“Art is not the reflection of a reality; it is the reality of that reflection.”
- La Chinoise (1967, Jean Luc-Godard)
“In a violent and contemporary period of history, it is myth that invades cinema as imaginary content. It is the golden age of despotic and legendary resurrections. Myth, chased from the real by the violence of history, finds refuge in cinema.”
- Jean Baudrillard
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford)
Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and The Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson was made and premiered in 1976, when the country was celebrating its 200th anniversary of independence. Altman had already taken a stab at this bicentennial in his previous film Nashville (1975), where we are presented with a fragmented sketch of America as a nation at crossroads. Buffalo Bill is also Altman’s second western feature after the tremendous McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), which was nothing less than a re-imagining of the Western myth as founding of industrial capitalism. It is interesting to think why writers Altman and Alan Rudolph embarked on this project of adapting Arthur Kopit’s play and resurrecting the figure of Buffalo Bill at all. If McCabe tried to clinically de-mythicize the archetypal Western hero, it didn’t do as much to question its own myth-creating properties. In Buffalo Bill, Altman’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink method finds precise articulation in the text and the text, too, lends best to a stylistic that is as diverse and off-kilter as Altman’s. All his directorial techniques serve both aesthetic and thematic purposes in this film, especially the overlapping, conflicting soundscapes and imagery (used effectively in a film that is explicitly about conflict of narratives and ideological contestation) and the notorious zoom (altering, illustrating and mocking the protagonist’s persona). Utilizing sound and image in complex, inventive ways, Altman not only critiques popularly represented Western myths but also their modes of representation, especially when it comes to the film’s own. Throughout, the ceaselessly self-conscious film undercuts its own criticisms by questioning their assumptions and authority to such a successful extent that we begin to take everything that it claims with a pinch of salt. A searing portrait of the West (and the Western) as a deadly mixture of patriarchy, nationalism, entertainment and unbridled xenophobia, Buffalo Bill finds Altman at his caustic best.
In fact, self-critique begins right from the first frame as fanfare blares over a monochromatic United Artists logo, registering its own status as an entertainment product. The first image we see, likewise, is near-mythical and patently ‘Western’: a surreal landscape, out of focus, which the American flag being hoisted cuts through. The opening credits appear in a gaudy typeface and a faux title for the film reads: “Robert Altman’s Absolutely Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre!”. The message is clear: Buffalo Bill is no finer than the typical roadside fair or, as we would see, Bill’s own Wild West show in every aspect. As the bugle plays on tirelessly, as it would do throughout the film, the camera pans gradually to the ground as if establishing the scene and the history of the West. The first spoken words in the film are heard as the narrator announces:
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. What you are about to experience is not a show for entertainment. It is a review of the events that made the American frontier. In less than 15 years, this nation will celebrate the 20th century. We do not know what awaits us in the future but we do know the past that laid the foundation. And that foundation was not built from heroes but from the anonymous settler. Their home was but a shack roofed in with sod. One door shut out the wind and storm one window greeted the dawning day. These brave souls survived not only nature but the savage instincts of man, paving the way for the heroes that endured. So welcome to the real events enacted by men and women of the American frontier. To whose courage strength, and above all, faith this piece of history is dedicated.”
If we are to disregard the ironic stance that the film would take at the set of statements here, the opening scene so far plays out as the classic Western metanarrative, with the lone ranger conquering the savage frontier and building civilization from scratch. The attitude of the film, however, is akin to the opening ethnographic documentary of Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death (1957-2004), where we are shown and told the story of a glorious white couple teaching science, hygiene and table manners to kids and women of an African tribe. Given the year of both Altman’s and Jacobs’ films and the extent to which the portrayal appears caricatured, it is impossible to take the narrator’s words with a straight face. As a result, the film’s diegesis is split open, much like The Player (1992) -the one film that is closest to Buffalo Bill in terms of how it functions – where the possibility of cordoning off the narrative universe is thwarted right from the first shot.
As the “savage” natives raid on white women and children, moving around them on horses in circles, like a strip of film around a bobbin – serving a thematic function, which reaches apotheosis in the final scene, as well – we witness the film’s actual title being displayed: Buffalo Bill and The Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, the subtitle in the title serving a special purpose. And as the cowboys turn the tables on the raiding Indians in a story justifiably without context or the specifics, the acting credits play on. Instead of an actor’s name being mentioned against the name of the character he/she plays, we see it alongside the “type” of the character – The Star, The Producer, The Publicist, The Indian, The Indian Agent, The Legend-Maker etc – calling to attention the film’s own myth-building. And suddenly, another voice different from the narrator (Altman? the show’s director?) shouts: “cease action!” and it is revealed that what we had so far seen was rehearsal for a Wild West show. Dead men rise to their feet and makeshift houses are moved by horses. Some corrections are suggested to performers to look more authentic. One native is hurt and men say it “looks real”. However, we are still not sure where performance ends and where reality begins. We are still dangling without a reference.
Cut to the Legend-Maker and Buffalo Bill’s ex-producer Ned Buntline – played by a legend himself, Burt Lancaster – who recites the tale of how he made Buffalo Bill out of a scrawny looking kid on the street. Flanked by a bunch of supporting actors and bracketed by two pillars of the bar and his voice mixed with a feeble version of the now-familiar fanfare, Ned is introduced already, with a gradual zoom-in, as a fiction maker and a piece of fiction himself. Almost immediately after this we are shown another minor Legend Maker – the old guard who works at The Mayflower fair where Buffalo Bill’s performs – who chalks his own story about Bill to a bunch of Indian kids. There might be a little gesture of humour here in how everyone claims importance with respect to Bill, but it also off-handedly establishes the film’s major theme: history as a contested territory. It is here that we see Altman’s typically chaotic collage editing of for the first time as we move from the Legend Maker, to the guard, to one-handed sharpshooter Annie Oakley (the beautiful Geraldine Chaplin, who carries a baggage of vaudeville, showmanship and entertainment along with her name), to her husband and moving target Frank Butler (John Considine) to The Producer Nate Salisbury (Joel Grey) and to The Publicist Maj. John Burke (Kevin McCarthy).
But not Bill. We haven’t met Bill yet, although we have an idea of his stature from second hand sources. When Frank goes to meet him in a hurry, we hear Bill for the first time, almost throwing a fit. Even now, he’s hidden behind a huge promotion banner containing his image. As we would see, Bill is always hidden behind his ‘image’. By prolonging both Buffalo Bill’s and Paul Newman’s introduction, Altman’s film reinforces the mythic nature of both these celebrities. As Frank fills two glasses of beer to take to Bill (multiple actions unfolding simultaneously is nothing new to Altman’s cinema), Nate speaks about his performance as a black American in shows with another troupe he was associated with, before going on to typecast a few other nationalities: “There were times when I was asked to play a colored. Now do I look like a colored? But when I had to play a colored, I was a colored. I thought like a colored. I drank like a colored. I walked like a colored. I was a colored”. Nate is not (intentionally) sending up method acting, but his decidedly irrational belief that he could play a black American with total authenticity puts him on par with some of our celebrated ‘actors’. Much of the outlook of Bill’s crew, himself included, towards Native Americans is derived from this sort of epistemological confusion, a notion that they can truly understand, decode, model and replicate the Indian psyche.
As Frank enters Bill’s room, we watch Burke vacating the room, assuring Bill about casting: “Everything historical is yours, Bill”. Soon, the word about his new story idea for the next season – “enemies in ’76, friends in ‘86” – spreads and Buntline figures that the foil for Bill would be no other than Indian Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), who would not be shot by the army until a certain Sioux treaty is signed, and would be humiliated and de-mythicized at the show. (“A rock ain’t a rock once it’s gravel”). When Bill’s nephew Ed Goodman (A stiff Harvey Keitel) doubts if Sitting Bull was interested in show business, one of the writers for the show replies, “If he wasn’t he wouldn’t have become a chief.”, betraying the group’s general inability to interpret the world outside of the parameters of entertainment business. This is followed by another legend from the old guard about Sitting Bill. We now have a bit of history about the Chief and some myths surrounding him before we get to see him at all, just like Bill. And this is the first of a number of instances where the film strikes an explicit parallel between the two “heads of clans”.
Following a surprise insert of a stunted zoom shot of Sitting Bull’s clan, Buntline talks about Bill’s dubious resolution to cut down on his drinks, after which the film cuts to a shot of the first of three opera singers who accompany Bill, as she passes by a triumphant painting of General Armstrong Custer, who Bill model’s himself after to an insane extent (that the painting could well be of Bill himself), on his white horse. (Arranged according to the scale of their singing, these three singers – The Mezzo-Contralto, Lyric-Coloratura and Lyric-Soprano played respectively by Bonnie Leaders, Noelle Rogers and Evelyn Lear – also form the thematic checkpoints in Bill’s self-delusive odyssey). It is only after this that we have the first glimpse of Buffalo Bill and Paul Newman – announced as America’s national entertainer by Nate – as he rides into a rehearsal show amidst heavy applause and fanfare, like a star. Another sequence with non-associative cross-cutting between Bill learning of Buntline’s return to the campus and of the hurt Indian’s passing and Nate welcoming the rest of the Indians around him to “America’s national family”. Nate gets instructions to have Buntline vacate the campus. He goes to confront Buntline. Nate is the one character in the film who acts most obviously as the writers’ mouthpiece, tossing off one provocative line after another. His lines would most probably be the ones to structure discourses surrounding the film. When trying to persuade Buntline to move out, he gives us this one out of the blue: “We’re gonna cody-fy the world” suggesting how he plans to make Bill a universal figure invading all imagination and the Manichean view of the frontier that that entails such a project.