California Split (1974)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Long mired in music rights issues and considered a relatively minor entry in the Robert Altman canon, California Split now looks more like a crucial point in the evolution of film sound technology and one of the best exemplars of Altman’s patented brand of naturalistic cinema. It’s a transition point between the genre-revising likes of M*A*S*H and The Long Goodbye and the sprawling ensembles of Nashville and A Wedding, focusing on the tropes of the gambling film and the buddy comedy without forgetting about character. It encompasses the melancholy weight of endless games of chance alongside the pleasures of boozy bar talk. Altman eyes the winners and the losers with equal fascination, perhaps because, being a gambling man himself, he knew the milieu all too well.
Long mired in music rights issues and considered a relatively minor entry in the Robert Altman canon, California Split now looks more like a crucial point in the evolution of film sound technology and one of the best exemplars of Altman’s patented brand of naturalistic cinema.
Penned by actor and self-confessed gambling addict Joseph Walsh (who makes an indelible impression in a single scene as the intimidating bookie Sparkie, walking on crutches due to Walsh’s real-life injury), the film concerns two different but intertwined men caught in the grip of the gambling life: moody magazine writer Bill (George Segal) and free-spirited wisecrack Charlie (Elliott Gould, the quintessential Altman actor). They first cross paths as just two of many individuals in a bustling, low-level poker hall (a dance hall cleverly disguised by production designer Leon Ericksen) peopled with players of various shapes, sizes, and dispositions. From the onset it’s clear that Bill’s there to play and to keep mostly to himself, while Charlie can’t help speaking his mind to all comers; he even talks back to the automatic poker video that explicates over the soundtrack the rules of the game, echoing the PA system of M*A*S*H and presaging the opening record promo of Nashville. The scene drops us right into a polyphony of American voices, the stuff of Altman’s dreams, and this first use of a revolutionary 8-track sound system brings him closer than ever to realizing the aural density of real life.
Following a tense and richly detailed scuffle with a mustachioed sore loser (witness everyone scooping up their chips the second trouble erupts), Bill and Charlie meet again in a nearby dank bar to trade drunken bets involving Disney’s seven dwarfs. A further run-in with the sore loser, played with exquisite gruffness by the screenwriter’s brother Ed Walsh, lands them in jail only to be picked up by Charlie’s home companions, the confident Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and naive Susan (Gwen Welles), both hookers graced with inner lives and played with luminous specificity. Prentiss has a penchant for breakfast cereal and TV Guide, while Welles, soon to be a victim of gross indignities in Nashville, gets numerous lovely close-ups and the often exclusive focus of Altman’s otherwise roaming camera. They seem like natural counterparts to Charlie and Bill, even as Bill is married but separated and can’t quite seem to commit. In other films, these ordinary figures would be life’s victims or simply absent; instead, if not heroes, they’re at least worthy of cinematic recognition, of being the protagonists of their own stories.
From then on, California Split has an ostensible focus (Bill’s quest for a big score to pay off his bookie) but really becomes a series of entertaining and illuminating vignettes where characters can mill around and interact. Robert Altman usually displays a kind of prickly humanism, a willingness to indulge in the gestures and chit-chat of his main characters and those packed in, around, and outside the frame, even if only to ultimately satirize or chastise them. While many locations and incidents, from the opening gambling joint to the later horse race and boxing match, are staged for the film, many of the extras are as authentic as could be: in addition to real gamblers both famous and anonymous, members of the drug rehab center Synanon were on hand to bring an unstudied verisimilitude. Altman clearly loves these faces and vocal cadences, his camera eye and recording ear roving about to collect and arrange them all to his liking. In the best moments of his films, he taps into the electric flow of life outside the screen and stories suggested but left untold.
Where California Split deconstructs its chosen genres of the buddy flick and the gambling film is in its downbeat, sputtering ending.
Charlie is too good a bullshit artist, and Bill too soulful a victim of his own addiction, to move away from the center of the action for too long, but occasionally side characters intrude to fill out the fully-realized gambling environments: my favorites include Walsh’s ex-wife Barbara London as a victim of Charlie’s two-faced cunning; a Reno casino floor-sweeper who surreptitiously tries his hand at a slot machine; and the magnificent lounge singer Phyllis Shotwell, whose songs (sources of many of the aforementioned rights issues that have still prevented the release of an uncut DVD) fill the soundtrack even before she appears in the film’s climactic sequences. Yet Altman’s generosity outside the four main figures has its limits, leading to an excruciating scene where they gang up on and fool a transvestite (Bert Remsen) who hires the women to accompany him out in public. Here the filmmaker’s and screenwriter’s chauvinism clashes with their humanism, unable to let the in-group set of protagonists bond without humiliating some kind of vulnerable out-group. Such exclusion and misanthropy would irrevocably mar some of Altman’s lesser films, but here it’s merely one sour note in the cinematic equivalent of an otherwise messy but rewarding improvisational jazz session.
Where California Split deconstructs its chosen genres of the buddy flick and the gambling film is in its downbeat, sputtering ending. Bill’s big score is treated not as a triumph but as a moment of reflection over the hollowness of his life. The showdown at the poker table is barely introduced before Charlie’s dejected antics on the Reno casino’s lower floor take over the proceedings. Although it fails to deliver a predictable catharsis (which would have gone over like gangbusters under the hand of the film’s early prospective director, Steven Spielberg), the final sequences do clarify a lot about the two leads’ personalities. For all his hip, motormouth bluster, Charlie’s the one stuck in a perpetual loop of gambling, excited only by the prospect of taking the winnings to more casinos, while Bill is able to shut him down with an ocean of sheer silence. Without it being a strict homage, Bill’s slumped framing through an interior casino hallway brings to mind the iconic image of John Wayne that closes The Searchers: triumphal yet unable to celebrate that triumph with even his new makeshift family. Despite falling briefly into the collective orbit of Charlie, Barbara, and Susan, Bill is ultimately made of different stuff, and the thrills of chance and competition have worn off. Although filled with zany interactions and both warm and caustic humor, California Split ends with a self-critical lesson on the vagaries of the interminable life of a gambler, where the endgame is never really in sight.
Freewheeling, deceptively modest, and personal, Robert Altman's California Split examines a distinctly American subculture with knowing wit and cinematic ingenuity, hallmarks of the maverick director's most satisfying work.