lRobert Altman’s great mode as a director was the comedy of desperation, or in some cases the more elemental buddy film of loneliness, both genres served well by his democratic, crowded, fragmented spaces defining loneliness not as a form of isolation opposed to collectivism but as an isolation within community. For the Altman welterweights who think of the director’s ’70s as MASH, Nashville, and a murderer’s row of films of lesser import withering on the vine in between those two powerhouse works of communal chaos, California Split’s nominally more centered, two-character pas de deux seems more straightforward and less robust. In comparison to the wide swaths of partial Americana glimpsed in the roving camera of those, his more famous films, one might obfuscate and avoid California Split by nominating it as “lesser Altman”.
That is a troublesome and overly simplistic designation for two reasons, one related to the relative status of “lesser” and its uselessness in analyzing films as they exist on their own terms from the inside-out. Secondly, even on relative terms, Altman arguably expended more energy teasing out the discursive, overlapping layers of everyday-being and identity-construction than any other American director of his era. So “lesser Altman” judged against the mettle of possibly the finest American director of the modern era is hardly a viable criticism in the grand scheme of the cinematic tapestry. On more elemental terms, anyway, California Split is one of Altman’s best films, so the statement is not only incomplete and provisional, but wrong at face value.
Although California Split doesn’t bear the ambidextrous, poignant beauty of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (bestowed by Vilmos Zsigmond’s lush cinematography) or the epochal metatextual expression of lived chaos as a cinematic experience found in Nashville (not to mention McCabe), this gallows anti-buddy comedy is no less robust in its poetic evocation of aimless space. True, it doesn’t quite enter into the realm of deliriously complex cinematic commentary epitomized by McCabe, where the very caliber of the dreamlike visuals suggest the Western not as history but as historical construction and lexicon for debating history (or as Robert Self notes, “not history but historiography”). But then, McCabe is one of the definitive American films, arguably the definitive film of its genre, and the more shambolic California Split is arguably even more expressive in its commentary on the tenuous American malaise of the early ’70s and its invasion by pinpricks of joie de vivre that often do little other than to delay further ennui.
As a tale of two gamblers – a middle-aged addict played by George Segal and a bon vivant drifter of slightly fewer years essayed by Elliot Gould – California Split’s haphazard, uncontainable scripting is arguably all the more subversive for its superficial adherence to an individualist A-plot. Much like McCabe, and unlike Nashville or MASH, it is plausible to read California Split given the barest outline of the tale and arrive at the essence of an “individual character, or pair of characters, conquers adversity” narrative. But the ambiguous treatment of this theme by Altman suggests his own habitual troubles with gambling, not to mention his wry awareness of the neuroses and insecurities of traditional alpha males. Altman’s most famous techniques – lateral tracking shots that pointedly choose not to focus on specific individual characters and, secondly, an entropic, almost menacing overlap of audio layers – both conspire to deny the singularity and forward momentum of the central pair of males in the film. More vividly, they question the validity of the male gaze in a world in which the male ritual of gambling is more likely to provoke destitution than dominance.
By stripping away the genre trappings of his other films, Altman trades something lost for something gained: he finds an expression of modern life as it is lived in impressionistic moments and stuttering, stop-gap movements and as a blend of barely-threaded ideas only tenuously conforming to any sort of through-line. It’s a life of leisure curdled into hints and speckles of inertia, with the invasive overlapping dialogue functioning as an overbearing drone that comes to both mask and reveal the loneliness lying underneath. In other words, it’s a rambling film about men who have nothing to do but ramble.
The film’s subject matter, gambling, emerges as a prism: it can serve as an expression of the addictive pulse to escape from life, a metaphor for cinema as a barely hewn together mudslide of risk, or an evocation of visual peaks and troughs that mirror the constantly fluctuating tones of life itself. California Split is still aware of the buoyant joie de vivre at play in gambling visible in The Sting, another film on the subject from the same time period, but it cuts the same compassion with the dispirited implication that the play that validates life also demarcates other notions of life-meaning. More notably, while the fiery The Sting delights in playing the audience like Hitchcock’s proverbial piano, California Split suggests a higher plane of dissociative curiosity, questioning the consequences of playing with fire to begin with. If The Sting mimics the deception and trickery of the gambling process, Altman evokes the disjunctive manic depressive bipolarity of the gambler’s emotional rollercoaster. The deception is not the game process itself, or the poker faces glimpsed when one passingly looks up from the cards, but the mask of subterranean malaise and manipulation skulking about underneath.