Robert Altman On a Roll with 'Brewster McCloud'

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
December 24, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 52

Films in Focus
By Andrew Sarris

"BREWSTER McCLOUD" wings it in more ways than one as it takes off on such wildly varied satiric targets as Spiro Agnew, Steve McQueen's mod detective in "Bullitt," the Houston Astrodome, Margaret Hamilton's witch from "The Wizard of Oz," our car culture, crooked cops, and national anthem. None of the takeoffs is all that funny, and the bird-droppings seem to have offended many viewers and reviewers ostensibly on grounds of overstatement and obviousness. Still, no other film that I have seen this year has managed to reflect so faithfully the feelings of utter helplessness and hopelessness that wash over me with never news round-up. Indeed, "Brewster McCloud" is the first American film to apply an appropriate tone and style to the absurdist follies of our time.

Its humor is cool and modern and manic, but never silly. But we can't have everything. Too many people think that we can venture into a new world of alienation and disconnection and despair with the old belly laughs to console us. But if I had laughed more at "Brewster McCloud" I would have admired the film less. Robert Altman's direction here is so admirably controlled in tempo and rhythm that no satiric conceit ever gets out of hand. For example, Michael Murphy's ridiculously stoical suicide is literally (and visually) distanced by Altman's cool cutting and disjunctive landscape work with some Texan Gothic types. Even the aforementioned bird-droppings are disinfected by the stylized, mystical treatment of their context.

Altman's skill with ensemble acting is no surprise after the non-star turns of Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould in "M*A*S*H." It was actually Altman's newsreel style and anarchic overlapping of line readings that made "M*A*S*H" rise so prominently above its Sergeant Bilko sketches. But a price was paid for the resulting strain between style and conception. There is no such strain in "Brewster McCloud." The characters all contribute to the ultimate lyricism of Bud Cort's Brewster McCloud in futile flight from this too solid sphere, Earth and Astrodome, rolled into one. By contrast, the attempted final lyricism in "M*A*S*H" seems forced and gratuitous in view of the anything-for-a-laugh hi-jinks which preceded it.

Altman is especially effective in flanking the insanely idealistic (and eponymous) protagonist with three girls (Sally Kellerman, Shelley Davis, and Jennifer Salt), each of whom embodies an essential attribute of the composite woman in the American scheme of things. And yet each girl is an original as well, mixing sensuality and spirituality in a way few actresses are allowed to in these liberated times. And with all its bird mythology and cartoon zaniness, "Brewster McCloud" remains a very subtle, perceptive comedy of ill manners. All in all, there is a healthy skepticism and individualism to this movie all the way down to the regrettable "8 1/2" ending that saves itself just in time from the fatuousness of Fellini's self-forgiveness.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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