Friday, August 22, 2008

Robert Altman: California Split

As a recent Robert Altman convert I have been trying to see as many of his films as I can. He had an almost incredible run of artistic (if not always commercial) success in the 70s. This 1974 film suffers in comparison a little but that is only because other films like McCabe and Mrs Miller, MASH, Images, Nashville, The Long Goodbye and Thieves Like Us are all such great masterpieces. I will try to write down about these films soon too when I get time and a chance to re-watch them which I think is necessary because his style is so rich and complex that even the most attentive and active viewer can't grasp and follow everything in just one viewing alone.

First, because of his oft-mentioned soundtrack design which incorporates multiple narrative voices at the same time. Altman doesn't distinguish or privilege one from the other, it is not as if there is something in the background running only for an effect and atmosphere. The viewer has to actively choose and decide what to listen to. Similarly his ever mobile camera preempts traditional audience expectations because we are never sure about who the real protagonist is in any particular scene. One character might be speaking and before he or she even completes the camera moves away from him or her and some other background track comes into focus. He is truly a great experimental film maker but his experimentation never comes across as gimmicky and are never meant to alienate the audience, on the other hand they inspire the audiences to do a lot of hard work of their own.

Coming to California Split the film follows two Gambling addicts Will, a magazine editor played by George Segal, and Charlie, played by Elliott Gould doing the same inspired mumbling-to-self routine which he perfected to sublime heights in The Long Goodbye, as they tour the poker, gambling, racing and betting centers looking for money to win and lose. Charlie is just a layabout who lives with a couple of prostitutes, one of them played by Gwen Welles who was painfully vulnerable in Nashville as a talentless singer who is forced to do a striptease to get a singing break and plays a similar role here. The other actress Ann Prentiss is quite good too though they both have only a few scenes. Will and Charlie strike up a friendship at the beginning because they feel that their companionship brings luck to each other. The film just follows a few parallel narratives in the lives of these four characters the main of which follows Will as he struggles with his financial obligations. He finally decides to make a final and major killing in the small gambling town of Reno and ropes in Charlie to go with him but his success there leaves him with a feeling of crushing emptiness and on that note the film ends.

It is not that hard to notice that Altman wants us to see Gambling as a metaphor for life itself and specially life as defined by all the decisions we make and in that specially the life lived in America. He was himself a compulsive and recovering gambler and though his criticism is never harsh or categorical but it is still very powerful in the end. He sees it as a means of escape from "real life", the life defined by purposeful action and personal responsibility, without which there can be no real meaning to life and no genuine or lasting happiness. I personally know very little about card games (and nothing about Poker) and so I got a bit bored at places but he thankfully never overdoes it in the film, though still giving a fantastically detailed, even documentary-like, tour of this particular subculture in America. In short not as great as Altman's best but quite close... An article on the film here


puccinio said...

I think ''California Split'' is among Altman's best and also a great example of his art. Here he has two main characters and their reactions together drive the film. There's no plot, even in usual buddy films.

I actually don't think ''California Split'' is critical of gambling, in and of itself. By that, the film isn't concerned with the obvious point that gambling is bad and is a waste of money. I think it's about friendship between one average middle-class guy who's divorced, has a job and another who is absolutely himself, wild and untamed. And the point of the film is at what point that friendship becomes exploitation and it's not Gould who's exploiting Segal.

In fact, I see the end as ironic. Will prevents Charlie from gambling because Charlie openly invites chance and unpredictability, while Will is all business, which can be seen as a corruption of gambling, which is playing with the unknown.

But the great thing about the film is the interactions between Gould and Segal, I don't think you ever see two actors having as much fun as they do.

Alok said...

I agree at a purely formal and technical level it is as good as anything he did. I also agree that the film is not overtly critical of gambling. In fact nowhere the tone even gets close to being moralistic about it. But I still couldn't find any other way to interpret the ultimate last scene, which comes later than the one you mention... After his winning streak Will suddenly feels tired and leaves the table and then he feels disinterested and aimless and leaves for what he calls "home" even though he doesn't know what to answer to Charlie when he asks where the home is.

To me personally it felt as if it was meant to show that gambling can result in momentary euphoria, sort of like a drug induced high, but it will not lead to "meaning" which comes from action and the feeling of being responsible for what you have got and earned which is the total opposite of gambling. This is not in the film explicitly but this is what I was thinking. In fact Charlie seems to be moving in thin air throughout the film, totally unmoored and rootless - perfect example of a life defined by just random chance. Actually this was one of the reasons why I felt a little disappointed by the film, while still being in awe of the technique and style... this would have been a perfect target for Altman-esque satire.

Even seeing it as a portrait of a peculiar kind of friendship as you suggest doesn't take it too far. I was thinking that Altman may be wanted to show how friendships are as contingent as chance in gambling.. after all they come together because they feel they are lucky (or as in the end unlucky) for each other... but this also remains at the level of an idea.

Alok said...

Also as a novice, I assumed that gambling is all about pure chance. Of course seasoned gamblers will not agree and will say it requires as much skill and effort as anything else!

Anonymous said...

for me the film is about clash of two individuals with fundamentally different personalities. Will is the bougeoise (much as that word has been abused), while Charlie is as independent as one gets. As much as their friendship started with chance around a game relatively much dependent on chance, their fundamental assumptions around living within a system is different. Charlie does not follow rules because implicit in his behavior is that rules are unimportant, while Will subduely follows them without knowing them. This is seen in the very first opening sequence around the table. What follows is then not Will's addiction to gambling via Charlie, but his way of getting out of the monotonous of society's clutches through the medium of gambling. What he realises in the end is that gambling nor anything out there can change your life, but the malaise is deeper. Charlie does not feel the malaise not because he is insensitive, but because he has already understood the malaise within society and his fundamental assumptions on life have been set to get around that malaise. For Charlie, gambling is life. For Will, gambling was a way out of life, until the final sequence.

Alok said...

I agree with your observation and interpretation. The film actually makes more sense to me now... thanks!