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Tarantino's Angst 

Jackie Brown and its worried-man blues

Thursday, Aug 5 2010
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A film built around ticking clocks, perhaps it's fitting that Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown today plays as a time capsule — but of which time? Dialogue indicates it's set in 1995, a date with which the lax LAX airport security, baroque beeper dialing instructions and scene set in Sam Goody would seem to be of a piece. But within the confines of relative realism (this may be the least cartoonish film to which Tarantino has signed his name), the writer/director plays with temporal and factual detail. The shopping complex that serves as the stage for the film's central action is introduced with a title card: "Del Amo Mall — the largest indoor mall in the world." In reality, the Del Amo Fashion Center (it was renamed in 1981) surrendered its bragging rights to the Mall of America in 1992. With this overstatement, Jackie's food-court chain smoking (which would have been outlawed by the statewide smoking ban of January 1995) and the invention of a department store called Billingsley to house the central caper, the filmmaker incorporates this real L.A. location into his own unmistakable body of myth.

As Jackie Brown hops and skips around rarely filmed parts of Los Angeles, creating a sort of cracked star map of highly specific, less-than-starry locales — Carson, Compton, Hawthorne, "two blocks up from Hollywood and Western" — the Del Amo Fashion Center is transformed into a bright and gleaming blank screen for Tarantino's projections. Friday night, the parking lot of the nearby Proud Bird restaurant will play host to a literal blank screen, for a Tarantino-introed projection of Jackie Brown. It's the first stop on this year's Rolling Roadshow Tour, a traveling production organized by the folks behind Austin's Alamo Drafthouse, which mounts outdoor screenings of modern classic films at the locations where they were made. (On Sunday, the tour moves to the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield for a screening of There Will Be Blood.)

Released on the final weekend of 1997, Jackie Brown was so hotly anticipated, it was all but destined to underwhelm. Making the world wait three years for his feature-length directorial follow-up to the phenomenally successful Pulp Fiction, Tarantino spent the interim trying even the truest fan's patience with talk-show and tabl­oid antics ("I scrutinized photos of Tarantino and Mira Sorvino and decided that he didn't deserve a woman so completely adorable," admitted critic David Edelstein in Slate), and vanity misfires (in his one-star review of Destiny Turns on the Radio, Roger Ebert pejoratively dismissed director-turned-actor Tarantino as the "Flavor of the Year"). Released during the same holiday (and Oscar) season as Titanic, even a give-'em-what-they-want Pulp sequel would have had a tough time fighting the end of the century's designated mass movie phenomenon for pop culture supremacy.

click to enlarge "Your ass used to be beautiful." Jackie Brown
  • "Your ass used to be beautiful." Jackie Brown

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And Jackie Brown hardly qualified as fan service. Tarantino's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch superficially scanned as a nod to '70s blaxploitation, most blatantly in source cues like Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street," and the transformation of the titular Jackie from Leonard's blonde into Pam Grier — Foxy Brown herself — as a "44-year-old black woman" (as though that repeatedly used five-word phrase tells us everything about where she's been and where she's going). But Tarantino used his trademark pastiche to smuggle something much less sexy to the screen: a deliberate, withholding, bittersweet film about age.

Down on her luck after a divorce and previous run-ins with the law, Grier's Jackie supplements her paltry stewardess income by smuggling cash from the Mexican stash of Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell, a drug dealer–turned-gunrunner saving up a nut so he can retire early and "spend the rest of my life spending." Nabbed by the feds carrying Ordell's cash, Jackie sees a last shot to use her natural assets to her advantage, and seizes it, easily coercing smitten bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster, Oscar-nominated for the role) into helping her play both the cops and the crooks for fools. "I wasn't using you," Jackie tells Max in the end. He seems happy to have been useful.

In Jackie Brown, the old "one last score" banality is recharged by the ugly truth of ordinary mortality. Movie gangsters die young and spectacularly, frozen forever with flat bellies and perfect, wrinkle-free faces. These ne'er-do-wells — Jackie, Ordell and Robert DeNiro's stony ex-con Louis — managed to outlive that end, only to be faced with something much scarier: Instead of dying before they get old, they might have to get old before they die. "What the fuck happened to you, man?" Ordell asks Louis after an epic fuckup. "Your ass used to be beautiful." Jackie's ass, by all accounts, still is beautiful (Max even approves of its expanding size: "Ain't nothing wrong with that!"), but her anxiety over time infects her every thought, word and move. Even something as simple as serving Max coffee turns into a loaded lament: "The milk went bad when I was in jail." Criticized by critics for its pace and paucity of one-liners ("Each scene is staged methodically, overdeliberately, as if it concealed some payoff zinger," complained Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, "but the zingers don't arrive."), Jackie Brown replaces the snappy sound-bite quotability of Tarantino's earlier efforts with an urgent anxiety. Almost every scene is charged with each character's awareness of their impending expiration date, which creates high stakes — in this world, tête-à-têtes usually come down to, as Ordell puts it after murdering a colleague, "a clear-cut case of him or me."

Exploring the emotional pitfalls of middle age, even if through the eyes of lowlifes, was an unexpected move for the then–34-year-old wunderkind, and even critics who were more or less friendly to Tarantino's project couldn't resist calling his lack of life experience into question. The Weekly's own Ella Taylor concluded that Brown was "a noble failure ... less from a deficit in filmmaking than a deficit in living ... thus far Tarantino has spent his life either hermetically sealed in movies or hermetically sealed in celebrity." But I wonder if, for all of his cockiness, Tarantino wasn't all too conscious that his own time as "Flavor of the Year" would soon run out. It's possible that the filmmaker brought something more personal than his love for blaxploitation into his only fully adapted script to date.

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