Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, sometimes it’s a crucial staging platform for exposition, and sometimes it’s a pretty fuckin’ good milk shake, maybe not worth five dollars, but pretty fuckin’ good. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.
Were a Family Feud survey conducted for the category “Memorable Food From Movies,” one of the top answers would surely be “Uma Thurman’s milk shake” from Pulp Fiction. The fastest buzzer-hitter would no doubt get on the board with that answer.
That white, perfect, expensive milk shake she orders while tensely flirting with her hit-man escort stands out in a movie crowded with memorable moments.
It’s not hard to whip up a basic analysis of that milk shake: The $5 shake reveals how self-indulgent Thurman’s character is, for one thing, and connotes that she likes to live dangerously when she shares it (and its straw) with her chaperone even though she’s married to a man whose violent reputation has been menacingly established. She isn’t very subtle with her suggestive tasting of the cherry, either. Clearly, though, John Travolta’s hit man is not entitled to any more than a taste, at least at this point. Her gorgeous shake is tempting, but too rich—too much—for him.
There’s a sense of dread in that milk shake too. By this point in the story we’ve already experienced violence so shocking it makes us laugh with horror. In a movie with a sense of style so deliberate we can assume (even if it’s a subconscious awareness) that nothing in the frame is incidental, including that suspiciously innocent-looking milk shake.
White and frothy, sweet and creamy, light and happy, Martin and Lewis: something bad has to happen, just to balance it out. Even if this is a viewer’s first Quentin Tarantino movie, it’s clear equilibrium needs to be restored by some kind of entertainingly awful moment. Tension (and delight) comes from anticipating how and when.
It’s scrumptious. The suspense, the waiting, the squirming, the nervous laughing: Tarantino’s cleverly staged violence and hyper-scripted table talk are delicious.
When used to describe food, the word “delicious” is just a vague way to say “good-tasting when placed in the mouth.” A Tarantino fan, though, might not think of a better adjective for the savoring of his playful manipulation of cinematic forms, his consistently smart casting decisions, our constantly messed-with expectations, and the blunt gore.
He has a whole pantry of favorite devices for delivering that deliciousness, to which he returns in each movie: carefully selected music that’s both unexpected and strangely perfect; long, well-acted speeches; a hipster patois which is often used to get at the geeky nuances of a particular topic (even when the character speaking is neither a hipster nor a geek); excruciating tension; brutal edits that cut unexpectedly to distressingly painful moments; and food.
Tarantino loves diners and restaurants, and many of the key moments in his movies involve significant food: earlier in Pulp Fiction we watch Samuel L. Jackson ratchet up everybody’s stress levels by casually chit-chatting with a doomed drug dealer about the tastiness of a Big Kahuna Burger and what McDonald’s Quarter Pounders are called in France—“Royale With Cheese.”
A couple of years earlier, in Tarantino’s early film, Reservoir Dogs, incidental conversation between a gang of thieves killing time in a diner was one of high points, including a debate about tipping your waitress. A writer who loves to hear his characters bat around ideas and amuse each other is bound to love diners and restaurants, where people are forced to sit still with each other long enough to eat something. As Thurman’s character observes, you feel like you have to say something.
For all the restaurants and food he uses to tell his stories, then, it’s notable that Tarantino movies involve a whole lot of white food, starting with the Pulp Fiction milk shake. Like the hats of B-movie cowboys, the choice of white might reveal something to us about a character—though it’s a murkier message than the old Westerns’ color code.
Why is white food predominant in Tarantino films? Is it art direction that accidentally takes on meaning? It’s probably not that simple. Perhaps, Tarantino uses pure-seeming, deceptively good-guy white to summon a foreboding contrast: His white food is never good for you. Thurman’s character was definitely a problem for Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction when she accidentally almost kills herself while he’s supposed to be taking care of her. In Kill Bill, The Master uses rice to humiliate The Bride (also played by Thurman), while training her in kung fu.
White food is bad news in Tarantino land. It’s something lovely and pleasant juxtaposed with mayhem.
Sweets-loving slave owner Calvin Candie’s absurdly metaphorical announcement that white cake will be served in Django Unchained comes after he performs the most disturbing scene that Leonardo DiCaprio will probably ever participate in—a cruel demonstration of slave-owning power that sets up his ostensible Southern hospitality as the final stage of a spiteful, hateful act.
Then there’s Inglourious Basterds. “Hans Landa is one of the greatest characters I have ever written, and one of the greatest characters that I will ever write,” Tarantino told The New York Times. From the moment we meet Landa, his refined appreciation of a dairy farmer’s milk defines his character, and heightens his hosts’ anxiety.
By remaining chatty and pleasant, Landa deceptively encourages those he interrogates to relax and let their guard down. He knows what he’s doing. In that opening scene, Landa redirects the offer of wine as if he were the most thoughtful connoisseur in France. His high opinion of himself and ability to control a situation with his charm and good taste is communicated in that staged, magnanimous sweep of his hand and “Bravo!” after polishing off the fresh milk in a mesmerizingly unbroken take.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Christoph Waltz playing Hans Landa. Every little gesture is a pleasure to watch, and neither the audience nor the other characters can tell what he’s thinking. He’s a little goofy, but we don’t know what to make of him. We know not to trust him, though. As viewers we know that, with the exception of Hogan’s Heroes, the appearance of a Nazi on our screen almost always means someone will die.
Waltz’s bonhomie—seemingly sincere, unlike Samuel L. Jackson’s obviously disingenuous friendliness while sampling the Big Kahuna in Pulp Fiction—is what makes him so intimidating. He may be utterly sociopathic, and capable of anything. We can’t predict his next move. At a fancy restaurant he encounters a Jewish girl he allowed to escape from the dairy farm, and he’s opaque. We have no idea whether he recognizes her.
Surely he recognizes her—ordering milk for someone else is a strange thing to do, and a clear, unspoken signal that he knows her secret—but maybe not. He’s unpredictable enough to order milk for a young lady as an affable, gentlemanly flourish. In any case, even without knowing the plot, a viewer can read the girl’s face in that clip: She knows she’s in danger. This can’t go well. It’s cat and mouse. Then he orders the strudel.
“It’s not so terrible.” So charming is Landa, upbraiding himself for forgetting the topping—also a dairy product—that we’re tempted to think he’s just playing host, and hasn’t guessed the girl’s identity. He demands she wait with an avuncular fondness—or he may be flirting a little bit. It’s creepy either way, but he controls the situation. Is he toying with her? In an agonizing close-up of the “crème,” its fluffy edges and creamy folds in meticulous focus, Landa’s unfathomable plans turn the screws on both the girl and the audience as he makes a production out of fully appreciating the dessert. As soon as it’s presented properly, he basically attacks it.
Then he relents. The final stab of his cigarette into the crème seems like a warning. At the very least, it’s the most literal violation of the purity of white food that Tarantino gives us onscreen.
That distance between the unspoiled and the defiled is what Tarantino enjoys travelling. Those beautiful white foods—milk shake, rice, white cake, glasses of milk, and ominous crème—give him a starting point. They’re too nice, too perfect. As you watch the French dairy farmer’s luminous milk poured by his beautiful daughter, it’s as if a pendulum has been pulled all the way to the right: The moment won’t be finished until it swings almost as far into darkness.
Tarantino is our cinematic older brother, teasing us and torturing us. We yell stop, but don’t want him to stop. He’s reliably mischievous, and when he sets a nice, tall milk shake or elegant dollop of crème in front of us, we know to be suspicious—it looks okay, but it can’t be as simple as it appears.
Be careful. Keep your guard up and stay alert. He’s up to something.
Upcoming: From Sweeney to Hannibal: What did you say Soylent Green was, again?