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How Quentin Tarantino uses food as power in his movies

After finishing a Quentin Tarantino movie you may walk away from the cinema with certain scenes stuck in your head. Whether that be violent fight scenes and shootouts, or the image of Lucy Liu’s sliced head in Kill Bill Vol.1 – Tarantino has a knack for startling scenes that linger in the mind.

While the director’s user of violence has been relentlessly debated for years, it is his food-centric scenes that is our focus today. If you were to ask anyone to quote Pulp Fiction, regardless of whether they had seen the film or not, it is likely that they’d reply with “a Royale with cheese”, a now-iconic quote said by Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules alongside his fellow hitman Vincent Vega (John Travolta).

Pulp Fiction’s food theme continues when the pair visit the apartment of Marsellus Wallace’s business partners in search of a briefcase. The two enter as their victims sit eating ‘Big Kahuna burgers’ from the imaginary fast-food joint that Jules has yet to try out. Dominating the sequence with his intense interest in Brett’s breakfast, Jules is terrifyingly smart, simultaneously possessing friendliness and intimidation whilst Vincent slowly paces behind the kitchen counter smoking a cigarette. Taking his time to sip the Sprite and try the hamburger – which is shot in a mouth-watering close-up – Jules knows he is stealing bites of Brett’s final meal, shooting and killing the drug dealer a few moments later.

In an interview with Elvis Mitchell, a KCRW host, Tarantino discussed the importance of using food in his movies. In reference to Pulp Fiction, Tarantino explained how Jules’ power over Brett is highlighted through him so confidentially and unapologetically eating food that does not belong to him. He said: “What’s one thing you never do? You don’t offer your hamburger for a stranger to take a big bite right out the middle of it. You don’t do that. You could offer fries […] but he took [the burger] from him”.

This scene is just one example of Tarantino depicting the pair’s dominance, signalling to the audience that these men have the power to do whatever they please, whether that be eating a stranger’s breakfast mockingly in front of them, or shooting them dead. In the interview, Tarantino also talks about the prominence of food in other movies of his, such as Django Unchained and Inglorious Bastards. Favouring scenes of diners and restaurants as a way to frame conversations between characters, Tarantino found this harder to achieve in Django Unchained due to being about slavery and set in the Antebellum South. However, he discovered other ways to incorporate food into the film.

The plantation owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, bears an unsurprising affinity for sweet treats in line with his namesake. Tarantino explained that the character is “always indulging his sweet tooth throughout the whole movie and he’s got these horrible jacked-up teeth”. However, the director states that it would have been too predicable for him to write that into the script, “Yet Leo kept ingesting sweet crap throughout the whole making of the movie”. He further added that it “would have been an obvious idea […] trying to do it as a metaphor” but “in practise it was just delicious”.

The relationship between Calvin Candie and sugary snacks became a delightfully fitting coincidence, as this constant gorging of sweets served to emulate sugar highs and crashes that are reflected in his mood swings. The villainous character’s relationship with all things sugary sweet marks a stark contrast with his demeanour and occupation as a slave owner. Power is represented in Calvin’s constant offering of sweet treats and drinks to other characters – he exerts his power in as many ways as he can possibly find.

As food is needed for humans to survive, establishing power over someone else through giving or depriving one of food is particularly striking, and Tarantino artfully masters this concept in countless films. With that, the director also states that the continuous focus on different foods and drinks makes the audience want to consume them too. “I defy anyone to not want strudel when you see Inglorious Bastards,” he said, adding: “And the same thing for the nachos in Deathproof, you just want them.” In a way, not only do the characters exert power through the use of food, but Tarantino exerts his power over the audience, captivating and further immersing us into the worlds of his films.

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