“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. IfMcCabe 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.
A group of Indians enter the Mayflower campus as the narrator informs us that “The great chief of the Sioux tribe Sitting Bull, is here with us. And he’ll be in the same arena with the noblest white skin of all”. Altman and DP Paul Lohmann shoot the group with a telephoto lens, much like Bill who watches it using a spyglass. We see Bill through a zoom-in as well, as he tries to catch sight of his opponent. One Indian of an imposing stature wearing a red shawl stands out from the rest in the group. Everyone in Bill’s crew is convinced that that man is Sitting Bull. Their Sitting Bull is a based on an idea of how a formidable Indian should ideally look like – a Sitting Bull that would really set the box office on fire – than on facts. Even before the group enters the campus, we hear legends and myths about Sitting Bull. Even the audience is led to believe, thanks to Altman’s casting and framing, that the man in red is the real chief. A gaudy theatrical entry, backed by stereo-typical race-based music, brings Bill to the welcome ceremony where he learns too late that the small man behind the one in red is the real Sitting Bull. Altman himself frames Newman heroically sitting on the horse and supervising the crowd on ground. When Bill tells the chief: “Me and my staff are the best at what we do. And what we do is make the best look better”, we realize that Bill is the prototype of the capitalist industrialist, America’s first CEO, trying to hit peak efficiency and performance.
Upon learning the identities of both the Indian in red and Sitting Bull, he assures them before he takes leave that the latter won’t be mistaken for a ‘below average run-of-the-mill Indian Chief’: “I just wanted to welcome you here to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. You’ll find it ain’t all that different from real life. Gentlemen, Injuns…”. Different from real life it ain’t, but not in the sense Bill means. If Bill is the CEO of the organization, Nate is the CFO. In their encampment, after the meeting, the crew discusses the future. Nate says: “We all know sociable chaff is cheap but history, real history is hard come”, as if it’s a commodity to be acquired as soon as possible. As Nate segues back to singing hosannas to Bill, Altman cuts back and forth to the Indians planning to pitch their teepees across the river. Even before the company learns of this and finishes ridiculing the idea, it notices that the Indians have already completed their mission. Bill tries to act normal and tells the crowd that it is better that Sitting Bull stays across the river so that he can watch him all the time. This is the second time when the film draws comparisons explicitly between Bill and Bull. Bill’s a man, as would be clear in the ‘soprano’ stage of the film, obsessed with his own image. Here he is, for the first time, wanting to watch Sitting Bull ‘all the time’ from his chair. He then goes on to theorize that an Injun always turns down your first offer.
Soon enough, Sitting Bull and his right hand Halsey (the Injun in red , Will Sampson) visit Bill and co. to talk about the chief’s stint at the Wild West show. When Halsey, Sitting Bull’s mouthpiece, speaks in Native terms about the latter, Bill tries give back imitate “the same kind of murky logic” that Halsey used. Burke intervenes to tell that Sitting Bull was there to ‘relive his history for thousands of paying customers’. Altman isolates the two parties completely, never allowing them to be seen together, like a turn-based strategy game, cutting across the table every time someone speaks. Halsey demands blankets for the whole clan (agreed to, thanks to the “benevolence of Buffalo Bill”), six weeks of advance (also eventually agreed to since Bull will be here until the unlikely even of him meeting the president of the country) and rights over photographs of Sitting Bull (at which Bill loses it, the corporate head that he is). Meanwhile, Bull is attracted by a music box, although he does not know its function. Music plays a key role in the film, both as performance accompaniment and as indicator of culture.
An abrupt cut from the meeting brings us to the arena where Bill is practicing sharp shooting takes us right into his personal life: a letter from his wife accusing him of affairs with milk maids and opera singers and of being a chronic drinker and calling for a divorce. Another collage of performances at the playground – shooting, whipping, horse racing – before Burke introduces Bill to the second singer – a coloratura – in the film. After a quick chitchat ripe for Freudian mining, Bill is told by Nate that President Cleveland will not be coming to the Wild West and that Bull will be stuck there for life. Nate asks Halsey to come with him to demonstrate the kind of show he will be involved in and also says that their production team is the only one to show the reds and the whites without taking sides – another reminder that his Wild West show is more a business enterprise predicated on sale value than ideological enterprise based on political value. In the demo, a black American stands in for Sitting Bull because, Bill tells us, “he’s the closest we got on our staff to a real Injun”. Bull is not impressed. Halsey tells Bill and co. that the war didn’t happen the way it is being depicted in the demo and that Bull wasn’t in the field at all. Altman composes both Bull and Bull in the same frame and at either end, as if trying to balance each version of the war.
Cut to Bill’s private room, with Margaret the Contralto singing. We learn that Bill’s long hair is fake and that he hopes they become real one day. The opera makes way for faint Native chants during the evening, as Bill ponders. He tells Margaret that she has to leave because he has to concentrate on Bull. Of course, he’s also thinking of Lucille the Coloratura. This seemingly minor shift is followed by a key scene in which Halsey and Bull revisit the Wild West team for another unplanned meeting during the midnight. The apartment is filmed as if it is dingy. Indian artifacts adorn the walls like prizes. No one is awake and Bull reaches for the music box. Halsey wakes Bill up and he is frustrated that he has been caught without his false hair. In a pretty charged conversation, Halsey asks Bill to rewrite the script and to present a version in which the hero McLaren was a mass murderer who slew women, children and dogs without provocation. Nate pacifies Bill before he erupts and tells him that they could still pull it off with proper arrangement and music. It’s a dynamic scene with a war field like atmosphere where the battle is for representation of history. It is here that the portrayal of the Wild West show as an (subconsciously) ideological apparatus rich with possibilities of alternate apparatuses and meta-narratives becomes most literal and most pointed. Bill stays silent, takes a swig off his glass, sits alongside Bull and urges in vain for a heart-to-heart conversation. He takes offense to Halsey’s claims the “he murdered women, old men, and children”. It’s a remarkable moment of character exposition. Halsey was talking just about Custer but Bill can’t help but hear that it was all about him. It is as though he believes that he stands in for Custer and that takes responsibility of the entirety of white history at the frontier. Right after that, Bill throws the first of the two side-splitting tantrums in the film: “You have till noon to get outta here!” and walks off the meeting with a murmur; “It’s harder being a star than an Indian”. It’s harder not being any star, but this particular star of this particular show, who has taken upon him subconsciously the burden of being answerable to both his predecessors and successors.
The next day Bill is told that Annie Oakley, the moral centre of the film and the only person who finds any sanity in Halsey’s claims, is planning to leave with the Indians. He decides to call her back. She asks Bill why he can’t listen to Bull for once to which he replies: “I got a better sense of history that that”. Writer Alan Rudolph said elsewhere (but which many writers attribute to this film – I didn’t find it here) that history is what gets the most applause. And Bill’s sense of history is, at least on an unconscious level, just that. At this point, we assume that Bill’s just lying through his teeth for sustaining his myth and don’t suspect for a moment that he might be believing in what he is saying. Annie’s obstinacy forces Bill to retain Bull. (Altman makes space for a sight gag to comment on Bill’s situation). The first show goes underway and plays to packed houses. Bill makes his entry just before Altman cuts to Buntline in the bar trying to sketch another theory for Bill: “No ordinary man would ever take credit for acts of bravery and heroism he couldn’t have done. And no ordinary man would realize what huge profits could be made by telling a pack of lies like it was the truth. No, Bill Cody can only trust his senses. And when his senses fail him he might see things as they really are”. As the Legend Maker gives us first signs that it isn’t as simple as a willful obfuscation of truth that Buffalo Bill is executing, Bill rides into the arena to an uproar followed by the anthem “Oh Say, Can You See?”. Like most genre heroes from Hollywood, Bill is truly professional, unapologetic about what he is doing and really loving that he’s excelling in it.
After Annie Oakley’s act, in which she misses twice – but covered up – and a couple others, Sitting Bull’s big show comes up. Bill tells Halsey that Bull will discover now what show business is all about and that he’ll come back to him begging for more. “Sitting Bull’s going to suffer a worse defeat than Custer ever did. Custer got to die. Bull’s just going to get humiliated”. Nate announces Sitting Bull as the most murderous redskin alive. With clichéd Injun music blaring, the small-framed Bull enters the arena modestly and amidst catcalls. He really wasn’t what people were expecting. They didn’t want the real Sitting Bull but the ideal Sitting Bull. But as a pair of Indians sings Native American chants, along with which Altman presents a low angle zoom into Sitting Bull composed against a banner of his, befitting a mythical hero, the crowd comes back to life. It’s a strange moment where the audience seems to have found the authenticity they want in this show. With this sort of music, it appears that this Sitting Bull makes a good Sitting Bull. Altman here seems to be throwing light on cinema’s own myth-constructing process where the best – and not necessarily just – image and the sound conspire to create a lasting falsity that people can trust. Bill, watching from behind screen, is stunned; his mouth agape as Bull returns and the screen falls over him. Envy might just not be everything.
There’s an interlude here with Lucille, the Coloratura, where Bill apologizes for possible being a disappointment the previous night. There’s a clear parallel between Bill’s professional trajectory, in which he is increasingly convinced that he’s not ‘authentic’, his ‘performance’ is not good and not living up to expectations of his fore-fathers, and his sexual conquests, where he proceeds from the alpha male in total control, to a confident man holding ground to one being simply turned down, as chalked by the three opera singers of the film. This interlude more or less marks the start of Bill’s partial de-mythification (like McCabe in Altman’s previous Western) and we see his body language and tone softening down. Before he gets to conquer the Coloratura, he notices, by chance, that the Indians have begun dismantling their teepees and that Bull and Halsey are leaving the place. Enraged, he calls for a posse, to put up an improvised show: The Story of How Buffalo Bill Rode Into A Territory He Knew Better Than The Back Of His Hand And Reclaimed The Escaped Indians. As he comes back to his cabin to dress up, he updates Lucille about the situation and searches for his jacket. When he doesn’t find it, he shouts making a parody of whatever he is: “Dammit, where’s my real jacket?”. While the posse gets ready, Altman alternately cuts between the sunlit outdoors and the earthy indoors of Bill’s cabin, very much like a silent movie, implicating cinema (which endorsed the Western myths almost from its inception as a narrative form) in the Wild West’s codification processes. The coloratura herself is little more than a relic from the past.
The posse leaves with grand musical accompaniment, Bill leading on a white horse and the rest following on brown ones. Buntline opines once again: “When Bill’s dressed for a ride and mounted on his stallion any doubts about his legend are soon forgot. Yes, Bill’s fine physical portrait hides any faults his mind possesses. But any tracker will tell you if you don’t know what you’re after you’d best stay home”. The Legend Maker seems to have progressively become a de-mythifier (or rather re-mythifier). And soon enough, Bill and gang return. Both the audience and the rest of the company at the campus see the posse in a long shot, with no sight of Bull or Halsey. The in-house band gets ready for a thunderous welcome. But as the group draws nearer, they realize that they haven’t got a good image to multiply the sound with, like a director who can no longer redeem a terrible scene with his score. Bill hasn’t come back with the Indians. The great story that he imagined would be written today was spoilt by reality, just like how the brave cowboy who dashed to spot Bull moments before, returns drenched and off his horse. Reality punctures a potential legend.
The dejected posse returns in total silence. Bill enters the encampment and looks at the triumphant painting of himself (Custer?) on a horse. Altman zooms in on the painting, and then on Bill. Like a kid who’s failed his father, he stands nearly whimpering. Altman zooms in on the painting again, cutting Bill off the frame. Burke and Nate try to convince him that it is not his fault, and that Fort Ruth was never meant to be a prison in the first place. Burke suggests publishing in the papers that Bull escaped after trying to set fire to the arena. An apathetic Bill goes into his room, shuts the door. And we hear a gun shot, then two or there more. Nate and the rest are shocked and think Bill shot himself, as if suicide was the only act that would befit the situation and the legend that is Bill. We believe that too, thanks to how we’ve been trained by genres tropes. Again reality thwarts an apt ending and we all discover that Bill was merely trying to shoot the canary that Lucille has. Bill’s sharp shooting capabilities seem to have bid farewell, like his sexual prowess (reminding us of his pistol conversation with Lucille the first time they met), as he misses the bird each time. A frustrated Bill returns to the meeting room and finds Bull and Halsey at the doorstep. Surprised, he calls them in asks the reason for their departure. Halsey tells them that Bull was up in the mountains visiting the moon in its path and that the squaws were relocating the tents to a different part of the bank. Halsey tells Bill that Bull will do what he would like his people to see at the show: make the big grey horse dance.
Buntline again: “Responsibility is a funny thing. It’s different for stars than for ordinary folks. That’s why stars spend so much time in front of mirrors. To see if their good looks can overcome their judgment”. The dentist, at whose place, he is in, urges him to spare the literalism for now. The patient – the audience stand in – winces in pain. Buntline stares at the mirror. Cut to Bill staring at the mirror, talking to his image. He is convincing himself that Bull lied to him and that he must have been hiding in the mountains. He says, furthering the equivalence between Bull and him: “Now I can understand why he lied to me. He’s got to look good in front of his people, same as I”. He ‘chooses to overlook the entire incident’ ‘generous and flexible’ that he is. The camera zooms out from the image before including the real bill in the frame, as if questioning who the real man is and who the image is. The whole crew assembles for a group photo in front of the office. Bill protests Bull’s standing near Annie Oakley. Halsey refuses to budge and asks $25 for relocation. Bill rejects the offer – another reminder that the enterprise is driver more by capital than ideology – and plans to manipulate the photograph later – like many modern day filmmakers – and move Bull to the Indian side of the photo.
One black worker – Burke calls him ‘darkey’ – at the telegraph office rushes in to announce that there’s a wire from the president. The assembly breaks and leaves (Bill, with self-made band music) for the telegraph office to learn that President Cleveland will be visiting Fort Ruth and staying for a night. Sitting Bull’s dream becomes real. Everyone’s surprised as well as excited about this. Buntline delivers another theory about Indian and white dreams and points out that things are starting to take an ’unreal’ shape. Cut to the night when Cleveland (Pat McCormick) comes to the camp. He is, as usual, introduced to us in a long zoom shot: a rather portly figure, a caricature of a man straight from Keystone two-reelers, sitting on a stage-like dais alongside his excessively lean wife (Altman regular Shelley Duvall). One crew member remarks, conflating politics and entertainment: “That bear is a star. He’s bigger than Buck Taylor”. Politics as entertainment and politics of entertainment are two ideas Altman’s film continuously chips at. McCormick’s performance here as Cleveland is akin to Timothy Spall’s much reviled portrayal of Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech (2010). It is meant to be hammy, to be obviously a ‘performance’. Like the Oscar winner, Altman’s picture is partly a chronicle of shows, of politics as performance and of stage presence as power. When Nate introduces with “Meet America’s national entertainer”, the camera lingers on Cleveland. Cut to Bill appearing fro behind the screens through a wooden arch on fire.
Bill, after a small stunt on his horse, welcomes the president and the first lady. Altman nearly center-frames with the torches burning in the background out of focus. Clearly, his film is consciously partaking in this legend-building activity. He calls the Wild West show as “the father of the new show business”, not the mother, suggesting the patriarchal codes that govern this organization. Throughout the film, women are seen either entertaining Bill or doing petty work around the campus, except, of course, Annie Oakley, who is the one woman who poses any resistance to Bill at all. Cleveland is told that Bill “writes all his original sayings himself”. Cleveland, who discusses with his adviser for every statement and gesture, like an actor consulting with his director, replies that all great men do that. The first act is by Annie and Frank. The president and his wife are visibly impressed until Annie fires a wrong one that goes through Frank’s shoulder. Like any great performer, Frank tries not to reveal this accident and wraps up the show. “The Show Must Go On” – That justification which sweeps every misfortune under the rug in the name of professionalism. For Frank, like many in the crew, a successful show is more important than anything else. Cleveland is agitated and confirms with Burke if this was all “a part of the act”. After a filler act depicting the induction of an Indian into the American family, Sitting Bull enters the arena, speaks in Native American tongue, takes out a gun, points towards Cleveland before firing towards the sky. Cleveland is gobsmacked. And so is everyone, before they realize that it was done to make the grey horse dance. Recovering, Cleveland jokes that it is no wonder that it was done by an Indian because it is an un-American thing to do. Again and again, the show pans out like Brechtian theatre, provoking the audience, before it is repackaged into the norms of standard theater.
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.
The film now moves into its final and the most glorious set piece. What, in a lesser film, could have been simply an exercise in liberal white guilt is elevated into the realm of the unreal and the mythical: Bill’s King Lear-like descent into madness. We see, through a door, Bill waking up suddenly and telling himself that he doesn’t dream. Evidently he was/is in some sort of a sour dream. He is not in his costume and doesn’t have his wig on. He is, literally, stripped down from his mass persona to what he essentially is. He comes to the main room to see Sitting Bull sitting in full costume. Bill tells himself that Bull isn’t there at all. We realize that we are, in a way, in Bill’s psychospace. It’s just Bill and Bull now. Bill goes towards his bar, mumbling: “I hate women” for some reason. (The Coloratura’s probably insulted him and left him as well). The interiors of the room seem emptier than ever, almost Wellesian, with the camera carving out deep spaces hitherto unseen. Bill pours himself a big one. Bull sits alongside a poster of Bill. Cut to Bill. Cut back to Bull. He’s standing right next to the poster. Bill stares at him and says: “You ain’t even the right image”. Like an exacting filmmaker, the right image is what Bill is after in the whole film.
He asks the absent Halsey to leave the room and shouts: “Chief! Halsey’s got all the brains. Except he doesn’t mean a word he says, which is why he sounds so real”. A man in the hyperreal highway, Bill’s idea of real is that which sounds and looks more authentic than one which is more truthful. The Wild West show, itself, is a simulacrum, with its own internal logic and without any relation to reality, whose value is measured with parameters like “performance” and “believability” rather than veraciousness, (Halsey, like Bill, is a man with an imposing outside and a seemingly nonextant inner personality. In a way, Halsey is an actor directed by Sitting Bull). Now, Altman’s film, itself, is highly ‘authentic’ in its period setting, eye-popping production design that is marked by an excess of brown colour, décor, costumes and character behaviour. Like many Hollywood films, it seems to take pride in how well it has been able to reproduce an era in fine detail. By critiquing this fetish for surface authenticity, Altman mocks his own film’s claims to veracity. Bill then goes into the adjacent room to “show Sitting Bull something about real”. He comes back with a buffalo skin that he claims he skinned when he was nine. Sitting Bull isn’t there. Bill goes back into his dingy storeroom. “God meant for me to be white” he mutters. The room is nearly dark. Bill in only lit from a far-off source. Only his profile is visible with yet another photograph of his in the background. For the first time in the film, he appears as a complete void with only an outline to hold on to. Bill has been reduced to the absolute lack-of-self that he is. He spots Bull opposite him in bright light. He tells him: “And it ain’t easy. I got people with no lives living through me. Proud people. People to worry about. My daddy died without seeing me as a star. Tall, profitable, good looking”. Another equivalence between Bill and Bull. Bill speaks about ancestors and their continued existence and their dreams like a Native American would. Bill takes responsibility for Custer’s (and American) legacy to such an extent that he simply cannot see himself apart from these figures of the past. Altman described Bill well as a man trapped in someone else’s dream for him.
Bill returns to the well lit main room, back to his surface, personality and image, and yells at Bull: “In 100 years, I’ll still be Buffalo Bill, star! And you’ll be the Injun”. Bill will by over-determined and Bull will be generic indeed. But this typecasting of both is not anything to be proud about. He goes on, before taking another swing and sitting near Bull: “You want to stay the same. Well, that’s going backwards”, without realizing that it is entirely true of himself as well. Bull is indeed Bill’s repressed guilt and a token of America’s repressed history that keeps coming back. (No wonder Bill traces it all back to his childhood). But he’s a lot more as well. Bill and Bull are very much like Ethan and Scarface of The Searchers (1956). Both Bill and Ethan see in the other’s eyes a deep abyss that is themselves. For Bill, though, there’s also a deep mimetic desire, which showed its signs every time Bull went into the arena with a loud applause, which attracts him to the earthiness of Bull more than the physicality Halsey. He tells Bull: “I’m curious, chief. My friends are curious. My women are curious. My fans are curious. And they pay me for it. I give them what they expect. You can’t live up to what you expect. That makes you more make believe than me. You don’t even know if you’re bluffing”. He realizes that the more he watches Bull, the more he realizes that he’s like him. But Bill, internally conflicted more than ever in this segment, resists (in his second hilarious outburst of the film): “The difference between a white man and an Injun, in all situations is that an Injun is red. And an Injun is red for a real good reason. So we can tell us apart”. Bill gets up and moves near the notorious photograph of him on the horse – a superego of sorts – that had taunted him all along. “Ain’t he riding that horse right? If he ain’t, then how come all of you took him for a king?” he says, looking directly into the camera, as though questioning once and for all, the film’s inherent and explicit mythicizing of both Newman and Bill. The voice might just be that of Altman. “Carve our names. And celebrate the event” cries Bill and exits the scene.
A new day, a new show. Nate yells out the last words of the film, which sound not much different from the first lines, thus closing the circle of historical appropriation and ethnic misrepresentation:
“Ladies and gentlemen. For the first time in the history of show business, Nate Salsbury and William F. Cody present a conflict between two of the greatest warriors in western civilization staged with spectacular realism. Behold Chief Sitting Bull warrior of the western plains who has murdered more white men than any other redskin spoiled more white women than any other redskin. This bloodthirsty leader of the Hunkpapa Sioux has challenged Buffalo Bill to a duel to the death! Sitting Bull is played by William Halsey. Buffalo Bill, called “Pahaska” which means “long hair” in Sioux accepts the challenge for his beloved country.”
“Spectacular realism” indeed. Halsey, possibly to save the rest of his clan, takes up the role of Sitting Bull. Finally, the show has someone who looks the part. The huge screen on the left opens up once again, abruptly revealing Bill against a beautiful frontier landscape (very much like the opening of The Searchers). The screen motif is central to the film and its visceral use here invokes (and critiques) traditional westerns with their awesome geography and mythical heroes powerfully. Bill gets down on the field, engages in a condensed hand-to-hand combat act with the substitute Sitting Bull, defeats him and scalps him. He’s scalped more than just Sitting Bull’s hair. He’s scalped an alternate history and possibly the truth as well. Bill gathers the scalp and walks atop a synthetic rock besides the upright flagpole bearing the American flag. The crowd roars, the music soars, Bill gloats. Altman’s camera zooms – and this is one of the best zooms in his body of work – into his face from afar, keeps going until his only his eyes are seen in the frame, composed against plain, blue sky. Bill’s image has become just too big for the frame, it has outgrown it. What was planted firmly in context in a particular geography and time has become a trans-historical floating signifier. Quite simply, Buffalo Bill will be.
The most common complaint against Buffalo Bill and the Indians seems to be that the film exhausts its material soon, that it tells us little more than that Bill was a fraud and that it revels in beating a dead horse. Surely, reducing Altman’s film here to the story of a man who defrauded his audience is like saying Citizen Kane (1941) is the story of a selfish man and The Conformist (1970) is the story of an opportunistic man. It is true that the text of all these films is relatively thin, but these films open up indescribable emotional and intellectual avenues that would have been rather roundabout if attempted through the written text. Individually, these three films represent, for me, three great experiments with the filmic form as well as three films that make a strong case for cinema as opposed to text. Decidedly auteurist works, these three films also represent the respective filmmakers in top form, perhaps their best form. WhatCitizen Kane was to Welles and The Conformist was to Bertolucci, Buffalo Bill and the Indiansis to Altman. It’s his masterpiece.