Friday, 15 March 2013

Brewster McCloud (1970)

In 1970, Robert Altman released what he considered to be his boldest film. No, I am not talking about MASH, I am talking about Brewster McCloud. It was originally dismissed due to the fact that it is extremely .. abstract.

Here's an example of how Altman likes to do scripts his way. In MASH Altman changed everything single word in the script. Interestingly, the original writer of MASH won an Oscar for his screenplay. Something similar happened with Brewster McCloud. Altman hated the screenplay so much that he threw away the script and he coached the actors on what their lines were to be directly before they were shot. However,  Brewster McCloud wasn't nominated for any Oscars like MASH was.

There are a lot of references in  Brewster McCloud that make it a more enjoyable experience. Margaret Hamilton, the actress who played The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz stars in Brewster McCloud. In one scene she is feeding her birds, as she turns around you yells out at a big crow, "Get out, you nigger bird!". As she turns around the crow flies down and opens the bird cage. A flock of birds escape from the cage and murder on Margaret Hamilton. They then proceed to defecate upon her and fly away. As the camera moves backwards we can see that she is wearing ruby slippers - a clear reference to The Wizard of Oz.

As well, Altman seems to be referencing MASH at several times during the film. In Shelley Duvall's character's apartment, there is a poster for MASH on her wall. MASH of course, was a film directed by Robert Altman earlier in 1970. As well, there is a scene in which Sally Kellerman takes a bath in a fountain  She mimics the expression she did in MASH when she opened the shower curtain only to find twenty men staring at her.

This was Altman's favourite of his own films. Perhaps that is because it seemed like an experience full of fond memories. Actually, Altman originally didn't like the title Brewster McCloud. He wanted to call the film "Brewster McCloud's Amazing, Sexy Flying Machine". I personally think Brewster McCloud works a little more.

There are three stories in Brewster McCloud. Each story in the film uses birds as an underlining theme throughout. The first is of a man who spends the entire film talking about the biology of birds. As we frequently cut back to him we notice... he is slowly transforming into a bird.

Meanwhile, a group of dead bodies keep turning about - covered in bird droppings. This is a most puzzling enigma for the police, specifically a cop named Frank Shaft.

The final story, and most important one is about a young man named Brewster McCloud. Brewster is trying to create a pair of bird wings, because for some reason he is obsessed with flying. With the help of a woman named Louise, Brewster's dream does not seem like a very unrealistic one. It is then that Brewster meets Suzanne, who he slowly feels the urge to fornicate with. However, she will not leave her home to fly around the world with Brewster. This leaves him in a difficult situation. He must leave the woman he desires to fornicate with... or never fly again.

There is an ongoing joke in Brewster McCloud about bird feces. At the least opportune moments, a bird seems to fly by a character and defecate upon their head. Hilarious is not a word to describe this. I find absolutely no humour in bird feces. I felt pity for any character in the film who would have to experience the poor sensation of having a small creature defecate upon them. Yet this joke continues to last until I feel sick. But there is a lot more humour in Brewster McCloud, and a lot of it is actually funny.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a great deal of references in Brewster McCloud to several other films. That is but one of the kinds of humour in the film. We witness a little bit of slapstick, stoner humour, sex humour and just sheer randomness. I found myself to laugh at a few parts, just because they were so inane. It's pretty funny to see how fast Robert Altman would change from making complete comedies to very depressing human dramas (his next film was McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

I found the very strange parts of Brewster McCloud  not to be pointless as many critics commented, but to be very beautiful and thought provoking. There is nothing completely random in Brewster McCloud, although it does not select the most literal translation of what it wants to say, it says what it wants to say... and it says it well. Some people seem to love a film that is dramatic and strange, but hate a film that is comedic and strange. I can't understand why. There's nothing to hate about Brewster McCloud.

The Waldo-resembling Brewster McCloud is played marvelously by Bud Cort. He delivers a similar performance that he delivered in Harold and Maude as an awkward young man who everyone seems to think is crazy. Yet he acts with such humanity and humour that we can do nothing but find enjoyment in all of his scenes. Sally Kellerman is great as Louise. Although she is not in the film as much as I would have hoped. Michael Murphy plays super-detective Frank Shaft, who is a clear parody of the character Bullit in the film Bullit. I would also consider it foolish if I did not comment on Shelley Duvall. Although I have hated her in her role as Wendy Torrence in The Shining, I found her to be fabulous in Brewster McCloud. I can no longer hate as an actress because this film demonstrates her versatility  In 3 Women she plays a lonely middle-aged woman looking to find some friendship and romance in her gossip-filled life. In The Shining she plays the husband of a man who slowly goes insane and tries to kill his family. In Brewster McCloud, she plays a young woman many men seem to be sexually attracted to. Although, the cake would have to go to Rene Auberjonois, the bird researcher who slowly turns into a bird himself. He did not demonstrate great acting, but he was perfect for such a hilarious part.

Brewster McCloud says much more than you may think. The film is without a doubt a powerful satirical comment on human nature and habits. He does this through drawing comparisons to humans and birds. Robert Altman asks us to open our eyes and observe like any good bird-watcher would. I chose to let him show me what he wanted me to see... and it was worth it.

Brewster McCloud,
Directed by Robert Altman
Starring: Bud Cort, Michael Murphy and Shelley Duvall
7.5/10 (B+)

1. The Player
2. Brewster McCloud
3. Gosford Park
4. Fool For Love

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