Through a bottle darkly: Blue Velvet’s Freudian beers

Do beers maketh David Lynch’s men?

Michael Zunenshine
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Credit: Simon Cooper / cooperillo.com

In David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet, college prep Jeffrey Beaumont asks the eager high-schooler Sandy if she’s ever tried Heineken. No, she answers, but her police-detective dad likes Bud. Maniacal, gas-huffing Frank meanwhile enthuses that he only drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon, adding that he’ll “fuck anything that moves”.

If we take these three beer brands as personality cues, we can extend an interesting line of inquiry through Sigmund Freud’s triumvirate domain of selfhood. Pabst, Heineken and Budweiser stand in respectively for the id, the ego and the superego, and add another dimension to the dynamics between the characters who drink them. Here goes a thought experiment inspired by one of Lynch’s little details. Let’s drink up.

Jeffrey – the ego – Heineken

Just as Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) is Blue Velvet’s main character, so the ego is the main character of the life narrative.

There are two ways to consider it. One is that the ego is the core self which constantly has to negotiate the drives of the id and reprimands of the superego. The other is that there is no core self and the ego is just an empty subjective space which sometimes gives the id more room to play and at other times gives the superego more room to punish. Either way, it’s the least interesting of all three Freudian concepts in itself, just as Jeffrey is presumably a naïve dullard before the film’s events kick off.

But this bland normality is the perfect vehicle to bring us into Lynch’s twisted narrative as it gives the viewer an easy, non-specific point of identification. Once he finds the severed ear after visiting his hospitalised father, Jeffrey demonstrates his enthusiasm for adventure and willingness to take risks, and we’re willing to go along with him.

Although he starts out as normal as can be, the representative ego of the film, Jeffrey is soon struggling between other forces. He’s easily overcome by visceral urges, like retrieving a severed rotten ear from an empty field. Nor can he resist the temptations of mystery, such as uncovering the identities of Dorothy Vallens and Frank Booth. This is the ego’s response to the id. But Jeffrey also bends to the demands of the superego, whether he’s assuming responsibility for shielding Sandy from the underworld (and guilt for involving her in it) or he’s trying to protect Dorothy from Frank.

Heineken is a mainstream European beer that is popularly commercialised in North America. Neither wholly familiar nor completely foreign, it lies somewhere in between – like the ego. Jeffrey presents the beer as somewhat refined and sophisticated, discovered at whatever big-city college he has returned from. (It’s nice to assume he attends a big-city university to contrast with his return to small-town Lumberton.)

As to what Jeffrey is studying, one can only guess. He has developed a worldly curiosity that could be related to the humanities but still retains his practical sensibilities, as exhibited by how comfortable he feels taking over his father’s hardware store (albeit with the intention of borrowing equipment to use as a disguise). His affinity with Heineken therefore occupies the wonderful medial position of a curious mind but within the limits of normal reality. Though the green Heineken bottle skews our perception through its tinted glass, it doesn’t completely darken our access to reality.

The green also signifies Jeffrey’s naiveté, like spring vegetation ready to be cut and uprooted from the solid earth. And the colour resounds with envy (like Iago’s “green-ey’d monster” in Othello), as Jeffrey isn’t content with the simple life but is desirous of opportunity, experience and adventure.

Detective Williams – the superego – Budweiser

Since Jeffrey’s father suffers a heart attack at the beginning of the film, it is Sandy’s father, the cold, eye-balling Detective Williams (George Dickerson), who stands as the film’s ultimate authority figure. Playing watchdog is the domain of Freud’s superego, keeping the ego in check from the wild ways of the id.

Detective Williams is the head of a solid, wholesome family, but not too strict or overbearing. He lets Sandy, a high-schooler, go on a date with the older Jeffrey, but not without giving the young suitor some good old-fashioned paternal advice.

He strongly warns Jeffrey against further pursuing his investigations, but keeps a cool head every time Jeffrey defies his warning. Like the superego, he is not concerned with discipline and punishment so much as with creating a space for the ego to play within the limits of normality. If the superego’s power comes from warning and reprimand, it would be rendered impotent if the ego had no room for minor disobedience and reinterpretation of the rules. Detective Williams creates this space of allowance for Jeffrey, and the viewer, to go deeper into the dark mysteries of Lumberton.

But Detective Williams has a darker side, as it emerges that he, or at least his partner, is in league with the bad guys. We never really find out if that’s part of a larger overall set-up, or if Williams is indeed corrupt and deftly able to turn the tables to cover his ass at the end. But from the outset there’s something inherently shady about his looks and gestures, as well as the fact that he tells Jeffrey that police work can be “horrible”. While the true superego has an overt mandate to keep order, it’s not a simple yardstick for right and wrong. Like the id, it has its own motivations and methods of manipulation that it deploys to win over the ego. But just as Detective Williams may or may not be corrupt, so the id and superego may actually have a secret, perverse partnership to keep the ego from becoming too absorbed in either side of the personality spectrum.

Budweiser stands for several things. For one, it’s a ‘working-class beer’ – working class with a strong work ethic and a sincere belief in the American way. It’s one of the official sponsors of such all-American institutions as the Super Bowl and NASCAR’s Chevrolet team. It is mainstream, trustworthy and straightforward. Even its nickname implies the friendly approachability of good, wholesome Americans: it’s your ‘bud’. The overall image is that of official authority mixed with kindly and well-meaning horse sense (like the Budweiser Clydesdales). It’s unthreatening, but still strives to strongly influence a certain set of American values.

But Budweiser’s parent company is also one of the largest and most powerful beverage companies in the world. Anheuser-Busch (actually wholly owned by the Belgian-Brazilian company AB InBev) has a history of aggressive takeovers and buyouts, and is also rated one of the most toxic companies in the USA. Its stately label has all the patriotic colours of the USA, while also faintly resembling legal tender in the form of a corporate bond. This discrepancy between ‘working man’s drink’ and evil corporate giant perfectly sums up the role of the authorities in Blue Velvet. Indeed, can the average Joe really identify with a beer that calls itself King?

Frank – the id – Pabst Blue Ribbon

Pabst, like Bud, is also seen as a low-class working man’s beer. But we imagine Pabst drinkers as having less of a work ethic than those of Bud; they’re blue-collar, but hate their jobs and resent the corporate world that enslaves them. Getting drunk isn’t a reward after a long day’s work but something you might do on your lunch break. It’s a drink for misfits, and Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) is the biggest misfit of them all.

Frank disrupts the system of small-town harmony from the moment Jeffrey encounters him. He represents everything Jeffrey believed repressed in his idyllic Lumberton. But though Jeffrey is repulsed, even incredulous that someone like Frank can exist, he’s spellbound by Frank and the underworld he emerges from. Jeffrey can’t help compare Frank with his own impotent father, lying speechless in the hospital.

In everyday society, the id is the repressed element that lurks beneath the surface of civilised life and threatens to erupt whenever the picture gets too perfect. For perfection is not balance, it is a form of excess in itself. Even Frank needs to balance his sick authoritarian daddy complex (“It’s ‘Daddy’, you shithead”) with occasional lapses into Oedipal baby-need (“Baby wants to fuck”).

Today, however, Pabst has taken on a new cultural significance. It has been appropriated as the beer of choice by the young, urban middle-class party-goers popularly and condescendingly known as ‘hipsters’. This demographic is locked in an eternal present, heedless of the impending future and the hard work involved in staking out an independent life. Their priorities are looking good by looking different, knowing the latest trends before they are trends, engaging in random experimental sexual encounters, and getting drunk, high and having a good time.

Credit: Simon Cooper

Wild sex and intoxication are clearly within Frank’s domain. He goes on drunken, drugged-up joy rides and is full of strange sexual perversities. This pleasure-seeking animal who lives for the moment is Freud’s primitive id, providing the sexual and murderous fuel which can turn any routine existence into an exciting life-and-death narrative.

But just as the superego cannot function by having complete control, nor can the id persist too long without the risk of turning into its own rejected opposite. This is characterised by Frank’s need to become a helpless baby, before instantly transforming back into the violent and perverse ‘father’. Pabst drinkers want the freedom of adults without the responsibilities, and the endless fun of childhood without the rules of obedience – and, like Frank, they can instantly transform from one to the other depending on what they want or need in the moment.

Of course, this final analogy between Frank and hipster culture could not have been drawn when Blue Velvet was released in 1986; but it does seem true to the Pabst-drinking hipster culture that can appropriate any symbol of the past for its own expression – just as Frank himself is able to transform anything he touches (like a melancholic Roy Orbison love song) and any place he goes (the entire town of Lumberton) into a dark, surreal experience. If the world itself seems to be accommodating itself to David Lynch’s vision, that at least testifies to his masterful ability to create deeply resonant films that bear, indeed beg, re-watching and reinterpreting, over and over, with or without a beer in hand.

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