CALIFORNIA SPLIT A
USA (108 mi) 1974 ‘Scope d: Robert Altman
USA (108 mi) 1974 ‘Scope d: Robert Altman
One of the unsung films of the 70’s, coming on the heels of Vietnam, Watergate, and ending with the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August, 1974, just two days after the American release, films such as Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974), Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974), and this one all contribute to a pervasive feeling of nihilism running rampant throughout America, where a government of laws and even a Presidency that we once thought was sacrosanct are suddenly fallible. Slamming the door on 60’s idealism, when the deflated hopes of the Civil Rights era and anti-war protests did not eradicate poverty, racism, or even ignorance, the 70’s was an era of especially edgy and well-made paranoid conspiracy thrillers in movies, including Alan Pakula’s KLUTE (1971), THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), and Sydney Pollacks’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), all of which express an impending doom creeping into the moral fabric of society. But rather than deal with this issue head-on, Altman chooses to make a modest film where not a lot happens, yet the atmosphere is rich with intimate detail, becoming one of his loosest and freest expressions, feeling as if there was plenty of on-the-set improvisation. The film was unseen for decades other than out-of-print VHS tapes due to music clearances and copyright issues and when a DVD was finally released in 2004 there were three minutes missing, with specifics detailed here: DVDBeaver.com [Gregory Meshman]. Nonetheless, this is easily Altman’s most naturalistic, Cassavetes-like film, especially the way the lead characters spontaneously break out into song at a moment’s notice, unleashing pent-up emotions, where this is largely a dense, character driven portrait of the effects of gambling addiction (the director and screenwriter are both recovering gamblers, where Altman acknowledges “At one time I could stand at a craps table for two days”), starring George Segal and Elliot Gould as Bill and Charlie, two compulsive gamblers, where one is unfortunately down-on-his-luck, while the other is a more free spirited soul that takes a liking to him. Accentuating the authenticity of the gambling lifestyle, and the theme of addiction, the director chooses to use extras in the opening gambling sequence that are actually recovering drug addicts from Synanon, while also using real life gamblers and bystanders throughout the film from authentic locations
Mostly shot in gambling casinos using an 8-track recording device, which allows 8 overlapping layers of dialogue to be heard simultaneously throughout the room, this method creates a mix of chaos amidst a world on the verge of spiraling out of control, where the two are caught up in random events, where the attempt to gain control seems futile and senseless, yet their will to prevail feels infinitely complex and ultimately absurd. While this is not an acid tinged, nightmarish vision, it’s more a Dostoyevskian plunge into the lower depths of reality. The two characters meet, seemingly by chance at a poker table in a room filled mostly with older women, like typical bingo parlors, where one guy at the table is a particularly sore loser. As Bill and Charlie celebrate their winnings in a nearby bar, they get stinking drunk, delving into the hazards of memory loss where neither one can remember all of the Seven Dwarfs, where their euphoria is short-lived, as the sore loser laying in wait (Edward Walsh, brother of the screenwriter Joseph) beats the crap out of both of them, stealing their money, where the two can be seen licking their wounds over breakfast in Charlie’s apartment the next morning, which he shares with two call girls, Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, who provide a kind of ditzy LA alternative mindset. While Bill is more close to the vest and has a somewhat square job working as a magazine editor, Charlie is a freewheeling, live wire act who continually lures him away from his desk with the promised land of a world out there filled with fast action at the track, where the two quickly become best friends, giving this the unique feel of a buddy road picture, as these guys are always on the run somewhere, going to boxing matches, playing poker, or drinking, where their world consists of drifting from one impulsively driven, adrenaline-packed high to the inevitable lows that follow, where Bill in particular starts accumulating heavy debt, where writer and co-producer Joseph Walsh also makes an appearance as his loan shark, Sparkie, whose patience runs thin. “Didn’t I tell you that I’ve got busts happening all over the city, that my parents are in town, and you come in here and you don't have dollar one?”
Down and out and seemingly at his wits end, Bill gets the harebrained idea to sell his car and most of his belongings in a desperate attempt to make a splash in Reno, where he just has a good feeling and he doesn’t need Charlie spoiling it for him. Never afraid to bet a hunch, Charlie gets behind this crazed energy, where the two agree to split whatever winnings. Told in episodic segments that are little more than real life vignettes, the two spend a wild weekend in Reno, resplendent in its artificiality, but once we get a feel for the lay of the land, beautifully expressed by the running musical commentary of piano lounge singer Phyllis Shotwell, Altman takes us underneath the surface through the differing perspectives of these two guys. Bill is driven to succeed with near manic zeal, searching out a private, high-stakes poker game, while Charlie is equally enthralled just taking it all in while sitting at the bar. Before a seat opens up at the table, Charlie gets into Bill’s ear, sizing up each of the men sitting at the table like a boxer getting last minute instructions before entering the ring, while Bill is maintaining his composure by staying sober. But after the first few games, Bill asks Charlie to leave the room, as his presence is affecting his concentration. Both men then go into their own internalized rollercoaster ride of changing emotions, where Altman uses Charlie’s exclusion to feed into the audience’s own expectations, as they likely feel just as cheated missing out on all the action. Without a dime to his name, as he’s given everything to Bill, Charlie wanders around kibitzing on other poker games going on in the casino, where his overly sarcastic running monologue matches the song selection by Phyllis Shotwell, who keeps churning out the old standards, all of which continually coats the film in a layer of superficiality, while offscreen reverberations continue to swell, as Bill occasionally comes out for air, reporting the latest update, but he keeps going back for more, intermixed with an improbably driven need to switch to blackjack, or roulette, all the while keeping Charlie away, who is dying a slow death not knowing what’s happening. Finally, Bill allows Charlie to join him at the craps table, where Bill goes on a roll that most can only dream of, where the house players and the watching public are simply in awe, pointing at the guy who’s winning all the money, like he’s a headline story. When Charlie collects the winnings, he can’t contain his unbridled enthusiasm, like pulling his finger from the hole in the dam, and all the water comes gushing out, breaking into a frenzied moment of delirious, nonstop commentary. But Bill is exhausted, in a state of hushed quiet, where he literally doesn’t feel anything, no jubilation, no joy, no ecstasy, only the hollowness of the moment, where the American Dream is viewed as an empty landscape filled with pitfalls, suddenly feeling senseless and self-defeating. There’s a river of delusion under both men’s vantage point, continually covered in cocktails, lounge songs, and the everpresent red carpet that beckons, but by the end, despite the comic tone, both players feel equally lonely and pathetic in what is ultimately a devastating portrait of crumbling dreams.