FRUSTRATING FILMOGRAPHIES #6

john cribbs

robert altman's BUFFALO BILL & THE INDIANS and QUINTET

This is an experiment I've been mulling over for some time. It's dedicated to great directors. Great directors...who've transgressed. Disappointed. Befuddled. But not to the point of being written off entirely. In the course of long careers these filmmakers have made the occasional slip, and the intent behind this ongoing column will be to try and figure out what their motivation might have been in choosing projects that proved questionable, wrongheaded or outright embarrassing. The purpose of this experiment is not to deride, but to understand.

 

The subject: Robert Altman

The movie: Buffalo Bill & the Indians

"I am not careless. I may be irresponsible, I may strive for things and not always succeed. but that's never the result of sloppiness. Maybe it's lack of judgment." - Robert Alman

"The worst trap you can fall in is to start imitating yourself." - Robert Altman

What did people want from Robert Altman? It's a question that encapsulated the man's career once the considerable clout from his somewhat miraculously successful run in the first half of the 70's began to dissipate. Riding high on the trifecta of M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville (with half a dozen other films to substantiate his reputation), Altman became even more aggressively auteuristic which, on the one hand, resulted in tantalizingly experimental films while, on the other, further isolated him from studios looking to capitalize on the success of Jaws with potential blockbusters rather than take chances on challenging "little movies." Altman's appeal was waning, and his famous anti-studio stance certainly didn't help. Having effectively burned bridges at MGM, Warner Brothers, Columbia, United Artists and Paramount, Altman swallowed his pride and went back to the company that had been such a thorn in his side during the filming of M*A*S*H. Because he worked cheaply and with a non-union crew, Fox financed a five-movie run between 1977 and 1980 which can, in retrospect, be traced as the most significant blow to the director's critical and commercial acceptance, a period which marked the transition from the Golden Age of Altman to the lamentable 80's era in which he would languish until his revitalizing third act of the early 90's. These five movies - 3 Women, A Wedding, Quintet, A Perfect Couple and HealtH, all commercial flops with critical receptions ranging from reticent to outright dismissive - form the bridge from which Altman, like Keith Carradine's gunned-down cowboy in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, fell from the post-whorehouse high of Nashville to the icy river low of Popeye in five short years.

But there's more to it than that. It's too easy to claim that the magnates of Hollywood simply weren't tolerating the Altman act anymore, absurd to suggest that if he had more money or studio support he would never have suffered a mid-career decline. Considering the progressively lackluster business of each film, it's kind of amazing that Alan Ladd, Jr. kept giving him money (it could be that the inestimable profits the studio reaped from Star Wars and Alien allowed Altman to continue working under the radar.) Besides, even more demanding than the corporate bigwigs the director so vilified were Altman's audience: fairweather fans, adoring critics and cynical detractors alike. Arguably, in the history of great American auteurs, Altman's career is by far the most difficult to determine what about his movies actually works. People point to his innovative use of sound and camerawork, his unconventional storytelling, his emphasizing of background action to the foreground and vise versa, and appreciation of unhailed American underdogs, but these are the same elements that undermined his work the more audiences began to recognize and expect that "Altman thing." Were people really sated by any Altman project that turned out to be a panorama of alternatively tragic and comedic multi-character vinettes which explored Americana within a specific culture, organization or historical setting through invading and retreating zoom shots and overlaping dialogue that felt epic even while they were essentially laid back and heavily improvised? That pretty much sums up the common idea of what a good Robert Altman movie should be, as evidenced by the biggest hits of his early career; even when this "Altman-esque" recipe fell flat, it still gave apologists of failures like A Wedding and Popeye ammunition to mount a defense: "Hey, at least you can feel Altman in this movie." But somehow this complicated surefire formula began to fail him, for a time, after peaking with Nashville.

Alternatively, abandoning this approach didn't work out too well for Altman either: continuing the collective shrug that met movies like That Cold Day in the Park and Images, the fever dream of 3 Women was popularly disregarded as pretentious and self-indulgent. The public seemed to condemn the smaller, more intimate movies for not utilizing the director's signature tools, apparently causing Altman to flip flop from one approach to another before abandoning both for the practically unrecognizable lack of style that ran through his unremarkable 80's oeuvre.* Altman's films after M*A*S*H were never dinosaurs at the box office (Popeye was his highest-grossing movie after 1970), so critical approval was vital to his survival as a director making the kind of movies he wanted to make. But the critics turned against him. Generally speaking, this is the first subject of a Frustrating Filmography where the frustration may lie equally with the filmmaker's audience.**

But let's be fair: one thing nobody would accuse Altman of is pandering to the crowd. It's doubtful that a director as brashly outspoken and headstrong as Altman went into any film with strong consideration of its broad appeal. Altman couldn't make the kind of films he did had he obsessed over test screenings and critical reaction; the films themselves are specifically subversive to traditional filmmaking techniques and narrative conventions. So the question becomes whether it was a case of the director exhausting his audience rather than the other way around: was it his relentless output and critical invincibility that detracted viewers? Altman had 13 movies released in the 70's, pretty impressive even before considering the scope and ambition of some of these projects. Coming off four accepted masterpieces, three unsung masterpieces and two other interesting (even kind of great) films in the small space of six years, as Altman was in 1976, the hubris of any filmmaker - let alone one with as bold and arrogant a streak as Altman - would be bound to overwhelm and capsize him in the public eye. That one approach would be deemed obvious while the other self-indulgent had a lot to do with the director's reputation: aggressive auteurism was effectively ruining Altman's career to the point that, after the five Fox films, the only way to survive was to become essentially invisible and retreat into artless mediocrity. So who's most to blame - the studios, the audience or Altman himself? For now, let's just blame the Indians.

Whether or not you agree with the popular assessment that 1969 to 1975 was unequivocally the very best Altman had to offer, it would be hard to argue that the director hit a wall with Buffalo Bill & the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson. The all-important follow-up to Nashville, it seems on the surface to have been designed as a crowd-pleaser - specifically, an Altman crowd-pleaser. It's a revisionist western (like McCabe & Mrs. Miller) that features a bankable star (like McCabe & Mrs. Miller) and garnishes that familiar Altman touch (ensemble cast, satirical approach) with something Americans have always been inherently aware of and preoccupied by: the history of the nation (topped off with a title that may or may not have been strategically conceived to remind people of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.***) Altman had already used Nashville as a preemptive blow against American values at a period of heightened patriotic pride the year before; coming out the year of the bicentennial itself, Buffalo Bill was clearly intended as a scathing reminder of the ugly reality of the country's foundation and seering exposé of the humilation and exploitation of the struggling Sioux nation years after their mythic defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn. That description recalls Little Big Man, Arthur Penn's parabolist pastoral from earlier in the decade, as well as a number of other "history lessons" from American movie makers in the 70's (including Best Actor refuser Marlon Brando and the scandalous performance of proxy Sacheen Littlefeather at the Oscar podium.) "Telling it like it is" biopics of the American West were becoming as trendy and marketable as they were "cutting edge," which is probably why Dino De Laurentiis decided to bank on the outlaw filmmaker who used country singers to denounce American values as theideal director to exploit White Guilt at the same time fireworks glistened in the eyes of a proud public.

It was the late 70's, and Dino's reputation as Fellini's financier still meant something - riding high off the success of Death Wish and legitimized "art" of Serpico, he had yet to become infamous as a schlock producer who wined and dined star directors only to collaborate on some of their most reviled, stylistically off-beat movies (Bergman's The Serpent's Egg, David Lynch's Dune.) Buffalo Bill can be counted among these frustrating, Dino-financed blots on the filmographies of established masters: its failure stalled both Altman's intention to direct an Alan Rudolph-penned adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions and, more significantly, his three-picture deal with De Laurentiis which would have led to helming the film version of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime (which ended up an uninspired movie by Miloš Forman, whose conventional One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest had trumped Nashville at the Oscars.) Dino didn't appreciate Altman's crapshoot approach to movies - maybe this will work, if not fuck it - and for the first time his scattershot style seemed to stall with some of the director's most adamant supporters in the critical circle, most notably Pauline Kael.**** More importantly, the movie interrupted Altman's hottest run: nine films that ran from interesting to outright great from That Cold Day in the Park to Nashville and would have included 3 Women...were it not for Buffalo Bill.

If I had to pick a primary culprit in Buffalo Bill's failure it would be Altman's reputation. Going into it as the 22nd or 23rd Altman movie I've seen, it was clear what to expect from the basic set-up alone and there isn't a single surprise in the movie. Buffalo Bill is Altman's most redundant film, combining McCabe's western setting with Nashville's bicentennial critique of Americana while utilizing all his unusual tricks which, for whatever reason, come off as anything but innovative. This may be because, unlike his better movies, too much of Buffalo Bill is stated rather than implied. Altman's not typically one to hit his audience over the head, but the clear intention of this film is to pull back the curtain on William Cody and reveal him as a sad little king of a sad little circus that symbolizes nothing less than the atrocities committed against American Indians in the second half of the 19th century. To wit, there are two kinds of people in the movie: the pathetic, buffoonish whites and the noble, enigmatic Native Americans. Many of Altman's movies draw a clear line between the enlightened and the hypocrital (hip dissidents v.s. stuffy officers and religious types in M*A*S*H, freewheeling outlaws v.s. fascist law enforcement - we're clearly meant to sympathize with "us" in Thieves Like Us) with the latter side portrayed as blustery, ignorant bigots: proxies of the studio heads Altman often clashed with. The difference is that, before Buffalo Bill, these loathsome types were never the heroes of the director's films. Here, Altman forgets that his characters' charm stems from their basic underdog likability, that despite the shortcomings of Brewster McCloud, Philip Marlowe or Bill and Charlie from California Split, they are essentially lovable losers worth rooting for. Whether it's McCabe's unspoken love for Mrs. Miller or the loss of Marlowe's cat, there's always a moral stand to hang the movie's hat on in the director's early work. When Altman decides to focus on detestable high rankers like Griffin Mill, Tanner, the snooty designers and fashionistas of Prêt-à-Porter or either side of the two ridiculous families of A Wedding, he turns them into tedious satirical weapons against targets so broad the films become the cinematic equivalent of skeet shooting in outer space. When Altman picks an object to demonize, there's no searching involved, and although his obvious mockery is meant to be as incendiary as siding with good-natured characters going up against the establishment, it creates a mean-spirited milieu with no one but vapid, hateable characters to cling to. Of course, some great movies have been made centered around unlikable to straight-up repugnant protagonists, but this approach is one of Altman's most blatant weaknesses, although it has been misidentified as a strength by his admirers as well as the director himself. Buffalo Bill is the only script Altman wrote in collaboration with ingenue/poor man's Altman Alan Rudolph, and it has the feel of imitation mixed with heavy reliance on something erroneously thought to be, probably based on Nashville, one of the director's staples: exposing this group of smug winners for the ridiculous fools they really are.

So then why did critics who would go on to slam Buffalo Bill heap praise on Nashville, the film that planted the seeds for the director's callous scrutiny of American society? The two films have a lot of the same qualities, and a lot of the same problems, that arise from Altman's loose style applied to a complicated, non-linear narrative featuring lots of characters. Altman's sliding structure can result in either a pleasant flow or a frustrating lack of focus. His encouragement of improvisation is just as likely to result in genuinely honest and surprising moments as an intolerable clusterfuck of actors talking over each other incomprehensively. His famous zooms have the power to punctuate a moment or tendency to pull the audience right out of a scene. Specific examples would be extraneous because again, it really comes down to the characters. Buffalo Bill could have seriously used a Joan Tewkesbury to bring out the humanity in the story and supply it with characters who weren't there to simply serve the satire, someone like Lily Tomlin's mother struggling with two deaf children or Keenan Wynn's frustrated old timer trying to get shallow niece L.A. Jane to visit his sick wife. Buffalo Bill offers reflections of the 24-member Nashville ensemble without giving them any substinence. Harvey Keitel's dim nephew*****, blindly adoring of his famous Uncle Bill, is a pale imitation of Scott Glenn's starstruck country singer super-fan soldier. Cody himself is a prima donna like Henry Gibson's Haven Hamilton, a womanizer like Keith Carradine's Tom Frank, who looks to humiliate Sitting Bull by carting him out for the crowd to jeer in a less-affecting redux of the talentless singer forced to strip for leering businessmen to realize her dream of singing with her favorite country star. Both films hinge on the arrival of a political bigwig, but in Buffalo Bill it's not the never-seen Hal Phillip Walker, fictional populist outsider/presidental hopeful on the Replacement Party ticket, but none other than Grover Cleveland himself (played by Pat McCormick, paired up with Shelley Duvall's First Lady like he was with Carol Burnett in A Wedding...apparently, Altman finds stick-thin ladies coupled with towering, walrus-looking dynamos hilarious, which may explain his decision to direct Popeye.) That Cleveland is included as an actual character represents not only the stakes of the plot but the aim of the satire: America - history - itself! Walker is literally, as described, a "mystery man" - a ubiquitous amalgram of fanfare and slogans. But Cleveland is as much a pompous windbag as Cody, with an aide literally whispering in his ear like a living 19th century teleprompter. It's hardly an unrealistic portrayal of a president, and probably seemed particularly appropriate to the Jimmy Carter era, but to set sites on the most famous man in America and portray him as a supercilious moron is to limit what in Nashville had (at least) been unfettered, ambivalent mockery...the use of Cleveland plays out like Elliott Gould and Julie Christie's "aren't celebrities brainless boobs?" cameos from the earlier film. Buffalo Bill is simply too obvious about what it's sending up.

As in Nashville, the American flag turns up again and again. If the level of satire isn't apparent from Bill's Dr. Strangelove-evoking subtitle, it is from the constant surfacing of red, white and blue all over the picture. Altman considered himself an outlaw and a jokester, so in his movies he singled out self-serious targets. The army and medical fields are ultra-serious, so he satirized them with irreverent military doctors; the founding of the American West is glamorized with heroes, so he made McCabe a pitiful coward. So it makes sense that Bill Cody is represented as a racist, ego-maniacal prima donna and the ongoing massacre of Native Americans, so recent to the events of the film, would be the sensitive, decidedly unheroic reality the director intended to present to audiences of the 70's. But to be that specific was a disservice to his own style. Altman's open style, loose form, characters who run into each other, music and sound taking the narrative by the hand and lending it structure, unexpected zooms, improvisation...it's all so specifically non-specific. So when he tried to say something in one of his films or target someone, he lost that looseness by the very trappings of syntactic responsibility to the satire. It's something that hurt his later movies like The Player (more on that one in a minute), and in the 16 years between those two films Altman would struggle with how to present his protagonists (look no further than Popeye, a straight-uphero in a movie that went way too far trying to appeal to everyone: kids, musical fans, comedy lovers, E.C. Segar purists, etc.)

Since Buffalo Bill implicates not only American history but the Hollywood western for its part in aiding the demonizing of American Indians and glorification of white conquerors, the constuct of the William Cody character becomes a critique of the movie hero. This must have felt to Altman like he was really sticking it to the studios, who at the time were done with the Popeye Doyle's and Travis Bickle's and were staging a comeback for classic heroes like those found in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or Rocky. Clearly people must have been turned off by the fact that Cody is so unremittingly deserving of the audience's spite. He's an epic liar. He's a womanizer, moving from one company opera singer to another, who is rendered impotent by his frustration over the "truth" that Sitting Bull represents. He can't even muster the competency to do what he's supposed to be good at when he fails to track Sitting Bull after the chief and his tribe have vacated the grounds. And he does nothing to redeem himself. Most of Altman's effort goes towards making Buffalo Bill small - his trademark zooms take away his benevolence, especially in the last shot of the movie, but this shouldn't be confused with humanizing the character...it's more like humiliation. But Altman is always best at depicting losers who want to make a splash in the world. Attacking those at the top is boring, although ironically he decided to use an actor at the very top to do it.

* 'Um, Secret Honor!' is what you're thinking. I'm sure there's a way to defend every one of Altman's movies between Popeye and The Player but you've got to admit that even the best of them like Secret Honor and Vincent and Theo lack an essential "Altman-ness." I also agree with Stu Steimer that Secret Honor feels less like an Altman achievement than a tour de force from Philip Baker Hall.

** For the purposes of this article, I'm grouping the general public with the most vocal of audiences, professional critics. Needless to say there's a ton more to be milked out of critics' relationship to Altman in terms of his perceived successes and failures, but that's more involved than I want to get as far as the background of Altman's career. Maybe some other time.

*** I guess then I'd have to apply it to O.C. & Stiggs, Vincent and Theo...this must be why I'm constantly under the impression that Cagney & Lacey was an Altman movie rather than a TV show, or that Altman directed Micky and Nicky, or Mother Jugs & Speed.

**** Because of her raves for McCabe, Long Goodbye and Nashville, people often cite Buffalo Bill as the end of Kael's critical love affair with Altman despite the fact that she had more or less dismissed Brewster McCloud, Images and California Split at the time of their release. Immediately following Buffalo Bill, she had little love for 3 Women and hated A Wedding. She didn't bother writing a full review for Quintet, as if silently acknowledging that the director had sunk so low that it was no longer worth her time to acknowledge his failure.

***** It has to be said that this is one of Keitel's most wooden and unremarkable performances. In a film that wastes actors like Kevin McCarthy and Burt Lancaster, Keitel is the most notably lost.

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