There's a melancholy in 1997's Jackie Brown not found in its director's previous two crime films. Jackie Brown has been described as a film about older people--certainly it remains Quentin Tarantino's most mature work--but it's not simply that. It's specifically about a criminal getting older, its final shot beautifully capturing the sadness in the growing awareness in its protagonist that her victories are becoming harder won as the hazards of her long misfit life are adding up to something she finally can't escape. There's an elegiac beauty in this film that makes it both fundamentally different from Tarantino's first two films but also a fitting finale for the three if taken as a trilogy.
One thing it absolutely has in common with the first two films is its ability to communicate with imagery. It's a brilliance achieved by Tarantino and his long time editor Sally Menke whose untimely death before Django Unchained is partly why I suspect the latest two of Tarantino's films lack something of the tight narrative flow found in his earlier films. It'd been many years since I'd last watched Jackie Brown before last night. One of the impressions that'd stayed with me were the scenes between Robert DeNiro's character, Louis, and Bridget Fonda's character, Melanie, because of how vividly Tarantino communicates Louis' motives through framing.
De Niro plays a very inexpressive character and we're forced to watch closely to see the subtle energy between Louis and Melanie in this film that is largely about reading hard to read people. Tarantino helps us along with Bridget Fonda's legs.
The amateur critic might write this off as "male gaze" and call it a day. But it's a specific male's gaze, the camera's attention to Melanie's body in this case establishing Louis' attention to it, and it explains the one or two moments where he seems flustered, his difficulty with the bong hit, his quick willingness to drink from a glass that had brushed against Melanie's toe. Suddenly the motives of this hard to read man are crystal clear and they become clearer after the two have sex.
Then Tarantino frames Melanie like a muppet, just head and shoulders over a table, talking shit about Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) and suddenly, now that she's out of his system, Louis' priority shifts to his loyalty to his old friend. We may understand how Louis feels but he and Melanie pay a price for relying on their guts so much.
Pam Grier's character, Jackie Brown, has probably lasted as long as she has because of her self control. In the ingenious scene where Ordell comes to her apartment to kill her she shows not the slightest hint of anxiety. Later on, Max (Robert Forster) will caution her to remember that clever cops like Ray (Michael Keaton) will never let you know if they've figured out your game. The same could as well be said of Jackie who betrays no awareness of Ordell's intentions until that perfectly timed DePalma split screen.
But as she tells Max later, she's more frightened of losing her job than she is of Ordell. She's aware now that time is running out on her precarious existence. She's a bit like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers; a mythic heroic American archetype, in this case a virtuous thief, that really only functions properly under very specific circumstances and is probably more a hazard to herself and others in most circumstances. But just like the Western hero, she's an inspiring figure, so much so that when Max first lays eyes on her he wants to give up his career. But in the end, is it any wonder he's also a little bit afraid of her when he's seen how smoothly she manipulates people?
Both Pam Grier and Robert Forster deserve all the accolades they've received for this film and more; both of them are uniquely crucial for creating these two people who have been around so long and have accumulated so much wisdom that their strategising is no longer contaminated by insecurities or rash compulsions. For the most part.
It's amazing to think that Tarantino followed this extraordinary character piece with--albeit certainly brilliant--revenge action films. I'm looking forward to seeing if he achieves something like this again with his upcoming film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Though I don't think it'll be successful at the box office and may well sink his career--but not because of the 2003 Howard Stern interview that's been going around lately where he defended Roman Polanski. For my part, I certainly strongly disagreed with Tarantino's expressed sentiments, even if he was, as he's claimed, playing it up for shock value to suit The Howard Stern Show. A thirteen year old girl is not capable of giving consent. Which leads to the question, how can Tarantino have expressed that opinion after making films so deeply insightful about human nature?
It's not unlike a question Molly Ringwald asked recently in The New Yorker about John Hughes--how could Hughes write so insightfully about teenagers and also indulge in humour that clashes with modern morality? Taking for a moment the assumption that modern morality is right and one should never joke about the things Hughes joked about, the answer is that before there was John Hughes there was no John Hughes. Certainly one could trace influences in his work--American Graffiti, certainly, among other films--but part of the burden of saying things that have never been said before, the real risk taking that makes a good artist, is that you have no blueprint. Something that seems totally wrong can end up extraordinarily right and vice versa. Partly I'd say this is why Tarantino was willing to follow a ridiculous line of thought, the other part is that I think he was influenced by a lot of talk going around at the time in the industry about Polanski where people seemed eager to think of some way the man could be exonerated. His victim had forgiven him--and even as recently as a couple days ago she seemed to be commiserating with Polanski as she criticised the AMPAS for expelling him. But I believed in 2003 as I believe now--if a man commits rape, he has to go to jail, no matter what the victim or anyone else said afterwards. If nothing else, that would set up a horrible precedent that could very easily be exploited.
But here's the thing a lot of people miss when talking about Tarantino's interview; this wasn't some backroom recording that was leaked. This was something that was broadcast nationally on The Howard Stern Show, at that time a terrestrial radio show whose ratings, even if they had declined in the aftermath of Stern's divorce, were colossal, so much so that when Stern later had 30 million listeners on satellite radio it was considered a drop. At the very least, millions of people heard Tarantino make those comments, made up their own minds about it, and still went to see his movies. There's a new generation of adults but most of those millions of people aren't dead. So that's why I don't think the interview will significantly hurt Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Instead I think it'll suffer because film is no longer in an era that supports movies like that, particularly ones with sizeable budgets. A big, splashy, revenge superhero film? Sure. But there's a reason Hateful 8 didn't do as well as Django Unchained--audiences are more willing to jump in with a character whose integrity and motives are easily apprehensible, someone we can root for when they turn someone into a bloody pulp, believing the fantasy that there are situations where that's not, at least, a morally complicated thing to do. The compromised Western hero or the true film noir anti-hero is a harder pill to swallow because it forces us to think about how complicated people truly are. On the other hand, there did seem to be an audience for that on television up until a couple years ago. So I guess, to quote Michael Madsen in Kill Bill, we'll just see.