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Brewster McCloud (DVD Review)

2 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$24.95 DVD
Rated ‘R’ for language, drug references and sexuality.
Stars Bud Cort, Michael Murphy, Rene Auberjonois, Sally Kellerman, William Windom.

Director Robert Altman’s ravenously awaited first movie after MASH brought him overnight lionization opens with a cute gag involving the MGM lion and ends with an exclamation point gag that’s one of the most twistedly funny sick jokes I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s what happens in between that makes the result a candidate for voluminous pro/con arguments even by the standards of a filmmaker with more than his share of uneven conceits.

This is a movie about all things birds — and specifically, about a young man (Bud Cort, so early in his career that he hadn’t even made Harold and Maude yet) who yearns to fly in the Houston Astrodome via a complex makeshift contraption that demands he keep his arms in shape by doing hundreds of pull-ups. It probably figures that it script is by Doran William Cannon, who had previously written Otto Preminger’s Skidoo — a 1968 catastrophe (and coming DVD release) whose mere mention can still stop conversations among movie aesthetes and studio bean-counters. And not just because it combined Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing and pyschedelia, though that’s a start.

Brewster’s structure is loose enough to get ‘A’-team Oz shrew Margaret Hamilton (as a Houston crone) into a pair of ruby slippers and to indulge Altman regular Michael Murphy in an expert parody of Bullitt by casting him as an esteemed and imported blue-eyed San Francisco detective named Frank Shaft, who apparently travels with nothing more than a toothbrush and two dozen pricey turtleneck sweaters. But there are at least two distinct plot threads: Cort’s attempts to fly (and his distractions along the road) plus a series of Houston serial murders in which most deserving victims (misers, racists, crooked cops) are found strangled and covered in bird doody. Very much in the latter spirit, one of the earliest dropping drops on a newspaper that features an article about then cantankerous Vice-President Spiro Agnew. Oh, those contentious early ’70s.

MASH Oscar nominee Sally Kellerman plays something between a bird figure (she has wing remnants on her back) and a Cort mother figure — though if she’s a mother figure, it doesn’t keep her from disrobing in front of Cort’s Brewster in one scene. It’s all pretty vague, though it’s obvious she doesn’t want Brewster to lose his purity with young women — which turns out to be his downfall (and, in a way, the movie’s up to a point). This is to say that Cort’s scenes with Jennifer Salt (she of the hundred orgasms here) and Shelley Duvall are less interesting than the movie’s encounters with a lot of whacko Texas locals — though, Duvall, in her screen debut, was already displaying a uniquely quirky personality that managed to Altman (in many follow-up films as well), Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam.

The fun stuff involves Hamilton, Stacey Keach (as an equally obscure and odious elderly Wright Brother), William Windom (as a slick Houston power broker) and fellow members — along with Cort, Duvall, Kellerman and Murphy — of Altman’s early stock company. These include Rene Auberjonois (hilarious as a bird-oriented lecturer), John Schuck, Bert Remsen and G. Wood — the last so unforgettable in MASH as the prickly General Hammond and an actor I’m amazed Altman didn’t use more because he was so risible playing authority figures who presumably had hemorrhoids.

It’s just amazing these days to think that there was once a time when major critical/commercial successes could launch a movie year, but MASH’s New York City opening came in January, 1970. By the time Brewster followed in December, serious film fanciers were waiting — but it never got beyond subsequent cult status at repertory theaters despite one of the national magazine reviewers (Time or Newsweek’s, I forget which) raving that Altman had become the first person to ever hit one out of the Astrodome. But despite self-indulgent dead spots, the movie has the comic tone and look of prime Altman (beautifully shot and framed in Panavision with lots of zoom-lensing), and what’s more, fans didn’t have long to wait. McCabe & Mrs. Miller opened the following June (Altman really worked fast in those days), and that one he really did blast out of the park.

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