Budweiser’s American Creation Myth

The must-see film this week is the Budweiser commercial from the Superbowl, which was as shrewd and political as it was feel-good and universal. Trumpistas are trying to boycott it, but good luck with that one. That’s like boycotting Christmas cookies because the Pope is soft on Muslims. (It is in fact goofy that Superbowl ads are the arena for our national psyche, but that’s where we are.)

A day and a half after the Superbowl kickoff on Sunday, this ad had almost 27 million views on Youtube, though fifteen or so of them were me.

It starts in a “present” time in the 1800s when two men with German accents, one obviously an experienced capitalist and one a handsome young buck, stand next to one another in a taproom. “You’re not from around here,” the older man observes, and off we go to a thirty-plus second montage that tells his epic journey:

A storm-tossed ship crosses the Atlantic. The young stud is already sketching something obsessive and entrepreneurial.

The ship hits a wave: He hits his head. Gets stitches over his eye. Gets asked (in German) why he is moving to America and answers that he wants to brew beer. The first weird note is that he answers a German question in English, but who cares? It’s as gorgeous as Pelle the Conqueror so far.

Fifteen seconds in, he is told “Welcome to America” by the official stamping his document, immediately followed by a menacing, Know Nothing thug saying, “You’re not wanted here…Go back home.” This is obviously the offending interaction to some, and wow what a bold statement. I like Gaga (more than I like her actual songs), but this is the most political statement of the year. “First kick I took was when I hit the ground,” Springsteen sings in “Born in the USA,” and here it’s “First person who told me to go back home was when I walked off the boat.” Say what you want about the Trumpistas calling for a boycott, but they read this ad correctly. Hold that thought, though.

Fast-forward to a Mississippi riverboat. He’s going upstream with a black companion, still doodling in his sketchbook. Wow! This is where the grad students start rolling out the word “problematic,” but give Anheuser-Busch credit for going deep in the American mind, linking their creation myth to Huckleberry Finn and the mythic fraternity between black and white.

At half-way through the 60-second spot, the riverboat catches fire and he has to jump overboard, and he trudges through tall reeds on a rainy winter day. Talk about reversals! This Budweiser ad is more suspenseful than most independent films.

There’s mud everywhere. “Welcome to Saint Louis, son,” says a perfect stranger, with a picturesque Clydesdale horse in the background.

Back to the present: “Beer for my friend, please,” says the capitalist, and now the narrative slows down. The strapping lad thanks him and shows him what he’s been sketching, and they introduce themselves: “Eberhard Anheuser.” “Adolphus Busch.” End of story/beginning of story. “When nothing stops your dream,” the text reads.

These are men of few words, but when they do speak they’re in a bar buying beers for each other. Though it’s a little odd that Busch was sketching the actual bottle of Bud, label and all, and not an industrial brewing breakthrough – and though I personally would love to taste whatever they were drinking before the inception of Budweiser – by this time you’re more than hooked.

It’s worth noting that of the five interactions young Adolphus Busch has on his journey to America (six if you count the negro he’s obviously cordial with), only one is a nativist. The horse doctor who stitches his eye, the immigration official, and the first person he meets in Saint Louis all welcome him, and the first person he sips a beer with is a fellow immigrant waiting to help him  make his dream come true.

As in most creation myths, this is a guy who answered the call. While associating itself with beards and artisanal entrepreneurs – things the macro-brews have been struggling against – Budweiser is also taking sides against what feels like a temporary flare-up of anti-immigrant feeling. (It certainly feels more temporary than it did on Saturday.) What’s more American than buying a Bud for a fresh-off-the-boat stranger?

Kill the Guy With the Ball

If you’re reading this within a few hours of its being posted, then you’re not watching the Superbowl.

Or maybe you are: As much as I say I dislike my smartphone, I’m known to whip it out and imdb the cast while I’m watching TV, and then one thing leads to another…and as a rule I only watch films or TV shows that are more exciting than American football.

I’m not a fan, suffice it to say, and haven’t been since I played one year on the freshman squad, when I was 14. I may have been the only football player in New Jersey with a Moody Blues tee shirt. The hardest hit I took was a helmet-to-helmet collision with my own teammate that probably looked like something out of Scooby Doo. I still remember that ringing feeling I got in my ears whenever I’m walking past a bar on a Sunday in fall, and I hear the guys shouting inside.

I thought hard about that ringing feeling this morning, when I got up and streamed the Frontline documentary League of Denial, from October 2013, about head injuries in the NFL:

These are well-paid gladiators who spend all day knocking each other on their asses, unless they’re one of the fleet-footed, slimmer guys: He gets chased by eleven bigger ones.  Three out of ten of them, the NFL now admits, are going to come down with serious brain damage. Do you think the athletes themselves didn’t read that report, and have some strong feelings about it?

I can’t help suspecting that the head injury issue helps to fuel the passion and indignation I get wind of, about all the other NFL scandals of recent years. The guy who beat his wife unconscious. The one who murdered his girlfriend’s friend. The doping. The murder-suicide. The racial disparity in how the league enforces its code of conduct. You’re dealing with an $8 Billion-a-year institution that’s somewhere above the Mafia but below the National Cockfighters League in its moral standing. Any time some wrong comes up associated with it, the burden of proof is now on the institution.

Obviously, to its fans football it still has all kinds of lovely associations: friends, tradition, beer, bratwurst, Sundays, autumn itself. To me it’s like fashion week. I recognize the talent when I see it, but it seems like a colossal waste of human endeavor. It’s always easier to boycott something you didn’t like anyway, so I completely get the majority of my people who are watching the game right now, but I’ve had it with football.

Karl Lagerfeld or Vera Wang?

Karl Lagerfeld or Vera Wang?

Before I ever put on shoulder pads, we’d sometimes play “kill the guy with the ball” in the yard. An American football (Nerf or real pigskin) was tossed in the air, and whoever caught it would run away from everyone else, who would try to tackle the eponymous “guy with the ball.” Each round ended in a pile-on, and the next one started when the “guy with the ball” would stand and throw it in the air. Only when I started venturing out of my neighborhood did I realize this “game” was more commonly known by the charming name “smear the queer.”

Were we bored kids or idiot savants? We seemed to get the essence of the game.