California Split (1974)

Directed by Robert Altman

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California Split traces the friendship between two gamblers, Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Elliott Gould) as they make and lose money, get beat up, make bets on everything and ultimately go their separate ways.  Bill is facing tough times when we’re introduced to him, and Charlie, well it feels like nothing gets to him so it’s hard to tell if he’s got it made or if he too is on his last leg.

They meet during a poker game in which Charlie gets in trouble, perhaps cheating, and Bill backs him up when the people who run for a game ask for a witness account to the alleged poker crime.

The man who accused Charlie of cheating claims that they are working together, and in the scuffle, as he is dragged away, Bill crawls across the ground, gathering as many poker chips as possible.  The point is that he’s desperate.

That night they meet again at a bar and become fast friends.  They are then beat up in the parking lot by the man who accused Charlie of cheating.  Bill stays with Charlie and his girlfriend and her friend, both of whom are prostitutes.  Charlie and his girlfriend, Barbara, both seem on the fringes of society both in terms of profession (prostitution, gambling) and because they appear so unaffected by and disaffected with everything.

Bill is a magazine writer, meaning he has some kind of life to keep to, but Charlie convinces him to toss it aside.  The next night the two of them as well as the two girls, go to a fight (which they of course gamble on), and after winning it big, they’re faced with a gun-wielding man in the parking lot, forced to give away half their winnings.  It’s the second consecutive night in which they lose money, and it demonstrates how unsustainable this lifestyle is.

We learn more about Bill, the one who seems more put together than Charlie.  Bill is more intense, and it becomes clear that he really rides the wave, occasionally into the dark depths and occasionally to the highs.  He’s most likely a gambling addict, and we’re shown how in debt he is.  To Charlie this is all a game, but to Bill it’s a necessity, though one he seems ready to detach himself from.

There’s a quiet attraction between Bill and Barbara’s friend, Susan.  Robert Altman is very adept at portraying these kinds of delicate characters and delicate relationships.  They’re so subtly located alongside much louder, more animated characters that it’s almost hard to notice them.

In one scene, Bill is about to make love to Susan, but when they’re interrupted by Barbara for a moment, Bill leaves.  Susan, distraught, is comforted by Barbara, and it seems clear that Bill recognizes how unhealthy this life is, unfairly labelling Susan as part of the problem.

For the bulk of this film, the foursome of Bill, Charlie, Barbara and Susan feel like a family, one that came together remarkably quickly (like winning $10,000 on a single bet) and they start to fall apart almost just as quickly, like a losing bet.

Whereas Bill, when he loses, is much louder and pissed off, in this case he appears resigned to this fate, as if realizing his own role in the problem.

Eventually, though, Bill heads to Reno with Charlie.  He pays his way there by selling a lot of his stuff, and, like in many gambling movies, he has to win it all to get back to square one.  Well, he gets up to $18,000, covering his debt, but convinced he’s on a hot streak (which Charlie didn’t believe were real before), Bill gets all the way up to $82,000 before calling it quits.  When he leaves the table he even forgets some of his chips, which Charlie scrambles to collect for him.

Bill then decides to quit while he’s ahead, removing him from this rabbit hole that would eventually bankrupt him once more, saying goodbye to Charlie as much as to this gambling lifestyle.  Charlie, though, happily collects his half of the money and seems completely unaffected by this adventure they had gone on.

Okay, so to be honest, I again feel like I missed a lot while watching this film.  I always feel that way after watching a Robert Altman film.  A lot of the focus in his works is on smaller moments or just the general environment of a scene.  That’s why there is so much overlapping dialogue.  It doesn’t matter who is saying what, just the tone it creates.

In the first scene, Charlie is in control, and Bill is the new guy, it seems, more of a blank slate who will learn everything he’s ever learned over the course of this film.  He is built up and broken back down, and Charlie is just Charlie the whole time.

The part of the film I found most touching and fascinating, were the details of Charlie’s home life.  There is a lot we’re not told about Charlie or Barbara or Susan.  They all just kind of exist in this home that feels at once incredibly comforting but also very dilapidated.  When Charlie brings Bill home, as the sun rises the morning after they’re drunken night out, he offers him Froot Loops, clearing out old dinner plates from the night before or maybe a week before.  Barbara takes one of the spoons from these old plates, rubs them “clean” and gives it to Bill.  When she pours him milk for his cereal, it splashes everywhere.  There is so much wrong with the way they live, even just in this one scene, but no one bats an eye, not even Bill.  Hell, he kind of likes it.

When Susan returns home, she is a bit of a mess from a night out with a client whom she thought really liked her.  She feels like a type of woman who is certainly not cut out for her line of work because she’s too emotionally involved, wanting to believe the best in people, but the people who pay for her services probably don’t even believe in themselves.  Barbara is someone who can handle it, much like Charlie can handle this gambling lifestyle because no matter how much he wins or loses, you get the feeling he’s always the same, always living in the same dirty home but always okay with it.

So there’s a comparison drawn between Charlie/Barbara and Bill/Susan.  The attraction between the latter two feels inevitable.  I guess, for a moment, I have to return to Susan and the quiet tragedy of her character.  There is nothing that tells us she will turn it around.  She might always find herself getting her hopes up before having them dashed (by Bill as much as by anyone else).  I always think of Robert Altman’s films as more about the group than the person, but within the group there are always sensitive characters who don’t feel cut out for the world they live in.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller was all about a cold, uncaring world that felt unprepared to foster human life.  In that film, Keith Carradine played a young, handsome cowboy who is gunned down for no reason.  His death is quiet and pretty unremarkable.  It just happens, and we move on.  There are other characters in that film, like Shelley Duvall’s Ida Coyle who is married to an older man she doesn’t know or love, and when he dies is then put to work in the whorehouse.  She is comforted by Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) who makes a pretty good point to Ida, that performing work as a prostitute is not much different, better in fact, than her duties as a wife.  She gets paid more now, that’s for sure.

So there are these characters who are a little clueless, certainly a little wide eyed, and they’re taken in by weathered veterans of a certain way of living who show them that it’s not so bad.  But what’s so tragic about this is that these older characters don’t consider that there’s another way of living.  They only know this way, so even though they can stomach it, they don’t seem to realize that the iambi-like character they’re fostering might shrivel up and die if they keep going this way.

So if there’s a line drawn between Susan and Bill, then Bill’s departure from the gambling table (even while up big) is a sign that he can pick himself back up.  That doesn’t mean much for Susan, and if it says anything beyond what it says about Bill, I’d wager that it’s about the individualism of survival, if that makes any sense at all.  It’s like when you’re in an airplane and they run through the emergency scenarios.  You’ve got to put the mask on yourself before you help out the next person.

 

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