Here’s the idea behind “A Canadian, an American, and an Elitist”: Rhett’s favorite movie is Meatballs 4, Shawn has an unhealthy fixation on Resident Evil, and Adam is a prick who hates everything. We all watch far too many movies, and spend our time analyzing them. So we each watch the same movie, write our analysis of them, and then go to a chat room to discuss it, unaware of what the others have written. A warning: if you haven’t seen the film we are discussing, it may not be best to read this article, because it is spoiler heavy.
Analysis by a Canadian: Rhett Miller
When Robert Altman is at his best, his films seem less like a product of genre and more just a product of being. His films have this sort of narrative structure where our expectations of genre conventions are played with, but never answered. The Long Goodbye, written by crime vet Raymond Chandler, promises to be a taught film noir, and yet we follow Elliott Gould for thirty minutes as he goes and buys food for his cat. Gosford Park promises to be an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery, yet the reveal of the killer is an afterthought when compared to the dynamics of his sprawling cast. M*A*S*H seems to be a war drama, yet climaxes in a football game that seems better fit in The Longest Yard. It is as if Altman starts his ideas off from a genre, and uses that as a basis to settle in with his characters. His Hawkeye, Philip Marlowe or Brewster McCloud are not puppets to the strings of the three act structure. They are people whose lives are not dictated by a genre and do not end after the final credits role. They just exist, like we all do, and he is kind enough to involve us in their lives for the short length of his films.
Although Altman has come to be known for his panache at juggling dozens of major characters in his stories, he is equally adept with a small cast. Perhaps most indicative of his ability to make small, personal pieces, is California Split. Split works within the cautionary addiction drama that has always been a weepy fixture in Hollywood, where the likable lead wins it all, but is unable to stop at the hand of his or her gambling addiction. As you would expect, Altman’s film does not tread on such an easy route, instead gesticulating with two lead characters. Both George Segal and Elliott Gould are addicts, but in compellingly different ways. One’s addiction eats him from the inside, introverting his emotions and his ability to find release. Gould’s addiction, on the other hand, is similar to that of a compulsive shopper. He doesn’t know what he’s buying into or betting on, but he does it anyway, and feels great doing so. By focusing on two vastly different types of addiction, Altman already breaks away from standard convention by portraying addiction as one of many forms, not just one that affects the lone divorcee who bets it all on a fated wheel. Altman comes at addiction through character over standard lose-it-all plot theatrics, and he does it well.
Even better than character though, Altman excels at the sound design of his films. It is commonplace to rely on sound to amp up action and horror films, but as far as drama and comedy go, there are few soundtracks as layered and complex as those found in Altman films. Split is one of his finest examples of sound gradation, as each location surrounds itself from sounds from all directions. In the masterful opening poker sequence, you get the clanging of poker chips, conversation by the leads, the flutter of cards, people in the background talking about how much they are going to bet, and then finally narration from a television explaining the intricacies of the game. In one sequence Altman is able to convey so much audible information, and he does it with such a complexity that would make multiple viewings even richer, allowing you to focus your ears on different planes of conversation. Altman’s tracks mimic life, in that he gives you the ability to choose a conversation like you would at a party, but those lines of dialogue are there if ever you choose to go back and listen in. Like cinema verité aimed to capture visuals with an unbroken wholeness, Altman’s audio tracks capture locations above your standard boom mic. Sounds come from all depths and amplitudes, and don’t seem confined by the motivations of a script or story. Everything rings with messy authenticity, of an ambience taken right out of the streets and not the back lots of Hollywood. The sound design is paramount in establishing that Altman’s real characters inhabit a real world. Imagining an Altman film without sound would be like imagining a Lucas film without CGI, it couldn’t be.
With Altman’s combination of layered sound, probing characterization and plotless direction, California Split rolls with the unpredictability of a craps game. It is compelling in a way that few films are, because you know that Altman would never squander to typical plot archetypes, and you are anxious to see just where these characters go and just what they do next. The path that William (Segal) and Charlie (Gould) go is anything but the conventional path, but yet once it’s over it seems like the only one they could go. Willy’s addiction has left him without the ability to feel, and monotony is all his winnings afford him. Charlie on the other hand, prospers from Willy’s winning ticket, although his naïve ignorance of his addiction seems even more tragic.
Like in (a metaphor earned by allusion through both the characters’ names and their discussion of children’s films), Split‘s Willy seems a prisoner in the labyrinth mansion of his own seclusion. Charlie’s coming brings him contact with normality and a newfound zest for life, but as soon as Charlie’s tour around Reno is over, it makes Willy feel even lonelier than before. His addiction is a mansion of isolation, whereas Charlie’s is as sweet and consumable as chocolate. The interesting thing in the end, is how even though they characters have won the golden ticket, they’ve still ultimately lost. Altman delivers the message about addiction much more subtle than having the lead lose it all with one greedy bet. Winning it all makes it seem even worse, since after the thrill of victory has subsided, all that is left for Willy is the realization that he’ll come to lose the money sooner or later and be back to the same cycle. He’s won, but there is no feeling, and since Altman’s films are open-ended slices of life, you know he’ll be back to the gutters shortly after the credit scrawl. The wheel of fortune continues spinning, as the final shot suggests, but the house always wins.
Analysis by an American: Shawn McLoughlin
Outside of a documentary, Robert Altman’s California Split just may be the most believable film about gambling ever conceived. Granted, there isn’t a whole hell of a lot of gambling films. There was The Hustler, and its sequel The Color of Money, but those films were more based on star power than a serious (or even semi-serious) look at the addiction behind it. But today, over thirty years after its initial release, Altman’s film is even more relevant then ever. Particularly upon taking into effect the recent resurgence in popularity of Poker due to extensive ESPN coverage.
But in all actuality, the gambling aspect is not the rewarding aspect of the film because gambling on its own is rather dull if you are not participating (unless you are a drone who watches the aforementioned ESPN games). California Split is about the two leads, how they interact, why they interact, and with whom else they interact. These are characters that are so tuned into the gambling conscience that nothing else matters. When on a date, they go to a boxing match, where they can essentially kill two birds. Entertain their friends, and still waver. Here, they do not restrict themselves to betting money on the match, but also over another audience member’s hat. When faced with being mugged a second time, one of the two offers to give up half of his money. He never had the power to negotiate, but he still gambles that he can. No mention is made before taking off to Mexico to bet on dog races, even between the friends. One of them “wasn’t in the dream” and therefore, needed to be excluded. Events like these never seem to annoy either friend for more than a few minutes. Essentially, while they have different temperaments, different mannerisms, and different levels of nonchalance they have the same understanding and respect for each other and in wagering.
These two prostitutes that play the “heroes” lovers are an absolute joy if only because they also seem real. They aren’t typical downtrodden and drugged up whores. Nor are they of the highest-class call girl stock. But they relate well to each other, and throughout their scenes we get a sense of who they are and what they could be, even though it is never really mentioned. The last time we see them one is holding the other in bed, consoling her after the gambler she had a crush on leaves her. For a good minute this consolation goes on, and there is an importance to the consoler discussing the future even though the characters do not return. It further defines them as people and by this point in the movie it is easy to admire them as such. Without this scene, the film would be at a loss, because the audience would be without knowing their story. They parallel the gamblers and are just as important. It is almost too perfect a match play.
Comedies don’t traditionally have many undercurrents to wade through. Sometimes those that do have too much drama that they forget to remain funny. But California Split is an exception. The drama feels true, and the characters even more so, but it is still hilarious from start to finish. The final scenes in Reno further establish the unconventional friendship between the leads, and Charlie’s monologue as he describes the players in the high-stakes room should have gone down in 70’s cinema history by now. The fact it hasn’t is disappointing and worse yet it serves as a reminder how unknown this film remains.
Before Rhett beats me to the pun, California Split has everything that makes movies great, and it has it in spades.
Analysis by an elitist: Adam Lippe
Pauline Kael once said that because Steven Spielberg spent his 20s and 30s making movies about his childhood, that when he decided to grow up and make movies about adults, he would have no frame of reference, since he had spent his entire adult life making movies. This can be true of many directors. Once they get in a groove of making films, they never learn to find new ideas and themes, because they’ve been preoccupied with the films themselves. Robert Altman, who, like Woody Allen, tends to average a film a year and has for the last 35 years or so, slowly turned into a misanthropist. Altman’s disdain for his characters bubbles to the surface and becomes full-on derisive distaste, taking every opportunity to embarrass the characters, fully personified by Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter, and Dr. T and the Women.
Luckily, California Split was made before Altman developed this hatred for his casts, when his focus was more on developing his style. Here his methods are the long, slow zoom-ins, his cross cutting of sound – forcing the viewer to pay close attention if they’d want to catch everything (packing in as much information audibly as De Palma does visually, check out the side conversation in an early scene at a bar, where a mother begs her half-naked stripper daughter to spot her $30 so she can gamble) – and an ear for casual dialogue, which appears rambling at first, but is clearly carefully chosen. It falls in line with the way that he seems to be learning about his settings and locations as we do. Like Gould’s house in The Long Goodbye and the whorehouses in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he hasn’t made up his mind about how he feels in advance. Altman’s lighter touch, allowing the movie to build around the actors, means that Elliot Gould and George Segal have no fear about making fools of themselves, yammering nonsense and even singing and dancing – badly – to old minstrel songs. Just one year later, Altman would use poor singing against his characters, in Nashville, by having a female disrobe and embarrass herself on stage, (probably the first instance in which his cruelty was so exposed.) This style of mocking is never evident in California Split. Altman easily could have made the part time hookers the butt of the joke and the cross dresser would have been just as easy bait, but he avoids the nastiness to his own credit.
Gould’s character in California Split could have easily taken the brunt of the typical Altman mean streak. Charlie has no discernible profession, other than betting and losing, and gloms off the two women with whom he once shared his winnings. But right away, Altman’s fondness for Charlie is apparent. In the first scene, Gould pushes the power button on a machine that lays out the rules of poker, obviously something he would know. But it sets up the scene for us, as well as for those unfamiliar with the rules of the game. While the scene works as exposition, it also gives us an idea of Gould’s character. He’s the kind of guy who would do things just to amuse himself, even if just to laugh at the naiveté of the poorly-edited video. This is perfectly in line with Charlie’s behavior when he is held up at gunpoint – preferring to take control of the situation and distribute the funds evenly at the risk of being shot – and when he alerts the thug in the bathroom – causing Charlie’s broken nose just so he can call the thug a silly name. What is refreshing in these scenes is the avoidance of convention rather than the “hero” triumphing and beating his foe senseless and emerging unscathed. Rather, Gould has to spend the remainder of the film with a terribly unflattering bandage on his nose. Instead of appearing gallant when a pretty lady asks him to switch seats on the bus, Charlie claims that to move would be bad luck. This is at odds with what he and Segal would probably recognize as obvious – that the times that they were successful, they were beaten and/or robbed, indicating that, in terms of luck, they were better off without each other (“The snow is an omen and the toilet door is an omen”). The only time they escape physical injury is in the conclusion, in which Segal realizes for the first time that Gould may not be the best partner and may be simply a distraction (he’s even a distraction to the women he “lives” with, they’re constantly about to move on without him to more money or a more glamorous habitat), prone to simply providing a bunch of meaningless hot air and misbegotten impulse, such as his quick trip to Mexico. Segal needs his space to concentrate and to win, but also to come to his epiphany.
And what does the ending mean? Can Segal not enjoy his winnings because he won alone? Is gambling really an empty feeling? Is it the realization that the betting will never end, no matter how much they make? Gould says that they can live forever at the track on the money they’ve won, suggesting a never-ending cycle, unaware that Segal was trying to begin a new life that would start by getting away from his bookie. Or is it more nihilistic than all that? Perhaps Altman himself has discovered that all the adulation, money and thrills in life are meaningless, and he can no longer respect those that crave the cheap amusements of people like Gould, who doesn’t even have the self-respect to walk around in shoes sans holes. It may be Segal’s character who comes to the realization of the insignificance of existence, but it is this feeling of morose disdain for humanity being the only answer that is reflected in every Altman film that follows.
Shawn Before we even get started, I want to know if any Altman is better than this movie.
Rhett Nashville, Mash, and The Long Goodbye all have the same vibe.
Shawn I’m not a huge fan of M*A*S*H*.
Rhett No, I think Split is a much more mature movie, but you’d probably really like Nashville.
Shawn Despite the country music aspect? Although – I don’t gamble, and I loved this film.
Rhett I hate country and was enthralled. Altman has a great ability to forget about plot and just let his characters be. You never feel like you are being led through a story, more like you are just a visitor for a couple hours in these character’s lives.
Adam What I find most interesting is, he goes from place to place learning about the locations anew, every time, switching genres constantly. It reminded me of Frederick Wiseman, who does no research and just shows up on the set and shoots and shoots and then he finds the movie in the editing room.
Shawn Interesting that you mention Wiseman, I called California Split the most believable movie outside documentary I have seen.
Adam Altman seems a little more prepared than that. The movie improves significantly the second time as well because what appear to be sort of unconnected scenes in the first half really come together when you know where it is going.
Rhett I actually referenced cinema verite in my essay but more about how his sound design achieves the same sort of truth that the uninterrupted visuals of verite do. There is so much audible information too; I enjoyed just kind of eavesdropping on the other conversations. You get a full portrait of that environment. Of all the films of his I’ve seen, the sound design of Split and Nashville are much more rich and perfected. The background talk in Split often really brings light to the historical context of 70’s America, with people talking about the OPEC crisis, organic foods, free love. Stuff like that.
Adam There’s a lot of that in The Long Goodbye too, Rhett, with the hippie naked women next door who talk about veganism With regards to the sound design, I find that Altman’s later films still have that people talking at once feeling, they just have only hateful and uninteresting things to say. I think he has either gotten lazy in the editing room. Or he is willing to let the actors embarrass themselves and point it out, rather than simply letting them breathe without taking advantage of the fact that they are exposed. Prêt a Porter and Dr. T and the Women are two of the meanest to the character’s movies I’ve seen. He just doesn’t like people anymore and he’s more than willing to let them hang themselves by giving them plenty of rope.
Shawn I loved the prostitutes. I am really happy that they were given a sort of epilogue. All that side bar talk was really fun to listen to. Particularly the gas bit when he sells his car.
Rhett Is that fully true though?
Adam What I’m getting at, Rhett, is, that something like the one armed piccolo player, in later years Altman would have made sure to make that character look like a buffoon, not charming and funny, if a bit disreputable.
Shawn Prêt a Porter really is mean spirited. And what is supposed to be funny falls completely flat.
Adam Prêt-à-Porter is Altman’s version of Woody Allen’s Celebrity. Mean and clueless about its subject matter. But even Altman’s failures are worth seeing.
Rhett Altman really seemed to get the “cool” in Gould…with everyone else he was this gawky loser. You look at him in stuff like Ocean’s Eleven and American History X and wonder how this is the same person as Philip Marlowe or Charlie Waters.
Shawn The one-armed piccolo player bit was hilarious. And the reaction felt extremely genuine. Like he didn’t have to reach for that laugh one bit.
Rhett It wasn’t really funny in a regular sense; it was more just infectious because you knew that Segal and Gould were having such a great time together. Their scenes just seem so genuine together, it’s a rare chemistry.
Adam And you could tell they were getting along because he started with the “William, William, William” thing again, the way the l’s roll off his tongue.
Rhett No doubt aided by Altman’s lack of scripting… Speaking of the William bit, I liked the allusion to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. With their names. Charlie’s hunting for the golden ticket, William lives in seclusion, etc.
Adam Would you say that Segal was trying to start over before leaving for Reno? That the gambling was a facade, even before he came to the realization? Running away from his soon-to-be-ex-wife, bookie, job, friends, etc.
Rhett I think he always knew that he was kidding himself, that ultimately his addiction would consume all ability to start over or even enjoy life. Reno, meeting Gould, they were just distractions that would wear off and take him right back to loneliness
Shawn I think he was trying to feel something, and he realized in a moment that gambling wasn’t doing it for him anymore.
Adam The split took place even before the conclusion. It’s when they get robbed and Gould negotiates half with the guy. After that Segal seemed distant from Gould, like they couldn’t talk to each other anymore, the surprise trip to Mexico, that he won’t tell him how he broke his nose, even though it would seem like satisfying revenge.
Rhett So, what, seeing Gould split the cash only made him see how important gambling and money was to his own life?
Adam No, it showed that Gould didn’t value life, only money. He was willing to risk all 4 people for $780. He valued money only to lose it. It is very similar to Phil Seymour Hoffman in Owning Mahowny
Shawn I don’t think Gould really valued money at all. Only gambling. When Segal is up like 10K Gould states, “We can live in the track” for that.
Rhett That made Segal realize the absurdity of his own addiction. Except this movie doesn’t take the Hollywood route and have the lead predictably lose it all at the end.
Adam Gould just wants to lose it all again. The money is the important tool in the gambling. Granted, Gould is trying to gamble without it during the final scene, including with a candy bar. But the money is inexorably linked to the gambling
Shawn But it is only the means to the end. For the average gambler, money is the incentive. For Gould, gambling is the only incentive he needs. Additionally, when Gould loses money, he never really cares that much. He is still in spirits after the Mexico trip, joking around.
Rhett I liked how Altman covered addiction from two vastly different perspectives. Even though Segal and Gould are both addicts, they are both so in dissimilar ways
Adam Even the hookers have an addiction. They want to be loved and think that by “dating” these men for money, they can find it. Gould is like their back-up, in case it doesn’t work out.
Rhett Fruit Loops
Shawn And beer.
Adam Yes, Gould is like their shitty breakfast, sloppily covered in milk.
Adam I think the best scene in the whole movie is at the bar when the women is screaming about how she’s always at classy places and how awful this place is. And then she calls everyone else dickless, and says to Segal “you’re such a fucking faggot.” To which the bartender, the guy from every sitcom ever, says “you want some more nuts?” As if that would re-masculate him.
Shawn I also loved the monologue in the high-stakes room.
Adam Shawn, I think the monologue would have been better, had there been no acknowledgment that Gould was on the money when the waitress tells him it’s a good guess. I think it should be left open if we think he’s totally full of shit. He certainly sounds it.
Shawn Well, I think that the monologue works well because he is intentionally saying it to use the server as well as his friend
Rhett Altman never seemed to be afraid to portray women in vile and negative light in all his films while women’s lib was in full swing. Right when I saw the hookers I thought “here we go again”, but he was surprisingly compassionate compared to Hot Lips, the vegans in Long Goodbye or the girl who strips in Nashville.
Shawn Well because the hookers aren’t really painted too dirty or too clean. That is why they work.
Adam It is true that there is always an idiotic female, who “deserves a beating” in every Altman movie. I’m thinking of the Coke bottle in The Long Goodbye. The vegans in The Long Goodbye aren’t treated with derision. Just amusement. Well, bemusement.
Shawn “You don’t throw oranges on the escalator!”
Rhett You are laughing at them, they are the epitome of the vapid, blonde surfer girl.
Adam Yes, but it isn’t mean. Remember the singer in Nashville? The naked one? That’s the difference. That’s just mean. And really hateful
Rhett Yes, but they are painted in no less a positive light
Adam Oh I don’t know, the hooting and hollering at her in Nashville isn’t redeemed, nor does it appear objective. In The Long Goodbye they’re just high and maybe a bit ditsy, but not deserving of what happens to the girl in Nashville. I just felt uncomfortable. I thought it was the low point in the film
Rhett It kind of brings the misogyny to the surface whereas the mocking of the vegans and the derision of Hot Lips is passed off in the other movies as breezy fun, and therefore seems much worse
Adam It doesn’t seem so serious in those films though, like, they will live on and it won’t be a big deal. In Nashville you think, she’s going to kill herself
Rhett That’s what makes it worse, because in Nashville you feel bad for the stuff she was put to doing by the males, but in Goodbye and M*A*S*H* you are supposed to laugh at it and supposed to feel that Hot Lips deserves what she got.
Adam You’ve never done anything dumb and then laughed about it later? Hot Lips in M*A*S*H* was humorless and getting in the way of their fun, but she got over it, and understood. Think of Short Cuts, where every scene is the moment where someone’s life changes for the worse, because Altman hates them. Every scene in Short Cuts is like the single scene in Nashville.
Rhett That’s the thing though, she shouldn’t get over it. Having your officer stripped nude in front of everyone would get you sent to prison now, but in M*A*S*H* it is supposed to be funny, cool. It seems like Altman’s always been a cynical bastard, I wonder why he’s gotten so much more pessimistic with age.
Adam Yes, but people get over being laughed at. In Nashville, it was more than that. There she was, naked, exposed as a bad singer, a sell-out, a loser, mocked for who she was, young vulnerable. I think California Split is the turning point, the ending being Altman’s discovery that all was shitty and empty. Every film that follows is so much more nasty and misanthropic. Often, Altman is making a satire without any jokes.
Rhett Yeah, but you empathize with the singer and feel terrible for her mistreatment…In his other films you are made to root for the sexism.
Rhett According to the commentary the ending was something that Altman just kind of organically came upon. The ending was actually completely different, much more textbook. The original ending was way more overtly downbeat, but in a Hollywood way, where Segal calls Gould a fraud, they fight, Segal decides he is leaving. But then Altman just kind of came up with the ending as they were filming and scrapped the original.
Adam This is pretty much the same thing, but subtle. It is even more insulting that Gould is left collecting his money and his shoes. He didn’t even get to experience the joy of winning.
Shawn He also seems upset that Segal didn’t really enjoy winning either
Rhett Altman kept one of the shoes and still has it today
Adam So is that suggesting that he identified with Gould’s character more? I saw him as Segal, almost completely.
Rhett Apparently Gould at the time was not that far removed from his character. Him and the writer both shared gambling addictions.
Shawn I wonder if they got a real street guy to do the gunpoint mugging. He was awfully convincing as a crackhead.
Rhett So why the red and blue credits?
Adam To preface the red and blue title of Nashville?
Rhett Is this supposed to be some sort of metaphor for America. Vietnam perhaps. America had won in previous wars, and instead of just taking their winnings, they kept going back to the craps table, bound to lose at some point. Addicted to being the world’s peacekeepers.
Adam So perhaps California Split is really about a US split? And Canada should have taken over.
Rhett The split between liberal and conservative America?
Adam Yes, if we can make the analogy/metaphor even thinner.
Rhett Considering how big of a detractor Altman was against Vietnam, I don’t really see the absurdity in assuming this is yet another of his Vietnam metaphors.
Shawn I have to say I was shocked that drugs aren’t mentioned in this movie at all.
Adam Is it a surprise that Altman never made a direct Vietnam movie?
Rhett Well, Korea may as well be Vietnam in M*A*S*H*…you can’t get much closer.
Adam I think he’s past being angry at issues, just people.
Rhett And Canada. He states that people should only film in Canada if the story requires it. When The Company was written by Neve Campbell based on her own autobiographical childhood in Ontario, he still films in the States.
Shawn I wish more movies were made like California Split today. That it is more about people than punchlines. I am pleased whenever I see a comedy that doesn’t remind me of either Kevin Smith or Big Momma’s House. Not that I don’t like Kevin Smith, but gross out humor, no matter how well written, is still dick ‘n’ fart.
Rhett Yeah, you just get bored by the plot stringing that goes on today. This one, and all of seventies Altman, seems so fresh and real, it’s never boring even when nothing is happening, because you know he’s not on auto-pilot.
Adam In a sense he is on auto-pilot though, Rhett. He has admitted many times that he thinks he’s pretty much done with the movie once he finishes casting. He lets the actors work it out. The tone is set in the editing room.
Rhett The story isn’t on auto-pilot since they kind of navigate through it as a group rather than just follow some convention laden script.
Adam I liked Jeff Goldblum’s dorky veneer in California Split. I kept looking at him and thinking, “Did you forget your mantra again?”
Rhett Between California Split, Death Wish and Nashville, he was the king of the background extra cameos. However, I preferred Hood # 3 in St. Ives. A definite step down from Freak # 1 in Death Wish.