n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
In an effort to hit the ground running with our Kiss After Supper series, we’re targeting the staples. We’re hitting up the giants for their contributions to the world of pop-music Cinemania. With looks at Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and Cameron Crowe’s Singles under our belts, today we’re looking at one of the genre’s towering luminaries, Quentin Tarantino, and his film Reservoir Dogs. Of course, it’s important to lay out the narrative before we progress to metanarrative, and what better way than to start with those whose works still tower over the industry’s finest.
Before we begin with Tarantino, let’s cast a wider look around. In Jean Genet’s masterpiece of the filth in fiction, Our Lady of the Flowers, the narrator, ostensibly Genet himself, is an imprisoned fantasist who dreams the characters in his novel from the friction between his fingers; he creates them for purposes of self-gratification, and from that birthing, they grow into the derelicts of his tale. Repulsed by the fair and upright, Genet centers his glare on the downtrodden. His moral world is flipped on its head, its skull cracked by the weighty force of his love for the forbidden. Drug-addicts, prostitutes, hustlers, and beggars were mere virgin youths under thick skins of city dirt.
Tarantino’s film centers around a similar variety of thieves, except instead of finding expression in the debased heat of absurdist literature, Tarantino expresses his punk-adoration with a novel version of comic gangsterism. His passion is for the polarities of scar-tissue violence and conversational fluff. The medium is utterly American, a sort of comic book kitsch. The Lee Marvin references. The identical slender black suits. The empty white-bricked hideout. The languid posturing of guns drawn in pose. The simplistic, monochromatic names. He created his own genre with Reservoir Dogs, but only from the splinters of American minutiae and the gangster heritage he never bothered to pull from his fingers.
Like Genet’s novel, Tarantino’s film is intended to quench lusts of his own. He craves the daily nonsense in popular culture; his extended dialogues are attempts to get himself off verbally. With the opening sequence and its discussion of “Like a Virgin” as a metaphor for a woman’s first encounter with a life-alteringly large member, Tarantino introduces his peculiar brand of coffee talk. These are obsessions of his, and though they vary from the imprisoned lust of Genet, they are just as consuming. The discourse, mostly led by Tarantino himself as Mr. Brown, perfects the roundtable forum, as the camera works itself in and out of the group and introduces you to the band of merry thieves. Clearly, from word one, this is not your father’s gangster film.
The diner talk segues from the “Like a Virgin” sequence to one of the film’s best extended monologues, Mr. Pink’s (Steve Buscemi) belief in tipless dining. These are long-considered theories, worked out through the heated surge of caffeine and too-many cigarettes, an interior monologue given vent as social protest. The details are perfect; all the questions have been foreseen, and Mr. Pink has believable responses for every consideration. At the end, Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is moved enough to try to reclaim his tip. The character interaction is brilliant, and the minutiae ensnares the viewer immediately. A line like “the words ‘too fucking busy’ shouldn’t be in a waitress’s vocabulary” houses ideas we too might address, were we more thoughtful and less plagued with drunkenness during our trips to the diner.
As the scene ends, and the film’s jocular tone is set, the opening credit scene provides its first use of music. It’s the classic long-legged saunter, boasting both machismo and ironed-out suavity. The crew emerges into the sunlight outside the diner, a slow shot as they move to their cars. Like much of the film’s soundtrack, this scene prods the dry funny-bone of irony. Jaunty good-time music is used in crude counterpoint to the film’s most graphic and disturbing scenes. Audio kitsch contrasts the grotesque in loud clashes, like the goofy terror of a carnival’s horror ride. The venom that would otherwise result is diluted in moments of carefully considered ridicule, but rather than removing the sting, they enliven them with a wealth of emotional turmoil. We are as confused as we are enlightened, as punch-drunk with laughter as we are miserable with fatigue. Here, The George Baker Selection’s bombastic “Little Green Bag” struts with its funky brass and howling vocals, the ideal counterpoint to the gang’s detached, determined movements through the blinding sun. The juxtaposition is deadly accurate, highlighting the film’s sense of humor with over-the-top 70s funk. (The link is furthered by the continuous presence of Steven Wright as K-Billy, the morose and dead-panned DJ who tracks the film’s music through his “Super Sounds of the 70s.”)
By far the film’s best example of this foil is the notorious ear scene. Left alone for a few minutes with the cop he’s kidnapped from the botched robbery, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) jumps off the covered truck, removes his black jacket, and stalks toward the cop. Taking exception to Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) being referred to as his ‘boss,’ Mr. Blonde removes a straight edge from his cowboy boot. He stops to turn on the radio, and the rumbling bass, frivolous handclaps, and rolling acoustic guitars of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” rises from the radio on cue. After singing along to the song’s opening verses, Mr. Blonde moves towards the cop, and the camera pans to the left, only to return to him with the severed ear in his hand. The maddeningly awkward sound of Stealers Wheel’s classic post-Beatles rambler, sounding like “The Ballad of John and Yoko” if coke and disco-glam had earlier suffocated heroin and acid, against the unnerving joy Blonde gets in speaking into the pulpy ear and wiping the blood on the police uniform is stunning. The carnivalesque depravity walks a razor’s edge along the tune’s backyard joviality. As the track ends, the radio goes dead. The silence is deafening, emphasizing the void of the act and the perverse hilarity Blonde found in committing it.
With the closing credits, Tarantino ends with a sunblind tribute to violence at an end. The entire warehouse is littered with the bodies of former cohorts, and Mr. White has just shot Joe Cabot. Mr. Orange’s pale, vampiric face contrasts the blood on his shirt and the blackness of his jacket. He’s dying in Mr. White’s arms as he tells him he was the snitch. As White unearths a guttural howl, both at his own foolishness and the irony of his next act, he shoots Orange dead and is shot in turn by the police entering the warehouse. The shot closes, and the sun-tanned Island escapism of Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” begins. The utter evisceration of the film’s end, and its steady move towards an assumed and unavoidable climax, is emboldened by the absurdity of the track’s acoustic guitars, bottom-heavy thud, and Nilsson’s beach-colored delivery. The outrageous background queries (“Doctor? Doctor?”) highlight the utter absurdity of such a scene, of such a moment, and close one of cinema’s best reconciliations of comedy and filth.
With Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino created cult art from our own overstuffed legends (the American Outlaw); from our tastes for our own trashed pasts (70s kitsch); from the downy spaces in conversational intricacies. He was watching us all as we moved, but he saw in those simplistic splices the enlarged moves of lore. This is American Graffiti turned on its head and shaken for spare change. The scales are epic, the numerals exponential. The mundane becomes philosophical treatise, and the absurd is more common than the routines we take for granted. The film reflects us all as we live in our own heads, and Tarantino allows himself only those images. If Genet claimed that he raised “egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult,” by God what has Tarantino done here?