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.

Joel Schumacher’s The Number 23

Joel Schumacher’s The Number 23 is one of the silliest films I’ve seen in a long time, so much so that I couldn’t even really get mad at it, I just sat there in disbelief looking at this adorable kindergarten level film noir huff and puff and try to be edgy and dangerous. Maybe it’s the fact that Jim Carrey is in a serious role, or the script is just so hilariously scattered and overcooked or that Carrey plays a freaking dog catcher (do those even exist anymore?) but for whatever reason I just couldn’t take this thing remotely seriously. So the plot, best as I could jigsaw it together from the hack job of a script: Jim is a mild mannered animal wrangler who finds an ancient Nordic mask that when worn, turns the wearer into- gotcha, didn’t I? Okay for real this time: he *is* an animal wrangler but instead he finds a little self published memoir written by a disturbed big city cop named Fingerling (also Jim with spray on tribal tattoos). In this book the detective is plagued by the number 23, which seems to show up everywhere including, you guessed it, in the real world where it haunts animal wrangler Jim as well. His wife (Virginia Madsen) and kid (Logan Lerman) do their best to both play along and look on in concern as he lets a numeric equation take over his life. There’s a grab bag of subplots including a mysterious psychiatrist (an uncredited Bud Cort), Danny Huston as a colleague who does his best to help, a death row inmate (Mark Pellegrino), a secretive dead girl (Rhona Mitra) and, uh.. a mysterious dog that leads people to gravestones of importance. It all seems hastily thrown together, none of it works or makes any kind of sense let alone lands with any emotional impact or narrative synergy and the ending left me chuckling in bemusement, my lack of conviction in this film equaled only by that it has in itself, which apparently is none. The wannabe noir cutaways to the book about Fingerling are laughably try-hard (Carrey literally wistfully plays a saxophone and stares out an apartment bay-window) and wincingly faux kinky, the psychological character aspects involving the twist ending are so far flung I threw my arms up in surrender and honestly it all felt like several better films tossed into a magic bullet and puréed into an indistinguishable pulp. The only scene with any kind of real power is in a graveyard with this fog, who fascinated me; a priest (Ed Lauter, RIP) informs frenzied animal wrangler Jim that this is a spirit dog who watched over the souls of the dead by standing at their graves. This scene *actually* has conviction, atmosphere and emotional substance, and it gave me chills… but it’s untethered from the film as a whole and has no bearing on the context or overall plot! It’s just… a scene! out of the ether! The same goes for the film as a whole.. what does the dog have to do with the dead girl have to do with the shrink have to do with Jim’s knockoff tribal tattoos have to do with the number 23? Not much of anything, and what little does fit together or add up… just feels stupid.

-Nate Hill

Being Hal: An Interview with Amy Scott by Kent Hill

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There is no denying that a good percentage of the films we count today as iconic, came from the 70’s. With the birth of the easy riders and raging bulls, it would be the first and last time filmmakers would enjoy true creative freedom, as well as being able to present personalized films to the movie-loving audience at large.

Now. When we think of the 70’s, the new Hollywood, there are the usual suspects that come to mind. But, there is a name that, for whatever reason, has been absent from the list when it leaks from the tongues of cineastes the world over. That name is the name of Hal Ashby. One of the great individualists to come out of his era, Ashby’s cinema is at once quietly profound and intensely calm. He was an artist that saw the world for what is was – in its entire obnoxious, absurdist best, Ashby captured the beautiful frailty of the moment, no matter how strange, or violent, or sensual, or funny.

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Still, with all the freedom they enjoyed, the filmmakers of the 70’s were far from immune from the ‘tampering of the suits’. Ashby, like his contemporaries, raged against the ludicrous interference and mindless nitpicking of the powers that control the content that comes to a cinema near you. And, in fighting for his vision, he was labelled troublesome, rendered weary and eventually would succumb to a career that watched him bravely, and perhaps at times foolishly, burn the candle at both ends.

Amy Scott has produced, at last, the grand portrait of a man who made some of the defining films of his generation – or any generation from that matter. With the blessing of Ashby’s estate she as unearthed a veritable trove of Ashby gold, from letters to recordings of the man himself – telling it like it is, or was, or perhaps someday will be.

Hal is a documentary that has been on the road to find out. I for one can’t wait for you to see it – I for one, am just glad it’s out…

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE:

http://hal.oscilloscope.net/

https://www.facebook.com/halashbymovie/

The Big Empty: A Review by Nate Hill

  

The Big Empty is a quirky, off kilter little flick that packs a backpack full of borrowed elements from the Coen brothers and David Lynch, before embarking on a perplexing outing into the Twilight Zone. That’s not to say it rips any of these artists off, and indeed it’s got a style and cadence all its own. It just loves other oddballs before it and wants to wear it’s influences proudly. Everyone’s favourite lovable schlub Jon Favreau plays John Person, a flailing, out of work actor. He’s presented with a dodgy proposition by his whacko neighbour Neely (eternally bug eyed Bud Cort). Transport a mysterious blue briefcase to a remote town in the Mojave Desert called Baker. There he will meet a much talked about, little seen individual called The Cowboy (Sean Bean), who will take the case off his hands. He agrees, as he must in order for us to have a film to watch, and heads out to the back end of nowhere. In any respectable piece like this, the town our hero visits must be populated by weirdos, eccentrics, dead ends, missed encounters and an abiding, ever present atmosphere of anomalous peculiarity. Right on time, he meets a host of charming characters, including Grace (Joey Lauren Adams), her sensual daughter Ruthie (Rachel Leigh Cook), Indian Bob (Gary Farmer), grouchy FBI Agent Banks (Kelsey Grammar), and a bunch of others including Daryl Hannah, Melora Walters, Jon Gries, Brent Briscoe, Adam Beach and Danny Trejo. He’s led from one head scratching interaction to the other, each step of the way proving to be a step behind the elusive Cowboy, with no form of coherence appearing to ease poor John’s bafflement. I was reminded of Jim Jarmusch, particularly his masterpiece Dead Man, perhaps because Gary Farmer appears in both, but most likely mainly due to the fact that both films follow a hapless Joe on a journey that doesn’t seem to be going much of anyplace, but holds interest simply by being bizarre enough. Favreau is the only one that doesn’t fit, the outsider whose laid back suburban affability creates friction with almost every individual he meets, all who seem to have wandered in from the outer limits of some other dimension. Sean Bean is relaxed, mercurial with just a dash of danger as The Cowboy, quite possibly the strangest person John meets. The film has unexpected jabs of humour too, which occasionally breach the surface of its tongue in cheek veneer of inaccessibility. Upon meeting Indian Bob, John inquires: “Are you Bob The Indian?”. Bob jovially retorts “No, I’m Lawrence the fuckin Arabian.” Gary Farmer brings the same cloudy, sardonic cheek he brought to the role of Nobody the Indian in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which had much the same type humour as this one: little moments of hilarity buried like treasures amongst the abnormal. Sometimes I muse that films like these which seem to really go nowhere in high style are there simply to give your brain a workout in odd areas that it wouldn’t normally play in. Set up a voyage like this, lead the audience down a yellow brick road and arrive at.. well basically nowhere in particular, just to chuckle at your efforts to figure it all out, jab you in the ribs and say “Don’t take this shit too seriously, man!”. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s deeper meaning behind the meandering, that will reveal some holy significance. This one, though, I doubt it. It’s pure playtime.

31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival Opening Night: THE LITTLE PRINCE

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Opening the 31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival was the new film by Mark Osborne, THE LITTLE PRINCE.  The film completely honored Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s legendary novella. SBIFF’s director, Roger Durling, introduced the film, spoke of how much the novella means to him, and then he joyfully introduced Santa Barbara’s favorite son, donning an incredibly glorious beard, Jeff Bridges.

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Jeff Bridges attending the SBIFF premiere of THE LITTLE PRINCE

The voice cast is one of the most eclectic and brilliant voice casts ever.  Bridges headlines as the Aviator, Rachel McAdams as the Mother, Paul Rudd as Mr. Prince, Marion Cotillard as the Rose, James Franco as the Fox, Benico Del Torro as the Snake, Bud Cort as the King, Paul Giamatti as the Academy Teacher, Riley Osborne as the Little Prince, Mackenzie Foy as the Little Girl, Ricky Gervais as the Conceited Man, and Albert Brooks as the Business Man.

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The film itself has a wonderfully unique animation style that was a merger of stop motion looking animation and clean and crisp animation that was masterfully fastened together by Osborne.

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The film was as funny as it was sweet and struck the perfect balance of the importance of child’s development of daring to be yourself and adult oriented entertainment.