Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Robert Altman’s Flying Machine

Brewster McCloud (1970), Robert Altman’s second feature film, is wildly fluid. Even fans of M*A*S*H (1969) might not be completely tuned in to this movie’s disjointed counterculture lightness. Scenes of episodic, oddball humor, visual shocks and sexual arousal (the movie was originally called Brewster McCloud’s Sexy Flying Machine) butt up against each other like pinballs, and Altman, who heavily rewrote the Doran William Cannon screenplay, is tilting the machine.

In M*A*S*H, the satire was equally manic but a lot clearer; scenes were constructed to puncture bureaucracy and skewer the military officers and aides who peddled it to the American troops. We know what’s going on in Brewster McCloud and we can catch all the often very funny movie references and in-jokes, but we don’t often know what those references are doing there or why a disparate group of Houstonians are being strangled. The movie doesn’t ever tell us why these particular victims were targeted or even who the killer is. It could be the sensual but mothering older woman (Sally Kellerman), the dimwit tour guide (Shelley Duvall, whose eyelashes are painted in Raggedy Ann spikes), or the taciturn Brewster himself (Bud Cort, who played several of his movie roles as if they were on the spectrum). Are the victims Brewster’s persecutors, establishment materialists threatening to derail his desire to fly, or are they only in the wrong place at the wrong time? The victims are all found contorted in grotesque shapes, with bird droppings on their bodies or faces, but if Altman is attempting to make a deeper satirical point and not just a scatological one, that point is lost. The comic visual scatology is everywhere, in fact: bird shit is constantly being dropped (by unseen birds) on important papers, wallets, badges, and windshields. The movie is practically awash in it. The freedom that Altman gives his cast to improvise dialogue saves a lot of the non sequiturs in the script — for example, while the suave detective (Michael Murphy) is examining one of the victims at a zoo, an enormous tortoise lumbers into the frame, nudging the detective’s right elbow, and Murphy, without losing character, says, “Somebody get this turtle out of here.” Moments like that reinforce the improvisational personality without adding to the confusion.

Weirdos. Shelley Duvall, Bud Cort
Most of the earlier scenes — the farcical police investigation, the bonehead car chases, a runaway wheelchair, the whacked-out accidents and close calls — may not be linked logically to the movie’s climax, but they are, miraculously, linked emotionally, and that inevitability is probably the movie’s chief virtue and triumph. Altman is brilliant enough to loosen plot threads and abandon linear dialogue and still fulfill an audience’s emotional needs. Brewster’s exultant flight in the Astrodome is scored to Merry Clayton’s lovely rendition of a John Phillips song about the emotional abandon of spreading one’s wings and letting go. One of the great reprises in American movies of the seventies, the scene is a metaphor of the entire movie and its spasmodic narrative, the oversize contraption flapping its aluminum bones in order to climb dizzyingly higher and higher. But the emotional strength of that uplift is real, and the conclusion is devastating. The boy with the dream is the only one in the movie whose death is treated with tragic irony. The movie destroys him to liberate him. The audience knows it has lost something it can’t quite articulate, and Altman is compassionate enough to give us a final set piece of distancing theatricality — a circus of the stars and a Felliniesque view of life-as-theater (a sign saying “Greatest Show on Earth” hangs across the stadium seats). If that’s Altman’s point, he certainly takes a roundabout way of getting there, but the side roads are richly inventive, like early Fellini. The framing device alone is sophisticatedly, bizarrely witty enough for ten movies: a professor (René Auberjonois) lecturing on ornithology grows progressively more birdlike in his squawky speech and body movements each time the camera cuts back to his classroom. Once you see it as a hip, modern fable, Brewster McCloud may seem the giddiest flight fantasy since Miracle in Milan (1951).

This Is War, Not a Garden Party

You might walk out of the theater after seeing Gone with the Wind (1939) into the cool, head-clearing night air feeling exhilarated but maybe a little headachy. The first half is all epic and panorama. The last third is bogged down in expensive romance melodrama, an example of movie proto-fatigue. But the structure sort of works in Wind’s favor: audiences are more energetic when the movie is likewise more energetic — for the first ninety minutes — so all that splendor isn’t wasted. Anyone inclined to wonder whether the mighty Wind really merits its eighty years of adulation usually just remembers the first half. When characters die in the first half, like Scarlett’s first husband, it’s sometimes treated comically, and good comedy is always memorable. Even dotty Gerald’s fatal fall from a horse is rather humorous, and I’ve heard audiences laugh at his stentorian senility. In fact, literally all the abundant comedy in the movie occurs earlier, from the Peahen and Buffalo League (Laura Hope Crews, Jane Darwell, and Mary Anderson) to Uncle Peter (Eddie Anderson) to Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks in baby curls) to the rollicking, blunt Mammy (Hattie McDaniel). The “intimate” melodrama of the last third is sodden and serious and tends to blur in the memory (excepting the passionate fans who have seen Wind eighty times).

Father-daughter time. Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell
Gone with the Wind is meritorious for its saturated three-strip Technicolor, gaudy production design (including a number of famous matte paintings), pullback and crane shots against blazing sunsets and silhouettes of gnarled oaks, and actors who manage to stand out prominently against the size and scope of this cinematic gargantua. The power that the actors have, despite the lopsidedness the movie gives to production values, is miraculous. Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Butterfly McQueen, Victor Jory, Harry Davenport (“Good heavens, woman, this is war, not a garden party!”), Ward Bond, Alicia Rhett, and even brief scene stealers like Cliff Edwards, Paul Hurst (as the sinister Yankee deserter), and Eric Linden (the amputee who puts real terror in his scene and nearly upends the movie) make Wind a vivid personality parade. I guess that the actors’ all-around success is mostly attributable to the director, Victor Fleming, and the care David O. Selznick lavished on casting. By comparison, think of how many actors get swamped by the production in other humongous movies, from the Joseph L. Mankiewicz Cleopatra (1963) to David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) to James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) — none of them known for shimmering, zesty acting, the way Gone with the Wind is. Its performances weren’t just stellar but influential, too. Leigh’s Scarlett scared and inspired a generation of actresses after her, from Linda Darnell in Forever Amber (1947) and Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman (1946) to Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree County (1957), who copied her enigmatic combination of gusto and regal bearing.
The movie represents another miracle. After all its sweep and energy and calculated precision, it is, after all, an indie movie. Selznick International was an independent studio that nonetheless made movies the Big Studio way, filming prestige literary properties, building a stable of stars and directors, subcontracting stars from other studios, raising funds from East Coast banks and investors, and slathering movies with mass-production gloss without actually ever going into mass production (only a couple of Selznick movies were produced every year, from 1936 to about 1948). There isn’t much difference in the look of the typical Selznick movie and the big-budget movies from Warner Brothers or MGM: The Garden of Allah (1936), A Star Is Born (1937), Intermezzo (1939), Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Duel in the Sun (1946) all look and play as if they came right off the major studio assembly lines. That’s their “personality.” Selznick was an intrusive, busybody producer who controlled every aspect of filming, usually driving his actors and directors nuts, and his movies both gain and suffer for it. The Selznick palette is broad and banal, but the details — including the performances — are often crazily energetic.