Cinemalphabet: J is for Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown, based on the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, tells the story of a half million smackers and the constellation of greedy, colorful characters who all want it. The titular Jackie Brown – played by the glorious Pam Grier – is a stewardess for a shitty airliner who moonlights as smuggler for the grandiose gun running thug Ordell Robbie, until federal agents – brilliantly played by Michaels Bowen and Keaton – pop her coming off her shift with a bunch of cash and bump of coke. Brown’s arrest brings her in contact with world weary bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster) who instantly falls in hearts with her. The moment where Max first sees Jackie is one of my faves in the film, mostly because Tarantino set that bad boy to Bloodstone’s backyard ‘cue slow jam, “Natural High. (I see you, Cuba Gooding Sr.)
Jackie Brown had me at, “Is that Rutger Hauer?”. And kept me with homages to many of my pop culture faves: Robert Forster, Coffy, the great cult actor Sid Haig, Pam Grier, Sharky’s Machine, Bobby Womack, Robert DeNiro and of course, in a tour-de-force performance – wait for it – Shoutin’ Sam L Jackson. When Ordell Robbie (Jackson) says to Lewis (Deniro), “You can play the radio, but don’t touch my levels cause I got ’em how I like ’em.” I nearly peed myself. The brief scene is so deliciously insular and hysterical it made me stand up and cheer. Jackson has so many incredible lines that shut down a scene. When Lewis receives a call from Ordell while Lewis enjoys a 60s girl group revue in the living room from the chunky, bedazzled mid aged Simone (Hattie Watson) I fell on the floor laughing and nearly choked when asked if he wants to come over, Odell says dryly, “Naw man, I done already caught that show.” It’s not simply the words, but Jackson just knows how to sell a freaking line. Deniro is fantastic as hapless Lewis and does everything with his facial expressions, which are priceless. Nothing says, “cinemagasm” like a scene involving a dude being lured into the trunk of a car with the promise of Roscoe’s Chicken-n-Waffles set to The Brothers Johnsons’ “Strawberry Letter 23”
I tend not to read a lot of feminist analysis of Tarantino, finding some of it to be a means of playing “gotcha” activism. It doesn’t mean I necessarily disagree with them on every point. However, I do tire of the way some feminist analysis of Tarantino squawk “misappropriation” reflexively. While it’s accurate to state that Tarantino’s – particularly in the case of Jackie Brown – work is interested in marginalized cultures, I don’t find it appropriative. It’s earnest appreciation not hipster irony. Jackie Brown, as played by Pam Grier, moves and talks like black women I know and am related to. She feels familiar and fully realized. The Los Angeles of Tarantino’s world is the Los Angeles I know – filled with all kinds of random characters who – thanks to the bananas zoning – filter in and out of each others’ lives from time to time. Jackie Brown hits up some of my old stomps like the Del Amo Mall and Roscoe’s Chicken-n-Waffles. I guess most of my issues with the way in which much of the feminist discourse surrounding Tarantino is the absence of any knowledge of cinema history or the ability to place QT’s work within a specific cinematic context and analyze from that perspective. It’s useful to know a lot about film, particularly obscure, genre or marginalized culture cinema in order to effectively analyze his works; that’s how come I like him so much. That said, you don’t have to be film buff to appreciate Jackie Brown; though it certainly does help.
The dialog in the film is some of the best. An example is this great exchange between Ordell and Jackie as she unveils her scheme:
Ordell: I don’t need any partners
Jackie: I’m not your partner; I’m your manager. And I’m managing to get your money out of Mexico.
I have always enjoyed Tarantino’s ability to make film dialog sound like natural speech. In real life, people don’t really talk that much or consistently that clever, but it works in his films because each character has a rhythm in their dialog that meshes well with other characters.
And the performances! Much has been made of the leads – Jackson, Grier and Forster – but the supporting players did the film a solid as well. Particularly, notable is Michael Bowan as Dargus. who along with a brilliantly cast Michael Keaton (who reprises his role in Out of Sight) as Nicholett, are the pair of feds who see Jackie as their ticket to take down Ordell. I hadn’t seen Bowen before and I don’t know much about his career, but I was taken by his pitch perfect portrayal of Dargas. Keaton is understated in his own weird way, which serves his overeager, wannabe edgy boy scout cop well. President Zeus shows up in a subtle role as Winston, Max Cherry’s associate and fishing buddy. Chris Tucker and Bridget Fonda give memorable performances as Beaumont and Melanie respectively.
If the performances, dialog and story weren’t already good enough, Jackie Brown features one of my favorite soundtracks. Boasting some great cuts like the aforementioned, “Strawberry Letter 23”, “Natural High”, “Across 110th Street” (swiped from the film of the same name), a cut from Johnny Cash, the leit motif “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time”, “Long Time Woman” by Jackie Brown herself…and the banging tribute/nod to my namesake Sharky’s Machine – “Street Life” by The Crusaders: