Montage in early Altman

Distracted by Bud Cort, Jennifer Salt can’t quite get the mustard onto her hot dog in Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970), his messy, trippy second feature film, following quickly on the heels of the more unanimously successful M*A*S*H (also 1970).  Altman was, of course, a key figure in the American film renaissance of the 1970s, working alongside Scorsese, Coppola, Woody Allen, Brian de Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, John Cassavetes—but none of their films were as breezily off-kilter as Altman’s.  Most of those other filmmakers were New Yorkers, and their films are infused with a New York sensibility.  Altman, who lived in California in the ’60s and ’70s, made films that were, for lack of a better word, “Westerns,” infused with the free-wheeling, yarn-spinning spirit and sense of space that characterizes the West.  Brewster McCloud and 3 Women (1977), both set in Houston, Texas, have a dreamy hippieish vibe, a looseness that wouldn’t really translate to the East Coast.  The Houston films don’t necessarily make logical sense (last year Glenn Kenny wrote that Brewster “sometimes seems to luxuriate in a certain kind of half-assedness”), but somehow they work.

What makes Brewster McCloud even more difficult to process than many of Altman’s others is its anti-realist premise, coupled with a confusing and densely edited structure.  Scenes of the eponymous Brewster (Cort), who lives underneath the Houston Astrodome and is building a pair of human-size bird wings, are intercut with other scenes in which a police detective (Michael Murphy) investigates a series of murders, the victims of which have all been found marked by a tell-tale splatter of birdshit.  We’re also given pieces of a lecture by a rather bird-like ornithologist (Rene Auberjonois).  ’70s folk-pop wafts over the soundtrack.  The murders are never fully explained (it appears that Brewster is behind them, but it’s unclear how, or why, he’s committing them), and the emotional resonance of the film’s ending is undercut by Altman’s sudden shifting of gears into a Fellini-esque circus sequence.  More so than most other Altman films, Brewster is largely built out of gags, some of which, um, fly (like the hot dog bit), others of which don’t really get off the ground. 

But there’s a lot of good stuff here: the lovely Sally Kellerman as a kind of supernatural bird-goddess character who watches over Bud Cort (a character similar to Virginia Madsen’s angel of death in Altman’s Prairie Home Companion); Shelley Duvall in her first film role; Margaret Hamilton (the original Wicked Witch of the West) screeching the National Anthem over the opening credits; and an appropriately exultant flight sequence at the end.  It’s not exactly Nashville, but it’s still classic Altman—a film that, for all its faults, is immediately identifiable as one of his.  And we have the Warner Archive to thank for finally granting it a DVD release last fall.

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