Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Question for the Week of Sept 2-8: I'll Have "a Beer"

Why, oh, why do people in films walk up to a bartender and say "I'll have a beer?"
HAHAHA, this is one of those classic and common bits of movie fakeness - like how often film characters drive in a car and look at a passenger they're talking to far longer than is safe. Or every phone number starting with "555." These are conceits, artificial things about the film or TV world that you're supposed to simply accept. Films and shows come with tropes: lots of rooms are missing a 4th wall, and actors seldom name their drink.

Admittedly, sometimes you don't get what you ordered.

While the one for drivers bothers me no end - sure eye-contact is important, but the two-second rule is far more so - I am fine with the "555" thing because it keeps people from being harassed because they happen to share a phone number used in a picture. Similarly, some people laughed at The Matrix: Reloaded for having obvious roll cages inside the cars in the freeway sequence. Those who complained are idiots.

Personally, it's easier for me to ignore the protection used for the stunt actors than it is to read that people died/were crippled in order to make a rollicking good action scene.

With that said, there are two kinds of people: those who drink beer and those who don't. If you're in the latter category, you see Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut walk into a bar and ask for "a beer" and it probably doesn't bother you at all. However, most post-college beer drinkers know that not all beers are created equal. Some people can't stand "stouts," like Guinness. Others sneer at the cheaper beers like Miller and Budweiser. Still others prefer foreign beverages or micro-brews.

So, if you actually enjoy carbonated alcoholic drinks, then you expect someone to ask for a Spaten, a Saporo, or a Stella, or even an Amstel light (in my opinion, it's the beer preferred by people who'd rather have hard liquor or a mixed drink). Or they'll ask for a recommendation. It sounds simply insane for someone to have absolutely no preference as to what they're gonna imbibe. Personally, I can't stand Sierra Nevada, or red beers like Killians. What do you do if the bartender slides you a can of PBR when you only ever order drinks that are on tap?

Teens - even Teen Wolves - are notoriously not picky.

But it also bothers people for another reason. Imagine that you walk up to the counter of a high end SoHo fashion store and say, "I want some clothes." The questions that should immediately follow are "what kind of clothes?" "Do you want socks and underwear? Hats, gloves, belts, or scarves? Coats?" "Of what style?" It's laughable.

But, hey, that analogy isn't perfect. I mean, Tom did ask for a specific type of alcoholic drink, right? Well, try this scenario: you walk into a bank and ask to withdraw $440 from your bank account. Won't the teller ask what denominations of currency you want? Isn't it obvious that some people want 4 hundred dollar bills and two twenties? Or that others wouldn't want $440 in 5 dollar bills?

Ultimately, the answer comes down to two things: trademark issues and product placement. As to the first: Trademark is legal protection for the name and logo of your business. Some companies don't want their products or brand name to be associated with certain kinds of pictures. If a film has a child taken hostage, Hertz probably doesn't want a shot of someone driving away from one of their rental agencies with the terrified tot in the trunk.

I mean... just pretend there's a Paul Thomas Anderson film wherein Philip Seymour Hoffman threatens to sexually assault someone with a champagne bottle. If he carries it out, I'm guessing Moët & Chandon would not like their name to be highly-visible in that scene. Talk about awkward, right? Imagine your next brunch:
"Y'know, let's go with Dom, huh? Ever since that movie, I hear 'Moët' and think of that bottle-rape scene." "Huh? Oh, yeah! That PTA film..."

For a less hypothetical example, movie producers for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial learned that Mars, Inc. executives were so repulsed by the look of the E.T. puppet that they refused to let Spielberg use M&M's as the alien's favored candy. This allowed The Hershey Company to earn a s--t-ton of money (in 1982 dollars) when Reese's Pieces were used instead. One company was cool with it, the other wasn't, and both had a legal right to keep film studios from prominently displaying their goods. This alone is enough to make film characters treat all beers as if they're interchangeable.

Of course, the other part of it is product placement. Anyone who's seen the last 6 or so Bond films knows that Heineken will appear in those films, as well as in Bond-related TV and print advertisements. The watches will be Omegas (used to be Rolexes - I guess they under-bid), while the cars will be Aston Martins (though that at least dates back to Goldfinger). All of this has been pre-determined by the specific deals made between certain companies and the producers of James Bond pictures.

Although many people take issue with film product placement, these arrangements needn't always be cheap shilling - they sometimes surely are, but there are better and worse of doing it. On occasion, the reality of hearing someone order a Coke, or a Whopper, can be reassuring and familiar. But other pictures subsidize their existence - and their validity - through paid in-movie advertisements.

Here it's "bourbon" - and we only see it's Jack from the bartender's perspective

I mean, I, Robot can take a moment out to shill Converse sneakers, whereas E.T. loves a particular brand of candy. It's up to the viewer's good taste to determine whether these reflect a choice by the filmmakers or mere funding moves. Personally, I'm fine with 007 liking an English car company - Aston Martin makes beautiful cars - but I sneer when I hear Sir Martini order a cheap Dutch beer. Your mileage may vary.

I think that I've provided enough food for thought on this topic. I leave it to you readers to decide for yourselves what is and isn't too much. No matter what, I want you to remember that whenever I've asked a real-world bartender for a screwdriver (in which "screw" stands for "orange juice," fyi), I've been asked what brand of vodka I prefer in my drink. And I expect at least the same for anyone who requests "a beer" at the bar.

I can't believe she's asking the right question.


  1. In defense of this convention, I'd note that for a lot of cinematic history, you didn't have a ton of choice for tap beers in many U.S. bars. In the 80s it wasn't rare to see a bar with two or three taps...all of them Budweiser (maybe one of them bud light, if the place was fancy). If a patron wanted something beyond Bud (or Miller, or whatever domestic beer had that bar room locked down), they could get a bottled foreign beer like Heinecken or Amstel, usually delivered to them with a sneer. So back then you could order "a beer," the same way people sometimes order wine at a restaurant, with the only necessary adjective being red or white. It just meant, "give me what's on tap."

    Still, it's strange that we didn't see more Tarantinoesque fake beer brands once the current era of craft brews got underway. Then again, for the longest time I thought JTS Brown--Newman's bourbon of choice in The Hustler--was a made-up brand, because I couldn't find it anywhere.

  2. Not a drinker but I did sell cigarettes(the legal kind!) once upon a time and always find it amusing to see a movie or TV show have someone come up to the counter to ask for "a pack of cigarettes".

    No one buys cigarettes that way-it's always by brand name-"I'd like Lucky Strike menthol" or "Gimme a Marlboro",you get the idea. I love the movie Clerks but the constant non use of brand names is something that only I find funny(sort of a private joke,even though I don't know anyone involved with that movie).

    1. lady t, I'm glad to hear back from somebody who's experienced this with other make-or-break products! Yes, even if you never smoked a cigarette, you must know someone who did and recognize that brand loyalty is a big deal, as is taste preference. We all like our coffee and eggs in particular ways - or our booze and cigs and such.

      DJ - it is totally true that lack of options in the past was part of why this cinematic trope used to be a real thing in some places. Also, if you know a bartender, they probably know which beer you mean or would want.

      I also did some research before this post went up and read that in some European countries "a beer" is exactly what people say. But I still wanted to address this little oddity in film fiction, since it crops up so often and frequently can feel out of place...

      Thanks to the both of you!


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