Friday, August 24th, 2012

'Jackie Brown' and Why Quentin Tarantino Should Make a Sitcom

Quentin Tarantino makes comedies. His films may belong to a variety of genres (mafia, war, blaxploitation, to name a few), but no matter the setting, they always make us laugh, largely due to the writer/director’s gift for dialogue. With their tangential discussions on everything from Madonna lyrics to French fast food, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction defined the Tarantino style of dialogue.

Unfortunately, these films’ characters were markedly less defined. Sure, we remember Royale with Cheese and foot massage etiquette – but we remember John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson having the conversations, not their characters. Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield (I had to look up the latter’s surname) seemed defined by their occupations and little more. Tarantino’s first two films were brilliant pieces of entertainment, no doubt, but their characters felt like little more than hollow pieces in an intricate plot.

That all changed with Jackie Brown.

Based off Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, Jackie Brown follows the travails of low-rent stewardess Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) as she attempts to scam criminal asshole Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and an ATF agent (Michael Keaton) all with the help of kind-eyed bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster). Her plans become complicated by the recently paroled Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro) and pothead beach bunny Melanie (Bridget Fonda).

That short summary could describe a number of potboilers, but it demonstrates just how many distinct characters populate Jackie Brown. The titular character might drive the plot, but everyone gets their due. At 154 minutes, Jackie Brown is in no rush to tell its story. Tarantino’s films, both before and after Jackie, have always been known for their tangential asides. But unlike the others, Jackie Brownseems less concerned with providing critical essays on culture through dialogue. Instead, large portions of the film simply involve the characters hanging out, smoking pot, and enjoying each other’s company – preferably with the TV on.

This extremely shaggy nature is fully intentional. Jackie Brown belongs to a unique sub-genre coined by Tarantino as the “hangout” genre. Introducing Rio Bravo to an audience, the director describes what unites films as disparate as Rio Bravo and Dazed and Confusedinto a single genre:

There are certain movies where you hang out with the characters so much that they actually become your friends. And it’s a really rare quality to have in a film – and it does rarely happen, and usually those movies are quite long because it takes that long of a time to get past the movie character to where you actually feel you know the person and you like them… When it’s over, they’re your friends.

Tarantino is right: this quality is rarely founds in films. However, it’s quite common in television.

Countless sitcoms could be considered part of the “hangout” genre. A single season of television dwarfs any movie’s running time, allowing characters to grow on people in ways their filmic counterparts never could. The very medium of television adds to sitcoms’ hangout nature; while films are meant for theaters, TV shows are designed for home viewing. And hell, most sitcoms have the basic premise of “X number of pals hanging out.”

Aside from the medium, there’s little separating Jackie Brown from sitcoms. While the crime-caper plot might be intricate by sitcom standards, it could easily make for a multi-episode arc, if not a season-long one. Within that, there’s a wealth of material for individual shows. Tarantino could easily go the Seinfeld route and have a whole episode devoted to Louis and Melanie’s search for their parked car.

If Quentin Tarantino wants audiences to fall in love with his characters, he’d have even better luck playing television’s long game.Speaking to The New Yorker in 2003, the director laid out his long-term hopes for Jackie Brown: “Every two or three years, put in Jackie Brown again, and you’re drinking white wine with Jackie, and drinking Screwdrivers with Ordell, and taking bong hits with Melanie and Louis.” If he went into television, those kinds of reunions wouldn’t be limited to every couple of years. They could happen every week.

Justin Geldzahler is a freelance writer working on a sitcom pilot completely unrelated to Tarantino. It’s called Hangin’ Out with Uma Thurman’s Feet.

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  • Roach

    Loved this article. JB has always been my favorite film. It's hilarious and, you're right, the characters feel very tangible, ex. DeNiro's soft spoken dullard, Louis.

  • Megan Zobaugh

    Tarantino couldn't possibly fit his storytelling into the format of a 22-minute network sitcom, which has an act break every 7 minutes. I don't care if you give him a 20+ episode season to work with.

  • mjz9022

    Jackie Brown is one of my favorite movies, it's the most underrated Tarantino film.

    I don't think Tarantino could work with a sitcom. Maybe a Mini-series, or at most a small order cable series. He's a movie guy.

  • Ragged Archetypes

    I partially agree. Tarantino is one of the finest America satirists working today, but what makes his work so seductive is that a good a Tarantino comes along only every few years. Then he leaves us wanting more. This is part of his power as a storyteller. If he did a sitcom, it would be like being married to him. Nothing wrong with marriage, but the jokes would certainly become watered down and stale, as Charlie Sheen found out after years of being the 'funniest' guy on tv. I'll take a good Tarantino every leap year or so. I like the Delphic maxim: Nothing in excess, everything in moderation. That way Tarantino remains seductive and we look forward to seeing him. Besides, do you really want to live with The Man From Hollywood?