tag-line on the theatrical poster for Brewster
McCloud, Robert Altman’s 1970 black comedy, proclaimed, “Something Else
from the Director of M*A*S*H.”
was something else, all right.
M*A*S*H, of course, was a
surprise hit earlier in the year, catapulting Altman into the A-List in
Hollywood. The picture was an irreverent commentary on the Vietnam War
(although the story takes place during the Korean War). It radically bucked the
system in terms of the sound recording and overlapping dialogue, and it initiated
the director’s penchant for using an ensemble cast and an improvisatory,
free-for-all sensibility. This was a new kind of cinema, an entry in what film
historians call New Hollywood.
for Christmas the same year, Brewster
McCloud was Altman’s anticipated follow-up. Most critics and audiences felt
it was very different from M*A*S*H—a
zanier, loosely-plotted ramshackle of a film that was considered weird and unlike
anything seen before. In retrospect, however, and especially considering
Altman’s further career of making large, unconventional and improvisatory
ensemble pictures, Brewster seems
very much in keeping with the auteur’s
stylistic and thematic traits that populated nearly all his movies.
Brewster is the story of a
young man (played by Bud Cort) who lives in a secluded area of the recently-built
Houston Astrodome, and he is building a wing-apparatus that will enable him to
fly. He’s encouraged and protected by a beautiful guardian angel (fallen, perhaps?)
named Louise (Sally Kellerman), but Brewster is infatuated with a pretty Astrodome
tour guide, Suzanne (Shelley Duvall, in her debut film role). Meanwhile, there
are serial killings going on around Houston being investigated by hotshot
detective Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy). The common “fingerprint” in the murders
is that each victim is covered in bird droppings. On top of these proceedings
are classroom scenes in which a very odd “Lecturer” (Rene Auberjonois) instructs
us about ornithology as he slowly becomes birdlike himself throughout the film.
is indeed an eccentric premise for a movie, and Robert Altman excels with it.
Make no mistake—this is an inventive, funny, bewildering, and fascinating
picture. I consider it to be one of Altman’s best films, one that solidified
not only his haphazard way of shooting a movie, but his use of a repertory
company of actors (many of the cast from M*A*S*H
appear here, along with newcomers who would continue to work with the director
in the future, such as Duvall).
of the cast, they all play colorful characters right out of a modern urban
fairytale on acid. Even Margaret Hamilton, the famed Wicked Witch of the West
from The Wizard of Oz shows up
wearing ruby slippers. The performances are excellent, especially that of
Duvall, Murphy, and good old John Schuck, who plays a traffic cop caught up in
Shaft’s investigation (Schuck was the “Painless” dentist in M*A*S*H and worked with Altman several
Archive has upgraded their previously-released DVD version of the film to a region-free
Blu-ray in 1080p High Definition with DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. There is a
lot of grain present in the darker scenes, but that is to be expected with the
film stock from this era. There are no supplements other than the theatrical
you’re an Altman fan, or can appreciate wacky, trippy comedies that smoothly
slip into theatre of the absurd, then Brewster
McCloud is for you. Frankly, this “something else” is a gem.
CLICK HERE TO ORDER FROM THE CINEMA RETRO MOVIE STORE
handsome, beautifully-illustrated, and affordable entry in Turner Classic
Movies’ series of books on film history, genres, and trivia, comes just in time
for the holidays. Christmas in the
Movies—30 Classics to Celebrate the Season offers a selection of excellent
choices in chronological order. Author Arnold, a film historian and TCM
commentator, provides enough background, offscreen anecdotes, and justification
for his picks to satisfy the most critical movie buff.
Christmas in the
to tick all the obvious suspects (Holiday
Inn; It’s a Wonderful Life; Miracle on 34th Street, White
Christmas; A Christmas Story; The Nightmare Before Christmas), but
Arnold also throws a spotlight on some lesser-known gems such as Remember the Night (1940), with a
screenplay by Preston Sturges—although I’d haggle that the Sturges’-helmed
piece, Christmas in July (also 1940)
might be a better option. Other worthy entries include The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), 3 Godfathers (1948—yes, a John Ford western!), The Lion in Winter (1968—Christmas in medieval England with Henry
II and Eleanor!), Gremlins (1984), and
Die Hard (1988—yes, this action flick
is certainly a Christmas movie!).
is particularly gratifying that Arnold chose the 1951 Scrooge (released as A
Christmas Carol in the U.S.) with Alistair Sim in the titular role. Arnold
is quite correct that this is the
definitive adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, as there have been “far
too many to count.”
film’s discussion ends with a “Holiday Moment” sidebar. Here, Arnold highlights
a specific bit from the picture that epitomizes the selection as one of the
great Christmas movies. For example, the Holiday Moment from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is Judy
Garland’s iconic rendering of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Arnold
provides the lyrics of the song the way Garland sang it, juxtaposed with the
original lyrics, which were oddly much darker and cynical.
book or list that deems to choose a finite number of movies to represent a
specific genre or theme will invariably incite calls of “But what about ___?”
Perhaps one neglected title that brings out the Christmas spirit for James Bond
fans is the 1969 On Her Majesty’s Secret
Service, which had a Christmas song (“Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are
Grown?”), Christmas morning at Blofeld’s hideaway, and 007’s proposal to his
future bride on Christmas Eve!
minor quibble aside, Christmas in the
Movies is comprehensive, informative, and fun. It might well be the perfect
gift this season for the movie lover in your family!