Tarantino: Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown opens with the most buoyant and beautiful sequence in Tarantino’s career to date – a sequence that plays like the film itself captured in microcosm. We start with the first top-billed screen appearance of Pam Grier in over a decade, standing on a moving walkway in flight attendant gear, as Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” starts to play. At first, Grier is an object of veneration, the still point in a moving world, but as the credits get to the end of actors, she starts to move herself, stepping off the walkway and into a trajectory that will take her all the way to the checkout counter where she works. The scrutiny of her face and body continues as she moves through security, but from this point on the camera starts to move with her – first, as she strides through one of the main terminals of LAX, and then as she starts to run to arrive at the gate on time, keeping pace with a United airplane that is docking in the distance. During all of these shots, Tarantino opts for either side-on or front-on framing, eluding any clear sense of spatial depth in the manner of his two earlier films. As the song peaks, though, the camera pulls away and follows Grier as she curves around to reach the checkout counter, taking in a vast spiral swathe of space that regathers and settles once she arrives and boards the first customer.
This beautiful sequence speaks volumes about the scope and ambition of Jackie Brown, and the way it departs from the style of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Both of those films favoured paranoic monologues delivered in tightly controlled, shallow-focus spaces. On the few occasions when the action branched out into a more dynamic kind of space, the conversation was compressed even further to compensate for it, as in the frantic driving scenes that punctuate Pulp Fiction or the flashbacks of Reservoir Dogs. At the start of Jackie Brown, however, Tarantino permits himself to indulge in a more distended and lyrical sense of space, driven by the presence of Grier’s body, and the depth of her acting career. At the same time, however, this opening sequence suggests that Jackie Brown will turn a more thoughtful and probing eye on the Blaxploitation influences that drive Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, both of which try to fuse blackspeak and Tarantino’s screenwriting style into an unkempt and often unconvincing naturalism. By contrast, the opening scene of Jackie Brown makes no pretence to a “natural” integration of Blaxploitation into the present, setting Grier and Womack against the anonymous and deterretorialised backdrop of LAX. In doing so, Tarantino sets the stage for a film that often queries how the streets of Blaxploitation – the streets of “Across 100th Street” and “Street Life” – look amidst the postmodern architecture of malls and airports, along with the postmodern architecture of Tarantino’s own film style.
This opening sequence is all the more striking in that Tarantino immediately cuts to a condensed and intensified version of the toxic masculinity that drives Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. In fact, the first half hour of Jackie Brown often plays as a schematic version of both those films, as Tarantino whittles and refines down his earlier, uneasy alliance with Blaxploitation before bringing Grier in as a corrective and counterpoint. This scheme is driven by three key characters, the first of which is Ordell Robbie, a gun smuggler played by Samuel L. Jackson. Much as Jackson would play the archetype of the “house negro” in Django Unchained, here he plays the archetype of the pimp as it often existed in Blaxploitation, exuding entitlement, misogyny and ultra-masculinity at every turn. His sidekick is Louis Gara, a messy, scrappy, abject ex-con played by a tattooed, paunchy and slobbery Robert De Niro, who is cast against type here in the role of the slacker-stoner. Putting in one of the most diminutive performances of his career, De Niro embodies the white masculinity so often emasculated by black machismo in Tarantino’s first two releases.
The first part of Jackie Brown charts the uneasy alliance between these two characters, using it to reflect upon the uneasy alliance between Tarantino himself and the Blaxploitation heritage he draws upon in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. De Niro is brilliant at embodying exhaustion of white gangster tropes from the 70s to the 90s, while Jackson takes his role right to the brink of caricature while never quite allowing us to dismiss his performance as a mere pastiche either. These two very different characters broker a connection via Melanie Ralston, played by Bridget Fonda, who is one of Odell’s girlfriends, but who also sleeps with Louis later in the film. For the first couple of minutes we don’t see Melanie’s face as she serves the two men drinks, clad in a bikini and fake tan, allowing her feminine presence to be partly deflected into “Chicks Who Love Guns,” the television series that they are both watching on television. Most of the conversation between Odell and Louis revolves around guns, while they only permit Melanie to intrude occasionally, suggesting a cinematic universe in which women can only have a voice when they are an incentive to – or a surrogate for – the phallic monologues that Tarantino has made his own.
The contrast to the opening sequence is all the more striking in that Tarantino doubles down on the shallow framing and paranoic spatiality of his first two features. In fact, the first thirty minutes of Jackie Brown plays like an effort to intensity and exhaust that paranoia, from the hyper-phallic imagery of Odell’s gun trade, to the most frequent appearance of the word “nigger” in Tarantino’s oeuvre to date. Throughout Pulp Fiction, Tarantino often presented this word, in and of itself, as a way of escaping the constrictions of cinematic pastiche, especially as they pertained to depictions of white masculinity, partly because of the alternative blaxploitation history that the word “nigger” connotes – a history too raw and recent for pastiche – but also because the word is designed to offend precisely those liberal audiences who Tarantino sees as blithely encouraging and consuming pastiche in the first place. In the first act of Jackie Brown, it’s even clearer that Tarantino loves writing black people riffing with each other, producing a weird and cringey combination of broad Blaxploitation strokes with his own cinephilic-pedantic style of screenwriting. The only time that Odell and Louis break their banter about guns and sex, for example, is to debate whether a whiter-than-white figure on television is Rutger Hauer or Helmut Berger.
This opening part of Jackie Brown presents the 90s as a direct continuation of the 70s, rather than the hyperactive, all-encompassing pastiche of Pulp Fiction, and culminates with Odell giving Louis the biggest compliment he can receive in Tarantino’s world, by addressing him convivially as “my nigger.” With this fraternal fantasy enacted, Tarantino shifts back to Jackie Brown, played by Grier, as she is stopped Ray Nicolette, an ATF agent played by Michael Keaton. We might be in the LAX carpark, rather than on the city streets of the 70s, but this is still an old-fashioned shakedown, and Jackie knows it, agreeing to go undercover for Ray, and help nail Odell, to avoid being convicted of a minor infringement. From the outset, Jackie is scrutinised by both Ray and the camera – or the camera is aligned with Ray’s scrutiny, following her in tandem with him for the first shot of this sequence. Yet Jackie, and Grier, also defy scrutiny, exuding a breathless, lyrical, cinematic presence that Tarantino’s camera seems powerless to fully shape or control. Oozing charisma that defies Tarantino in the same way that she defies Ray, Grier allows Tarantino’s film style to really breathe for the first time, exuding a deftness and dexterity that cuts across his hyperactivity.
This shift in tone is particularly clear at the level of dialogue. Like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the first half hour of Jackie Brown doesn’t really have dialogue – just a series of overlapping monologues punctuated by the minimal interaction needed for the speakers to continue functioning in proximity to one another. Nevertheless, the pretence of conversation, and the fantasy of a conversation between Blaxploitation tropes and Tarantino’s own style, is necessary to sustain these sequences, and prevent the characters feeling too atomized or solipsistic – or to keep the illusion that they are characters in the first place, rather than places where Tarantino’s own monologues are rehearsed and performed. From the moment Jackie appears, however, she defies this illusion of conversation, exuding an apprehension of space and bodies that always corresponds with the deepest and richest funk grooves, making it exceptionally hard for other people – especially white men – to simply approach and appropriate her. Unlike Melanie, Jackie refuses to allow black and white masculinity to converge around the fetish of her body, which means that her very presence denies the fantasy that drives the film in the first place.
Wherever she goes, and especially during the most visceral or violent sequences, Grier thus radiates a hush and calm that is quite unlike anything else in Tarantino’s career to date, with the exception of the the opening scenes in “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife.” In response, Tarantino tends to focus on her in close-up, and in shots that elide other speakers from the frame, or else to dissociate and dislocate the authority of other speakers as they try to direct and contain her. This feeds, in turn, into the deftness and dexterity with which Jackie negotiates spaces and situations in the film itself, since she moves with the same mercurial softness with which Tarantino’s shots fade in and out whenever her face comes into the picture, whether as an image in itself or as a focus of the narrative architecture built around it. Her first assertive moment with Odell actually takes place as series of diegetic fades that she uses to her own advantage, as the lighting in her house quietly flickers on and off during a power surge, plunging them both into periodic darkness as she waits to strike.
For that reason, Brown’s character, and Grier’s presence, transforms the entire spatial field of Jackie Brown, and of Tarantino’s career up to this point. In “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” Mia’s presence enabled a similar spatial expansion, from the surveillance footage in her house, to first tracking-shot of Pulp Fiction, which occurs when Vincent arrives, to the panoramic postmodern pastiche of the restaurant where she and Vincent go for burgers and milkshakes. However, Grier and Jackie have a much more dramatic impact here, especially once Jackie takes on the role of director within the story, and starts consciously organising and orchestrating its spaces around a heist that is built upon Odell’s gun trading, but also designed to put Odell, and his pimp lifestyle, out of her life for good.
This heist expands the postmodern space of LAX out into the Del Amo Mall, introduced by Tarantino in an intertitle as the “largest mall in America.” Most of the second half of Jackie Brown sees Jackie and a variety of other characters scoping out this mall, by way of the most expansive, buoyant and lyrical spatial exercise in Tarantino’s entire career, replete with multiple dollies, tracking shots and Steadicam sequences. While this heist is considerably more complex and tightly-plotted than either Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, Tarantino draws less attention to it, sinking us into a dreamy and distended sense of time, full of close-ups and fades, and always set to the ambient backdrop of mall music. At first, he cuts regularly and rapidly away from these immersive mall sequences, as if tentative about integrating them into his style, but they bloom into a beautiful and plangent third act, in which Jackie and her ally Max Cherry, a bondsman played by Max Cherry, managed to deceive every other character in the film, and come away with the fruits of the operation.
During this third act, the funk score really comes into its own, but only in bursts, and only in counterpoint to the mall music. Heists were often set to funk music in the 70s, since both tend to be ensemble experiences, so this musical choice is partly a matter of cinematic quotation. By juxtaposing it with the ambient music, however, Tarantino seems to be trying to wrest that ensemble experience out of the peak postmodern mall, which in turn becomes synonymous with the pastiche and hyperreality that has haunted his career from the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. In a breathtaking sequence, the most transcendent moment in Randy Crawford’s “Street Life” – the pause just before the chorus resumes for the final time – occurs as Jackie pauses on the cusp of the mall before the heist gets underway. At this spectacular moment, the film yearns to broker some connection between black street life and white mall life, searching for a way to envisage how the lush public spheres of Blaxploitation might look now that the mall – especially this mall, the largest in the United States – has started to colonise and internalise the urban streets of an older era.
Our realisation that the end-point of the heist is Jackie’s escape by air further fuses LAX and the Del Camo Mall into a single, Steadicam, circumfluid space. Light years past the shallow focus and paranoid framing of his earlier films, Tarantino now evokes multiple planes and conceptions of space overlapping, especially in the different trajectories that converge on Jackie recovering a shopping bag from a changing room, since this turns out to be the epicentre of the heist. In one version of this scene, shot from Cherry’s perspective, we see Jackie calmly walk away from the dressing room, shopping bag in hand. Yet in another version, this time from Jackie’s perspective, the camera follows her closely, through the empty space surveilled by Cherry, swirling around her at the checkout counter before falling her back to the cusp of the mall, and to that transcendent moment in Crawford’s “Street Life,” in what is still the most bravura, beautiful tracking-shot of Tarantino’s entire oeuvre.
This final mall sequence completely undercuts the triumvirate of Odell, Louis and Melanie that opens the film, and the appropriation of black machismo that their triangulation represents, so it’s perhaps not surprising that all three of these characters are defied by the Del Amo Mall as well. First, Louis gets lost in the mall, and then lost in the carpark, before killing Melanie in a rage when she mocks him for it, only for his car to almost break down before he can exit the carpark, and make his way back to the street. Just as Melanie’s face is elided at the start of the film, we never see her body here, or discover what really happens to her, after Louis fires a couple of shots at her in the parking lot. Upon hearing of how the mall has defied Louis, Odell then shoots him in turn, before leaving the body, and the car, in a location where he can be easily pinned for the crime. This, in turn, leads to the last part of the film, in which Jackie and Cherry set up Odell to take the fall when cornered by the ATF.
Unlike Reservoir Dogs, then, Jackie Brown details a successful heist. Whereas the third act of the heist in Reservoir Dogs is traumatic, abject and centripetal in its rhythm and momentum, the third act of Jackie Brown sees Jackie take control of the postmodern spaces that have defied Tarantino up to this point in his career, and prompted the paranoic monologues that comprise so much of his style. Yet the most important difference between Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown is that a black character is now in the action, rather than just directing it as Tarantino’s surrogate, as occurs with the character of Holdaway, who sets up and manages the central component of the heist in Reservoir Dogs. With the toxic Blaxploitation trio of Odell, Louis and Melanie clinically disposed of, and the arrogance of Ray and the ATF thwarted, Jackie and Cherry share a transcendent final scene in which toxic masculinity – both white and black, and their convergence – are finally out of the picture.
Yet this final pairing can’t possibly be, since it risks reducing Jackie, once again, to a fetish for white male fantasies of authenticity. Grier has never been more radiant than she is here, but that radiance comes from the Casablanca-like prescience that she and Cherry must part, and that he can’t possibly follow her to Spain, where she plans to start a new life. In fact, the two characters already feel like they’re on separate trajectories at this point – with her white and denim outfit, and her breezy body language, Jackie already seems to be reclining in front of the Mediterranean, while Cherry has a kind of displaced melancholy, an awareness that Jackie has already gone before she finally leaves. After a Bogart-and-Bacall kiss, and as Jackie walks out the door, it feels a bit like Tarantino is letting go of his own desire to pass for black here too, especially since Cherry loses a bit of masculinity with the departure, but doesn’t need to paranoically compensate for it. While he has lipstick left on his lips, he feels no need to wipe it off as he goes back to resume his business – the last image we see of him before the film returns to Jackie for its sublime, sustained final shot.
Given the way the heist played out, it might be logical to expect that the film will return to LAX, but we never get there. Instead, Tarantino holds a long shot of Jackie in the car, poised at a mercurial facial expression that gradually, but provisionally, coalesces around her mouthing the words to “Across 110th Street.” Jettisoned from the specific events of the film, and shot in tight close-up, Grier is here comingled with her own star presence, driving on down the road for what finally feels like a line of flight from Blaxploitation as much as a tribute to it. In her presence and person, the film glimpses a black nationalist pride that might be dissociated both from the pimp machismo of the 70s, and the gangsta machismo that was peaking just as Jackie Brown was released. Trying to escape the pimp while staying true to the spirit of Blaxploitation, and trying to frame Grier without containing her, this is the most beautiful shot in Tarantino’s career – the shot that matured him as a thinker and auteur, while also – paradoxically – allowing him to finally indulge in some silliness, or concede some of the silliness of his own cinematic style, with Kill Bill Vol.1, six years later.
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