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Film fans either hate Robert Altman or think he's God's gift to the movies. The actors he's favored likewise worship the director, while the studios that released his three decades of critically praised pictures mostly took a loss at the box office. Altman never exactly hit a commercial groove but, for better or worse, he stuck to his guns and his distinctive style, a free-form cinema that encourages actor input. Altman's camera (or cameras) tends to stand far back and record the action with telephoto lenses, so as not to interfere with the performance space. The director gathered actors into his stock company like a rolling snowball, until some of his pictures became narrative-challenged "murals" featuring his favorite personalities.
This reviewer loved Altman's breakthrough smash hit M*A*S*H when new, later rebelled against its crude sexism and finally calmed down and relented. Of his "dream" fantasies pictures, I find Images mostly a bore and Three Women fascinating. Altman's Fellini-like circus movies move me the least (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding) but I like the games he plays with genres (The Long Goodbye, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Gosford Park).
1970's Brewster McCloud was filmed hot on the heels of M*A*S*H, and was the first of a string of deals cooked up by studios in hopes of a repeat success. Without spending a lot of money but totally free to do as he pleases, Robert Altman comes up with a completely nonsensical fantasy loosely organized around his favorite actors of the moment. Repeating from M*A*S*H are Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Rene Auberjonois, G. Wood and John Shuck; the big debut here is by the young Shelley Duvall, who would come back to work for Altman again at least six times.
Brewster McCloud is less of a story than a collection of ideas flying in loose formation. Young Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) hides out in a forgotten bomb shelter in Houston's new Astrodome, designing an DaVinci/Icarus-like flying contraption. He's visited by a confused girl named Hope (Jennifer Salt of Sisters), who reaches sexual climax under a blanket while watching the slight McCloud exercise to build up the "flying" muscles in his arms. Tending, bathing and watching over Brewster is Louise (Sally Kellerman), a mystery woman who appears to be, or have been, an angel: she has marks on her back where her wings once were. Brewster meets Astrodome guide Suzanne Davis (Shelley Duvall), a quirky but nice girl who almost immediately makes plans to deflower the innocent lad -- a prospect that takes guardian angel Louise by surprise.
Only slightly intersecting the story is a nonsensical murder investigation. Various victims, always unpleasant jerks, are found dead, each hit by a big splatter of bird droppings (a theme emerges). In an undeveloped parody of TV private eyes, San Francisco cop Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) comes to town to investigate, collecting avian feces samples from each victim and keeping his hip sweaters and slacks properly color-coordinated. Opposing shaft are a crusty local cop (G. Wood, the football coach from M*A*S*H) and a pushy politico (William Windom).
The victims are seemingly caught in a blizzard of defecating birds. Daphne Heap (Margaret Hamilton) is a bossy rich woman who sings a horrible rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the Astrodome. Abraham Wright (Stacey Keach) is a tyrannical Scrooge type; Brewster chauffeurs him to collect his rents from various nursing homes. Offensively racist cop Douglas Breen (Bert Remsen) is felled at the zoo, to the joy of his long-suffering wife and boy. One victim is Suzanne's thuggish boyfriend. Suzanne and Brewster lead the cops and Frank Shaft on a wild chase in the boyfriend's souped-up Road Runner muscle car.
Tying all of this together are cutaways to "The Lecturer" (Rene Auberjonois), a demented mad professor type who makes comments about life in the world of birds, that comment on the actions and sex lives of the characters. The Lecturer appears to become more birdlike as the movie goes on, a running gag that isn't particularly funny.
Brewster McCloud has its moments -- and is worth seeing if only to delight in the spirited Shelley Duvall -- but in the long run it's tough sledding over an auteur director's personal fantasies. Nothing that happens is quite satisfying in itself, and despite the constant thematic return to the bird theme, nothing really coheres. There isn't enough of Brewster's three girlfriends to develop any particular statement about life and love, and the entire police sideshow is a shaggy dog story that doesn't bother to go anywhere. The payoff for Frank Shaft, when he finds himself in an unforgiveably un-cool situation, is like too many gags in the movie, either plain not funny or not funny enough to justify all the time and effort expended on it.
This subjective reaction will of course vary, especially if you remember Brewster McCloud as some kind of formative experience. Altman displays his cinematic jokes and ideas about innocence & love, and I suppose if you're on his particular wavelength it may all seem profound. Writer Doran William Cannon's previous effort was Otto Preminger's Skiddoo, an entirely different kind of show-biz farce. The unstructured Brewster McCloud seems more a case of director Altman trying his hand at his first attempt at cinematic fingerpainting with MGM's production money. For me the tip-off is the curtain-call finish borrowed from Federico Fellini's 8 ½, an elaborate finale in service to a cynical joke (or, if it works for you, a poignant joke about cynical endings).
Altman shoots his wider scenes with his signature long lenses, which flatten perspective. We often feel as if we're a mile away from the car chase or the action on the floor of the Astrodome. Brewster's flying apparatus is a beautiful design (by one Leon Ericsen) that moves so nicely, we almost believe it is working. Say what you will about the movie, it moves to a marvelous finish with Brewster's flight. 1 Perhaps the Astrodome has some kind of moving crane installed in its rafters, that inspired the flying scene and perhaps the whole movie.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Brewster McCloud is a very good transfer of the color and Panavision film. Confirmed Robert Altman fans won't get a spotless restored version but it's still very good, and of course, a huge improvement over unwatchable pan-scanned TV prints. A trailer is included. I remember seeing it countless times at revival theaters but never seeing the film itself. The IMDB suggests that 70mm prints were made, which strikes me as an odd move considering the movie's disappearing act from theaters in 1970. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Brewster McCloud rates:
1. Brewster has to put an inordinate amount of effort into the flying process, one aspect of Altman's dreamscape that coincides with my own -- when I fly in dreams, it's an exhausting process, like Brewster's ...and by the end of the dream I've either lost the knack or am afraid I'll give out and take an Icarus-like fall. Is this a common dream theme? I hope it is.
2. From Jim Cobb, 8.07.10:
Long ago I had a paperback about the making of this movie which had the original Doran William Cannon script and also the much different version that was actually filmed. Apparently Cannon was not pleased with the result, but then Altman was not always that bound by what was on the page. I admit to being an Altman fan so I probably give it a few more points that most people. It is certainly very much of its period. Having seen Skidoo on TCM I am not sure adherence to Cannon's script would have improved things.
But I agree.... great to see Shelley Duvall in this. Altman cast her in a wide variety of ways over the next decade and she remains a unique actress. Glad your reviews are back on line. Have a great weekend. -- Jim Cobb
3.From correspondent "B", 8.07.10:
Thanks for a respectful review of my favorite movie.
A few notes: Also repeating from M*A*S*H were Michael Murphy and Corey Fischer. [Murphy had also been in Countdown and That Cold Day in the Park, and had acted for Altman back in his days of directing the Combat! television show.] Altman's assistant director Tommy Thompson and screenwriter Brian McKay met Shelley Duvall (who had never acted before) at a party in Houston and brought her to the director's attention; he not only cast her as Suzanne, but basically tailored the part to her -- i.e., Duvall's fiancee was named Bernard, and I even believe he was an artist. [Having taken the Astrodome tour a few times back in the day, I can tell you that her performance as a 'Dome tour guide was extremely on target.] I once read Doran William Cannon's original script, Brewster McLeod's Flying Machine. Set entirely in New York -- if memory serves, Brewster and Louise hang out in an apartment near JFK airport -- it has very little to do with Altman's picture; Brewster was entirely re-written by Altman and McKay, with liberal contributions at times from the cast (Cannon was contractually guaranteed sole screen credit). And much inspiration from his Houston location. It is said that Altman had originally thought of the Astrodome as a good location for a film when talking with MGM about the possibility of directing the sports heist film The Split in the late '60s; he certainly uses the stadium to its fullest advantage here. The director really worked the town, shooting all over the place, and seized the day on Brewster: When he noticed Margaret Hamilton was appearing locally in a play, he and McKay immediately invented the Daphne Heap character and the business with singing the National Anthem at the 'Dome for her. The Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey Circus figures into the movie's finale in large part because it was then co-owned by the owners of the Astros and was in town. [The 8 1/2 allusion is almost certainly intentional.] Dean Goss, impresario of a popular local dinner/theatre bistro, plays hapless 'Dome security guard Ledbetter. Familiar Houston disc jockeys and newscasters are heard on the film's soundtrack.
Leon Ericksen not only designed Brewster's wings, he was also the picture's de-facto production designer, a credit he was unable to formally take because of union rules; I'm not sure whether Preston Ames, the MGM art director assigned to the film, even came to Houston. Ericksen, whose last name is sometimes spelled Erickson, also designed McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, California Split and Quintet for Altman among other films, and had a lot to do with the look of M*A*S*H; he also designed Coppola's The Rain People and Hopper's The Last Movie. If my memory is right, the only sets that were actually built for the movie were Suzanne's apartment and The Lecturer's classroom; these were constructed in the Astrohall, the oddly-shaped building seen adjacent to the 'Dome at the beginning of the movie. As concerns the flying sequences, the company installed an intricate crane mechanism in a canopy that could be lowered from the very height of the 'Dome; some pretty brave stunt performers -- and even, sometimes, Bud Cort -- were attached by wires to this, donned Ericksen's wings and flapped about quite evocatively and convincingly.
[I cannot recall the title of the '60s MGM film which contains the remarkable widescreen aerial footage that Lou Lombardo appropriated and so beautifully cut together for Brewster's dream sequence. If this ever comes to you, please advise.]
While Gene Page did compose and conduct an original score for the picture, it is probably important to note that John Phillips wrote four original songs for the film -- three of which he performs.
You are right, I think, about the missed payoff of Frank Shaft's demise -- nobody seems to get it... Steve McQueen wouldn't have done this! -- but in my experience over many screenings, audiences have generally roared with laughter over The Lecturer's gradual transformation, with the film's biggest laugh always coming with his final reveal.
There was indeed at least one -- and probably only one -- 70mm print struck of Brewster McCloud. It was for the picture's world premiere at the Astrodome in late December of 1970, and knowing the size of the 'Dome, it was probably wise to have as wide gauge an image as possible to show on a very big screen. Over 20,000 are said to have attended the premiere, which even an avowed fan as myself must admit can't have gone over terribly well. [The picture and sound quality are said to have had serious problems in the huge indoor space.] Besides, whatever the Houston socialite crowd was expecting, this probably wasn't it.
The national reviewers were not kind when the film opened commercially; some were vicious. [The Time review, after almost forty years, is still painful to recall.] The New Yorker's Pauline Kael dismissed it, somehow failing to disclose the fact that she'd done some college radio promotion work on the film for MGM. But Altman remained a commodity -- M*A*S*H was still a presence in theatres after nearly a year in release, and the picture and its director were nominated for Oscars -- and Metro did give Brewster fairly wide national distribution. Some of the regional press was better. The movie would play well in college towns, and with select hip audiences, but not enough to really catch on. It grew in reputation in revival houses over time, I suppose.
I don't care. This is still my favorite movie. Best, Always. -- B.
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