Robert Altman Before and After 'M*A*S*H': 'Countdown' & 'Brewster McCloud'

Image from the Countdown movie poster

These two early curiosities from Robert Altman's career are available on-demand.


Director: Robert Altman
Cast: James Caan, Robert Duvall
Distributor: Warner Archives
Rated: PG
Year: 1967
Release date: 2009-06-22

Brewster McCloud

Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Shelley Duvall
Distributor: Warner Archives
Rated: R
Year: 1970
Release date: 2010-08-04

Countdown, scripted by Loring Mandel, is science fiction only by historical accident; it came out not long before the Apollo 11 mission and imagines a revised scenario for putting a man on the moon. In terms of realistic astronaut movies, it's the aesthetic and cinematic midpoint between Destination Moon (1950 sci-fi docudrama on how it might be) and The Right Stuff (1983 historical docudrama on earlier developments in manned spaceflight). Its combination of docudrama and mild soap opera is also reminiscent of a glossy mainstream movie from a few years earlier, Richard Donner's X-15 (1961).

Robert Duvall plays a military-trained astronaut who expects to be the first man on the moon, but when the Apollo schedule is jump-started by an emergency, James Caan is picked for a separate mission. There's tension between the friends, there's tension with Caan's worried wife (Joanna Moore), there's training galore, and in the last, best part of the fim, there's finally the sober poetry of the lonely lunar trip. The women have nothing to do, and this is almost emphasized as they're presented as pretty encumbrances who must share their own sub-world without stepping out of line while the boys shout at each other.

You won't find it Altmanesque unless you've seen the next 40 years of Altman. It's mostly a traditional presentation of conversations and close-ups within widescreen compositions, with a few restrained moments of visual drift. There are quite a few scenes where people are talking at once but rarely is the ambient noise very busy; it passes as the Sidney Lumet kind of realism. Before assuming that producer William Conrad reined in Altman's instincts too grossly, we must remember that Altman (like Lumet) was a solid graduate of TV presentation and was testing the waters here. That said, Altman was apparently fired after production; the contrasting stories of what happened are summarized in the film's entry on the TCM website.

The opening credits are an odd combination of '50s Hollywood style (already dated) and neo-Altman, with Leonard Rosenman's abstract modernist tones (instead of marches or fanfares) foreshadowing such films as Images or 3 Women. When Altman's name appears, the camera does that idiosyncratic transitional zoom-in (to a strut on a satellite dish) that the audience couldn't have known would become a visual signature.

The women have more to do in Brewster McCloud, though it's never entirely clear what. Brewster (Bud Cort of Harold and Maude) plays a virginal nebbish who hides in the newly-built Houston Astrodome and builds Da Vinci-esque wings. But wait -- will he lose his virginity, and therefore his ability to fly, to tour guide Shelley Duvall? Meanwhile, over in the ramshackle plot, various unpleasant characters die of mysterious strangulation after being marked by bird poop. One of these is Margaret Hamilton, finally wearing the ruby slippers as we hear the strains of "Over the Rainbow" -- a nice touch.

Viewers might suppose the murders are committed by the "holy innocent" Brewster, though this flyweight is hardly capable of taking on some of these victims. The responsible party might be Sally Kellerman, a maternal yet sexy figure who drifts ambiguously through scenes as Brewster's trench-coated angel (we assume), complete with scars where wings might have been. Is she a fallen angel? While Kellerman's character in M*A*S*H was humiliated via exposure in her shower, her character here publicly bathes in a fountain scene that's three things at once: an in-joke, one of the movie's many bird references, and possibly a salute to the famous fountain scene in Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

Brewster McCloud

From today's perspective, Kellerman's role also should remind Altman fans of Virginia Madsen's part as the presumed Angel of Death in the director's last film, A Prairie Home Companion. The recurrence of the trench-coated woman at either end of Altman's output makes us meditate on the differences between the films and these segments of Altman's career. That final film comes from an era of a successful master's embrace of serenity, the generosity of someone who recognizes himself as belonging to the same species as his subjects, while his "classic" period (of Brewster) bespeaks the anger and cynicism of one who gleefully sends the angel to reap without thinking that the bell tolls for him.

This movie is also a product of its era: early in the new MPAA rating system and the freedom of early '70s Hollywood. As such, it has many examples of Altman's vulgarity, the desire to "shock" in a funny way, to flaunt the tasteful proprieties by giving the finger to racists, misogynist bullies, the authories, the wealthy--the establishment, man. However, the quixotic and neutered Brewster stands (or rather plummets) as a curious critique of the social rebel, since he's hardly found a solution.

This film's rough, stubborn perversities help it stick in the mind as much as its distinctive Altman-isms. As a social, political, and sexual allegory, the messages are mixed to say the least, although Doran William Cannon's script seems consistent within its own crazy assumptions. Cannon also has the, ahem, distinction of having written Otto Preminger's notorious Skidoo, which gives us an interesting idea for a double-feature.

Altman made the film fresh from his triumph with M*A*S*H, and although I'd tend to dock a point for inclusion of that movie's poster as a too-cute background wink, I add it back for the poster of one of the great overlooked comedies of the era, Decline and Fall of a Birdwatcher.






'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.