Up and Down
Vikram Murthi on Brewster McCloud
“Man's insatiable mind goaded on by a handicapped body will undoubtedly invent subtleties and refinements for his present clumsy progress through the air. But he will never obtain that mastery of the air which is the result of the development of millions of years acting on the self-contained mechanism of a living body.”—The Lecturer (René Auberjonois)
Near the end of Brewster McCloud, after much anticipation, the title character finally debuts his wings. His first-ever lover has blown the whistle on his homicidal activities, his guardian angel has abandoned him, and the cops have finally cornered him in the Houston Astrodome. Now, Brewster is ready to fly. A reserved, enigmatic young man (played by an owlish Bud Cort), Brewster has one ambition:to soar through the air like a bird and to leave behind all earthly complications. His ornithological obsession evolves into avian envy, and he spends his days building his wings and preparing his mind and body for flight. He has no destination in mind other than “away.” There is no scientific or sociological impulse fueling his desire. Brewster merely wants to do the impossible: to transcend his anatomical limitations, to rewrite humankind’s physical capabilities.
Brewster’s artificial appendages don’t resemble those of any bird in nature. Instead, they look like an angel’s wings, the enormous, white kind that arc vertically and symbolize purity. Brewster wears them on his back, like a harness; the remex (wing) and rectrix (tail) feathers are constructed out of large, translucent material and are held together by a metal pulley system. They look like a contraption, something a mad scientist would make in his spare time. His wings enable both thrust and lift but Brewster can only fly by arduously flapping his arms, hence his rigorous daily chin-up routine. No matter how much they imitate avian limbs, they are nevertheless subject to human folly. Biology can play no role in Brewster’s journey. Only his strength and his will can propel him to the sky.
Alas, when Brewster finally takes off and ascends to the upper echelons of the Astrodome, much to the surprise and consternation of the cops below, it’s a short-lived triumph. Merry Clayton’s “White Feather Wings” soundtracks his flight, imbuing it with a borderline-religious majesty, but the song cuts off as soon as Brewster starts to tire and panic. His dream ultimately outpaces his body, and he falls from the sky and lands in a heap. It’s tempting to impose the Icarus story onto Brewster McCloud, the wings representing his hubris and false invincibility, and his crash being his inevitable comeuppance. But Brewster doesn’t suffer Icarus’s fate because of his pride. Icarus could have escaped the Labyrinth if he listened to Daedalus and followed his path. Even if Brewster had heeded the advice of Louise (Sally Kellerman), his fairy Godmother, and abstained from sex, there was no possible way for him to escape the Astrodome because, well, he can’t actually fly. Brewster’s wings were the result of a reckless, futile attempt to achieve immortality by crafting a beautiful moment. He succeeded, briefly, and like all beautiful moments, it ended, predictably and abruptly.
Robert Altman was already 45 years old when Brewster McCloud and its more successful companion M*A*S*H were released. He was 32 when he made his first feature, The Delinquents, and it took him another ten years to make his second. He spent most of the late-’50s and ’60s prolifically directing serial television dramas. Despite frequently getting fired for general insubordination, he was always in demand because he worked fast and cheap. Altman’s greatest creative successes and failures occurred in the second half of his life, which is simply another way of saying that he’s no stranger to persistence. He constantly bet on himself, and while his career can be totaled into wins and losses, he would likely reject such a binaristic conception of success because for him process always trumped results. Altman’s films imbue you with an intoxicating feeling of creation; more than those of any of his peers, his features are records of their production. For Altman, the point of directing, as much as it can be inferred or understood, was to engage fully in the act of making, of the inherent spontaneity that comes with collaboration, and hope for something magnificent to emerge.
Brewster’s focused ambition to fly almost begs to be likened to Altman’s filmmaking style, especially when viewed under an anti-authoritarian umbrella. For all of M*A*S*H’s sly nose-thumbing and confrontational, chaotic tone and era-appropriate cynicism, Brewster McCloud feels remarkably countercultural by comparison. From the very first moment—René Auberjonois saying, in voiceover, "I forgot the opening line” over the MGM lion, in place of his trademark roar—Altman’s film places the viewer into a dense thicket of self-reflexivity, cinematic allusions to everything from Fellini to The Wizard of Oz, and a heady mix of high- and low-brow humor. It often feels like an issue of Mad magazine come to life, overwhelming the senses with gonzo stimuli, so that it’s unclear where the satire, or the easy laugh, comes from. Brewster McCloud’s comedy might be best encapsulated by the tension between the voiceover of Auberjonois’s lecturer character, whose refined academic language frequently interrupts the action by knowingly comparing the characters’ behavior to those of a bird, and his slowly fracturing appearance as he devolves into a bird-like creature himself, complete with squawks and perched posture, over the course of the film. Altman collapses the false dichotomy between the intellectual and the stoner by separating commentary and absurdism via sound and image, respectively. At the same time, he draws a subtle contrast between the film’s frame and its subject. Auberjonois morphs into a grotesque shell of his former self, “growing” feathered wings until he’s barely human. Meanwhile, Brewster longs to transcend his humanity by manufacturing those same wings, unable to perceive how his expert mimicry will eventually collide with biological limitations.
However, another joke comes to mind that might best describe Brewster McCloud’s worldview: a close-up sight gag of splotchy white bird shit over a Houston Chronicle headline that reads “Agnew: Society Should Discard Some U.S. People.” Altman’s left-leaning politics frequently filters into his work, but it strongly defines Brewster McCloud, which is explicitly anti-racist, anti-establishment, and borderline anarchic. The Houston in Brewster McCloud teems with casual monsters who proudly display their noxious selves without any fear of reprisal. Over the opening credits, we see Daphne Heap (Margaret Hamilton) castigate her all-Black orchestra for playing the National Anthem off-key despite being off-key herself; we later learn she comes from a wealthy family and is “well-respected.” Vicious landlord and Brewster’s employer Abraham Wright (Stacy Keach) spends his days browbeating his elderly tenants, ranting about the invasion of Communists and Black people to his neighborhoods, and sexually harassing anyone he can grab from his wheelchair. Officer Breen (Bert Remsen), an undercover narcotics agent, verbally and physically abuses his wife and son at the zoo, in between spewing racial epithets, and attempts to plant drugs on Brewster’s person in order to steal his camera. All these people are eventually found strangled and covered in bird shit, victims of Brewster’s moral judgment and cosmic affinity with the avian kingdom. Altman makes no qualms about where our sympathies should lie.
Altman’s contempt stretches beyond bigots to the entire law-enforcement community and capitalist enterprises. Brewster willfully steals from local businesses and illegally lives in a fallout shelter within the Astrodome, evading capture from a lone portly security guard by blending into the background, akin to Waldo (née Wally) of children’s book series fame, a sartorial twin of McCloud. The cops assigned to the case are bumbling or arrogant, prone to internecine fighting and stymied by bureaucratic red tape. When a wealthy benefactor brings in “San Francisco super cop” Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy, a regular Altman player), whose turtlenecks and piercing blue color contacts specifically recall Lt. Frank Bullitt from Bullitt, he turns out to be a bust, doing nothing more than exuding cool and disregarding chain of command. After losing Brewster during a car chase and sustaining grievous injuries in the process, he commits suicide rather than suffer the indignity of receiving assistance. Every authority figure, from serve-and-protectors to local celebrities, are either ineffectual or craven, and all are prone to corruption. Brewster McCloud’s goofy sensibility never obscures our culture’s ugly sins; instead, it shines a spotlight on them and takes its offenders to task sans any moral sermonizing. Altman provides a foundational basis for Brewster’s desire to escape Earth’s surface. Who wouldn’t want to rid themselves of the casual cruelty too often considered a fair price for living in a society?
It’s eternally endearing that Altman, a middle-aged World War II veteran, found kinship with hippies and radicals during a period of profound social upheaval and generational strife. In Brewster McCloud, he openly sides with the youth—not just Brewster, but also Hope (Jennifer Salt), an eager young girl who brings Brewster groceries from a health food store, and Suzanne (Shelley Duvall), an Astrodome tour guide who takes a liking to Brewster. Both are sexually free-spirited young women; Hope openly masturbates to the sight of an oblivious Brewster doing pull-ups and Suzanne enthusiastically wishes to deflower Brewster whenever he desires. Meanwhile, Louise watches over him, helping him with his war against bigots and protecting him from punishment. Altman treats us to a close-up of her bare back, which features fallen-wing scars, providing a literal dimension to her angelic behavior as well as a living, breathing model for Brewster’s own flying dream.
Yet, these people are subject to human flaws and shortcomings. Brewster’s moral crusade still results in multiple murders, no matter how justified their deaths may be. Suzanne betrays Brewster after he admits his responsibility for the killings, rats him out to the authorities, and falls into the arms of her ex-boyfriend, a young political operator who turned his back on art at the behest of his rich father. Even Louise is subject to jealousy and suspicion. She forbids Brewster from quenching his carnal desires because she claims it will his destroy his will to fly, as sex is the most comparable experience to flight that humans can access. Yet, this rule reveals her own over-protectiveness. Louise operates like a surrogate mother to Brewster but constantly blurs the line with him by parading around nude and bathing him until he falls asleep. Like many smothering parents, she wants him to need her and balks at the notion that Brewster make friends of his own or, worse, another woman could fulfill her role. Brewster’s wings are not solely a means to escape a prejudicial, oppressive society, but also to leave behind mundane human emotions, like heartbreak and duplicity. After all, these feelings, like the people who evince them, seem so small when viewed from above.
Brewster’s wings accumulate mythos through their absence, with Altman primarily depicting them through McCloud’s research and physical training. We see him photograph birds at the zoo and study scientific literature and perform endless chin-ups; it’s not until almost 40 minutes into Brewster McCloud that we learn he’s even building wings. Altman provides us a glimpse of the object in its early stages, first as a bare mechanism and then in its feathered state, its plumage taking the form of several strips of semi-translucent white material that resembles an enormous fan one would use to cool a king. In one sense, it's a design marvel, an impressive combination of Biblical iconography and can-do human engineering. It looks both real and unreal, something that resembles nature but with too many man-made properties for it to be natural. Much like a long-lost Wright brother, Brewster is an autodidact desperate to solve “the flying problem.” Unlike Wilbur and Orville, however, he considers wings, rather than aircraft, the only way to really fly.
His commitment to physical thrust, heedless of the somatic consequences inherent in such a decision, contributes to Brewster McCloud’s essential tragedy. Brewster’s wings are the product of hopeless optimism, a belief that ingenuity can overcome a mortal being’s fundamental insignificance. He futilely attempted to reject a flawed social structure by escaping it instead of combatting it, subtly intuiting such action might be impossible. Altman’s point is clear: we are constantly subject to casual injustices and banal evil. People in power can be fucked with, but they are rarely ousted.
Altman closes Brewster McCloud by breaking the fourth wall and introducing the entire cast as a circus troupe that has entered the Astrodome. An announcer with a megaphone reads off the cast list and everyone receives a close-up while dressed in an outlandish archetypal circus costume. When the film finally reaches Bud Cort’s name, Altman’s camera finds him still in character lying unconscious on the floor. It’s a tossed-off, poignant image that captures so much about artmaking, how one can reach such great heights and never hear an audience’s acclaim. As much as Altman infuses Brewster the film and Brewster the character with an ineffable giddy sense of possibility—his wings being a symbol of creativity as a middle finger to naysayers and the very idea of impossibility—he also acknowledges a crushing inevitability. Rebellion only gets you so far.