Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jackie Brown, the Final Paper!

Yeah, here is the last of my film papers for the semester. Don't be sad, I now have more time for seeing movies, and next semester I am taking Film History 2, which covers the 50s through the present.

This paper is on Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino's interpretation of Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch. I really liked it, which kind of surprised me. I tend to think Tarantino takes to many liberties when it comes to pushing the boundaries of political correctness, but I didn't find to much to really complain about here that Leonard didn't do first.

But that's not what the papers about. The thesis is - "Tarantino uses art direction and character development to pay homage to these films and Leonard's writing."

Please note, diagetic is a word we cinema nerds use when we talk about the difference between music that would occur naturally in a scene (non-diagetic), i.e. a car radio, and music that is used to evoke emotions (diagetic), for example, the Star Wars theme.
So, here you go!

Jackie Brown vs. Rum Punch

Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown is the story of a flight attendant who trafficks money for a low-grade arms dealer, Ordell Robbie, in L.A. When picked up by the ATF, and knowing that Ordell will kill her to save his own skin, she hatches a plan to not only save herself from a choice between prison or death, but to get hold of Robbie's money as well. Jackie Brown is based on the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, the main character based on Leonard’s character Jackie Burke. Tarantino's other influence for the film, Blaxploitation films of the 1960s and 70s, gives a unique flavor to a film set (and made) in the mid-90s. Tarantino uses art direction and character development to pay homage to these films and Leonard's writing.

The fact that Tarantino had to make significant cuts to scenes and characters comes as no surprise. However, what he does include was chosen very carefully to create the proper ambiance for his characters to develop with an Elmore Leonard feel. In the scene where the law enforcement first pick up Jackie, not only is the dialog identical, but the description could have been directly inserted into the scene as well. Brown is cool and collected right from the beginning, knowing what's coming and not bothering to fight it, lighting a cigarette instead, just like in the book. Although we are introduced to Robbie and Louis differently, the gun show scene where Robbie is showing off his knowledge of guns to Louis has a similar effect. And later when Louis is described from bail bondsman Max Cherry's viewpoint, Louis is described as having “dull eyes that didn't seem to have any life in them but never missed anything” (Leonard), which encapsulates DeNiro's performance; not saying much, keeping his head low, but twitching at every sound and glancing out from behind his greasy bangs. However, although he doesn't miss anything with his eyes, he doesn't have the competence to understand what he sees, another key component to the character and the plot, both in the novel and the film. Tarantino is able to change character attributes which to some readers/viewers would seem important, such as names or race. However, because Tarantino keeps so closely to the character's personalities, their tics and their motivations, the characters come out the same.

Tarantino's use of soundtrack stands out in many ways because it is meant to be observed by the audience. He plays with the use of diagetic and non-diagetic sound; just when you think he is using the sound non-diagetically, the character pulls over, shuts off the car and the music stops, without morphing into diagetic music, remaining silent instead. In many ways this mimics the feeling of reading a book. In the novel, when Cherry comes to call on Louis, he asks what the music playing is and Simone says that it's the Marvelettes. Even not knowing who the Marvelettes are, or if they even exist, the type of music immediately pops into a reader's mind as a background for the scene. But when the scene is over there is no more background music, the scene is set anew with no 'audible' carryover, as there often is in film with diagetic sound. Tarantino also uses sound diagetically, as in the scene when Cherry bails Brown out of jail. Seeing her for the first time, he falls for her and the music is used in a classic way, the lyrics and tone reflecting the way he is feeling. The sound is also used as a tool to evoke the 60s and 70s heyday of funk and soul use in film. Before blaxploitation films, funk and soul were rarely heard, if ever, in films, especially diagetically. Tarantino pays homage to this contribution to cinema, in that “the soundtrack clearly functions quite differently from the classical Hollywood score” (Howell), just as in blaxploitation films such as Shaft or Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.

Tarantino's art direction is reminiscent of cinema of the 70s, without being condescending. It is hard to determine from scene to scene if the 70s feel comes from a use of cinematography techniques or simply the plastic materials. More often than not it's the latter. In the opening scene when Jackie Brown is traveling along a moving walkway, everything from the music to her clothes to the colors of the tiles give the scene a vintage look. Even the plane pulling into the gate behind her is the design used in the 1970s for United. Although many contemporary film goers see 70s film, and the blaxploitation genre in particular, as, at best, corny and, at worst, highly offensive, Tarantino saw this as a golden age of cinematic storytelling, one that shaped him as a person and a filmmaker. This gives him a unique opportunity to respectfully recreate some of the key elements for cinematic evolution. The end result is a timeless narration, where, while paying homage to the 70s, set in the 90s and viewed in 2008, the film remains cohesive and not in the least outdated.

When a film is inspired by a book, the idea should be to reformat the story for the screen, though some simply see the scenes and complain that they are changed from the book. Quentin Tarantino manages to satisfy both these requirements in Jackie Brown, using direct dialog and description parallels where he is able, but otherwise focusing on carrying over the overall sense of character and plot, motivation and moral.

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