‘Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?’ from Pulp Fiction is one of my favourite film quotes ever.
Only someone who truly derives pleasure from food, from ordering a $5 milkshake, can make such an observation.
There are countless great, defining moments in cinema that involve food. In The Hours (2002) directed by Stephen Daldry, Clarissa Vaughan played by Meryl Streep meticulously separates eggs in preparation of a meal for her dying friend. It’s a heartbreaking metaphor that her life is slowly cracking and unraveling at the seams.
In the opening scene of Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) directed by Ang Lee, something I have watched hundreds of times, the Taiwanese father of three daughters prepares a sumptuous Sunday dinner. Lee is careful to capture the visceral sounds of food being prepared. Bones snapping, sizzling sauces, a ladle scraping a wok and the rhythmic chopping of a cleaver in a way that modern ASMR videos online capture soothing, meditative acoustics.
But no director is so delighted, perhaps obsessed about eating and cooking on screen than Quentin Tarantino, who announced his plans to retire this week.
Every single film Tarantino has directed includes at least one memorable food scene and each is loaded with symbolism. In Kill Bill, as The Bride struggles to eat rice even with her hands, Pai Mei throws it on the floor. She must show strength even in defeat, before being allowed to eat.
The way Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction takes Brett’s Big Kahuna burger without asking and eats it, commenting ‘that IS a tasty burger’ shows his entire dominance over the room; he is in total control.
Tarantino intentionally subverts the norms of food preparation and especially its visual consumption because surprisingly, it is never about the food itself. Food is used as a storytelling device; the characters on screen are made real, just like us, because they really eat or we despise them for their love of sweet crap or poor culinary choices.
It is in this way, showing food as an everyday activity that Tarantino is genius. Bill making a sandwich sets the prelude for his impending demise by The Bride. The size of the knife is absurd but it is ultimately a distraction.
The dialogue is Bill talking about life and death, he is a megalomaniac, like a charming snake and the drawn out tension as he carefully spreads mayonnaise and cuts the crusts off is palpable. Bill is later killed by the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, taught to The Bride by Pai Mei.
Unlike modern food porn on social media, Tarantino never glorifies food like the way he deals with violence. Coffee is always served black, milk shakes are unfreaked and burgers are with a single patty. He avoids the modern obsession with the veneration of food, like an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, or any of his contemporaries – like Wes Anderson’s cakes in Grand Budapest Hotel or Sofia Coppola in Marie Antoinette.
Whilst blood gushes and heads roll, almost comically, food is dealt with humble respect.
He also examines our ritual behaviour in restaurants, both learnt from others and how we exert our own personalities as the balance of power shifts around the table.
I wonder how he would see the scene from Inglorious Basterds with the strudel and cream whilst a group of influencers on the next table take off their shoes and stand on chairs getting the perfect flatlay of their desserts. The camera pans to Shosanna holding it together in a public setting as she dines with the man that murdered her family.
Tarantino often links his more sadistic characters with a sweet tooth, Hans Landa takes two sugars in an espresso, whilst the racist ‘Monsieur’ Calvin J. Candie from Django Unchained has a penchant for white cake.
Comparing Instagram food porn to a Tarantino film is like comparing the introduction of Stuntman Mike, where he gorges like an animal on nachos (like many of us do with nachos) to Nigella Lawson provocatively licking a spoon of salted caramel. It’s a crude comparison but I can understand why people make the link.
Ultimately, Tarantino avoids sexualising food in a way that food advertising or social media does. For him, food defines character, moral worth, control, power and dominance over others. It brings moments of insight but he reminds us that the choices we make always have consequences.
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