Monday, 2 July 2012

The one after MASH… Brewster McCloud (1970)

I last saw Brewster McCloud late night on the old black and white TV I had in my teenage bedroom. I was no doubt impressed with its anarchic humour and its sense of the absurd: a boy who believes he can fly and liberate himself from the day-to-day restrictions of straight existence…

Watching the video unearthed as part of this project, itself a decade old, these aspects again impressed but the earnestness of the enterprise came over a lot more.

Directed by Robert Altman in the same year as MASH, Brewster doesn’t stand much direct comparison to the former film but there’s enough here to recommend its skewed take on the world.

It has a complex narrative that doesn’t give too much away until well into the film. There are a lot of disparate characters all with varying amounts of a grip on reality and what’s happening…

Events circle around the Houston Astrodome a magnificent modernistic stadium enclosing a huge space and a number of secrets.

The elderly lady who sings the national anthem – badly – berates a large band who would rather play old school RnB, whilst tourists are given guided tours around the stadium by a kooky young woman Suzanne Davis (Shelley Duvall in her debut).

The old man in a wheel chair running a protection racket of local care homes (a heavily made-up Stacy Keach), is driven around by a young man called Brewtser (Bud Cort) who so happens to live in the depths of the dome where he makes his plans.

He is aided by a mysteriously beautiful woman called Louise (Sally Kellerman) who is accompanied by a raven and has what appear to be the scars of surgically-removed wings on her back.

The old lady is murdered and the local chief, (the magnificent William Windom) decides to bring in an homicide expert from LA, Det. Lt. Frank Shaft (cool 79’s ‘tec cliché superbly played by Michael Murphy) who begins to sense an arian connection collecting the bird droppings for analysis.

The local police are not happy – “enough of this bird shit, shit; let’s get on with some real police work!” laments the old hand Det. Capt. Crandall (G. Wood).

As officialdom gets itself into a twisted mess, Brewster carries on his preparations. He is surprisingly undisturbed by the young lady who brings him provisions Hope (Jennifer Salt) and who cannot control her enjoyment of his physical workouts…But Brewster cannot be distracted by love, as Louise tells him, he needs to be  “innocent” to truly fly as “they” (meaning us) lose our potential for such freedom the older we get and once we form earth-binding relationships.

But Brewster falls for Suzanne and drifts off course. There follows some car chases (must have been some kind of quotient in 70s films and Altman obviously knew that!) as the police hunt Brewster and Louise helps him evade them.

But, whilst his escape is secured he has betrayed Louise by being with Suzanne – “she’ll be the death of you” – and the fallen angel departs with her raven.

Yet, Brewster has also been betrayed by Suzanne who really wants the police commissioner’s aide once she is convinced that Brewster is the murderer… She saves him one last time as he gets his chance to fly in the memorable closing sequence.

He spins around inside the dome but after a few minutes either realises he is trapped or simply loses his faith and slowly falls to his death hundreds of feet below.

Altman gives him a rousing send off as the cast all emerge dressed as circus performers in a wilfully upbeat and bizarre conclusion.

So… is it worth saving from the dusty box in the loft? Absolutely, so long as you watch it with an awareness of the tongues firmly in cheek when it was made. It’s not as coherent as MASH or other Altman works but it is energetically made and affecting in its own unqie way.

Bud Court was a tremendous find by Altman and had an almost blank youthful presence – he feels like he’s waiting to be written but also as if there’s something disturbing underneath – fairly appropriately so if he’s the killer (or is it Louise?).

Kellerman makes a superb Angel – quite a leap from Hotlips – but still with the habit of bathing in public (albeit intentionally in this film). She's a marvellously edgy performer and we have no idea who or what she is in the end... it matters not. Definitive answers aren't the way of this film.

Brewster McCloud is now available on DVD from all the usual places. Try and work it out for yourself...


  1. Nice, accurate reading of BREWSTER McCLOUD I'd say... HOWEVER, being a bit of an Altman trivia nut, I'd just like to offer a few minute corrections to your text. Bert Remsen actually played the character of racist Detective Breen, and it was G. Wood who played the crusty old Capt. Crandall. Also, the character of Daphne Heap was the old battle-axe who sang the national anthem at the Astrodome and was played by wicked witch herself Margaret Hamilton. Jennifer Salt's character was called Hope, not Daphne Heap.

    1. Oops! Sorry about those - thank you for taking the time to read and to let me know. I will make those alterations.

      It's a lovely film and one I've watched once long ago and then again when I wrote the above post - Altman made great films with a lot of depth!

      Best wishes.