Brewster McCloud

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

You shouldn’t put Eugene Ionesco (Aberjonois’ Lecturer), Bertolt Brecht (Alienation, everywhere), Alfred Jarry (loads of excrement) and John Bunyan (when is an Astrodome not just an Astrodome?) together in one film, should you? Well I guess you can do anything you want, but the results are going to be messy! On the other hand maybe unholy and interesting messes like Brewster McCloud serve to put the onus on the viewer. You can throw up your hands, fetishize the unseemly parts, or you can start looking under the hood and figuring it out for yourself. If there’s substance and sincerity—and there is here, along with a lot of bunk—the reward might be sufficient. Plus which Robert Altman, in this period, is a major figure. Brewster McCloud is worth seeing.

It’s a terrific 1970 time capsule, with all of its modernist boldness and countercultural fury, all its clear criticism and muddled solutions to what it sees as the world’s woes. Part of the film’s critique is communicated by means of a raft of murders. The various victims are an expressionist assembly of horrible squares, each hinting at some actual corrupt and corrupting institution that also, absolutely exists outside of the film. Each episode really registers, both for the way it is executed, and for its ample extra-cinematic resonances. (Watch Margaret Hamilton give her Wicked Witch a run for its money!) There are two male protagonists in what has to be an intentionally muddled, dizzying plot. One is Michael Murphy’s detective, who seems to be here to drive an inexplicable but fairly funny parody of Bullitt. Note the gratuitous car chases, and his Steve McQueen contact lenses.

Bud Cort, or Brewster himself, is the other man engaged in the search for answers, in this case bound up in the transcendence of flight. Sally Kellerman and Shelley Duvall (!) split the expressionists’ traditional transcendental female into a confounding, fascinating compound. Which leads us to the fact that Brewster McCloud seems to be for the sexual revolution. At least it understands the impulses behind it. But its feelings on the subject are mixed, since our protagonist’s first fall into Initiation leads directly to his final, fatal fall. Peter Gay (1968) characterized expressionism as being a basically hysterical movement. In contrast, Altman’s foray into this territory is calmer, cooler, more ideologically (if not narratively) coherent. The tragic conclusion of Cort’s quest contains much of the message, much of the critique. It was Duvall, wasn’t it? Her groovy chick is finally as enmeshed in and as comfortable with the materialist status quo as the bad guys.

It is here, in the way it adds a dimly apprehended sense of its own moral shortcoming and even hypocrisy to the aforementioned boldness and fury, that Brewster McCloud becomes a laudably honest thing. It looks forward to Shampoo, or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the book) in realizing that the critics/progressives might ultimately be as bad as the fascists are. Maybe that’s why the glancing bits of multi-tracked, multi-planed straight material jump out. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and most especially its method, might be the better way to address all this. After all, we’ve still got Jean-Luc Godard to make brain-bursting mash-ups for us. But muzzle not the ox! Maybe the best way to respond to brilliant missteps is to key on the “brilliant” part of that equation.

Is that a real guy, or the actual Bud Cort, flying in that actual contraption? The apparatus is pretty astounding, whatever it means.