Robert Altman's Wild West Show

Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill couldn't be less heroic, less fraudulent, less of a charlatan. No wonder few have seen 'Buffalo Bill and the Indians'.

“It ain't much different from the real thing.”

In Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976), Bill Cody (Paul Newman) describes the representations of history in his Wild West Show. His words reflect a culture's (any culture's) desire to have its myths and history too.

Believing that you have reached the juncture when historical reality and its representation are not much different suggests how a culture creates a successful image of itself, an image that over time and re-representation becomes absolutely irrefutable. Until, that is, doubts set in – breakdowns in the fidelity of the historical image.

Altman's film captures this representation-reality process with a dual lens. First, he observes the mythmakers in high stride, and then critiques their actions through his own contemporary understanding of the entertainment ethos. He stylizes Bill Cody's Wild West Show as the earliest vision of the mega-entertainment universe, a universe whence the imagination is subordinated to the mythmaking machinations of dozens of people.

American society has craved entertainment from the earliest days, and after the Civil War it seemed that Americans wanted to hear and see tales of courage. These tales told us how the savage Indians were subdued and the frontier was tamed.

Most people lived outside the world that dramatized their world—in the 21st century, television, the Internet, movies, radio, have assimilated most Americans and few live outside the mediated universe. Mythmaking itself has become the real thing—to French critic Jean Baudrillard's thinking, the mediated universe has become more real than the real thing.

Altman accentuates this latter detail by focusing on the myth-makers in media res, thus making Buffalo Bill and the Indians an anti-story or a non-story about the story-makers, a premise that is inherently subversive of the myths processed by Cody and his financial backers and, hence, making it a less dramatically entertaining movie.

His other films during this period, 1970­-75—M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville—undermined genre and audience expectations. Buffalo Bill has no genre, unless you call it a western, and in 1976, it generated very little public interest.

Even the story of Buffalo Bill as an entertainer who enjoyed great success (and, finally, bankruptcy), is treated in a revisionist fashion. Altman and Newman have made the former Indian fighter and buffalo hunter, a bright and shining figure of the American Great Plains, into one of the most pathetic figures in cinematic history.

Although the film takes place in the late 1880s, when the Wild West Show was on the rise, there's no redeeming value left in it. Nor are there any other people in the film with whom to identify, save Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), who is held out as a nearly impossibly noble alternative to Bill, treated in a strange way, as mythically as Bill has been.

As self-defeating as this film stacks up to be, from a bad box office to a slack critical response, Buffalo Bill and the Indians itself represents the opposite of what Bill represented in his vision of the West.

Altman accomplishes what he wants to do by filming it in his inimitable style, with crisp editing and overlapping dialogue, coaxing performances such that our identification with the characters is repulsed—I call this Altmanesque use of actors a theater of irritation, whereby we might be repelled but we still stay fascinated with them (the best use of this comes in California Split with George Segal and Elliot Gould).

Buffalo Bill joins a select group of films the popular failure of which nonetheless represented an aesthetic success: Patty Hearst (1987), The King of Comedy (1983), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) come to mind as similar ventures.

These films make difficult if inevitable choices to dramatize what's antithetical to the audience's narrative and emotional needs (notwithstanding their disdaining the audience's deepest sensibilities for wanting to be entertained). In a way, they are similar to the films of what I call "difficult directors". 

A film, then, becomes difficult for the regular viewer when it fails to live up to "entertainment". Altman's offers the contrast starkly by showing entertainment used to make myth and be popularly satisfying. Ultimately, he's concluding that entertainment is the essence of mythmaking.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Ned Bulmash October 24, 2012 at 03:30 PM
I never heard of this film before. I disagree that all film viewers expect only entertainment. Some want to learn , explore or question their principals and perceived morality.
John Reynolds October 27, 2012 at 09:28 AM
My favorite myth-busting book made into a movie about the old West was Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man," that portrayed hell-bent for leather Civil War cavalry general George Custer as a pompous, glory-seeking fool, whose luck ran out at Little Bighorn, killing his men along with himself. This must be one of the first Hollywood western films that American Indians enjoyed watching.


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