Friday, November 24, 2006

California Split (1974)

California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)

Robert Altman's hardly seen masterpiece California Split is a film about gambling; the same way as it is a film about two men who fortuitously meet up, team up, separate, re-meet, and take risks (with not a bit of any homo erotic consequences of a buddy pic). More accurately however, California Split is mostly about nothing: the two new buds, Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal) mostly spend the entire time betting and winning, from the poker tables to the horse races to the boxing matches. They also talk about nothing of valuable import: conversations float from one topic to another; a dialogue about a bet regarding the seven dwarves evolve (or devolve) into one about Dumbo, to the political repercussions of having a black crow sing a song about how he saw an elephant fly. Yet with all its light nothingness, California Split entertains quite astoundingly.

It's a film wherein Altman is in his most excessive. The overlapping dialogues make an entry right from the start with an introductory lesson on poker-playing overlapping with Charlie's monologues turning into a very heightened and exciting game of poker (which Altman denies us from actually taking part in). We only see what Altman wants us to see. He envelopes us immediately with an atmosphere of constant chaos; the same chaos that addicted gamblers breath and take in as fuel for their supposed streaks of good fortune. It takes time for the audience to get used to Altman's unsparing techniques, yet its quite rewarding. There's so much to observe from Altman's filmed surroundings (the other gamblers' quirks and characteristics, the whore in the casino-bound bar and her gambling mother, the like-minded excitedness of those betting on their favorite horses or boxers). California Split is much a film that delights in the gambling subculture as it is a film about the two buddies' road to huge dollar wins.

A conflict belatedly arises only midway. Charlie disappears mysteriously. Will loses big time; garners a huge debt from a loan shark which gets only bigger when he loses to another poker game; he wallows in self-pity in a local bar where a patron scoffs at his manliness; he tries to turn-around by sleeping with one of the whores Charlie lives with but that's not much of a success. He gambles everything --- sells his typewriter (he writes for a magazine), his automobile (for lower than its market value), and basic logic (he opts to gamble everything in Reno which is probably the second choice for gamblers; Las Vegas is much nearer and offers a more user-friendly environment for gamblers). Will returns; joins his quest for the big bucks of Reno; gets vindication from a poker room-dwelling sore loser.

It's almost inevitable that Altman makes his heroes win (they do), and that's not really what we're excited about. The more interesting bit about the film's climax (if we can call it that) is how the two buddies win. Loud-mouthed optimist Charlie is forced to stay in the background; swallow his pride as Will gamble their hard-earned money away. There's a gratifying sensation seeing Charlie get his mojos squashed by Will in exchange for a continuous lucky streak. It's especially enjoyable since we've seen Charlie get humiliated from losing, getting threatened by a puny loan shark, getting unexpectedly insulted by a not-so-attractive social climber, getting a huge turn-off in the midst of the start of passionate love-making. Seeing Will humiliate Charlie is elevated into a piece of entertainment in itself. The one-two punch of Altman's filmmaking is achieved when he ends an exciting streak with utter flatness --- Will feels unfulfilled (that streak wasn't enough; he's had so much of losing that winning has lost its curious delicacy; it's high stakes for him next); Charlie, on the other hand, will enjoy his winning; he is after all, the shmuck of the gambling underbellies; win or lose, he wins.

No comments: