An L-cut to an elaborate set piece. It’s an after-show party for the president. The scene opens with the painting of Bill/Custer. Cleveland is greeting the performers. We see that the room is also decorated with paintings of Bill, as if closing in on those inside it, as if consuming them (it does consume Bill eventually, at least). The American flag, too, is ubiquitous, as it is everywhere in the film. Bill meets a fine-looking lady who, he learns, is a soprano. Her English is broken, with an Italian accent, The first lady introduces her as Nina Cavellini, who starts to sing. It’s the strangest moment in the film. Altman presents the entire song in the soundtrack, without his usual overlap of soundscapes, while he photographs the faces of those who are listening. It’s an assortment of reaction shots ranging from faces that are visibly moved, stunned, impressed, indifferent and plainly bored. This three-and-a-half minute song segment is truly out of character with the rest of the film, a blind spot that defies all theoretical evaluations. What we and the crew experience is an entirely alien cultural artifact, and this moment teases us as to how we should react to it: As high culture embodying the best of civilization? As a kind of imperial entity in foreign soil? Why should this be any more exotic than Native chants? The confusion is compounded when the bravura performance is followed by the first lady’s remark that she is always ‘trying to spread culture’. Bill asks Nina to stay for a few days so that he can show her the real Wild West. She replies, in good American accent (like how Nate speaks in Native tongue), that her secret life with General Benjamin is wild enough and turns his offer down. This is the last phase in the de-sexualizing of Buffalo Bill, so to speak.
As Nina walks away from an overly embarrassed Bill, she spots Halsey and Bull at the entrance of the party. Ed attempts to shoo them away when Cleveland asks him to let the good comedians in. Altman cuts the ensuing conversation like how he did during the first meeting between Bull and Bill, isolating each party in separate frames. Halsey tells Cleveland that if he can do one particular thing for the clan, they’d be grateful. Cleveland hedges, doesn’t even listen to the request and turns it down. His wife cowers behind his gigantic frame. Halsey and Bull leave the place. Everyone congratulates president for his brave confrontation, as if it was a game of chess. Bill proposes a toast, chalking another theory about Indian chiefs and American presidents (“The president always knows enough to retaliate before it’s his turn”), and offers his personal bed for resting. He tells Cleveland that he will sleep under the stars, listening to the lullaby of the coyotes. Cleveland is floored. Bill walks away as a hero. A shot of Bull’s clan chanting. They’re probably mourning. Bill walks towards the bar, meets Dart, the African American ranch hand winding his cleaning work. He tells him that Injuns need to learn from coloreds instead of making a fuss and that his father was killed trying to keep slavery out of Kansas (It turns out that he was trying to keep blacks out of Kansas, hence slavery!). He offers Bert a chance to drink with him, but the latter declines this radical offer, making up a reason to leave.
Bill enters the bar, already on a high. The bar is dimly, sporadically lit, with brown and deep brown being the only colours the eyes can register. The mood is pensive, and it might well go into the zone of the nostalgic. It’s also empty, except fr the bartender and Ned Buntline. They sit for a drink. Ned tells Bill that he thought the latter didn’t really exist and that it is really surprising to see him in flesh. As he continues to heap praise on Bill, the camera starts zooming in, in a rather familiar fashion, into Bill’s reflection on the barroom mirror from over his shoulders. And just as Ned tells him that “In 100 years they’ll be shouting your name”, the real Bill is no longer in the frame. His image has pushed him beyond the margins. Mutual appreciation ensues and the camera zooms back while Bill recalls his good old days with Ned. Speaking about Nate not being able to stand the sight of Ned anymore, he utters this meta-statement: “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”. It’s a very complex moment that resonates on multiple levels. Firstly, Bill might well be talking about the West itself. The year is 1885 and a time when it has apparently become incredibly tough for stars like Bill to restore people’s faith in American heroes, their narratives and representational systems. Secondly, Altman’s film is a period picture shot in 1976 and set in 1885. So the nostalgia about the West (and consequently, the lawlessness, the rule of the gun, the romance associated with the frontier etc.) that Bill is talking about is doubly filtered. Thirdly, by 1976, the Western had ceased to exist as a major genre and Bill’s nostalgia about nostalgia is refracted through the unsaid nostalgia for the genre itself. Altman’s film, however, sits right in-between this inherent nostalgia on a subconscious level and the conscious knowledge of the dangers of nostalgia. Ned remarks that Bill hasn’t changed a bit, to which Bill replies: “I ain’t supposed to. That’s why people pay to see me”. Bill’s tragedy is that he’s condemned to be Bill – an unchanging image, a personality without a person, a surface without a center – for his entire life. One more time, we realize that Bill is not simply a charlatan raving for fame, but a star who simply has to be America’s national hero. Not an anomaly in the system, but its very logic. Ned bids adieu, announcing that it was the thrill of his life ‘inventing Bill’. Another zoom into Bill’s mirror image, as it stares at the man solemnly. Ned leaves, as a silhouette on a horse riding off into the blackness of night, to California to ‘preach against the vultures of Prometheus’.
Fade to the next day. Bill is at the dressing table, already with alcohol in his hand. A typical Altman shot takes us to him: the camera zooming slowly into Bill from afar, while the microphone has already reached him. The long shot of the visual and the close up of the mike produces an unreal effect that seemingly befits Bill’s current mentality. We see that he’s not in his elements. He makes mistakes in citing his records and is generally weary. The day’s show begins without Sitting Bull. Just as we wonder where Sitting Bull is, the man from the telegraph office rushes to Nate with the announcement that Bull was shot. Oakley breaks down. Bill appears from behind the huge screen into the arena. Altman cuts between his act and the commotion behind stage after hearing about Bull, indicating his isolation from the event. A shot of Bill waving to the crowd is immediately followed by the most unironic and solemn shot in the entire film. A zoom into the remains of Sitting Bull: a rosary with a Cross lying over the ashes of a campfire. (Sitting Bull being a Christian is never commented upon, although the Cross hanging from is neck is always conspicuous). The sound in the shot is made up of only the screams of vulture and other critters. It is here that, perhaps the only time, when the film presents a non-self-conscious moment, where it doesn’t undercut its own statement. The injustice done to Sitting Bull and his clan is most directly and affectingly registered.