A Ramble on Escaping Concrete Domes in Brewster McCloud (1970)

Brewster McCloud, directed by Robert Altman, released 1970

In short, Brewster McCloud is about the titular boy’s attempt to fly like a bird. He squats in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome, studies birds with his partner in crime, Louise, and inevitably falls down onto the astroturf and perishes. And though I haven’t mentioned his huge number of serial stranglings, you can already sense that Altman’s Brewster is a little kooky.

Brewster might be the main character in the traditional sense, since it’s his journey we follow, but birds as a group are much more important than any of the people we find in this Houston-based oddity. In fact, the voiceover narration talking about birds (pronounced to us by a gradually bird-ifying René Auberjonois) makes me wonder whether we’re watching a movie about people at all. All the characters are frequently compared to birds, and our larger social structures, particularly love rituals and social hierarchy, are given bird analogues as well. The movie is profoundly strange and goofy, as are the people in it, from the turtleneck-hoarding supercop to Shelley Duvall’s race car driver/tour guide character. A flock of strange birds indeed, as my grandfather would put it.

What can we take from this little summary of bird figures in this film? I’d wager that it’s pretty simple: the human desire to simply be able to fly away and find freedom in the air is infectious and far from the only ways in which their many species exert a pull of desire on us. The Astrodome itself starts to look like a colossal concrete nest by the end of the movie, and my main intuition about the movie is that it’s about the ways in which our attempts to achieve freedom through invention and the overburdening of earth are destined to collapse. There is the Astrodome itself, a novelty when the film came out and now sitting empty and largely unused. We have airplanes, a source of freedom only for the very few who can own their own and skip the horrendous security lines. All the trappings of industrial modernism offer tempting luxuries that exact tremendous consequences. It’s a classic mad scientist story, down to the ghoulish murders. (Manages to be a very funny movie at the same time, though, which is typical of these Altman curiosities I love so well)

Unrelenting construction and technological expansion creates dreams of escaping it. The great irony, I think, is not just that Brewster makes the very foolish decision to try to fly to freedom from inside the Astrodome, but that he tried to turn himself into a bird with heavy metal wings, taking a huge toll on himself. If we are going to find some kind of meaningful freedom in our lives, we can certainly dream of flying like birds, but contrary to Louise’s words, our freedom lies somewhere closer to the ground. It would be best, indeed, if we could simply observe the free birds of the sky and live our dreams out as much as we could, content in our own selves.

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