Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970) in ways is a precursor to Nashville (1975). It takes place in Houston and much of the action occurs in or near the Astrodome, at the time of the film a symbol of the city’s yearning towards cosmopolitan trendiness and economic power. The Astrodome is a symbol of the commercialization of sports and of late capitalistic excess. It occupies in the film something of the same role and function as the faux Parthenon in Nashville, where the Parthenon represents the city’s aspirations for prominence and culture beyond its reach. Brewster McCloud is notable for its weirdness, its peculiar lack of focus, and its seeming incoherence. It puzzled audiences and reviewers, who were prepared for something else following on the success of Mash (1970).
What this film has in common with the aforementioned examples is its contention that corporate America, capitalism, and commercialism in general are hostile to individual initiative, personal conscience, and the creative spirit.
Like Nashville, Brewster McCloud is set in the American South, or at the least on its western margins. The events in both films take place in cities associated at the time with the notion that the South, especially the urban South, would become the commercial and economic heart of the United States. Subsequent developments intervened. A long period of recession in the oil industry denied this hope to Houston, while Nashville fell behind the burgeoning economic engines of Atlanta, Birmingham, and Charlotte, though it remains today a healthy metropolitan area.
The Astrodome in Brewster McCloud is also a symbol of modern America. It’s the home of the city’s professional baseball and football teams. It’s adorned with commercial advertisements for various well known products. Altman drives home the symbolism of the Astrodome in a number of ways. Early in the film Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz, sings the national anthem in accompaniment with an all African-American high school band. She berates the band when it doesn’t play precisely as she wants it to, and finally the band members simply ignore her. The Astrodome is also where Brewster McCloud lives and where he works on the machine that he hopes will allow him to fly away. The name of the dome suggests the American space program, whose headquarters is in Houston—this link to Brewster’s aspirations is hardly coincidental. In the final scene, Brewster launches his flying apparatus into flight and, pursued by police and security guards, flies in circles around the interior of the stadium. When he cannot find a way out, he grows tired, falls to the ground, and is killed.
Brewster’s aspiration to fly connects him to Icarus who in Greek mythology flies too close to the sun and dies when his wax-fashioned wings melt as a result. His desire to fly and to leave the corrupting commercial world of contemporary America behind connects him to creativity, self-expression, and freedom. (Brewster’s death echoes Brueghel’s “Landscape and The Fall of Icarus.”) The woman who protects and counsels him (the film implies she is an angel; she is played by Sally Kellerman, who portrayed Hot Lips O’Houlihan in Mash) warns him against losing his innocence. He must remain pure and chaste. Ultimately, an agent of contemporary American commercialism, a tour guide in the Astrodome, played by Shelley Duvall, seduces him, and he loses his innocence and the protection of Kellerman as a result.
Much of the humor and satire in Brewster McCloud is broad and slapstick. Although there are elements of this clumsy and broadly drawn humor in Mash, the screenplay kept the film in focus, at least until the football game in the final scenes. Altman rewrote much of the original screenplay for Brewster McCloud, and according to many accounts there is much improvisation in the film.
For Altman, contemporary America is chaos, car chases, bureaucratic corruption, greed, commercialism, loud marching bands, and a compulsive conformist pressure against individual expression. These are the forces that foil Brewster’s aerial ambitions and bring him crashing fatally to the ground.
A subplot in the film involves a serial killer who leaves his victims covered with bird droppings. The victims turn out to be people who threaten Brewster’s plans to build a flying machine, who are cruel to birds, or who are simply offensive. One example is Margaret Hamilton’s character, Daphne Heap, who keeps a large outdoor cage of birds in the backyard. Another is the landlord Abraham Wright, who collects rent on substandard retirement homes and berates the tenants when they fall short in their payments. Wright (Stacy Keach) is a Scrooge-like old man with long stringy white hair. Confined to a wheelchair, he is pushed and chauffeured around town by Brewster. It’s unclear how he is killed, but his death shortly follows his outburst of anger over “Bird shit! Bird shit on my car!”
Birds are a central motif in the film. License plates of the major characters include the names of birds. Scenes of a professor (Rene Auberjonois) lecturing on birds are sprinkled throughout the film. The professor’s behavior becomes increasingly eccentric and extreme, until, finally, in late scenes he is behaving like a bird. Sally Kellerman’s character apparently has wings. She sometimes caws like a bird. And, of course, Brewster himself wants to take flight.
In response to the serial murders, the Houston police bring in a Los Angeles detective, Lieutenant Frank Shafft (Michael Murphy) to assist their investigations. As competent as he seems, at least in comparison to the locals, he’s no more able to find the killer. Car chases that go on for too long are one result—when Shafft accidentally drives his cruiser into a lake, he shoots himself. The incompetence of the police are another dimension of the governmental and economic institutions that conspire to oppress the individual.
Brewster’s role as the killer (he confesses it to Shelley Duvall, who tells the police) subverts any allegory we might want to find in the film. The notion of a carefree spirit who wants to fly away from the sordid limitations of the world and is also a murderer doesn’t make sense. No one actually tries to prevent Brewster from building his machine. It’s the fact that he is living illegally in the Astrodome, and that he will try to fly his machine in the Astrodome, that cause him problems. He is a trespasser there after all. His role as a murderer might have remained undetected had he not confessed to Duvall after they slept together. The obstacles that prevent him from finding freedom and achieving his dream are the obstacles that affect all humanity—our mortal human coils, the obligations and considerations of living in an imperfect human world. As flawed and corrupt as almost all the characters in the film are, they are not ultimately the anomalies. Brewster is.
The problem Altman explores here is the division between life and art, life and the ideal. It’s the division that Keats explores in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale.” Brewster wants to achieve the ideal, his dream of flight, but to do so he has to murder and otherwise deceive and dissemble and live an existence that involves no physical interaction with the rest of humanity. Life and art in this instance cancel one another out.