Robert Altman has always had a reputation for being just slightly off the wall. He has an odd sense of humor that doesn’t always strike with a general audience. His films have often satisfied a niche in Hollywood, and he appeared to have been comfortable with that reputation. His films are also usually noted for their social commentary of the times. Both of these traits are certainly present in his most famous film, M*A*S*H. The movie was not an immediate success. It took a little time to grow on audiences, but grow it did. The film is considered one of the best and spawned a decade-long situation comedy that broke all sorts of ratings records, going out while still considered at the top of its game. All of this you know. All of this comes to mind when you think of Robert Altman, even if he wasn’t involved in the series. What many people don’t know is that the same year he released M*A*S*H he used much of that film’s supporting cast to film another, less successful film called Brewster McCloud.
Brewster (Cort) is an odd young man who lives in the bomb shelter basement of the Houston Astrodome. There he is building a set of wings that he expects to allow him to simply fly away from his mundane life. He is watched over by Louise (Kellerman) whom we are hinted at might be an angel. She protects Brewster while he commits crimes and general mayhem. There are what appear to be wing scars on her back. She’s encouraging Brewster to concentrate on these wings for some, again hinted at, higher purpose. But Brewster falls in love with the naive Astrodome tour guide Suzanne (Duvall). Meanwhile, the police are investigating a series of strangulations where the killer leaves a tremendous amount of bird droppings on the victims. We soon begin to suspect that there is a tie between these killings and Brewster.
Members of the M*A*S*H cast includes Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Michael Murphy, Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck, and Corey Fischer. The film also was the motion picture debut of Shelley Duvall. There are a lot of reasons why this film has muttered about in almost total obscurity while M*A*S*H is a household word, and not all of them include the fact that one went on to become a hit television series. M*A*S*H, like much of Altman’s work, had little of an actual plot. It was an episodic, almost anthology type of film. Brewster McCloud tries to use a very similar formula, but it fails on almost every level. There isn’t much of a plot going on here. Yes, there is a general story, but the action often fails to move any story elements along. Instead Altman lingers on trivial scenes that try the patience of even the most indulgent filmgoer. To make matters worse, there are these silly interludes with Rene Auberjonois as a crazy Doc Brown-style professor who lectures an unseen class on the many aspects of birds. His shtick gets crazier with each interlude as the narrative attempts to tie this insanity into what is happening on the screen. It was clever once or twice, but it’s like a punch line that keeps getting repeated over and over again until it is no longer funny, merely tiresome.
If you’re a fan of this rather eccentric black comedy, this Warner Archive release is likely all you are going to get. The film is almost unknown even to Altman’s many fans. I’d say that this is exactly why I love the Archive collection concept. Obscure films like this can make their way to the limited fan base that might exist. M*A*S*H might have been just as hard to follow at times, but the film as a whole is often genius in the way it looked at the Korean War, particularly in the midst of the conflict in Vietnam. The vignettes had a certain clever subversiveness to them so that there was a payoff for all of those moments you were left shaking your head. Brewster McCloud has no such payoff. It ends with a carnival scene that has still left me shaking my head … no, to the question of whether this film is worth a look. As to what Altman might have been thinking? “Maybe it made him feel better.”
Available: Exclusively on WarnerArchive.com: http://bit.ly/WAC_Brewster