Tuesday, March 2, 2010
They Don't Eat Dinner Until Midnight
Not too long ago a close friend of mine jokingly asked, “So, how’s daytime TV these days?” The thing is, and any number of people could confirm this, I had much more enforced exposure to that stuff when I was working at my place of employment. Now that it’s no longer the case I can revel in the freedom to shut the set off and not be exposed to any of that crap. Sure, I've watched a handful of movies in the middle of the afternoon, especially during rainy days, not to mention continually looking at stuff as I write pieces on them but that’s about it. If I’m watching TV during the day, it’s because it’s a movie. No other reason so the set’s usually off. Still, that mood of it being 2:30 in the afternoon and you’re just drifting through the day, nowhere to go, no desire to go anywhere, the feeling that maybe it wouldn’t so bad to just watch another movie…yeah, I feel that way sometimes. Featuring characters who do exactly that on occasion, JACKIE BROWN really is a good hangout movie for that time of day, capturing a lot of things just right but one of them is just the lazy feel of doing nothing in the middle of the afternoon, maybe watching Marisa Mell movies on TV (definitely preferable to the daytime TV options around today), waiting for that time when you suddenly have to rush out the door into the harsh world once again. Somehow I suspect that Quentin Tarantino has spent a few of these lazy afternoons himself. Even the most grounded, responsible character in the whole thing seems to prefer knocking off work for a few hours to catch a movie and maybe it says something that the one person who really is committed to his job is the one who also makes the least of an impression.
Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel RUM PUNCH, the reputation that Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN acquired on its release has vacillated between the somewhat underwhelming response it first received to the general feeling that it shows a more ‘mature’ side of the director than we’d seen before or since—how much this level of ‘maturity’ has to do with the quality of any film will have to remain open to debate. It opened on Christmas Day, 1997 in the thick of the holiday rush at the time and I wonder if part of the initial response comes from the somewhat meandering feel of the first half-hour or so, something that goes beyond just being slow. There’s not a bad scene to speak of, a moment that I’m not engaged by, but there’s nevertheless something that feels off which even watching it now keeps me from fully locking into the film. Maybe it’s the rhythm of the thing, but I don’t feel it genuinely begin to come fully alive until Robert Forster in his first scene locks eyes with Samuel L. Jackson and flatly states “They do consider this a violation of his probation.” And I don’t fully connect with it on an emotional level until some time later when Pam Grier and Robert Forster first have a scene together, which is after all the heart of the film anyway--two actors whose careers peaked relatively early on and have been toiling away, if not in obscurity, than certainly without much notice. And in playing two characters who click almost instantly upon meeting it helps make what we’re watching very special. But either way it’s a film where the lead character, the one who it’s named after, doesn’t begin to play a role in the narrative until practically the half-hour mark so maybe there’s a pacing issue I can’t quite put my finger on that results in a vague dissatisfaction with the first part that feels like it’s not just an issue of length, like it wasn’t perfected in the editing somehow.
And though it’s long since stopped mattering at all, it was probably a mistake to release it at Christmas—or at least during that particularly crowded Christmas season (TITANIC, TOMORROW NEVER DIES, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, GOOD WILL HUNTING and that’s just for starters) and the more low-level energy that JACKIE BROWN has which gives it such a distinct tone may have been better served coming out during a quieter time of the year. Maybe it could have been marketed in a way that better prepared the audience for this pace more than just blaring “The new Q.T. flick!” and maybe this could have even resulted in greater acclaim than it received at the time—Robert Forster was the only Oscar nomination the film received. He lost to Robin Williams for GOOD WILL HUNTING which seems absurd but it’s just as ridiculous that Burt Reynolds lost for BOOGIE NIGHTS, so what are you gonna do? The performance, one of the very best seen on celluloid in the 90s, exists and that’s ultimately what matters.
There’s very little reason for me to recount the plot—hell, if you’re reading this then you’re no doubt already familiar with the story of 44 year-old Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), a stewardess who’s gotten in too deep with the law courtesy of associate and gun runner Ordell Robie (Samuel L. Jackson) so she figures out a way to try to get both Ordell and the law off her back with a little help from sympathetic bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster). Tarantino has said that part of his goal was to make his film a RIO BRAVO-type hangout movie which he winds up crossing with a certain 70s blaxploitation vibe, one that he obviously knows very well. But it’s done in a certain way that captures a vibe from those films that goes beyond simply making it an homage and comes off as nothing but totally sincere (which reminds me that both Grier and Forster were in Larry Cohen’s 1996 retro action movie ORIGINAL GANGSTAS, which I remember being pretty interesting but it’s been a while). He clearly doesn’t want to cast Pam Grier just because she’s cool (which she is, no doubt) but because he clearly loves her and everything she represents in her screen image. Considering how increasingly little interest Hollywood has in women of a certain age starting at 45, 40, 35, whatever and banshing them to crime procedurals on TNT at best, looking at how the film is built all around Grier as screen icon and actual person plays as downright rebellious.
As for the more mature approach, there is some truth to that, though it was always clear that some of the themes explored in RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION have a great deal more weight and depth to them than any of number of films released in their wake throughout the 90s. It almost feels like people just tacked the ‘mature’ tag on it without considering why beyond just the general impression of it being mostly about people in their 40s and 50s. The more I watch it the more it becomes clear as much as possible how he wanted to approach it totally as a 70s film in its aesthetic as possible for something set and shot during the 90s. He attempts this not in some goofy film-geek way but in a low-level technology kind of approach—the relaxed nature of the pacing as well as the framing, the only time he’s ever shot in 1:85 with excellent work by Guillermo Navarro, and a distinct lack of a reliance on technology either used in the film’s plot or in the actual production. And when what he’s doing is pulled off as skillfully as how we see the three separate looks at what happens during the money exchange, nothing else is needed. Many of the locations used also feel like they could have turned up in the sort of 70s action movie that used some hidden corner of Los Angeles County and never again since. He seems to know every corner of some of these buildings just as in his life he’s known the people that occupy them who, like his characters, may also have felt rundown and used up by a certain point in their lives. By treating them with such humanity and, yes, maturity, it’s like he’s honoring any number of these people who he once knew and who he imagines deserve to live forever in this 70s world of hanging out with friends at bars like the Cockatoo Inn, a place which has incidentally been torn down since the film shot there. This overriding feel of how Tarantino seems to know this corner of the world like no other place, like how you remain haunted by parts of the town you grew up in, makes me wish that Tarantino had made one or two other films in this area between this and KILL BILL in a similarly stripped-down manner. But maybe he felt that he put all he had to say about the place into this one and the ending could almost be looked at as a farewell to it all and, for that matter, to that youth.
The cast is amazing down to the smallest gestures and watching the film now over ten years after it was made (it’s specifically set in 1995 for reasons that have always eluded me) it’s hard not to think about how special it is to see all these people as their writer/director provides some of them with the most loving close-ups of their careers, giving us the chance to see just how great they can be. Everyone is great here, even the bit players down to every single bartender and salesgirl we see. And the way they all play off each other adds to it as well--You can see Jackson reacting to Forster in their initial scenes together as if both the actor and character are taking pleasure in the realization that this guy isn’t going to be just a pushover. This silent piece of business pays off when he comments on how Max Cherry has the Delfonics playing in his tape deck. Whether Ordell realizes at this point that Cherry loves Jackie or if he just thinks he likes the music either way it feels like he’s earned his respect—Forster’s “They’re pretty good” speaks volumes.
But much of the emotional pull is provided by Grier and Forster either in scenes together or when we know they’re thinking about the other—each of them emerge from their tangential presence in the early goings to take charge of the narrative, to remind us of what we’re missing thanks to a Hollywood who doesn’t care to give people like this decent parts anymore. The film is like one last great chance to see some of these people at their best. Samuel L. Jackson always works, yes, but Robert De Niro has imploded into lame comedies and seemingly low-stress gigs almost as if playing the slowly building rage of Louis Gara sucked some kind of life out of him. Bridget Fonda, turning up the volume on “Midnight Confessions” and bizarrely underappreciated for this role with some beautiful giant close-ups, has seemingly retired and Michael Keaton only seems to emerge on occasion from wherever he is. (As a side note, Keaton has some very strong moments, particularly when he and Grier muse about pocketing some of the money, but his character doesn’t resonate very much probably because, unlike everyone else, his character is just doing his job. This whole scheme isn’t everything for him.) Grier and Forster have continually worked through the years afterward in both movies and TV—Grier had actually been working fairly steadily through the years even before this but for Robert Forster what happened was almost akin to returning from the dead and I particularly recommend DIAMOND MEN, a small film that he starred in just a few years later. Though they definitely got a career boost from this, the parts they probably deserved weren’t really around for them to get the chance to do anything with, another reason this film is so special.
For Tarantino, JACKIE BROWN marks an ongoing evolution of him melding his films and narrative into ways that become increasingly a comment on the type of genre they are supposed to be a part of. Beyond just the songs he uses to make up a cool soundtrack he also uses songs from other movies (“Street Life” from SHARKY’S MACHINE, “Across 110th Street” from, of course, ACROSS 110TH STREET and even a piece from Jess Franco’s VAMPYROS LESBOS) and he also for the first time uses score from other movies, like Roy Ayers tracks from COFFY, heard in all their mono glory as if he’s scoring not just his own version of one of these blaxploitation movies, but the ultimate version that he always was seeing in his head while growing up when he was killing time while watching any number of movies in the middle of the afternoon and hiding away from the world. And it stars the one and only Pam Friggin’ Grier, maybe looking more beautiful than ever before (and yeah, she does look pretty damn cool in that suit she buys).
Usually pretty cagey about these things in interviews, the degree that JACKIE BROWN seems to be personal for Tarantino is probably what people respond to—even if the film is about crime dealings, something you and I may never be involved with, the yearnings of the leads are something we can definitely relate to. The acknowledgement and fear of getting older, wondering what the hell happened in life (“Your ass used to be beautiful.”) and wondering how much we can ever break away from our rut. Maybe Tarantino feels like he pulled a fast one just as Jackie Brown does at the end and he’s also taken off from the South Bay for places where “they don’t eat dinner until midnight”--the way Forster says that line, it’s one of most romantic-sounding things I’ve ever heard. And I just want to say more than anything that the look he gives at the end as Pam Grier drives off kills me, it absolutely just kills me. The way Tarantino allows the shot to go out of focus at that point to give Max Cherry his privacy may have been the most loving, respectful gesture he’s ever shown to one of his characters. The whole film doesn’t rise to that level, but at its very best JACKIE BROWN plays just beautifully and certainly holds up better than any number of other films that were released in 1997 to greater acclaim (TITANIC, TOMORROW NEVER DIES, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, GOOD WILL HUNTING and that’s just for starters).
When the surf track “Monte Carlo Nights” by Elliot Easton’s Tiki-Gods comes up midway through the end credits it doesn’t have much to do with the actual movie we just saw but connecting to how it appeared earlier when we see Max Cherry emerging from a movie in the middle of the day it functions as a sort of playout music as well as a reminder that, in the best James Bond style, “QUENTIN TARANTINO WILL RETURN”. It took a few more years for that to happen than we would have liked, but we were definitely rewarded for our patience and based on what INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS wound up being about as well as the recent news of his purchasing the New Beverly Tarantino’s love of film is as strong as ever. And if we’re lucky on some afternoon in the future when we want nothing more than to sneak off for a few hours, we’ll get even more from this director as he continues his ongoing quest to examine what the movies he loves mean to him and, for that matter, what they mean to us as well.