More than any other mainstream-ish movie I can think of, with the notable exception of The Big Lebowski, Jackie Brown is a movie whose plot gets in the way of one’s appreciation of the movie. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad plot–it’s actually one of the better-engineered heist flicks in recent memory, intricate, suspenseful and satisfyingly wrapped-up. It’s just that it’s very distracting–so labyrinthine and taken from the perspective of so many different characters that it’s almost impossible to actually notice what the movie’s really about. This is why I think most people don’t appreciate Jackie Brown as much as Tarantino’s first few. When people say that you have to see a movie multiple times to really appreciate it, it’s bullshit nine times out of ten. But when it comes to Jackie Brown, you really need three or four viewings to completely have what’s going on on the surface of the movie under your belt, so that you can actually pay attention to what’s going on underneath.
Not that I really understand what’s going on underneath the scene in question in this article. It probably has some relevance to the movie’s main themes–fear of growing old, fear of irrelevancy, desire to make a mark in the world–but I doubt I could really explain how. Rather, I’m just using it as an example of how Jackie Brown tends to throw curveballs at viewers, ones which if you spend too much time tracking their paths, you’ll miss the real pleasures to be found in the flick.
The characters of Louis (Robert DeNiro) and Melanie (Bridget Fonda) in Jackie Brown are going to have sex at some point in the movie. Watching it, you pretty well know this from a fact–everything that you know about cinematic plot convention would point to these two characters hooking up at some point. You know from the way Melanie lies scantily clad about the apartment whenever Louis comes over, you know from the way Louis stares at her from across the room (at her bare feet, of course–this is a Quentin Tarantino movie) while supposedly listening to Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) rant about guns. You especially know from the fact that Ordell leaves the two alone together at one point, even seemingly acknowledging the inevitability of the upcoming tryst (“Try not to tear his clothes off him” are his parting words to Melanie).
It takes a long-ass time for it to happen, though. The two have been hanging out for two or three minutes, and still no sex–instead, they talk about Louis’s experiences during the disco years (he went to clubs to meet women, but wasn’t a dancer) and about photos of Melanie’s trip to Japan (she didn’t get along great with her roommate, who barely spoke any English). This wouldn’t be too weird if Louis and Melanie were the protagonists of the movie, and their eventual hook-up was one of the main plot elements, but they’re supporting characters at best, and the fact that the movie lingers on this scene for so long feels kind of jarring.
Though not nearly as jarring, of course, as what comes next. Louis isn’t even done finishing his sentence responding to Melanie’s comments about her Japan roommate before she propositions him:
He takes a second, thinks about it, looks at her, looks at the photos, and nods.
Cut to a title card: Three Minutes Later. DeNiro and Fonda are suddenly going at it, having stand-up sex from behind in the kitchen, neither saying anything but both panting heavily. A few seconds later, they’re done.
“Well, that was fun,” Melanie concludes.
“Yeah,” Louis agrees. “That really hit the spot.”
It’s kind of a hot scene. Fonda actually never looked better in her prime than she did in this movie, despite being well into her 30s at this point, largely as a result of her impressively provocative beach-bunny costuming. But it just doesn’t feel like a normal hot sex scene should. It’s too abrupt, with no sense of transition–essentially, no cinematic foreplay. It feels like a plot device, and what’s more, even the characters seem to treat it as a plot device. “Now we can catch up,” Melanie exclaims afterwards, as if to say “well, we got that out of the way, now let’s move on to the next part of the movie.”
What’s really weird about the sex scene, though, is how little it has to do with the plot of the movie. Generally, a first fuck in the middle of a film noir tends to mean that the two characters are now a secret item, and are about to start plotting together against one of the other principal characters. But Melanie’s seduction of Louis symbolizes no such betrayal–in fact, her lover/sponsor Ordell essentially gave her permission to do so, as a favor to his old friend, telling Louis as much a few scenes later (“I hope you at least felt appropriately guilty afterwards,” he jokes with him). And this doesn’t signal Louis and Melanie now being any sort of couple in the movie–they work together in the heist, but mostly under duress, as Melanie’s teasing and nagging of Louis eventually so pisses him off that he puts two in her chest for no real reason.
The first time you see the scene, it’s just kind of strange. Seeing it after, though, you begin to realize just how hilarious it is–what an inspired way it is to simultaneously deglamourize the film noir hook-up, throw a wrench into viewers’ expectations, and have the most hysterically non-chalant post-coital dialogue you’ve ever heard (though “Yeah…that hit the spot” is probably as perfectly accurate a summation of what a mid-day screw with a sex-kittened Bridget Fonda would be like as is possible). Here’s hoping QT’s upcoming “erotic drama” is just a two-hour long extension of this scene.