Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Brewster McCloud

BREWSTER MCCLOUD                   B              
USA  (105 mi)  1970  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Altman

Altman: Your screenplay was a piece of crap!
Cannon: My screenplay was perfect.
Altman: It was crap.
Cannon: You bought it!
Altman: You sold it!

Often listed as the director’s favorite, where Altman is quoted as saying “It was my boldest work, by far my most ambitious,” it was this madcap farce that followed the huge success of MASH (1970), a popular audience favorite, while this film divided audiences with its go-for-the jugular style of humor.   The original Doran William Cannon screenplay, Brewster McCloud’s (Sexy) Flying Machine, passed through all the major studios, becoming one of the legendary unproduced scripts in Hollywood, where even Bob Dylan at one point expressed an interest, but it was dying a slow death until music producer Lou Adler, who produced The Mamas and the Papas, passed it along to Robert Altman.  Altman had his own problems with the script, initially asking Brian McKay, who he had worked with during the 60’s on the TV series Bonanza (1959 – 1973), to revise the script, but Altman hated the script so much that he eventually threw it out, where it became something of a challenge not to use a single word of the original screenplay, relying on improvisation, coaching the actors on lines as they shot the scenes.  Cannon, of course, was outraged when he saw the finished product and disassociated himself with the film, all of which is part of the legendary making of this film.  It was Altman’s idea to use the Houston Astrodome as the principle shooting location, the first film to shoot inside the mammoth structure, but there were clashes on the set where he replaced cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth with Lamar Boren, where he was uncomfortable with leading man Bud Cort, whose very next film would be the quirky black comedy HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), listed at #9 on AFI's 10 Top 10 of American romantic comedies, and production slowed when Altman was hospitalized with a hernia.  However, typical of Altman’s working methods, he enjoyed hosting informal gatherings with his cast and crew after hours, where marijuana and alcohol were plentiful, making it more of an experience than a typical film shoot, something of a holdover of 60’s counterculture thinking that Altman maintained throughout his lifetime.   

While this was a college campus favorite, perhaps reflective of the anger and cynicism of the era, it may be viewed today as a raw and unpolished film that is often politically incorrect, where Altman early in his career was not afraid to make racial jokes, yet it is this unbridled freedom that expresses what’s best about this director, as he’s not afraid to take chances, where the freewheeling and irreverent tone is the whole point of the film.  The 1970’s was dominated by a New Wave of younger American filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Brian de Palma, and Peter Bogdanovich, all of whom were not only contemporaries, but often colleagues.  Altman was an outsider to this group, characterized as a brash young rebel whose own personal vision was just as comfortable railing against the establishment as the counterculture, much like Cassavetes, both perhaps the decade’s best chroniclers of human behavior.  In BREWSTER however, a parody of conformism and bizarre even by Altman’s standards, an example of his vulgarity, provocatively going beyond conventional taste, targeting bullies, racists, authority, and the wealthy, where we have a less than perfect film that seems to glorify its failings, considered a failure in some critical measure, yet it feels strangely enough like Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), a somewhat overpraised early work, yet a film Hitchcock, and Altman here as well, had to make in order to unleash their artistic potential, as both films contain evidence of the brilliance that is yet to come.  It’s impossible to think of the sprawling mess/masterpiece that is Nashville (1975) without first thinking of this film, where Altman has the luxury of getting the quirks out of his system, where BREWSTER is clearly a trial run for some of the effects that Altman perfects in NashvilleBoth are nearly plotless, set in the South, with a cast of thousands, featuring a kind of American populism in the musical numbers throughout, where P.T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” turns into The Grand Ole Opry, where American flags are unfurled to marching bands and the colors of red, white, and blue, and patriotism is stood on its ear.  The spirit of community is celebrated at the end of both films, but only after having undergone a terrible tragedy, the death of the mythical hero, where there’s a lingering feeling of an essential moral lesson yet to be learned, a cynical expression that suggests we are not in touch with the rapid rate at which the world around us is changing. 

This is ostensibly a post-60’s fantasy, a challenge of mainstream convention, the story of a boy, Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort), a likeable misfit living in the bowels of the Houston Astrodome who builds a pair of mechanical wings so that he can fly, presumably to escape from this incomprehensible world.  From the outset, things are not what they seem, where the MGM logo appears, but instead of a lion’s roar, we hear a voice feebly explain, “I forgot the opening line,” whereupon we are taken into a classroom lecture by René Auberjonois pointing out, in minute scientific detail, the various differences and characteristics of certain birds.  Brewster, however, has what appears to be a Guardian Angel (or Angel of Death) known as Louise (Sally Kellerman), an angel who has lost her wings, a somewhat eccentric woman seen dressed in a trench coat who encourages his dreams of flight while apparently strangling anyone that poses a threat to Brewster, while the opening credit sequence inside the Astrodome becomes a parody of the movie structure itself, featuring none other than Margaret Hamilton, aka the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), as Miss Daphne Heap attempting to lead a marching band of black musicians and twirlers in her own truly terrible rendition of the national anthem.  But she’s forced to stop and try again, as she berates them to play in the proper key, “I want everything exactly the way it should be.  That’s why you’re in these uniforms.  That’s why I bought you these uniforms!” where the opening credits begin again, but this time the band breaks out into gospel in a completely out of control free-for-all, where they appear to have been struck by a liberating spirit of joy.  Immediately we are introduced to a theme of unrestricted freedom and continued constraint, pointing out the post-60’s tensions inherent with repression and the need to escape it, where at every turn the world appears challenged by the stupidity of the prevailing order, where the viewer quickly realizes they are in for manic silliness in this outlandishly strange black comedy.  Altman has always relished large ensemble casts, where we see him early in his career having a blast with the remnants of Doran William Cannon’s decimated script which contains a zillion wacky characters, somehow orchestrating this mayhem into a wonderful mess of a movie. 

Brewster is an inconspicuous limousine driver for the wretchedly greedy Alexander Wright (Stacy Keach in Scrooge makeup), an elderly man in a wheelchair continually barking out orders as he bullies the residents in several retirement homes for his rent money, literally taking every last dollar.  It’s only a matter of time before his wheelchair flies out of control and we see him barreling down the freeway.  Almost simultaneously, we see the return of Miss Daphne Heap, this time berating a nearby raven perched nearby her cage of pigeons, screaming “Get out, you nigger bird!” before she is struck dead, somehow strangled, seen wearing her ruby red slippers as bird shit drops on her inert corpse.  This kind of racial nastiness is all but absent from films today, but it takes Altman’s darkly satiric notions to perfectly express Miss Daphne’s superficial veneer of racial tolerance covering up the ugly racism lying underneath.  Houston is besieged by a string of unsolved stranglings, calling in an out of town police expert, “San Francisco super cop” Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy wearing blue contact lenses to resemble Steve McQueen) to investigate.  Shaft immediately fixates on the bird droppings, linking the murders to Brewster.  In Brewster’s underground lair, where he has stolen a Nikon camera as well as a historical museum book on the Wright Brothers to help him develop his mechanical wings, he is visited by Hope (Jennifer Salt), a young girl who is a health food nut that has a nearly fetishist thing for him, but he ignores her and instead develops a friendship with the kooky and dimwitted Astrodome tour guide Suzanne, Shelley Duvall, who got her start in this film, with the world’s largest eyelashes.  Suzanne confidently slips on the gloves and turns into a daffy wannabe race car driver of a Plymouth Road Runner who helps him escape from Shaft, as well as the police, in a riveting car chase scene parodying BULLITT (1968), though in truth looking back from today, it’s much closer to the SMOKY AND THE BANDIT (1977) chase scenes.  Shaft’s humiliating exit from the chase, and the film, seems to suggest Altman simply grew tired of the character, so he got rid of him.   

This coming-of-age story surrounding McCloud is accompanied by equally absurd bird lectures from Auberjonois (known only as the Lecturer) that continue throughout the film, always interrupting the flow of action with some ridiculous comment about “man’s similarity to birds, and birds’ similarity to men,” often describing the mating habits (interspersed with Brewster’s own sexual exploits), where eventually it appears the Lecturer himself is slowly transforming into a bird.  While the police are flabbergasted as to why their strangulation victims are covered in bird droppings, Brewster is also trying to finalize the work on his flying machine before the police close in.  While Louise urges against the temptations of the flesh, Brewster thinks he’s found his soul mate in Suzanne, becoming intimately involved, where the sensuous use of music is reminiscent of Hair and other counterculture musicals.  Perhaps the most perfectly realized scene in the entire movie, one that beautifully sits apart from all the chaotic madness, is Louise’s exit, as she not only leaves Brewster once he becomes lovers with Suzanne, but she mysteriously leaves this earthly presence.  Kellerman’s role should remind Altman fans of Virginia Madsen’s part as the presumed Angel of Death in the director’s last film, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006).  Suzanne, however, is not ready to leave her life in Houston behind to run away with the infinitely strange Brewster, who she suspects in the murders, so in no time she betrays him to the police.  For Brewster, it’s now or never, retreating to the Astrodome for his wings as he runs to the bleachers even as the police are arriving on the scene, where, like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) or THELMA & LOUISE (1991), he has little choice but to take flight.  Unlike Disney’s DUMBO (1941), however, this one has a more ill-fated ending, where even as he initially soars through the air, he cannot escape the bizarre claims of the Lecturer that man is inherently unsuitable for flight, eventually growing exhausted and crumbling in a heap on the floor of the Astrodome as a three-ring Circus of the cast now returning as costumed clowns and circus performers march around oblivious to Brewster’s remains.

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