In Which, “I Forgot the Opening Line.”
The MGM lion does not roar at the beginning of Brewster McCloud. No instead the iconic image spouts off the above statement. It’s the first sign that we’re not in for a typical movie going experience, a feeling only heightened by the appearance of a lecturer (Rene Auberjonois) explicating facts about birds.
This opening gambit is merely an amuse bouche for the acid tongued anarchy that is found within the rest of the film. Brewster McCloud is a bizarre meta-text on life in America and movies themselves, and the biggest, oddest swing that director Robert Altman could have taken after the culture shaking success of MASH. Here we have a comedy cobbled together from a script about a serial killer, a treatise on the rot of America, and an oddly endearing time capsule of the city of Houston.
Altman has always been revered as the master of subversive Americana, taking genre and imagery of the movies undermining them with his over-lapping audio, judicious camera movement, improvised acting, and bummer endings. Brewster McCloud goes a step further than the average Altman flick from the 70’s, throwing everything at the wall, not even to see what will stick, but to create a giant clatter.
Nominally the story is about the titular Brewster McCloud (Bud Court) an odd little fellow who lives in the basement of the Astrodome and works on a way to perform self-propelled human flight. As he works on his contraption, McCloud encounters the many eccentrics that populate the greater Houston area, working for a lecherous landlord (Stacy Keach), befriending the luminous Suzanne (Shelly Deuvall), and being pursued by a San Francisco super cop name Lt. Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy). McCloud is of course the prime suspect in a series of murders in town, and the only thing that connects them is him and the pile of bird shit that covers each of the corpses.
The ramshackle structure of the film is a remnant of what it used to be. The original screenplay by Doran William Cannon was a serial killer drama set in New York. Altman took it and not only traded locations, but tonality. Switching drama for absurdism and wackiness.
This absurdity forms a way for Altman to toss darts at various societal ills that plagued America in the early 70’s. The opening credits of the film encapsulate everything Altman is aiming for. In the Astrodome a tone deaf Daphne Heap (Margaret Hamilton) sings the national anthem as a an all black marching band plays back up. Just as Heap yells about their performance and forces them to start again the credits re-rack, re-announcing the introduction of the film. This time however the marching band takes their revenge, just as Heap finishes, they begin playing “Lift Every Voice,” and storm the field. Enacting excitement and movement just where the mediocrity of white America stood.
Hamilton’s appearance in the film also tips the hand that Brewster McCloud is a movie about movies, or at least a smirk at the structure of expected genres. When Hamilton bites the dust later she’s wearing the famous ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Shaft as a character is an obvious homage to Bullitt. Murphy dresses like McQueen (amusingly packing only a variety of sweaters for the sweltering Houston weather) and engages in a over-exaggerated car chase with McCloud and Suzanne. That car chase is pretty straight slapstick funny right up until the moment it isn’t. When Shaft realizes he’s been outmaneuvered by his prey, he gives up the ghost and shoots himself in the head. This is the world that Altman imagines for the Hollywood supercop: hollow failure.
Failure is one of the few through lines that can be traced through the film. Shaft fails at stopping the murders, McCloud succeeds in flying, but realizes that human weren’t meant for flight and ends up as a pile of rubble on the floor of the Astrodome. The Astrodome itself is scene as an unstable monument. A giant piece of architecture that is meant to combat the Houston heat, but will one day fall to the whims of nature itself. It’s a glum series of notes for a comedy, after all Altman is a particularly prickly fellow.
All of this business doesn’t really add up to a coherent movie, it’s digressive and sometimes tough to follow as we jump all over the city from character to character. Hell our titular hero doesn’t say a word until a solid twenty minutes in. However there’s a luxury in such a languid and scattershot approach. The first time through the viewer is totally unprepared for every swerve and surprise. Brewster McCloud also takes the form as a quasi-hangout film for Houston. Shooting entirely on location and touring the streets and locals of a specific place in a specific time. Certainly the images of 70’s Astroworld will peak the culture vulture’s interest, spying into the past for a world gone by.
Brewster McCloud is then kind of the perfect cult oddity from a beloved artist. A big swing that didn’t connect with the world at large, but for some will be a favorite for its oddness and quirky specificity. One could imagine Texan auteurs like Linklater and Wes Anderson being drawn to such a project. Even Altman recognizes Brewster as such an experience noting, “The greatest films are the ones that leave you not able to explain, but you know you have experienced something special.”
Is it Weird, Overlooked, or Wonderful?
Absolutely. Brewster McCloud hits all the categories perfectly. Weird as the day is long, a total bomb at the time, and interesting enough to warrant a look.
Odds and Ends
- This is Shelly Duvall’s first movie. Altman loved her as an actress, with her skinny frame and giant eyes. Here he face is almost stylized to that of a flower, with her eyelashes blooming out in each direction.
- Altman is an artist who did so much work that I could dedicate a full series to his oddball features, I won’t for now but things like Images, 3 Women, and Popeye are on the table.
- I quasi choose this as my first movie because of how much Griffin Newman of the Blank Check Podcast loves it.
Next Week: Get your armadillo tanks ready for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s opus Tarkus.