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The Brattle Theatre's cleverly curated "Sunshine Noir" series — culling the best of crime dramas transplanted out of the shadows into the warm California sun — is a gift to local moviegoers for many reasons. For starters the programming provides context, and if so inclined you can spend this coming weekend tracing the cinematic DNA of addled, counterculture gumshoe heroes from Joaquin Phoenix's Doc Sportello in last year's "Inherent Vice," to Jeff Bridges' immortal "Big Lebowski" Dude, all the way back to the great granddaddy of them all: Elliott Gould's anachronistic hepcat Phillip Marlowe in Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye."
Another thing a series like this can do is prime a picture for rediscovery, allowing you to see an older movie with new eyes, free from preconceived notions that may have dogged it during the original release. This is helpful, as I must admit I was a little perplexed the first time I saw Thursday's closing night attraction, “Jackie Brown.”
See, I was sophomore at NYU Film School when “Pulp Fiction” had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, an event that famously caused fainting spells, and for movie nerds of that era was roughly akin to Elvis shaking his hips on the Ed Sullivan show. Quentin Tarantino, like so many of us at the time, was a video store clerk who gorged on cinema culture both high and low, holding Jean Luc-Godard and Sonny Chiba in equal regard. The grindhouse met the art-house in Tarantino’s cheerfully democratic universe; rotgut exploitation movie tropes served up with elegant, French New Wave flourishes. “Pulp Fiction” played in first-run theaters for seven months. It was all we talked about for a year.
To call Tarantino’s follow-up, “Jackie Brown,” hotly anticipated would be a ridiculous understatement. (Remember that antediluvian pre-Internet movie hype cycle, when you’d have to pore over magazines on newsstands searching for snippets of information, keeping your fingers crossed at theaters hoping you might see a trailer? That was me.) So on opening day, Christmas 1997, I patiently waited for the family festivities to subside to a point where I could quietly sneak out for a late show of “Jackie Brown,” scoring some well-deserved side-eye in the process. (My priorities have never been great.)
But then instead of the smirky, ultraviolent adrenaline-shot-to-the-heart “Pulp” euphoria I’d so feverishly anticipated, here was a melancholy ramble about small-time sad-sacks talking in circles while sitting around crappy apartments and malls for more than two and a half hours. I didn’t know what to make of it, and mine wasn’t an unpopular opinion.
“Jackie Brown” opened to lukewarm critical reception. (Siskel and Ebert were big boosters, but most everybody else just complained about the length.) It earned under $40 million at the U.S. box office — a respectable number, given the $12 million budget, but a fraction of “Pulp Fiction’s” blockbuster grosses. “Jackie Brown” was gone from theaters in a few weeks instead of months, and then everybody went right back to talking about Paul Thomas Anderson, who’d just swiped Tarantino’s hotshot wunderkind throne after “Boogie Nights” had followed in “Pulp Fiction’s” footsteps and blown the doors off 1997’s New York Film Festival.
Tarantino, who’d been a ubiquitous and rather annoying fixture on the talk-show and celebrity cameo circuit, abruptly disappeared from the public eye. He didn’t make another movie for six years. There were rumors of depression and drugs. “Jackie Brown’s” DVD release was delayed half-a-decade until 2002, for reasons never properly explained. In the meantime, the movie’s reputation became something of a write-off. Though technically not a failure, it was perceived as one. Critic Stanley Kauffman brutally wrote in The New Republic: “It’s the flat, self-exposing dud that fate often keeps in store for the initially overpraised.”
I had a different experience, heading back to the theater about a week after it had opened, I think because my dad wanted to see it. Freed from my expectations of the Tarantino roller-coaster everybody was expecting, on second viewing I was able to see “Jackie Brown” for the movie it is, instead of the movie I’d wanted it to be. It’s slow, it’s sad and it’s very funny in ways that don’t really revolve around punchlines. This is the oldest movie ever made by a 34-year-old man, but I don’t mean that as a pejorative. It’s about characters who have been around the block one too many times and they’re exhausted, full of dreams deferred, just trying to scrape by.
Tarantino actually teaches you how to watch “Jackie Brown” during the opening credits, which are initially content to regard former Blaxploitation movie goddess Pam Grier as the title character, gliding along the LAX people-mover made famous by “The Graduate” (and recently on “Mad Men”) to the tune of Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street.” A national treasure, Grier still looks amazing, and the movie invites you to just sit there and drink in her regal visage with Womack’s slow groove — biorhythmically chilling out the audience into the proper mood. Then Jackie realizes she’s late for work, and the song climaxes with Grier scrambling to check boarding passes at the gate of the most low-rent airline at the far end of the airport. He’s just put an icon on a pedestal, and then dragged her back down to Earth.
Jackie’s in trouble. She’s been supplementing her minuscule stewardess salary smuggling cash for small-time gun-runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Now she’s being badgered by two hilariously alpha-male Feds (Michaels Bowen and Keaton, all swagger) who are trying to put the squeeze on Jackie, forcing her to set up her employer in a money-grab sting operation.
But anybody who has ever seen a Pam Grier movie knows that nobody pushes Pam Grier around. So with the help of her rumpled, lovesick, seen-it-all bail-bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster, in a performance so far beyond great it approaches Zen), Jackie Brown fashions a way to play all of the players and walk away with a shopping bag full of hundred dollar bills. This takes some time, and a lot of talking.
Despite changing the name and the race of our main character, “Jackie Brown” is otherwise a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel, “Rum Punch.” The collaboration is simpatico on a molecular level, as both writers are madly in love with the sound of their characters’ voices, allowing these folks great expanses in which to talk themselves into doing dastardly deeds, and it’s tough sometimes to tell who wrote which line. I’d wager the only significant difference between them is that Leonard always had a deep well of empathy for his doomed losers, making “Jackie Brown” the most soulful, least flippant Quentin Tarantino movie by several measures of order. (Really, who do you care about more: the Vega brothers or Jackie and Max?)
For once not shooting in widescreen, Tarantino typically keeps the frame tight on his character’s faces. Ordell’s gang, which includes washed-up surfer gal Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and addled ex-con Louis (Robert De Niro) are never photographed as a unified team. Everybody’s got their own agenda, each trying to find an out, and they’re all filmed like stars of their own movies.
Fonda is fairly heartbreaking as an over-the-hill trophy gal who never learned how to support herself beyond cozying up to the right rich guy. But it’s De Niro’s work here, so stunningly precise, that continues to amaze. Truly institutionalized after too many years in prison and usually stoned, he can’t ever seem to focus on what’s going on in any given scene, getting all tangled up with the complexities of newfangled car keys and phone cords. He’s a pathetic mess, but also deadly if you catch him in the wrong mood.
Elmore Leonard novels read like screenplays, but they’re notoriously tricky to adapt for the screen because his criminals are (like most criminals) stupid dumbbells that he plays as figures of fun, until the time comes when they aren’t anymore. You can count on one hand the Leonard adaptations (like “Jackie,” “Out Of Sight” or TV’s dearly departed “Justified”) that got this particular formula right.
In keeping with the minor-league nature of these particular criminals, “Jackie Brown” was reportedly all shot within 20 minutes of LAX, in the lower-class South Bay area of Los Angeles where Tarantino grew up. It’s a tacky L.A. we never get to see in movies, all crummy apartments, faulty door-buzzers and sparse storefronts between parking lots, where the Del Amo Mall feels like an oasis. It’s grubby-looking for a Hollywood movie — everybody’s car is old, the fashions are off-the-rack and most of these folks are overdue for a haircut.
The plot hinges upon missed calls from landlines, long-winded answering machine messages and beepers, plus it’s chock-full of indoor cigarette smoking. Characters spend so much time listening to cassette tapes in their cars, it becomes a running gag when songs pick up right where they left off after turning the ignition key.
Quentin Tarantino’s reputation is for narrative audacity and outrageous violence, but I’ve always felt his strongest suit is social observation, picking away at weird customs of human behavior. (Think of the tipping discussion in “Reservoir Dogs,” or “Pulp Fiction’s” great foot massage debate.) “Jackie Brown” is all behavior, with the exceedingly generous running time allowing us to live with these characters in ways that make them feel more real than any others in his oeuvre. “You can’t trust Melanie,” Jackson’s Ordell says with a sly smile late in the film, “but you can always trust Melanie to be Melanie.” By then we know her well enough to understand exactly what he means.
On my way out of the theater after that fateful second viewing, I was gobsmacked by just how mature the movie felt, and I rather foolishly predicted that Tarantino’s next film wouldn’t contain any violence at all. (Yeah, I was a little off on that one.) Maybe because of the movie’s mixed reception, the filmmaker has since retreated entirely into a cartoon world of his own imagination. “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” have their moments, I’m a little queasy about his attempts to wring juvenile wish-fulfillment fantasies out of historical atrocity. As I get older, Tarantino’s bratty effrontery has begun to grate on my nerves and I don’t find myself re-watching even his early films all that often anymore.
But I keep coming back to “Jackie Brown” once a year or so, looking forward to spending time with these characters again as I would a reunion with old friends. As the director’s work become more outrageously gross and stylized, it stands out as the gentle, humanist anomaly in his filmography — the kind of movie he never tried making again, much to our loss. “Jackie Brown” is Tarantino’s “American Graffiti.”
The Brattle Theatre’s Sunshine Noir series runs from June 5-11. “Jackie Brown” closes the series on Thursday, June 11.
Over the past 16 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at splicedpersonality.com.