' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: California Split (1975)

Friday, April 16, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: California Split (1975)

“Jurassic Park” is among my seminal moviegoing moments. No, no, not because of the dinosaurs or the vibrating water cup; because of the scene where you see two conversations - one between Sam Neill and Bob Peck, one between Laura Dern and Richard Attenborough - happening simultaneously on opposite sides of the frame. That quietly blew my youthful mind. And just imagine how much my mind was blown when I finally got around to Robert Altman, celebrated purveyor of overlapping dialogue, like at at the beginning of “California Split”, where the clatter of chips and chatter of card-players in a Golden State poker hall is as true an evocation of a gambling den’s noisy ambiance as you are likely to find. And yet, for such distinct audio pandemonium, what ultimately stands out is the voice of Elliot Gould, playing professional gambler and/or gambling addict (is there a difference?) Charlie Waters, who strolls through the joint while waiting his turn to play, and up to a How to Play poker video that he talks right over the top of, to himself, like he can’t help it, epitomizing how despite “California Split’s” famed 8-track recording, it is Charlie’s voice that stands out, running roughshod over everyone, a conversational eddy just running round and round, waiting to pull you in. It pulls in Bill Denny (George Segal). Shuffling through the same poker hall as if he is looking for someone to talk to but can’t bring himself to say something to someone, he comes on like Charlie’s sheepish opposite. But when he eventually winds up playing at Charlie’s table, he covers for Gould’s loquacious cad when he cheats. This is crucial. In another movie, they would have been cheating together; here, the cheating brings them together. In other words, it’s their Meet Cute.

They wind up having a few drinks, getting pummeled by the same guy, Lew (Edward Walsh, a convincing sweaty mess), they bilk at the poker hall, arrested, thrown in jail, and then bailed out the next morning by Charlie’s lady friend, Barbara (Ann Prentiss), who shares a place with him as well as her fellow call girl, Susan (Gwen Welles). From here, “California Split” settles into a shambling groove, evoking the life of betting junkies, looking for another fix in the form of a bet to place, anything counts, even a pickup basketball game, where Charlie sort of suggests the haggard Herman Blume of “Rushmore” if that little kid’s shot he suddenly blocks was not simply mean-spiritedness but the product of some ludicrous wager. Every bet won yields a celebration, a cycle of instant gratification, nights bleeding into days and back into nights. Indeed, at Charlie’s place the morning after spending the night in the clink, the two men eat cereal and drink beer, and a later scene in which Bill leaves some gambling joint at some unknown hour, the low sun could be dusk or dawn, who knows. Charlies does not even appear to have a job, wandering from poker halls to the racing track. Bill at least has a job, at a magazine, though it’s vaguely defined, and when he’s in the office, he sits at his desk in something like I-Would-Rather-Be-At-The-Track anguish, a sardonic twist on the Time Is Money platitude.

Altman sees Barbara and Gwen with empathy, but they are there more as mirrors of Charlie and Bill, similar in their differing temperaments and also highlighting their unspoken but nevertheless emergent kind of bromance. When Charlie up and splits for Mexico, leaving Bill in the dark about his whereabouts, the latter turns up at Charlie’s house anyway, moping around, looking for companionship. Susan reciprocates. And when Bill tells her he has no money to acquire her, ahem, services, she tells him she doesn’t want any, that this is different, that she has feelings for him, the rare moment in “California Split” that is not transactional. As such, it’s doomed to failure. Barbara interrupts them by unexpectedly returning home and Bill pulls away, vanishing into the night. He is only reinvigorated when Charlie returns, though Bill reams him out first, like a spurned lover, which Segal renders with true heartbreak. It is heartbreak made all the more ridiculous when Charlie talks him down by playing piccolo, of all things, an incredible moment where Segal’s eruption of laughter, framed in close-up, feels less like relief than manic desperation with a touch of relief. 

Like most Altman movies, “California Split” remains indifferent to narrative, content to ride the waves its characters create, a Murphy’s Law of betting. One night when Charlie wins big, he immediately gets robbed, a moment Gould plays with no fear whatsoever, just You Gotta Be Kidding Me exasperation at his hasty downturn of luck; when he confronts Lew in a scene late in the movie, Charlie gets his nose broken first, then lays Lew out, a turn of luck the other way. And the conclusion at a Reno card game, which seems tailor-made to turn on the archetypal One Big Hand, win it all or lose everything, offers a cosmic evening out rather than synthetic closure. The movie does not even really end, it just sort of stops, exposing an addict’s ostensible moment of clarity as nothing more than suspended animation. 

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