Jackie Brown (1997)

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*. When it comes to movies that allude to other movies, do you prefer subtle borrowings, or grand theft cinema? Quentin Tarantino: “I steal from every single movie ever made. I love it – if my work has anything it’s that I’m taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together. If people don’t like that, then tough titty, don’t go and see it, alright? I steal from everything. Great artists steal; they don’t do homages.”
*. I wonder if Tarantino was consciously reworking T. S. Eliot here, with his line about how “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” I doubt it, as Tarantino’s pilferings are the result of his being a fan, which is a kind of anti-maturity.
*. The point being, does allusion (homage, stealing, revisiting, whatever) ever reach a point where it becomes self-defeating? Does it even become, in David Denby’s take on the Coen brothers approach to the gangster genre in Miller’s Crossing, offensive in its knowingness?
*. I raise this subject only because of the opening shot of Jackie Brown, which has the eponymous heroine being conveyed by escalator through an air terminal. And we think, as we are supposed to think, of the opening of The Graduate (1967). But once you’ve made that connection, then what? Does the reference mean anything? Is Jackie a survivor of that era? The dates for Pam Grier’s stardom — Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974) — aren’t far off.

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*. It seemed, for a moment, as though Tarantino was growing up. Critics and audiences, however, didn’t respond with the same enthusiasm as they showed for Pulp Fiction and Tarantino quickly turned his attention elsewhere. Perhaps working from another author’s source material (Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch) mellowed him. Or perhaps it was returning to a genre that was itself so mature. Was it a coincidence that the same year this movie came out also saw the release of Donne Brasco, another story about an aging gangster dreaming of retirement? Even Ordell here is planning to get out of the game and calculating how much money he’s going to need to live on.
*. Speaking of retirement, have Jackie and Ordell done a proper accounting? In 1995 (the year the film’s set in) was $500,000 a lot of money? It seems woefully inadequate for a comfortable retirement today.
*. I like Jackie Brown, but it’s a movie that is easy to like without getting too excited about. That’s because it’s a modest movie. The violence is toned way down, often occurring off screen. The characters, aside from Ordell, talk a little slower. Indeed, Robert De Niro’s Louis is barely capable of speech at all (and what a wonderful way of doing something new with De Niro by casting him in such a role).
*. It isn’t an action film. The plot is basically a long set-up for a bait-and-switch grab. The music is mellow. Even the romance between Jackie (a woman in her forties) and Max (a man in his fifties) is restrained. They kiss good-bye, but not passionately.

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*. Roger Ebert remarked in his review that “everybody in the movie is smart” but this isn’t true. Louis, Ebert later observes, is “ingratiatingly stupid.” Bridget Fonda, smooth and moist in vernal heat, is a trippy stoner. Michael Keaton is a crotch-grabbing (that is, his own crotch) wannabe tough guy who is trying to act smart, but not always succeeding.
*. I think the point Ebert wants to make is that not everybody in the movie is a total idiot. They do spend time thinking, which is something you don’t see people doing a lot of in any movie. This is part of what makes it a more mature movie, and more modest in its effects.

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*. I’ve mentioned before how we sometimes mishear or misremember lines of dialogue from films. This struck me again here. In the scene where Ordell kills Louis he says immediately afterward: “Her ass used to be beautiful.” I guess this is meant as a eulogy to his surfer girl Melanie, who Louis has just shot. But it seems odd that Ordell would say her ass used to be beautiful in such a context, since that’s not something you say about someone who just died. It also seems odd that he’d say this to Louis, who is (a) dead and (b) unlikely to care even if he were alive. Anyway, when I first saw the film I thought the line was addressed to Louis and what Ordell was saying was that “Your ass used to be beautiful.” I didn’t think this meant that Ordell was gay (though Jackson does play this up a bit with his swinging hips, man purse, and ponytail), but rather I saw it as a way of Ordell indicating to Louis that he had let him down by making such a total hash of things.
*. Personally, I think that saying “Your ass used to be beautiful” to a guy you just shot is a better line.
*. Pam Grier and Robert Forster got a lot of praise for their parts. I think people were just happy to see them again. At least they are at least very well cast. Forster has Max Cherry’s automatic delivery, born of a job that is a weary routine of formalities, down perfect. And Grier, with a slant mouth being all that remains of a snarl, is both tired and resilient. I don’t feel much chemistry between them, but maybe they’re past all that.

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*. I find Jackson’s ridiculous chin hair (I can’t call it a beard) distracting, in part because I’d never seen anything like it before this film. But he plays the part well: a criminal who thinks he’s just a bit smarter and tougher than he really is. I also really like how he gets progressively colder as the film goes on, until at the end he has almost become a reptile.
*. This was it for Tarantino. Things went downhill fast as he lost all interest in modesty and maturity and settled into a long string of juvenile, comic book nonsense. I’m not sure he was even involved in an interesting movie after this, and he had his fingers in many pies. What went wrong? I don’t know. But for a while there in the early ’90s he really was very good. His ass used to be . . . you know.

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