A great Robert Altman film gets unfairly relegated to the Warner Archive ghetto.
There are two very different ways to enter Brewster McCloud for the first time, and I’d say they’re probably of roughly equal preference. One is totally blind, or at least almost so. Those who wish to go that route can safely know that the film was Robert Altman’s follow-up to M*A*S*H, that the director could do almost anything he wanted at that point and chose something extremely weird. The script was by the guy who wrote Skidoo, a movie directed by Otto Preminger on acid where Jackie Gleason is married to Carol Channing and Groucho Marx plays a mobster named God. And Brewster McCloud is even stranger still. It stars Bud Cort, just before Harold and Maude, as a young man who lives in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome and has plans to fly, like a bird and with real wings. Concurrent to this is a serial strangler being hunted by the Houston police and hot shot San Francisco cop Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy). Are they connected? Perhaps. Will you care about the investigation? Probably not.
The other option when considering a watch of Brewster McCloud, either for the first time or on the much-needed second viewing, is trying to immerse yourself as much as possible in understanding Altman’s film ahead of time. Good luck. It’s just not a movie open to serious analysis. I don’t care what people say or what they write or even what I write, Brewster McCloud is a beautiful lark to be seen rather than studied. It does stand as a nice pillar of Altman’s career and something that gets far too little attention despite it being perhaps the signature work of his best decade the 1970s. As a reminder, Altman did M*A*S*H and then Brewster. His next film was McCabe & Mrs. Miller, followed by the underrated Images, my personal favorite The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, a key work California Split and the acknowledged masterpiece Nashville. That’s some kind of streak. I’m not sure an American director has ever put together eight films of that caliber in a row. Images isn’t too well known, but Brewster had never even been on DVD prior to the Warner Archive throwing out this purple-undersided DVD-R option. It’s a trip. Most people won’t get or enjoy the film but Altman enthusiasts are virtually commanded to seek it out.
Be warned that the so-called spoilers are about to fly. It’s flight that plays perhaps the most vital role in Brewster McCloud. Cort’s title character is almost like an alien creature, obsessed with birds and flight and wings. He’s shown chauffeuring around the character of Abraham Wright (Stacy Keach), an impossibly old man with a pair of famous brothers. Brewster fleeced the book inside Wright’s home given to him by his famous aviator siblings, Orville and Wilbur. Wright becomes a murder victim few really mourn. Other ill-fated characters include the singer of the national anthem at the Astrodome. She’s played by Margaret Hamilton, best known as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. We see more of her ruby-laben slippers than her face. The filmic references continue, with Steve McQueen in Bullitt as the target hit the hardest. His sweater, gun holster, blue eyes, and car chase are all sent up by Michael Murphy as the very serious Frank Shaft. Also look for a direct M*A*S*H callback and a quick cameo for that film’s poster.
Rene Auberjonois has one of the oddest roles in the history of studio-financed American film here. He plays a professor of some sort, identified in the opening credits as the lecturer, who comments on the film via bird-related factoids. He progressively becomes more and more birdlike in appearance, at one point even feasting on bird seed from the chalkboard tray. It does actually add a nifty introspective angle to the picture which allows for further consideration, though we wouldn’t expect anything less from Altman. Throughout, the director’s fingerprints are consistently stained across the film via both irreverence and playful, authority-questioning anarchy. I really love the line at the end of the trailer that frames Brewster’s troubles as coming at the hands of “the combined forces of gravity and the Houston Police.”
The treatment of Brewster, who’s sort of a deranged serial killer if we want to get right down to it, becomes the single most fascinating part of Altman’s film. The character’s background is never revealed or hinted at, and it’s empathy all the way that Altman prescribes to the viewer. I don’t know if this is honestly so bad. Altman apparently altered the script to remove more explicit accounts of Brewster’s indiscretions. As it exists, he’s the obvious choice for these crimes but they’re blunted by various external factors. Certainly Sally Kellerman as something resembling a fallen angel or a devilish bird turned human specimen adds a great deal of bird shit intrigue. I’m left with the primary idea of just not trying to take anything plotwise away from the film. Enjoy what you can, including the gloriously off-kilter nature of it from start to circus-inspired finish, but never kid yourself that Altman was doing much beyond making a movie he dug at that very moment. Reading too much into it is a mistake, I think. There’s a reason the label of “cult favorite” has formed around Brewster McCloud. Foremost, it’s weird and far from mainstream sensibilities. That it’s also great and a major stepping stone for Robert Altman that he needed to exorcise in order to make more conventional yet still subversive masterpieces is simply a gleaming hope in the eye of the potential viewer. This is, frankly, Altman’s strangest exercise in the kinds of films he liked to make. But it’s still essential and much too obscure.
We finally get Brewster McCloud and it’s for $25 as a remastered title from the Warner Archive. What a load of crap, if you’ll excuse my dissatisfaction. Had Warner Bros. been more proactive years ago then we’d probably have a full commentary from Altman and maybe even a nice retrospective featurette. It wouldn’t set you back $25 either. Yet, from a business standpoint, this isn’t the sort of film that would ever be a top seller and I do understand that. My respect for Warner Bros. has evaporated but I do hope there are people like me who can’t help themselves from being interested in such distinguished titles and thus appreciate these types of reviews.
The film is listed at the 2.40:1 aspect ratio but actually comes in at 2.35:1, and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. It gets the “Remastered” label and thus costs five bucks more than other Warner Archive titles. I don’t know exactly what goes into such a distinction but I can report that Brewster McCloud looks very pleasing indeed. Only some minor and occasional marks of damage pop up and detail is mostly excellent. It’s a progressive transfer, scrubbed nicely but not enough to give it an artificial feeling. Grain is present and at fine levels. Only some darker scenes exhibit mild concern but these too are largely forgivable in their naturalism.
Audio is a basic English mono track that sounds slightly weak in volume. Dialogue remains easily understandable and clear. The songs courtesy of John Phillips come through nicely. Boo again to the Warner Archive’s anti-subtitles policy. This simply needs to be corrected as soon as possible.
The film cries out for extras and contextualization but only a non-anamorphic trailer (2:46) has been included. Warner Archive doesn’t do extras. The idea there seems to be a tendency towards less supplemental content and nary a happy medium. You can either bang your head against the wall or relent on particular favorites being made available. Both options seem equally admirable.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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