Saturday, December 26, 2015

Street Life, It's the Only Life I Know: The Laid Back Pleasures of JACKIE BROWN

.45mm or .9mm? That’s the existential debate pondered by Samuel L. Jackson’s smooth-talking, samurai-coiffed, sub-sociopathic minor league arms dealer Ordell Robbie in the first post-credits scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Whilst pontificating to his newly sprung from the pokey partner Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) on the relative merits of the industrial strength firearms on display in Chicks Who Love Guns (the hilarious infomercial spoof that feels like a Jim Wynorski b-reel, all bikini-clad, bosom-heavy beauties on display), he laments that as soon as a film popularizes a certain type of gun, all of his prime street customers become obsessed with owning one, no matter the quality or drawbacks. In particular, he namechecks John Woo’s The Killer, and how since it other Hong Kong gangster films of its ilk made their domestic bows, everyone wants to own a .45 (despite his advice that a .9mm jams far less.)

As an opening salvo for two of the film’s main characters, it’s a goofy bit of comedic jesting, a callback to the Jackson-John Travolta bull session at the opening of Pulp Fiction, and a self-referential stab at the romanticism of violence and pop culture junkiedom that lie at the heart of Tarantino’s film (and which are often the main criticisms lobbed his way.) But this smidge of dialogue also provides some key context for the time that helped to spawn this 2.5 hour character study of a crime drama. In the grand scheme of Tarantino’s filmic oeuvre, Jackie Brown stands as an intriguing sidebar, one which provides a glimpse into an alternate direction in which his career might have progressed.

As QT was directing Pulp Fiction (which captured so much of the post-modern, ironic GenX sensibility that was becoming a standard in the early ‘90s), another wildly influential cultural marker was embedding itself on the pop consciousness. For a period in the first half of the decade, the nascent Hong Kong Action genre was the hottest thing going in the then-potent U.S. underground film scene. Magazines like Film Threat devoted copious space to chronicling the transgressive thrills in films that, in a pre-internet era, were hard to see outside of bootleg VHS tapes. Art houses across the country hosted retrospectives featuring recent wire work epics and hyper-violent bullet ballets.

At the heart of this genre explosion was John Woo, the superstar director of A Better Tomorrow, Hard Boiled, and the aforementioned The Killer. His crime sagas were a reinvention of the noir cycle on par with the French New Wave tough guys films of Jean-Pierre Melville, with impossibly cool leading men (particularly the iconic Chow Yun Fat) blazing their way through a morally conflicted world awash with cigarette smoke and dual pistol standoffs. And doves. Lots of doves. Woo was an arch-stylist through and through, and the neon lighting, atmospheric shafts of light, and symbolic birds of freedom that populated his landscapes brought a poetic weight to the proceedings.

Ironically, by the time Woo’s films gained greater exposure in the States, the Triad film genre was already in decline, slowly being replaced by another wave of wire work films. But they still seemed radical and fresh to domestic audiences. The hip hop world, in particular, latched onto the genre in a massive way, aping the stoic, badass signifiers of Woo and company in their style and lyrics. The most notable purveyors of this influence were the rap superstar collective The Wu-Tang Clan, who took their moniker from a 1983 Gordon Liu action film and peppered their tracks with samples and soundbites from the burgeoning Honk Kong filmic arena.

Always the inveterate, voracious cinephile, Tarantino had latched onto this Asian New Wave early on, a fandom that was bolstered by the access he enjoyed during his tenure at the famed Video Archives. You can see some of the classic Hong Kong cinema themes at play in his first two films: loyalty, respect, the codes by which warriors live, the ritualization of violence. And as was becoming evident by this point in his career, he also held a deep appreciation for black culture, especially the Blaxploitation genre so popular in ‘70s grindhouses. Jackie Brown would see the fullest realization to date of QT’s affinity for this dual cultural imperative in its loose, weed-infused mood.

And it would see this realization through his adaptation of Elmore Leonard, the poet laureate of Detroit crime fiction, whose hard-boiled books are populated by the kind of eccentric criminals, wild card elements, and an intense love of language that seem right at home in the Tarantinoverse. In Leonard’s Rum Punch, QT saw the same talky crooks that lent his previous two films their dark, vital heart. But he also saw something more, the chance to build a narrative around two decidedly more non-criminal types floating around this world of thieves, both trying to make their way to a better life. And he saw the chance to resurrect the careers of two of his favorite actors.

If John Travolta often served as the young Tarantino’s avatar of cool, then Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier was his inspiration, his crush, and his template for femininity. Since her ‘70s heyday, Grier had never really gone away, but she was a long way from her most famous roles in Foxy Brown, Coffy, Black Mama, White Mama, et al. Much like Richard Roundtree, she had been pigeonholed as a sub-genre action star, which ignored the authoritative presence, knowing wit, and emotional depth that she often brought to roles. Being able to use his newfound Hollywood clout to make his next film a Grier vehicle was a dream come true for QT. Once again, the lazy narrative might have pegged this as nostalgic stunt casting, but like Travolta’s turn in Pulp, this was a case where a somewhat forgotten star was the perfect choice for the character. Unfortunately, Grier’s career didn’t match the resurgence that came to Travolta; Hollywood tends to marginalize women over 40…or, these days, over 30. Nonetheless, her work in this film is tremendous. Uma Thurman may have electrified Pulp, but it was still very much a man’s man’s man’s world. Grier’s Jackie is still beset by the wills and whims of the male-dominated war between cops and criminals, but she more than holds her own, ultimately outsmarting all of them to deliver herself from the middle-aged morass of her flight stewardess life. She’s the first truly alpha-female presence in a Tarantino film, and it can be argued that after two features in which men must rely on their resourcefulness to find redemption, Jackie Brown finds a similar crew of men helpless before the titular female.

One of those men who ultimately finds himself in thrall to Jackie’s charms is career bail bondsman Max Cherry, played with stoic aplomb by Robert Forster. Another favorite of Tarantino’s youth, Forster was the very definition of a working actor, gaining some notability in Disney’s space epic The Black Hole and the sewer horror thriller Alligator, but otherwise never reaching even the temporary level of fame that Grier achieved. The budding romance between Max and Jackie forms the tender heart of this film; looking back at it today, the casting of two middle-aged actors in these roles in a Tarantino film seems positively subversive. Forster doesn’t carry the pyrotechnic presence of Pulp’s leading men, but Max requires an actor who can wear the weight of the years in far subtler fashion. And this is where Forster excels, communicating a world-weary humor and sadness throughout, his furrowed brow indicative of a life spent witnessing all manner of malfeasance, his deep stare a well of regret for the life he might have had.

From a purely objective standpoint, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro are the two megastars in this film, even though they’re supporting players to the Jackie/Max story. Both actors give some of the finest performances of their careers, playing against type in fascinating ways. De Niro’s Louis is all comedic shrugs and bemused reactions, a man lost in the real world after four years in the clink. But that confused stoner demeanor hides a raging frustration that finally explodes when he kills Bridget Fonda’s Melanie in a fit of rage after the money exchange at the Del Amo Fashion Place. It’s a shocking bit of violence to this day, made all the more powerful by the relatively monotone character build that comes before. It’s also a deeply troubling moment that forces the audience to question whether they should laugh or gasp. That dynamic was at play with much of Jackson’s role as Jules in Pulp Fiction, and the same feeling permeates his role here as well. That opening discussion of guns and their cultural cache always elicits laughs from an audience, but while Jules is ultimately revealed to be a morally motivated person who has spent a lifetime putting on malevolent airs to serve as the tyranny of evil men, Ordell is a stone cold psychopath who wears a mask of conviviality to lure in his victims. In the film’s climactic scene, in which Ordell threatens Max before their meeting with Jackie, the look in Jackson’s eyes is pure cold, calculating menace, a moral vacuum at the heart of the plot.  

Watching Jackie Brown today is as interesting an experience as it was back in 1997. I remember seeing it several days after its Christmas Day release, loving the laid back nature of the plot and the deeply ‘70s haze in which it seemed to dwell (even though it’s set in the present day.) Of course, the film was a financial disappointment, and pundits saw it as either a step back for the boy wonder director or a comeuppance for his sudden mega-stardom. Seen in the context of his subsequent films, it’s somewhat of an odd duck, an almost total retreat into the extended conversational world that his previous films used as backdrop, which creates an overall effect that at times can seem almost too relaxed. But by the time all is resolved in the final scene, and Jackie and Max part after a poignant kiss, the collective power of the film really comes together. We, the audience, have lived with these people for several hours, and what in the moment might have seemed like minor and incidental details are now revealed as building blocks in a relationship that is unusually mature, not just for a crime film but for a major Hollywood product. There’s no melodrama in their parting, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t get a bit choked up as Max retreats into the soft focus of the scene’s background (and into his barely concealed tears) and as the camera focuses on Jackie’s face as she drives away into her new life, Grier singing along to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” (which also opens the film) with a twinge of sadness over leaving one of the only people in her life who seems to have truly gotten her.

Despite its financial failings, Jackie Brown allowed Tarantino to expand his dramatic chops in ways that are still interesting. He would hang onto the narrative of a strong woman beset by grief and regret, using it as a launching point for his next project, a massive film that would serve as a summation of his entire career, nay his entire life to this point. It would be five full years before another QT film would hit theaters, but Kill Bill would prove to be more than worth the wait.          


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