This is my third time revisiting Jackie Brown within the past year and up until then I had only seen it once. When I saw that Jackie Brown was being showcased on “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, I already knew which shot I would choose, and it’s one I expect to pop up on several posts. But before that, a few words on Quentin Tarantino’s third feature film, on his 50th birthday. His follow-up to the game-changing Pulp Fiction commonly gets the ‘overlooked’ label, so much so that it seems to be shedding some of its underrated skin. But then I look at the free-for-all praise heaped upon last year’s Django Unchained and I think to myself, Jackie Brown may be commonly considered a great film, but compared to the hyperbole generously thrown about in regards to his latest, I’d say ‘Jackie’ still goes wildly underappreciated, at least comparatively speaking. It’s the kind of filmmaking I’d like to see him get back to at some point. It’s the last time he’s made a non-revenge centric film. Think about that. But I digress.
Jackie Brown is wound-down intimate Tarantino through and through, a rare beast indeed compared to his now par-for-the-course hyper-kinetic ultra-violent pastiche. His patient table-setting, frequently attempting to break records for sustained tension, exists in its infancy here. Sure, there’s tension, but it’s all about the relaxed feel, a stealth mellowness that digs itself into his top-notch rhythms of character and beats of dialogue. He lets the whole film breathe, even casually repeating music cues with an uncommon ease. It’s filled with two-person scenes that juggle forward-motion and exploring developing idiosyncratic dynamics, vying for our favoritism. I can’t figure out whose scenes I look forward to more; Jackie and Max, Louis and Melanie, Ordell and Louis? The list goes on. The film stands out within his filmography. It’s one-of-a-kind, dealing in weathered average folks beaten down by life or dealing in low-level comparatively low-stakes crime. And it handles violence and romance with care and surprising maturity. There’s also a healthy dose of dark humor; the scene where Louis tells Ordell he shot Melanie might be the funniest scene he’s ever done. That scene momentarily turns the film into a fucked-up screwball comedy. Basically, there’s a lot to love in Jackie Brown and it’s one of my favorites from QT.
Of course, of course, I’m picking the opening moving walkway shot. At first, knowing others would write about it, and surely more observantly, I sought to find another shot. There are plenty of other choices, and I looked at shots that illustrated the way violence is handled, or that showcase my favorite performance in the film, Robert De Niro as clueless schlub Louis. But I just keep coming back to that opening dazzler. And I just can’t resist choosing it.
It’s almost as if Pam Grier is bringing those LAX walls to colorful life. As Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” glides and struts into our ears, a sort of anthem for Jackie, enter Pam Grier. Jackie Brown is in essence a tribute to Grier, that female vigilante icon of Blaxploitation, and right off the bat we’re given an opportunity to bask in her presence. Profile shot, bold blue stewardess garb as iconic identifier, fixed expression, unmoving statuesque body language. Take a good look because we won’t see her again for another thirty minutes. In another minute, towards the end of the sequence, she’ll be running and rushing in a hurry to get to work on time. But in this moment, this shot, she is a noble representation of the everywoman just trying to get by.
Speaking of Blaxploitation, Tarantino uses this opening shot to establish his total reworking of the genre with his film. Tarantino does Blaxploitation?! Oh, the possibilities! Well, I’ve never seen this as his take on Blaxploitation, but rather a reworked homage, fusing the former, via exalting its reigning female icon, with a grubby crime noir tale. Take the opening of Foxy Brown as a direct contrast to the opening of Jackie Brown.
In the Foxy Brown intro, we focus on lips, eyes, breasts and silhouette, frozen and unfrozen in time, in space, in various contrasting colors. She faces the camera, winks at us and dances for us. She even multiplies! Like Roger Vadim objectifying Jane Fonda for Barbarella, the” Hit Me With Your Best Shot” pick from two weeks ago, so Jack Hill does for Pam Grier. With Jackie Brown, there’s an immediate subversion of expectations, a subdued but different minded celebration of Grier. Where the Foxy Brown opening was all about movement and close-ups, kaleidoscopic images upon kaleidoscopic images that repeat and enlarge and switch up every second, Jackie Brown’s credits are only a handful of shots, all of her going somewhere. She doesn’t have time to boogie down for us; she’s got to earn a living. Also, notice the yellow font Tarantino lifted.
But Jackie does have time to stand frozen on the moving sidewalk for us, if only momentarily, resembling that famous opening image from The Graduate. In each, the direction the characters face is not what we’re used to; right to left instead of left to right. It’s as if they’re drifting backwards while facing forward.
Where Foxy Brown celebrates Grier’s body, youth and spunk, Tarantino celebrates Grier as a rediscovered remnant, somehow more beautiful with age. I mean remnant only in the sense that she’s lived life and has some years under her belt. Isn’t it nice to see a middle-aged black woman getting the lead in a major motion picture? It’s sad that in 2013, the 1997 Jackie Brown sticks out as a rare showcase for this, but it’s the sad truth. In its first moment, we see an African-American woman in full possession of herself appreciated and worshiped by the camera in this shot and throughout the film. No objectification here; it’s been replaced with the blind reverence of a deity. In case blind reverence also sounds like problematic gender-biased oversimplification, rest assured. Tarantino’s worship comes mainly in the form of a gift to Grier; the gift of a fully realized character like Jackie.
For a final thought, Tarantino also couples this opening shot of Jackie’s coasting complacency and juxtaposes it with this one (pictured above) later in the film. Jackie is on her way to the drop-off point, once again with the camera moving right to left with Jackie on the right side of the screen. Except this time, she’s moving. She has determinative agency and things are looking up. Even the color on the wall matches her blue stewardess outfit.