not in our stars, but in ourselves
As you all know, I’m a fraud. There are so many gaps in my cinematic knowledge (and in the rest of my knowledge, too) that I wonder if I should return my two degrees to their respective institutions. No film scholar am I – only a fan. An enthusiastic one, at that, but just a fan.
Despite my interest in the film, and despite being a big fan of Quentin Tarantino in general, I had not seen Jackie Brown until earlier this week. I knew I’d like it. I knew it would be great. I knew, because I’ve seen and loved most of his other movies (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, both the Kill Bills, Django Unchained, and especially Inglourious Basterds – which I have seen approximately 1500 times); and because Pam Grier is the original badass motherfucker, and Tarantino wrote this movie for her. What took me so long? Well, you know, I’m just no good as a human being or as a cinephile. There. I said it.
All self-flagellation aside, I have seen Jackie Brown. And I love Jackie Brown. It’s about a 44-year-old flight attendant, Jackie (Grier), who works for a crummy little airline that goes from Mexico to LAX every day. Once upon a time, she worked for bigger airlines – but she was arrested when she aided and abetted her pilot boyfriend smuggling. She managed to have the charges dropped, but no respectable airline would take her after that. Cabo Air was the only game left in town. In order to make ends meet, she works as a courier for Odell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (the ATF for short) has its eye on him, since he’s a big-shot (ha!) gun dealer on the black market; therefore, he relies on couriers like Jackie to bring him his money from Mexico. ATF Agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and LAPD Detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) pull her aside when she returns from Mexico. They find a substantial amount of cash – as well as a small amount of cocaine. She’s thrown into jail, and Odell contacts bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to get her out. It’s something like love at first sight for Max – and can you blame him?
The rest of the movie revolves around what might be called Jackie’s revenge: she knows that Odell is as ruthless as he is possessive, and that he won’t hesitate to take her out if he feels she might be a liability. He would never abide her getting out of his racket, either, even if she could afford to do so. She therefore decides to beat him at his own game. Using everyone’s misconceptions of her temperament, her intentions, and her loyalties – those misconceptions that she’s abided by all her life – as her greatest weapon, Jackie Brown goes from being the lowest of the low on the totem pole (middle-aged black woman with no family or job security) to the queen she’s been all along.
Of course, there’s one person she can’t fool, and she doesn’t try. Max sees her for just who and what she is, and even if he’s besotted with her, he knows she’s a shrewd operator. This is, I think, a nice little inversion of the way it usually works in movie romances: the steadfast, true-hearted female romantic interest sees just how special and wondrous strange her big strong man is, and contents herself with doing anything and everything to help him do whatever he wants – even if it means he leaves her. In Jackie Brown, it’s Max who plays the true-hearted romantic interest usually coded as “feminine,” and it’s Jackie who’s the mover and shaker. That’s not to say that Max isn’t a tough son-of-a-gun himself, or that Jackie isn’t A Whole Lotta Woman. They’re all that, too. It’s just so lovely and refreshing for a mainstream movie to flip those roles, and to give us a female lead who’s badass and interesting and beautiful and vulnerable and no-bullshit – and then to give her a man who sees all of that, and adores her, and listens to the Delfonics (her favorite group) while he drives around and thinks about her with a moony look in his eye. This dynamic is rare enough in American film – and especially American films directed by white men, which is to say most of them – that I simply have to savor it every time it comes along.
If I were the type to offer looney-bin interpretations of movies – and you know I’m not, but just for argument’s sake – I’d say that Tarantino sees himself very much as a Max Cherry type. That is to say, he admires and worships and loves Pam Grier. Whether she’s a hot young thing in the 1970s, kicking ass as Coffy and Foxy Brown, or working as a Cabo Air hostess in the 1990s, he is quite clearly nuts about her. It’s not the kind of immediate, erotic, urgent love that some directors and stars have shared. This isn’t Dietrich and Sternberg – or, for that matter, Thurman and Tarantino. It’s quieter, less insistent, longer-lasting: something to warm him (whether the “him” in question is Max or QT) during cold and lonely nights. He loves everything about the way she looks, obviously, but he loves her mind and her soul too. Again – this kind of real love in movies is a rare thing, so please forgive me for getting carried away with it.
As you might have guessed from all of the above, one of the things that impressed me most about Jackie Brown was how goshdarn sweet it is. There have been times when Tarantino has included some really touching stuff amidst all the shooting and mayhem in his other works, but I found myself absolutely charmed throughout all two and a half hours of Jackie Brown. Perhaps this is because, for a Tarantino film, there’s not nearly as much carnage as usual. I mean, don’t get me wrong. People die. People get shot. But it’s all done in a sort of old-school, un-graphic way; and furthermore, Jackie is such a compelling character with such a relatable predicament (gun and money smuggling aside) that I was really just rooting for her to get the money and the guy in the end, for her to get whatever she wanted.
There are obvious trappings of blaxploitation movies in every layer of Jackie Brown, from the star to the score, but I don’t really know enough about the genre to comment on any other similarities. Apart from having seen Black Dynamite, a ludicrously fun modern blaxploitation flick, I am basically unfamiliar with them. Tarantino has said that it’s not a blaxploitation movie, anyway, and he would know. It seemed to me a pretty good example of a film noir: a sort of down-on-her luck, ordinary person finds herself in Hell all of a sudden. There’s even a sort of parallel to the Martha Vickers character in The Big Sleep in Melanie (Bridget Fonda), Odell’s stoner surfer girlfriend. You can say what you want about Tarantino, but you can’t say he’s not an enthusiastic film fan. (As well as a great writer of female roles: even though Melanie is a small, side character, she’s not just some two-dimensional floozy. One imagines her origin story was probably similar to that of Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, née Dolores Haze, and one feels a pang of sadness at the thought.)
I think part of the reason it took me so long to get around to seeing Jackie Brown, my personal deficiencies aside, is that it’s just not as hyped as the rest of Tarantino’s filmography. It’s too quiet, too tender, to induce the same kind of visceral reaction as his bloodier films. Too bad for everyone else. I’ve got a second-favorite now. (First is Inglourious Basterds. I know you were about to ask.) It may not have the impressive set-pieces of the Kill Bill movies, or the tricksy structure of Pulp Fiction, but it has sass and heart to spare – and I just love it.