Quentin Tarantino’s beautiful vision of a Los Angeles soaked in sin is unlike any other. The film has truly transcended genre — though it pulls from action, crime, romance, vignette collection and more — and has burst into the springs of pop culture. Cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike use its dialogue as conversation filler, academics still revel in its violent moral decay and I am looking forward to passing on my unflinching love of the film to future generations.
What truly separates Pulp Fiction, however, is the layers of meaning and, specifically, how Tarantino uses normality as a way to both entertain and horrify his audience. Food and drink in Pulp Fiction plays such a keyly vicious role that I wish to spend the next ten minutes discussing them (rhetorically, of course) with you. In fact every week I’d love to discuss quirks, psychology and mechanics within films that mean something to me. Welcome to NRH’s Weekly Analysis, an analysis (look!) weekly (gasp!) written by me, NRH (swoon!).
So many folks have commented on the specific use of food and drink in films, including Tarantino himself. One of my favourite video essays explores the topic in great depth across Tarantino’s filmography, but for the sake of time and argument I’d like to focus on his magnum opus: Pulp Fiction.
The film’s opener is probably one of the most ballsiest moves in cinematic history. An opening scene should establish a film’s themes. The Social Network opens with gender politics and Mark Zuckerberg’s egotastic abundance, The Dark Knight opens with the Joker’s backstabbing viciousness, but Pulp Fiction? Pulp Fiction opens in some diner. Some diner where two people are referring to each other as “Honey bunny” and “Pumpkin.” It’s a Hemingwayish mess and gives the audience no clues about what’s to come. Then they have coffee and discuss robbery.
What cannot be stressed enough here is just how important food and drink are in the film’s thematic drive. They both agree to rob the restaurant, after saying “thanks” for their coffee and saying that “liquor stores” aren’t worth it anymore. Notice the use of reflecting the coffee diner against the liquor store and just how easily the danger shifts just in a few words. There’s a degree of power expressed, and whatever the ‘store’ does is irrelevant; their drink does not protect them from robbery.
More tellingly, Tim Roth’s character says that restaurants are “not expecting to get robbed.” This might be a metafictional note because food as a ‘concept’ isn’t usually used for any purpose in film. It’s too real, dull and normal, and characters eating anything slows down the pace. Films are rarely grounded in such reality, certainly not films like Pulp Fiction, which is full of violence, death and villainy. Villains don’t eat sandwiches. This discussion of food and restaurants as concepts and part of a villainous scheme serves to support the violence, power and devil’s carnival that is Pulp’s hyper-reality of Los Angeles. Neither are audiences expecting it: “Customers are sittin’ there with food in their mouths, they don’t know what’s going on. One minute they’re havin’ a Denver omelet, next minute somebody’s stickin’ a gun in their face.”
That quote also expresses one of the film’s main themes; inter-connection. That’s a whole other essay in itself but the film is, above all else, tied by objects. Watches, plates, drugs and coffee, steaks and booze. Food and drink are used by Tarantino to reinforce that these stories are all connected and the ‘human experience’ is made up of these connections. Pulp Fiction isn’t just about shooting dudes; it also drops some pretty sick beats about metaphysical concepts like human composition: does eating food and drinking define characters? Does a villain eat sandwiches? Can a diet make Jules and Vincent any more or less ‘anti-heroes’?
One of the most memorable moments of the film is the ‘breakfast’ scene. Vincent and Jules play with the “Quarter pounder with cheese” conversation with Jules using this brief “Royale wit’ cheese” anecdote as a means of power later. When they enter Brett’s apartment and attempt to find the briefcase, Jules instead guides the conversation back towards similar ground he had with Vincent. It’s fairly innocuous as Jules makes play with the boy’s fast food as “the cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast.” Notice how Jules takes a bite out of the burger — “This is a tasty burger!” — while asking Vincent if he’s ever tried one, he’s linking them by food. Vincent however seems to change character completely and stops conversing, becoming more of the silent mysterious figure we expect of his character type.
Tarantino further uses food as a means to explore character and the themes of identity within. Jules tells us that he can never have meat because of his girlfriend, something he says “pretty much makes me a vegetarian.” But is that true? Here, Tarantino uses food as a disguise. Once more, the film asks if a person is defined by what they eat.
Vincent’s ‘date’ with Mia also reveals some fairly easy pickings about Tarantino’s approach to food. Vincent has his steak “bloody as hell” and Mia has her burger “bloody,” showing a connection between the characters through their food choices. Tarantino utilizes these connections to prove that food and drink can be used as tools that a filmmaker can use to allow for extra depth exploring characters and relationships.
Also notice how John Travolta just leans over and drinks Mia’s milkshake. He says that it’s a “fuckin’ good milkshake,” and both his language and occupation subvert the milkshake’s generally innocent status and taint it. The milkshake, just by the use of the vulgar term “fuckin,’” has been changed into an object of almost violent quality. Again Tarantino is showing how drink can be changed into a tool and how easily things can turn ‘wrong;’ arguably linking it to his use of accidents as a means to propel a story (the bank robbery going wrong in Reservoir Dogs, Shoshanna meeting Hans Landa again in Basterds and the entire way that Stuntman Mike kills people in Death Proof).
The coffee during the Jimmie scene is used for a variety of reasons. Jimmie tells Jules to shut the expletive up and that he knows “how fucking good it is.” He complains that Bonnie buys terrible stuff, but he wants the gourmet stuff because he wants to “taste it” every time he drinks it. Maybe this is Tarantino, given that he cast himself, literally telling the audience that that his film has substance to it; he has “taste” above the average fodder. He knows he’s making a masterpiece, he doesn’t need you to tell him how good it is. He’s a strong independent white man who don’t need none of your–
The film soon ends with a direct and quite brilliant reverse of the conventional filmic approach to food and drink. Jules says that “a sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie. I’ll never know ‘cause even if it did, I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfucker.” Here, he may be discussing the nature of appearance versus reality, but again the vulgarity taints the pumpkin pie, linking it all the way back to the pet names that Honey Bunny and Tim Roth give each other. In reality, ‘Pumpkin’ and ‘Honey Bunny’ are not as sweet as they seem; they are in fact rats themselves.
Tarantino, above anything, is one clever cat. Food and drink in Pulp Fiction are used, just like all the objects in the film, to explore characters, themes and the overall statement that killers and criminals have gotta eat just like everyone else. It’s all over his work, too: Django Unchained features Leonardo DiCaprio’s character ordering a “Polynesian Pearl Diver.” Tarantino clearly uses food and drink throughout his works as a means to symbolize characters like Candie as those who want power, show power but hold none compared to those of ‘real taste.’
There’s a reason that Tarantino’s first ‘real’ film, Reservoir Dogs, opens with a diner scene just like Pulp Fiction. It, like Pulp, is masterful at smashing expectations. Pulp Fiction though, is Tarantino’s best film, and its use of food and drink is just one of its many delicious delights.