Movies of 1997 Bracket Game: L.A. Confidential vs Jackie Brown
Here we have the de facto championship of our unofficial crime section of this bracket. It’s just the second competition of this second round and my format for it has already blown up in my face. How you ask? Join me below and be prepared to be annoyed with me.
Before we get to that though, let’s cover something that can’t be pinned on me. Our first second round match went down to the wire, with a single vote pushing Boogie Nights past Good Will Hunting mere moments before I wrote this sentence. That means today’s winner will face it in the final four.
As you know if you joined us for yesterday’s contest, I promised a second round in which I focused on the qualities of a highlighted scene from each of the featured films. I had so little trouble with the assignment for either Boogie Nights or Good Will Hunting that I guess I feel I should be forgiven for thinking I’d have no trouble with the remaining flicks. Unfortunately that just wasn’t to be. When I went looking for a representative scene for the widely lauded L.A. Confidential however, I came up against a reality that I had mostly forgotten – – I don’t actually like the movie very much. Let’s take the below scene as an example.
The movie is full of cliches like this. How many times have we seen different versions of this? Hanging a guy out a window to pump him for information is a pretty tired trope. Maybe it’s not the fault of these filmmakers, but my first association with the tactic comes from A Fish Called Wanda, in which it is lampooned. For me, its supposedly shocking or menacing intent is undercut by its by-the-numbers feel. Only letting the guy actually fall would redeem it. Another thing that bothers me about the scene is that it leans pretty darn heavy on its trust that the audience will just automatically hate the guy they’re talking to. And why not? He’s not one of our protagonists. In fact he’s in their way. And Oooooooo– he’s a lawyer. Hate him yet? No? Fine then, we’ll make him turn unreasonable as the scene goes on. Clearly the guy is dirty, but on its face what did they think they were going to hear from him even if he was a completely ethical guy? Not much different from what he first tells them, I’d expect. Really? A tail on two decorated officers just because? No evidence? I’d have tossed them out of my office too, and I’m as pure as the driven snow.
And I’m not just picking on this one scene. The movie has a few like it. How about the one where Bud goes out of his way to take down a wife beater? Obviously I’m not here to complain about what he does in a real world sense, but it’s another example of the movie making use of a monumentally creaky trope. Bud isn’t a particularly trustworthy cop, so let’s give him a scene where he’s undoubtedly the hero and in the right. So which will it be? kiddie porn? wife beater? animal abuse?…wife beater, let’s go with wife beater, that way it ties back in with his instinct to save the call girl played by Kim Basinger. That’s clever, right? Let’s see, what other cliches can we throw at the scene? I know, make him threaten the guy with jailhouse rape. That always gets chuckles…oh, and make the guy fat.
Much of L.A. Confidential is skillfully made, but lazy scenes like these and an overriding sense that I didn’t give a rat’s ass what happened to anybody left me shrugging as I walked out of the theater. Come on, bring the hate.
In contrast, Quentin Tarantino manages to make us really care about his unethical characters in his Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown, and the script finds ways to play on the audience’s expectations creatively. Heck, I don’t even think I need to set this scene up whether you’ve seen the movie already or not.
There’s a difference between an event in a movie being predictable and in executing something predictably. On my first viewing of Jackie Brown, I was pretty sure what final result was intended for Beaumont, but this is a case in which cutting to the chase would have been so much less interesting. There is tension sometimes in inevitability, because as experienced filmgoers we are so often presented with seemingly impossible situations and then are treated to the spectacle of characters somehow finding their way out of them. Due to this, if the inevitable gets delayed at all, our movie-going brain starts to believe that it might not be so inevitable after all. This story knows this and mines both humor and suspense out of the situation, with Tarantino producing a very self-assured scene with a series of visually interesting shots.
First, he gives us a shot of the two actors from a camera placed inside the trunk in question which lasts more than a minute and a half. It’s a testament both to his confidence as a director and to the skill of the performers involved that this works, as we watch Jackson’s character negotiate a man to his own death and Tucker eventually give in to what he knows on some level is a bad idea. Once he’s in the trunk and Jackson is in the driver’s seat, the time he takes in putting on his gloves tells us all we need to know. He’s not in a hurry, but he sure is purposeful. The topper on the scene is how Tarantino moves from these close shots, even beginning tight on the car before letting it drive away from us. Once again he plays with our expectations by extending this shot, not cutting to another location as we would predict, but instead revealing the vehicle in the distance by suddenly transitioning to a crane shot as it pulls into an abandoned lot just on the other side of a nearby fence. We get to see the postscript to the up close scenes we’ve been watching, but this time from far away. We no longer have to deal with it personally, but we still feel a little complicit.
Okay, obviously I’ve taken sides here, but the decision about which movie advances is really up to you readers. Vote here and then tell us in the comments section what the primary reasons for your vote were.