Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Brewster McCloud

Directed by Robert Altman
The United States of America

Rene Auberjonois: “I forgot my line.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, William S. Burroughs, a leader of the Beat Generation, popularized a bizarre literary technique called “cut-up.” It was a method of writing wherein the author takes a series of texts, randomly cuts them up, and then rearranges the pieces. The results are eclectic and surreal writings that simultaneously confused and enamored the literary public of the day. Ten years later, an American director named Robert Altman would create a motion picture that can only be described as the logical follow-up to the cut-up technique. That film was Brewster McCloud. An almost unclassifiable film, Brewster McCloud seems like it was born of random pieces of film picked up off an editing room floor. Part fantasy, part murder mystery, part police tutorial, it doesn't have a plot so much as a menagerie of characters and situations that somehow seemed to have collided with each other. Coming on the heels of one of Altman's greatest successes, M*A*S*H, it was poorly received by a befuddled public who quickly moved on to Altman's next great triumph, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. But Brewster McCloud remains, a headache to those who remember it and an enigma to those who haven't.

The confusion begins for the audience when they are greeted to an ear-piercing rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner sung by Margaret Hamilton in the Houston Astrodome. The confusion doesn't let up as she is cut off by a black marching band who proceed to perform a gospel rendition of the same tune. Alas, this is just the opening scene and is destined to be forgotten about as the movie flies on to the next scene. Such is the tone of the entire film. Characters will be introduced, scenarios played out, directorial whimsy indulged.

After that strange performance, we are introduced to the character that the film is named after, Brewster McCloud, played by Bud Cort. Well, maybe it is wrong to say that it is “centered” on him. Things happen, and somehow McCloud always seems to become involved. To keep things short and sweet, he lives in the fallout shelter in the Houston Astrodome where he tries to build a pair of wings. Why? Because he wants to fly. Whenever he leaves his home, he becomes the target of ridicule and abuse from the rest of society. But wait! Whenever someone is particularly troublesome or threatening to McCloud, they are hit by a generous supply of bird droppings and turn up dead in the next scene. The cause is McCloud's protector Louise, played by Sally Kellerman, who jealously kills those who intend to harm McCloud. But after a while, the number of bodies begins to frustrate the local police department and a police detective from San Fransisco named Frank Shaft gets called in. Played by Michael Murphy, he emulates Steve McQueen from Bullitt to such a degree that he even sports the iconic quick-draw shoulder holster for his guns.

While Shaft searches for the killers responsible for the murders, McCloud is busy finishing his wings and getting seduced by Shelley Duvall. That proves a mistake, for now Louise doesn't want to protect him anymore and he crashes and dies when he first tries his wings on. The ensemble cast then appears on the field next to his body dressed up like clowns. Each actor takes their bows and the film ends with a lingering shot of McCloud's corpse.

You may notice the tongue-and-cheek explanation of the plot. That is because the plot is of secondary importance when this movie is discussed. What is more important is the film itself; it intricacies, it eccentricities, its virtual anarchy of form. In discussing the plot, I did not even mention the character of the Lecturer, played by Rene Auberjonois, who acts as a narrator connecting the strands of the story together much in the fashion of the P.A. system in M*A*S*H*. Why? Because I don't need to. I don't need to go into a detailed analysis of every single character, line, and scene. What I should say about the Lecturer is how as the film progresses he begins to act more and more like a bird until he starts squawking.

It is impossible to describe an Altman film without talking about the director himself. He was one of the few directors in the history of the craft who could make a legitimate claim to being an original. Describing Altman's style is simple: he worked with gigantic ensemble casts who inhabited vast, intricate worlds and stories, frequently used overlapping dialogue, and always encouraged his actors to improvise. To understand Altman's style is quite a different challenge. I have found that the best and easiest way to summarize Altman is to call him the anti-Hitchcock.

Hear me out:

1)Hitchcock meticulously planned out every single scene and shot in his movies with elaborate storyboards and scripts. Altman frequently improvised much of his movies.

2)Hitchcock stayed detached from his actors and was once reported to have referred to actors as “cattle.” Altman loved his actors. In Ebert's Great Movie review for Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, he wrote “Altman never in my sight, or by report, ever grew angry with an actor.”

3)Hitchcock made tight, concise genre films. Altman's were usually 2-3 hours long and were generally unclassifiable.

Basically, if Hitchcock is a classical suite, Altman is free jazz. And such is apparent upon viewing Brewster McCloud. I feel frustrated with myself at my inability to clearly express what I want to say about this film. The words are there in my mind, but I just don't know how to put them on paper. I will in all likelihood try to review this film again in the future when I have developed my skills as a writer. Now, my fingers and thoughts feel impotent. Plenty has been written on Altman, so I encourage you to go out and read it. Most of his films are available on home video, though you probably have to order them online. But there isn't much discussion on this film. That is why I am pathetically typing away on my laptop trying to bring this movie to the world's attention. But I don't think I can. I can only hope that you will go out and see it. A comedy, a tragedy, a thriller, and even romance, this film defies logic. It defies explanation. A contorted mess of a movie, Brewster McCloud is a true gem of cinematic wonder.

http://www.geocities.com/brewsterfan1/index.html (Most of my information for this review was taken from this source in particular.)


  1. This was one of my favorite Altman films. I'll have to rent it if I can find it & share it with some special friends.

  2. Please do. It's kind of hard to come by, so I would suggest using netflix. They have a surprisingly good collection of Altman.

  3. I completely agree and understand your comment about not knowing how to describe this film in such a way that would encourage someone to go out and watch it. I saw it over 20 years ago one night, at home (England) watching it by chance on TV with my Mum late one night. It has stayed with me eversince, I have never seen it again and I wasn't even aware it was an Altman film. Have you seen "The Draughtsman's Contract" because it reminds me of Brewster. It is not the same, but something is there for me.

    Thank you.


    1. Well, Me, I can't say that I've seen that film. But if it is anything like BREWSTER MCCLOUD, I'll have to check it out! Thanks!

    2. I had the same experience of it coming on the Tv randomly one night and it blew my mind. It seems to be communicating from an as yet unclassifiable dimension.
      I've never been so transfixed and astonished by a film in my life. ... The ending is the deepest thing I've ever seen.


    3. I love such serendipitous discoveries!

  4. I and my friends saw this where it came out in the 70's. We're were all in high school at the time (yes, we smoked pot... Enjoyed it then and those of us still left still do!). We all loved this movie (especially me, I never saw an Altman film I didn't appreciate for its genius & originally). Recently, I purchased the DVD to show my wife and current batch of friends (mix of ages). No one had heard of it so we all sat down, got high (of course!) And had a view. Me; loving it again...so, indescribable (as you so well described in your report). The others; simply hated it. Couldn't understand it. Didn't enjoy it. Thought I was cruel for showing it to them (they were nice in their total distain for it) So, much so that they now use the term of getting or being "Brewstered" when something presented as good turns out to be awful or a disaster😁.... Of course, I feel sorry for them and will watch on my own or share with my Grandson who will be enjoying it in a few years. Thanks for the observation and appreciation of this classic!!👍

  5. Can't imagine how one thinks that this film is "confusing", unless they just don't comprehend the times in which it was produced, and *symbolism*. Actually, I can't even refer to it as "symbolism"; it is so clear and defined - - right from the beginning you cite, where "Americana", represented by reference to the most known, arguably most "American" film in movie history is "marched over" and drowned out by black politics, in the significantly obvious guise of a black marching band. It is about the *time period*: about the "sexual revolution" and its projected consequences (correct!), about that time's new generation's responses to policing, and war, about what was going on in the country at the time, socially and politically. Very obvious, very clear; loved it then, love it now. At its core, a quirky, fantastical representation of the moment in which it was made.

  6. Thanks for sharing.
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