By the time he got to California Split, Robert Altman’s best work with Elliott Gould was behind him. As a result, this film – his last before Nashville – feels like an epilogue to the first flowering of his career in the early 1970s. For the most part, Altman coasts through the film, confident in consolidating and celebrating his style before he took it one step further with Nashville. In doing so, Altman also brought an end to one of the most prolific periods in his career, perhaps explaining why California Split feels so effortless and elegant in its execution – of all of Altman’s films from this period, it’s the one that most seems to arrive, fully-formed, like a slice of life, rather than as a contrived or constructed artistic product. In part, that’s because it elasticises narrative more than any of Altman’s previous films, with the exception of Brewster McCloud, taking us through a series of episodes in the life and friendship of two gamblers, Bill Denny, played by George Segal, and Charlie Waters, played by Elliott Gould. These episodes are only incidentally and tangentially connected, effectively making for a series of short films, or comic sketches, that now seem defiantly, surreally, pre-blockbuster, since it’s almost impossible to conceive of a film this loose in the wake of Jaws.
There is, however, one sharp difference between California Split and Altman’s earlier films – the first use of eight-track sound outside of a Cinerama release. In order to create as many overlapping planes of sound as possible, Altman mics the peripheral players, and even some of the extras, to the same extent as the main characters, suffusing each scene in a wash of sound and ambient noise. For that reason, the film tends to work best in spaces populated by large groups of people, and proceeds by taking us through one gambling situation after another – poker, boxing, horse racing – in which the collective hum and murmur of voices is integral to the rhythm and momentum of the activities taking place. This vision of America humming along quickly eclipses the spectacle of gambling, turning the film into an experiment in teasing out and luxuriating in the music of noise, and the music of conversation. While every venue is evocative, and suffused with this ensemble sound, Altman’s style is most suited to the poker table, where the film begins and ends, and to the etiquette of poker talk, which discourages speech that dissociates itself too much from the game’s ambience: “during the game, avoid conversation on matters unrelated to the game.”
However, California Split doesn’t merely consist of ensemble gambling scenes. Much of it plays out between Bill and Charlie, and the two women that they live with. While these scenes are nominally more focused than the more expansive scenes, the micing of each character, and the dependence on ambient sound, tends to displace the focus of these scenes even more emphatically, if only because they have more of an ostensible focus to begin with. To that end, Altman also directs both of the lead actors so as to further displace them from the screenplay, and from their centrality to the film. On the one hand, Gould accentuates his slight lisp, and speaks in ways that draw out his large lips, often telling anecdotes that draw explicit attention to these facial and delivery features. One of his recurring stories, for example, is about how “the tongue of the Great Blue Whale weighs more than a fully-grown African elephant.” On the other hand, Segal’s body language is as provisional as Gould’s voice, leading him to move more gingerly, from scene to scene, as the film proceeds, as if he is hesitant to insist too emphatically upon himself as a point of focus.
This displacement of Gould and Segal from the film also takes the film itself in unusual directions. At first, this looks like a fairly familiar narrative – two gamblers meet, pool their resources, and then work towards a grand heist. The opening scene, in particular, suggests this situation, as Bill and Charlie work the same poker table, and appear to be operating in tandem, despite the fact that the player they appear to have conned can’t prove their collaboration. Yet in the following scene, they greet each other so incidentally at the bar that they could have just met, or could have known each other for years. Critically, the film isn’t really interested in choosing between these two options, settling Bill and Charlie into a series of provisional living arrangements and fluid gambling situations that are only semi-connected and semi-continuous. Rather than building to some great grift, or using gambling to cement a relationship, or even focusing on gambling as a spectacle, Altman presents gambling as a form of subsistence, or a way of relieving boredom, divesting it of any propulsive narrative imperative and instead collapsing it into the ambience of the film itself.
Over the early 70s, Altman had worked to divest film of narrative, character and even mise-en-scene, in order to envisage an ensemble cinema that was driven by rhythm, dynamism and internal momentum. Over the rest of his career, he would often move into music, or dance, in the later parts of his films, in order to prevent them congealing into narrative, character drama, or stately mise-en-scenes despite themselves. Here, however, he settles on gambling as a way of capturing, and maintaining, that internal rhythm, as well as an apt image for the gamble that he himself was taking by daring to make a film driven by rhythm alone. The very function of gambling in California Split is thus to work against all the narratological and characterological tension that gambling normally generates in cinema, making for a film that is probably quite true to the experience of gambling as an addiction, an ongoing process, and a fairly banal mechanism for correcting the arrhythmia of daily life.
More specifically, gambling here functions as a way of making everyday life meaningful by reinvesting it with an ensemble rhythm, and the sense of being part of a broader ensemble whole. Bill and Charlie may love gambling, but they seem to thrive even more on the collective spaces surrounding gambling, while they feel most vulnerable in private space, or domestic space, when they have to cope with themselves as individuals. In that respect, Altman’s intrusion of ambient noise into domestic space feels like a reprieve, or a fantasy on Bill and Charlie’s part, proof that even their most private or isolated moments are bound up in a broader collective groundswell. To that end, they deliberately avoid asking each other about their private lives away from gambling, just as Altman deliberately withholds that information from the audience as well. We only get the briefest glimpse of their family lives outside of the pad where they crash between gambling bouts, while the ending reveals that Bill doesn’t even know where Charlie lives, or even what he really does outside of gambling.
Yet if California Split is a kind of apotheosis of Altman’s ensemble mentality of the early 70s, it also condenses all the anxieties surrounding that mentality as well. True, gambling provides Bill and Charlie with a sense of collectivity, but it is also, beyond a point, an inherently individualistic enterprise as well. Indeed, as the film proceeds, gambling starts to feel like a cipher for capitalism, while Bill and Charlie’s activites start to feel like a cipher for the counterculture’s relation with capitalism. Just as the counterculture often sought to change capitalism through capitalism, so Bill and Charlie seek an ensemble line of flight in an activity that is ultimately individualistic. That line of flight might be exhilarating for a period, but it also inevitably deteriorates, both isolating them as individuals, but also revealing their individualistic investment in it. Unlike most gambling buddy films, then, Bill and Charlie desync, and work less in tandem, as the screenplay proceeds, resulting in a quite melancholy ending in which Charlie, exhausted and dejected, realises he has finally had enough, while Bill’s addiction finally segues into frenetic self-destruction, as he plans to head to Vegas to blow all their earnings on his largest gamble to date, but this time alone.
Between those two poles, Altman’s ensemble mentality, and the countercultural impulse it represented, arrives at an impasse, a figurative bind that Nashville would address and enact. It’s no coincidence that this most collective of all his films to date also falls back on the toxic individualism, and the toxic masculinity, of MASH, since California Split is unable to escape the counterculture’s complicity in the very structures of power that it claimed to be resisting. While Bill and Charlie may be two of Altman’s loosest characters, they’re also two of his most brutal, and two of his most conservative, whether they’re engaging in inane sports talk, indulging in the fantasies of prostitutes who want to have sex with them for free, or shaming a transgender character who turns up in their apartment. Here, as in MASH, any difference is greeted with a picaresque incredulity that is ultimately just bullying, along with a smugness that comes from the assurance of being automatically received as charming in any and all situations. At times, Bill and Charlie are the kind of characters who act like they’re in a film in real life, perpetually mugging to an imaginary camera that makes them feel more cloistered, entitled and unsympathetic as the film dissociates and disperses.
No surprise, then, that Nashville would opt for a much broader palette of characters – so broad that this kind of toxic individualism couldn’t intrude, or at least couldn’t command the action in quite the same way. Ironically, the ensemble sweep of California Split makes its eventual insularity feel more cloistered and chambered than any of the smaller-scaled dramas in Altman’s career. While the different sonic planes initially promise to expand the action, they end up making this a film best suited to headphones, at least whenever Bill and Charlie are on screen, evoking a broader collective impulse only to collapse back into an oppressive individualism. More than most of his previous films, this doesn’t permit Altman any real resolution, but instead produces two final gestures of indeterminacy – a wheel of fortune that spins over the opening credits, but never comes to a final stop, and a musical sequence that Bill performs with the piano player at the poker lounge after Charlie has left him. This piano player has been one of the most fluid pivots in the film, often intruding into scenes that have nothing much to do with her, or that are taking place away from her piano. By collapsing Bill, and Gould, into this fluid space, for a performance that is effectively delivered straight to the audience, Altman closes in a restless zone between screen and world, between the individuals within the film and the collective ensemble of the audience as a participatory presence or possibility that Nashville would explore in the most vivid way.