San Quentin

On Christmas Day, Jackie Brown, the latest film by Quentin Tarantino, opened. It's two and a half hours long. Surprisingly for a Tarantino film, there's not much violence. Unlike his other films, it's based on character rather than action.

Not all critics have seen it that way. But that shouldn't be a surprise, because although Tarantino is one of the most successful contemporary filmmakers, he's also among the least understood.

He's unique among filmmakers, and yet what makes him so original is his lack of originality. He's not original in the way that David Lynch is. Lynch's characters exist in a world that belongs only to Lynch, and seem real (for the duration of the film) because of the force of Lynch's imagination. Tarantino, though, tends not to pull things out of his imagination. He doesn't create his own raw materials, but rather builds brilliantly using material that's already there. It's not the stories he tells, it's how he tells them. And the voice he tells them with is purely his own.

Of the many erroneous theories about Tarantino that have seen print, one of the most common--and the most hilarious--is that he's a realist. In fact, his work is less realistic than a typical Jackie Chan movie.

Nothing that Tarantino writes is taken from "real life." Every scenario in every film is lifted from an earlier film or TV show. But, looked at another way, his work actually reflects contemporary realities more than the majority of "realistic" films. Tarantino understands that in a culture that takes all its points of reference from popular media, we base our sense of who we are on images made famous by the media. Even in Reservoir Dogs, his most "realistic" film, both the criminals and the cops take their identities from cinema stereotypes. The bad guys wear black suits, black ties and sunglasses. When they are being assigned code names, one of them objects to being named "Mr. Pink," and asks why they can't choose their own names. The boss answers, "I tried that once. It don't work. You get four guys fighting over who's gonna be Mr. Black."

When the undercover cop who has successfully infiltrated the gang has a panic attack before the heist, fearing he'll be unmasked, he stands in his apartment and talks to his reflection in the mirror. "Don't pussy out on me now. They don't know. They don't know shit. You're not gonna get hurt. You're fucking Baretta, and they believe every word, 'cause you're supercool."

Baretta was a cop show of the Seventies, the hero of which was an undercover cop who was a master of disguises.

One of the crooks, Mr. Blue, is played by Edward Bunker, famous for the crime novels he wrote while spending most of his adult life in prison.

Pulp Fiction, Tarantino's second film, is an avalanche of movie references. Like Kentucky Fried Movie with postmodern cool, Tarantino puts together a collage of twistedly funny sketches. But, unlike that movie, Pulp Fiction's assembly of sketches comes together as a coherent narrative.

But the writing of Pulp Fiction has been overrated. Although exciting and funny and visually astonishing, the film lacks emotional depth or resonance. Tarantino has never made any grandiose claims for his ability as a writer. "I am a pretty good writer," he once said. "But I think of myself as a director who writes stuff for himself to direct. . . . If I was a full-on writer, I'd write novels. . . . Most of my writing heroes are novelists."

One of those novelists is Elmore Leonard. And with Jackie Brown, Tarantino's adoption of Leonard's novel, Rum Punch, he has made his first film about how people connect to each other.

Not that this film is a "realistic" film. It contains the usual ton of movie references. The funniest of all is the choice of actress for the title role. In Reservoir Dogs and True Romance (a hip B-movie which Tarantino wrote but didn't direct), there are references to Pam Grier, the actress who became famous for her work in the Seventies blaxploitation movies.

And now she stars as Jackie Brown, a 44-year-old black woman who can't stay out of trouble. She earns $16,000 a year as a flight attendant on a low-class Mexican airline. She can't get work with respectable U.S. airlines because she's been busted for carrying drugs. So now she supplements her income by carrying money for an illegal-arms dealer, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Tarantino's film differs significantly from Leonard's book. In Rum Punch, the protagonist is a white woman named Jackie Burke. Leonard's dialogue is terse and to the point. Tarantino's goes on interminably. Leonard has no sense of humor. Tarantino rivals Woody Allen for comic flair. But there is a greater difference; Leonard, although a fairly good storyteller, churns out novels that have less depth than Pulp Fiction, and none of the style. His books are often unexciting because of the flatness of his characters. The best noir fiction--like that of Chandler or Hammett--works because we're made to like or loathe the heroes, and to care about what happens to them. It's often hard to care about the fates of the undeveloped ciphers who pass for protagonists in Leonard's writing.

Rum Punch is an entertaining but forgettable read. But Jackie Brown is as poignant and haunting as it is exciting. This is because it's not really about a femme fatale trying to outsmart the cops and the crooks who want to exploit her. It's about her relationship with the beat-up old guy who falls in love with her, risks his life to help her and asks for nothing in return. Although the narrative background is the familiar territory of cheesy crime fiction, these two characters convince as real people, and the final scene of the movie is sad and true.

Critics have complained that we're not given enough knowledge of Jackie's past to understand how she came to be the way she is. This is typical of the climate of pseudo-intellectualism we inhabit, a critical terrain ruled by mediocre minds who think that a human being can be reduced to a set of psychological hangups brought on by unpleasant experiences. What gives Jackie her power as a character is precisely that we don't have a potted explanation of what kind of person she is and why. Our only clues are in her behavior, and that is why her behavior is so fascinating.

If we measure importance in terms of import, then Tarantino is surely the most important figure in contemporary cinema. Films like Wes Craven's Scream and Scream 2, though brilliant in their own right, would have been inconceivable before Tarantino came along. He has influenced a multitude of film-school dorks who don't understand how he works, and imagine that all they have to do is write pages of ultraviolent scenes and long, irrelevant arguments peppered with swear words. Tarantino can take credit for returning a relic like John Travolta to star status.

With Reservoir Dogs, he showed us that he could make drama out of a crisis. He was still in his 20s at the time. Now he has proven himself to be more than the Andy Warhol of cinema, someone who appropriates the trashiest artifacts of our culture and casts them back at us with style and emptiness. Jackie Brown shows that, at the age of 34, Tarantino is the most complex and most accessible dramatist we have.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]