Friday, January 19, 2007

Altmania: "Brewster McCloud" (1970) / "Countdown" (1968) / "Nashville" (1975)

getting a little behind on the Altman documentation, so let's get to it. i took in my latest double feature last night and it was a weird one, let me tell you.

i had been wanting to see "Brewster McCloud" forever. mention this movie in public and you'll basically get either a quizzical look or a knowing smile and nod--actually that applies to a lot of things you could possibly mention, but you get the idea. what i mean is that it's a cult movie, and with very good reason.

the premise is just incredible. Bud Cort, he of "Harold and Maude," plays the title character, an (take it away IMDB) "owlish, intellectual boy who lives in a fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome." as if that weren't weird enough, he spends most of his time studying birds and constructing a pair of elaborate mechanical wings in the hopes of taking flight. not to mention murdering people who cross him.

as you might guess from the subject matter, "Brewster McCloud" is a comedy, but a dark and at times really disturbing one. a few of the subplots and minor characters are really silly and over the top--Michael Murphy as a hotshot detective with an extensive turtleneck collection; Rene Auberjonois as this bird-expert professor whose increasingly cracked out and bird-mimicking lectures to no one in particular are interspersed throughout the movie; Shelley Duvall, in her film debut, playing Brewster's sexy drag-racing girlfriend.

but some of the other stuff going on gets pretty intense. Brewster's sex life, or lack thereof, is fascinating. basically, he's got this guardian angel, Louise, played by Sally Kellerman (a.k.a. "Hot Lips" of "M*A*S*H" fame--weird to think, incidentally that "Brewster" was Altman's follow-up to "M*A*S*H") who trails him and helps steer the police off his trail. but she seems to have him in this weird thrall, encouraging him to practice celibacy. there's a very odd scene where she's bathing him and calmly describing how he shouldn't need sex as an escape since the wings he's building are going to be his real source of freedom. she's nude during this part and you see these weird markings on her back that look like scars from torn-off wings--like i said, very, very weird.

anyway, despite Brewster's lack of interest in sex, girls throw themselves at him. for one, there's this pretty and somewhat insane girl Hope (Jennifer Salt), who's always coming into Brewster's lair and compulsively masturbating in front of him. this results in one of the most straight-up fucked scenes i've ever scene in a film. basically she comes in while he's doing chin-ups, gets into his bed and starts servicing herself as she watches him work out; she's even counting his reps out loud as she reaches climax. Altman cuts between him and her for an uncomfortably long time and it just gets completely out of control. as odd as the scenario is, maybe the weirdest thing is Bud Cort's appearance. if you've ever seen "Harold and Maude," you know that he has this really odd, smooth boyish face; he was pretty young at the time of this movie (22), but there's still a huge contrast between his features and his wiry, muscular body. and Altman makes sure you see all of that, as he's wearing only a black Speedo during all of this. some really crazy shit, i'm telling you.

the movie is a bit too long for its own good and the pervasive wackiness gets old after awhile, but the finale is pretty wondrous. i don't think it's spoiling too much to say that there's a phenomenal flying sequence at the end. the wings themselves (designed by Leon Ericsen) are a marvel to behold and incredibly realistic. if this movie was made today (which it absolutely would not be, for like 8 million reasons), they'd be CGI, but these are 100% real, and even though i doubt Cort is using them unassisted, they're still a marvelous mechanical sight.

a few other noteworthy things... there's some really nice Altman gimmickry re: the credits. he loves to do those fake-showy cast introductions, but here he saves it till the end, when all the players inexplicably come out as part of a circus. he also does this sort of "retake" of the opening credits after a singer onscreen asks her orchestra to start a piece again...

also, it occurred to me watching "Brewster" what a big influence Altman had on Wes Anderson. yeah, the ensemble cast thing you see in "Tenenbaums" obviously owes a lot to Bob, but also the use of music in "Brewster" reminded me of some of those awesome Anderson music-video-style sequences, like when Gwyneth Paltrow is sort of drifting out of the bus toward Luke Wilson in "Tenenbaums" with Nico blaring. anyway, there's a scene that reminded me of that near the end of "Brewster": Brewster has dissed his guardian angel by getting laid, and she abandons him, walking out of the Astrodome without a look back. there's this long aerial shot where you see her leaving from behind, with this gorgeous, haunting song "Last of the Unnatural Acts" by someone named John Phillips. it's very creepy and Leonard Cohen-ish, and the lyrics seem to be about Brewster: "All of the rain that falls on the world cannot cleanse away what's been done / And all of the winds can't blow away the curse, nature requires that you come..."

whoa. had to download and play that song back a few times to hear that. pretty heavy song. who is this John Phillips guy?


my apologies if i give short shrift to "Countdown," but i think you'll understand when i tell you about it. the prospect of an Altman-helmed space flick starring James Caan and Robert Duvall was enticing to say the least, but alas this one's pretty stodgy. it's pre-"M*A*S*H," which was obviously a watershed in terms of pervasive sarcasm/cynicism/modernity, and it's much more dated than "That Cold Day in the Park," which also felt rather creaky in spots.

the movie is an at-times painfully wooden fictionalized account of the space race, released a year before Armstrong's moon walk. Caan plays Lee Stigler, the one who's sent to the moon, while Duvall is his bitter, severe colleague, named--get this--"Chiz," who gets replaced by Stigler at the last minute due to a technicality.

maybe the most interesting thing about the movie (aside from the stunning casualwear--the film abounds with chinos and short-sleeved polos, often rocked poolside) is that it prefigures what has since become a bona fide film genre--obviously fueled in recent years by subsequent history, i.e. the Challenger--that being the "tense space flick." "2001," released the same year, oddly enough, shares a lot of these qualities, which you also see in (if my memory is serving me correctly) "Apollo 13," "The Right Stuff" and even something like "Space Camp." basically there's the whole business about "Is it safe to go up there?" and one of the astronauts (in this case Duvall) is inevitably hot-headed and rash and is like "I know I can fly this thing, now you've got to send me up there!" and then there's the whole "how does it effect the NASA wives" thing, and one of the spouses of course overhears the astronauts talking in hushed tones about some secret or risky aspect of the program. and then there's the tension between the astronauts based on who gets the more prestigious assignment. and then there's the claustrophobia verging on horror during the mission itself, blah, blah, blah.

anyway, all that stuff is here, but the movie is pretty tedious nonetheless. the acting is the real downfall; it's just remarkably, pervasively wooden. every interaction feels painfully scripted and it's just weird to see Duvall and Caan, two actors who would go on to do such naturalistic stuff, behaving in this dated, straitjacketed way. there's nothing really innovative about the look and the plot just sort of creeps along. not to mention perhaps the most dated and annoying aspect of the film, which is the unrelenting score, that essentially interprets every line for you with some dramatic, wanna-be-unsettling swoop. it's like a laugh track or something, just so intrusive.

i will say that the actual inside-the-shuttle and on-the-moon stuff was pretty intense. there's a long sequence where radio communication is breaking down between Duvall and Caan that really gives you a sense of the precariousness of space travel: if that radio goes dead, the astronaut is royally fucked. and the two are communicating over this increasingly crackly radio and it's just really freaky. the moon sequence itself is also genuinely eerie and almost worth the "price of admission" (like you're ever going to get another chance to see this relic in the theaters!). Caan may or may not have gone insane at this point and he's just sort of bouncing along casually (or maybe it just looks that way in low gravity), despite the fact that he's dangerously close to running out of oxygen.

anyway, a period oddity for Bob fans only.


"Nashville" is the same way. not!

this is considered Altman's masterpiece and it's genuinely fucking phenomenal and should be seen by everyone. it's a huge, sprawling ensemble thing like "Short Cuts" was later, but this one is set in the glitzy Nashville music scene just after Vietnam, and as you might guess, it's a musical. weirdly enough, a lot of the actors wrote their own songs to perform in the movie.

basically, i have to say that my absolute favorite element of "Nashville," this time around as well as when i first saw it in high school, is Keith Carradine. he plays this handsome asshole folk-pop star, Tom Frank, who's part of this singing group, Tom, Bill and Mary. Tom is in love with Mary, who happens to be married to Bill, and is sleeping with her behind Bill's back. this creates for some pretty icy, devastating scenes, but none as fucked up as Carradine's phenomenal performance of a self-penned tune called "I'm Easy" ("It's not my way to love you just when no one's lookin'") in front of a packed house that includes both Bill and Mary (the latter played by a gorgeous and icy Christina Raines; she has like two lines in the movie but gives an incredibly affecting performance). the scene can be found on YouTube here and i suggest you get out the tissue box before viewing:

there's really not a bad actor in this thing: Henry Gibson as the pompous, preening country star Haven Hamilton; Lily Tomlin as the powerfully reserved gospel singer Linnea Reese; Geraldine Chaplin as the insanely pretentious and inadvertantly racist BBC journalist Opal (her monologues are some of the most hilarious scenes in the movie). but maybe my favorite next to Carradine is Michael Murphy as John Triplette, this smooth-talking casually arrogant advocate for the mysterious reformist presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. Murphy is just an amazingly natural actor, and to hear Triplette going around trying to sell all these died-in-the-wool country singers on backing Walker, a loopy ultraliberal, is just hilarious. at one point, his pitch includes the line "I'm not trying to sell you a bill of goods," and his oily yet confessional delivery is priceless. i'll admit that i'm a sucker for Murphy--just love to hear that drawl. his cameo in "That Cold Day" just totally rules.

anyway, there are lot of similarities here w/ "Short Cuts," which is basically just a more-contemporary L.A.-set "Nashville." in that movie, the framing device is the mayfly epidemics, whereas here it's Hal Phillip Walker's campaign vans going around broadcasting his oddball slogans (my favorite is "Hasn't Christmas always smelled like oranges to you?"). also, there's this climactic tragedy that feels almost like an apocalypse or certainly an irreparable loss of innocence. Gibson running around at the end after [the horrific incident i won't spoil] urging the crowd to sing and saying "This is Nashville, not Texas," or somesuch, is pretty intense. especially so since we've learned that his wife was a die-hard Kennedy booster--there's a really poignant and unusual scene where she just waxes on how much she loved John and Bobby.

anyway, this movie is a classic for a reason. it's absolutely hysterical and has this intense creeping cynicism about it. it sums up the '70s and Altman's whole vibe big time. it's basically an extremely realistic simulation of entropy/disillusionment taking effect on a culture.

look out for a hysterical Elliott Gould cameo. he plays himself, but doesn't he sort of always?

as an add'l treat: here's Carradine doing "I'm Easy" at the '76 Golden Globes:


ps: best album of '06 not to appear on my offishal Top 10 list is Andrew Hill's "Time Lines." a little diffuse in parts (drumming could be more solid) but the writing is gorgeous and Hill's playing straight-up gets better and more free-sounding with age. it really, really, really does.


Anonymous said...

John Phillips....probably he of Mammas and the Papas

Anonymous said...
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