

By Drew Morton | Film | August 14, 2009 |

Within my retrospective review of Reservoir Dogs (1992), I implied that my favorite Quentin Tarantino film is Jackie Brown (1997). Well, now that I’ve arrived at the film, I’ll explicitly state it: Jackie Brown (henceforth referred to as JB) is not only my favorite Tarantino film (with Dogs running in a very close second) but also one of my favorite films period. I realize this opinion is not held by the majority of Tarantino aficionados nor viewers of the film in general. Generally, their criticisms of the film seem to follow the lines expressed by Pajiba reader BarbadoSlim (paraphrased for length):

I disagree with the conventional film-fan wisdom that says Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s *best* work. It certainly is a more conventional film. Even Quentin himself admits to that, and appears to REGRET having made it (see GQ’s profile on July 09 issue)in fact he goes as far as saying he’ll never go that route again. So while Jackie Brown might be a nicely made mainstream flick it’s not really what many, including me, expected when we went to see it.

Slim, I thank you for the GQ profile tip. For the sake of clarity, here are Tarantino’s exact words regarding JB:

I didn’t go in that direction. I arrived at my destination with Jackie Brown. I did it! I don’t have to prove that I can do it again. I can do it again if I wanna do it again, but even if I go off and do Friday the 13th: Part Nine, that doesn’t change Jackie Brown. That’s still a mature piece of work. Made when I wasn’t even that mature.

Now, you may be asking yourself why I’ve just utilized two block quotes to set up a review of the film and I have two reasons as to why. First, my overall interpretation of Tarantino’s post-JB career has been that he has fallen prey to his own eclecticism and has taken his preference for cinematic pastiche much too far (more on that in my forthcoming reviews of Kill Bill and Death Proof). In his statement, Tarantino is acknowledging that criticism and re-enforces my worst fear regarding his work: in the end, the only spectator Tarantino’s practices serve is Tarantino himself, making the experience of watching his latest films feel like trying to make sense of an inside joke.

Secondly, and this is addressed at Slim and many other viewers’ comment (which I appreciate and respect) that JB did not live up expectations. Yet, I find the reasoning rather interesting: the film is “conventional” and “mainstream.” While I would openly admit that JB does not take Pulp’s postmodern sensibilities to the same excessive level, I would argue that there is a profound difference between maturity and convention, two adjectives that are ultimately being confused here. I’ll get to the reasons why JB is ultimately less-conventional than its critics make it out to be shortly. However, as usual, allow me to supply an obligatory plot synopsis.

JB (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard) takes its name from the film’s protagonist, a middle-aged, lower-income, African-American airline stewardess (Pam Grier) who supplements her income by internationally trafficking money for gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Problems arise for Jackie when Ordell kills a colleague (Chris Tucker) who alerted ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and LAPD officer Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) to Ordell and Jackie’s relationship. When the officials arrest Jackie, Ordell becomes suspicious and begins to scheme a way to kill Jackie with the help of his girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and his partner in crime Louis (Robert De Niro). The only person standing in Jackie’s corner? Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman nearing retirement who becomes attracted to Jackie and the possibility of ripping off Ordell’s $500,000, which Jackie has been entrusted with trafficking. As usual, the large sum of money puts everyone’s loyalties up for grabs.

Now, I made the promise of describing how JB is not a conventional movie. Allow me to start with the obvious: Tarantino’s love for homage. While Pulp Fiction expressed its love of crime thrillers, noir, and popular culture in general through collage, Jackie Brown is primarily focused thought the blaxploitation genre. By revising Elmore Leonard’s source material, rewriting Jackie as a black woman, and casting Pam Grier as an older version of her kick-ass persona as seen in Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), Tarantino engages in a potent form of intertextuality. Intertextuality, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the act of referencing one text with another. While this is often tied to postmodernism and holds the potential for pastiche, Tarantino keeps this practice at bay yet far from the normative. You see, while JB may not go to the progressive lengths of Pulp in the quantity of its citations, it does so in its quality of citation. While it’s fairly standard for an actor or actress to be cast with the grain of his or her type (Tom Hanks as the charming everyman), it’s uncommon for an actor to be cast in a role that is directly tied to their previous screen personas (this is a fundamentally different practice than playing the same role in separate films). Not too many mainstream films engage in intertextuality quite as strongly and directly as JB. While Cary Grant makes a passing comment regarding an “Archie Leach” (Grant’s birth name) in His Girl Friday (1940), Tarantino continually pushes Pam Grier’s persona via a whole slew of methods: the film’s title sequence, the film’s inclusion of soundtrack segments from Coffy, and the soundtrack more generally (which includes one of Grier’s own musical performances and, coincidentally, a track by rapper Foxy Brown).

While I would argue that Tarantino’s casting of Grier would go a long way in describing the film as being less-conventional than its critics make it out to be, I think Tarantino’s direction of De Niro seals the deal. When contemporary audiences, cinephiles or not, think of Robert De Niro they see four figures: Vito Corleone (The Godfather Part II), Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), and Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas). What adjectives do De Niro’s performances of these four characters bring to mind? Powerful. Cunning. Brutish. Violent. Smart. Yet, in Louis Gara, we find the exact opposite. He’s painfully slow, almost stupid. While we discover that he’s ultimately capable of violence, it seems to be the product of reflex and ill-prepared. Hell, we see De Niro taking bong hits on screen and engaging in embarrassing sexual intercourse! Robert De Niro’s Louis Gara is everything we have grown not to expect from Robert De Niro’s persona. This can have a polarizing effect, as I remember seeing JB in theaters and coming away slightly disappointed by Tarantino’s use of De Niro, expecting something quite different. Yet, over the years and subsequent viewings, I’ve come to realize that Tarantino’s casting (both in favor of and against type) is one of the most surprising and less conventional directorial moves he could make.

My coup de grâce in defense of Jackie Brown as being less-conventional than it is interpreted as being is to be found in the relationship between Jackie and Max. There is quality that is realistically heartbreaking to their midlife attraction that continually brings me back to the film. Forster, unlike Uma Thurman in Pulp, deserved his Oscar nomination here and I lament the fact that he wasted his cinematic redemption on Me, Myself, & Irene (2000). Max Cherry and Jackie Brown, thanks both to Elmore Leonard’s source material and Tarantino’s direction, are two of the most vividly realized characters in any of Tarantino’s work. If JB were the conventional or mainstream film its detractors interpret it as, Max and Jackie would ride off into the sunset in Ordell’s car and the bag of money. Yet, that ending is not meant to be and it’s to the film’s strength for not taking the easy way out. While the film is about coming to grips with old age and the frightening thought of starting over, it’s also about the promise of that possibility and the un-conceived losses that it potentially carries. A film that not only brings up those frightening thoughts but also addresses them poignantly is mature, not conventional.

In close, I’ve often felt that JB is the more mature work because Tarantino is working off of Elmore Leonard’s source material. While Tarantino’s ear for dialogue and Leonard’s voice are incredibly similar (one of the reasons JB is such a stellar adaptation), Leonard is an author capable not only of establishing worlds inhabited by eccentric characters but for providing them with thoroughly rich characterization. Tarantino is capable of this level of characterization, as Jules in Pulp will attest, but he is also a director whose obsessions with structure and homage can distract both his and our attention, short changing the characters. Perhaps that’s why Uma Thurman does not amaze me in PF; she isn’t given a whole lot of space on the page or on the screen to do much more than dance. Her character and performance in Kill Bill (particularly Vol. 2), on the other hand, is not limited by Tarantino’s ambitions as he narrows his focus on her powerful quest for revenge. JB, despite its ensemble cast, finds its essence in the thoughtful relationship between Jackie and Max, superbly directed and scripted by Tarantino, which why it stands as his best film to date.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.