Saturday, April 12, 2014

Buffalo Bill and the Indians


I've been poked and prodded by several orthopedic surgeons over the last few days and they have pronounced my femur well healed. The cast should come off this next week, freeing me from my plaster prison and allowing me to return to my fabulous life at Chateau Maine. Madame Rose, my publicist, called today, telling me that the recent events there are sure to send my Q rating skyward. She's trying to get me the cover of People or Entertainment Weekly for an exclusive story on my ordeal at the hands of the evil Scrawcrunches. There was a story in Daily Variety but I did not appreciate the headline - 'Half Forgotten Star Involved in Swimming Pool Murder'. They must have been saving on a copy editor as they ran the exact same headline when poor Norma Desmond had her little troubles a few years back. Joseph, my manager, has promised to speak to the editors most severely as 'half forgotten' could be taken as libelous. 

Several very nice detectives from the Beverly Hills police department interviewed me at length today about the events earlier in the week when Doreen and Herbert seem to have had their final row. Herbert was found in the swimming pool with a bullet in the aorta. Doreen seems to have disappeared. Their dilapidated recreational vehicle was found behind a Supercuts in Tarzana but she was nowhere to be seen. (Several of my GlamourPuss originals were inside and will be returned. Unfortunately, they seem to have been altered to fit Doreen's more than ample figure and will have to be returned to Bob Mackie for repair before I can hope to wear them again.) Reynaldo, my gardener also seems to have disappeared. Esperanza, his wife, hasn't seen him for nearly a week. 

Following the police grilling, I settled back with my laptop with the DVD capabilities and put in the latest arrival from Netflix, Robert Altman's 1976 Western, Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson. I had never seen this particular work of Altman's but have always enjoyed his oeuvre. All of his trademarks are here. The overlapping dialogue; the oblique storytelling; the careful choosing of great actors for even minor roles; the interest in theme rather than traditional plot. This film was the follow-up to his masterwork, Nashville and, unlike the former, was savaged by the critics and ignored by the public, causing his career to languish for nearly fifteen years until he regained respect with his Hollywood film, The Player. 

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, was inspired by, but not a literal adaptation of Arthur Kopit's 1960s play Indians. Kopit's original play used the conflict between the Native Americans and the Europeans in the post Civil War west to comment on Vietnam. His Indians are obvious stand-ins for the Vietcong and his Americans symbolize the misguided interventions in South East Asia that so occupied the national dialogue at the time. Altman does not draw such blatant parallels. Instead, he uses Buffalo Bill's famous wild west show as a metaphor for the entwining of the political and the entertainment businesses in American culture, a trend well underway in the 1970s and which has surpassed even his jaded expectations with our new politician as CNN celebrity culture. 

The time is 1885, nearly a decade after Little Bighorn. Most of the West has been tamed and is being settled. The few remaining Natives are being brought under control on reservations. Outside of Cody, Wyoming, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show is gearing up for another season. We meet Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster), hanging around the town saloon jawing with the locals. Buntline was a reporter and dime novelist who basically created the mythos of the American West. His serialized stories of Wild Bill Hickock, the Pony Express, Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill Cody continue to infuse our culture and understanding of that time. He found William F. Cody, a not particularly promising scout and buffalo hunter a decade earlier, gave him his nick name and popularized his mostly fictional exploits. Buffalo Bill (Paul Newman) is on the outs with Buntline, having thrown his lot in with producer and businessman Nate Salsbury (Joel Grey) to create the Wild West Show that bears his name. 

The film takes place entirely in and around the Wild West Show with its familiar denizens including Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) and her womanizing husband Frank Butler (John Considine). Bill is reveling in his success including his national and European tours in which his versions of famous events, such as Custer's last stand, are touted as true reenactments. Most of what he presents is pure fiction but his invented iconography of the West is one that still exists. One day, he and Nate score a coup. They make arrangements with the government to present the famous Sioux chief Sitting Bull as an attraction. Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), a small quiet man of enormous dignity doesn't measure up to Bill's expectations. He much prefers his huge interpreter (Will Sampson of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). So begins a contest of wills between the two men in which Sitting Bull easily wins each battle; he has great spiritual force and is a true chief and leader while Bill is a jumped up fraud who believes far too much in his own publicity. 

There is little in the way of story, rather a collection of incident and revelation, which eventually leads to a confrontation between Sitting Bull and President Grover Cleveland (Pat McCormick) with his new bride (Shelley Duvall). It's a battle Sitting Bull cannot win as it is one of pure politics. He has no difficulty with one final confrontation with Bill as that is show business masquerading as politics. Altman isn't so much interested in the story as exploring the effect of entertainment on the American character. He coauthored the screenplay with Alan Rudolph, another idiosyncratic cinema auteur. Concept and idea trump straight forward narrative. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was, in some ways, the first modern entertainment spectacle and the ancestor of much of our current pop culture. 

The performances are first rate throughout. Paul Newman captures Bill's egomania, dipsomania and erotomania with aplomb and isn't afraid to give a performance that deconstructs his own Butch Cassidy image. Burt Lancaster's world weariness as a de facto narrator is brilliantly done. The supporting cast shine, especially Will Sampson, Geraldine Chaplin and a very young Harvey Keitel as Bill's citified nephew. 

This is a film that many will find opaque and somewhat dull due to its elliptical techniques. For those interested in the ideas that it contains, it's quite a treasure and has been unfairly maligned and forgotten. 

Custer scalping. Trampled Indian. Condescending racial attitudes. Presidential telegram. Teepee construction. Teepee removal. Gratuitous opera singers. Canary shooting. Trick roping. Trick riding. Trick riflery.

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