Tuesday Editor’s Pick: California Split (1974)

by on November 2, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Nov 5 at 6:15* & Tue Nov 8 at 3:45 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]

*Q&A with Elliott Gould and filmmakers Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen, Solitary Man)


J. Hoberman and Scott Foundas’ “Jew Wave” series continues thru Nov 13. Saturday was so packed with repertory goodness we had to come back later to Robert Altman’s underrated masterpiece, which has been in distribution limbo due to music rights issues and flat-out neglect. Take hearty note: Elliott Gould will be in attendance at Saturday’s screening, along with gambling aficionado filmmakers Brian Koppelman and David Levien.


While working for four years in the Film Forum Repertory Programming Office, the most moving feedback I ever received was Stephanie Zacharek’s report for Salon, following Altman’s passing:

Even in pictures whose names aren’t generally rattled off on the “masterpiece” list, like “California Split,” those gifts are undeniable. “California Split” is a story told in non sequiturs; its scenes don’t quite seem to connect while you’re watching them, and yet afterward, almost miraculously, they assemble into a kind of free-form music whose sound is hard to shake. (Bless New York’s Film Forum for recently reviving “California Split.” A colleague of mine who interviewed Altman just a few weeks ago told me that Altman was incredibly pleased that this “lost” little picture had received new life.)


Bob and I aren’t the only ones returning the love…

Nathan Lee for The New York Times:

First you hear it, that trademark polyphony. From a tumultuous muffle of voices rises a clear line of talk, sustained for a moment then subsumed back in the din. Then you see it, those familiar moves. The nimble, mercurial camera work snaking into action in medias res, zeroing in on a detail (a man at a scoreboard) only to break off and follow one tangent (a poker player crossing the room) before doubling back and heading off on another. The scene (a shabby poker parlor) is immediately established, the atmosphere (humid, antsy) is instantly palpable, the energy is unmistakable (avid, dispassionate). Seconds into “California Split” you know you’re in a Robert Altman film. A few minutes more and you know you’re in a great one.


Elliott Gould (Charlie) and George Segal (Bill) star as compulsive gamblers bonding over high stakes and hard luck in the racetracks, card games, crash pads and dive bars of Nixon-era California. Superbly scripted by Joseph Walsh, the 1974 film is a duet for jive and whimper, playing Charlie’s motor-mouthed insouciance off Bill’s insecure desperation. Both a bittersweet buddy picture and a vivid tale of addiction, ”California Split” shows Mr. Altman at his most acute and forgiving. It’s one of the saddest and sweetest entries in his oeuvre and the overlooked gem of his mid-1970’s peak.



Gavin Smith for Film Comment (Nov/Dec 2004):

Never available on video, this study of two compulsive gamblers, their rambling misadventures, and the marginal world they inhabit is one of the Seventies’ most unrecognized masterpieces and one of Altman’s very best films. Without the pretensions of Altman’s more extravagantly lauded movies of the same period, it somehow captures the mood of the country at that odd moment, with its manic highs and aimless torpor. It’s not necessarily about losers, but it is about a form of madness, depicting as it does the sheer fuck-you exhilaration of gambling as well as its ultimate emptiness. Elliott Gould, as the indomitably confident and logorrheic smart-ass Charlie, and George Segal, as the subdued, increasingly desperate Bill, give the performances of their careers, and together they embody the crisis of masculinity that was increasingly overwhelming the “buddy” genre to which the film ostensibly belongs. Altman fills Split with wonderful incidental business and indelible supporting performances from Joseph Walsh (the film’s screenwriter) as a loan shark, Edward Walsh as a sore loser, and, best of all, Ann Prentiss (sister of Paula, who inexplicably never made another film) as Charlie’s prostitute girlfriend. And here’s something to marvel at: pre-Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, and Beverly Hills 90210, Aaron Spelling produced a film worthy of Cassavetes.


Mark Asch for L Magazine:

Gambling, especially back when it was still a niche pastime, is a subculture particularly well-suited to Robert Altman’s flux ensembles and roundabout dialogue; unsurprisingly, California Split is the riffiest entry in his astounding early 70s run. Coasting from track to table, with running mate George Segal prodding him on, Elliot Gould’s performance is pure scat, moored less to an arc about Segal’s debts than to a succession of trailed-off barstool anecdotes-in-the-making. A laid-back hangout session with two anomic thrill-chasers, it’s one of cinema’s most unfortunate middle children: as it stands, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable semi-masterpiece, and it may play even better than that, if you can banish from your head all thoughts of Thieves Like Us (released six months prior), and Nashville (released ten months later) — but why would you want to go and do a fool thing like that?


David Edelstein for New York Magazine:

Among the marvelous works of Robert Altman in that breathless stretch from M*A*S*H (1970) to Nashville (1975) is his gambling movie, California Split, which inexplicably disappeared from circulation for decades. Written by Joseph Walsh, the movie is a mood piece, a low-key but intense study of an ecosystem that centers on a gambling-addicted magazine writer (George Segal) and his companion and enabler (Elliott Gould, doing the same inspired muttering he did in Altman’s The Long Goodbye). What a pair of jokers: Segal high-strung, his eyes shocked open; Gould the quintessential stoner type—a go-along-to-get-along wastrel who lives happily with two hookers (Ann Prentiss and the touchingly vulnerable Gwen Welles).


California Split begins with Altmanesque babble, which is always in the background. We’re used to gambling movies made in a style as feverish as their protagonists. But Altman sits back and watches the ebb and flow—the traffic of lost souls.



Vincent Canby‘s original NYT review:

A fascinating, vivid movie, not quite comparable to any other movie that I can immediately think of. Nor is it easily categorized. “California Split” spends a great deal of its time in poker parlors, at race tracks, in casinos and barrooms, mostly seedy places, smoky, overcrowded, either much too bright or dark as tombs. The sounds of these places — the voices of the croupiers, gamblers and hangers-on, and the songs of Phyllis Shotwell who belts out boozy ballads at a piano bar—are never long from the soundtrack. Even when Charlie and Bill go into the straight world, these sounds follow them.


Mr. Altman has been quoted as saying that “California Split” is “a celebration of gambling,” which is, I think, to underrate it, at least so it seems to someone who is not a gambling nut. The director, his screenwriter Joseph Walsh and the actors have created a movie of so many associations that it’s impossible not to see “California Split” as something much more complex and disturbing.


Most of the gambling here doesn’t really look like much fun. It’s as desperate as the woman at the track who furiously throws her pocketbook and several oranges at Elliott Gould because he’s touted her off a winner. “California Split” is sometimes very funny, but the world it depicts is as bleak as a landscape composed entirely of used-car lots. The present tense for everyone in the film is grim. The clocks are out of sync. A character has Fruit Loops and beer for breakfast. Someone says of a poker game: “It just got started yesterday.”



Series co-programmer J. Hoberman in a cover feature on Gould for the Village Voice:

Marlowe was for a long time Gould’s favorite performance until, he tells me, he stopped having favorites. “Bob [Altman] shows life taking its course. He gave me so much space, I became a jazz actor. I’m a chorus boy and a tap dancer—I understand rhythm and repetition!” Gould gave Altman another terrific improvisational performance in the compulsive-gambling drama California Split, a movie he calls “semi-autobiographical” and which paired him to excellent effect with fellow Jew Wave actor George Segal.

Michael Atkinson, briefly, also for the Voice:

Thieves Like Us, a wide-eyed adaptation of Edward Anderson’s slackjawed-outlaw-lovers novel, captures the Depression-era landscape with dusty fidelity and remains an underseen American New Wave incarnation of nostalgia reflux. The modern-day California Split is even more bitter, tracking Gould and George Segal into a maelstrom of obsessive gambling that climaxes, for better or worse, with a bone-chilling Big Score. Sold as a comedy, the film scans more like American-century Dostoyevsky, with comp cocktails.


Jonathan Rosenbaum in a fabulous piece for Stop Smiling:

“Trusting to luck means listening to voices,” Jean-Luc Godard reportedly said at some point in the mid-Sixties. This has always struck me as one of his more obscure aphorisms, and one that even seems to border on the mystical. Yet the minute one starts to apply it to Robert Altman’s California Split t starts to make some weird kind of sense.


Most importantly, the mix between fiction and documentary throughout is so fully entangled that each winds up educating the other, while the multiple sound levels lead to periodic eruptions, especially in bar scenes, where peripheral characters briefly upstage and overtake the two leads, background becoming foreground and vice versa. One example among many is actually set in a paint store, where Bill looks up his old friend Harvey and gets an impromptu and irrelevant monologue from him about his alleged ESP and why he thinks Bill has tracked him down. Like a minor character in a painting by Brueghel or a comedy by Preston Sturges, he momentarily takes over the movie, then drops out of sight.


Needless to say, this resembles gambling in the number of risks and unforeseeable outcomes that are involved, and there are naturally some losses in this kind of game as well as a few winning streaks. As Altman pointed out, California Split has less plot and more concentration on character than most of his other movies; and when the story is supposed to build to a climax — after Bill rushes off to Reno to gamble his way out of debt, with Charlie in tow — it arguably dribbles off into random shtick, or at least a dramatic diminuendo as it shows the hollowness of Bill’s victory.


Screenwriter Joseph Walsh on that ending, which Gould (accidentally) and Altman (intentionally) changed on set (recounted in the invaluable Robert Altman: An Oral Biography):

Not many movies pull the movie out from under you. Audiences didn’t know how to feel about it when they walked out of the theater. Columbia said we cost them ten million dollars right there. Later on, Steven Speilberg [who was originally slated to direct] said to me, “I could have made millions of dollars with the movie.” Steven would have built the climax different than Bob built it. He said, “I would have built it up to the greatest orgasm in town. The foreplay would have been so unbelievable that when the orgasm cam the audience have been on the edge of its seat.” It would have been a totally different movie. Elliott apologizes to me every year for that.


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The movie will be compared with “M*A*S*H,” the first big hit by Altman (who is possibly our best and certainly our most diverting American director). It deserves that comparison, because it resembles “M*A*S*H” in several big ways: It’s funny, it’s hard-boiled, it gives us a bond between two frazzled heroes trying to win by the rules in a game where the rules re-quire defeat. But it’s a better movie than “M*A*S*H” because here Altman gets it all together. Ever since “M*A*S*H,” he’s been trying to make a kind of movie that would function like a comedy but allow its laughs to dig us deeper and deeper into the despair underneath.


What Altman comes up with is sometimes almost a documentary feel; at the end of “California Split” we know something about organized gambling in this country we didn’t know before. His movies always seem perfectly at home wherever they are, but this time there’s an almost palpable sense of place. And Altman has never been more firmly in control of his style. He has one of the few really individual visual styles among contemporary American directors; we can always see it’s an Altman film. He bases his visual strategies on an incredibly attentive sound track, using background noises with particular care so that our ears tell us we’re moving through these people — instead of that they’re lined up talking to us. “California Split” is a great movie and it’s a great experience, too; we’ve been there with Bill and Charlie.



Peter Tonguette for Senses of Cinema:

In his three major films with Altman, Gould came closer than any other actor, perhaps, to, in his loose, uncontainable acting style, embodying in physical form the qualities which help constitute the Altman vision: sometimes committed to ideals, sometimes not and almost always a little sarcastic. In his capsule review of California Split written for the Chicago Reader, Don Druker observes, “…the more we realise that to love characters the way Altman loves his, you have to see them turned completely inside out.” Indeed, I can think of few directors more compassionate towards their characters than Altman, but like Stanley Kubrick, his films are so rooted in honesty and satirical portraiture that many observers miss (or choose to ignore) the abundant generosity behind the lens. Though I generally reject the notion that Altman is an excessive director or that his films lack focus or direction, he is indulgent in one way: to his characters, for he loves them with, perhaps even for, their warts and flaws and desperation.


What’s more, for a director who is constantly being accused of hovering above his characters in ‘snarky’ contempt, California Split is a remarkably self-critical film. It doesn’t require any deep reading of the work to recognise that Altman undoubtedly sees himself in Bill and Charlie and acknowledges his own complicity in their struggle with an addiction.


It’s some measure of the greatness of this film that this fact is perhaps the least of the astonishing things going on in California Split: Altman’s astonishing mise en scène – contemplative of every level of interaction within a room, a bar, a place – has rarely been put to more revelatory or personal ends. It’s a masterpiece.



Rosenbaum again:

You might say that feeling ultimately counts for more than thought. (“I can never think and play at the same time,” the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano once maintained. “It’s emotionally impossible.”) And one might also argue that it’s the ensemble that matters — which in this movie extends even to the energy and vibes provided by the minor characters, whether they’re bit players or extras, especially in all the scenes set in bars and gambling joints. Like the listeners and dancers in Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing, they prove there’s an art to being a spectator or a participant that’s just as important in a way as the art of being a performer. And if watching an Altman movie like California Split makes you a bit of an artist and a bit of a gambler, feeling your way into what remains imponderable and unforeseeable, , that’s part of what’s being celebrated.


– Compiled by Brynn White

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