Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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Altman's America

Buffalo Bill and the Indians,
Sitting Bull's History Lesson

Right from the opening credits, this film ("Robert Altman's Absolutely Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustrel") makes itself clear that it is about show business, not history. We are introduced to Buffalo Bill's show before we actually get around to meeting William Cody himself, who is hyped up so much that he can never be everything that he is touted as. Given that the power of myth is one of my favorite themes in cinema, and that Robert Altman's unsentimental - sometimes downright scathing - style is a perfect way to debunk legends, it was perhaps a foregone conclusion that this film would present a unique and inimitable portrait of America. Buffalo Bill was the first American celebrity that was not born of achievement but out of pure showmanship.

I am a huge fan of Altman, and this film is one of the few from his golden period that I had never gotten around to seeing. I am quite glad that I have, because it clearly fits into his oeuvre of the time, both thematically and stylistically. The performances are all excellent, of course, with standout work being done by Joel Grey and Kevin McCarthy in one of the best roles I've ever seen him in. It's also strange to see Harvey Keitel in a part very different from what one usually sees him in. Burt Lancaster also appears in as Ned Buntline, the man who created Buffalo Bill... a perfect example of myth-creation were it not for the fact that the character himself seems intent on debunking his own myth now that he no longer reaps the benefit of it. Special mention must go to Paul Newman, whose knowing performance is one of the best uses of star power in the service of a role. He would appear in another Altman film, the unjustly maligned Quintet, but his performance here is unquestionably one of his best.

"...the reason I'm enjoying this probably more than any other reason is because it really murders me... and Redford, and Gable, and Tracy, and McQueen, because there's simply no way that a human can sustain what has become legendary about him over the years. They begin to lose their own perceptions."

- Paul Newman on Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Critcs of the film have cited the portrayal of the Native Americans as being somewhat stereotypical, but I don't think that we see enough of them in the film to truly determine that, and I think that's the point of the film. History is subject to perspective, just like everything else. Buffalo Bill exists as an image alone and Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) has lived his legend, but the showmanship of Bill (and, by extention, the United States of America, here personified by Pat McCormick as Grover Cleveland) becomes the history. This is one of the few films that addresses the social mechanism of xenocide, but it does it in such a brash, irreverent manner that it is easy to overlook how incisive it really is. The film becomes very surreal in its final act, approaching a breakdown of reality that was explored by Altman in Images, and in many ways therein lies much of the point of the film. Sitting Bull haunts Bill, who deals with what he is by pretending he is something he's not. And that is something about America that is as true today as it was when the film was made, when the play was written and when Buffalo Bill Cody was presenting his Wild West spectacle to adoring fans.

People may find this film abrasive, however, because unlike most films that take a more revisionist look at Manifest Destiny, it does not offer an easy way to avert complicity. This is not Dances With Wolves, which allowed for xenocide to be made more palatable by showing individuals who were the exception to the rule, and allowing the audience to identify with them, as opposed to those other white people that did all of this killing. None of the white characters treat the Native Americans as people. The most sympathy they get is from Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin), who still regards them with in a condescending manner. It is difficult to reconcile the colorful and entertaining persona of Buffalo Bill with the utter lack of respect that William Cody has for Sitting Bull. Altman delights in focusing on the contradictions within characters, and his Americana is always thorny, but also always three-dimensional. Buffalo Bill and the Indians is a perfect example, and fitting perfectly into a series of films chronicling the American landscape through the ages that includes McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Tanner '88 and Short Cuts; one could even say that America as a concept is central to many of his films, from California Split to The Long Goodbye, even to Brewster McCloud and The Company... and in a strange way, but rather appropriate if you really think about it, even M*A*S*H.

Altman is one of the few filmmakers that I have no compunction applying the label auteur to. His voice is one that is uniquely American, and remarkably consistent across his body of work. It's also one of the reasons why his takes on non-American subjects (i.e. Gosford Park and Vincent and Theo) are also so interesting; it's like Sergio Leone redefining the Western. In my post about California Split I had previously marvelled at how many genuinely brilliant films he created and how he's still as relevant today as he ever was. This film confirms that once more, and is another reason to add to my long-standing admiration for him.
Tags: cinema
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