"In so far as they cannot be assimilated by modern culture, the wild peoples will have to disappear from the surface of the earth." – Karl Kautsky
Paul Newman plays Buffalo Bill, a one-time soldier who now runs a successful Wild West Show. Bill hires an Indian warlord called Chief Sitting Bull to guest star in his show, but to Bill's annoyance Sitting Bull proves to be a decent and honourable old man rather than a murderous savage.
Bill attempts to get Sitting Bull to re-enact various battles between cowboys and Indians, but Sitting Bull refuses to be portrayed as a caricature. Rather than act out Custer's Last Stand as a cowardly sneak attack initiated by red skins, Sitting Bull instead requests to portray the massacre of a peaceful Sioux community by marauding US Cavalry soldiers. What follows is a battle of myths. Sitting Bull wants to portray his people as the victims of genocide, whilst Bill hopes to portray himself (and by extension the history of White American settlers) as a noble hero and the natives as brutal savages in need of either expulsion or civilization. Bill's history is wrong, of course, but he is the victor as he owns the show, controls the money and knows exactly what his white audience wants. His myth gets printed.
And so these various themes – politics, show-business, the commodification of history, the blurring of fact and myth – play out in typical Altman fashion. And like most of Altman's films, this is a giant ensemble piece which takes place in a self-contained environment (the ropey confines of a Wild West Show). Elsewhere Altman's camera glides through his landscape, floating from character to character, various narrative strands gently picked up and followed. It's a graceful sort of film-making, Altman less concerned about delivering spectacle, than gently exposing the conditions under which such spectacle thrives.
On the most basic level Altman deconstructs Old West iconography, presenting the cowboy as a show-biz creation who is himself duped by the very myths he bolsters. Altman's Buffalo Bill wears a wig, can't shoot straight, can't ride a horse and requires all his mock battles to be rigged in his favour, and yet he's constantly proclaiming himself to be a grand hero and seasoned man of the west. The film's great joke is that we the audience are so seduced by Paul Newman's star persona, his charisma, the way he commands his on screen lackeys, that we don't quite notice how much of a bumbling idiot he is.
The film's characters go out of their way to illustrate this mightily confused blurring of reality and illusion. Altman makes us aware that his film is populated by mere actors and implies that both the personal and show business personae of Buffalo Bill are equally fraudulent. As such, Bill is constantly looking at reflections or portraits of himself, his personality always distorted.
Altman also exposes the symbiotic relationship between show business and politics. Upon seeing President Cleveland, Bill exclaims "There's a star!" and of Sitting Bull he says, "If he wasn't interested in show business he wouldn't be a chief!" Later it is revealed that President Cleveland consults an aid before speaking and that Bill has someone else write all his material, both men the unwilling orators of a national myth.
Altman then implicates both the audience and the public in the writing of both history and show business. "Truth is that which gets the most applause," one character correctly remarks. The show that is most seen, most palatable, most digested by the masses, is the show that is embraced as historical fact. Nations are built on noble lies, Altman says, and art exists to either propagate or challenge these national myths. This is made most direct when, in the film's final scene, Bill studies a portrait of himself on a white stallion. "Is he sitting on that horse right?" Bill asks, then turns to the camera. "If he's not sitting on that horse right, how come you all took him for a king?"
Altman's point is clear. The facts, the cinematic clues, that Buffalo Bill was a fraud were always there. We just chose not to look. The implication is that seeing is always a matter of choice, perception 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.
And so Altman demonstrates that history itself is increasingly becoming another commodity of capitalist economy; history then is not a Truth, but a matter of choice, able to be traded, bought and sold. 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. Tellingly the film ends with a photograph - a staged event of a staged event - the audience asked to recall an earlier scene in which this shot was composed. Without this prior context, anyone stumbling upon the photograph would assume that a tall and muscular Indian, carefully positioned by Buffalo Bill to draw attention away from the old and timid looking Sitting Bull, is the real deal. It is this loss of context, of objectivity, that Altman is ultimately condemning. History is like a photograph, deliberately composed, and so without context values may be constantly reformulated according to the narrow requirements of the dominant ideology.
Compare this to the end of Brian De Palma's "Redacted", in which a soldier's smile is recorded as truth, when in fact it is forced, a lie and masking something far darker. Altman's film amounts to the same thing, though his photograph is then sold and paraded about as political currency.
8.9/10 – Masterpiece. See Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now".
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