Friday, April 2, 2010

Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997)

So I've already hinted that Jackie Brown is my favorite Tarantino. Was, at least, before his spate of 2000s films; and now that I see it again, I think it still is.

Why? I always come back to the emotional resonance Tarantino and the actors find in the relationship between Jackie and Max. It's not just two co-conspirators, it's two people in grueling, dead-end jobs trying to find a way out, it's two people on the wrong side of middle age trying to figure out if life has anything left for them. When they talk about aging - well, I was deeply moved the first time I saw it, when I was still in my twenties, and it still moves me now.

I don't know how much of this comes from the novel it's based on, because I haven't read it. But I think a lot of it has to come from Tarantino, or at least he chose to keep it. The detail that struck me this time was Max's hair. He tells Jackie that when his baldness started to bother him he did something about it, and he's fine with it. But we know he has a bald spot on the back of his head. Does he know? I don't think so: a guy with a lover might only be the second person to know he's going bad, but trust me, a guy alone is the last to know. In other words this is the chink in his armor, the hint that beneath his marvelously matter-of-fact toughness (Forster's performance is brilliantly understated: idle gestures with his fingers convey all sorts of inner calculations) is the vulnerability that will allow him to fall in love with Jackie.

The other thing I noticed, along these same lines, is how Tarantino lets Jackie look her age. I didn't notice this the first time I saw the film: back then, as a kid too young to remember blaxploitation and not hip enough to have discovered it on my own, all I noticed was how good Pam Grier looked. Now, with fresh eyes, I can see that she looks good, yes, but also 44, the age of her character. In 1997 it was already nearly universal practice in Hollywood to force actresses to look younger, pneumatic, even when they were playing old: if all you see is movies you have no idea what 44 looks like. Or how good an honest 44 can look: and that's what this movie gives us. It makes the character's strength, her confidence in her desperate improvisation, much more believable, because you can see and feel how she's survived all this time. I've said before that Tarantino is a feminist.

I feel a little odd naming this as my favorite Tarantino, because it's such a conventional film, in its design and style. It has all sorts of telltale tricks, but by and large Tarantino restrains himself. And it's a wise choice, because the kind of postmodern decoration that made Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill so thrilling would have distracted from the story and the characters here.
It was this film that really convinced me that Tarantino was a great director, and not just a great stylist: it showed he knew when to rein it in, in service of the film. Does that mean I secretly wish he'd just outgrow his stylistic games and make normal films like this one? I don't think so...

The other thing I noticed about this film this time around is how conscious it is about race. Race is a vexed question in Tarantino's work, largely because his characters speak in a fairly unvarnished way about it. Tarantino, through his films, sometimes seems like the white kid who thinks that just because he listens to rap he has the right to throw around the word "nigga." And I'm not going to say there's nothing problematic about the language in, say, Reservoir Dogs.

But I do believe he at least thinks about race, thinks about what he's doing with it. At least twice in this film we get Max, the white guy, dressed in black while he's talking to a black person (once it's Ordell, once it's Jackie) dressed in white. There's an explicit patterning going on here where we're being encouraged to think about race as an issue in these people's lives: the way Ordell talks about it, uses it, and the way Max doesn't, and Jackie doesn't.

And of course race is the big undercurrent in Max's relationship with Jackie. Never once is it mentioned, but it's the big subtext in the scenes where the Delfonics' "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time" is used. He has to ask who it is when Jackie plays it in her apartment - clearly he wasn't listening to soul music in the '70s. So later when he buys it on cassette to listen to in the car, it means something - not just that he's into her, but that he's opening himself to a whole world he's never known. It's a very moving moment for me.


Cat said...

I have nothing insightful or witty to say, so I'll instead just say that I love this observant and poignant review. You make me really want to see the film, which I missed when it was out. Inglorious Basterds is coming up soon on our Netflix queue; maybe I'll add Jackie Brown to flesh out the Tarantino fest.

Tanuki said...

Why, thank you! I'm particularly self-conscious writing about Tarantino, since every film geek and his buddy writes about him, so it's doubly nice to hear you liked this. (The first nice is that it's someone whose opinion I value so much.)