Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
LOS ANGELES Has any other movie director become this famous after making only two movies? Well, yes - Orson Welles. But Welles was already a star when he went to Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino came out of next to nowhere and became famous because he made two of the most influential movies of the past five years, and because . . . well, because he tickles people.
There's something so enthusiastic and unguarded about him that his personality has impressed itself even in this city of egos. Oh, and he's appeared in about a dozen movies, too; there was a time when no indie director felt right unless Q.T. popped up in a cameo to provide his film with an imprimatur.
``Reservoir Dogs'' (1992) announced Tarantino's talent and ``Pulp Fiction'' suggested his genius. And then for 43 long months - from the 1994 Cannes Film Festival until this week - there was no new film from Q.T. There were rumors and sightings and a lot of publicity, especially when he slugged that guy in the restaurant, but no film. That wasn't tragic, but it was curious. What was he waiting for?
Now comes ``Jackie Brown,'' which opens Christmas Day and confirms that Quentin Tarantino is the real thing, a genuinely talented filmmaker, not a two-picture wonder. It is a film of subtle and engaging gifts, which lurk beneath the surface of its crimes, scams, murders, drugs and colorful Tarantinian dialogue. It will entertain his fans, but it will also reward thoughtful analysis: It is a more revolutionary film than it appears.
It is also a showcase for two rediscovered talents, Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Tarantino has been given credit for rescuing the career of John Travolta in ``Pulp Fiction.'' The actor was fresh from, uh, ``Look Who's Talking Now'' when Q.T. put him in the role that made him, again, into one of Hollywood's top stars. In ``Jackie Brown,'' he stars the legendary Pam Grier in the title role, and it's the kind of evocative, sympathetic performance that gets attention and job offers. But it doesn't take place in a vacuum; Robert Forster, another veteran whose career was drifting, gets the role of his lifetime opposite Grier, and together they create a poignant, understated romance - one of the most curiously convincing love stories of the year.
Grier plays a 44-year-old flight attendant who is busted by the feds for bringing $50,000 in cash into the country from Mexico. Forster plays Max Cherry, her bail bondsman. Samuel L. Jackson plays Ordell, the illegal gun merchant who was using her as a money carrier. Robert De Niro plays Lewis, his ex-con partner. Bridget Fonda is Ordell's spaced-out Southern California beach bum girlfriend. Michael Keaton is the agent from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Another director might have made Forster the ex-con and given De Niro the much larger role of the bondsman, but that would have been the wrong use of both actors.
``I have more of a memory than most of the people in this town,'' Tarantino told me last weekend during a couple of conversations. ``They have a short list of actors and they use them over and over again. I don't mean just the A-list actors like Harrison Ford. Even the supporting roles - they have a list of the A-list character actors. I've seen the old movies. I know who the actors are. I have a better memory than they do. I don't cast anyone out of sentiment. There's not an actor in this town who could have done better in these two roles than Pam Grier and Robert Forster.''
He may be right. They play such specific, convincing, plausible people. Grier (who is gorgeous in person) plays Jackie Brown as a tired, discouraged woman who is barely hanging onto a job with the worst airline in North America, and doesn't have a lot of time and money to spend on her hair. Forster plays Max Cherry as a 56-year-old man who knows his work and knows the law, and does a good job of being a bail bondsman, but is getting tired, he tells Jackie, of sitting on a bond-jumper's couch at 2 a.m., waiting for the guy to come home, and smelling the cat pee all over the room.
I don't know what I expected from ``Jackie Brown,'' but it wasn't a thoughtful, impeccably-timed caper picture with the room in it for enough dialogue and development, enough unexpected scenes and peripheral characters, so that the people in the movie seem to live in the real world. Just one example: In most movies, the characters only know the other people necessary to the plot. In ``Jackie Brown,'' we keep meeting more people - their friends, lovers, hangers-on, confidants.
The characters suggest that they have corners and compartments they haven't revealed to us. A lot of that quality comes from the source material, Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch. Leonard is perhaps the most respected of living crime writers, famous for his dialogue, which somehow manages to be high comedy and low realism at the same time.
``I've always felt a kinship with Elmore Leonard,'' Tarantino told me. ``I called him up and said, `I'm not trying to sound big-headed or anything, but I think I was the man born to translate your novels into film.' And he said, `Well, I could have told you that after ``Reservoir Dogs.'' ' ''
And he could have, too. Reading a novel by Leonard, you don't race ahead to see how the plot turns out; you savor the texture of the pacing and dialogue, and you look around at the world they inhabit. In ``Jackie Brown,'' as in the book, Sam Cherry isn't a ``bail bondsman'' but a bail bondsman - his words, his knowledge, his experience and his attitude all suggest that he actually works at this job. At the end of the movie, when we meet Sam's office partner, a guy whose job it is to go out and find people, an agent asks how the guy found someone, and his answer is, ``I find people. It's my job.''
Tarantino told me he was conscious that he would be leaving his own universe and entering ``Dutch'' Leonard's: ``Dutch's universe is a lot larger than mine, all right? Because he has more characters and more stories. But there's a lot of similarities and affinities, and probably the No. 1 thing I'm proudest of is that 50 percent of the dialogue in that movie is mine and 50 percent of it is Dutch's, and I think it's seamless. I think you really can't tell.''
One thing I enjoyed is the way the movie gives itself the luxury of apparently gratuitous scenes. Like ``Pulp Fiction,'' it has moments that don't serve the plot but simply serve the characters, or the atmosphere.
``I never have an issue of rushing things, all right?'' he said. ``I like the characters to hang out and be who they're being; there's no page-count limit. Like for instance, all those Ordell and Max Cherry bail bond scenes? That's pure Elmore Leonard. You could drop this and you could drop that, but it wouldn't quite have the right tone and feel.''
While Tarantino is talking to me, I'm observing a curious thing about him: He seems calmer than ever before, more lucid, more content. There isn't that nonstop exuberance that runs right off the rails, that he's sometimes known for. Has he grown up a little? Is he happier? I know I have to ask about the infamous Beverly Hills restaurant incident, in which he threw punches at a producer and now faces a lawsuit. Are you, I say, gonna get into any more fights at lunch?
``I hope not. If people stop picking fights with me I'll stop defending myself.''
Most of the witnesses seemed to see Q.T. throw the first punch. But he's talking long-term: ``The guy's damn near been stalking me for three years. I could have had a feud with him in the press. That's his dream; that's exactly what he wants. That makes him the happiest man in the world. Or I could be like a real gangster and go looking for him. Nah, I'm not gonna do that either. It's a small town. Some day, I thought, I'll walk into a place and he'll be there. And that's what happened.''
He paused, and then decided maybe he shouldn't say anymore, what with the lawyers and all. So we moved on to the next thing I knew I had to ask him about, his acting.
Between ``Pulp Fiction'' and ``Jackie Brown'' he was in maybe a dozen movies, both in cameos and in larger roles (as in ``From Dusk Till Dawn'' and ``Four Rooms''), and in my reviews I criticized him for it - said Hollywood had lots of mediocre actors but not enough great directors.
``There'll come a day I believe you'll respect my acting,'' he said. ``I think I'm in the way. I don't think you're seeing the work because you're just seeing me.''
We should all do what we can do best, I suggest.
``I thought I got a very bum rap,'' he said, ``when you gave me a Dubious Career Award, or whatever it was, for acting - and you gave the opposite award to Steve Buscemi, for directing. It was like actors can direct but directors can't act! It was like you were applauding him for stretching out and I was being criticized. Maybe those small parts got in the way, but I'm as proud as my work in `From Dusk Till Dawn' as I am of anything I've done.''
But if you were to write a role for yourself and direct yourself in it, as Buscemi did, that would be another matter, I said.
``That's coming up. That'll happen probably in the next movie, actually. But I'm not - I didn't put myself in `Jackie Brown,' you know, I didn't give myself some silly cameo. But as far as my acting is concerned, I just want you to know I'm serious about it. It's not me screwing around, all right? It's not some ego thing. It's a need - all right? It's one of my colors; it's one of my palettes.''
Maybe I'll see your performance in the next movie and love it, I said. I'm open to that.
``You don't have a problem with me going on Broadway, do you? I wouldn't be doing a movie in the next six months anyway . . .''
You're going on Broadway?
``You didn't know about it?''
Are you gonna cut an album one of these days, too? What about you as a painter?
``See, you're belittling my acting aspirations.''
I am not.
Hey, I said, I'm for anyone who has the nerve to go out there and put themselves on the line and try something.
``It's not ego, Roger. I just want you to know that.''
It's OK with me if it is, I said.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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