Friday, February 5, 2016

#1,999. Brewster McCloud (1970)

Directed By: Robert Altman

Starring: Bud Cort, Shelley Duvall, Sally Kellerman


Trivia: On December 5, 1970, a record 23,930 people attended the premiere of the movie at the Houston Astrodome

In typical Robert Altman fashion, a huge cast of characters assembles to take on birds, flight, and the power of dreams in 1970s Brewster McCloud, a comedy / fantasy that is more than a little unusual, and ultimately quite satisfying.

Hiding deep inside the Houston Astrodome, young Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) works tirelessly to create a set of wings that he believes will allow him to soar through the air like a bird. With the help of Louise (Sally Kellerman), a mysterious blonde who watches over him; and Hope (Jennifer Salt), who brings him food on a regular basis, Brewster is almost ready for his first flight. But when he falls for a pretty tour guide named Suzanne (Shelley Duvall), he runs the risk of exposing his secret before he ever gets off the ground.

At the same time, a serial killer has been roaming the streets of Houston, and in the past few days has strangled such prestigious citizens as Daphne Heap (Margaret Hamilton), who sang the National Anthem before each game at the Astrodome; and the elderly Abraham Wright (Stacy Keach), owner of a chain of rest homes across the city. 

To help track down this elusive psychopath, politician Haskell Weeks (William Windom) pays to have Detective Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) flown in from San Francisco. Considered by many the finest investigator in the country, Det. Shaft and his police escort, Officer Johnson (John Schuck), visit each crime scene, and while looking into the most recent murder, Shaft makes a startling discovery: all of the victims have been covered in bird shit!

Does Brewster McCloud somehow figure into these killings? And if so, will more people die before his dream is finally realized?

As he did with MASH earlier that same year, Altman assembled an impressively large cast for Brewster McCloud. Rene Auberjonois (who would co-star in later Altman films like Images and McCabe & Mrs. Miller) appears in the opening sequence as a professor delivering a lecture about birds to an unseen classroom (he’ll act as a sort of narrator from that point on, looking and acting more like a bird each time he pops up). 

Many of the younger cast members, including Cort (as the title character), Jennifer Salt (as Brewster’s devoted friend), and Shelley Duvall (making her screen debut as the lead’s love interest), manage to hold their own alongside their more experienced peers, and Michael Murphy (doing his best Bullitt impersonation) has some good scenes as the no-nonsense Det. Shaft (to the amusement of his fellow officers, he takes a bird shit sample from one of the victims, hoping it might help identify what species it came from).

Yet the two standouts are Stacy Keach - practically unrecognizable under layers of make-up - as the incredibly old, very ornery Abraham Wright; and Sally Kellerman as the eccentric Louise, who might just be an actual Guardian Angel (along with saving Brewster’s hide on a number of occasions, she removes her shirt at one point, revealing stitches on her back, suggesting she may have once had wings). Is she trying to recruit Brewster as a possible Guardian Angel (she continually reminds him that he must remain “innocent”)? It’s one of several perplexing mysteries that Altman and company conjure up over the course of the movie.

As for the subject matter, birds do figure prominently throughout Brewster McCloud (bird shit on the murder victims, Auberjonois’ Professor turning into a bird, Brewster’s wings, etc), but the film itself is really about mankind’s preoccupation with flight, and the belief that it may lead to a freedom we have never experienced. Of course, by conquering flight, Brewster (and, in turn, the audience) could strip it of its perceived majesty (The Lecturer alludes to this during his introduction, when he says “We will deal with them (birds) for the next hour or so, and therein hope that we draw no conclusions. Elsewise the subject will cease to fascinate us, and, alas, another dream will be lost. There are far too few”.). 

With his desire to fly, Brewster was searching for a freedom that has eluded mankind for centuries, but will it change his life, as he assumes, or is he destined to discover that not even birds are as free as they seem?

By the film’s finale (complete with a circus-like atmosphere reminiscent of Fellini’s 8 ½), he will have his answer.

1 comment:

Crash Palace said...

YES! I love BREWSTER MCCLOUD! I've been looking for it on DVD forever. I always had this secret hope that Criterion would give it a nod out of nowhere.

Great review, Dave!