Saturday, July 24, 2010

On DVD: "Brewster McCloud"

Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud begins with the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But it is a warbling, off-key rendition, even after the singer (Margaret Hamilton, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz) demands that the song start over (and the credits repeat accordingly). It seems appropriate that McCloud begins with this mangled take on the national anthem, since the film offers the first broad strokes on the canvas that would form, over the next forty years, to become Altman’s America, a wild, eccentric place where the authoritarian establishment was to be sneered and laughed at, where kooks and oddballs were our heroes. It was a vivid, earthy, low-down world, where people talked over each other and the backgrounds were often more interesting than the foregrounds, where women were strong and men were broken, where everything was connected to everything else while simultaneously having nothing to do with anything.

Brewster McCloud may very well be the most pure and unfiltered vision of Altman’s America, 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 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.

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, and of the creation of Altman’s America, 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.

"Brewster McCloud" is available on DVD from Warner Archive. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review at DVD Talk.

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