Monday, November 09, 2015

The Birds

With a career that spanned five decades and a personal vision that always remained uncompromising and experimental, Robert Altman, more than any other American filmmaker, requires time when one attempts to warm up to his talent. Most of the time I've spent has been laborious, tedious, and sometimes disappointing. But so has my search for great films in general. Now that isn't to say the payoff wasn't exceedingly worthwhile on numerous occasions. Yesterday downtown at a movie theater here in Austin I was lulled into a sublime hypnotic trance by Brewster McCloud (1970, Robert Altman).

For someone who considers themselves a fan of Independent American cinema Altman's is one of the most revered of reputations. However it was only after seeing Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson) that led me to Short Cuts (1993, Altman), which I thoroughly and profoundly connected with, due to its vast array of troubled, struggling, funny, romantic, believable characters. Short Cuts is serious Altman at his finest.

Later I found 3 Women (1977, Altman) to be indecipherable, frustrating, and bewildering. But also funny, captivating, poetic, and a real treasure. Again, as has he always been reputed for, the ensemble casting, namely Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek, are revelatory. 3 Women is surreal Altman at his finest.

And finally the most impressive of all Altman's work, which I'd seen only recently is his made for television opus Tanner '88 (1988, Altman). It is his most serendipitous, inventive, and enjoyable narrative, in the guise of a political satire.

If the aforementioned three titles are his crowning achievements--and I realize McCabe & Mrs. Miller might belong there but I haven't seen it and I demand the opportunity to watch it projected in a theater--then their other, their counterparts, their vital components are Altman's rebellious comedy satires. For me those have been O.C. & Stiggs (1984, Altman), The Player (1992, Altman) and now Brewster McCloud.

Not quite having to structure my thoughts here as either a movie review or film criticism, the Reviewiera platform is my medium for expressing the bliss of truly, sincerely, and without pretense, enjoying the hell out of a movie.

All I'd ever heard about Brewster McCloud can be seen in its poster. Bud Cort plays the title role, lives in the Astrodome, and builds wings to fly with. As great as MASH (1970, Altman) is, and an admirable beginning to Altman's canon, that he followed it up with Brewster McCloud really makes me appreciate his reach.

Hearing that a movie was a flop, panned, alienated audiences, or was weird often makes my mouth water, and Brewster McCloud was known for all of those things. But what a payoff. It opens showing the MGM studio card without sound and as the lion roars we hear "I forgot the opening line." It's unbelievable that MGM distributed Brewster McCloud and the only one other Altman film, O.C. & Stiggs. O.C. & Stiggs also plays with the MGM opening logo card. There are several similarities between both of these MGM Altman comedies: rampant drug use, offensive racist slurs, misogynist jokes, adolescent male protagonists, contemporary pop soundtracks, non-sequitor gags, car chases, violence, and satirizing American culture. Yet they were both commercial flops, though destined for cult status.

Brewster McCloud is full of references to birds. His name sounds like rooster and his surname is a nod to the clouds. And parallel with the entire film is an inexplicable completely set apart classroom lecture by a character played by Rene Auberjonois, who is evolving into a bird before our eyes. Altman's got imagination.

There's also Michael Murphy playing a Bullitt spoof pursuing a string of homicides where there's bird shit at every crime scene. (The Murphy gags about his obsession with personal appearance and his turtlenecks is killer.) All of the cars have license plates that refer to a type of bird. The Road Runner driven by Suzanne (Shelley Duvall) has the license plate DUV 222.

The movie also has some marijuana humor that feels a lot like Cheech and Chong. Coincidentally Brewster McCloud was produced by Lou Adler (that tall skinny dude with the white beard and pink shades who always sits next to Jack courtside at the Lakers games), who managed Cheech and Chong and would go on to produce and direct Up In Smoke in 1978.

More references to flight include Sally Kellerman as Brewster's guardian angel (who in yet another bird reference plays a scene bathing nude in a fountain that also recalls her exposed shower prank in MASH), Brewster's construction of his own wings, and the name Astrodome itself alluding to a celestial monument. There's also some remnant of the Icarus myth, but Brewster McCloud becomes its own fable. It's not for me to question why Brewster is pursued as an object of physical desire by the women characters, but it adds to the anti-Hollywood feel of this comedy. Like the character Hope wrapped in a blanket masturbating while wrapped in a quilt as she bounces on Brewster's inflatable raft, how do you explain that to a producer? There's so much different stuff going on in Brewster McCloud that I'm just glad made it into the cut.

And what a debut for Shelley Duvall, more than ever I honed in on her naive nuances as the virtuous ingenue with a hint of worldliness. I'd just happen to rent Thieves Like Us (1974, Altman) a couple of weeks ago and began realizing more than ever before what she brings to a performance. Furthermore she is like the Altman actress.

A refreshing break from my usual high art preferences and mainstream interludes, Brewster McCloud won me over with its sumptous 2.35:1 canvas, Houston streets, whip zooms, long lense work, and deserves its own special place with my appreciation, due to succeeding while being unlike anything I've ever seen.


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