Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Unsung!: Brewster McCloud

Shouldn’t today’s filmmakers be allowed to fail on this epic a scale?

Brewster McCloud is a classic example of an independent filmmaker in the 1970s making “one for himself” after making a massive box office hit for the studio. When Robert Altman completed M*A*S*H in early 1970, no one, certainly not 20th Century Fox, was expecting it to return money by the bushel basket. In fact, stars Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland secretly tried to get Altman fired from M*A*S*H during filming, they were so sure that Altman’s direction was leading the production straight down the toilet stream. But M*A*S*H turned out to be a big fat hit.

Go fuck yourself, Gould. Suck it, Sutherland.

That same year, Altman “cashed in” his M*A*S*H chips and directed Brewster McCloud, surely one of the strangest Hollywood films ever made. I love Brewster McCloud, despite all of its faults. Brewster McCloud gives us a naked glimpse of Robert Altman working without a net… or a script, or sense.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: We are introduced to a bizarre and mysterious Lecturer (Rene Auberjonois), who proceeds to both pontificate on bird species and narrate the film. A bizarre and mysterious string of murders have the Houston police force baffled. Local politician Haskell Weeks (William Windom) calls in famous San Francisco detective Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) to help solve the crimes. Meanwhile, a bizarre and mysterious young man, Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) haunts the bowels of the Astrodome, assisted by the equally bizarre and mysterious Louise (Sally Kellerman), who likes to bathe in public fountains. Brewster manufactures a giant set of wings in his subterranean lair that will allow him to fly under his own power. Are Brewster and Louise bizarrely and mysteriously responsible for the murders?

This synopsis does not do justice to the film’s many themes and tangents. No plot summary ever does justice to any Robert Altman film, whose artistry is often found in the margins. I must say that upon watching the film again, I was astounded by the number of random themes and plot threads: all of the murder victims are irredeemably racist; at times, the film teeters on the verge of making a statement about social class in America, but never quite does; sometimes the film is ultra-realistic but sometimes it seems to be an allegory; there are repeated references to The Wizard of Oz… and the Lecturer is slowly transforming into a giant bird.

None of these notions ever coalesce into anything; but for me, that is one of the film’s charms. Oh, and SPOILER ALERT for Brewster McCloud: We never find out who committed the murders. I am not sure if Altman himself ever knew, or cared.
Brewster McCloud also features a long car chase about an hour into the film that forever answers the age-old question, “What would a car chase in a Robert Altman film look like?” As one might guess, Altman is far more interested in the personalities of the various drivers and their relationships with each other than in standard car chase concerns such as the actual spatial geometry of the highway, the continuity of the editing, or developing suspense. No joke: for this reason it is one of my Top Five Car Chases of All Time. Ya burnt, William Friedkin!

The film includes several groovy folk songs written and performed by John Philips of the Mamas and Papas. The songs function as a sort of Greek Chorus in the film (much like Aimee Mann’s tunes in Magnolia). The final song, “I Promise Not To Tell,” is particularly melodic and memorable. Brewster McCloud also has the singular distinction of being the only film (that I know of, at least) to feature Margaret Hamilton singing the Star-Spangled Banner.

Yes, it is that kind of film.

Much of the cast are holdovers from M*A*S*H and form the basis for the early Altman stock company that he would work with again and again: Sally Kellerman, Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck, Michael Murphy, Bud Cort, G. Wood, and Corey Fisher. In much the same way that Near Dark is an Aliens reunion, Brewster McCloud is a M*A*S*H reunion.

Altman here repeats the overlapping dialogue he pioneered in M*A*S*H, the multiple plot threads he would perfect in Nashville and Short Cuts, and the unconventional protagonist he would feature in Popeye. Brewster McCloud is a goddamned Robert Altman smorgasbord.

AN ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: There is another reason that I hold Brewster McCloud close to my black little heart. When I was a kid, certain films were very hard to see. If the film in question did not show up on television (usually at two in the morning), you were out of luck. Occasionally, I could visit one of the city’s three repertory theatres (the Music Box, the Varsity, and the Parkway), but those excursions were the exception and not the rule when I was in middle school and high school. I wound up reading about certain films and only dreamed of one day seeing them.

All of that changed when I started college. Back in the early eighties on every college campus, film societies and student clubs screened movies in big lecture halls EVERY GODDAMNED WEEKEND. It was an embarrassment of riches! I thirsted for obscure movies, and every weekend I was presented with a beer bong of possibilities. (And movies.) That first weekend alone I must have attended fifteen movies. One of them was Brewster McCloud; by that time, I had already been reading about it for five or six years.

I am often sad that home video and Netflix and illegal downloading via dorm Wi-Fi has all but killed these campus screenings. Seeing the film with a big theater of like-minded students was part of the fun.

Now get out of my yard!

BACK TO THE FILM: High praise for Brewster McCloud comes from those crazy kids over at the IMDb. I am fond of making fun of the user reviews there, but check out what people ( I am assuming that they are people) have said about Brewster McCloud: “absurdist comedy at its best,” “small-cult misfire,” “one nutty movie,” “not for everybody,” “unlike anything you'll ever see,” “oddball Altman outing,” “strange, unique, and wholly original,” “a classic,” “obscure,” “maddeningly original,” “the best surrealist film about Houston, Texas ever made,” “a slice of life,” “sexy, sexy bird man,” “wacky!” and “This is the worst movie I've ever seen… it totally disgusts me to think about it. Agh, why does this horrible thing exist?”

Sometimes I think the negative comments and the positive comments posted about the same movie on the IMDb should be put in a cage and just allowed to fight it out.

I have often ranted in this space about contemporary films that seem to have had all their “specialness” worn away by studio interference, multiple and unnecessary rewrites, unkind preview audiences, and gutless filmmakers. Brewster McCloud reminds us of a time before all this, a better time for movies. Like a quirky romance or a crippled puppy, its many flaws are part of its charm. Check it out – you might hate it, but you will never have seen anything like it.

Brewster McCloud is available on a recently re-mastered MGM burn-on-demand DVD.


  1. I had a similar experience of reading about the film many years before having the opportunity to see it. The film that existed in my mind for so long was so different than the actual film that I was quite disappointed when I did eventually see it. The book that I read about it in focused on science fiction and fantasy films and that compounded with my ignorance of what the Astrodome was lead me to expect some sort of post-apocalyptic movie... because there will be a lot of domes after the apocalypse.

    I did enjoy some of the film's humour once I accepted it for what it was but I don't think the absurdity of it all works quite as well as in M*A*S*H where it is undercut by an understated sadness.

    And this is probably another thing I just flat got wrong but I thought the reveal of the murders was that there was no murderer at all and the deaths were all accidents caused by bird shit. No?

    1. Several times we are told the victims were strangled. The bird droppings are just a clue. A disgusting clue.

  2. It sounds like I need to check this one out. I haven't seen tons of Altman, but I love McCabe and Mrs. Miller. After reading this, I really want to watch this movie.

  3. Yes! I'll get your info from Patrick and I'll send you my copy. I do have to warn you though; it's covered in spit.

  4. Fun write up JB. Your review in some small way reminds me of my own feelings with a different Brewster, Brewster's Millions. Thats another movie that seems to have a ton of faults yet I will sit down and watch anytime it comes on cable. I almost never laugh during the movie yet I am entertained its a strange thing maybe its the Candy Land effect- any film with John Candy has at least one sweet moment in it (and yes I include Wagons East in this definition, granted thats the cheap Candy)

  5. Wonderful review! It really IS a bizarre movie in so many ways, and you've captured that perfectly. Thanks for giving it some well-deserved attention!

  6. I noticed something amusing about Jennifer Salt, who plays Hope, the delivery girl. Her first role was Da Palma's 1968 film Murder a la Mod where she plays the part of 'A Bird.' So did Altman notice this and exclaim " Eureka, we've found our Dorothy" or what?