Wednesday, September 26, 2007

9/26: La Coquille et le Clergyman; Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Germaine Dulac's La Coquille et le Clergyman is often called the first surrealist film. In that sense, it's inarguably interesting, pointing the way towards the two Dali/Bunuel collaborations and other early landmarks of surreal cinema. But separate from its historic context, Dulac's film doesn't hold up quite as well as some of its peers. The film concerns a priest struggling with sexual desire, and his struggle is interpreted symbolically at every turn. These symbols range from the obtuse — his coat tails growing ridiculously long — to the rather obvious, as in the stocky, medal-festooned military figure who haunts him, a symbol of male potency and success. Such obvious Freudian subtexts abound, but for a surrealist work the imagery is often surprisingly drab, and it lacks the energy and vitality of Un Chien Andalou or the American surrealism of Sidney Peterson. Dulac does provide a few memorable images by dividing up the screen into multiple overlapping images in superimpositions. Most notably, in a scene towards the end, the priest's face is slowly replaced, piece by piece, by disconnected images of broken glass, running water, and unidentified rubbish. Finally, all that remains is one of his eyes in the center of this patchwork, and then it too is overrun by a rush of water. This kind of striking moment, rich in symbolic overtones and visually quite strong, is unfortunately rather rare in the film as a whole. This is a film better remembered for its importance to its time than for anything it may actually be as a work of art.

Robert Altman was never known as an easy director to appreciate, and if he was anything, he was entirely unpredictable. His career is a series of one "strange" film after another, with each subsequent one overturning even those expectations which had managed to develop since his last film. This unpredictability and artistic eclecticism should have scared away the mainstream for good, and indeed it did leave Altman alone for most of the 80s, before his big comeback with The Player. But throughout the 70s, the mainstream kept turning to Altman, despite the fact that 9 times out of 10 he refused to give them quite what they wanted. And nothing could be further from what the mainstream wanted, at any point, than his 1976 masterwork Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson. It was, oddly enough, produced by super-producer Dino de Laurentiis, who clearly did not get what he wanted either. If Dino and the American people were looking for Wild West spectacle and celebration to surround the bicentennial, Altman was much more interested in examining the nature of American mythology and history.

Buffalo Bill is many things. First and foremost, it's a satire of the entertainment industry, especially the way in which show business can gobble up real events and spit out entirely new versions of them which will be swallowed whole by audiences. Altman demythologizes his title character, presenting him as a simple and unexceptional man inflated to far above his natural state, to a level of expectations he could never hope to meet. Paul Newman does a tremendous job as Bill, and as the film goes on and the legend begins to deflate, Newman allows more and more of the man beneath to show through. This culminates in a stunning penultimate scene, in which a drunk and hallucinating Newman imagines a conversation with the Indian chief Sitting Bull. By this point, the legend has completely fallen away and the man himself is stripped bare; you can see Bill trying to rebuild his myth completely from scratch, pausing, stumbling, rewriting his own script on the fly. It's a remarkable scene, with Altman's probing camera constantly staying just outside the action, zooming slowly in on and Newman and winding around him as he delivers this pitch-perfect performance.

Buffalo Bill is also Altman's wry commentary on America's own mythologizing history. As Sitting Bull says at one point, through his ever-present intermediary, "history is just disrespect for the dead." The film's central premise involves Bill recruiting the famous chief for his Wild West show, but when Sitting Bull arrives, he refuses to participate in any of the canned acts, in which cowardly and sneaky Indians are routed by brave cowboys. Instead, the chief proposes a new performance, in which the unarmed Indians welcome the white men, trade with them, agree to peace, and then are promptly slaughtered. The tension between Bill and Sitting Bull arises because, though the Sioux chief is the defeated one and Bill is on the side of the victors, Bill realizes that his rival truly is what he only pretends to be. Altman's film is a real marvel, something of a forgotten masterpiece buried amid a string of such amazing films in the 70s. There's so much to talk about here that it's hard to even know where to begin. Though the film's central focus is clearly on Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, the sidelines are packed with that distinctive Altman ensemble, all turning in great performances and getting some choice gags and scenes of their own.

Geraldine Chaplin is perfect as Annie Oakley, and Altman showcases her in a wonderfully executed scene where she puts on a show of sharpshooting targets held by a man on a trotting horse. Altman here breaks away from his signature long shots and zooms, using rapid but purposeful editing to accentuate Chaplin's performance — the periodic closeups on her beaming face as she hoots with delight punctuate the scene visually in much the same way as her gunshots do aurally. Joel Grey gets another choice role, as the promoter who's constantly inventing his own words. Also waiting in the wings are Harvey Keitel as Bill's eager nephew and a seemingly endless parade of opera singers who Bill is infatuated with; their warbling trills provide yet another disorienting touch as the soundtrack to a nominal western. In small ways like this and myriad others, Altman was determined to undermine the conventions of the genre, reveal the mythologizing which covers up ugly facts about America's past, and satirize the show biz flashiness of Hollywood filmmaking, which similarly glosses over reality for lurid and easy-to-package fantasies. This is one of Altman's best and most complex films, from a decade in his career which spawned an inordinate number of masterpieces. That this particular film has now been largely forgotten, lost in the shuffle or considered flawed by critical consensus, is a true shame. This is a film that deserves to be rediscovered by one and all with fresh eyes. It's funny, moving, bitingly intelligent, and brimming with energy and vitality. In other words, it's possibly the most prototypically American film around, even as it strives to dismantle and question traditional ideas about America.


sophomorecritic said...

If you judge it by the criteria of what actually happens in the plot and how long the film is, it's kind of a boring film. All the stuff and interesting points you mentioned, do happen, but at a very lackadaisical pace.

Films like MASH, McCabe and Mrs Miller, and The Player take their time telling the story but enough interesting things happen in the middle. I also don't think I ever saw an entire battle recreated which I thought was a dissapointment. Like Prairie Home Companion, I assumed that part of the entertainment of the film to keep things moving along was showing us the show within a show, and I don't think we saw too much of it.

Noel Vera said...

Hallo, Ed only read this now. Not a lot of ink devoted to this film

It's flawed I think but hardly the total failure people say it is. The film is basically Newman as Bill slipping on a very long banana peel; Sitting Bull facilitates. The setup is obvious, but the actual execution (the overlapping dialogue, the multithread, multicharacter narrative, the deadpan humor) works a long way to mitigate the obviousness. I don't think Bill is a complex character, but neither is he meant to be; he reminds me of Mark Twain's bullfrog, huge and self satisfied and stuffed full of lead shot. Bull is unreadable nobility, the passivity saved by a sneaky wit; Chaplin's Oakley is the human face in this film; she weeps, from the sidelines.