Originally posted February 25, 2010 as part of the Virtual Robert Altman Film Festival.
When I was a kid one of my favorite places to go was a theme park up near Lake George called Storytown USA. It was the nearest thing we had to a local Disneyland, scaled way down of course, with rides and attractions based on fairy tales, fables, tall tales, legends, and, without their ever being actually named, TV shows and movies.
It was a modest place, but not chintzy. What was there was done well, presented with pride and some dash, and clean, shiny, colorful, and fun. But my favorite part was also the best part, Ghost Town!
Ghost Town was essentially the set of a TV western with probably as many “buildings” that were just false fronts. But there were plenty of buildings you could go into, like the livery stable, the blacksmith’s, the saloon, the general store, and the jail, enough places to visit that you could feel as though you were wandering the wooden plank sidewalks of real town in the Old West. It helped that several times a day masked bandits would ride into town and hold up the bank. A posse, rounded up from the kids on hand, would help the law track down and capture one of the robbers. Then members of his gang would sneak back into town and there’d be a jail break followed by a shoot out with the good guys that would include, depending on the bravery or recklessness of the college kids playing the bandits that summer, at least one bandit getting shot off the roof of the hotel.
In between the robberies and the gunfights there’d be shows on an outdoor stage built out from the side of the saloon. The shows would feature “cowgirls” who did rope tricks, “cowboys” who played the guitar and sang, “scouts” who had knife throwing acts, and saloon girls who danced the can-can lifting their skirts high for the bored dads in the audience. Frankly, I could never imagine getting so old that I would be bored by gunfights, rope tricks, and knife throwing acts that I would think it was a treat when those acts were interrupted by girls who couldn’t do rope tricks or throw knives.
I still haven’t gotten that old.
All of this was presided over by the town marshal, Wild Windy Bill McKay, who was a quick-draw artist and singing cowboy as well as a daring and resourceful upholder of law and order on the violent frontier.
Now, it was obvious to the most gullible kid that Windy Bill wasn’t a real cowboy. No real cowboy had stars on his boots or wore red jeans and fringed shirts with multi-colored sleeves, except Roy Rogers when he wasn’t working around the ranch.
But even though we knew the truth we accepted it as fact that he spent his days doing exactly what we were watching and helping him do, chase bandits and shoot it out with bad guys. Ghost Town, to our minds, was more dangerous than Dodge City, Tombstone, and Deadwood combined, and it would be a hundred times worse if it wasn’t for Windy Bill.
For all we knew and I still know Bill McKay had majored in accounting in college or spent years before coming to work at Storytown selling shoes.
But he presented himself as an authentic Western hero and legend and seemed confident that we wouldn’t doubt it and, son of a gun, we didn’t.
To us---to me anyway---for the time we moseyed the dusty streets of Ghost Town, Marshall Wild Windy Bill McKay was as real a lawman as Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickcock.
The irony being, of course, that the Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill we knew and admired weren’t any more authentic than Wild Windy Bill McKay.
All three of them were creations of a hundred years worth of work by dime novelists, playwrights, movie makers, producers of TV shows, and one William F. Cody.
What went on in Ghost Town borrowed heavily from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, as in fact did every movie and TV western that came after him. We “know” what an Indian attack and the cavalry riding to the rescue look like because of Buffalo Bill. We “know” what a stage coach hold-up looks like because of Buffalo Bill. We “know” what Custer’s Last Stand looked like because of Buffalo Bill. We know what an authentic Western hero looks like and how he acts because of Buffalo Bill, and by the way even when he’s short and sporting a crew cut and spits tobacco sideways out of the corner of his mouth he still looks and acts like Buffalo Bill, tall, handsome, noble in bearing and in action and in thought. No matter how far the anti-hero of a revisionist western departs from the image, the image is always with him. It’s the shadow he casts except when he becomes the shadow cast by the image.
Buffalo Bill didn’t invent the tropes and cliches of the Western but he codified them, clarified them, and set the standards for their presentation. He didn’t personally rewrite the history of the settlement of the American frontier to turn it into the set of self-congratulatory heroic legends and lies that stood in the place of truth in our collective memory for over a century. But his revision of the rewrite brought it all together and because his shows were so “real” and so popular and so widely imitated his story of the Wild West became and has remained the most deeply believed, even by movie directors in the process of debunking it.
We may know it’s not true but we want it to be and the mo
st cynical and revisionist Westerns still express that wish. Nobody can resist the charm and the will of Buffalo Bill.
This isn’t exactly the theme of Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians. It’s more like the given.
For one thing, this theme, for it to be a theme, must include the fact of the audience’s complicity. Wild Windy Bill McKay’s existence depended on our willingness to believe in it and our ability to convince ourselves that we did believe it. There’s no audience complicity in Altman’s film because as far as the script and the camera bother to notice there is no audience.
I mean an audience watching the performances by the members of Buffalo Bill’s troupe depicted in the movie. But the same can be said of the audience watching the movie. Altman, never one to play to his audience’s expectations, seems to have gone out of his way to ignore his audience entirely on this one. He makes no attempt to draw us in, either into the story itself or into the Wild West show. We don’t get to feel what it might have been like to watch these spectacles live. He seems to take it for granted that because we’ve seen all these tricks and stunts a thousand times before we don’t care if we see them again.
Without the audience’s complicity in rewriting history to the point of erasing it and replacing it with myths, legends, and self-serving lies, there’s no real criticism of the process by which a people hide who they really are from themselves.
Which is fine, as long as you understand that Altman didn’t intend to make a movie that was about that.
He didn’t make a revisionist western. He’d already made one of those. McCabe and Mrs Miller. Buffalo Bill and the Indians depends on our having seen that one and others like Little Big Man, Doc, The Wild Bunch, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and note who starred in the last two.
But Buffalo Bill and the Indians is still about watching a performance. It’s just that it’s about a single person watching a single person perform with the watcher and the watched being the same single person. Buffalo Bill and the Indians is about Buffalo Bill watching himself being Buffalo Bill.
It’s about a man who has done things that ought to have made him legendary making his living off being not a legend but a fiction. The Buffalo Bill who’s the star of the show, the reason people come to see the Wild West, has nothing in common with the young scout who earned the nickname Buffalo Bill. Bill Cody knows he’s had real adventures that should be famous. But his fortune, his show, his company of cowboys, Indians, trick shot artists, and their families and support staff depend on people paying money to see the phony Buffalo Bill, the one invented to sell dime novels and now tickets. This is not somebody Bill Cody knows or even truly believes exists. It’s no wonder then he’s never sure how to be this Buffalo Bill. He’s always performing, constantly making it up, and it’s not easy. He loses track of the plot. He forgets his lines. He continually finds himself in situations where there’s no way for him to know how “Buffalo Bill” should act or what “he” should say. And he’s not smart enough or quick enough or cynical enough for the job.
Rather than try to keep it all straight in his head, he’s decided it’s easier to just give in and believe he is who he’s pretending to be. He’s found that it helps if he never thinks about it and to that end he spends a lot of his time not thinking.
What we have then is the spectacle of one of the most grounded of movie stars playing a man floating through life on his own hot air. One of the most self-skeptical of movie stars playing a pompous, self-infatuated windbag. One of the smartest actors going playing someone who has made himself willfully dumb. One of the coolest of leading men playing a buffoon.
Paul Newman’s performance as Buffalo Bill is a whole lot of fun to watch.
It’s also kind of sad, and I’m not sure all that sadness sticks only to the character.
But that’s something we can work out in the discussion, which is underway…now.
Friday morning update: Thanks to Michael, Phil, and Bill for making last night’s discussion great. Comment threads on these posts stay open so feel free to chip in anytime.
Next week’s a double-feature, Secret Honor and Streamers, but we’ll be focusing on how filming plays changed Altman’s style going into the 1990s.
And, remember, in two weeks we’ll be doing Popeye, but instead of a formal discussion I’ll be leading the live-blogging. We’ll start the fun earlier that night, at 9 PM Eastern. Mark your calendar and update your Netflix queue.
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