The Rewind: Brewster McCloud Soars Past Genre

by Jonathan Lang

The superhero by definition is one capable of doing the impossible. Powers can be gifted or acquired, but rarely are they both simultaneously. The joy of Spider-Man lies in his kinship with the viewer/reader. He’s pretty ordinary, until he isn’t. His origin story in its many retellings, most recently and skillfully in Spider-Man: Homecoming rests in restoring the thrill in simply being a hero. Filtered through the lens of a high school drama, our protagonist was not born this way, but through sustained effort, he achieves mastery over something he didn’t ask for. His reward: flying through the air with the greatest of ease. And is the case in the incarnation of his story, he takes us with him. His great powers require…well you know how this goes.

A different cinematic hero isn’t always projected on the screen, but exists beyond the narrative. This is the director, the capital “A” Auteur, and his/her presence is far less identifiable than it used to be. As one of the pioneers of the Hollywood Renaissance, Robert Altman’s body of work forms a genre onto itself. His film Brewster McCloud, a jazz-riff on the story of Icarus, derives its great power from its unclassifiable nature. It hops from moment-to-moment in a staccato rhythm that somehow adheres to a loose coherence, and suddenly, without warning, it flutters away. Altman’s films can be compared to Jean-Luc Goddard’s French New Wave work deconstructing classic Hollywood genres (I’m thinking specifically of Alphaville and Pierrot Le Feu) and sculpting something entirely personal and new. The film should soar towards cult-movie status, now that you can find it.

Brewster (impenetrably played by a pre-Harold and Maude, Bud Court) is marked by a dour singularity of focus, a driven craftsman whose otherworldly goal is flight itself. It simply must be said, he’s an odd bird and understanding Brewster is a kind of ornithology that provides the thrust of the film. With a costume that resembles a proto-Waldo from “Where’s Waldo?”, his narrative drive is equally difficult to locate. The influence of the film on Wes Anderson however, is easy to spot.

The film begins with a surreal lecturer (played by Renee Auberjonois) acting as narrator, through both voiceover and sudden screen time. His cataloguing the behavior of birds  punctuates the diegetic, a nature-film narrator alerting the viewer they are watching a construction. One can never fully slip into the elusive story. You watch the film at a distance through a pair of binoculars.

The story begins with song itself, an appropriately off-key chirping of the Star-Spangled Banner. We gain entry into Brewster’s world. His nest: the Houston Astrodome, a construction of pure artifice (the birthplace of Astroturf) that at the time (the film is nearly 50 years old) embodied the pinnacle of sports technological progress, much like man taking flight. The title sequence begins twice (Altman’s most subverse use of credits was in his film Nashville) bounding from branch to branch, as the title hops to the other side of the screen. Altman simply won’t let you sit still.

We are given snapshots into Brewster’s daily life as he is working as a limo driver for a codger of a crook (a hand-wringing performance by Stacy Keach) who spends his days joyfully going on rounds to collect his money. Until we learn that he’s been strangled. Is the act of screen violence depicted? Hardly, as the film alerts the viewer to each murder that takes place by having mysterious bird droppings splatter the victims. It’s almost as if Altman himself is gleefully defecating on the coherence of us audience members.

The film turns into a police procedural of sorts, as the appearance of a San Francisco detective (a clear parody of Steve McQueen in Bullit) is brought in to make sense of it all. He is reduced to scraping bird-droppings off of victims’ eyes for further lab examination. Is his role any different than our critical attempts to see clearly and catalogue the film?

Brewster does not act alone. The often-inexplicable women who flock towards him support him in various ways. Ultimately, an angel with clipped wings (played by Sally Kellerman) aids him. She offers the stringent advice of eschewing sex. It’s an earthbound distraction from the important work of taking flight. Does he listen? It’s tough to do when an ethereal Shelley Duvall in her first screen role swoops in.

The film flirts with the dream of flight interjecting experimental point-of-view sequences in which the camera lifts among the clouds. Ultimately, Brewster does leave the ground and his wings are anything but slick. The very clunkiness is the epitome of D.I.Y., human fingerprints felt on every feather. Spider-Man masterfully employs the latest tech offering the visceral thrills of 3D building hopping. Brewster McCloud exists outside of time. Its marriage of image and sound creates a complex poetry that will hover above film’s future technological advances.

Brewster McCloud can be streamed on iTunes