Illusions of Grandeur: Altman, Kopit, and the Legends of the Wild West

Article excerpt

Robert Altman must like the art of cinematic adap- tation-his list of upcom- ing projects includes film versions of Kurt Vonne- gut's Breakfast of Cham- pions and Peter Gent's North Dallas Forty, and he had planned to direct E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime until ousted by producer Dino De Laurentiis. One of his latest works, Buf- falo Bill and the Indians, is also an adaptation of sorts. Even though the credits say this film was only "suggested by" Ar- thur Kopit's play Indians, there is no better way to understand the film, or the play, than to compare these two visualizations of Americans and their visions of grandeur. Both are crowded, unruly works in which a prevail- ing visual metaphor- the Wild West Show in all its gaudy glory- is the start- ing point for getting at the levels of illusion that camouflage the real facts and figures of the American heritage. Altaian's and Kopit's unique methods of presenting the Wild West Show and approaches to the truths underlying its splendorous hoopla do indeed make film and play separate but at the same time complementary works.

Altman's Buffalo Bill (Paul Newman) tells Sitting Bull when the latter first signs on with the show, "you'll find it ain't all that different from real life." In fact, it is, and the particular ways in which Altman and Kopit bring to life America's first show business extravaganza reflect not only the medium being used but also the special concerns of each artist. Altman makes use of all the iliusionistic resources film offers to re-create the world of the Wild West Show. At first even the show itself seems like the genuine articlethat is, it seems as vividly realistic as all those Hollywood westerns. An unseen narrator speaks of the wonder of America as the camera pans across a fog-enshrouded hillside, finally coming to rest on a group of would-be settlers. But the sleepy scene is soon transfigured by the onslaught of whooping savages . . . sound familiar?1 The audience seems to be in store for one more face-off between the cowboys and the Indians until Altaian changes directions: the camera moves back for a larger view and we see that it was all a put-on. The Wild West Show cast was merely practicing one of its "numbers." This is just the first of Altman's tricks to encourage his audience to sort out illusory appearance from reality, all of which are done within the context of the carnival-like camp of Wild West Show performers and promoters. Altman's Wild West Show is multidimensional in comparison to Kopit's stage version; for example, we see not only what the paying customers watch but also what goes on behind the scenes, both during and between the slick, upbeat shows- the performers' philandering, the Indians' recalcitrance, Bill's ineffectually . Altman's coverage from all angles of life at the Wild West Show corral is an effective way of refuting Bill's claim that the reproduction and the original West are not "all that different."

Kopit, on the other hand, does not render naturalistically the entire world of the Wild West Show. He points up the disparity between the show's re-creation and "real life" by deliberately calling attention to the falsity of the reproduction. Vera Jiji has labeled Kopit's techniques of presenting Buffalo Bill Cody's circus "Brechtian,"2 and clearly he does emphasize the theatricality and hence artificiality of the show. The opening stage directions in the first of the play's thirteen scenes illustrate Kopit's self-conscious use of music, lighting, voice-over narration, and props to break the illusion of reality:

Eerie light now on stage; dim spotlights sweep the floor as if trying to locate something in space. Brief, distorted strains of Western American music. A VOICE reverberates from all about the theatre.

Voice: Cody . . . Cody . . . Cody! . . . CODY!

One of the spotlights passes something: a man on a horse. The spotlight slowly retraces itself, picks up the horse and rider. They are in a far corner of the stage; they move in slow motion. …