“Pal… I’m gonna win!!!”
So says George Segal’s Bill Denny as he’s being flattened by the pressures of his overdue gambling debts, his irritated bookie, and being stuck in the unenviable position of having run out of personal items to sell for gambling money. It should also be said that he’s been on one hell of an impressive losing streak over the past couple of weeks. But, still, gripped by the kind of desperation that occurs when there are no options left, he says that he’s going to win a high rolling poker match in Reno as if it’s an absolute certainty. Given his circumstances, what the hell else is he going to say?
Robert Altman’s California Split is a film that understands that specific kind of desperation better than any movie I’ve ever seen. It also has a lot to say about dysfunction, camaraderie, semi-homoerotic male bonding, codependency, ennui, danger, disappointment, and, finally, the empty feeling one has after going jowls-deep into the depths of your own mania. For a small movie about two lost souls who luck out to find each other and enjoy a few eventful weeks together, California Split, one of Altman’s very best efforts, is alive in a way other films can only dream of being.
After randomly being seated at the same table at an L.A. poker club and then escaping the wrath of a fellow player who might as well wear a cape that says “sore loser,” Bill and Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould, never cooler than he is here) connect again in a nearby bar where Charlie’s infectious and quick witted assessments on basketball wagers win Bill over. Soon, they’re drunkenly staring over a graveyard of empty beer glasses and making low-stakes, bullshit bets as to whether or not they can name all seven dwarfs in their present condition. The evening ends with them getting beaten up, robbed of their winnings, arrested, and then, in the hazy, early morning hours, bailed out of jail by Gould’s call girl roommates (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, both unforgettable and fantastic) which then leads to a fruitful, winning partnership.
There are many things going on under the surface but there truly is a sly romantic comedy at the heart of California Split. Sure it’s not very conventional but I’m not sure what other subgenre creates the kind of unfettered joy Bill and Charlie feel when they’re around each other. There are times that George Segal is smiling so widely, you can see all of his back teeth and fear that somehow the top half of his head may become unhooked from his lower jaw. As the movie rolls along, their relationship ebbs and flows as winning and losing streaks exchange hands leading to a temporary separation, a reconciliation, and one last big dance before finally breaking up. The film is set during the Christmas season but it’s not something the audience would notice given Altman’s insistence on keeping the two protagonists cloistered in the details of their own world and blinded by their mutual, raw enthusiasm for action and each other’s company.
The film immediately frames Elliott Gould’s flashy Charlie in stark contrast to George Segal’s more buttoned-down Bill. They come off as two very different guys but, in the granular, they really aren’t all that different. Charlie may seem like the wise guy motormouth who is careening toward disaster but it’s actually Bill who is on the path to rack and ruin. Charlie is just already there; a smooth-talking loser who takes life one day at a time and doesn’t even pretend to give a hang about a day job. He bets like a chaos agent and doesn’t seem to care whether he wins or loses. Bill, on the other hand, still keeps an office in the startup magazine for which he works though it’s not clear if he’s paid for writing, which we never see him do, or avoiding his boss (an impossibly young Jeff Goldblum), at which he’s more adept. And though it’s not explicitly telegraphed, the audience gets the sense that Bill’s failed marriage is probably still within view in the rear view mirror and that a reconciliation wouldn’t necessarily be completely out of the question.
But the screenplay by Joseph Walsh (who turns up as Sparkie, Bill’s bookie whose patience has finally run out) is less interested in the well-worn path of personal redemption when it comes its characters as, a recovering gambling addict himself, Walsh understands that the joys of the compulsive gambler are small, fleeting, and infrequent. After Bill runs a streak that nets $84,000, he goes into a semi-trance and shakily rids every pocket of its gambling chips as if he’s vomiting after a particularly impressive bender. Exhausted, he holds his head in his hands as the life is drained out of him. Even winning is painful and empty. “Don’t mean a fuckin’ thing, does it?” Charlie observes.
While he had churned out a few masterpieces in the previous four years, California Split cemented Robert Altman as one of his generation’s most observational filmmakers. Standing the tallest in a class that included Paul Mazursky, Jonathan Demme, and Hal Ashby, Altman reveled in the details and quirky inhabitants that (still) make America unique and special. Early in the film, the audience is treated to a mini-drama that erupts between a bottomless go-go dancer and her gambling addicted girlfriend which ends with the dancer having to borrow against her earnings just to get the girlfriend out of the bar. It’s a small moment that occurs courtesy of Altman’s penchant for overlapping dialogue and roaming camera but it comes alive and makes three-dimensional people out of who would be nothing more than glorified extras living on the edge of the frame in a lesser filmmaker’s work. Altman argues for an America being a country of Mom and Apple Pie as long as we understand that Mom is a hooker named Barbara who compulsively reads the TV Guide to unwind and Apple Pie is Froot Loops (or Lucky Charms, your choice) and beer. It’s an America of gambling superstitions, all night brothels, and Friday night prize fights. It’s an America choking on a cloud of cigarette smoke in tiny rooms with poor ventilation, watered down drinks at the racetrack, and lonely people perfumed in Shalimar. In short, it’s not Norman Rockwell’s America but, instead, an America that actually exists.
At the end of the film, Bill and Charlie go their separate ways, Bill telling Charlie, “I gotta go home.” But Charlie can see Bill even when Bill refuses to see himself. Charlie knows Bill doesn’t live anywhere outside the action and that he’s only pretending that he does. For there was probably a time in his life that Charlie said that he, too, had to go home only to realize that he was already home. All of this is unspoken because California Split is that rarity of a movie where the dialogue tells us plenty but the characters’ actions tell us more.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain