The music plays in your head over and over. Only you can hear it. I was talking to someone on the phone the other night and before I even realized it the conversation took a turn towards my becoming semi-confessional about a certain subject. I wasn’t sure if I should be talking about such things yet at the same time I didn’t really care. But later on, even right now, I find myself insecure about all this not because I said what I said but because I didn’t say enough. Even in the middle of what I was confessing I felt myself semi-censoring the truth in an attempt to leave who I was talking to out of this personal narrative and how she fit in with it. If I had, if I’d totally opened myself up, what would she have said? So now I’m wondering about fear and where all of that ever gets us. I can ask myself what do I really want and I can even answer that but will I be telling myself the truth? And do I even really know the answer?
Sometimes when a person disappears from your life it’s like you’re missing a limb. Out of nowhere that sense of connection you once had is gone, that feeling which made the emptiness in your life a little more nourished. You feel incomplete. Robert Altman’s CALIFORNIA SPLIT understands that feeling of incompleteness, of the desperation of what the hell are we looking for. The film feels like the secret code to unlock so much of the Altman mythos yet it’s somehow become a deep cut in the director’s extensive filmography, an A-side turned into a B-side, for no apparent reason other than lack of availability presumably due to music rights issues which is a damn shame. The films surrounding it during the same period—McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, THE LONG GOODBYE, NASHVILLE—have become venerated by now, deservedly so. Released by Columbia Pictures in 1974, CALIFORNIA SPLIT also deserves to be on that list but right now it’s as if the film wasn’t allowed to ever escape the clutches of the early 70s. There was never a VHS and the one DVD release actually removed several minutes to help get around the music rights and it’s out of print now anyway. When the film played on TCM a few years back during a night hosted by guest programmer Bill Paxton (RIP) who discussed it with host Robert Osborne (RIP) what was shown seems to have been the complete film except it was cropped to 1.85 instead of the full Panavision 2.35 frame, tampering with that badly needed widescreen Altman vibe. Which isn’t good enough. CALIFORNIA SPLIT remains elusive, out of our reach, just like that high of pure connection we always find ourselves hoping for. So aside from anything that may exist within the bootleg grapevine the best we can do for the moment is wait for the occasional screening at a place like Cinefamily, which did play it recently and I was there, of course I was there, even though I’d seen it before. I just needed it right now. And in the middle of everything going on lately I walked out of that screening totally exhilarated. That feeling doesn’t last, of course, but there’s a reason why we chase that high whether cinematic or otherwise. It’s important even if we know it’s fleeting. It’s never going to be anything but fleeting, of course, especially when you feel incomplete.
Meeting one night after a scuffle at a poker table, Bill Denny (George Segal) and Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) begin a fast friendship bonding over all the things they can bet on whether cards or the horses. Bill, working at a magazine, is the would-be responsible one who actually worries about how deep in the hole he’s getting with his bookie while Charlie, the real pro at this stuff, is the one who seems to float through the world looking for more and more stuff to put his money down on. Bill gets sucked into Charlie’s world, including hanging out with two female friends Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles) who work as prostitutes but gets more determined to win big, hocking many of his belongings and the two men set out for Reno looking to finally score at the card tables.
The friendship between the two guys just happens. That’s probably the way it’s supposed to be. Bill and Charlie don’t even really meet, they just find themselves at the same bar after the poker game and they start at it like it’s the most natural thing in the world, drinking, looking for things to bet on, talking over each other, talking over other people in that Altman patter. They bet on who can name the seven dwarfs, “Here comes seven like a Gatling gun,” Bill drunkenly spits out ready to list them, then unable to get past just a few (“That’s four.” “That’s three.”). Searching for those names, groping for the next bet, the film is really George Segal and Elliott Gould sitting at that bar, the coolest guys anywhere, and it doesn’t need to be much more than that. They also get beaten up together by the guy who lost the poker game as soon as they leave that bar but it almost doesn’t matter. It chains them together on this hot streak of a friendship and you feel Bill desperately trying for this partnership, you feel Charlie gliding along from one bet to the next just as he presumably always does. Since it’s an Altman film, there may very well be a good deal of improv mixed in with the screenplay by Joseph Walsh but it knows to focus on the desperation the characters always feel whether at the card tables or not, unable to keep a straight face about it for very long. On the surface CALIFORNIA SPLIT is about gambling and what that means but it’s also about friendship and everything that means, made clear in the quickie how-to movie on poker Charlie Waters stops to watch at the start. “Every player plays for himself,” is pointed out in the narration, almost a warning of what this world is really like and how a partnership, no matter how much the two of you can insist on it, is really just an illusion, you can only ever play just for yourself. The rush of CALIFORNIA SPLIT doesn’t just catch the fever of making those bets but that feeling of wanting to be in synch with another person so badly that it happens but of course that can never last, no matter how cool the two of you can be sitting at a bar for a few minutes, gliding along thinking all is well. I don’t know if the 70s were always this desperate and aimless or if it’s just what looks like the Robert Altman 70s, everything drenched in smoke and booze and Froot Loops and beer while floating through the world discovering that everyone is apparently named Barbara. CALIFORNIA SPLIT moves like a rocket even if it’s a patchily assembled Robert Altman rocket where it feels like story chunks were pulled out at random but everything comes together, everything about it clicks.
“Avoid conversations about matters not related to the game,” goes another line in that how-to doc about playing poker. Of course, that’s impossible. It’s impossible to avoid the way things are, even though they try, Bill sneaking off from his real life and Charlie avoiding anything that might be an actual responsibility. It’s not even clear what Charlie does for a living, if he even does anything at all beyond just betting, observing, going to the track, knowing how to read the faces of everyone around him. His behavior is all he’s got and he’s not going to change any more than he’s going to even consider changing seats on that bus to the track when he’s asked—everyone else there is either willing to do it or not based on their own reasons, none of which makes sense to anyone except for them. Altman doesn’t ask why, he doesn’t try to explain it, he knows that people don’t really change and I’m not sure there’s another film where Altman loved the faces he got to work with, whether the main characters or just people sitting around the card tables, as much as he clearly does here. Unlike the dreamy look of THE LONG GOODBYE
courtesy Vilmos Zsigmond zooming in and out of the frame there’s a harshness to the look of SPLIT courtesy DP Paul Lohmann (who also shot NASHVILLE for Altman; later credits include HIGH ANXIETY, TIME AFTER TIME and MOMMIE DEAREST), a scorched out mid-70s L.A. setting, the stoner vibe of the earlier film turning into a harsher cigarette smoke hanging in the air and everyone seems hungover through the entire film, just waiting for the next drink, the next nicotine high, the next roll of the dice. I’d almost want to live in this film if it wasn’t for all that cigarette smoke but I know Altman wouldn’t want to make it easy for me.
Forever in search of more cash to bet with, George Segal’s Bill doesn’t know what he wants, he’s just caught up in trying to win as he looks for a good reason to flee from his job and not go broke. It’s like he suddenly depends on the hot streak that’s kicked off with this new friend of his and when Charlie disappears at one point he has no idea how to get the feeling back. Even when he finds himself alone with the more than willing Gwen Welles the first shot of reality into the situation causes him to flee. She’s almost like a little girl in her footie pajamas and doesn’t seem to have any idea what a real date is anyway but she’s also not swept up in that fear—‘those are the chances you have to take’ she says about going off to Hawaii with a man she’s never met, but even when he’s right there with her Bill has no idea what he really wants. Ann Prentiss’ Barbara is clearly the most stable person in the film in comparison, never worried about anywhere she’s going and just sailing through life, looking for nothing but her TV Guide. The two women at least have each other but when it comes to the two guys Bill can’t quite figure out Charlie who’s almost too much of a force of nature, forever determined but easily distracted as if he’ll put all the money he has into the first slot machine that comes along. If we were going to talk plot structure, which we’re not, I’d argue that since the film is Bill’s story we should never see Gould’s Charlie in a scene without Segal but I’d never expect Robert Altman to have much interest in those rules.
Besides, it makes sense that we see Charlie on his own, particularly during the second encounter at the racetrack with the poker player who beat them up which is one of the most purely satisfying scenes in the film between Gould’s admiration at the first punch thrown and the bathroom fight that follows with all the believable clumsiness and pure determination that makes it clear this is one guy who doesn’t give up. “Stick some toilet paper in your nose, it stops the bleeding,” Charlie tells the guy lying on the ground right before he leaves, as if that’s nothing less than his very philosophy of life. There’s an anger to Charlie that Bill doesn’t quite see, enough anger to stare down a guy holding a gun on him, enough anger that it’s not even clear how much he cares about anything beyond the split second of the win even more than the money. He’s got that rhythm ticking away in his head that Bill can’t quite hear and maybe that’s for the best. They may talk about partnership, they may need the other one as they sit at that bar but ultimately each of them pushes the other away, knowing they have to play for themselves, just like Charlie talks that woman heading out to the track on the bus played by Barbara London (another Barbara; everyone’s named Barbara) out of betting on his horse. After disappearing for a few days Charlie shows up out of nowhere telling Bill about a dream where he won big in Tijuana only to go there and lose it all. “You weren’t in the dream, William,” when Bill asks why he couldn’t have gone too. We all live in our own heads. We’re never really with the other person.
CALIFORNIA SPLIT is like that zone between your own personal hot streak and the feeling of walking out into the harsh morning light by yourself, having lost it all. Segal and Gould together in the frame here is like they got the two of them at the exact right moment and no one else is allowed to be near the groove they’re in—the appearance of Altman regular Bert Remsen as a cross-dressing client of the two girls is maybe even more uncomfortable than any of the humiliations in MASH maybe because that sort of punchline to the scene never comes and one imagines Robert Altman loving the response of an audience who’s not sure if they’re supposed to laugh, thrown by the presence of another person who is just as scared and desperate to figure things out as the leads of the film. Altman, who we kind of know wasn’t exactly the sweetest person himself, doesn’t care about making these guys endearing and it makes them that much more human. In a 70s film like this one you can feel the cynicism and desperation in the air and yet it feels so fucking life-affirming in every grubby desperate face. Maybe it’s the exhilaration of that last half-hour in Reno in the way it builds, from Gould describing the other people around the poker table to the steely determination of Segal to the last big streak with that Phyllis Shotwell jazzy music (one of the reasons for the rights issues) burning all the way through it. There’s no grand crescendo to that climax, just the ongoing rush of it all as if to drive home that there’s never one big moment of that special feeling. It doesn’t come, even when you get what you think you want, just that splash of cold water on your face and where you think you’ve ended up. CALIFORNIA SPLIT glides all the way through. It isn’t just one of the best Robert Altman films, looking at it now with the world it portrays almost seeming like science fiction it feels like a fucking miracle and the shabbiness it contains is absolutely beautiful.
George Segal and Elliott Gould are on fire in this film, doing some of the best work they’ve ever done. Segal’s everyman covers the range of his desperation whether baffled at his surroundings or laser focused during a game to at times barely responding at all because his character is so drained. There are times where it looks like Segal is doing less than he’s ever done in any other film, just sinking away into himself with nothing left but the truth of his soul. Gould seems ready to explode as if everything he’s been muttering to himself as Philip Marlowe can’t be held in any longer and from his one armed piccolo player routine to the way he and he alone calls Bill “William” as if to make his friend feel that much more special he knows how to play people. “There ain’t nobody there!” he shouts at a car in Reno, for a brief second synching up with the song on the soundtrack, as if he’s a ghost floating through the world of the film and the film we’re watching. Ann Prentiss (Paula’s sister and she looks just like the sister of Paula Prentiss) brings a genuine edge to her quirkiness making it all the more unpredictable and Gwen Welles who also memorably appeared in NASHVILLE combines a sense of being truly beguiling with something else deep down that we can’t quite peg as if there’s something off but we’ll never know the truth. The way she waves at George Segal as he drives off is the stuff entire essays are written about.
Jeff Goldblum, looking about 12 years old, appears as Segal’s boss while screenwriter Joseph Walsh who was one of Craig T. Nelson’s buddies in POLTERGEIST watching football (he’s the one who shouts “I bet my life on this game!”) also plays Segal’s bookie. There’s not a false note in his performance as if he’s been on the receiving end of these diatribes himself and it gets an extra edge out of Segal’s performance for this scene with a growing awareness of how deep into this he really is. Jack Riley gets one of the film’s biggest laughs in his brief appearance as a bartender and the barmaid in the Reno section is played by Barbara Ruick, yet another Barbara and the wife of John Williams who had scored IMAGES and THE LONG GOODBYE for Altman. Her pleasure at Gould’s descriptions of the other poker players around the table looks totally genuine and it’s all the more shocking to learn she died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on location in Reno. The simple dedication to her as the end credits roll—“For Barbara”—maybe causes some confusion due to the running gag in the film of multiple Barbaras as if it’s just one more joke and that in itself almost seems like an extra tribute to her from Altman. He doesn’t mind if the real meaning isn’t clear. You have to find the real meaning for yourself.
Whether or not the rules of poker apply to real life that doesn’t mean you can always follow them. The way you really are is going to get in the way no matter what. As the film opens the two guys silently walk past each other, not having met just yet. At the end one of them walks off away from the other. And they never really did meet. The three Robert Altman-Elliott Gould films could also be said to make up an informal trilogy about friendship and its ultimate impossibility. In MASH
it ends when they’re thrust apart by greater forces, in THE LONG GOODBYE
the pairing is destroyed by selfishness and in CALIFORNIA SPLIT it ends because it has to. There’s no way to keep going, much as we want that feeling of these guys singing “Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown” to go on forever. You may never be complete, but sometimes all you can do is spin the wheel and who the fuck knows. So please, Criterion or somebody, figure out those music rights and give us the whole thing on Blu. Until that happens, we may need someone to screen this film at least twice a year so we can get our fix. Because we need to be able to remember those people, the ones who have shouted “Fuck you!” at us the loudest. In some ways, being able to remember them is the only way to keep trying.
great article! one of my favorite movies. i own the DVD and have seen it screened - but man oh man do i want a blu ray.
great article. absolutely love this movie. i own the dvd and have seen a film print - but i need a blu ray.
I just found your comment and a few others in a spam folder, my apologies for not responding sooner. I'm very glad you liked it, thank you! I still haven't given up hope for a great looking Blu and dream the Criterion will get it taken care of at some point soon. Thank you again!
Between the cropped Amazon version and the truncated DVD, which would you recommend to a first-time viewer?
To be honest, I've never seen the DVD--when it came out I didn't pick it up because of the cuts and then when it went out of print I regretted this. If there's a cropped Amazon version maybe it's identical to what ran on TCM so...maybe that one? At least there aren't several minutes missing so hopefully the vibe will come through.
Cool, thanks! I'd been meaning to watch it for a while, but put it off hoping Criterion or someone would do a pristine version, but I've run out of other Altmans to watch.
I'm still hoping for a Criterion! There have been rumors but nothing definite. I have to hope.
It may not have had a VHS release, but I remember seeing a video catalog in the late 70's that had a few movie titles for purchase on 3/4 video tape format (U-matic, according to the Internet, but I don't remember that term) California Split was one of them.
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