The first entry in our Food on Film series, covering the significance of food on-screen.
Few filmmakers have proven as able to spin their cinematic obsessions into masterpieces as Quentin Tarantino has. His ideas about violence in modern society will give film fanatics plenty to chatter about for decades to come; those of baser interests may find some satisfaction tracking the director’s proclivity for intense shots of women’s feet. And anyone who’s heard John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s conversation early in Pulp Fiction about what the French call a “quarter pounder with cheese” knows that he also has a deep personal and professional interest in food. No director appears so delighted and fanatical about the ritualistic process of eating and cooking on-screen as Tarantino.
Unlike the “food porn” popular on social media and its fascination with culinary aesthetics, Tarantino never glorifies his presentation of food the way he does with gore and violence. Burgers are plain with a single patty, coffee is infamously always black, and milkshakes are untainted by a single straw. Whilst blood pours and limbs break almost comically, food is handled with humble respect.
Tarantino subverts the norms of food preparation, particularly its on-screen consumption, because it’s never really about the food itself. Food is used as a cinematic device; the characters in the films are brought to life, at one with the audience, their poor culinary preferences paralleling our own. Even fictional people have a need to eat.
Food often reveals what we should know about a character, it can pose a much-needed pause in an action fuelled scene, or sometimes it’s a crucial staging platform for exposition. “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?” Uma Thurman asks John Travolta through a steamy veneer of carnal tension. Only someone who truly derives pleasure from food, from ordering a $5 shake, can make such a remark. The simply perfect - yet expensive - milkshake Thurman orders while suggestively toying with her hit-man escort can be singled out as one of the film’s more memorable scenes. The $5 shake gives the audience an insight into how self-indulgent Thurman’s character truly is; she connotes that she likes to live dangerously when she shares the shake and straw with her chaperone, despite being married to a man whose violent reputation has been menacingly established. She lacks subtlety in her seductive biting of the cherry, too. At this point, John Travolta is not entitled to any more than a taste. Her shake is tempting but much too rich for him.
It’s in this sense, exhibiting food and eating as an everyday activity, that Tarantino sprinkles on his genius. You will struggle to find a film Tarantino has directed that does not include one memorable food scene, and each is always fraught with intense symbolism. In Kill Bill, The Bride struggles to eat rice with her weak, bare hands. Pai Mei grabs it and throws it to the floor. The Bride must show strength even in a moment of defeat, before being allowed to eat. Similarly, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) encapsulates Tarantino’s powerful presentation of food when taking Brett’s Big Kahuna burger without asking, exclaiming “that IS a tasty burger”, dominating the entire room with a single action – he is in total control.
Speaking with Elvis Mitchell in an interview, Tarantino said: "I've always found restaurant scenes to be kind of ritualistic.” He added: "I’ve always associated getting to know somebody, trading info back and forth, finding if you’re compatible, anything like that — it always happens over restaurants or dinners.” Tarantino ultimately avoids sexualising food. Food defines character, control, power, and moral worth. It brings moments of insight and reminds us that the choices we make always have consequences. Tarantino is consistently mischievous, and when he presents a frothy tall milkshake or an elegant dollop of creme on our table, we know to be cautious – it may look okay, but it’s never as simple as it appears.
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