Film Review

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: BREWSTER MCCLOUD (1970)

By Patrick Crain

When M*A*S*H became an unexpected monster hit that would allow Robert Altman to more or less write his own ticket for the next ten years, he came face to face with a stark decision. He could continue down the road of commercialism and give mass audiences what he thought they might have wanted or he could continue being an iconoclast who would blow apart any good will he may have previously accrued by prospectively indulging in projects that meant the most to an audience of one, namely Robert Altman. Within nine months of the release of M*A*S*H, this question would be answered very clearly with the release of Brewster McCloud.

Continuing his trend of doing unwelcome prostate exams on the studio suits, Brewster McCloud may have been even more damning and reprobate than M*A*S*H and it’s evident within the first three minutes. Though MGM’s Leo the Lion title card had been sent up before, never had his maw opened to reveal a mistake (specifically, Rene Auberjonois sheepishly saying “I forgot the opening line” is laid over the roar), announcing the artificiality of the movies before we even see a frame of the actual film. Soon after that, Altman takes center aim at opening credit sequences by calling attention to it while setting up the players in this mad, modern fairy tale (and if audiences thought the verbalized roll call of actors that posed as the closing credits M*A*S*H was audacious, they were likely to be just as delighted at the end of Brewster McCloud and, perhaps, even more so).

Brewster McCloud, on the surface, is a social observation wrapped up in a narrative regarding a bizarre murder mystery. The town of Houston is suddenly plagued by the mass stranglings of some of society’s upper crust, including a wealthy miser who owns a string of rest homes (an unrecognizable, hilarious Stacey Keach) and a gaudily spangled, tone deaf, and miserably loud Marge Schott-like matron all things white in her beloved city (a fabulous Margaret Hamilton). To help solve these murders, hotshot San Francisco detective Frank Shaft (Altman day-player Michael Murphy in his first plum role) and his glorious assortment of turtlenecks are called in to assist and he immediately runs afoul of the local police investigation headed up by acerbic Captain Crandall (G Wood, pretty much playing the same character he did in M*A*S*H). Weaving in and out off this mystery is Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort, charming audiences a year before he really made an impression in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude), a lonely and shy young man who lives in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome and is in the process of building a massive set of wings so one day he can fly far far away. Also, mixed into the craziness is a subplot regarding the widow of a dirty cop (Bert Remsen in his Altman debut), a dizzy yet radiant Astrodome tour guide (Shelley Duvall, an absolute doll in her film debut), a local political bigwig (William Windom), and a great deal of bird shit.

There are a great deal of elements in this very specific stew that makes it such an enticing curiosity and quite unlike anything else in Altman’s filmography. Along with its relentless torching of everything stupid and ugly about American culture (racism, corruption, sleazy politicians), the film takes some pretty hip weed humor out for a stroll along with more than a few homages to the Wizard of Oz and cop films of the day (most especially Bullitt and Shaft). Likewise clever and curiously amusing is the film’s continuous monologue by the lecturer (Auberjonois) whose theories on man and bird prove to be so potent, he slowly transforms into an overstuffed winged creature as the movie unfolds.

But, amid the almost surreal, carnival atmosphere that perfumes the film, there are deeper and more serious themes at play in Brewster McCloud. Bud Cort is not unlike his character in Harold and Maude in that he’s engaged in a strange relationship with an older woman and is also unable to connect to the real world. But in Brewster McCloud, the audience doesn’t much know what has caused him to give up on humanity to the point he would retreat into such a cockeyed fantasy. Sally Kellerman’s mysterious, trench-coated, doting, mama bird/angel of death character of Louise hangs about in the background and cuts a figure that Altman would return to with just a little less amusement in the last hour of his career when mortality was watching his every move. And not unlike Sandy Dennis’s Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park, Brewster is a sexual cripple. Taught to believe that the closest experience to flying at man’s disposal is the pleasure of sex and that, once one has been deflowered, man settles and loses his desire for flight, his sex life is relegated to him doing an insane amount of chin-ups while his girlfriend (a hilarious Jennifer Salt) masturbates under the covers.

Brewster McCloud is a very singular, madcap moment in Altman’s career that feels something like a palate cleanser that was splashed into the audience’s face to repel the squares who had hitched onto M*A*S*H for all the wrong reasons. Where he would give flesh to some bottom shelf National Lampoon characters some fifteen years later with his underrated O.C. and Stiggs, Altman here looks to be crafting something that feels like it escaped from a movie parody right out of MAD Magazine. And while the final moments of the film drive home just what an actor’s movie the film is, the real star of Brewster McCloud may very well be the Astrodome itself. A scant five years after it was completed, Altman saw it as one of the best metaphors for the day; a monument to the fact that the human race eventually became far more risk-adverse and less adventurous and would opt to nest in the reliable creature comforts one got from living in a cage. And it was a cage Altman would continue to rattle as if doing so were a personality trait.

1 comment

  1. I first viewed “BREWSTER MCCLOUD” in 1984. This was when I was going through a Bud Cort obsession due to having just recently seen “HAROLD AND MAUDE”, a film which spoke to me, at my then burgeoning teenage depression. I became fascinated by anything BC related, so I began scouring the TV GUIDE to catch a late night glimpse of anything being aired which Mr. Cort had done before or after his earth shattering performance as Harold Parker Chasen. Naturally, I stumbled upon his Altman work. After seeing “M*A*S*H, I inevitably found my way to “BM”. I caught it on a late night screening on a local TV affiliate. I was instantly impressed by the irreverent tone of the film. I had to go to the local library (remember those places? Back in the day when one couldn’t pull up info via a Google search?) to find a biography of ROBERT ALTMAN which enlightened me on the struggles of his career, and how he had been a true “New Hollywood” maverick, and how his films pissed off the the studio system.

    This film is a true anomaly. It contains disparate narrative threads, all of which lead to a rather fatalistic conclusion. It is a rather “dark” film, isn’t it? From the modernist unruliness announced by Margaret Hamilton – who ushers in the credits with an off-key “Star-Spangled Banner” and exits with a zoom onto her ruby slippers and a few bars of “Over the Rainbow” played over her corpse – and Jennifer Salt being driven to onanism by the protagonist’s sweaty chin-ups, John Schuck burying his face in a Captain America comic book, the mock-Peckinpah editing in the midst of a satirical car chase, this film eschews any expectations due to the box office success of M*A*S*H.

    Some points :

    A) Circa 30 years ago, I was in a college bookstore and read an Altman “biography” which detailed his time on this film. It said he didn’t exactly have final cut on this film. He was fighting with MGM, but had to focus on pre-production for “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”, so he left it to them. Hence, the idiots at the studio cut it down and focused on the more marketable aspects of the picture. Their awful marketing campaign made it clear they had no idea what to do with the film.

    B) An absolutely amazing paperback tie – in book was released in conjunction with the film. Titled it “ON MAKING A MOVIE: BREWSTER MCCLOUD” by C. KIRK MCCLELLAND, it detailed the troubled production. From BUD CORT and SALLY KELLERMAN’s distrust of ALTMAN’S freewheeling style, to producer LOU ADLER fighting to keep the L.A. suits at bay in Hollywood, to writer DORAN WILLIAM CANNON on set, fuming that his script – a property of a bidding war between Hollywood studios just a year prior –  was being ruined by an iconoclastic out of control director.

    C) The film was subject to an outlandish (for its time) premiere at its filming location – the Houston Astrodome. Beset with technical problems, the premiere was attended by the cast and crew, along with the entire Houston press. Projected on a 70 foot screen, it must have been quite a spectacle.

    D) The music in the film was quite unique. From GENE PAGE’s rambunctious score, to African American soul songstress MERRY CLAYTON pieces recorded for the film (her “White Feather Wings” is a gorgeous gospel pop composition), to songs by ex Mama & The Pappas member John Phillips (taken from previous released recordings, yet cleverly utilized to be germane to the subtext of the onscreen action), the soundtrack is a superb distillation of its time.

    E) Author BOB RANDALL was a fan of this film, so much so that he appropriated the name of actor BERT REMSEN’s racist, corrupt cop – “Douglas Breen” –  for the stalker protagonist of his epistolary novel “THE FAN” in 1976.

    Ok, I’ll shut up now!

    Like

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