This summer, the Harvard Film Archive will unspool the works of Robert Altman, perhaps the premiere American counterculture filmmaker. His recognized classics, like MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Nashville, play often. So those with limited time should plan to see the films more rarely screened. They’re not covered in textbooks—but they offer a clearer portrait of the man who made them.
That includes the psychedelic gonzo parable Brewster McCloud, which illustrates Altman’s worldview with a nakedness that never recurred. Contained within is his contempt for cops and authority, his conception of social life as absurdist comedy, and his grudging respect for the doomed creatives dumb enough to try and transcend all the bullshit. Bud Cort stars as the dreamer—an orphan boy living in a re-appropriated, semi-dystopian Astrodome—who tries to make his escape literally: He builds himself bird’s wings and plans to soar away.
Altman was already divorcing himself from the rules of narrative filmmaking, so that’s not “the plot.” Instead he does his take on the thesis film: A professor leads off by stating we’re studying the connection between man and bird, which Altman takes as a cue to mock our basest behaviors. He loops in scenes depicting businessmen playfully robbing the poor and elderly, while cops gleefully abuse “undesirables,” paralleling the way flocks settle into hierarchies. The way we flirt and love becomes comically mundane “mating.” And Brewster’s attempts to escape it all can’t help but crash and burn. There’s a self-aware tragedy to Altman’s perspective, hilariously externalized by the Astrodome’s closed roof. If existence itself is a circus—and the candy-colored, stunt-filled, joke-loaded widescreen compositions suggest as much—then there’s no climbing out.
McCloud isn’t a comedy so much as it is a pot-addled daydream. That’s what’s strange about these films—Altman was always taking the piss, but he never conformed to the standard ways of doing so. O.C. and Stiggs, an oft-reviled National Lampoon adaptation that he directed for hire in the mid-’80s, may be the closest he ever came to true satire. The title characters are teenagers perpetually committing pranks against the local bourgeoisie, most notably a family headed by an insurance executive. But Altman paints the rebellious boys as grotesques, too. They’re sexist, racist, and homophobic, as ignorant as their targets—unknowing products of the environment they rebel against. Here’s a satire of American satires.
Brewster has the vibrant palette of a psychedelic comic book. But with Stiggs Altman is considering everything garish about “the real America,” so the set is dressed in repulsive pastels. He even includes cartoon-worthy sight gags to accentuate the childish tone—there are bottles stashed everywhere in the home of the local drunk, even in the chandeliers hanging near the top of the frame. The gags pile onto the relentless frivolity. His vision of suburban life is a compendium of juvenile culture—and an argument that it’s perverted even those who push back against it.
But when a place earned his respect, he could bring it alive like few others. Altman was born in Kansas City, and he imbues his film of the same name with sense memories: dimly-lit streetlights hanging over undeveloped roads, jazz clubs roaring all night with dancers shaking until they sleep, the low swoops of a hustler’s practiced walk. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a street-level gun moll who kidnaps a politician’s wife, hoping to hold her as ransom against her boyfriend—who’s being held captive by a black organized crime syndicate that said politician is in league with. The film starts off with the crime, but that’s just a pretense toward a plot that lets us walk back and forth between the city’s rich and poor districts—its upstairs and its downstairs.
The camera is always moving downward to the speakeasies for extended sweeping takes, to take in the art form resident jazz musicians were helping to create. Then it pans upward again, to the white politicians practicing their own nefarious “craft,” always mindful of the effect that one subculture has on another. Altman’s depictions of American existence are similar in that they’re all-encompassing, utilizing careful aesthetics to consider psychology, social structures, art, and their many intersections. He recorded the nation—mind, body, and soul.
THE FILMS OF ROBERT ALTMAN. HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE, 24 QUINCY STREET, CAMBRIDGE. BEGINS FRI 6.5. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT HCL.HARVARD.EDU/HFA