Those who are obsessed with beer may sympathise with my habit of squinting at the labels on Hollywood’s beer bottles. “What beer are they drinking?” I wonder. “The label definitely says IPA, but what’s the brewery?” Probably the most exciting moment in the rather silly Tammy was seeing Susan Sarandon’s character, Pearl, grab a six pack of Dale’s Pale Ale from the fridge before heading out on a road trip. The effect, for someone who recognises the brand, is distancing, and takes you out of the world of the film. How did that get there? Is it a bizarre piece of product placement paid for by Oskar Blues? More likely is that someone in the props department is a fan and wanted to give a little nod to their favourite beer. Anyway, the filmmakers don’t want you to ponder these details — the beer is there to communicate that this raunchy grandma likes a drink. It’s meant as beer, any beer, not intended to signify anything other than a carefree, thrill-seeking quality in Sarandon’s character.
Sometimes, though, the style or brand of a beer is carefully chosen. In David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) enthuses, “man, I like Heineken!” as he and Sandy (Laura Dern) drink in a dark, neon-lit bar. The word ‘imported’ on the bottle’s label is prominently displayed. Sandy confesses she’s never had it before, to which Jeffrey replies “you’ve never had Heineken before?” in disbelief. The psychotic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), with whom Jeffrey becomes mixed up, has simpler tastes. “Heineken?” he howls, “Fuck that shit! Pabst! Blue! Ribbon!”
PBR is the perfect brand for Blue Velvet and for David Lynch in general. Its clean, red-white-and-blue branding has an air of Americana about it, suggestive of the white picket fence suburbia. But it’s not entirely wholesome, either. The fact that the brand takes its name from a prize supposedly awarded in 1893, already almost a century old by the time Blue Velvet was released, suggests faded glory if not outright decay. It’s a cheap beer, associated with dingy dive bars (the film predates PBR’s renewed popularity as hipster affectation) and therefore leaning towards the dark underbelly of American suburbia. Blue Velvet announces its intentions with an opening sequence in which the camera, having registered a freak accident as Jeffrey’s father waters his garden, descends below the manicured lawn and into the insect life below. Pabst Blue Ribbon embodies the tension between the façade of squeaky-clean public respectability and the darkness and sadness that lies behind closed doors.
As David Foster Wallace notes in his essay on Lynch, Blue Velvet frequently draws visual equations between Jeffrey’s father, lying in a hospital bed on assisted breathing apparatus, and Frank Booth, who huffs a mysterious gas from a medical face mask. These visual rhymes suggest a lineage between Jeffrey and Frank that the younger man doesn’t want to admit. As he finds himself increasingly caught up in Frank’s violent world, Jeffrey is disturbed to find darkness within himself, too. The imported Heineken is an affectation, a liquid equivalent of the earring he dons throughout the film. He likes to think of himself as sophisticated and cosmopolitan, separated from conservative father figures like Sandy’s Bud-drinking Dad and especially from nightmares like Frank. The horror of Blue Velvet is the suggestion that Jeffrey is, deep down, a good old fashioned, PBR-drinking American sadist.
In the French-Canadian comedy The Decline of the American Empire, a group of affluent, sexually-liberated academics discuss life and sex, culminating in an elaborate dinner party. As they embark on their feast, they are unexpectedly joined by Mario, a punk-ish young man of limited intellectual ambition who is physically involved with Diane, one of the guests. Mario is clearly not of their class or sophistication — refusing the host Claude’s offers of coulibiac fish pie, Stilton and, finally, wine, his request for a beer finalises the perception of his common-ness. Claude obliges, fetching him a Pilsner Urquell and a flared, vase-like glass. The imported beer (which Claude points out he enjoys only “occasionally”) is not to Mario’s tastes — “what’s with this beer?” he asks. To ask for beer at all is one marker of status, to refuse such a tasteful selection another. Although Mario is an unpleasant character, I feel for him as he sips, thoroughly patronised, on his Czech lager — everyone at the table looks at him as if he is of another species. But he, too, is dismissive and small-minded and makes judgements of character based on the contents of the glasses around the table.
To use beer as a signifier of class and taste would be more complicated today. Imported pilsners (few as distinguished as Urquell) are perhaps more mainstream in modern Britain than they would have been in 1980s Quebec, but amongst casual lager drinkers, they still carry a suggestion of premium-ness — there is a perceived difference between ordering a Peroni and a Fosters, even if beer geeks find both just as offensive. But equally, I could imagine a scene similar to The Decline of the American Empire’s climactic dinner party in which an unexpected guest is offered an IPA and complains that its “one of those grapefruit beers”. Whilst beer isn’t perceived as so impenetrably middle class as wine, it can at times be just as expensive, inaccessible or even elitist. Even as beer diversifies and grows, we still assume that the beer we drink says something about us. We should take extreme care in such assumptions — beer is for everyone, every beer has its place, and no beer is entirely right whilst another is entirely wrong.