Written by Musgo Del Jefe
Musgo hopes that the general film fandom out there appreciates the greatness of the Warner Archive releases. If you need a reminder - check out Musgo's musings on Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark. These releases are a perfect ways for no-frills versions of these important smaller genre and art films to find a home. The perfect example of this is the recent release of Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud.
This arty satire falls right between two of Altman's greatest flims - released after M*A*S*H (1970) and right before McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). Altman was really starting to find his comedic voice after the success of M*A*S*H . At the same time, he was able to create a film that went beyond just being a satire but really explored the deeper meanings of the counterculture of the late '60s and early '70s.
Brewster McCloud is our lead character played by young Bud Cort. Brewster is a youthful rebel who appears with huge glasses and a red-striped shirt like a cross between Where's Waldo and Harry Potter. He secretly lives in a fallout shelter under the Houston Astrodome. Brewster is building a pair of wings - convinced that he can fly. He is protected by his very own angel (Sally Kellerman). At the same time, people around Brewster keep showing up dead and the Houston police call in Detective Shaft (Michael Murphy) from San Francisco to help solve the crimes. Brewster meets Astrodome tour guide, Suzanne (Shelley Duvall's first role), who becomes his muse and first lover. Young Brewster wants to fly away from the world with Suzanne.
Altman breaks all kinds of storytelling conventions from the beginning to the end of the film. Even the opening MGM lion roar is replaced by a character saying "I forgot the opening line". There is a narrator, a college lecturer that starts the film talking about birds. Throughout the film we will hear his voice overdubbed giving his lecture on birds and his bird themes will mirror the action on screen. There is consistently a cacophony of sound - much like the screeches of birds. In one scene, while Detective Shaft is trying to investigate a murder scene, the other officers are talking over him about a party they are going to have. And in other places, the narrator or the music often intrudes on the dialog.
The film centers around a number of bird themes. The symbolism of birds works on so many levels that it's a perfect vehicle for Altman to tell multiple stories at once. This technique would serve Altman later on, notably in Short Cuts, where he could link many different stories with the ever present LAPD helicopters as symbols of freedom in some cases and symbols of repression in others. In the case of Brewster, the desire to fly away is certainly symbolic of his youth and innocence. But it also feeds into the counterculture's rebelling against authority. Brewster lives secretly underneath what is a symbol of Man triumphing against Nature - the Astrodome with its fake grass and artificial environment for football and baseball games. Brewster is followed around by an "angel" who was tattooed wings on her back. Even the cars fly (in a tribute to Bullitt the cars leave the ground over a hill in a long car chase scene) and have bird plates like DUV, OWL and BRD SHT.
Ultimately, Brewster is discovered by the police and tries to fly away. But he is a caged bird. The dome provides him with the environment to allow him to fly but his freedom is only an illusion because he can't escape it. Like Icarus, he flies to close to the sun and is forced to return to the fake grass that lines his cage. Has love betrayed him? As a tour guide for the Astrodome, was Suzanne just part of the machine that keeps him prisoner? Altman doesn't feel the need to answer all the questions raised in the film - it was his job to lay them out there.
The DVD release only comes with a trailer. But it doesn't really need any help. Much like Altman, the film just needs to be there to ask the questions. The viewer is left to ponder their own answers. Very few movies have the guts to do that today. And in a crazy finale, we can write the whole thing off as just a diversion if we care to, because the show ends with a full circus that introduces us to the cast, as if they are merely actors and clowns for our entertainment.
Well done, Warner Archives, well done.