Stuck in the Middle With You: On Reservoir Dogs and the Soundtrack to Savagery
Steven Church revisits one of Tarantino’s most infamous and violent scenes
The images catalogued forever in my consciousness from Quentin Tarantino’s first hit film, Reservoir Dogs (1992) queue up whenever I happen to find myself thinking about severed ears, torture, or, more frequently, when I hear a particular song. With little effort I can conjure up the scene. Rookie cop Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) duct taped to a chair, wounds blooming from his face while Michael Madsen, or Mr. Blonde, beats him. He sputters and spits, snot and blood running from his nose as he swears to knowing nothing about their jewelry store heist being a setup. Marvin’s got children for god’s sake! Unfortunately Mr. Blonde doesn’t care whether he knows or not. He just wants to torture Nash, and he tells him this, tells him that he is going to hurt him because he just likes hurting people. Marvin Nash is crying for his life, and you’re thinking about his children at home, his wife waiting for him to return.
Mr. Blonde, a cigarette dangling from his lips, pulls a straight razor from his boot — what kind of psychopath carries a straight razor in his boot? — and you feel certain that something very, very bad is going to happen. Something grisly and memorable. “Do you ever listen to K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70’s,” Blonde asks as he turns on the radio, twisting the knob to find his station. “It’s my personal favorite.”
It’s then that we hear the first bouncy notes of the song by Stealers Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle With You,” and its lyrics (“I don’t know why I came here tonight / I got the feeling that something ain’t right”), as if the music were saying what you’re thinking. Blonde struts across the warehouse floor like a rooster, the razor in his hand. He dances and shuffles. Two red stripes of blood stream down from Marvin’s nose, painting the silver tape. He’s breathing heavily, and grunting beneath the gag. As the music plays Blonde dances toward Marvin, comically shuffling and wielding the blade like a brush. He slashes him across the cheek, then grabs his face, studying his work.
With his back to the camera Blonde sits down on Marvin’s lap, almost as if he’s going to kiss or hold him. Instead he reaches over the rookie officer’s head. We see Blonde’s back, the arching arm, the razor, the reach. And then the camera turns away, gazing above to a doorway where the words “Watch Your Head” have been spray painted.
The camera returns as Blonde stands holding up the severed ear and looking at it, pinched between his fingers. “Hello? Hello?” he waggles the ear around, talking into it. The song meanwhile continues to fill the warehouse space, rising up like a breath — and then fades into an exhalation, a brief respite, as Blonde makes his way outside to retrieve a can of gasoline from his car. The music dies out behind the closed door. You hear the sound of children playing, somewhere in the distance, hopefully far away.
The music swells again as Blonde reenters the warehouse. It’s as if the song only exists in this room, a product of this particular, horrible moment. To this day I cannot hear that song without seeing the warehouse, Blonde dancing, and helpless Marvin Nash taped to the chair. Tarantino has admitted in interviews that the song came first, before anything else. As if “Stuck in the Middle With You” were the obvious musical accompaniment to torture.
We are capable of imagining and even of desiring to hurt. At least that, if not actually capable of enacting hurt, too. That is why the movie, and this scene in particular, succeeds: because it implicates you, as a witness, in the violence.
Joyce Carol Oates once said of a young Mike Tyson, “…he has the power to galvanize crowds as if awakening in them the instinct not merely for raw aggression and the mysterious will to do hurt that resides, for better or worse, in the human soul, but for suggesting the incontestable justice of such an instinct… ”
This scene is the Mike Tyson of movie scenes. It forces us to imagine Marvin’s suffering, to view the almost pornographic hole in the side of his head, making us want to hurt and torture Mr. Blonde in turn. Even more troubling, the scene convinces us of the “incontestable justice” of that desire. Tarantino lets us feel the creeping horror, the suspense, and finally the release, the ecstatic exhalation when Mr. Blonde is suddenly shot dead by Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), who’s been slowly bleeding out all this time, forgotten in the background. When it happens, you realize that a vengeance has been done, that you wanted it done.
Of course our reprieve is a brief one, a momentary satisfaction of our baser instincts that passes quickly, like all adrenaline rushes. After Blonde is dead the music, a folk-pop imitation of Bob Dylan, continues to play — here I am, stuck in the middle with you — looping on in your thoughts like a television jingle. That song amplifies the savagery of the scene precisely because of its incongruity, its essential wrongness. Those images don’t fit the sound. They bounce off of it, to stand in even starker relief.
The song has since become infamous, inextricably linked to this moment. For those who still recall the grisly images, and the sight of Mr. Blonde dancing with a straight razor, I imagine they must feel the same pull of gravity as I do, the same moral weight, dragging them back to that warehouse.
There is a single story we all know about the painter Vincent Van Gogh, the tortured artist who cut off part of his own ear and then mailed it to a lover. It seems to persist as a kind of parable, a lesson or a warning, perhaps a story of mythic or of aberrant love. But if, like me, you were raised in the cultural crucible of the 70s and 80s, there is as much if not more gravity in the haunting specter of the ear cradled in a bed of grass in David Lynch’s 1986 movie Blue Velvet, or of Mr. Blonde senselessly removing one of Marvin Nash’s ears, or Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s, as is in this old chestnut of Van Gogh’s self-mutilation. The story has changed, lost some of its force, but the power in the act itself remains.
In everyday life we don’t think much about our ears or pay much attention to the ears of others. Although, as this scene from Reservoir Dogs reveals, ears have a greater signifying potential as objects, as metonyms for bodies themselves. We forget that sound, presented in utero, was our first experience of the outside world. We forget the ear until confronted — suddenly, violently — by its absence. We forget Van Gogh, but we remember Tarantino.
I myself have a difficult time forgetting, however, primarily because I have seen a necklace of ears, like a string of dried apples, kept as a trophy at the top of an underwear drawer.
“You wanna touch ‘em,” my childhood friend asked me one day. We were alone at his house, standing in front of his father’s dresser, the top drawer pulled partway open.
“No,” I said. I asked him to put them back.
He went on to say that his father had cut the ears off numerous Vietnamese soldiers, men whom he’d killed in combat. He had kept the necklace as a reminder. I tried to picture the man, the father with all his secrets, standing there at the end of a long day, opening the drawer and taking out the ears, rubbing his fingers over them, worrying them until they softened and bent to his touch.
As a child growing up in the 70s, the Vietnam War mostly seemed to be a knot of secrets that the fathers of other boys brought back with them. Fathers who didn’t talk much about how it was twisting them up, although perhaps they didn’t have the words. The large part of my understanding came from books, television, and movies. But when I saw that necklace of ears, I faced for the first time the actual reality of that war, and the prospect it suggested of savagery and of torture.
I recoiled from the drawer, and walked alone down the hall. I didn’t want to see anymore — I didn’t want to believe.
My father had avoided the draft, his number never actually called. It took that day at my friend’s house for me to feel that I was part of an entire generation raised by men who had done terrible things, men who’d killed and mutilated others, for reasons they couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate. Not my father, but other men, who would go on to become football coaches, attorneys, bricklayers, ditch diggers, Boy Scout leaders, school teachers, professors, writers…
By the time “Stuck in the Middle with You” had topped out at number six on the Billboard charts in 1973, the Vietnam War was already beginning to wind down. On January 27 of that year the Paris Peace Accords were signed, thus signaling the United States’ retreat from the country’s most costly engagement — financially, morally, and psychologically — since the Civil War.
My friend told me once that his father had been nicknamed “The Preacher” by his platoon in Vietnam. In all the times I’d spent at their house I had barely heard the man speak a word, so I never quite knew whether this nickname was meant ironically or in earnest. I was assured in any case that he’d been an outspoken leader, often dispensing advice to the younger men and boys, and also that he had carried the biggest, heaviest gun — the M-60 — all by himself.
I was already afraid of him before then, but something definitely shifted that day. A new kind of fear arose in me, a fear of the future, for all of us. Seeing what was in that drawer gave me a vision, a truth I would carry forever, a ghost of our collective past that would continue to haunt me, and return again some twenty years later as I watched Mr. Blonde carve up Marvin Nash on the movie screen. The world had changed, and pop culture possessed the power to capture this change, the new leap in our associative thinking. It was no longer Van Gogh, with his quaintly distressing tale of psychotic love, that sprung to mind anymore. Not after Mr. Blonde and Marvin Nash, not after Tarantino. There was only and always now this savage act of violence, and that jarring song, throughout it all, bouncing incessantly in the background.
 From Joyce Carol Oates’s essay, “On Mike Tyson,” from her collection of essays, “On Boxing,” Ecco Press, 1994.