Brewster McCloud may very well be the most pure and unfiltered film Robert Altman ever made, because he would never again be in a position where he had as much power to make whatever the hell movie he wanted. It was his follow-up to M*A*S*H, his biggest box-office hit (a title it held throughout his career), and one can only imagine the horror that those poor MGM executives must have felt when they got their first look at it. Altman probably liked that. But he certainly couldn't blame them--here they thought they were getting another ramshackle counterculture comedy, and he gave them... well, what, exactly? It's so strange; Altman circles his plot (laid out by scenarist Doran William Cannon, greatly revised by Altman and his cast's improvisations) almost with suspicion, padding around for as long as possible as a free-floating collection of random, peculiar events and surrealist sketches.
The title character (played by Bud Cort) is an odd little fellow who lives in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome and wants, more than anything, to fly. He's building a winged contraption and is being assisted in his quest by Louise (Sally Kellerman, never more fetching), an angelic figure in a trenchcoat (Altman would bring that image back in his last film, A Prairie Home Companion) and her pet crow. Those who ruffle Brewster's feathers keep coming up dead, covered in bird droppings; the Houston police bring in a "special investigator from the San Francisco Police Department," wild card cop Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy), who postures and preens but doesn't do much actual investigating, luckily for Brewster.
Altman spends most of the film incongruently meshing the zonked-out fairy tale of the boy who could fly with a send-up of the already-stale conventions of cop and action movies. Shaft is a good cop who runs on instinct and bucks the system; in the way he wears his shoulder holsters and turtlenecks, he's clearly meant to echo Steve McQueen in Bullitt. The film even contains an elaborate spoof of that film's primary set piece, but this car chase concludes with a whamo, contrarian twist. Meanwhile, Altman can't resist paying tribute to co-star Margaret Hamilton by throwing in multiple Wizard of Oz references, or framing the film with a satirical analysis by "The Lecturer" (Rene Auberjonois) that goes in an altogether unexpected direction.
Does it work? Well, that depends on what your standards are. It doesn't in any conventional sense--the endless bird shit jokes get tiresome, the narrative is absolutely befuddling, and some of the villainous characters (particularly Brewster's vulgar, disgusting old boss, who rolls around in a wheelchair with money literally piled on his lap) are played as the broadest kind of over-the-top caricature.
But then again, there's every indication that Altman was going for exactly that. In a 1997 interview, he called Brewster McCloud "my boldest work, by far my most ambitious. I went way out on a limb to reach it." You see that ambition throughout the film, as he's trying things, taking risks, running naked in the rain. The tonal inconsistency might not have been a keeper for his future stylebook, but as in M*A*S*H, you can see the distinctive look and feel of his entire filmography--the impatient zooms, the offhand, frequently overlapping dialogue, the throwaway jokes (when Shelley Duvall's Astrodome tour guide mentions the bathrooms, she demurs: "They're not really bathrooms. They don't have bathtubs or anything like that"), the ensemble playing. No one "stars" in an Altman movie--Bud Cort is a total cipher. Seldom has an actor been so barely-there in a leading role, yet it somehow works, as if the movie is happening to him rather than the other way around. (That basically became his on-screen persona.) At times, it feels as if Altman is in the same role--in the middle of a storm, capturing what he can, even if it is, in fact, a storm of his own making. What he comes up with is a discombobulated, far-out freak show, and that's just as it should be. Brewster McCloud might be a mess, but it's his mess.
Warner Archive's single-layer DVD boasts (for the first time I recall) that this is a "remastered edition," which might raise your hopes a touch. Alas, it's pretty typical Archive fare--not bad, not great. The 2.4:1 image has some pretty muddy spots, and grain and compression artifacts are considerable in spots. Dirt and specks are a consistent presence, though more noticeable in certain shots (like the wide of Louise and her bird leaving the Astrodome). But the bold 1970s color saturation is nicely reproduced, and the imperfections, while present, are seldom particularly distracting.
Audibility is always the key for an Altman soundtrack, since he makes such extensive use of location sound and overlapping dialogue (though not as much in this film as in those that would follow). The 2.0 stereo track doesn't offer much in the way of depth or dazzle, but one wouldn't expect it to; that said, effects are well-modulated, music is nicely mixed, and the dense dialogue is clean and clear throughout.
As expected for an Archive release, the only extra is the film's original Trailer. But it's a fascinating inclusion, as it allows us to see the response of the panicked studio as they try to spin the picture as a zany cop spoof that does for the police what M*A*S*H did for the army.
A casual viewer with little or no knowledge of Altman will likely find Brewster McCloud to be rudderless, bewildering, and/or exasperating. It would not be unreasonable to arrive at that conclusion. But as a key pivot point in the career of its director, it is an invaluable work--the moment when, coming off a moment of unparalleled and unimaginable critical and commercial success, he chose to hock a loogie at convention and make whatever loopy mindfuck of a movie struck his fancy. That's the choice an honest-to-God artist makes at that juncture, that's the kind of balls it takes to start assembling a living, breathing body of work. Forty years later, I'm glad he made that call.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.