Tuesday, August 28, 2018
Another Dream Would Be Lost
This has been a long, hot summer of very little sleep. Hot during the day, a little less hot later on and too much on my mind. There’s the world, sure, but there’s also trying to figure out just what the hell happened. I finally drift off eventually, somehow at some point, but I don’t even remember my dreams very much anymore which could be why I’ve been feeling so blank during the day. I can’t even decide what I’m preoccupied by. Except for the obvious.
If it’s true that Robert Altman films often become something different each time you see them then I’m not sure what that means for the future of my BREWSTER McCLOUD viewings. It’s a film that, more than most, seems determined to defy anything you expect from it. Sometimes I think I have a handle on what it might possibly be saying. Sometimes after watching it again I’m not sure what the hell I was thinking. By this point I’m still not sure what I’ve decided but I’m fairly certain I love it anyway. Released in December 1970, it was Altman’s first film to come after the blockbuster success of MASH and could loosely be described as being in a similar comic vein but the film seems determined not to give a viewer the same kind of satisfaction, remaining intentionally obstinate in refusing to explain itself. It’s a film that wants to ask what freedom is and can be while still being fully aware of the dangers of what that freedom can result in, the mistakes you’re destined to make causing you to crash back down to earth. On the other hand, I could be wrong about all of this. And if that’s the case, I’ll watch it again to come up with some other idea.
Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) secretly lives in a fallout shelter in the Houston Astrodome, building a device which will allow him to achieve flight and “fly away”, while watched over by the mysterious Louise (Sally Kellerman) who acts as some kind of protector for him out in the world, keeping a firm hold on his innocence. Meanwhile, a series of strangulations in the city where the victims are found with bird droppings on their faces mystifies the local police so they call in the ultra-cool cop Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) from out of town and he insists on getting right to work with no time for ingratiating himself with the local politicos. As Brewster continually avoids detection by the Astrodome security guard he meets up with comely tour guide Suzanne (Shelley Duvall) who has her own plans for him without being aware of the complete truth of his situation.
That may count as some kind of half-hearted plot summary but it’s entirely possible that there’s no real way to say exactly what BREWSTER McCLOUD is about. It has an undeniably counterculture feel which sets it right in the time it was made, displaying total contempt for any possible concept of authority whether cops, security guards, or anyone who has taken it upon themselves to make life hell for other people in the world. I hadn’t turned up yet in 1970 but the film feels like a representation of a time when everyone was smoking pot and watching things fall apart as the 60s ended so they simply said, fuck it. This gives the tone an undeniable bitterness displayed towards the world, towards those in power and at the whole damn unfairness of it all but at the same time the film moves along seemingly without a care in the world displaying a free-wheeling vibe of whatever might be possible, down to messing with the lion in the MGM logo or stopping the opening credits and starting them back up again when it’s good and ready.
The victims of the strangler are all found with bird shit on them and the crimes are justified in the film’s view (so is the birdshit), since no one else is going to do anything about these people, after all. Whatever Brewster might actually be responsible for, in the eyes of the film he’s a total innocent and that naïveté allows him to glide through his existence with everything working out for him like magic, at least partly because of Kellerman’s mother figure/fallen guardian angel (literally)/whatever she is, watching over Brewster clad only in a trenchcoat, at one point stripping down and singing “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” while she bathes him and carefully explains the dangers that sex poses to freedom even if for some people it’s the closest to flying that they’ll ever know (I’m still not sure I follow all this, but never mind). As if to kinda, sorta tie the rambling storyline together, Rene Auberjonois plays a lecturer explaining birds and their similarities to human behavior as if to explain the character’s actions, gradually taking on the mannerisms of a bird as Brewster gets closer to finishing his flying machine.
The screenplay is credited to Doran William Cannon who also wrote the legendary SKIDOO who later said in the New York Times that Bob Dylan told him the BREWSTER script was “perfect” but by all accounts Robert Altman, as you would expect Robert Altman to do, pretty much tossed it out the highest window (for one thing, that script was apparently set in New York) and did whatever he wanted. The off-kilter look at the world is certainly reminiscent of SKIDOO but this film has a lighter touch and feels more effortless in that Altman way as bonkers as it is, as indecipherable as it is, so everything flows together and it really is a film where it feels like anything could happen. The location shooting in Houston offers its own unique vibe with extensive looks at the flat landscape of the city and around the Astrodome including a side trip to the Astroworld amusement park (opened in ‘68, closed in ’05) seemingly for no reason other than it was there and it’s easy to believe that the film has a great deal of meaning to anyone from there.
For the most part, BREWSTER McCLOUD is inscrutable as well as more than a little insane but since the lecturer advises at the start to ‘draw no conclusions or the subject would cease to fascinate us’ maybe that’s for the best and we shouldn’t try to figure any of it out. Maybe the film is simply a look at what innocence might be, has to be, in a totally corrupt and decadent world. The victims of the killer are mostly horrible people out solely for what benefits them and an early shot of a newspaper headline where Spiro Agnew even declares “Society Should Discard Some U.S. People” is a reminder that they each represent different parts of Nixon in some way or another. In a BREWSTER McCLOUD reboot set in 2018 (hey, I’ve heard worse ideas by now) they’d represent someone else, of course, and they’d probably be even more deserving. More than anything, they’re done in by their own hubris, whatever that might be. One of them happens to be none other than Margaret Hamilton as the wealthy Daphne Heap who sings a terrible rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Astrodome wearing ruby slippers (or “red rhinestone shoes” as they’re called here; there are other WIZARD OF OZ allusions but it’s never quite clear what to make of them) and even screams out the N-word at one point.
Michael Murphy is the hotshot cop Frank Shaft, flown in from San Francisco to investigate the killings in a brutally deadpan BULLITT parody right down to the wardrobe but also one scene where he questions a butler that practically goes into Abbott & Costello territory regarding how tall a suspect was. It’s never clear why the films is partly made up of a BULLITT parody but considering what else is in it this makes about as much sense as anything, played in a manner which suggests that Altman thought BULLITT was a load of crap which is all well and good (photos exist of a smiling Steve McQueen with Altman on the set of THE LONG GOODBYE, so I guess he didn’t take it personally) but the answer doesn’t really matter anyway and the end of the plotline is all about doing away with that kind of empty heroism. Besides, no one that cool can keep it up forever. It’s a digression just as everything in the film is a digression, like Stacy Keach as wealthy miser Abraham Wright buried under mounds of old-age makeup which takes up enough of the first part of the film that it’s almost terrifying to contemplate that this might turn out to be one of the main characters. Of course, some of these things don’t have much payoff at all, like Jennifer Salt’s health store employee and her insistence on pleasuring herself since Brewster is never going to do it as well as the disappearance (and presumed death) of one key character who we never hear about again but that’s the sort of movie it is.
In the wake of MASH, this was early enough in Altman’s career that his style is still developing with lots of zooms and frames crowded with people like you’d expect from a Robert Altman movie in 1970 and though the look hasn’t fully matured into what it would become in his next few films even here the framing is always adventurous, always looking for an unexpected way to stage a scene. There isn’t a single uninteresting shot in the whole film from how he shoots the Houston landscape to the way the layout of the Astrodome is explored as if it’s a world unto itself or each time he finds new ways to have Sally Kellerman suddenly appear when you least expect it, including bathing in a fountain with the visible scars of where her presumed wings used to be. With so many MASH alums turning up in a similar comic vein and a few later Altman regulars appearing for the first time it feels a little like his own version of the Preston Sturges rep company, down to some fast patter and even the running gag of G. Wood’s police captain, who isn’t all that different from his performance as Colonel Flagg in MASH, always getting the name of his underling played by Corey Fischer wrong. The whole thing works more as an Altman kaleidoscope than a straight comedy (still, I have admiration for the timing of a particular pot joke at one point) but this is hardly a bad thing and there’s always beauty to be found in the druggy, scattershot vibe with songs mostly written by John Phillips that go perfectly with the sadness poking around the edges of the frame particularly “White Feather Wings” sung by Merry Clayton and the way it soars makes us want to soar, just as Brewster hopes to.
The joy also comes from the actors who are perfectly attuned into that vibe whether John Schuck’s dopey eagerness or whatever Corey Fischer is doing in the corner of the frame that I keep discovering on multiple viewings but particularly the debut of Shelley Duvall as Suzanne Fairest, the Astrodome tour guide who instantly latches herself onto Brewster playing it as kind of a living Raggedy Ann doll (she has a giant Raggedy Ann mural in her apartment and it’s even how she appears during the curtain call finale) but also very much the girl we fall in love with and somehow manage to screw things up irrevocably when it seemed like we couldn’t do anything wrong. In discovering Duvall for this film it’s like Altman wants to shoot her from every conceivable angle, including upside down, to explore all the possibilities in what she can do, to find every possible reason for falling for her. She even has a MASH poster in her apartment as if she’s the one character Altman would want that kind of approval from and Suzanne isn’t even bothered that Brewster is trying to steal her car and it’s not her car anyway, leading the cops on a chase which she charmingly calls a ‘race’ later on. That all makes what inevitably happens so goddamn sad since you know Suzanne is going to end up with her ex-boyfriend who was once an artist but has now willingly joined the establishment which is a clear sign that he’s an awful person, a Republican or a big fan of the Monkees, robbing her of every spark of life she ever displayed during her best moments but even if it’s going to get her the money she wants at least she kisses the guy immediately after vomiting. He deserves worse but it’s better than nothing.
Most of the characters in BREWSTER McCLOUD seem worried about keeping up appearances of what they’re supposed to be and the real idea of freedom comes not from flying but the realization that you don’t have to worry about that any longer, like the wife of one of the victims (played by Anglin Johnson, making an impression with barely any dialogue in her only film appearance) who never bothers hiding how happy she is that her abusive husband was just brutally killed. It’s some sort of statement on the world, at least the way it was then with a Jesus/Manson figure seen being led away by the police as if the film wants us to figure out which is which (as much time as the film spends on the investigation, it pretty much discards all police characters as irrelevant in the end). Of course, we’re far away from that 1970 context now but since things don’t make any sense at the moment it all still works as whatever statement it could be.
The BULLITT parody includes that car chase which comes complete with a Lalo Schifrin soundalike score and Shelley Duvall buckling her seatbelt instead of those hitmen, pretty much throwing away the complicated staging of such a thing as the goof you’d expect Altman to treat it as and he almost seems more interested when Duvall in her Plymouth Road Runner and Sally Kellerman in her Gremlin are screeching around the massively empty Astrodome lot each with total looks of glee on their faces. And the movie itself is like an empty parking lot, one where the director can do whatever he wants via his muses and not worry about a thing. As far as messages go, it also feels a little like Altman’s response to any idealized Steven Spielberg portrayal of the glory of staying young only this is before Spielberg which makes as much sense as anything considering how inscrutable it all is. In the end, you can find something in life that works but you have to toss that innocence aside eventually. Brewster says that he’s building the wings to fly away, seemingly never realizing that there’s never going to be any way out of the Astrodome, just like there’s no way to really fly away from real life. The rest of the world so you just have to decide what your own personal version of flying away is. And even then, there are no guarantees.
Trying to reconcile any form of reality with this is a waste of time but what BREWSTER McCLOUD does have even with all that Altman snarkiness is the sense of freedom and occasionally cutting through all the nonsense to those moments of bliss, of genuine emotion. One particular shot of Duvall where she couldn’t be more beguiling almost makes me want to cry for all it stirs up deep down but Kellerman’s reaction to something at one point is just shattering, even if the true significance of what’s happened is not entirely clear beyond the basic idea of betrayal and that Brewster is never again going to be what he could have been. Her exit from the Astrodome, and from the film, as “Last of the Unnatural Acts” sung by John Phillips plays, is haunting as if it was transmitted from outer space, Altman finding lyricism here that there was no place for in MASH, an otherworldly look at the moment and it’s almost as if from then on the characters in his films were given permission to be something else, not bound by our rules. The sometimes slapdash nature of the film means that the moment still still feels spliced in, almost as if the moment was shot just because Altman figured it out one day while checking out the location so he just did it. Much of it has that spur of the moment feel while at the same time there are moments like when Brewster makes two separate confessions through careful cross-cutting by Lou Lombardo, who also edited THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE for Sam Peckinpah the same year, which is simply masterful. Much of the film seems to have been made up of pieces put in there just for the hell of it and it’s a movie of pieces, making up some kind of partly explainable whole. And by the time we get to an end which is both glorious and brutal it’s also kind of a goof, a joke. But it’s his joke.
BREWSTER McCLOUD may not the best Altman film or my favorite Altman film or even the most Altman film made by Robert Altman, but it’s likely the one that gives less of a fuck than any of them and even during an ending where it’s impossible not to think of the Fellini influence it still plays completely as its own thing. It’s an angry film, but one that was made after exhaling for a moment and realizing how little any of it matters anyway. And part of me wonders if it makes more sense than I want to admit. That’s the thing about regret. When you have those people in your life you feel insulated somehow, you think everything’s going to be ok. But it doesn’t last and you can’t have it both ways. And that’s when you fall. What you have to do then is go with the flow since we’re all going to lose in the end. But maybe there’s a way to do it and be part of the circus as the best possible version of what you can be anyway.
One thing about the various performances is the level of human connection it gives us to go along with the absurdity and how well it ties into the Altman vibe, with Bud Cort perfectly in sync with that as he shows off a very particular delusional innocence with his glasses a key part of that performance and it’s easy to see the beginnings of what he would do for Hal Ashby in HAROLD AND MAUDE just a year later. Sally Kellerman brings the right sense of caring and effervescence to her indecipherable character, while Shelley Duvall is a miracle of a screen presence with such joy at times along with her own calculations when she reveals what she really wants. Along with the likes of John Schuck and Corey Fischer there’s the poker face of Michael Murphy who doesn’t let up the McQueen skewering for a second even at his final moment, William Windom’s unrelenting officiousness as Houston official Haskell Weeks and Rene Auberjonois as he continually bounces off the vague story points to take his lecturer as far in the direction of transforming into a bird as humanly possible.
Being certain of saying anything about this movie is probably a lost cause but you could also say the same thing about life or tomorrow or just walking down the street. Sometimes we find a dream right in front of us and we become that dog chasing a car who wouldn’t know what to do if he caught it. Either we regret that we couldn’t make the leap to fly away or there was no way to stay up in the air where we would have been free. Then again, if I smoked pot regularly maybe I’d have a better idea. It’s that sort of movie. Maybe you just need to figure a way to keep your feet on the ground and the birdshit off you and that’s all there is. Maybe there’s nothing to say and Altman just finished this film then took off to make McCABE & MRS. MILLER, released only six months after this film opened, while anyone tried to figure it out. There’s nothing like BREWSTER McCLOUD, even among films that came out in the crazy year of 1970, and the still-available Warner Archive DVD is worth getting since you could always use another Robert Altman film close by to obsess over. Maybe one of these days I’ll dream about my own version of the movie, where some of it gets crossed with my own cast of characters. That is, if I ever fall asleep but I’ll probably screw things up then, too. Of course, the summer does end eventually. Maybe that’s what I really need to be worried about.