Monday, August 12, 2013

Adventures In Altman Appraisal: CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974)

In many ways, Robert Altman’s 1974 rambling ramshackle of a comedy CALIFORNIA SPLIT is the ultimate gambling movie. It gives us a few days in the lives of George Segal and Elliott Gould as compulsive gambler buddies who live, breathe, then almost choke on gambling (well, not really - but they get mugged twice because of it).

We follow the duo as they go on a bender playing poker (the title is slag for high-low-split poker), betting on horses and boxing matches, even waging $20 on a bar bet if they could name the Seven Dwarves, only pausing to have some drunken downtime with Gould’s prostitute room-mates (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles).

There’s not much of a plot beyond that, but with the backdrop of the gambling scene in Los Angeles and Reno in the early ’70s, and Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue technique in full bloom (aided by then new eight-track stereo sound), the film gets you caught up in its authentic-feeling flow. And you can almost smell the cigarette smoke, stale alcohol, and sweat in the dingy dives and seedy surroundings in every scene.

Altman pulls off this effect by populating the film with real professional gamblers such as former world champion Amarillo Slim, and extras from Synanon (an organization for ex-addicts), and having them all blab at once (you know, like in real life). Segal and Gould blather on themselves, sometimes scat singing on the side, through the nonstop chatter until they settle on the scenario of making one last score.

Odd characters the pair encounter in their journey through the counter-culture of gaming for high stakes include a young Jeff Goldblum, who would also show up in Altman's next film NASHVILLE; Altman regulars Vincent Palmieri and Jack Riley, and Bert Remsen as a transvestite in possible the movie's oddest scene.

At first I would think that this almost 40 year old film would only appeal students of ‘70s cinema or mostly American or Canadian gamblers, but the citizens from today’s world of online gambling would surely take to the motion picture’s celebration or sorts of being a player, no matter where they hail from.
Segal, who blows off his job writing for a magazine, finds himself with a large debt to his bookie Sparkie, played by the film’s screenwriter Joseph Walsh, due to a losing streak he feels was caused by Gould being out of town.

However, in the movie’s Reno casino-set finale, Gould, with a bloody bandage on his nose from a bathroom brawl, comes on like a “cooler” to his friend. Segal, back on a major winning streak, keeps sending Gould away from his table, which gets funnier and funnier as Gould sulks about not having any money, and even tries to get into another game with only a candy bar to gamble with.

A movie as much about the intense highs that people playing these games for a living will experience as it is the crushing lows. Segal is drained empty at the end, and it’s obvious that the gig is up for him. Gould however doesn’t appear to have anything else to do, and his half joke of living at the races for the rest of his life is probably the route he’ll actually take.

In Mitchell Zuckoff’s “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (2009), Walsh was quoted at length about being disappointed that the director altered the final scene. Walsh: “He didn’t film the ending I wrote…They’re talking to each other at the end and Elliot finally says, ‘You’re going home? Oh yeah, where the fuck do you live?’ I didn’t write that. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What happened to this character?’”

Reportedly, Segal felt that the character was spent, having won but “there was no special feeling.” Altman agreed and went with that idea much to Walsh’s chagrin.

I can understand the frustration a writer has with having their work changed without their input, but Altman didn’t get where he was by following the letter. CALIFORNIA SPLIT was so loose that at times that it hardly felt like there was a script at all (a lot of it was indeed ad-libbed), so a crucial change that occurred to an actor and approved by the director seems naturally in the spirit of Altman’s entire canon.

Out of print on DVD, CALIFORNIA SPLIT is overdue for a new re-mastered release on home video. It would be a perfect title for the Criterion Collection, as they’ve put out deluxe editions of many choice Altman titles in the last decade. In the meantime, it is available for sale or rent on Amazon Instant Video, and I’ve seen it pop up on Netflix Instant every now and then.

More later...

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