Imagine that you’re an American director who – after ten years of helming popular television shows and working on the occasional film-for-hire – has become an overnight sensation. Your third feature, a sardonic war comedy with blood-drenched sequences and a passel of irreverent characters, has struck a chord with audiences who see the film over and over again. Critics hail you as an innovative force, breaking new cinematic ground with your observational style and inscrutable, yet perfect, new techniques. You’re nominated for the Oscar. What do you do to follow up? Well, if you’re Robert Altman, you thumb your nose at what’s expected of you. You buy up the rights to a much sought-after script, assemble a cast made up of veteran actors and dewy newcomers alike, and improvise the scenes that don’t mesh with your vision. The final product – a bizarre, Byzantine fairy-tale and modern satire – is both an extension of and departure from your first masterpiece, M*A*S*H*. Its title: Brewster McCloud.
The plot of Brewster McCloud is almost deceptively simple: a young squatter (Bud Cort) builds a pair of wings under the eaves of the Houston Astrodome, in the hopes of eventually flying. The elusive, ethereal Louise (Sally Kellerman, in a role far off from Hot Lips Houlihan) protects him from potential captors and warns him away from sex, which she describes as the closest experience humans have to flight. To give the film this encapsulation, however, is to ignore many of the facets with which Altman provides us, such as the running commentary on bigotry, or the spoofs on contemporary (Bullitt) or classic (The Wizard of Oz) cinema.
Doran William Cannon, who wrote the script for Brewster McLeod’s (Sexy) Flying Machine (as it was initially known), had become a hot commodity in Hollywood. He had produced, written, and directed The Square Root of Zero, which had become a modest independent hit. Otto Preminger was directing Skidoo, Cannon’s incoherent, psychedelic follow-up, and East Coast rock baron Albert Grossman had purchased the rights to Brewster with an eye towards casting Bob Dylan in the title role. Eventually, Altman ended up with the script, which he allegedly described as “crap” and proceeded to reinvent in his own image. Under his vision, Brewster morphed from an immature antihero who, in his obsession with flight, was not above murder or using women sexually to a virginal naïf who wants to fly, an ambitious but quiet cipher around whom things happened.
Casting Bud Cort in the title role both reinforced and departed from Cannon’s vision. While he had written the role for an actor with an expressionless baby face, he could not have anticipated the naïveté and incorruptibility Cort exuded. A bit player in various 1960s “happening”-type movies who scored a supporting role as a suicidal medic in M*A*S*H*, Cort only landed the role that would make him famous to midnight audiences everywhere – that of Harold in Hal Ashby’s classic Harold and Maude – on the strength of his work in Brewster. However, his dark teen idol looks and mischievous, ingenuous presence gave the film something few Altman features had; namely, an air of innocence. (As a result of Harold and Maude‘s cult classic status, many modern audiences view Brewster less as an Altman movie than as a Bud Cort movie.)
Altman’s changes to the script didn’t end with the protagonist. While he retained the series of murders that Brewster committed, he made the circumstances surrounding these deaths more ambiguous and allowed them to happen to people for whom death would be a gift – a cop who beats his wife, for example, or a 103-year-old “third Wright brother” who steals from retirees and espouses virulently racist sentiments. These murders, which Brewster may or may not have committed, allowed Altman to insert a subplot in which the Houston police investigate the bird guano-soaked deaths. His underemployed friend Michael Murphy appeared as an ineffectual Bullitt-inspired private detective with an endless supply of brightly-colored turtlenecks. Though the women in the film – among them an oversexed health-food enthusiast, a materialistic racecar driver, and a motherly fallen angel who looks after Brewster – may not have challenged the charges of sexism that came with M*A*S*H*, Altman’s variation on the script made the characters more well-rounded and allowed us to understand the women’s motivations. Perhaps most notably, Altman emphasized flight and birds to a greater extent, both through seemingly random details (license plates like “DUV 222″ and “BRD-SHT”, the raven droppings in which the murder victims are covered) and through deliberate inclusions, such as guest lectures from a “scatologist” and bird scholar. During these lectures, the professor (played by an appropriately avian Rene Auberjonis) seems to turn into a bird, shedding feathers and squawking at various intervals.
Though the film’s production was well documented for its time, with the publication of a book that included the original script, a transcript of Altman’s film, and a shooting diary, little of this documentation is readily available to the general public. Given the film’s close proximity to M*A*S*H* and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, we can assume the cast and crew shot quickly and had a good time doing so – an anarchic good time that extends to the viewing experience. (Unfortunately, Cannon didn’t have as enjoyable an experience, which he documented in a rambling editorial for the New York Times that used lots of random capitalization and swingin’ ’60s slang.)
Contemporary film historians are quick to view Brewster McCloud as a bomb, though further research suggests this was hardly the case. McCloud may not have had the lasting impact of its immediate predecessor or the film that came after it, but it was a sleeper hit in many urban cities, playing for several months at the Coronet in midtown Manhattan. Its merits sharply divided critics of the day. Many critics included it on their year-end top ten lists (most notably Andrew Sarris), and it garnered comparisons to Dr. Strangelove. On the other hand, the Times called it ‘imitation hip’ and Leonard Maltin’s capsule review suggests genuine bafflement (though both reluctantly admit to laughing out loud). While the film got lost in the shuffle of Altman’s two indisputable early masterpieces, it’s the closest thing to a midnight movie in his oeuvre.
Why, then, has Brewster McCloud been so forgotten? In part, probably due to the importance and innovation of Altman’s other 1970s work. (My obvious fondness for the film notwithstanding, I must admit that it pales in comparison to Nashville.) Unlike Harold and Maude, its psychedelic tone, dated social commentary, and haphazard pacing, which at times bear an unfortunate resemblance to Laugh-In, speaks to 1970 in the lingua franca of 1970, rather than speaking to the ages. Its unexplained lack of availability on any home format has also contributed to its undeserved obscurity; following a badly transferred VHS release in the early 1980s that was quickly deleted, it has occasionally resurfaced on cable, and its lamented nonexistence on DVD was the lede in a recent NPR story on film restoration for the home video market. The few who have programmed their VCRs and braved slapdash pan-and-scan have been Harold and Maude fans longing for a peek at Cort in a banana hammock. McCloud may not be as prescient or as groundbreaking as Altman’s other work, but it gives audiences a taste of the “way-out” genre that briefly flourished in the hippie era. As a bonus, it’s never boring.