Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (Robert Altman, 1976) [7]

Deconstructionist is a word always thrown around with Altman, and Buffalo Bill is no exception. Instead of genre or form deconstruction, this film is more intent on attacking history itself, and the grand myths perpetuated in the name of this nation. Everything of this film smacks of the idea of myth making, all the way down to the character of Buffalo Bill himself, a creation of a mysterious myth-maker (played with zeal by Burt Lancaster, always one of my favorites). Altman centers his film around the show that Bill has created, a series of skits and performances meant to portray a grandiose America that has the best interests of everyone in mind, including the Indians on whose land they raided and took. It's these ideas of the mythical west, perpetuated fully in Westerns as well as the character of Buffalo Bill himself that Altman is going after. Paul Newman plays Buffalo Bill as nothing more than an arrogant charlatan, a creation meant to feed the American public, to give them an ideal character of the west. Altman pulls the veil of the sanctity of Buffalo Bill, and Newman plays him as a man who knows he's nothing but a creation of show business. The conflict of these ideas come to a head when Bill's company is able to convince Chief Sitting Bull to be a part of the show. This leads to a series of events where Sitting Bull consistently outwits Bill and the others as a way to regain some dignity for his people. One of the major elements of the legend of Buffalo Bill was his prowess as an Indian killer and subjugator. By having him be such a buffoon compared to Sitting Bull, Altman has created scenarios where the power of the character of Buffalo Bill is dragged out of its historical lacquer. Buffalo Bill certainly is a film that sides sympathizes with the Indians and is dark and cynical in its portrayal of whites as opportunistic, boorish, and presumptuous of their different brethren. It's possibly the meanest, most jaded film Altman could have made on the subject. Yet, it works because it's at least willing to take on the legends and myths of the American west with some earnestness.

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