Keepin' It Real

Jackie Brown
area theaters, starts Thursday

QUENTIN TARANTINO opens Jackie Brown with a shot of the titular flight attendant taking a slow ride on an airport conveyor belt--an obvious homage to The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman. Hello darkness my old friend, I've come to talk with you again. Except that the song in this case is a slice of blaxploitation funk by Bobby Womack; the star is Pam Grier, queen of the black Bs; and the title, Jackie Brown, literally unfurls across the screen as in an early-'70s AIP schlocker, complete with indecipherable fine print at the bottom. So is this just another round of connoisseur kitsch from the man who turned the Amerindie into an open-all-night thrift store? The flight attendant arrives at her departure gate and begins taking tickets, while Tarantino's camera stops to give her a long hard look. Jackie Brown seems to have something heavier on her mind than that groovy funk tune--and so does her maker.

This is surely to the detriment of soundtrack sales, not to mention Tarantino's standing with those who'd rather rent Keys to Tulsa than whatever obscure object of desire the former video-store clerk has been keeping in his own VCR. Jackie Brown's local promo screening found a sizable portion of the audience reaching for their coats at the first (false) hint of closure; and it seems fair to assume that the director whose motto is "I am the audience" intended this reaction precisely. The most self-conscious of the '90s tapehead auteurs, Tarantino had to know that his third feature would force him to choose between cineastes and multiplexers, Method-actor big shots and the film-crit intelligensia. In a recent New York Times Magazine profile, he posed the question rhetorically: "Am I going to listen to J. Hoberman or Robert De Niro?" Why, the latter, of course--or maybe not. In the same article, Tarantino directs our attention to a pair of cult curios that beg for inclusion in any film snob's canon: the proto-blaxploitationer Hickey & Boggs and Peter Bogdanovich's artfully interminable They All Laughed, both designated "influences" on the new film.

But if Jackie Brown finds its maker still rummaging through the cut-out bins and tending to the irony culture, its method of scaling back the pulp seems both a stylistic stretch and a firm rebuttal of the Tarantinoesque. At times intriguingly snail-paced (and, at others, off-puttingly so), the film takes its own sweet time to introduce the cast of Elmore Leonard characters: Grier's world-weary Jackie; a smooth L.A. arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson) for whom she transports cash and coke; his near-mute partner (De Niro) and stoner-chick girlfriend (Bridget Fonda); a pair of cops (Michael Keaton, Michael Bowen) who catch Jackie with a bag full of goods; and the instantly smitten bail bondsman (Robert Forster) to whom she turns. Predicated on the slow-burn double- and triple-crosses between these money-grubbing low-lifes, Jackie Brown puts the brakes on the speed-freak nihilism that suffused Tarantino's first two nail-biters. Still, the repartee is familiarly brisk, with this early line from Jackson establishing the jive-ass rhythm: "Who's that big Mandingo nigga you got wit' choo in that picture over there?"

Yup, still more "nigga" shit. Still, although the director has predictably confessed to seeing himself in Jackson's superfly Ordell Robbie, Jackie Brown deals a bit differently with the race fetishization of his other work. Ordell admits to tolerating Fonda's bikini-clad conniver only because she's a white girl (a revelation that plays more like blunt misogyny than equal-opportunity exploitation), while Tarantino's real alter-ego here seems to be Forster's Max Cherry--an aspiring hipster whose instant crush on Jackie is almost too good to be true, and whose subsequent purchase of her favorite Delfonics album brings to mind the auteur's own habit of cultural appropriation.

Or is that true love? Just as the film works hard to justify a central casting choice that has appeared suspicious to some, Max yearns to express his genuine feelings for Jackie. "Is white guilt supposed to make me forget I'm running a business?" Max inquires near the start--but by the end he's ready to drop everything and follow his passion clear across the border. Ditto Tarantino.

Nevertheless, both Jackie and Grier manage to stay tough and independent throughout, which seems a credit to both the actress and her director. Jackie Brown is never more compelling than when it cedes the screen to Grier's powerfully dignified deadpan; her fierce soliloquy about the fear of losing a $16K airline job transcends both blaxploitation and the Tarantino oeuvre. Where the oppressed tough guys of Reservoir Dogs riffed on whether Grier had played the lead in TV's Get Christie Love (she didn't), Jackie Brown isn't nearly so cool. The film's tender final shot--the one that so many preview-going Tarantino fans didn't bother to watch--allows Jackie the freedom to exit her own star vehicle, bound for some place where no genre can hold her down.

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