My Dinner With Cinema is a video essay series exploring the way food is used as a narrative device in films, and as a window into feeling and culture. Each month, Tyrie Aspinall will focus on how a particular director integrates food into their films.
Quentin Tarantino’s characters are hungry. They eat food, they talk about food and some of them poison food. You will often find them in restaurants, diners or bars having a conversation over a meal, facilitating Tarantino’s lengthy dialogue. It also helps the audience find common ground with his often irredeemable characters and provides representations of normalcy and social stability – a reality unobtainable for gangsters, hitmen and bounty hunters. However, the most important function of this device is to underscore one of Tarantino’s more recognisable traits: his penchant for extreme violence. For this video essay, I visually deconstruct this device using a side-by-side comparison of food scenes and the violence that immediately follows.
Dining with others often allows for conversation and social comfort, and when we see this type of interaction on screen it induces a soporific effect, lulling Tarantino’s audience into a relaxed state, allowing him to catch us off guard. This is self-reflexively echoed in Pulp Fiction (1994) by the petty thief Pumpkin: “Customers are sitting there with food in their mouths, they don’t know what’s going on. One minute they’re having a Denver omelet, next minute somebody’s sticking a gun in their face.” The familiar sounds of idle conversations in adjacent booths, of coffee being sipped and food soaking in the kitchen frier draw us in, leaving us unprepared for the loud bursts of gunfire, visceral squelches of flesh being torn apart and the wet hiss of bloody vapour.
In most of Tarantino’s films, scenes including or referencing food preempt a variety of violent outcomes that contrast the emotions intrinsic to a food scene. In Pulp Fiction (1994) a night out at Jack rabbit Slims takes a drastic turn after a heroin overdose, in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) Bud and Elle Driver’s conversation over margaritas erupts into a Kung Fu fist fight and in Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood (2019) Cliff preparing his dog’s dinner is interrupted by a late night visit from the Manson Family. In all these instances, Tarantino creates humour and tension from the juxtaposition of the food scene and the violent scene that follows.
There are some exceptions to this rule; for example, the ‘strudel scene’ from Inglourious Basterds (2009) and the entirety of Jackie Brown (1997) – where Tarantino holds back from convention because Jackie Brown isn’t about gangsters, guns or violence – rather it is about the relationship between two middle-aged people looking to make a fresh start.
However you may feel about Tarantino’s work, there’s something funny about the incongruity between food and violence. Whether it’s hitmen discussing coffee covered in the blood of one of their freshly killed victims or a gangster describing how to pistol whip someone before suggesting tacos for lunch, there is a sardonic humour that we can’t help but chuckle at. And it’s when we become engrossed in this type of humour that Tarantino pulls the rug from under our feet.
Tyrie Aspinall is a filmmaker, live visual artist, essayist and all round lover of movies based in Naarm (Melbourne). Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts with a BFA (Film and TV) Tyrie has developed multiple short films and freelance projects. Tyrie is drawn to the ineffable beauty of human imperfection; a subject of primal concern in his work.
If he’s not working or writing or re-watching Yojimbo, he’ll probably be out in his shed working on his analog Liquid Light Show. You can reach Tyrie at tyrieaspinall.com