Brewster McCloud, Robert Altman’s fifth feature, was released in the same year as MASH, which is generally considered to be his breakout film. While Brewster McCloud might have been billed as an experimental follow-up to MASH, it did as much, if not more, to cement Altman’s style over the next decade, and now looks like the more original and visionary of the two films. In part, that’s because it’s an almost impossible film to describe, lacking anything in the way of conventional narrative, characterisation or setting. Like Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise, it’s takes the absurdity and spectacle of musical theatre to a surreal and hallucinatory extreme, although Altman is considerably more interested in sound than in music, or at least in the inherent melody and musicality of all sound. At the heart of it is a character named Brewster McCloud, played by Bud Cort, who lives in a fallout shelter in the Houston Astrodome, and dreams of flying. In a kind of spiritual sequel to the moon landing that Altman explored in Countdown, Brewster embodies “man’s desire to fly,” following Goethe in recognising that “I yearn to throw myself into empty space.” To that end, Brewster has created a flying machine, which he plans to test when the timing is right.
Not much else about the film is that easy to pin down, however, as Altman couches this situation in a series of detours, diversions and dead ends, until Brewster McCloud feels more like a sketch show, or an ensemble film in which the ensemble never comes together. Since Brewster works on the sound design for the Astrodome, much of the film’s divergence and dissonance takes place on the sonic plane, as Altman constructs an anarchic, irreverent, incoherent soundscape that collapses the events of the screenplay whenever they are on the verge of congealing into a narrative. Often, sounds from one scene will continue long into the next and, even more unnervingly, it often takes a while to realise that the sounds accompanying a scene in fact belong to another scene. As a result, many shots, or sequences of shots, feel entirely self-contained, turning Brewster into a kind of radio antenna that both drives and assuages the sonic incongruities and irregularities of the film.
These encompass disorienting shifts between noise and silence, mismatches between sound and image when cutting from one scene to the next, fragments of radio broadcasts that percolate in and out of the narrative, and a voiceover that is usually serious, but occasionally bursts into laughter, destabilizing the entire tonality of the film. All of those overlapping planes of sound turn Houston into an aviary, and drive Brewster’s longing to fly, as if only the air will provide him with the distance he needs to sort through all these different soundscapes – or to achieve his maximum frequency as a radio antenna. The madcap energy it takes for Brewster to dodge and weave his way through all these sonic situations is thus the film’s version of flight, taking us through an almost-narrative that is never quite grounded, and always skimming the surface of the film’s situations before they can turn into a story. Restless for a new kind of narrative, or a line of flight from narrative as we know it, Altman’s approach suffuses the entire film with a provisional, picaresque quality that is encapsulated in the opening credit sequence, where Margaret Hamilton conducts the American anthem as the titles roll, only to point out that the orchestra is out of key, and so demands them, and the director, to roll the titles once again so that they can all get it right.
Even more than in MASH, Altman thus sets out his cinematic manifesto here – to craft a film that manages to be dynamic despite lacking a linear or conventional narrative. Indeed, for Altman, narrative, and characterisation, is a form of stasis, turning his line of flight from narrative, and from characterisation, into an exercise in fluid dynamics, and in maintaining a kinaesthetic tension between all of his characters and situations that prevents any one of them dominating his film. For that reason, Brewster McCloud is largely driven by figures and objects changing their situation or orientation with respect to one another, typically by way of elaborate blocking and elaborate sightlines. Sometimes this involves the way in which Altman chooses to shoot a scene, as when he opts to refract an exchange through a convex mirror that perpetually resituates the characters involved in relation to one another. More often, however, it involves characters restlessly and comically resituating themselves in relation to one another. Narrative is thus replaced with something like dance, perhaps explaining why music would become so critical, in Altman’s later films, to this line of flight from narrative, culminating with Nashville, which contains an hour of musical performances.
Throughout all these scenes, bird life, and bird movement, is used as a motif for this continuous and comic resituation of characters and objects, both in terms of the presence and trajectory of actual birds through the narrative, and through the bird droppings that are perpetually raining down on every situation, endlessly disorienting the characters’ sense of their situation and security in space. These bird droppings reminded me of the helicopters spraying pesticide over Los Angeles at the start of Short Cuts, since in both cases, flight is used as way of contouring an ensemble narrative. Yet in Brewster McCloud the ensemble is considerably more open-ended than in Short Cuts, and never really comes together. Instead, flight is seen as the ultimate process by which figures in space can continuously reconfigure their positions with respect to one another, as well as the process by which Altman can most dexterously shape his narrative structure, or anarrative structure, to the Houston Astrodome itself, which the film presents as incapable of being narrativised or processed in a single shot or gaze. In that sense, Altman’s flight from narrative plays as an attempt to replicate the conditions of postmodern architecture within film language, perhaps explaining why his camera often feels as if it is trying to be in several different audiovisual fields simultaneously, and why the film needs to be watched multiple times to take it all in.
For all those reasons, Brewster McCloud also comes closer to Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern prose style than any other film I’ve seen. While Pynchon didn’t have any hand in the film’s production, Altman’s vision could easily have been taken from one of his early works, since it’s replete with the same dense lyricism, the same daggy sense of humour, and the same taste for mise-en-scenes that are continuous involuting and shedding their skin to render the tone more emergent and difficult to discern as the events proceed. In particular, Altman’s semi-stand-alone sequences recall Pynchon’s paratactic sentence structure, piling detail upon detail until it’s difficult to recall where it all started, beyond a vague sense of overdetermined, cryptic correspondences that virtually require a conspiratorial mindset to make sense of it all, or at least prevent it being totally ridiculous. Hence the film’s obsession with arcane knowledge, inane wordplay and idiotic punning, all of which converges on the figure of the Lecturer, played by Rene Auberjonois, who fixates on avian arcana like Melville fixated on cetacean arcana, especially the scatological analysis of bird stools and droppings.
Like Pynchon, too, Altman’s style is always on the verge of seguing into music, or using music as a way of gesturing towards what exceeds even the most conspiratorial and picaresque of situations and mise-en-scene. Yet where Altman’s later films would feature full-blown musical performances, here music serves to contour an extended car chase in the latter third of the film. This is one of the most entertaining car chases I’ve ever seen in a film, and starts by using the Houston Astrodome as a source of centrifugal energy, as Brewster and a whole host of other interested parties use the car parks around and beneath the Astrodome to start accelerating and pursuing each other. From there, the action spills out into Houston, and the film really comes into its own, finding its sense of flight as a series of lyrical shots literally depict the cars moving through the air in slow motion as they clear one speedbump after another. With all the main players placed behind the wheel, there’s no need for narrative, or characterisation, any more, as Altman instead focuses on the ebb and flow between them, taking advantage of the ring roads that give Houston its distinct automotive syntax, to swap and rearrange the cars so many times that it’s not even a chase any more. Instead, the chase becomes a cipher for the narrative the film is trying to escape, turning this into something more like an automotive dance, in which no character or car has a stable relation with any other character or car, but for that very reason every character and car encounters far more others than they ever would in a conventional story or chase.
In other words, Altman crafts a car chase in which all the cars are escaping the chase itself, just as he crafts a story in which all the characters are trying to escape the stories that might be spun around them. Neither the chase nor the film can “end” per se, with the former coming to a close when one of the cars crashes into a lake, only for Altman to quickly shift to a photograph that is being staged in front of the lake, in which the two men being photographed are being requested to reconfigure their position with respect to each other much as the cars were doing a moment ago. Instead of a static conclusion, the chase is deflected into yet another reconfiguration of bodies, just as Brewster’s main ally, played by Sally Kellerman, isn’t really a character, or even a narrative device, so much as a fulcrum. Of all the figures in the film, she does the most to reconfigure people around each other, and leave room for Brewster’s flight, especially throughout the car sequence, when she provides it with just the right amount of texture and chaos to prevent it ever congealing into a chase.
By the time that the police chase has finally circled and contained the Astrodome, then, Brewster has been able to continue the momentum of the previous car sequence by taking flight. Notably, he never leaves the Astrodome, but just flies around the top of it, before falling violently to ground for what initially seems to be a tragic ending. At this very moment, however, sound fully dissociates from image, and Altman “concludes” the film by introjecting the audience into the Astrodome itself, where a gleeful crowd now applauds Brewster as the film’s credits come up on the LED screens, subtitled as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” As clowns and circus folk gather around Brewster like the munchkins greeting Dorothy in The Wizard of OZ, it feels as if Altman has effected something just as startling as that first flash of Technicolor in Victor Fleming’s film – a new kind of cinematic experience that he would perfect over the following decade. In these closing moments, the Astrodome becomes a space of heavenly flight, and a line of flight from traditional cinema, so novel as a stadium experience that the film can’t quite depict it, or inhabit, but has to split itself down the middle and fuse the space between audience and diegesis in order to evoke it. For all the canonicity of MASH, then, Brewster McCloud is perhaps where Altman really consolidated his style on the cusp of the 70s, for a film that still feels unusual, experimental and exhilarating today, and contagious in its restlessness for what it can reach but not grasp.