Aug 21, 2017

Thieves Like Us

As a relatively subversive and iconoclastic ‘anti-Hollywood Hollywood’ auteur that sometimes took a relatively ‘nonchalant’ approach to the filmmaking process and was not afraid to completely rework and rewrite screenplays, come up with random endings on the spot while shooting (e.g. California Split), and allowed actors to improvise, Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville) certainly performed a grand yet considerably underappreciated artistically ironic feat with Thieves Like Us (1974), which happens to be both one of his greatest yet most conventional films. Indeed, aside from being a rare Altman film that is fairly faithful to its source material, the flick was made in the wake of the culturally revolutionary success of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) when countless other filmmaker also attempted to capitalize off the prestige of the Great Depression era crime-drama as demonstrated by works including (but certainly not limited to) Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970), Martin Scorsese’s Corman-produced hack exploitation piece Boxcar Bertha (1972), and John Milius’ underrated directorial debut Dillinger (1973). While I rather like both Bonnie and Clyde and Milius’ somewhat exploitative Dillinger biopic, I have no qualms about admitting that I think Thieves Like Us is easily the greatest and most timeless of the films associated with this neo-retro counterculture subgenre and I say that as someone that would rather fuck Faye Dunaway’s half-rotten corpse than even so much as kiss Shelley Duvall’s fairly thin lips. Of course, the mostly unattractive cast of Altman’s film is one of the many things that makes it so great as a cinematic work that never falls into the ‘romantic myth’ that makes Bonnie and Clyde seem sometimes so phony, superficially propagandistic, and just plain insipidly Hollywood-esque. Adapted from relatively forgotten writer Edward Anderson’s 1937 crime novel of the same name, Altman’s film does a noble job recreating the atmosphere and cultural landscape of the decidedly destitute Great Depression era South to the point where it features no traditional score and instead cleverly relies on diegetic music and radio broadcasts to emphasize a pre-TV world when radio was still king. Naturally, as someone born in 1925, Altman had the distinguished advantage of remembering such a world when entire families had not yet collectively succumbed to the soft narcotizing lobotomy that is the idiotic box, which is quite apparent while watching the film. Thankfully, the film also does not feature contrived antiheroes like the Bogart-loving frog of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) aka Breathless that parrot the behavior of Hollywood movie stars, as it is set in a demystified world where even motion pictures do not even seem to exist (even though they did). In short, there is no glamour or crime fetishism in Altman’s stark yet strangely beauteous vision of the serenely scenic wasteland that was the 1930s American South. 

 Undoubtedly, the famous quote from John Huston’s classic film The Asphalt Jungle (1950) that “crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor” has arguably never been better expressed in a film than in Thieves Like Us where all-too-human flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities are depicted in a soundly sensitively expressed fashion to the point where the viewer cannot help but deeply sympathize with a goofy young hillbilly fugitive that once killed a man during a botched robbery. Adapted from the same name novel that acted as the source of Nicholas Ray’s classic They Live by Night (1949)—a film that Altman somewhat dubiously claimed to have never seen (in fact, Altman claimed that he began preproduction on his film before even realizing that Ray had already adapted the same novel)—the film even manages to be more tender and humanistic than its Hollywood Golden Age predecessor. Indeed, virtually every single character in the film, especially the lead and his lover, is a hapless loser with very bad luck to the point where the viewer can only assume they will meet a very tragic end.  Although featuring a glaringly mismatched trio of cross-generational fugitive bank robbers whose rather brazen behavior ultimately leads to their somewhat predictable demise, the film is first and foremost an almost shockingly touching love story about two goofy virginal misfit hicks that happen to fall in love at the most inconvenient of times in what is ultimately a decidedly doomed romance that should last a lifetime but only lasts what seems like a couple months. In terms of the sheer awkwardness of their short-lived romance, leads Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall bring a refreshingly singular chemistry that, despite their occasional petty verbal bickering, is pure of spirit and in stark contrast to the bloody violence that the film contains. As much as I appreciate Farley Granger as an actor, his portrayal of lead antihero ‘Bowie’ in Ray’s They Live by Night seems somewhat shallow and one-dimensional compared to fittingly gawky Carradine’s iconic performance in Altman’s film. Additionally, quite unlike Duvall, Cathy O'Donnell is just too effortlessly entrancing to portray a silly hick chick with a name like ‘Keechie.’ 

 Admittedly, my initial interest in originally seeing Thieves Like Us was my love of the film’s title and how it inspired by both the classic New Order song of the same name and multinational synth-driven post-punk band of the same name. As absurdly shallow as that sounds, I knew I could count on both bands due to their cinephiliac tendencies (after all, Thieves Like Us tend to pillage great European cult films to make their ‘official’ music videos). After recently re-watching the film, I am pretty much convinced that it is Altman’s most immaculately directed and just downright all-around flawless flick, even if it is also one of his least sophisticated and artistically ambitious. Undoubtedly, the film owes a great deal of its foreboding pastoral pulchritude to French cinematographer Jean Bofferty (Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, Alain Resnais’ Je t'aime, je t'aime), who Altman hired specifically due to his foreign background and lack of prejudice in terms of shooting in the ‘dreaded’ American South. Not unlike Dutch master cinematographer Robby Müller with films like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) and Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986), Bofferty demonstrates a keen appreciation for exotic rural American landscape that is simply nonexistent in most Hollywood films set in similar locations. Indeed, compared to the emphasis on the scenery in Thieves Like Us, Altman’s Nashville (1975)—a film that was also penned by Joan Tewkesbury—seems like it could have been filmed on a cheap Hollywood sound stage. Not unlike Stanley Kubrick’s underrated 18th-century epic Barry Lyndon (1975), Altman’s film rings quite true in terms of the era it depicts and never succumbs to unintentional kitsch or camp like so many Hollywood period pieces. Indeed, you might not exactly find the world depicted in Altman’s film to be terribly romantic in the superficial Bonnie and Clyde-esque sort of fashion, but you will be glad you experienced what is ultimately a pleasantly devastating depiction of that particular zeitgeist. 

 Beginning on a forebodingly rainy day in Mississippi with a slight sense of gleeful doom and gloom in the air, Thieves Like Us introduces two members of the eponymous trio with a fittingly anticlimactic prison escape that involves the characters carjacking a rather rotund and equally dimwitted pothead after a fairly mellow day of extra leisurely prisonside fishing. The youngest yet seemingly most intelligent and seemingly sane of the group, infectiously goofy yet incessantly glowering 23-year-old protagonist Bowie A. Bowers (Keith Carradine) was originally in prison for killing a store clerk during a botched robbery that ruined his entire life. Luckily for him (or rather unluckily as the film eventually reveals), Bowie has teamed up with two veteran middle-aged bank robbers named T-Dub ‘Three-toed’ Masefield (Bert Remsen) and Elmo ‘Chicamaw’ Mobley (John Schuck). While T-Dub is an almost disturbingly jolly unrepentant pervert with a fetish for underage female relatives and Chicamaw is an angry drunk and shameless slob, the only vice that Bowers really seems to suffer from is youth and the tragic naivety that oftentimes accompanies it. Although the only member of the gang that was actually convicted of murder, Bowie cannot really seem to stomach death and violence and thus naturally becomes disgusted when Chicamaw proves to be a rather trigger-happy gent when it comes to confronting cops and elderly bank clerks. In fact, Bowie is such a sensitive sweetheart with a hillbilly heart of gold that he spends his first night out of prison as a fugitive befriending a stray dog and sleeping with the yellow beast under a train track in a scene that really underscores that he is a lovable loner that the audience cannot help but happily root for.

 The day after the gang's less than great escape from prison, Bowie arrives at the home of an alcoholic gas station owner named Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt) where he first meets the girl he will fall in love with. The teenage daughter of Dee and ‘second cousin’ of Chicamaw, Keechie (Shelley Duvall) is anything but a charming cutie but, like the protagonist, she is a goofy and gawky redneck dork and thus they make for quite the ideal couple. Indeed, Bowie and Keechie become in many ways the ‘perfect couple,’ but unfortunately fate intervenes and puts a swift brutal end to the heterodoxically heartwarming romance.  At first, Bowie is too shy and inexperienced to properly flirt with Keechie and instead grills her about whether or not she has a ‘fella.’  Notably, Bowie is so obviously infatuated with Keechie that he seems sincerely shocked when she denies having a beau.  Luckily for Bowie, he not only eventually becomes Keechie's fella, but also her first fella as she is a naive virgin that seems like she spent way too much time in a Southern Baptist Sunday school.

 When Bowie rhetorically asks the stray dog at the beginning of the film, “You belong to someone? You’re just a thief like me,” he probably reveals more about himself verbally than at any other time in the film, so it is only tragically fitting that when he decides that he wants to “belong” to Keechie and quit being a thief that he is literally shot down in a most gruesome fashion as if the gods where punishing him for overcoming some sort of ugly archetype that he was never really meant to be.  Had he had a more privileged upbringing, Bowie might have grown up to become a community college professor or accountant, but instead he reluctantly embraced a world of crime. Unlike his psychopathic goofballs partners T-Dub and Chicamaw, who do not really seem to understand him in any innate or meaningful way, Bowie actually seems to have the capacity to go straight and lead a relatively normal life. In fact, he seems to desperately long to become thoroughly domesticated and eventually start a family, especially after falling in love with Keechie, but being a fugitive makes it an impossible task. In fact, when Bowie is injured in a car accident, Chicamaw makes their situation seemingly infinitely worse by murdering two cops in cold blood so that they can flee the scene before being recognized as fugitive bank robbers. Somewhat ironically, it is also this same car wreck that leads to Bowie falling in love, as Keechie nurses him back to health when he is injured and eventually joins him in bed where the two new lovebirds demonstrate their keen attraction towards one another by making love no less than two times that night.  Indeed, before they even kiss, Keechie demonstrates with the great sensitivity that she treats Bowie's wounds that she loves him.

 While Bowie parts ways with his partners after the car accident and buys a secluded cabin for him and Keechie to live in, he is counting on one more big bank robbery score so that he and his beloved can flee the United States to start a new life in Mexico. While the bank robbery goes relatively smoothly aside from Chicamaw impulsively murdering a bank clerk, T-Dub is subsequently killed by the cops while waiting in a parked for his wife outside a seedy motel that he just bought.  Additionally, Chicamaw is caught and imprisoned, thus leaving Bowie to fend for himself in a world where he has next to nil friends. Unfortunately, Bowie makes the ultimately fatal mistake of hiding out at a small cabin owned by T-Dub’s supremely cunty sister-in-law ‘Mattie’ (Louise Fletcher), who has a fiercely frigid demeanor as if she has not had a good fuck in well over a decade. Angered by the fact that T-Dub married her underage daughter Lula and holding a perversely petty grudge against the protagonist because he once dared to positively compare her to his mother, Mattie ultimately betrays Bowie and even has him setup to be brutally murdered by the Texas Rangers even though she knows that Keechie is pregnant with his unborn child. Indeed, after an successful attempt to spring Chickamaw from prison, only to kick his partner out of the car and force him to fend for himself in prison garb in the middle of the country when he becomes extremely belligerent, Bowie comes home to an ambush that involves about a dozen Texas Rangers unloading hundreds of bullets on him when he unwittingly enters cabin where he believes his beloved Keechie is waiting for him.  Indeed, Bowie becomes the completely unsuspecting victim of an extra deadly trap as a result of a bitter blonde bitch wanting to get even with him over some imaginary wrong.

 In the end in a scene that is set at least a couple months after Bowie’s brutal murder, Keechie is depicted sitting at a train station as she waits for a ride to Fort Worth, Texas. Notably, Keechie states to a woman (played by the film’s screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury) sitting beside her in regard to her pregnancy, “I think it’ll be a boy. Well, I hope it is. But if it is, he sure will not be named after his daddy, God rest his soul. He crossed me up once too often, lying. He doesn’t deserve to have no baby named after him.” Aside from speaking fairly coldly and harshly about her dead one-true-love, Keechie lies to the woman and claims that Bowie was a victim of “consumption” and then consumes another Coke, thus revealing her abject embarrassment in regard to the ultra-violent extermination of her beloved. Notably, in a scene earlier in the film where he unwittingly foretells his own legacy, Bowie remarks to Keechie, “Chicamaw was telling me about that lawyer friend of his in Mexico. Hawkins. He didn’t believe much in that heaven or hell stuff. Said the only way a man lived on was through his children.” Indeed, Bowie may be dead, but his infamous legacy and his great love for Keechie lives on in via his unborn child, even if the mother of said unborn child seems to be attempting to erase his memory.  Of course, Bowie's words can also be seen as a sort of warning against the ungodly crime against nature known as miscegenation, as a half-breed that looks and acts nothing like you does not carry on your legacy and might as well be the spawn of a stranger.  Racial purity aside, Bowie and his buddies are indubitably authentic examples of the ‘white negro’ archetype and not the phony sort that Hebraic proto-hipster Norman Mailer romanticized about.

Undoubtedly, Baltimore sage H.L. Mencken—a German-American not unlike Altman that seemed to detest WASP lumpenproles—might as well have been describing his opinion of the protagonists of Thieves Like Us when he wrote in his autobiography Happy Day (1940) that, “. . . a great many anthropoid blacks from the South have come to town since the city dole began to rise above what they could hope to earn at home, and soon or late some effort may be made to chase them back. But if that time ever comes the uprising will probably be led, not by native Baltimoreans, but by the Anglo-Saxon baboons from the West Virginia mountains who have flocked in for the same reason, and are now competing with the blacks for the poorer sort of jobs.”  Of course, Altman's film demonstrates that the auteur had slightly more empathy for hicks and hillbillies, especially when once considers that Mencken once wrote, “It requires a conscious effort for me to pump up any genuine sympathy for the downtrodden, and in the end I usually conclude that they have their own follies and incapacities to thank for their trouble.”

 In terms of its depiction of ‘coup de foudre,’ especially of a less idealized and more realistic sort, Thieves Like Us really has no contemporaries and makes the lawless love affair between the improbably attractive titular antiheros portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde seem as emotionally and erotically counterfeit as a feminist fuck flick featuring a bunch of sub-attractive girls with blue hair and tacky tattoos. The film also has the distinction of being, aside from Dušan Makavejev’s The Coca-Cola Kid (1985), the world’s longest (anti)Coke commercial as a surprisingly iconic flick set in a world where the sickeningly sugary beverage seems to have replaced water and where ads for the soda have taken the place of political sloganeering (indeed, in Altman's film the Coca-Cola logo is to the 1930s U.S. what the swastika was to German during the same era). Admittedly, I certainly had the irrational desire to drink a Coke and then rob a bank after seeing the film.

 Of course, one of the most brilliant aspects of the film is its seamlessly interweaving of relatively lighthearted and touching subjects like youthful innocence and virginal awkwardness with senseless brutality and death as is especially personified by tragic antihero Bowie, who just never had a chance in terms of accomplishing the relatively small goal of starting a family and living a normal life. Notably, even Altman—a somewhat cynical auteur that always preferred to depict a harsh reality over some sort of feel-good banality—found the ending of Edward Anderson’s source novel where Keechie also dies to be such a downer that he opted to change it, or as he explained to David Thompson in Altman on Altman (2006), “In the novel, she dies in the shoot-out at the cabin. The only change I made was that I had her live and put that little coda in the railway station, saying that she survived and went off, pregnant, into the world. It just seemed to me that to kill them both was too brutal of an ending, and I wanted the sense that something from these people continued on.” 

 While antihero Bowie surely dies a brutal senseless death in the end via covert firing squad, there is certainly something morbidly romantic about it in the sense that the character more or less perished at a true highpoint of his life as a young man that had just fallen in love and impregnated his beloved not long after losing virginity, so it should be no surprise that the film briefly alludes to Romeo and Juliet.  Indeed, while he never gets to experience the joys that come with being a father or grandfather, he is spared the pain of growing old, seeing loved ones die, and experiencing the sort of degenerative poor health that accompanies old age. In a sense, Bowie realizes George Bernard Shaw's goal, “The greatest thing in life is to die young but delay it as long as possible,” as he lives just long enough to spread his seed and sire an heir in between running an infamous, albeit only semi-successful, bank robbing operation. Indeed, science demonstrates that the point of life is to reproduce and in that sense Bowie’s life finds true meaning in the end, thus making Thieves Like Us one of Altman’s least nihilistic films. Indeed, compared to Altman’s previous classic McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) where the eponymous dies a rather lonely death alone in the cold bitter snow while his literal whore lover is somewhere else staring into space while high on morphine, the film is a strangely joyous celebration of life and love, albeit set it in a quasi-apocalyptic era of abject misery and poverty. 

 Although I find many of her opinions on film to be patently absurd and reveal that she was a pretty big Americentric philistine for a highly celebrated NYC Jewish intellectual, Pauline Kael—Altman’s greatest and most shameless fan-girl—wrote a fairly insightful review of the film in the February 4, 1974 issue of The New Yorker where she argued, “In other Altman films, there is always something that people can complain about; they ask, ‘What’s that there for?’ In THIEVES LIKE US, there’s nothing to stumble over. It’s a serenely simple film—contained and complete.” In fact, the laid back pace and tone of the film was intentional, or as Altman once explained himself to David Thompson, “I don’t know if you can do this kind of stuff today, taking your time and being so leisurely about it. I don’t know if you could really do it then. But THIEVES had the pace that I think was exactly what it required. If I shot it today, I don’t think I’d have the courage to do it.” Undoubtedly, Kael pays her greatest compliment to the film at the very end of her review where she somewhat soundly argues in regard to the true distinctly American cultural prowess of the film, “For the last two years now, friends of mine have been shouting that Altman must do THE WILD PALMS or AS I LAY DYING; they’ve been convinced that he is the man to bring Faulkner to the screen. Maybe he knew it all along, and maybe he was smart enough to know that he could do it best by using someone else’s material for his text […] But THIEVES LIKE US is HIS Faulkner novel.” Of course, the great irony is that, despite the filmmaker’s incessant stupid and stereotypical anti-American remarks during his relatively long life as a hopeless generic liberal democrat type, Altman is responsible for creating one of the most timeless pieces of hearty and organic celluloid Americana.  Indeed, while the film surely benefited from its foreign frog cinematographer, Thieves Like Us could have only been directed by an authentic American just as cinematic works as diverse as D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Harmony Korine's Gummo (1997) could have only been been directed by yanks (even if the latter film is largely inspired by a sort of anti-Europid post-Yiddish psychosis).

Commercially speaking, Altman's film was, not surprisingly, an abject failure, though apparently it was at least partly the result of the studio’s lack of promotion, or as star John Schuck once stated, “THIEVES was a picture that was so non-mainstream that the studio had no idea how to promote it. They treated it like a bank-robbery movie, which it isn’t, of course […] But it was released and went in a few weeks.” Apparently, Altman was rather protective of his film to the point of shouting down talkative audience members during screenings, or as screenwriter and sometimes filmmaker Buck Henry (Heaven Can Wait, First Family) revealed with the following somewhat humorous anecdote, “I met Bob in Cannes. He and Kathryn said, ‘Come to a screening of THIEVES.’ We went to the screening and he went nuts because people were still milling around and talking when the film started. He stood up and yelled, ‘Goddammit, you fucking people. Will you sit down!’ Scared the hell out of them—they did.”

Notably, out of all the books that I have read about Altman featuring remarks from his friends and associates, Buck Henry's handful of remarks in Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (2009) by Mitchell Zuckoff proved to be some of the most unflattering. Indeed, it seems that Henry thought Altman was somewhat of a phony megalomaniac that hypocritically vomited leftist platitudes while ruling as a virtual Dionysian god under his own filmmaking dictatorship, or as quite kosher The Graduate screenwriter explained, “In the back of my head I was always aware that he could turn on a dime if someone said something that really irritated him or had an opinion that didn't make him laugh. I think he had very strict rules of behavior—I would imagine having something to do with his childhood. His rage against the establishment was one or two parts bullshit. Everybody kissed Bob's ass. They realized that he was an important filmmaker—regarded as that around the world. He liked the feeling of being really angry.”  If Henry is to believed, it seems that Altman modeled the mean-spirited and belligerent dipsomaniac character Chicamaw played by Schuck after himself.  Undoubtedly the least sympathetic of the three titular bank robbers, Chicamaw is a loathsome fat pig and unrepentant copkiller whose aberrant actions ultimately inspire the police to be more proactive in their murderous manhunt.  Of course, Altman became a filmmaker instead of a career criminal and it can probably be argued that his negative personal qualities almost certainly benefited him as a cinematic artist, hence a Hollywood film as gloriously morally ambiguous as Thieves Like Us.

Arguably the most understatedly romantic film crime flick ever made, Thieves Like Us is a real shocker in that it actually dares to trade-in the ‘romantic myth’ of glamorous Depression Era gangsterdom for the inordinate wholesomeness of unspoiled young love in a hopeless world where organic beauty and sensitivity are seen as dire vulnerabilities that one just cannot afford to have.  Of course, Altman's heartening depiction of young love seems all the more unlikely when one considers he was a lifelong lady's man that was married no less than three times and was known to be both emotionally and physically abusive with women, especially when he was drunk.  In short, Altman was the complete opposite of the film's terminally romantically shy antihero Bowie, thus demonstrating the filmmaker's artistic integrity as man that was willing to give a certain degree of touching humanity to a virginal bank-robber that he had seemingly nothing in common with.  Of course, Altman also deserves respect for making a romantic leading lady out of someone as hypnotically homely and anti-voluptuous as Shelley Duvall (in fact, Altman accentuates her particularly preternatural face in a scene where she stares meekly into a distorted mirror).

Undoubtedly, James Joyce's famous phrase, “sentimentality is unearned emotion” certainly does not pertain to Thieves Like Us as it is a cinematic work that forces the viewer to submit to the good, bad, and ugly of human existence and it ultimately ends on an almost crushingly unsentimental note that reminds one of the singular coldness of the so-called fairer sex.  Surely, if you do not let yourself be completely consumed by the film's characters and their hermetic world of crime and relatively wholesome carnality, you will get little out of it as the flick was certainly not directed by a carny showman that gets a kick out of leading armies of philistines by their noses with cheap visual gimmicks and kitschy melodrama, hence its relative lack of popularity among the masses.  Surely, if there is any film that demonstrates in a sort of metapolitical fashion that Mencken—a truly American Nietzschean that was also no fan of FDR's so-called New Deal—was right when he wrote, “Democracy is only a dream: it should be put in the same category as Arcadia, Santa Claus, and Heaven,” it is indubitably Altman's tender yet tough tribute to one of America's least flattering eras. To mention Mencken one more time, I think it is safe to say that he might as well have been talking about Thieves Like Us and Altman's oeuvre in general when he wrote, “Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed.”

-Ty E

Aug 2, 2017

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Over the years, I have compiled of mental list of must-see films that I procrastinate watching because I want to be in the right mood and setting to appreciate such a supposed masterpiece and do not want to somehow ruin what can be an aesthetically transcendent experience. Indeed, I still haven’t seen a number of Ingmar Bergman’s films, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal (1982), Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours trilogy, and countless other films that I probably should have watched many years ago. After recently finally watching Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) aka Tráiganme la cabeza de Alfredo García directed by absolutely singular Hollywood maverick Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch), I can only say that I am pissed at myself for waiting about a decade too long to watch what is one of the most pleasantly venomously visceral and inexplicably cathartic yet senselessly tragic films that I have ever seen.  In fact, I think it is now my favorite Peckinpah flick and I say that as one of the rare individuals that prefers Straw Dogs (1971) to his supposed magnum opus The Wild Bunch (1969). Sometimes feeling like a paradoxically immaculate exploitation flick on steroids as directed by a refreshingly unpretentious cinematic master possessed by the perennially bitter spirit of Ambrose Bierce, the film is notable for being the only work directed by Peckinpah that is a true ‘director’s cut’ as it was released exactly the way he intended it to be and it certainly shows as a deliciously unpleasant movie that is dripping with spiritual morbidity, latent misanthropy, and a foredoomed sort of tenderness that only the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) director was capable of.  Indeed, fuck Peckinpah's somewhat minor celebrated westerns like Ride the High Country (1962) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is forever!

Featuring a hard-drinking and self-destructive war veteran antihero that is always conspicuously hiding his thoroughly inebriated bloodshot eyes behind sunglasses and who has a fetish for fiery yet sensual Latinas, the film is also, for better or worse (I go with the latter), Peckinpah’s most autobiographical and auteur-driven work. Made at the beginning of the late period of the filmmaker’s career after the failure of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is, in the best sort of way, the sort of film you would expect from a terribly talented yet troubled man that once pathetically confessed, “I can't direct when I'm sober.” The sad, slightly pitiful, sometimes melancholic and ultimately hopelessly tragic yet endlessly enthralling and perversely passionate tale of a hapless gringo bartender that gets him and his beloved pussy-peddler mestizo lover sucked into the highly dangerous Mexican criminal underworld upon learning about the large bounty placed upon the literal head of a dead male-whore that made the mistake of impregnating his crime boss’s special little girl, the film is also a rather fittingly love letter to Peckinpah’s virtual second home of Mexico. Indeed, despite the film’s dark and morbid content, it also manages to reveal Peckinpah’s more sensitive side, namely his love of Mexico and the Mexican people and especially his love of young nubile Mexican women. After all, the love of Peckinpah’s love was Mexican actress Begoña Palacios (1965–1984), who he married no less than three times and had a daughter with. Like the protagonist’s lover in the film, Palacios was perennially passionately devoted to Peckinpah who, not unlike the character in the film, had a hard time adequately (and sanely) expressing his emotions to his brown-skinned beloved. Of course, much like Peckinpah, the film's antihero—a painfully conspicuous stand-in for the alcoholic auteur—does not realize what he has until it is too late and he has lost it, especially where love is concerned. 

 A film that has managed to have entries in both 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2003) edited by Steven Schneider and The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way) (1978) by Zionist turd Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is certainly the sort of shockingly unflinching, venomously vexatious, and unrepentantly ‘politically incorrect’ cinematic work that divides viewers. Indeed, I certainly cannot imagine a true blue optimist coming away from watching the film without feeling like they have suffered some sort of major metaphysical trauma that causes them to question the very meaning of life.  For pessimists, the film offers a virtual playground of human stupidity, absurdism, and senseless tragedy in poetic celluloid form.  In fact, the film even concludes with a close-up of a smoking gun barrel pointed directly at the audience, as if to remind the viewer in a humorously obnoxious fashion that life is all about pain, death, and destruction and that no one escapes death.  Set in a wicked and wayward world devoid of heroes where only the meanest and morally bankrupt of motherfuckers thrive and survive, Peckinpah’s flick is in many ways the ‘antihero film par excellence’ where an underdog pays the ultimate price for playing a very naughty game in a uniquely underhanded fashion that involves the decaying dismembered head of a Mexican chap that had cuckolded him only a couple weeks before.  A compulsively cynical and somewhat morally dubious dude that is willing to risk his life if he sees a special opportunity to get rich quick, the antihero attempts to cheat in a deadly game with Mexico’s criminal elite that involves him procuring the head of a man that only he knows is already dead for a $1 million bounty. Unfortunately, the protagonist unwittingly pays the ultimate cost for his singularly sleazy efforts, which eventually results in him losing every single thing that he truly values, namely what is left of his personal integrity and the inordinately sweet and loving Latina love of his life. 

 Vaguely (anti)Orphic in its daunting depiction of an antihero that loses his lover and intentionally enters a sort of figurative hell south of the border, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is unquestionably an action film that totally transcends genre as a work that might also be described as being simultaneously a black tragicomedy, cowboy-less neo-western, Mexican gangster flick, necro-buddy movie, artsploitation revenge-thriller, and ultra-violent dark romance. In short, the film is a subversive work of cinematic art of the totally true grit oriented sort as directed by a man that was not afraid to be a man, especially in the unflattering sense of the word. More reluctantly neurotic and self-denigrating than self-pitying, the film is also, somewhat surprisingly, more drenched in grief and gloom than it is blood and gut, though it is by no means a tame film as far as delightfully deranged ultra-violence is concerned. Featuring singularly darkly humorous scenarios like a gay hit man knocking out a hooker that dares to hit on him and a protagonist that uses vodka to clean his genitals after a long hard night of dirty interracial sex, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a hopelessly humanistic film in the sense that Peckinpah dares to reveal the most unflattering aspects of human vulnerability, moral fragility, and suffering, but one should not expect anything less from an auteur that owned up to the fact that he was a self-destructive fuck-up and dipsomaniac that was incapable of living a stable life and maintaining a healthy romantic relationship. 

Undoubtedly, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia does for the action genre what Werner Schroeter’s Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972) aka The Death of Maria Malibran did for European high-camp in terms of being a rare film where virtually every single shot resembles a painting in terms of its seemingly immaculate composition. Indeed, despite technically being a genre film and featuring about as much sleazy content as a gleefully morally bankrupt 1970s Italian exploitation film, the aesthetic integrity of film deserves to be compared to the greatest and most hypnotic tableaux vivants of Visconti, which says a lot since most of the film is set in the Mexican countryside and inside dilapidated buildings that are not even fit for rabid barnyard animals. Once rightly described by belated pop film critic Roger Ebert as “some kind of bizarre masterpiece,” the film provides the hallucinatory experience of hard drugs with the timeless tragic nuance of Shakespeare, albeit in a manner that can be easily consumed by the most inebriated of sub-literate white lumpenproles and mestizo farmers. 

 At the very beginning of the film, the viewer is exposed to the misleadingly splendorous and serene image of a beautiful pregnant teenager as she basks in the sunlight beside a placid lake with swans in a scenario that resembles a sort of ethereal Mexican pastoral heaven. Before the viewer knows it, the young girl is brought before a sort of family kangaroo court where her crime boss father ‘El Jefe’ (played by Mexican actor and auteur Emilio Fernández, who is best known for directing the Palme d'Or award winning feature María Candelaria (1944)) demands to known who impregnated her while a virtual army of people that include her family members, Catholic nuns, and gangsters watch on in abject anticipation. When the teenager, who clearly loves the lucky mensch that knocked her up, refuses to comply, El Jefe has her top ripped off in a quasi-incestuous that eventually morally degenerates into minor torture. When the tormented topless teen can no longer take the physical and emotional pain of being tortured in front of a bunch of people, she finally reveals that her father’s protégé “Alfredo Garcia” is the sperm donor of her unborn child. Although El Jefe somberly states of Garcia that, “He was like a son to me,” he desperately lusts for revenge and immediately offers a bounty for her daughter’s baby-daddy of $1 million, thus leading to many of his henchmen immediately vacating the premises so that they can go hunting for the poor miserable fool that idiotically got his all-powerful cutthroat boss’s teenage daughter pregnant.  While El Jefe will sort of get his revenge in the end in a somewhat expected way, so will his lovelorn daughter in what ultimately proves to be one fucked up Mexican family drama.

 Unfortunately for the film’s gringo protagonist Bennie (Warren Oates)—a retired U.S. Army officer turned perennially drunk bartender that seems set on wasting away in a third world hellhole—he eventually learns of the bounty when two homo hit men show up at his bar in Mexico City and begin asking about the whereabouts of the seemingly elusive Alfredo Garcia. Indeed, when suavely dressed cocksucker career criminals Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Johnny Quill (Gig Young) show up at his bar and begin waving around money and asking about Garcia, born loser Bennie immediately begins scheming and lies to the two unconventionally intimidating killers by claiming that he does not know the man. As it turns out, Garcia cuckolded Bennie only a couple weeks before by banging his beloved Hispanic hooker girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega).  When Bennie talks to Elita and learns that Garcia is already dead as a result of stereotypically dying in a drunken car crash, he believes he has a ‘sure thing’ and will be able to easily collect the bounty without having to actually commit a murder.  Needless to say, Bennie has no qualms about defiling Alfredo's corpse.  Unfortunately for him, Bennie’s lazy amoral scheme will eventually lead him on a suicidal path of no return involving violent deaths and grisly (self)destruction. After talking to Sappensly and Quill’s pompous German boss ‘Max’ (played by Helmut Dantine, who also acted as the film’s executive producer), they agree to pay him $10,000 for the head of Alfredo Garcia, though they also threaten to kill him if he fucks up. In fact, one of Max’s associates—a very Jewy four-eyed fellow that reeks of NYC style arrogance—even dares to call Bennie “a loser,” but he calmly retorts, “Nobody loses all the time.” Somewhat ironically, while Bennie eventually does obtain the head, he ultimately loses everything else in the process. While Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia might be a true underdog tale, said underdog goes down and brings virtually everyone else with him.

 As far as the timeless ‘whore with a heart of gold’ archetype is concerned, Elita—a pleasant little pussy-peddler who is quite proud of her naked body as demonstrated by the fact that she is always flaunting it, including in front of potential rapists—is arguably the most sympathetic, lovable, and believable ‘sporting girl’ in cinema history and I say that as someone that is a great fan of Giulietta Masina’s tragic lovelorn streetwalker in Federico Fellini’s early classic Le notti di Cabiria (1957) aka Nights of Cabiria. Indeed, Elita’s flagrantly expressed love for booze-loving burnout Bennie is largely responsible for humanizing him as he would be a mostly despicable character otherwise, hence why it is so devastatingly heartbreaking when the protagonist’s absurd get-rich-quick scheme ultimately leads to her obscenely senseless premature demise. In fact, while Peckinpah has oftentimes been criticized for being a supposed misogynist, it is ultimately the main two female characters, Elita and El Jefe’s teenage daughter, that are the strongest and most sympathetic characters in the entire film as two inordinately selfless women that are willing to sacrifice everything for the love of their man. Undoubtedly, the darkest and most emotionally wounding irony of the film is that Bennie unwittingly assigns his lover Elita’s death for a scheme that she was very vocally against from the very beginning, thus highlighting her virtually suicidal loyalty.  Indeed, it is almost as if Elita has a sort of noble savage sixth sense that helps her foresee serious danger that bumbling buffoon Bennie lacks. Intending to get married and more or less ‘retire’ together upon collecting the bounty, the money naturally ultimately becomes pointless once Elita is killed, which indubitably explains why Bennie eventually decides to go on a suicidal killing spree in end in an act that is probably best described as a form of stupendously sick broken-hearted penance of the murderously mournful sort. 

 After spending a vodka-fueled picnic together where the lovers demonstrate their love for one another and agree on getting married soon in an inordinately sweet and tender Peckinpah love scene that really underscores the auteur's surprising emotional range as a filmmaker, Elita makes the mistake of talking Bennie into camping out in the dangerous Mexican countryside under the stars.  Not surprisingly considering the setting and director, the romantic scene in the picture perfect pastoral setting degenerates from classic romance into attempted rape and brutal vengeful murder. Unfortunately, two inhumane hippie bikers (one played by musician-turned-actor Kris Kristofferson and the other by Donnie Fritts) crash their campsite and almost immediately demand at gunpoint that they be able to take turns raping Elita, who, somewhat disturbingly, is quite the trooper in terms of embracing her ugly fate. Indeed, when Bennie violently threatens the armed bikers, Elita replies, “Oh, no, you won’t, Benny. I’ve been here before, you don’t know the way,” as if she has been in a similar situation many times before. A totally tough hot tamale that even manages play sexual assault by her own rules, Elita takes the biker played by Kristofferson aside, takes off her shirt, proudly puffs out her bare tits, and even violently slaps the would-be-rapist in the face in a manner that seems to turn-on that degenerate bikeboy bastard. Rather curiously, Elita even seems to enjoy it when the biker begins passionately kissing her, but that does not last long as Bennie manages to catch the bikers off guard and then ruthlessly kills them both, but not before declaring “Hey! You’re dirt!” to the dirty hippie that is defiling his beloved. Of course, had not Elita played it so cool in the situation and neglected to act like a stereotypical hysterical women, both she and Bennie would have probably been killed immediately, thus demonstrating that the heroine is more of a natural survivor than her somewhat insecure gringo lover. Undoubtedly, before she is killed, Elita acts as Bennie’s virtual guardian angel, so it is no surprise that he goes in full self-combustion mode after her tragic death.   Indeed, Elita may be a cheap Mexican whore, but she has a certain penetrating purity of spirit that her cynical and somewhat jaded lover just completely lacks.

 Notably, it is only after the unsavory incident with the bikers—an episode that clearly internally wounds the antihero's manhood—that Bennie finally dares to come completely clean and admits to Elita his intention of digging up her ex-lover Alfredo’s assumedly somewhat rotten corpse and decapitating the head. While Elita is completely against the plan and describes it as an act of desecration, Bennie cynically describes Alfredo as their “saint” and then absurdly argues like some sort of cynical redneck pseudo-philosopher, “Listen, the church cuts off the feet, fingers, any other goddamn thing from the saints, don’t they? Well, what the hell, Alfredo’s our saint. He’s a saint of our money. And I’m gonna borrow a piece of him.” At this point, Elita, who cannot believe that her beau wants to actually decapitate the head of her rotting ex-beau, almost considers breaking up with Bennie, but she cannot bear to betray her beloved and instead reluctantly guides him to Alfredo’s small hometown village. Somewhat disturbingly, the lovers witness a rather joyous funeral for a small child at the same exact graveyard that Alfredo is buried out. Undoubtedly, the dead child in the small wooden coffin is eerily symbolic of the child that Bennie and Elita will never have together, as the latter will soon be dead.

When Bennie finally goes to do the dirty deed and begins digging up freshly Alfredo’s freshly buried grave, Elita simply cannot watch and walks away. Unfortunately, Bennie will never see her alive again, as he is soon knocked out cold with a shovel by an unseen assailant and later wakes up buried underneath the ground next to Elita’s lifeless corpse. Upon digging himself out of the shallow grave, Bennie tries in vain to revive Elita’s corpse, only to absurdly accuse her of wanting to be with Alfredo when she fails to wakeup from her perennial slumber. Of course, upon emerging from the ground, Bennie—a pathetic man that has just lost the one person in the entire world that truly loved and cared him—is virtually reborn and proceeds to degenerate into a quasi-nihilistic killer whose best friend becomes a decapitated Mexican head. Indeed, not long after Elita is killed, Bennie manages to catch up with the malevolent mestizos that murdered his lover and stole Alfredo’s head. Upon unleashing a storm of bullets on both the men and killing them in cold blood, the antihero states with a sort of morbid sadistic glee that, “it feels so damn good.” After that, Alfredo’s head becomes Bennie’s best friend and closet confidant. While Alfredo’s family eventually attempts to take the head back at gunpoint, Sappensly and Quill randomly show up and begin exterminating the poor unwitting peasants with a machine-gun, though the latter is eventually killed by one of Garcia’s relatives. When Bennie demonstrates his lack of tact by asking Sappensly “do I get paid?” while the highly homicidal homo hit man is caressing the still warm corpse of his gay lover, the seemingly psychopathic cocksucker gets a little bit irked and naturally attempts to kill the protagonist. Luckily, Bennie manages to kill Sappensly before the sod can get a shot in. 

 After procuring fresh ice for Alfredo’s head and even giving said head a shower later on at his apartment, Bennie symbolically packs the rotten dome piece inside Elita’s picnic basket and then visits Max and his goons at their lavish hotel headquarters to ostensibly get paid for the bounty. When a discernibly angry Bennie dares to question Max about what he wants the head for, the sly kraut criminal retorts, “No question, Benny . . . The ten thousand answers it all.” With nothing left to lose and completely angry with both himself and the career criminals that hired him, Bennie proceeds to describe how the picnic basket that is carrying the head “belonged to a very special lady” and then abruptly proceeds to shoot and kill every single man in the room. Luckily, Bennie manages to grab El Jefe’s business card off of Max's corpse, thus giving him the information he needs to collect the full bounty.  Instead of a mere $10,000, Bennie seeks to gain $1 million by personally delivering the head to the man that put out the bounty, but unfortunately for the gangster leader the antihero no longer has any use for money.  Looking to avenge his dead lover and place the blame at the supposed source of all his largely self-induced troubles, Bennie decides to pay El Jefe at his lavish estate and give Alfredo’s head to him personally.  Needless to say, Bennie sparks a massacre that he himself will never emerge from.

Quite fittingly, if not sickly, Bennie arrives at the house during the baptism of El Jefe’s grandson, who also happens to be Alfredo's son. Indeed, the same day that the bastard baby boy is baptized, his father’s head is delivered to his grandfather. Needless to say, lovesick lunatic Bennie—a man that has lost everything, not least of all the love of his life and what was left of his personal dignity—is quite dissatisfied when El Jefe simply hands over a briefcase with $1 million and dispassionately remarks, “Take it and go. I have everything that I want. I have my grandson. So go. Don’t forget to take that [Alfredo’s head] and throw it to the pigs.” In fact, Bennie becomes deeply infuriated, yells, “Sixteen people are dead because of him . . . and you. And me. And one of ‘em was a damn good friend of mine!,” and then begins shooting El Jefe’s henchmen. In a nice little twist, Bennie also murders El Jefe at the request of his daughter, who has still not gotten over the fact that her father put a literal price on her lover's head. In the end, Bennie says to El Jefe’s daughter, “You take care of the boy . . . and I’ll take care of the father” and then attempts to escape from the gangster’s well guarded estate by driving his car through the well-guarded front gate, but he is ultimately struck down with seemingly thousands of bandito bullets in what proves to be a fitting quasi-suicidal melodramatic conclusion to one miserable wasted life in a wicked romance film where a forsaken loser avenges the murder of his lover the best way he can. 

 I think it is safe to say Peckinpah would agree with Robert Bresson's personal cinematic philosophy that, to quote the French master auteur, “I'd rather people feel a film before understanding. I'd rather feelings arise before intellect.” After all, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia—an inordinately visceral film that increasingly pokes and prods at the soul of the viewer in a manner that might be seen by some as a sort of metaphysical torture—disgusted many reviewers when it was originally released and I would not be surprised if the average contemporary ‘normie’ viewer would have a hard time explaining the film’s antihero Bennie true motivations, especially in the end when he chooses death over driving away with a small fortune. Of course, one could easily argue that Peckinpah and his film are example of what Poe described when he wrote about “the human thirst for self-torture,” but the auteur seemed to be more conscious of his psychological defects than most, thus making it all the more tragic that he died the way he did. Indeed, in a 1974 interview with Joe Gelmis of Newsday, Peckinpah would even go so far as to confess during a somewhat depressing moment of self-illumination, “I’m the greatest stupid romantic in the world . . . really stupid. I’m an outsider and I think being an outsider is a lonely, losing job. I would love to be married and live in a split-level house, I love all that shit, but I don’t do it. I get into many problems, I drink too much, and I get into too many fights. Next year, I’ll be fifty years old and I’ve got to quit. Three knuckles have been broken; it’s gone, right there right there, and right there, you can see it. . . .”   Not unlike the antihero of his family, Peckinpah probably would have loved nothing more than to have spent the rest of his life living in a modest Mexican home with his Latina true love Begoña Palacios, but instead he became a slave to his own personal demons and more or less drank himself to death while trying in vain to reignite his stagnating filmmaking career.  Of course, to understand Peckinpah's film on a more innate and visceral level, one must be familiar with a certain degree of misery and desperation.  Luckily, instead of being marinated in moody melancholia like a Bergman flick, Peckinpah's film concludes with an exceedingly energetic and even transcendental form of self-destruction that feels strangely satisfying.  In that sense, one could argue that the film has a quasi-happy ending as the antihero's internal suffering comes to an end and he even manages to avenge a young Mexican teenage mother in the process, thus slightly redeeming himself in the end.

 While the increasingly erratic and self-destructive auteur made a number of films throughout his career depicting mad misfits and unhinged loners, none of these come close to the magisterial madness of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia where full-fledged self-annihilation becomes a poetic form of spiritual transcendence and the only logical answer to a life no longer worth living. In that sense, it should be no surprise that Peckinpah—a man that had already completely submitted to his dipsomaniacal demons—would never direct another masterpiece, though Cross of Iron (1977) is certainly a classic ‘antiwar’ film of sorts and arguably the best film ever directed by an American from the German perspective during WWII. Indeed, Peckinpah’s Steve McQueen vehicle The Getaway (1972)—another darkly romantic ‘action’ flick that is by no means a bad film—seems like prosaic pussy play compared to the whimsical unhingement, unrelenting spiritual ravenousness, and morbid moral decrepitude of the true renegade cinematic masterpiece that is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. I surely cannot think of another film where an ultraviolent death in rural Mexico at the hands of a bunch of insufferably swarthy bloodthirsty banditos seems like a ‘noble’ and relatively morally redeeming prospect. After all, in the end, the antihero finally demonstrates that his ‘very special lady’ is worth more to him than all the money in the world, even though, quite tragically, he could not actually prove this to her when she was actually still alive. In other words, the film bleeds romantic regret in a perversely poetic fashion, as if Peckinpah was compelled by his haunted (sub)conscious to pay tribute and respect to all the wives and girlfriends that he left emotionally devastated due to his belligerent and explosively abusive behavior. While I have great respect for Peckinpah as a cinematic artist, his films almost always give me a feeling of great relief that I am nowhere near as hopelessly forsaken as the clearly internally wounded man that created them.

Notably, Peckinpah's deeply flawed swansong The Osterman Weekend (1973) features a deranged renegade CIA agent portrayed by belated British actor John Hurt that is morbidly obsessed with the absolutely heinous post-coital murder of his beloved platinum blonde wife portrayed by Danish model Merete Van Kamp. Indeed, not unlike the antihero of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Hurt's heartsick character goes on a virtual suicide mission that involves a lot of senseless death and destruction. Of course, both of these characters are indubitably quasi-cryptic expressions of Peckinpah's own heavy-hearted regret and vulnerability and reveal that the filmmaker was a haunted (ex)romantic that virtually suffered a pathological obsession in regard to his lost loves. Rather revealingly, when asked by Kathleen Carroll of The Daily News in 1974 about his intent with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah gave the less than flattering response, “The picture is about two things: it is about a love story, and it is about vengeance, a dish, as Machiavelli said, that is best served cold. . . .Somebody asked if I hit women, and I said, ‘Of course I do, I believe in equal rights for women. . . .’ If you study and live with something at all, you find that tenderness and violence sometimes go hand in hand.”  While I have never hit a woman and consider so-called sexual equality to be a sad joke at the expense of both genders, I can certainly understand the dichotomy of tenderness and violence when it comes to romance, as deep emotions are certainly stirred when it comes to true love, especially when at least one person in the relationship suffers from personal demons.  After all, there is no greater motivation for murder than some sort of unquenchable thirst for romantic revenge, but I digress.

If you ever wondered about the personal and psychological motivations behind spree-killings and/or violent suicides, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is one of the oh-so very few films that offers such daunting insights. Indeed, if you're a lovelorn man suffering from crushing grief and need some inspiration to go on a suicidal mass murder mission, Peckinpah's cinematic work is certainly the film to see as a sort of Titanic (1997) for romantically forsaken psychos and woebegone winos. Of course, more importantly, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a morbidly romantic masterpiece that contains the following timeless message: “¡Viva la Muerte!” 

-Ty E

Jul 17, 2017

Brewster McCloud

Love him or loathe him (I feelings of a little bit of both), belated auteur Robert Altman (Nashville, Gosford Park) is one of the few American filmmakers in Hollywood history to rarely play it safe as a mensch that thrived on taking both professional and artistic risks. For example, when Altman—a stubborn old chap that spent over two decades slaving away in the industrial film and television world before really getting noticed—first achieved great commercial and critical success with the sardonic antiwar flick M*A*S*H (1970), the filmmaker decided to follow it up the same year with what is arguably the most innately anarchistic, idiosyncratic, and inexplicable flick of his entire career. Indeed, although a flawed flick with a somewhat incoherent plot, Brewster McCloud (1970) aka Bird Shit aka Brewster McCloud's (Sexy) Flying Machine is, at least in my opinion, one of the most strangely sophisticated and underrated films of Altman’s entire career as a sort of experimental neo-fable where bird shit and serial killing collide in a quixotically liberating fashion that really underscores the rebellious filmmaker’s untamable spirit and commitment to inordinate celluloid assholery.

 The great-grandson of a German Catholic Forty-Eighter rebel that fled Schleswig-Holstein, Germany after the failed leftist Revolutions of 1848, Altman was indubitably born with rebellion in his blood and his fucked little flick is a fiercely farcical attack on both America and American culture that was fittingly set in the same state that JFK was assassinated only a couple years as a scathingly cinematic work that effortlessly assaults and molests all forms of authority. The story of a young virginal serial killer with both a strangling and bird fetish that dedicates his entire life to achieving his rather lofty dream of being able to fly by building special wings with the help of a beauteous blonde fallen angel, the film is ultimately a uniquely unhinged allegory for Altman’s own weltanschauung of total personal freedom in an oppressive realm plagued by bureaucratic stupidity, cultural and moral retardation, carny hustler capitalism, nihilistic materialism, and necrotizing (post)Puritanism. In that sense, Altman’s film has a similar spirit to cinematic works as diverse as Terry Gilliam’s dystopian masterpiece Brazil (1985) and Werner Herzog’s classic doc Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) in terms of its overtly allegorical depiction of flying as the ultimate symbol of personal freedom and transcendence. Starring Bud Cort in an underrated pre-fame performance as a vaguely similar role to his eponymous character in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) where he also breaks down the fourth wall by making goofy faces directly at the camera, Brewster McCloud probably should be a more readily worshiped cult item due to its director and lead actor, yet it strangely seems to be considered a minor work even among certain Altmanphiles. Personally, I rather re-watch the film over Altman’s best respected classics like M*A*S*H and Nashville any day, but then again I probably find the sight of freshly splattered bird shit on the face of an elderly female corpse to be more humorous than the average person. 

 Somewhat humorously, Altman was so dissatisfied with Brewster McCloud screenwriter Doran William Cannon’s script that he was quite critical about it to the press, even once telling the writer over the phone that “It was crap.” As to why Altman—a filmmaker well known for severely irking screenwriters by using their screenplays as mere superficial guidelines as opposed to the holy writ—would opt to use Cannon’s supposedly super shitty script, he once simply explained to Mitchell Zuckoff in Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (2009), “I forget what the writer’s name was, but he has sole screen credit. Cannon, yeah, Cannon. It was just a dreadful piece, I thought. But it was a kid flying, a gem of an idea I could work off.” Indeed, one can only assume Altman performed something nothing short of cinematic alchemy when he turned the turd of a screenplay into a surreal scatological satire that both literally and figuratively shits on authority and that brutally attacks both uptight politicians and sexually liberated hippie cunts alike with equal savagely scathing glee. As a cinematic work directed by a lifelong left-wing pothead with a mild degree of negrophilia, the film naturally features a number of grotesque white and redneck caricatures but these caricatures are mostly strangely charmingly lovable and have some of the best lines. Indeed, the film has a number of great scenes of racial hilarity, including an old bitch bitching at a black crow “Get out, you nigger bird!” and a corrupt cop complaining while at a zoo to his long suffering wife, “If I want to see some monkeys, I’ll go over to niggertown.” While Altman might have had a retarded political sense that is typical of many people that work in Hollywood, he was thankfully no social justice warrior faggot and certainly more a cultivated cynic and mirthful misanthrope than some sort of staunch leftist ideologue. Surely, Brewster McCloud has the capacity to trigger the more spiritually castrated of white liberals and ‘biological Marxists,’ which is indubitably part of its pleasantly peculiar charm. In fact, Altman was known to ‘racially taunt’ certain ‘minority’ friends, or as Hebraic producer Peter Newman (O.C. and Stiggs) once stated, “I was quoted once saying Bob called me ‘the Jew with the money.’ Bob was totally irreverent. First of all, I didn’t have any money. More important, some people saw an implication that it was anti-Semitic. Nothing could be further from the truth. God knows he wasn’t anti-Semitic. He was just outrageous.” 

 Over the years, my opinion of the celebrated pop film critic Roger Ebert has slightly changed somewhat and has become a little bit more nuanced, as I have come to the conclusion that he tended to be either completely right or completely wrong when it came to assessing the value of a film. Indeed, Ebert seems to have written the most intellectually sound and insightful review of Brewster McCloud when it was first released in late 1970.  For example, Ebert concluded his 3.5 out of 4 star review with the following words: “I'm not sure it's about anything. I imagine you could extract a subject from it, and I'll try that the next time I see it. But I wonder if the movie isn't primarily style; if Altman doesn't have a personal sense of humor and wants his directing style to reflect it. One could, of course, get into a deep thing about birds and wings and freedom, but why?” While Ebert might be right and it is probably pointless to attempt to analyze the film, one cannot deny that the film itself is an expression of freedom as work of scatological slapstick sardonicism that tests the bounds of both good taste and wickedly frolicsome comedic storytelling. In other words, the film's very existence legitimizes it own central theme as an experimental comedy that Altman jeopardized his newfound post-M*A*S*H fame and professional reputation in Hollywood by making, as such an absurdly antisocial and playfully anti-American flick could only have been an abject disaster commercially speaking, which it was. 

 Altman’s most overtly Fellini-esque cinematic work to the point where the film’s epilogue seems like a pardy-cum-tribute to the Italian maestro’s somewhat more obscure work I clowns (1970) aka The Clowns, Brewster McCloud is probably the director's most overtly ‘cinephile’ oriented film. Somewhat unexpectedly, the film even pays anti-tribute to Bullitt (1968) via an arrogant San Francisco police detective and a fairly long and bizarre chase scene that concludes with said police detective blowing his brains out after crashing his ugly sports car.  Altman had somewhat dubious moral reasons for loathing the famous Bullitt chase scene, or as he explained himself to David Thompson, “I felt that was a really irresponsible scene, because you weren't supposed to care about any of the people who got killed as a result of his driving.  I had my cop commit suicide.”  Needless to say, the Bullitt anti-homage has caused the film to age somewhat less gracefully, yet still manages to inspire some nervous laughs. Notably, the most obvious and frequent cinematic reference in Altman's film is The Wizard of Oz (1939), including Margaret ‘Wicked Witch of the West’ Hamilton portraying a negrophobic old socialite that is murdered while sporting a pair of iconic ruby rhinestone slippers that a bird shits on. Additionally, commie Midnight Cowboy (1969) screenwriter Waldo Salt’s daughter Jennifer Salt appears at the end of the film holding a Todo-esque dog while dressed like Dorothy Gale. Of course, The Wizard of Oz is a quite cleverly fitting film to reference in Brewster McCloud as the film undoubtedly takes a rather hostilely ironic approach to the famous Dorothy quote, “There's no place like home.” Indeed, aside from depicting Houston as a sort of hick dystopia populated by low-class perverts and wanton weirdoes and ruled over by a senile pseudo-aristocracy and protected by insanely incompetent lawmen, the film’s titular ‘antihero’ dreams of nothing more than literally fleeing the nest and flying away for good so that he will no longer have to suffer the soul-draining collective stupidity and compulsive closed-mindedness of his fellow citizenry, hence his need to kill. On the other hand, Altman’s flick surely makes for a wayward tourist advert that probably makes Houston seem infinitely more exotic and intriguing than it actually is.   Of course, you know the film depicts much simpler and more racially homogeneous times in that it does not feature a single Mexican, Muslim, or transgender sexual cripple.  Indeed, the film might depict the superlatively shitty southeastern Texas city in a singularly unflattering fashion, but the aesthetically displeasing metropolis seems like a majestic utopia compared to the real-life ‘multicultural’ Houston of today.

 Beginning with no less than three different opening scenes that reveal that Altman has a keen fondness for ‘trolling’ his audience in a manner that is even sometimes obnoxious, Brewster McCloud first begins with the introduction of a quack ‘Lecturer’ (played by René Auberjonois, who was named after his paternal Swiss post-Impressionist painter grandfather)—a mostly repugnant and ironically pedantic figure that Altman used as a form of “punctuation” for the film—that proceeds to lecture to both the viewer and an unseen class, stating in a pseudo-profound fashion, “Flight of birds, flight of man, man's similarity to birds, birds' similarity to man. These are the subjects at hand. We will deal with them for the next hour or so, and hope that we will draw no conclusions, elsewise the subject shall cease to fascinate us and, alas, another dream would be lost. There are far too few.” In seemingly unintentional tribute to Altman’s Teutonic roots, the almost insufferably zany Lecturer then proceeds to quote Goethe, stating, “The desire to fly has been ever-present in the mind of man, but the reality has been long in coming.” Not surprisingly, the loony Lecturer is featured at various times in the film as he pedantically recites dry academic ornithological information that more or less parallels what is going on in the life and world of quasi-autistic protagonist Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort). A strange young man that lives an odd owlish existence in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome where he devotes most of his time to learning how to fly and building a very special set of wings, McCloud seems to be a bastard without a family, but luckily a beauteous blonde MILF named Louise (Sally Kellerman)—a sort of seductive fairy godmother that used to have wings as revealed by the curious sight of two large glaring scars on her back—provides him with all the emotional, philosophical, and criminal support he needs. Indeed, whenever McCloud needs help stealing something or committing a crime, Louise and her black raven companion are always there. Likewise, anytime that someone hassles the protagonist, they soon find themselves strangled to death and covered in bird shit in what is like an unhinged form of ‘divine punishment,’ though it is never clear as to who actually commits these shit-stained strangulations.  Indeed, the only thing that is ever really revealed is that McCloud considers himself guilty of the grisly crimes and greatly fears prison time.  As he ultimately reveals at the end of the film, McCloud rather brave death than be imprisoned inside the slammer.

 At the beginning of the film, McCloud takes a rather degrading but ultimately strangely rewarding job as the personal chauffeur of a rich evil old fart named Abraham Wright (underrated actor Stacy Keach in relatively effective old fart makeup). Old Abe is a mean miserable miser that has no problem sexually groping young dago dames and verbally assaulting old negroes from the comfort of his wheelchair while doing his rounds picking up the monthly rent from the various ghetto apartment buildings and sanatoriums that he rules over with a firm iron-fist as a proud old school authoritarian slumlord. Naturally, Abraham thinks McCloud is nothing short of “deplorable” and a “goddamn faggot” and even aggressively tells him as much while simultaneously mocking his driving abilities. Additionally, Abraham suspects that the elderly negroes at one of his sanatoriums are “dirty pinko” parasites that are plotting against him and thus plots to have theme removed from his dilapidated buildings. Being an old fart that seems like he is too lazy to even wipe his own ass, Abe also has problems with his bowels and even shits his pants at one point and then playfully quips, “I just dumped a steamer through the hoop.” Although it takes the viewer some time become completely aware of this fact due to the somewhat convoluted nature of the film, the only reason McCloud goes to work for Abe is because he is the brother of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright and thus owns an ancient aviation book that was given to him by his famous siblings. Naturally, McCloud not only steals the book, but also ruthlessly liquidates Abe after he has gotten what he needs. Indeed, in what is arguably the most timelessly hilarious and bizarrely iconic scene of the entire film, Abe’s strangled wheelchair-bound corpse causes a number of car crashes after it is pushed down a major highway in a merrily morbid scene where Altman is certainly at his most wonderfully wicked. 

 As a result of McCloud being involved in the death of a politically-connected old bitch conductor-cum-soprano-socialite named Daphne Heap (Margaret Hamilton) that makes the ultimately fatal mistake of calling Louise’s loyal raven a “nigger bird,” a bigwig Houston politician named Haskell Weeks (William Windom)—a soft, sleazy, and effete capitalist pig that may or may not be a twink-loving queer—hires a “San Francisco super cop” with “piercing blue eyes” named Detective Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) to solve the mystery of the local strangler, thus leading to potential problems for the protagonist. Aside from the milky white bird droppings found on the heads of the strangling victims, Detective Shaft—a pretentious prick and fast-talking narcissist that immediately develops a great disdain for Weeks and local law enforcement—has no leads in murders aside from the basic modus operandi of the killer(s), so he even seriously considers hiring a professional “scatologist.” While he seems to think he is a too-cool-for-school Anglo-American Übermensch of the Steve McQueen-esque variety, Detective Shaft is more of a raging queen and a tragicomedic cipher of a character who's completely random death invites big laughs from the viewer. Indeed, Detective Shaft ultimately decides to blow his brains out after losing a fairly long chase with a dumb dame and crashing his car.  Somewhat curiously, before committing self-slaughter with his own service revolver, one of Shaft’s blue eyes turns shit brown in a scene that really seems to underscore the supreme superficiality and fragility of his handsomeness and ostensible martial prowess.  In short, I doubt Altman was a big McQueen fan, even though both men seemed to have a similar affinity for drugs and debauchery.

 As a deceptively beauteous and dapper defrocked ‘fallen angel’ that ruthlessly marches to the beat of her own drum, McCloud’s virtual fairy godmother Louise—a true light-bringer of rebellion that might be a literal ‘exterminating angel’ and always sports a trench coat (with nothing underneath)—is a virtual female Lucifer though, instead of seducing the protagonist out of Eden like with Adam and Eve, she seems to lead him away from a ‘forbidden fruit’ of sorts. Indeed, Louise loathes sex and its all-too-human implications and tries desperately to steer McCloud clear of it as indicated by remarks like, “People like Hope accept what’s been told to them. They don’t think that they can be free. They don’t even believe they can be free. Their is the closest thing they have to . . . flying […] Something happens to them as they grow. They turn more and more toward earth. When they experience sex, they simply settle for it and procreate more of their own kind. So you must never be tempted. Don’t ever let anything takeaway your full concentration from your work.” Hope (Jennifer Salt) is a dumb chick that enjoys visiting McCloud in his subterranean lair and flirting with him to such a masturbatory degree that she manages to have ecstatic orgasms just by being in his mere presence, but the protagonist could care less as he is a rare virginal young man that thinks more about flying than fucking. Unfortunately, McCloud eventually meets a girl that does catch his fancy, thus leading to his senseless betrayal of Louise and ultimately his own devastating demise.  Indeed, if one did not know that Brewster McCloud was directed by Robert Altman, one might assume it was created by some warped anarchistic Puritan, as the film contains a less than flattering depiction of sex and sociosexual issues.

 Although he seems to have nil interest in the opposite sex, McCloud somehow manages to fall hard for an anti-cute creature named Suzanne (Shelley Duvall in her very first film role), who is unquestionably the homeliest and most harebrained whore in all of Texas. Indeed, upon attempting to steal her car—an orange and black Plymouth Road Runner that she herself stole from a redneck that tried to rape her—McCloud finds himself immediately attracted to the exceedingly dumb and insufferably extroverted twat Suzanne who, although an Astrodome usher that gives unintentionally obnoxious tours, proudly proclaims to be a race car driver. In fact, initially Suzanne unwittingly saves McCloud from prison by beating Detective Shaft in a police chase with her Plymouth Road Runner that ultimately results in the stud SF super cop committing via blue hara-kiri, but she will also mindlessly cause the hero’s literal and figurative downfall.  Indeed, when McCloud opts to succumb to carnal desire and sacrifice his chastity by sleeping with super slut Suzanne, Louise meekly whimpers like a fragile wounded animal and decides to leave him for good. While McCloud accuses Louise of lying to him regarding sex and she attempts to defend herself by stating, “That girl almost got you called. I asked you not to see her again. You only have one friend, Brewster: Me. I’m the only one that cares about you […] I am the only one that has never lied to you,” he is in complete denial about his precarious situation and retorts, “It’s not like you said it would be at all, Louise. Susan is nothing like you said.” Seemingly blinded by Suzanne’s beaver and tiny boobs, McCloud even ignores the serious implications of a rather revealing post-coital conversation where his moronic beloved discusses finding a lawyer for his flying device and even confesses that she is “afraid” of flying. While Suzanne wants to stay put in town and ignores him when he says she will have to “flyaway” with him, McCloud—a boy that has dedicated his life to attempting to escape from where he lives—still seems oblivious to the glaring fact that he has found a piss poor match for a mate. 

 When McCloud makes the absurd mistake of confiding in his stupendously dopey dame Suzanne that he needs to leave town because, to quote the protagonist regarding the police, “They’ll put me in a cage” and then reveals “all the people that died” are the result of his own absurdist strangling campaign, Suzanne secretly decides to betray him by snitching on him. Indeed, Suzanne ultimately decides to call her failed artist ex-boyfriend Bernard to tell him that she has “been dating this really weird boy” and then hysterically remarks while acting like a poor little victim, “I think he is crazy. He thinks he can fly. And I think he’s the one that’s been strangling all those people.” Unfortunately for McCloud, Bernard is the personal bitch boy of local bigwig Haskell Weeks, who is determined to catch the strangler so that he can bring back good ol' banal order back to Houston. Needless to say, Suzanne not only betrays McCloud by snitching on him, but she also cheats on him with her ex-beau Bernard—an ambiguously gay chap that used to do abstract etching on old cider bottles—who somewhat ironically refuses to have sex before marriage despite the (anti)heroine's rather sexually aggressive behavior. In the end, Mr. Weeks is thankfully strangled and police invade the Houston Astrodome while McCloud, who is completely heartbroken because he has just discovered Suzanne has betrayed him, takes the dangerous risk of making his first flight with his rather preposterous work-in-progress wings, but unfortunately the protagonist suffers a fate similar to Icarus and falls to his death after only a couple moments of truly transcendental freedom.  In short, McCloud certainly falls short of finding his figurative Holy Grail and instead succumbs to a lethal form of lovelorn despair.  Although the film concludes on a less than uplifting note with a decidedly dispiriting allegorical scenario where Altman seems to more or less express his belief that even the most rebellious and idiosyncratic of individuals are hopelessly imprisoned by society and thus are doomed to fail if they attempt to get rid of their figurative shackles, the uniquely unhappy ending is followed by a strangely joyous Fellini-esque circus credits scene featuring all the lead appearing in goofy sideshow outfits, including Shelley Duvall dressed as a Raggedy Ann doll and Jennifer Salt dressed as Dorothy Gale.

 In terms of low-class Lone Star state lunacy, it is hard to imagine that there would be a The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) without Altman’s Brewster McCloud. In fact, I wonder if Tobe Hooper was somewhat influenced by the film when he made his original masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), as the wheelchair-bound monster Abraham Wright certainly seems like he could be a bourgeois kinsmen of Leatherface’s beloved grandpa, not to mention the fact that Altman’s film depicts its Texas metropolitan location as a spiritually necrotizing and culturally decaying void inhabited by relatively grotesque subhuman characters that reflect the worst in retrograde post-JFK redneck retardation.  In short, Altman's film is like an urban companion to the darkly comedic rural raunchiness and grotesque caricatures of Hooper's TCM films.  Indeed, Brewster McCloud might be a farcical fantasy and quasi-arthouse neo-fairytale of sorts that Bob Altman seemed to allow his subconscious to run wild on (aside from movie and biblical references, the film is also vaguely Arthurian), but I think it is ultimately a visceral and innately intuitive depiction of the death of America, especially in regard to the Euro-American founder’s decidedly decadent descendants. After all, it is no surprise that the ‘victims’ of the film include an old spinster heiress, the cutthroat capitalist miser brother of the Wright brothers, and effete political bigwig, as these characters symbolize everything that is sick, decrepit, and senile about American (while the Wright brothers symbolize everything that is great about the nation as self-made pioneers that completely changed history in a manner that is completely unrivaled). Of course, as a virtual lifelong overweight pothead, gambler, and dipsomaniac, Altman somewhat ironically symbolizes the other side of the coin of this cultural degeneracy.  It also goes without saying that the ‘bad guys’ of Altman's film seem rather benign in comparison to the corrupt politicians and malignant multicultural mess of Houston today (in fact, it is now a so-called ‘minority-majority’ city where a good portion of the inhabitants don't even speak English).  It should also be noted that, although many of the murdered ‘victims’ of the film are big bad evil racists, many of the great American pioneers of the twentieth-century, including industrialist Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, were racially-conscious patriots that vocally warned of many of the problems that plague America today, especially in regard to kosher culture-distorters.  Whether he was conscious of it or not, Altman was a sort of shabbos goy spreader of the ‘culture-disease’ that now plagues America, but his films still have a certain cynical Euro-American sensibility that cannot be ignored.  One also cannot forget that Altman directed The Long Goodbye (1973), which features arguably the most grotesque Jewish gangster caricature in cinema history as played by Hebraic Hollywood filmmaker Mark Rydell.

 Undoubtedly, one of the most shocking and unconventional aspects of Brewster McCloud, especially since it was directed by a ressentiment-driven leftist like Altman, is that it seems to endorse a sort of Nietzschean master morality to the point where a literal ‘bird of prey’ plays a role in the killing of 100% McAmerican ‘lamb’ untermenschen. Indeed, the eponymous protagonist has no qualms about literally hunting his prey to achieve his lofty aims while the rest of society at least pretends to be imprisoned in a badly bastardized form of a Christian slave morality.  After all, McCloud’s actions against his enemies are practically rationalized by the following words from Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality (1887) where the reluctantly Teutonic philosopher notes, “[T]he problem with the other origin of the ‘good,’ of the good man, as the person of ressentiment has thought it out for himself, demands some conclusion. It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, ‘These birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,—should he not be good?’ then there is nothing to carp with in this ideal's establishment, though the birds of prey may regard it a little mockingly, and maybe say to themselves, ‘We bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.’” Surely, one cannot help but reminded of Nietzsche’s words each time the black raven appears in the film just before one of the protagonist’s enemies is strangled. Just as Nietzsche argued that both birds of prey and blond beasts should not be held responsible for supposed ‘evil’ like murder because their actions stemmed from pure strength and not some sort of malevolent intent, McCloud’s actions cannot be judged as simply sinister crimes but instead an expression of aristocratic good and ‘will to power.’ Not surprisingly, it is only when McCloud abandons his master morality and succumbs to trivial fleeting emotions that he meets his downfall and is destroyed in a scenario that is like Fellini meets ancient Greek Mythology. 

 Interestingly, when reminded in an interview conducted David Thompson that he described Brewster McCloud as his personal favorite of all the times he made in a 1976 issue of Playboy magazine, Altman responded, “I think it’s probably among the most creative and original films I’ve done. NASHVILLE is another. But every one I feel that way about has things that I think no one has ever envisaged. And how they got done, I don’t know . . .” Indeed, it is certainly a shock that such an iconoclastic and just downright antisocial and misanthropic film was ever released by a major studio like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the first place, though it is surely no surprise it was an abject failure that barely played in theaters. Unfortunately, Altman would never come even close to ever directing a film as gleefully subversive and venomously sardonic as Brewster McCloud again, but luckily the late great Teutonic auteur Christoph Schlingensief (Egomania – Island without Hope, The German Chainsaw-Massacre) would somewhat follow in his footsteps and direct some of the most mirthfully obscene, whimsically scatological, racially insensitive, and eclectically anarchic films ever made. In fact, Altman’s flick probably has the most in common with Schlingensief’s cinematic oeuvre than any other film(s) in terms of being a surrealistic genre-molesting fantasy flick that was certainly not made for kids, even though many kids would surely appreciate its unabashedly scatological approach to ornithology. 

 Despite its mostly mischievously jovial tone and sometimes unabashedly juvenile humor, Brewster McCloud is ultimately a rather dark and gloomy film about the incapacity of a young budding Übermensch to prevail in a philistine-ridden dystopia plagued by cornball conformity, buffoonish bureaucracy, senseless sexual infantility, and socio-political vulgarity. Of course, the titular hero’s tragic quest can be seen as a sort of quasi-prophetic allegory for Altman’s own life as a rebellious filmmaker reluctantly working within the artistically oppressive realm of Hollywood, thus making it all the more poignant that the film was a total failure. In a somewhat cryptic way, the film also seems to reveal Altman’s own insecurities, especially in regard to being an artist and supposed ‘genius.’ After all, McCloud both literally and figuratively falls hard in terms of realizing his weltanschauung, completing his magnum opus, and achieving true transcendence.  In that sense, Brewster McCloud is a fairly devastating film that probably should be seen by any serious prospective artist. Notably, according to Altman’s own son Stephen Altman—a production designer that worked on virtually all of his father’s films from Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) onward—he was an unscrupulous charlatan, huckster, and conman of sorts that emotionally neglected his kids and only really cared about himself and his films. Indeed, as Stephen Altman confessed to Mitchell Zuckoff in regard to his father, “I think he had a fear of being found out that he was just a normal person and wasn’t a genius. To me, he was like the typical con man. Like how he would get his movies together and get the people involved. He was like Tom Sawyer painting the picket fence. If the movie was made, and everybody made money, he wasn’t a con man anymore, he was just a great director and leader and salesman, you know? If it all falls apart and everybody loses their money, then he’s a con man. Most of the time he made it work, so that’s why everybody kept hanging around. I mean, if he wasn’t successful, most people wouldn’t be hanging out with him. No, no, no, we wouldn’t be here at all. So that’s the way it goes.”  Indeed, it might be argued that Brewster McCloud is nothing short of shameless piece of shit-soaked tragicomedic con-artistry, yet it is also a genuinely humorous and unforgettable piece of shit-soaked tragicomedic con-artistry that makes M*A*S*H seem like Hogan's Heroes as far as subversion and iconoclasm is concerned.

In terms of a specific message, the film has a number of both glaring and cryptic messages, though I think it is safe to say that Altman's somewhat arcane cinematic work is largely a sort of cautionary tale for young men about the importance of putting one's work and passion(s) before women.  After all, Brewster McCloud was directed by a middle-aged man that already had been married three times and had half a dozen kids before he achieved any real sort of artistic prestige or financial success.  Had Altman, not unlike his hero Ingmar Bergman, not treated his wives like shit and neglected his children, he almost certainly would not have become a great filmmaker.  Unfortunately, as the eponymous protagonist of Altman's film learns the hard way, sometimes you cannot help but put pussy on a pedestal, even if it could mean the spiritual and/or physical death of you, but of course as Nietzsche once famously wrote, “Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent.”

-Ty E