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

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