Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Brewster McCloud (1970)

          Arguably Robert Altman’s strangest movie—a high standard, given his eccentric career—Brewster McCloud hit theaters shortly after the idiosyncratic filmmaker scored a major hit with M*A*S*H, but this picture was far too bizarre to enjoy the broad acceptance of its predecessor. In fact, Brewster McCloud shuns narrative conventions so capriciously that it seems likely Altman took taken perverse pleasure in confounding viewers. Consider the willfully weird storyline: Nerdy young man Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) lives illegally in a workroom beneath the Houston Astrodome, and he passes his days studying avian physiology while building a pair of mechanical wings so he can eventually fly away to some unknown location.
          Three women in his life accentuate the peculiarity of Brewster’s existence. Hope (Jennifer Salt) is a groupie who visits Brewster’s lair and climaxes while watching him exercise; Suzanne (Shelley Duvall, in her first movie) is a spaced-out Astrodome tour guide who becomes Brewster’s accomplice and lover; and Louise (Sally Kellerman), who might or might not be a real person, is Brewster’s guardian angel, subverting everyone who tries to impede Brewster’s progress.
          This being an Altman film, the story also involves about a dozen other significant characters. For instance, there’s Abraham Wright (Stacy Keach), a wheelchair-bound geezer who makes his money charging merciless rents to seniors at rest homes, and Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy), a supercop investigating a series of murders that may or may not have been committed by Brewster and/or Louise. (Each of the victims is marked by bird defecation on the face.) Among the film’s other threads is a recurring vignette featuring The Lecturer (Rene Auberjonois), a weird professor/scientist who speaks directly to the audience about bird behavior while slowly transforming into a bird.
          Although it’s more of a comedy than anything else, Brewster McCloud incorporates tropes from coming-of-age dramas, police thrillers, and romantic tragedies, and the whole thing is presented in Altman’s signature style of seemingly dissociated vignettes fused by ironic cross-cutting and overlapping soundtrack elements. This is auteur filmmaking at its most extreme, with a director treating his style like a narrative component—and yet at the same time, Brewster McCloud is so irreverently lowbrow that Kellerman’s character drives a car with the vanity license plate “BRD SHT.” Similarly, Salt’s character expresses an orgasm by repeatedly pumping a mustard dispenser so condiments squirt onto a table.
          Appraising Brewster McCloud via normal criteria is pointless, since Doran William Cannon’s script is designed for maximum strangeness, and since none of the actors was tasked with crafting a realistic individual. A lot of what happens onscreen is arresting, and the movie is cut briskly enough that it moves along, but one’s tolerance for this experiment is entirely contingent on one’s appetite for mean-spirited whimsy. That said, Brewster McCloud is completely unique, even for an era of rampant cinematic innovation, and novelty is, to some degree, its own virtue. (Available at

Brewster McCloud: FREAKY

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