CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 491).

It’s really a pity that the version of California Split that eventually came out

on DVD, due to musical clearances, had to eliminate some of the play with

Phyllis Shotwell’s songs alluded to here. (For a much later consideration of

this film, including these changes, go here.) — J.R.




U.S.A., 1974Director: Robert Altman

In a poker game at a gambling casino near Los Angeles, Charlie

Waters, a winner, is accused by Lew, a sore loser, of playing in


cahoots with the dealer, Bill Denny. Bill and Charlie become

acquainted afterwards in a nearby bar and get cheerfully drunk

together; outside, they are beaten up by Lew (with the help of

friends), who makes off with their winnings. Charlie invites

Bill to stay over at his house, which he shares with two

prostitutes, Barbara and Susan. In the morning, Bill returns to

his job on a glossy magazine but is persuaded to take off that

afternoon and join Charlie at the racetrack, where they make

a small fortune on one of Charlie’s hunches. Wanting to celebrate

with Barbara and Susan, they pretend to be policemen in order to

intimidate the girls’ transvestite client “Helen” and persuade

him to leave, then go to a prizefight. Held up on their way out,

Charlie insists on giving the robber only half of his $1460. Later,

encountering Lew at the racetrack, Charlie beats him up and

recovers the money initially taken from him. Hounded by his

bookie Sparkie to pay back a debt, Bill sells a large number of

possessions and prepares to drive to Reno; Charlie, back from

a Mexican trip, persuades Bill to let him come along and

supplies some of the betting money. Remaining sober and

methodical, Bill wins a total of $82,000 at poker, blackjack

and roulette, which he splits with Charlie; then he explains

that he’s through with gambling – no longer feeling or believing

in the mystical sensation associated with a winning streak –-

and leaves for home.

Even before the title sequence starts, over the familiar Columbia

Pictures logo, California Split has already begun to chatter. A

steady rush of talk — telegraphed, overheard, sometimes barely

audible –- spills into the opening scenes like a scatter of loose change

from a slot machine, meeting and eluding our grasp in imitation of a

strictly chance operation. Admittedly the overall odds of the game

are somewhat fixed: the movie has a script, two box office favorites

and hard Hollywood money behind it. But the improvisatory spirit

is unmistakable, if only because an alert audience is obliged to ad-lib

in order to keep up, feeling its way through a conjunction of background

and foreground elements, and compelled to shift its attention as often

as the characters. At first glance a throwback to the rambling antics

of M*A*S*H; the new film in fact offers a substantially different

experience. While the former film affected to play on the audibility

range of its dialogue, it never really let the spectator miss a significant

line. McCabe and Mrs. Miller on the other hand, actually broached the

idea of a spectator mingling with a plot–discovering it in his own way, in

his own time–rather than simply following it. Altman’s conception of character

was altered in the process; the notion of collective effort in M*A*S*H became

overlaid with irony in McCabe (where the successful building of a town was

offset by the two lost figures who ran it), and virtually atomized in the

broken encounters of isolated cranks in The Long Goodbye. Much of this

fragmentation and discontinuity persists in California Split: even if the

sense of a common bond between the gambler heroes is practically all that

keeps its putative narrative going, it is ostensibly determined and then

severed by the arbitrary whims of chance, and continually interwoven

with the jabbering world of compulsive night people around them.

For the first time in Altman, there is no moral judgment of the

behavior occurring within this absurdist framework: the respective

introverted and extroverted styles of Segal and Gould are presented

in their own terms, as they play against one another, and interpretations

are left to the viewer’s discretion. The interest of these styles is based

on a kind of existential suspense common to jazz and bullfighting,

where identity/authenticity is prodded, tested and revealed by outside

pressures requiring some sort of accommodation — whether it’s winning,

losing, betting, being robbed, seduced (an extraordinary scene between

Gwen Welles and Segal), interrupted (as, in the same scene by Ann

Prentiss), or otherwise challenged. Altman’s establishment of this climate

largely derives from the chance encounters staged by his soundtracks

through the intervention of an ‘independent’ text, achieving some of its

jazziest effects here through Phyllis Shotwell’s raunchy delivery of (mainly)

of-screen tunes. In the second scene at the local casino, a song begins

loudly over the poker players in long shot, recedes to a murmur overtaken

by these players in medium shot, then regains volume with a close-up of

Segal –- playing with an audience’s diverse routes into the scene. The

lyrics usually have only the broadest relation to the action, but sometimes

they draw closer in witty surprises: “I’m goin’ to Kansas City’, is heard

over the trip to Reno, and after the heroes arrive, Shotwell’s and Gould’s

wholly independent raps suddenly converge on the word”nobody”.

Gould’s verbal cadenzas embody this spirit throughout, for Charlie is an

aggressive loudmouth forced to justify his vulgarity with inventiveness and

virtuosity, while Segal plays, as it were, a sort of inner-fire Miles Davis to

Gould’s Charlie Parker. A similar contrast is afforded by the respective ‘hard’

and ‘soft’ styles of Prentiss and Welles, each as remarkable as the other. After

the more simplistic formal conjunctions of Thieves Like Us, Altman’s

touching demonstration that he can pursue a linear plot as such when he

wants to — the life of the latest film is motored by a series of gambles taken

for their own sake. Perhaps the most notable carry-over is the scenes of

awkward domesticity: the polyphonic dinners ofThieves are matched by

Charlie and Bill’s wonderful breakfast of Froot Loops, Lucky Charms and

beer. The mottled lighting schemes of bars and gambling dens exploit the

Notion of competing centers of attention, and what might first appear as a

loose construction of gags is in fact a packed surface composed of many

constantly shifting parts. In short, the charges already brought against

California Split for formlessness suggest a grammatical problem more than

a real one: its triumphant achievement –- and Altman’s — is to change form

from a noun into a verb.


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