Buffalo Bill and the Indians
Welcome to show business

by Janey Place

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 21-22
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

"Welcome to show business. It ain't that much different than real life."

Robert Altman's films have long been a meeting point for "serious" and popular film criticism. They are determinedly modern, self-reflective, and intellectual, with extremely self-conscious roots in the history and traditions of Hollywood cinema. McCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) is an inverted western, in which the meaning of the iconography of the genre is minimized and the narrative values of the epic form hollowed out. Similarly, THIEVES LIKE US (1974), a remake of Nicholas Ray's romantic Film Noir classic, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1946), refuses the tragic "lovers-on-the-run" emotional dimension and gives us instead a removed, alienated film where doom is a matter of fact, rather than character, and the lovers are trivialized. Their bad luck defeats them. In the earlier film — and in the tradition of Film Noir and of the epic form — their tragic fate determines the action of the film rather than being determined by it. With THE LONG GOODBY (1973), Altman performed the same action on the romantic, hard-boiled-exterior-but-sentimental-interior character of the private eye, removing the depth and sentiment from Raymond Chandler's novel.

Each of these films is an inversion of its genre, a film about film first and about its characters second. His films are meta-movies, and in the tradition of meta-movies, NASHVILLE (1975) spoke to the relation between reality and illusion, "real" life and show business. But unlike "classical" meta-movies, such as SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) or THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1953), Altman's films reject the epic form of narrative in which the psychological dimension of the characters structures the world of the film. His characters are victims of the social forces that Altman is criticizing; they do not transcend their tragic fates through epic emotional values. BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS (1976) carries this movement from the emotional, sensual character of popular art to the alienated, intellectual character of modern art further than any U.S. director working in the mainstream of the industry has taken it. Jean-Luc Godard is the standard bearer of cinematic "high art" which self-consciously refuses the sensual appeal of its popular origins, thus alienating the bulk of its audience. With BUFFALO BILL Altman has similarly, if less radically, produced a movie about movies and their operations which appeals almost exclusively to the intellect.

Like Godard, Altman has a conscious political dimension. His films are critical of current U.S. social and political conditions. And like Godard, he makes this critique at the formal level as well as at the narrative. Does this mean the political dimension of his films is free of the incredibly flexible co-opting power of the dominant ideology? Herbert Marcuse, in his essay, "Art and Revolution in Counterrevolution and Revolt, locates the radical potential of art precisely in its form. Since popular art requires a broad base of acceptance, it cannot directly challenge the dominant ideology. With its additionally inhibiting economic requirements — namely, vast sums of money — movies are even more bound to the values of the economic system which produce them. Only formal criticism, which is not readily apparent in the superficial narrative of the film, is thereby capable of performing a radical, critical operation on the bourgeois values of the narrative. How is that potential formally actualized?

Godard attempted to use a new language of film (see Brian Henderson on the lateral tracking shot in WEEKEND, "Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style," Movies and Methods, Bill Nichols, ed., UC Press, 1976), but in doing so alienated his audience who could not "speak" this new language. Altman's films are also intensely self-conscious. He uses Bertold Brecht's concept of distanciating to break down the audience's non-critical identification with the characters and their involvement in the narrative in order to create a space for criticism. I would like to explore two questions here. First, how does Altman use both the film form and his narrative to create this space which invites audience criticism of the bourgeois ideology? And second, does this process realize the radical potential Marcuse envisioned for art in decadent capitalist culture?

BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS has the exceptional ability to both speak itself and to comment on (speak about) itself through Altman's constant shifts in contexts. A shift to another context requires a rethinking on the part of the audience according to the new context. Additionally, this requires consciousness of the film's process and thus, like Brecht's distanciation, invites a critique. For example, in the opening shots of the film a "massacre" is taking place. While the credits roll, the film gives few visual or narrative cues as to how to "read" this scene. Then it is over, and the apparatus of the Wild West Show is revealed as workers haul off equipment and "dead" Indians rise, recontextualizing the massacre scene as a performance. The central metaphors of truth and illusion, and show business and history, become evident in this shift and must be consciously acknowledged by an alert viewer. But Altman creates more intricate levels of context. In the massacre an Indian falls to the ground — dead, we think at first, then "faking injury" when we realize it is just a show. But in fact the wounds are real; the actor has been injured in the "performance," shifting the context back again.

Altman not only shifts the contexts, but he keeps them constantly in motion and the viewer in confusion. These constant shifts not only keep us questioning the reality of the images but, through their sudden rupture of our assumed perception, they can function like surrealism. (Perception is determined by context. Both our knowledge of filmic conventions and of the real world teach us to interpret data according to some structure or context with which we are familiar.) By suddenly causing us to doubt the relations between the events and their meaning, the film causes us to abandon our ideologically determined view of our world and see the events in a new light.

This process occurs not only formally but in every aspect of the production. The script itself makes overt connections between show business and political leaders: Bill says of Sitting Bull, "If he wasn't interested in show business he wouldn't be a chief," and of President Cleveland, "There's a star!" The characters illustrate the mightily confused state of reality and illusion. (Or perhaps we should call them actors — Altman makes us conscious of their roles and implies through the personal and show business personae of Buffalo Bill that this is another category of fraud.) Bill (or Paul Newman) can't really ride his white stallion, and President Cleveland must consult an aid before answering to the effect that he, like Bill, writes all his own material. Bill keeps looking at reflections of himself, which fragment his personality: mirrors and portraits which seem more real than he is. Finally he must ask, "Where's my real jacket?" when he wants to chase the "real" Indians who have escaped. Reality and illusion are inextricably mixed, both in the Wild West Show and in the formal structure of the film, where players are billed as The Star, The Producer, The Sure Shot, etc. The film continually characterizes Bill as a star, a showman, and an exhibitor, making history itself seem only raw material for the Wild West Show.

The various levels upon which the audience must question "truth" in this film and the ever-widening contexts it calls upon are difficult to sort out, particularly because it is the relations between "facts," not the facts themselves, which constitutes truth. And these relations shift according to contexts. Most literally, Bill answers Annie Oakley's question as to why he doesn't show a truer version of history in his Wild West Show with the immediately logical and at the same time irrational reply, "I have a better sense of history than that." BUFFALO BILL is more directly concerned with this history which is not created by nor responsible to any abstract notion of truth (if we understand history to be an ideological interpretation of the past for a specific present). Altman implicates the audience (and the public) in the writing of both history and show business when Ned says that "truth is what gets the most applause." This implication is most direct when, in an otherwise too talky, tricky, and obvious scene of the dead Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, Bill studies a portrait of himself on his white stallion. "Is he sitting on that horse right?" he asks, then turns to the camera. "If he's not sitting that horse right, how come you all took him for a king?" The clues that Buffalo Bill was (is) a fraud were always there: the implication is that seeing is a matter of choice. Perception is a function of the needs of a dominant ideology. Altman is challenging the audience to see the flaws, to see our history and our present as it really is.

Not only are we, the audience of this file, implicated in the perpetuation of history-as-fraud, but Altman extends his accusation to his star and to himself. The film is subtitled "Robert Altman's Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Luster," and it uses Paul Newman as the star whose identity is irreparably fragmented by his role as Buffalo Bill. President Cleveland is a simple-minded, murky-talking fraud, and Robert Altman's creation of this film is thus self-consciously linked to the money-making creation of the groundless myth by Ned Buntline (his role as creator of this version of Buffalo Bill is mirrored in the film by Ned Buntline, who is the creator of the groundless Buffalo Bill myth).

Altman creates a mise-en-scene which constantly provides new contexts for the authenticity of image. The photograph never taken of the company is used to back the ending credit roll. A long lens flattens the distances and spatial relations throughout the picture, falsifying the western panorama. The sepia tones give the picture a "period" look, contradicted by the other primary color motif — the bright red of the pillars of the stands, Bill's bathrobe, Halsey's blanket, and elsewhere. At one point Altman frames two flats, one for the Wild West Show and one a "real" backdrop for the film itself, side by side. Altman plays with our assumptions as well as Nate's and the Wild West Show people by framing Halsey center frame and the smaller Bull off center beside him when Bull arrives to join the circus. We — and the people in the film — assume the magnificent Halsey is the legendary, dangerous Sitting Bull, not the tired old man beside him. Not only the casting but the framing promote this misunderstanding, which speaks to our expectations of leaders as show business folk who look the part. Thus the show and the world around it, the people in the show and the characters they play, become for us as hopelessly confused in their shifting significance as do the narrative elements of the film.

There are two areas in which "truth" is not a shifting, unreliable creation of ever-changing contexts. First is the Indians themselves. It is perhaps an important criticism of the film that it romanticizes Indians as both victims and "the other" — beyond implication, criticism, or humor. They can "cross the river," which whites cannot venture into without disaster. They can escape at will, ride calmly into the hills while the "cowboys" of the Wild West Show perform a Keystone Cops-like pursuit; they can hide and not be found. When put in a position of ridicule by Bill, Sitting Bull becomes the subject of applause simply through the force of his being. In any encounter with whites, the Indians expose the multiplicity of fraud of the whites. In conference with the Indians, Bill answers Halsey's poetic description of Sitting Bull as the chosen leader of the land with gibberish:

"Halsey, you tell the chief Buffalo Bill says his green leaves can turn wherever they want just so long as they know which way the wind is blowing."

Bill's use of a ridiculous wig is exposed by the surprise return of Bull, and President Cleveland's idiocy and inability to lead reveal themselves in his exchange with the Indian chief. The nearly total ineptness of the whites on horseback and in nature contrasts with the beauty, dignity, and integrity of Indians. Bull appears as a superior, "truer" leader than either the false and fragmented Buffalo Bill or the fumbling president. Sitting Bull comes to the Wild West Show not really imprisoned but to see the Great White Father, and Bull's dreams virtually compel President Cleveland's appearance.

The film gives Sitting Bull even greater dignity in death: the shot signifying his death seems the only real one in the film. The sepia wash is gone; the beads he wore and buffalo skull upon which they hang are dramatic, bleak, and beautiful. The music is alive and beating as the camera slowly zooms in on the beads. Bull escapes this film with a purity not open to anyone else. His is the only myth we can still believe in, even while Bill attempts to compromise its integrity by forcing Halsey to play Sitting Bull in a Wild West Show performance. A beautiful and dignified Halsey enacts the legend in a falsification of his own history without being implicated in it. His demeanor and stature abstract him from the farce. And it is here — with Sitting Bull dead and his legend attached if not touched — that Bill finally can no longer maintain the tension of his image. With all those mirrors and portraits pulling him apart, and with the legend collapsing around Buffalo Bill, Altman zooms into a too-tight close-up, and Bill's crazed eyes fill the screen.

Bill is the central figure upon which the metaphors of the film turn. He is a profoundly tragic individual as well as a fraud of show business and of history. The price of all that glory and fakery is isolation at the least and schizophrenia at the worst. From the beginning Bill is alone in the frame, even when in a group. His only contacts are with his singing opera stars, whom he sends away one after another; with Ned Buntline, who knows — and who created — the groundless myth; and with the glorified, false images of himself that fill the film. The women offer him little, sometimes not even sex, which becomes another performance, surely not peace and not even conversation, as they sing most of their lines. The alienation of even his most intimate communication is thus painfully clear. He throws Ned out and then desperately calls him back, and in that final horrifying close-up, Buffalo Bill is a figure without a ground. Where most shots in the film have a long — if flattened — depth of field, Bill's have nearly none, leaving the background out of focus behind him and isolating him from everything and everybody. By the last shot his legend and his very appearance are the fragmented subject of endless recontextualizing. He is lost.

The extent to which Bill is lost finds confirmation in an element of the film which, like the Indians, is not subject to question and is simply "true." This is music: it can touch people truthfully, if inadequately, and explains why the one constant in Bill's women is music. Sitting Bull responds to the phonograph. Later in the president's reception all the listeners are moved by the beautiful aria. Nate calmly wipes his eyes; others gaze in appreciation and longing. But Bill gazes intently at the singer, holding a frozen smile as if afraid to trust his face, revealing a profound need and expectation to which the music gives rise. Music is a constant, a truth, a basis for Bill, who has no other, but it is not strong enough to hold him together when so many other forces are pulling him apart.

Thus Bill, the center of the legend and the fraud, is clearly also its most central victim. The process of disassociation — of Bill Cody from Buffalo Bill, of history from the Wild West Show, and of the film from its origins in illusion finally points to the schizophrenia of the last shot. The senseless eyes of Bill look uncomprehendingly on the show and out to its (and the film's) audience. With the zoom out, the set of the movie is included. To extend the metaphor in its suggested direction, the constant (and particularly current) willful confusion of "truth" on the level of government policy, and the constant need to rewrite events of history according to current needs, result not only in the incredible idiocy of Vietnam and Watergate but in acceptance of national policy. BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS demonstrates the process of history itself becoming another commodity in the capitalist economy. The resulting alienation from its process of creation and from the interconnection of its events leads to a loss of truth which only performance can replace. Our leaders are criticized as stars, whose ability is less important than their myth. It is this loss of a context into which to place the events of history and of the present that Altman is ultimately condemning. Without that context, values must be constantly reformulated according to the narrow requirements of the dominant ideology.

BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS is not only self-conscious in its evocation of the process of history, but it refers outside the film itself to the further history-as-commodity event of the Bicentennial. It was released July 3, 1976, and through its Wild West Show, the film speaks directly and critically to the selling of our past. The question remains: Is this the radical critique of which Marcuse spoke? Does it liberate? Marcuse feels that it is in the realm of a sensual dimension, in emotional appeal, that art is potentially liberating and thus potentially radical.

While Altman's self-conscious distanciation, calling attention to the process itself, is in the tradition of Brecht's radical theater, it does leave out an important element, which was also absent from Brecht's theater. Distanciation works against the process of audience identification through which we lose our critical distance, but it also works against the sensual appeal of the form. Distanciation requires alienation from the subject, and this may be in direct contradiction to Marcuse's hope for radical art that would involve the passions of the viewer and liberate his/her sensual feelings, which are so repressed in our culture. In this regard then, Altman, in spite of his critique of the bourgeois order at the levels of both form and content, does not achieve Marcuse's subversive potential. What Altman does offer is an articulate, intelligent, but primarily intellectual critique. Unfortunately, this necessarily limits its audience, as articulate social criticism is not what people go to popular culture to experience. In removing its emotional identification, Altman cuts away the very basis of the power of film to speak directly to the feelings of the viewer. BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS is dazzling as film theory but, by its very success at distanciation, fails as radical popular art.