The malted mixture of grains and water we call beer has been filling the bellies of humankind since before the birth of Christ. In cinema, beer has been used as sociological commentary, character shorthand and simple prop.
In honor of this week's "Beerfest," we take a look at the role of this mystical beverage in film.
Beer represents different things at different points in a person's life. For many teenagers, getting drunk on beer is a rebellious (illegal) rite of passage. The planning, procurement, imbibing location and drinking partners are all equally important parts of the experience.
Perhaps no film has better demonstrated the importance of the beverage to teens than "Dazed and Confused" (1993). In Richard Linklater's ode to the 1970s, the end of the school year means it's party time. A huge bash is canceled when the kegs are delivered early, before the teenage host's parents leave for their weekend trip.
Subsequent aimless cruising with a trunk full of brew leads to a gathering at the local game hall, where incoming freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) earns big points by successfully purchasing beer from the nearby liquor store. Plans eventually coalesce for a "beer bust at the Moon Tower," where a sea of inhibition-squashing brew brings many dramas to a head. True, marijuana is at least as important to the story, but beer is the great equalizer, giving the intellectual misanthrope the courage to throw a punch at the alpha-male jerk; the shy younger kid the nerve to kiss the older pretty girl; and the total stoner the intellectual weight of a wizened philosopher.
Of course, in the year that "Dazed" took place, the legal drinking age was still 18, so tossing back a beer wasn't quite the rebellious act it is today. By the time a person enters college, beer takes on a slightly different — but just as important — role. No longer quite the forbidden nectar of high school, beer becomes the standard social lubricant.
Lots of things — such as the legal drinking age — have changed since the 1962 setting of John Landis' classic "Animal House" (1978), but the booze-fueled frat party ain't one of 'em. With Bluto's (John Belushi) invitation to "Grab a brew — don't cost nothin'," the tone is set.
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By the time one enters adulthood, brand loyalty has usually settled in, and the mere imbibing says less about a person than what kind of beer is favored. In film, cheap beer in a can is shorthand for the workingman; Stoudt on draft can be an indicator of a British character; and a bottle of Bud is a natural prop for a rock musician.
In Alex Cox's 1984 cult classic "Repo Man," numerous characters with the titular occupation are named after traditionally blue-collar brands of beer: Bud, Miller, Oly (short for Olympia), even the improbable moniker Lite. Ironically, the actual beer shown in the film bears plain white labels with the word "beer" lettered in blue. Every product in the film is labeled in that same generic style, emphasizing the banality of consumer culture — although this was purportedly the unintentional effect of a lack of product placement.
How ingrained is brand loyalty? Consider that wealthy Texans the Burdettes pay Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and Snowman (Jerry Reed) $80,000 to bootleg a truckload of Coors from Texas to Georgia in 28 hours in 1977's "Smokey and the Bandit." Surely there were lots of other brands available in Atlanta, but Big and Little Enos must have Coors, which, at the time, was unavailable east of Texas and could not be sold legally in the eastern states without a permit.
Beer-brand loyalty becomes dangerous in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" (1986). Young amateur sleuth Jeffrey's (Kyle MacLachlan) passion for imported Heineken is a bid for sophistication in the eyes of Sandy (Laura Dern), the teenage daughter of the detective investigating a severed ear Jeff found in a field. But Jeffrey's faux sophistication is put in its place by the ear-slicer, psychopath Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), whose tastes run a bit less refined. "Heineken?! F--- that sh--! PABST BLUE RIBBON!" Frank screams, as he takes Jeffrey on a ride he'll never forget.
No movie characters' lives revolve around the workingman's champagne like Bob and Doug McKenzie, the hapless heroes of the 1983 "SCTV" spinoff "Strange Brew." Two Canadian hosers (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, who also co-wrote and co-directed) get supposed dream jobs at the Elsinore Brewery as bottle watchers, making sure no mice end up in the beer. They soon discover a plot by the evil Brewmeister Smith (Max von Sydow) to insert mind-controlling chemicals into the beer, all part of a plot to take over the world!
There are few scenes in the film that don't feature beer: Bob and Doug feed it to their dog; they scheme to get free two-fours; beer lines the walls of their house (OK, their parents' house); it's the holy grail in their homemade sci-fi opus; they even use empty bottles as makeshift scuba tanks. When Bob and heroine Pam (Lynne Griffin) are tossed into a vat of beer, instead of drowning, Bob drinks the whole thing, and that's still not enough to put him off the stuff.
Of course, there are many more. Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante open a brewery in 1933's post-Prohibition comedy "What! No Beer?" The title character of 1982's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" gets drunk on Coors Banquet (an early example of beer product placement). "Beer" (1985) mocks the macho stereotypes used in the drink's advertising. In 1994's "The Shawshank Redemption," the unjustly imprisoned Andy (Tim Robbins) makes a deal with a guard to get beer for his fellow prisoners who are tarring a roof, an act that makes the cons feel like "the lords of all creation."
It's difficult to think of another prop that could fit into both "The Passion of the Christ" and "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle." Times change, technology and fashion evolve, but it's impossible to imagine a day when beer won't be a part of culture, both real and pop. Perhaps nobody's summed it up better than the immortal Homer Simpson, in an oft-used line sure to be uttered in next year's "Simpsons" movie: "Mmmm — beeeeeer!"
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