Camp David

CAMP DAVID OCTOBER 2010: HOW TARANTINO WASHED THE JAIL OUT OF PAM GRIER’S HAIR

By • Oct 5th, 2010 •

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The process of understanding much less appreciating a Quentin Tarantino film depends largely on which of his films you saw first. With me it was RESERVOIR DOGS, which became rather personal for me since one of its stars, Lawrence Tierney, was an on-again off-again house-guest, so I was on the ground floor with that film and Larry’s problems with Quentin which almost cost him his role in the film. Harvey Keitel saved the day by acting as a go-between since Larry had been on the film too long for Quentin to fire him without costing the production dearly.

I have only been in Tarantino’s company once and that was at a screening of Mario Bava’s NIGHT IS THE PHANTOM (also known by the far more intriguing title THE WHIP AND THE BODY). He arrived at Producer’s Studios with his then-amorata Mira Sorvino in tow and sat down right beside me. As the house lights dimmed I was treated to a live audio commentary on the film and Bava’s oeuvre for the duration of the running time. Tarantino was always a film geek when it came to cinema and its history; his legend was that of a video clerk whose sadistic fantasies became reality when, unlike most video clerks you encounter, he also happened to be a genius–not to mention one of the most original directors since Cassavetes.

After the success of PULP FICTION most of the naysayers in Hollywood were of the mind this young Turk was a two-hit wonder, soon to be working at a Blockbuster near you. However, all that was about to change after a period of inactivity with the release of JACKIE BROWN. This was to be his homage to 70’s Blaxploitation Queen Pam Grier and indeed it was that and much more. The reception awarded this film was underwhelming since it was so different in tone and concept from the other two films that were still very much in the mindset of his public. His iconoclasm was so ingrained with Pop-Culture references mixed with a male code of honor, a masculinity which invested both films, that the notion of a Quentin Tarantino film told from a female perspective (that of a 44 year-old flight attendant working the most downtrodden airline in the business) was jarring to say the least.

One of the charms of JACKIE BROWN is in the details, especially with Tarantino’s ear for dialogue that almost always sets the tone, if not the mood, for exact moments of realization for each character in the film. My favorite exchange of Pam Grier’s is early on when Max Cherry bails her out of jail and they stop off at a local bar to unwind. Jackie is a woman who has lived and loved, yet Tarantino avoids playing the femme-fatale card with a personality like Pam Grier. She is a hip, independent woman who knows both the time and the place to bring on the mating call if she so desires. After a much-needed drink, Jackie explains in her most adorable right-on way that she must get back to her apartment and “wash the jail out of her hair.” Jackie does not succumb to a guilt trip of humiliation for having been in the slammer, she just washes away its trappings. After all, this is a more complex side of one of her old personas: a sadder but wiser Foxy Brown.

Every film Critic has had to come to terms with the fact that JACKIE BROWN may be his greatest film, a stance not taken when the film was making the rounds the first time out of the gate. It was too slow and lacked the Tarantino touch of Peckinpah violence; it was also racist, since Samuel L. Jackson says the N-word so often the word loses all shock value (which is the point, if you also throw the word “fuck” into the mix). Yet everyone I’ve talked to about this film keeps coming back for repeated viewings and each time walks away with something new and remarkable. It gets better and better with every viewing and that, to me, is the definition of a classic.

JACKIE BROWN is based on the novel RUM PUNCH by Elmore Leonard. The novel’s action takes place somewhere other than Los Angeles but Tarantino makes such great use of the City of Angels that one soon overlooks any of his embellishments as an improvement over the novel; yet he is pure in his intent, making JACKIE one of the best film adaptations yet made of any Elmore Leonard novel, certainly superior to GET SHORTY or OUT OF SIGHT. In fact Tarantino’s well-worn facility as an intellectual sponge is put to the test with a series of images of coolness throughout JACKIE BROWN. From the mall to the mean streets of East L.A., Tarantino has a positively Brechtian grasp of 70’s genre camera set-ups and framing devices. He is Hollywood’s quintessential Auteur.

From the first frame of film we see flight attendant Pam Grier in profile gliding through the airport, not unlike Dustin Hoffman in THE GRADUATE. The difference is the soundtrack, as far away from the Simon and Garfunkle soundtrack as you can get, with Bobby Womack’s ACROSS 110th STREET, last heard in a Yaphet Kotto crime drama from–you guessed it–the fabulous 70’s. Randy Crawford’s STREET LIFE is also referenced, enhancing the already potent cult status of Ms. Grier, whom Tarantino places on a well-deserved pedestal; yet the film is, like all of his work, made in his own image.

From her very first appearance as a party-goer in Russ Meyer’s masterpiece BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS Pam Grier never looked back as she went from atmosphere-player to action-star in such films as THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, COFFY, and the film that gave Tarantino his inspiration for adapting the Elmore Leonard novel RUM PUNCH in the first place: FOXY BROWN.

Pam Grier took Feminism and kicked it up a notch in a series of films that reinvented what it was to be a black leading lady in the 1970’s. Her beauty and style mixed with her kick-ass martial arts savvy made her the poster girl for a generation of movie fans around the world. Tarantino was a child of the 70’s and spent a good deal of time going to see just about every Blaxploitation film going down, soon discovering the cinemas that showed these films non-stop with an active black audience who tended to talk through and at the screen. This was a life-changing moment for the future auteur as he saw firsthand the power a woman like Pam Grier had on her target audience.

At some point during the winding-down period of this genre Pam Grier decided to step down as the Queen of the Blaxploitation to pursue other roles. This proved to be a bumpy transition as roles were not forthcoming and she managed to make the best of a bad situation by accepting a showy turn as a hooker in the Paul Newman action flick FORT APACHE, THE BRONX, then John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM L.A. and Tim Burton’s MARS ATTACKS.

Tarantino had seen Pam audition for PULP FICTION but was already a fan so he bided his time before offering her what was to become JACKIE BROWN. There was a window of nearly two years before he had a screenplay for Grier to see, and by then she was living a reclusive life in Colorado, far removed from Hollywood and the glare of the spotlight that once was hers to command.

What moved her so much was the respect Tarantino showed not only for her work but for her beauty as a human being. The script was filled with special moments in which she could shine, especially with co-star ROBERT FORSTER as bail bondsman Max Cherry, who develops a crush on Jackie but remains a loyal friend who must pine from afar as he is not a man to move too quickly with his emotions. There is a great moment when he purchases a tape of the DELPHONICS, having heard it at Jackie’s apartment; the range of expression Forster allows his character to express is acting at it most subtle. For Pam this role meant showing just how sexy a 44 year-old woman could be. All of her past experience would be channeled into this character and she did not let her mentor down; from day one Pam Grier was allowed to develop her persona to a place where she could finally let Foxy Brown relax into Jackie Brown, and it was a joy to watch her hold her own in the company of such actors as ROBERT DE NIRO, MICHAEL KEATON and SAMUEL L. JACKSON.

In the time that has passed the roles for women approaching 60 are few and far between, yet Pam Grier is still in demand, having just completed a recurring role on cable’s groundbreaking THE L-WORD and having begun work on the WB hit series SMALLVILLE. The lady still moves effortlessly from across 110th Street to wherever her remarkable talent wants to take her.

The reception JACKIE BROWN received from most of the American critics was understandable in a way, since what could a young film director who reinvented the face of American Cinema with his first two films expect to follow them up with–PULP FICTION PART TWO? If he had, then the critics would have roasted him as a one-trick pony, so he waited three years to make this a more conventional, less violent film than the previous ones, but a great film nonetheless. JACKIE BROWN is a mood piece and at its heart a love story for the grown-ups. The relationship between Pam Grier and Robert Forster is sublime in its honesty regarding the nature of life and love after the glow is long gone and middle-age has swept away the optimism youth keeps pumping into the veins to keep it real.

I have read so many reverse reviews about this film from critics who at first thought the film far too long at two and one-half hours with none of the real action scenes that Tarantino admirers had come to expect. There are only four deaths in the film and a great deal of conversation, some of it funny, with even more somber moments between bail bondsman Max Cherry and Jackie Brown as their mutual admiration turns slowly into something more; yet these two are too sensible to fall into the sack as the danger is ever-mounting in Jackie’s life thanks to Ordell Robbie, played with a hipster dandyisim by Samuel L. Jackson.

In this film Jackson is much more violent than he was as Jules in PULP FICTION. His character is crafty and savvy in the ways of his turf, which is Los Angeles in all its spaces and self-contained environments. Tarantino treats Elmore Leonard’s novel with respect, keeping much of its content intact except for moving the action from Florida to Los Angeles and changing the race of the characters around. It is still RUM PUNCH in thought and deed. It can also be said that Elmore Leonard’s novels tend to move too slowly – the raw action of desire slowed down by gentle conversation, and that the adaptations move too fast. The film remains, like all of Tarantino’s films, in his own image.

The postmodern sensibilities we come to expect from Tarantino are all here as well. His ability to work with actors from every level of stardom, both past and present, is one of the attributes that makes him great. For example, he brings in Sid Haig from Pam Grier’s past to play a scene, always reminding us just who Pam Grier is in the history of films (especially the neglected genre of Blaxploitation, in which this film fairly glows with familiarity while also tipping its hat to Film Noir and the crime drama). Tarantino knows his genres inside and out, yet he fashions a slow-paced mood piece out of JACKIE BROWN and I for one wanted to bask in its light for as long as it took to tie all of the threads up to his and our satisfaction. With Jackson’s star-turn here I was reminded of another performance way back in 1987 by a newcomer named Morgan Freeman who received his first Oscar nomination for playing a pimp in STREET SMART, a film starring the then-hot Christopher Reeve as a reporter falling into a scene way out of his depth. Now, Freeman was every bit as scary as Jackson and could have played this kind of role forever but since the release of STREET SMART Morgan Freeman has never again played anything close to that. Now Samuel L. Jackson has played his share of positive role models since PULP FICTION, however it is in his work with Tarantino that he remains a delightfully politically-incorrect sociopath; his choice of dialogue alone repeats the N-word more than any film character, black or white, in recent memory.

What you also miss from a first viewing is just how special Tarantino treats Robert De Niro as a actor and an icon in his own right. Many felt De Niro was slumming a bit playing such an oaf as Louis who is dumb, not so young, and still somewhat full of cum. Tarantino had the audacity to cast De Niro as a loser, having embarrassing on-camera sex with bimbo surfer-girl Brigitte Fonda, while they both hit the bong for all it’s worth. These are not likable people yet their performances are flawless. I haven’t seen De Niro give this degree of performance in most of his work since JACKIE BROWN. After PULP FICTION nearly every major star wanted a chance to work with Tarantino and yet look who gets the leads in this film: Robert Forster, who peaked in the early 70’s with films like MEDIUM COOL and REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, and Pam Grier, who found fairly steady, if less high profile, work after her glory days with films like SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (and major guest roles after JB in television, like THE L-WORD).

The music in JACKIE BROWN is an integral part of the film’s success. Tarantino never simply hires out a film score. Each and every one of his films is filled with music cues and songs that were a part of his life experience as a youth, going to see everything he could, then to working in a video store where he had access to all the titles he could ever hope for. In JACKIE BROWN we have many homages to the films of Pam Grier, including her own singing of LONG TIME WOMAN from THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, down to VAMPYROS LESBOS from the infamous Jess Franco. His choice in music has always been personal, from a world view made up of Pop-Culture references that are now his trademark.

What Quentin Tarantino has accomplished with JACKIE BROWN is remarkable on so many levels. As a meditation on middle-age crisis, the longing of desire, the knowledge of what is lost in youthful bravado, it is masterful in the way he creates a universe for these characters to take the time to flesh-out and breathe life into three-dimensional personalities. It is yet more proof as to what a master Tarantino has become in his time on the world stage. Tarantino himself said in a profile in GQ magazine, “Jackie Brown is a mature piece of work made when I wasn’t even that mature.”

JACKIE BROWN is a mature film, filled with humanity laced with humor, a landscape of rotting values, wasted lives lived in shopping malls, beach towns and the east L.A. hoods, making good the lyrics of lawyers, guns and money. It is also about the bittersweet infatuation of two middle-aged people too old to follow through on their dreams but not too old to make a stand. Yet when all the dust settles on the shelf-life of a film like JACKIE BROWN it is my humble opinion that it will continue to age well and unfold into a classic. And the American Godard (as some critics have chosen to refer to him) has by this year, 2010, made his mark on Cinema and will go on to astonish as long as he chooses to make films.


This month’s CAMP DAVID is taken from an essay commissioned by Gemma Lanzo and first published in the May 2010 issue of the Italian-language film journal MOVIEMENT (Check out www.moviementmagazine.com for more information).

This marks the English-language debut of my essay on Quentin Tarantino’s highly underrated JACKIE BROWN. My deepest thanks to Gemma Lanzo for permission to print the essay here on the FILMS IN REVIEW site.

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One Response »

  1. OH…. What can I say about Pam Grier’s film JACKIE BRON that Al Goldstein would want to ave been a full-fledged contributor for that mess of a film? YUCK! Grier is foxy and I’ve seen all her flicks. Nothing made me prouder and happy that the the flavor of the week successful director Quentin Tarantino was knocked down a peg with the only screen play he wrote entirely himself Grier is a sight to behold and is a sexy as every. DeNiro evokes endless laughs with his half-ass impersonation of Tommy Chong. Samuel L. Jackson unintentional looks like the African-American Cryptkeep from TAKES FROM THE CREEP.
    Based off the book by Elmore Leonard, there is skill a lot missing for a highly anticipated Tarantiono film. Still worth seeing.

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