Altman: Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)
Robert Altman was on a high after the success of Nashville, and was ripe for commentary about the American Dream in the wake of the Bicentennial. This resulted in two of his very best films – Buffalo Bill and the Indians and 3 Women – both of which draw upon and extend the country and western ambience of Nashville. Buffalo Bill and the Indians also draws upon the revisionist west of McCabe and Mrs. Miller but extends it even further, immersing us in the midst of a wild west revue run by Buffalo Bill (Paul Newman) in the later days of the old west. Based on the play Indians by Arthur Kopit, the film follows Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) and a whole host of other figures as they remake and reimagine their lives as spectacle, and their histories as a new American mythology. Marketing their show as based on “real events, enacted by men and women of the American frontier,” Buffalo Bill’s troupe are presented as the architects of the western mythos that has come down to us today. Reimagining their lives as mythology is one of the ways that they achieve closure on the west, and the conflicts of the west – the tagline is “foes in 76, friends in 85” – meaning that Altman’s treatment of the show opens up the western, as a collection of tropes and assumptions, in an eerily and movingly freeform way.
The biggest challenge to this wild west revue comes in the form of Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), who has been captured by whites at this point in history. His captors pass by Buffalo Bill’s show on their way to execute him, and Buffalo Bill seizes his opportunity, offering to purchase Sitting Bull, and spare him from death, if he agrees to play himself in the wild west revue. Before this even happens, however, Altman spends a considerable amount of time immersing us in the spaces and situations around the revue itself. All of the figures involved with the revue are actively spinning their histories into mythology minute by minute, situating the audience in a slippery space between performance and reality, between the myth of the west and the lived experience of the west. Altman’s zoom-and-pans never permits us to quite settle into the perspective of the revue audience, but never quite decisively locates itself “behind the scenes” either, suggesting that the west has become inextricable from the myths crafted about it. For much of the film, it’s hard to discern what’s performance and what’s reality, since Buffalo Bill’s entire cast and crew live in a vivid simulacrum of the old west, partly to add to the authenticity of their roles, but partly because the old west is the world they grew up in, the world where they feel most at home.
Throughout the 1970s, Altman had moved closer towards a film that was devoid of traditional character and narrative, and instead driven by dynamism, propulsion and internal momentum. Buffalo Bill may be the closest he ever arrived to this ideal, since all the action takes place at the very cusp of character and narrative, as the figures in the film consciously and continually reshape and remediate their own characters and narratives for posterity. Dialogue tends to be subsumed into aphoristic, cryptic pronouncements (“The last thing a man wants to do is the last thing he does”), while the voiceover that initially seems to anchor Altman’s scenes actually ends up disorienting them further. This voiceover is spoken by Burt Lancaster, who embodies the old west, but his voice is difficult to situate with respect to the diegesis, sometimes appearing to be narrating from somewhere “outside” the action, and sometimes appearing to be a part of Buffalo Bill’s show. Since the wild west revue is effectively laying the foundations for the classical western, Lancaster’s voice seems to speak from the past and the future at once, collapsing any clear temporal address much as it collapses any clear spatial address, or contrast between role and reality.
Similarly, it’s initially quite difficult to situate where the audience of the wild west revue are supposed to sit, since they seem to require the mobile, roving vantage point of Altman’s camera, even as the camera also eschews any stable distinction between onstage and offstage. As a result, Buffalo Bill is quite displaced from the action – we barely see him in the first sixty minutes – while Altman also refrains from the kind of charismatic reverence that tended to be reserved for Paul Newman at this moment in New Hollywood. Buffalo Bill also contains the fastest, sharpest and most oblique editing of any of Altman’s films since Brewster McCloud, which is really saying something, and that editing tends to crescendo whenever Newman is in the frame, convoluting the sublimity and serenity of his face into one of the most frenetic and frantic performances of his career. For the most part, Buffalo Bill is a fulcrum around which objects and props are continually on the cusp of being exchanged, reworked or repurposed in some way – the motor engine that drives Altman’s collective mind and ensemble vision – rather than possessing any intrinsic presence himself.
In fact, Buffalo Bill can only achieve this sense of identity and purpose through the wild west revue itself, which presents him as the hero-protagonist of Custer’s Last Stand. As the film begins, however, the revue has a very serious problem – they don’t have enough Indians to perform these events properly, meaning that they have to resort to using African-American members of the cast to stand in as Indians. By purchasing Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill initially seems to have found a solution to this problem. However, Sitting Bull ends up displacing and dispersing the historical fantasies of the wild west revue, even – or especially – as he refuses to pit himself against it in a conventional way, and so prevents the revue from framing him as the mere antagonist to, and within, its vision of the old west. Early on, it becomes clear that Sitting Bull isn’t prepared to talk to Buffalo Bill, but this isn’t simply a question of silence, since Sitting Bull’s right-hand man frequently translates his silence to Buffalo Bill, with Sitting Bull’s apparent approval. This suggests a deeper schism of translation between Sitting Bull’s presence and the aims of the wild west revue show, and it is through and around Sitting Bull that the figures of the film riff on their own characters and narratives – or try to create characters and narratives – to satisfy the idealised frontier that serves them.
This process reaches its crisis through two provisional gestures of escape made by Sitting Bull. In the first, he moves his Indian men across the river, but only because they prefer to live close to the land, rather than in the simulation of an Indian village set up for the revue. In the second, Sitting Bull does indeed leave the wider confines of the camp, only for his escape to be immediately subsumed into the logic and spectacle of the review. Altman uses the musical theme of the revue to accompany Buffalo Bill as he sets off to capture Sitting Bull, and for a moment the film slips into a classical western, much as Buffalo Bill seems galvanised by this opportunity to rehearse the classical western gravitas that he tries to bring to his performance in the revue. When Buffalo Bill returns, the revue band strikes up the same refrain, only to realise that he doesn’t have Sitting Bull or any of the Indians with him. Worse, still, it emerges that Sitting Bull never escaped, or planned to escape, but instead took a ceremonial walk with his men to celebrate a particular moment in the lunar cycle. At least, that’s what Sitting Bull says, since it gradually feels as if Sitting Bull has set up Buffalo Bill for this deflated western moment, and set him up to be a protagonist in a classical western escape-and-capture narrative that turns out to have never really existed.
From this point onwards, Buffalo Bill grows more deflated and remote from the rest of the film. When he returns without Sitting Bull, he tries to cover his humiliation with a bawdy double entendre, but knocks over a massive bird cage in the process, before prompting an operatic outburst from his lover, who berates him for his clumsiness, and displaces any sense of his heroic opposition to Sitting Bull. The picaresque energy of the first half of the film also vanishes at this point, thanks in large part to a scene in which Buffalo Bill fixates moodily on his portrait while his employees try to assure him that their intentions have always been benign: “We’re a camp, not a prison – we’re not in the prison business.” Even when his employees are absent, however, Buffalo Bill continuously rationalizes Sitting Bull’s departure, and practices rationalizing it to others, as he stares at himself in the mirror. Beyond a certain point, it becomes clear that the person he wants and needs to explain himself to is Sitting Bull, even if the spectacle of his wild west revue show is predicated precisely on that dialogue never occurring, and Sitting Bull never moving beyond an enemy.
In that respect, the revelation that Sitting Bull wasn’t trying to escape is the real problem, since it suggests that taking Indians, and controlling land, no longer satisfies Buffalo Bill’s frontier impulse. The next stage in the frontier instead involves trying to control the representation of Indians, and to cement a typology of narratives and characters that can be drawn around Indians – a typology that Altman presents here as the very foundation of the classical western. In a comically interminable scene, Buffalo Bill pauses a group photograph because he doesn’t want Sitting Bull sitting next to Annie Oakley, and so demands that he return to the rest of the Indians, who have been relegated to the side of the frame. Due to a series of further disruptions, however, the photograph ends up just featuring Sitting Bull and the Indians, whose presence remains here, as in the classical western, as a troubling and unruly reminder of frontier violence that has to be explained away through character and narrative. Character and narrative thus becomes tools of frontier violence within Altman’s vision, which accordingly dances around the fringes of character and narrative as if committing to them would mean instantaneously committing to the western ideology that they serve. Similarly, Sitting Bull never quite conforms to, and never quite resists, Buffalo Bill’s narratological and characterological demands, much as he never quite remains within the camp, but never quite leaves it either. In both cases, Sitting Bull replaces escape with what Deleuze and Guattari would call a line of flight, eschewing the logic of escape because it has already been co-opted by the wild west revue, and refusing to allow Buffalo Bill to stabilise him as either ally or antagonist within his narrative scheme and character typology.
The silence of Sitting Bull is critical to this process, since it effectively absorbs all the narratives and character demands that Buffalo Bill tries to project onto him. Performatively positioning himself in the same fluid space between onstage and offstage that the camera also occupies, Sitting Bull quickly comes to feel like the real architect of the revue, since he is capable of eluding – and so shaping – the structure of the revue more than any other figure. While Buffalo Bill might dismiss Sitting Bull’s process of “dreaming out loud,” his dream that Grover Cleveland (Pat McCormick) and his wife (Shelley Duvall) will attend the revue does indeed come true, setting up the final two sequences in the film, and the crux of Sitting Bull’s lesson. Before Cleveland, Sitting Bull speaks his own language for the first time, before pretending to fire a shot in the air, in yet another performative and parodic gesture of escape and resistance. In response, the President receives Sitting Bull as a comedian, while also refusing to listen to Sitting Bull’s “one request,” leading Buffalo Bill to applaud him for his “basic pioneer perception” of how best to deal with the demands and desires of Indians. Cleveland then responds to Buffalo Bill that “it’s men like you that made the country what it is today,” while also noting that “the difference between a president and a chief in this situation is that the president always knows enough to retaliate before it’s his turn.” Yet Sitting Bull’s request finally feels as performative as his escape – a way of demonstrating that his voice will be pre-empted and precluded in even the most liberal, genteel and democratic of environments, rather than a series, earnest or authentic appeal.
If this request is a placeholder for Sitting Bull’s enforced silence, than Sitting Bull performs that silence by intruding into the post-revue gathering in a quite remarkable and unsettling way. Neither friendly nor unfriendly, he moves from person to person, observing them from a remote distance that suffuses the penultimate scene of the film with the same windy porosity as the conclusion of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, collapsing Buffalo Bill in on himself in a similar manner to McCabe as well. In a haunting and ethereal sequence, Buffalo Bill finds himself literally caught between his past history and future mythology, as he embarks on a series of private conversations with Sitting Bull in his bedroom. At first, the late hour and isolated atmosphere makes it hard to discern whether Sitting Bull is present, or whether Buffalo Bill is simply imagining him. After a while, it becomes clear that these are visions, and that Sitting Bull has indeed been conjured up by Buffalo Bill, but the paradox of the scene – or perhaps the irony – is that Sitting Bull grows more remote than ever in these visions, slipping away from Buffalo Bill’s control of him with every fresh effort that he makes to rein him in and claim him as his own personal vision. With each moment, Sitting Bull grows more inert and distant, absorbing and rebuffing every way Buffalo Bill might define himself against him, until Buffalo Bill’s identity as white savior of the frontier starts to curdle and involute, taking him through one self-serving and solipsistic aphorism after another. At first, he insists that “God meant for me to be white, and it ain’t easy,” before claiming that “Custer gave the Indians a reason to be proud,” since he turned them into noble enemies.
Finally, Buffalo Bill concedes to Sitting Bull that “I got nobody to talk to, save you – and you ain’t even there,” as Altman cuts to the revue’s next show, titled “The Challenge for the Future: Buffalo Bill v. Sitting Bull, staged with spectacular realism.” Converging past and future, this incredible ending is like watching the classical western gradually emerge out of the final years of the old west, as the lighting and color scheme gets brighter and more artificial, segueing Altman’s typically muted palette into a Technicolor sparkle. As Buffalo Bill rides out on his horse, it feels as if Altman has reverted (or advanced) to the classical western, but with all the spectacular apparatus exposed and heightened. History becomes pageantry, fantasy, a question of who can concoct the best spectacle, as Buffalo Bill triumphantly holds Sitting Bull’s head-gear over his own head in victory. In the final shot, Altman pans into Buffalo Bill’s face, whose manic intensity never quite stabilises before the final credits roll. In that split second, the film dissociates the west from the western, much as the national anthem has gradually dissociated from its musical accompaniment during the performance for Cleveland earlier in the film. While the 1970s abounded with revisionist westerns, very few of them had such an acute sense of the west as a mythology so central to American culture that it could only be revised, rather than rejected altogether. Even fewer had such a clear sense of the fragility, and the necessity, of the line of flight that Altman, and Arthur Kopit, manage here, in one of the greatest of all American western films.
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