Zen And The Art Of Birdshit

Movies Worth Watching: Brewster McCloud (1970)

I feel the need to profile some of my favorite/most well-made films, but I want to avoid categorizing anything in terms of "best of" or "essential". Partly because I don't think I have the authority to do so. As my taste subtly shifts over time, I'd hate to see myself declaring the 20 greatest movies only to discover 2 years later that half of them suck, and I left out 7 ones better than any on the list.

So I'll frame this as movies that should simply be seen. Here are movies I love, movies I think are excellent, but above all they need to be watched.

The first in this series is quite hard to watch: not because of style or subject matter, but because it has been out of print for nearly 25 years. Part of the magic of Brewster McCloud is that it is so damn difficult to find. I saw it first on an ancient VHS from the school library, and now I have a rare torrent (ahem) of the even rarer LaserDisc release. So I consider myself lucky.

Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) is an incredibly awkward young man in his late teens/early twenties. He needs to fly. Not in an airplane or through skydiving: he needs the freedom true flight provides. He needs to be a bird. He is a bird trapped in a human's body.

Therefore, he lives in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome. He spends his days stealing supplies and building his white feathered wings, a flying machine that is the next greatest thing to being an avian specie. His mentor is the enigmatic Louise (Sally Kellerman), a (literal?) fallen angel with wing-removal scars on her back to prove it. She is a blonde Maleficent wearing nothing but a trenchcoat (with a raven familiar to boot!)

Brewster has two problems: One is that whenever some schmuck gets in his way, they always end up strangled. And found splattered with birdshit. Hmm. The Houston PD brings in "superdetective" Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) to solve these Houston Stranglings, and they seem to be closing in on our hero. That is, if Shaft wasn't too vain and lazy to actually work on the case.

The other problem is Suzanne (Shelly Duvall's debut role). She's a tour guide at the Dome, and a part-time NASCAR driver. Bubbly and earthbound, she falls head over heels for McCloud whilst spouting stream-of-consciousness monologues about lawsuits and diarrhea and Mexican food.

But Brewster must remain a virgin to continue to receive Louise's guidance and protection. What's a murderous little bird-boy to do?

Our story is told by an absent-minded professor (Rene Auberjonois) who reduces every situation to a dry lecture on avian behavior. As the movie progresses, he himself turns into a bird... before our very eyes!

By the way, Brewster is directed by Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player).

Okay. This is a weird movie. No. To call this weird is to belittle the accomplishments of truly weird movies. This is a fucked-up movie.

Imagine a Disney Channel flick written by Thomas Pynchon. Add some original songs by John Philips (of the Mamas and Papas) and an early 70s sensibility.

It's hilarious too.

The climax (which is not too unpredictable) is unnervingly cathartic, playing out with nightmarish intensity like the most vivid of dreams. The grande finale that follows is a riff on Fellini's 8 1/2, concluding with one of the most original and thrilling end-credit sequences ever.

All to remind you: this is just a movie. Identity is just a play. "Living the dream" is not being what you really are deep down, but attempting to become what you fantasize yourself to be. There's a difference, and that's at the kernel of the story.

It's the anti-Disney, told through the most Disney-ish of devices: the fairy tale.

It's subversive. It's sublime. "It's birdshit." GWAAAAAAK!

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