“HEINEKEN? FUCK THAT SHIT. PABST BLUE RIBBON!” HOW A LINE OF DIALOGUE FROM LYNCH’S BLUE VELVET HELPS DEFINE THE FUNDAMENTALS OF POSTMODERN THEORY

by / No Comments / April 2, 2014

by Mateusz Blach – University of Calgary

Can beer help us understand the nature of postmodernity? While certainly refreshing, and acting as a temporary relief from reality, beer can provide a setting for discourse. Whether in a bottle or pint glass, the tavern is a prime location for debate. If anything, it can help us to relate our own understanding of certain concepts, such as, what exactly is postmodernism? How has it changed our perceptions on society and identity? The term “Postmodernism” has been applied to so many fields of art and culture that Fredric Jameson states, “the concept of postmodernism is not widely accepted or even understood today.” (p.1) Jameson’s own essay is quite encompassing and general in its conclusions. So how does it apply to film? Peter Wollen addresses the topic of modernist film, in particular that of Godard, rather directly, relating specific elements of modernist film form to that of classical cinema form. One of the elements Wollen brings about is the comparison of Identification and Estrangement as the aspects of classical and counter cinema’s clash, respectively. By relating the dynamic of identification and estrangement between classical and modernist cinema while comparing it to the characteristics of postmodern cinema, it is possible to ascertain a greater understanding of the concept of postmodernism. Along with a little help from beer.

Wollen’s essay is a careful deconstruction of the methods Godard uses to establish his modernist approach of counter-cinema. In particular, two elements brought to light are identification and estrangement. Modernism was a movement that acted as a rejection of tradition while stressing individual expression and experimentation of the medium to provide, as Jameson says, “a provocative challenge to the reigning reality and performance-principles of early twentieth-century middle-class society.” (p.18) It served to break from an established ideology to bring to light something new and Godard’s approach achieved this. Wollen brings up specific methods to initiate the breakdown of identification such as the “non-matching of voice to character, introduction of ‘real people’ into the fiction, and characters addressing the audience directly.” (p.420) By employing these methods, the viewer is alienated and distanced. Rather than identifying with a classical narrative that provides emotional involvement with a fluid state of suspended belief, the film causes this state of absorption to be severed. This causes the viewer’s sudden realization of themselves and their presence in relation to the film. Rather than a passive experience, it becomes active. Unfortunately this causes a break not only in the identification with the film but in the narrative link as well. What then transpires is a delicate balance in which the questions of “what is this film for?” and “why did that happen?” are brought about. (Wollen, p.420) The dynamic of the film/filmmaker and the spectator must then be carefully managed so that the content of the film and its purpose are registered by those for whom it was designated. But then how do the conclusions of this dynamic of identification/estrangement between the film and the viewer help to clarify the nature of postmodernism?

Jameson’s essay touches upon the relationship between postmodernism and consumer society. It observes how in a society of consumption with an unparalleled integration of the media, reality becomes consumed as an image of this media.

            It is a ‘realism’ which springs from the shock of grasping that confinement and of realizing that, for whatever peculiar reasons, we seem condemned to seek the historical   past through our own pop images and stereotypes about that past, which itself remains    forever out of reach. (Jameson, p.10)

Rather than the distinct individual of modernism, we become a collective identity, an amalgamation of pop-culture without discriminating labels to separate them. But is this the only face of postmodernism? Jameson asks, “we have seen that there is a way in which postmodernism replicates or reproduces–reinforces–the logic of consumer capitalism; the more significant question is whether there is also a way in which it resists that logic.” (p.20) It is my belief that rather than being a reaction to modernism and its disruptive ways, it is an evolution which utilizes both aspects of identification and estrangement. Rather than being combative to one element and accepting of the other, both are used for their proper strengths on the viewer. The aspect of identification has a great deal to do with the practice of pastiche. Pastiche, defined by Jameson, is, “in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum, the imprisonment in the past.” (p.7) Due to the exposure of the media, even the ‘unique’ nature of modernist art has been rendered meaningless from over-saturation. The result is that pastiche speaks to a mass culture and causes a push for nostalgia, this need to seek the past through our preconceptions of the past, and we recognize this pastiche as a communal experience of identification. But as suggested by Jameson at the end of his essay, there is a way this acts to resist the nature of our communal consumptive society.

Postmodern filmmakers, such as David Lynch, exploit our sense of nostalgia and collective memories in order to violently wake us from these preconceptions and strive to be just as subversive as the modernist artists of the past. Lynch’s film Blue Velvet (1986, USA) serves as an excellent example of this method. His film acts on our own collective knowledge of Reaganism and the classical American nuclear family. Using the pastiche, the images of the white picket fence, milkshake bars, cheerleaders and drop-top classic convertibles are everywhere, and our nostalgia brings us back immediately to the socially conservative time of 1950’s America we can identify with. This illusion of ‘the past’ is however broken when the violent reality of this world is revealed to us by the way of Frank Booth. Here the spectator is conflicted between two worlds, one world that society readily accepts and assumes as reality, but another that displays a dark underbelly of social deviance involving voyeurism, violent sexual attraction and simultaneous repulsion. This dichotomy carries over to the spectator as well, as there exists a struggle to preserve the identification with the world presumed to be known and accepting the estrangement of the sudden revelations the second world has revealed.

So finally, how does beer fit into this? In a single line uttered by Frank Booth, “Heineken! Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon,” Lynch brilliantly outlines the entire postmodern philosophy. Postmodernism first seeks to destroy the individual. As Jameson states:

In the heyday of the nuclear family and the emergence of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic social class, there was such a thing as individualism, as individual subjects. But today, in the age of corporate capitalism, of the so-called organization man, of bureaucracies in business as well as in the state, of demographic explosion–today, that older bourgeois individual subject no longer exists. (p.6)

Jeffery constantly drinks Heineken, an expensive imported beer, throughout the film, thus separating himself from the common American workman setting. But in that one line, “Fuck that shit,” his bourgeois individuality is immediately destroyed. Instead he is told to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, a cheap domestic American beer, the beer of the blue collar American worker. In the one line, he is told to drink like the rest of the American middle class masses, to identify with a collective sensibility and image. But the subversion, the estrangement takes hold at the same time. The individual demanding that Jeff drink Pabst, is the deranged psychopath Frank Booth, so then, is Frank supposed to be the face of the good old regular working Joe we are supposed to identify with? As Jameson puts it, “that is a question we must leave open.” This is the point in which the spectator becomes the active participant in the film, when they must ask themselves those crucial questions that modernism queried. “What is this film for?” “Why did that happen?”

Wollen believed that identification was solely the tool of classical film form to create an illusion for the spectator, while estrangement was used by modernism to establish the discourse of the film. Jameson only spoke of the strong feeling of identity that postmodernism could evoke through the use of pastiche but he hinted at something more. He left the question of resistance and subversion open, because art doesn’t have an end. It is not a world “where when innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles.” Art is continually evolving and cinema along with it. As long as filmmakers and spectators continue to ask, “what is this film for?” with or without a pint of beer in hand, cinema and art still has a future.

 

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998. London: Verso, 1998.

Wollen, Peter. “Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent d’Est.” In Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 418-426. Originally published in Afterimage (Fall 1972) (London: British Film Institute, 1972)

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