The Projectionist film series not only highlights the under-seen and rare relics of cinema, but also casts light on more popular selections.  In this entry, Michael Votto discusses Quentin Tarantino’s career while isolating Jackie Brown as its focus, a film that has been pushed aside within Tarantino’s filmography to make room for analysis of Pulp Fiction and his newest entry, Inglourious Basterds.

Originality or Homage?

Quentin Tarantino is always reviled as the greatest 90’s independent cinema innovator, though most of his film rely heavily on influence.  It is true that nothing is truly original in art, but when it comes to Tarantino, he is often cited for bringing a fresh new perspective to the 90’s film aesthetic despite bringing only storyline to the table when making his films.  When one looks at his first commercial work, Reservoir Dogs, a seasoned film scholar can recognize the off-the-cuff violent surrealism of Sam Peckinpah.  In his “masterpiece” Pulp Fiction, the non-sensationalized violence evokes the spirit of early Martin Scorsese while his accusatory camera heralds to Scorsese’s Goodfellas.  It can be argued that his epic Kill Bill films are almost completely homage, as they are practically just a 1970 ultra-violent samurai flicks, all the while Tarantino photographs the film like a spaghetti western in the vein of Sergio Leone.  Even in his writing and producing credits, Tarantino is always looking to recreate the past, as he tried his shot at the action-horror style of Sam Raimi films in From Dusk Til’ Dawn, as well as Eli Roth’s pseudo-exploitation flick Hostel, which has its roots in the films of Ruggero Deodato and the Japanese Guinea Pig series.

Though with his 1997 follow-up to Pulp Fiction, audiences and critics were under whelmed by his jab at the blaxploitation genre in Jackie Brown.  While the critical and box office response wasn’t as pure as Pulp’s, Tarantino’s third film is arguably his most personal and successful.  Jackie Brown is a perfect representation of what Tarantino can accomplish with just the spirit of influence, as opposed to using it as a crutch.  While the pop culture references are present in Brown, they do not overwhelm the picture to the point that you are recognizing and getting involved in the homage.  This change of pace on Tarantino’s behalf makes this film a far-better viewing experience, as it strives to not just recreate favorite moments from the director’s most coveted pictures of his past, but to inject a 90’s sensibility into a genre that has since gone the way of the Dodo.

Across 110th Street and Into The 90’s

The blaxploitation genre popular in the 1970’s serves as the jumping off point for the film, but mainly because of its lead actress, Pam Grier – the quintessential female genre star.  The story itself does not adhere to the high ridiculous intrigue of blaxploitation flicks like Coffy or Superfly, as the plot of the film seems to be nothing more than a backdrop for a fantastic character study.  The three elements of the film that are most affected by these references are the inception of the idea within the script, the production style of the picture, and the critical reception of the film following its release.  The influences on Jackie Brown are many, but they are either self-reflexive of the actors or serve as a jumping off point for Quentin Tarantino to explore his themes of redemption within the comfortable idea of a genre he loves so much.

When you break down the influences of popular culture on Jackie Brown, you are brought back to a group of films from the mid-70’s that are known as blaxploitation flicks.  According to Gary Morris of the Bright Lights Film Journal, the films characterized as “blaxploitation” were originally born out of “old pastiches of old Warner Brothers melodramas”, only this time they were tinged with a feel of the street from the perspective of the African-American community.  The films often featured plots dealing with sex and drugs, Caucasian villains, overzealous costuming, and typically coarse language.  Another seminal element of the blaxploitation genre is the emphasis on the film’s soundtrack, which some times would consist of one band or artist creating the score for the picture.  The genre was rooted in the idea that the African-American community was not being respected within the Hollywood film industry, and that the Afro-American film audience was not tapped by the same studios that defiled the black race with films like Birth of a Nation and The Music Man.  The forefather of the blaxploitation movement was a one-time director of studio-fare dealing with race relations in a comedic light: Melvin Van Peebles.  The first true Blaxploitation is often cited as Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which dealt with a man saving a member of the Black Panthers from a group of racist law enforcement agents.  The themes of white versus black, prostitution, drug use, and a soundtrack by the famous funk/soul band Earth Wind and Fire, making it one of the best examples of a blaxploitation film.

Jackie Brown deals with similar themes but in a more restrained fashion, unlike most of Tarantino’s catalogue.  The film revolves around our female hero, Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), a stewardess who is running money between Mexico and Los Angeles for a middle-level arms dealer named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson).  She is soon caught by two ATF agents (Michael Bowen and Michael Keaton) and what unravels is a low-level intrigue over the modest cinematic sum of $500,000.  All these elements are slight representations of the same themes used in films like Coffy and Foxy Brown, but Tarantino’s use of these themes in such a limited capacity ground the film in his penchant for 90’s realism.  The drugs aren’t as dramatic or large as in Coffy, where a twelve-year-old is addicted to heroin, and the money isn’t as abundant as in Foxy Brown, where our hero guns to bring down a greedy judge in bed with drug dealers.

Tarantino The Innovator Emerges

Where Jackie Brown differs from another Tarantino film like Kill Bill, is that Tarantino doesn’t inflate the genre he is emulating.  In Kill Bill the over-influence is evident from the first bloody fight in the suburban household, but in Jackie Brown, we see the film’s obvious influence in the title sequence, and from then on there is rarely a moment that seems to overtly reference the blaxploitation genre.  By incorporating very little within the film that screams 1970’s, the film becomes reflective of Tarantino’s own work.  For example, when Ordell tries to convince Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) to get inside the trunk of his Cadillac so they can intimidate some supposed Korean gun buyers.  This shot frames the two from the perspective of the trunk, a shot that is often reused in Tarantino films, most famously during the opening scene of the Jules and Vincent episode in Pulp Fiction.  While its initial use in Fiction highlights Tarantino’s expertly-written dialogue, its implementation in Jackie Brown is used to symbolize the imminent violence that Ordell will use against Beaumont.

The character influences in Brown are expert, and the pride of Quentin Tarantino’s small film.  The casting of Pam Grier as Jackie Brown was the only logical step in the advent of the screenplay, and probably the only thing that stirred Tarantino to complete his work.  Pam Grier brings an amount of nostalgia to the role, as even with her advanced age, she is still recognizable as the famous blaxploitation icon of the past.  He also uses her age to show the reflex of the way the genre has aged, and how it has been forgotten, immortalized in Brown through “Max, how do you feel about getting old?”, uttered by Jackie to Max Cherry (Robert Forster).  Tarantino doesn’t try to make her the slick, cold killer like the characters that made her famous, but instead shows the vulnerability that wasn’t present as the heroic lead of film like Black Mama, White Mama.  Writing in this element of fear, the director attempts to rewrite her roles in her past films.  He attempts to recreate the overdrawn buxom action heroes of her past, using Jackie Brown to expose the hidden apprehension and anxiety within the films of the past.  This can be attributed as both a way for Tarantino to draw much-needed respect to these perceivably hokey films of the past, and also as a way for him to redraw the history of the blaxploitation film.  Tarantino even blatantly references Grier’s past with Jackson’s references to her overt sexuality during their conversation at the bar, and Forster remarking that she must’ve had look the same at 29 with the exception of “an afro”, which was her signature hairstyle during Grier’s heyday.  In a way, Tarantino realizes through the character of Jackie Brown that one can never replicate the past, even having her utter the line, “I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with. I’ll be stuck with whatever I can get.”  Tarantino appears to be using Grier as a mirror to his plight as a director who is afraid to abandon influence.  Grier had a difficult time finding lead roles following the demise of blaxploitation, which can also be seen as a possible influence on this element of her character.

In a more self-reflexive look at his own films, Tarantino’s drawing of Jackson’s Ordell character is a way of reflecting Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction, Jules.  While Pulp deals with perceivably successful criminals at the top of the underworld food chain, and Jackie Brown deals with low-level cash-mules and gun runners.  Jackson’s character in Pulp is the personification of cool and success, while his character in Brown embodies a limited amount of power and ultimate failure.  In a post-modern film landscape, there is no sense of how long it must be before someone dissects a past culture, and in the case of Tarantino, he is definitely, as Kracauer characterizes, a “son of his time”.  With the character of Ordell Robbie, Tarantino has a profound connection with his arsenal of characters he has created in the past, and already felt in 1997 that he mustn’t keep producing the same fictional people.  He is very much aware that the story of Jackie Brown deals with failure and fear of collapse, an facet of life that wasn’t being approached during the years that Jackie Brown was being produced.  The American life during the mid-90’s was quite content with the internet boom and a steady financial outlook, and the American dream seemed very much in hand.  On the other hand, the blaxploitation genre was born out of racial strife, the Vietnam War, and a generally bleak outlook on the American landscape.  Brown is more socially aware than any of his other works, and Tarantino’s methodology at the time represents a responsible post-modern, present-interest in his culture and how it differs from the culture that birthed the blaxploitation film genre.

The Delicate Balancing Act That Is Jackie Brown

The form of the screenplay of Jackie Brown is very much different than Quentin Tarantino’s previous films.  His film is in the form of a classic blaxploitation film, as it was loosely adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 70’s crime novel Rum Punch, but instead of the grittiness of prostitution and drug-dealing, we are treated to a story about aging and catastrophe. Also, Tarantino drops the component of non-linear storytelling, a cornerstone of both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  Doing this freed Tarantino from the constraints of making this film about completing the storyline of every character, something that seemed to slow down the purpose of his previous films.  Within the editing of the film, we discover sly, and perhaps the only “blatant”, references to the actual form of the blaxploitation film.  Split-screen and inter-cut dissolves crop up throughout the running time, crucial characteristics of late blaxploitation flicks.  Finally, Tarantino gets the idea of its relationship with the blaxploitation genre out of the way with just the credit sequence, which integrates a very seventies-esque title reveal.  The colors in this opening bit – the blues, yellows, reds – are very much tied to the bright nature of the genre he is emulating, but it stops there, as a hyperactive environment would take away from its obviously serious present-interest story.

There is an element within the postmodern theory that says that films of their nature must not be completely indifferent to the past nor be limited by time, a thought popularized in the realm of cinema’s mix with Pop by Annie Friedberg in her work “Looking Backward – An Introduction to the Concept of ‘Post'”.  This should also include the aspect of pop culture and its history, such as the songs featured throughout Jackie Brown.  The music in the Brown soundtrack is taken from several past blaxploitation films, as well as songs that fit the category of funk and soul.  Tarantino is always precise in his choice of music within his films, and the music tends to have an amount of popular relevance within the culture he is striving to recreate.  According to Laurence Boyce, choosing this music brings a alternate perspective to the work through the ears of knowledgeable viewers, therefore enhancing the narrative and pulling the audience deeper into the world Tarantino is attempting to revise.  While in his other films, music is only used to enhance the aesthetic picture of each scene, but in Jackie Brown in acts as a link between the characters, especially “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind?” by the Delfonics.  The use of songs like this in Brown helps illustrate the cultural relationships between sight, sound, and history.  Tarantino’s deviation from his common method in this film elevates it to a level of post-modernity not achieved by Pulp Fiction, as it fleshes out Tarantino’s intention to explain his theory about the blaxploitation and his penchant for 70’s cinema.  All of these elements feed into the director’s theory that underneath the swagger and urban pomp of this genre, which is often its demise in its strive for legitimacy, beats the heart of classic cinema.  Beneath it all there is a great treasure of our culture that Tarantino decided he would unearth and legitimize within a current culture that prided itself on looking to the past for inspiration.

Jackie Brown Drowns In A Sea of Expectations

Jackie Brown wasn’t the best received film in Quentin Tarantino’s arsenal, as it is the lowest rated of his films at 82% on the website RottenTomatoes.com.  Film critics from the New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, and others have described the film as “sluggish” and that it wastes its extended running time on “small talk”.  It is humorous that while they label Jackie Brown as a slow, meandering piece of dreck, the film is almost identical in dialogue and pace to the critical favorite Pulp FictionBrown inadvertently shows that even with a better story and a more polished set of characters, those in our culture only want Tarantino for his fast-talking dialogue and extreme violence.  In essence, the film’s critical reception helps support the theory of the culture built by films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction: that if films of the 90’s and later are going to participate in pastiche, it must be of film’s of a violent nature.  If one exams the trends of films in recent memory, it started with independent cinema artists engaging in homage of their favorite directors, like Quentin Tarantino with his love for Martin Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson who has always exhibited a desire to make films in the vein of Jonathan Demme and Robert Altman.  This trend included recreating old genres, like blaxploitation with Jackie Brown and even 50’s schlock with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.  In recent history, we’ve seen an influx of horrific remakes of already horrific horror films like Dawn of the Dead and The Hills Have Eyes, so it appears that the natural death of pastiche is ultimately remaking a film completely.  Jackie Brown aspired to halt the rolling stone of this theory by trying to make the audience focus on not the pop culture references, but why they exist in their capacity within the picture.  Unfortunately, in his attempt to kill the creature he created, this new narrative for this Tarantino-esque film culture was dismissed and probably is the reason Quentin Tarantino fell back on his crutch of using old genres as his sole purpose for creating a film.

Following the good-but-not-so-good reaction to Jackie Brown, Tarantino appeared seemingly too lazy to compile another worthy script, as his work immediately after the release of Brown were simple re-imaginings of his favorite films.  Kill Bill: Volumes One and Two lacked a sense of purpose or necessity, yet the film community embraced both, mainly due to the kinetic style of the filmmaking, which really was just piecing together action sequences from Shogun Assassin and The Wild Bunch.  Then came Grindhouse, completed with his more adventurous friend Robert Rodriguez: a throwback to the exploitation horror films of the 1970’s, even interspersed with faux trailers for fictional exploitation films.  Tarantino side-stepped pastiche and in the process created a culture of not rediscovery, but of mockery.  There no longer needs to be a purpose for a homage, it just needs to simply exist.  Like Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the film community needs to ask itself if all of this work is truly necessary.  Of course, Tarantino crafted his masterpiece with Inglourious Basterds, a film that married pastiche with an elevated sense of story construction that didn’t rely on ultra-violence but instead on tension.  This film remains an anomaly for the time being, and we’ll eagerly anticipate Django Unchained to see if Tarantino can rekindle some of the same magic that came along with Basterds.

Quentin Tarantino’s work during the 1990’s is not meant to be dismissed – that would be irresponsible, but the film community needs recognize his first two films as empty commercials for the films by other directors.  Jackie Brown, and to an extent Inglourious Basterds, are prime examples of Tarantino as a master of the post-modern, not Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction.  Tarantino uses the genre of blaxploitation to setup the cultural background for the audience before they experience the film, and then reels them into a story that actually strives to say something about a then present culture.  The late-90’s in America was a frightening time in retrospect because it was, on some levels, all success and no repercussions.  Jackie Brown was the trojan horse of American post-modern cinema – a creature of our own creation tried to shake the core of our cinematic community.  It’s unfortunate that we did not listen.

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