Friday, October 14, 2011


While I’ve long cited Robert Altman as one of my “favorite all-time directors”, said citation comes with several caveats. First, I’m talking about 1970s Robert Altman, not “Short Cuts”, “Gosford Park” Altman – though those are fine films to be sure. Second, I have seen all of what I believe are his major 70s works, including three that are in my Top 20 films of all time: “3 Women”, “Nashville” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”. I’ve also seen (and loved) some of his lowest-tier 70s stuff that no one ever talks about, like “A Wedding” and “Images”. I’m still missing out of the full oeuvre, though, having never seen “The Long Goodbye”, “Thieves Like Us” and, until two weeks ago, 1974’s “California Split”. This admission elicited audible gasps and much umbrage taken among certain of my film-going friends, so I reckoned it was time to correct the deficit, one film at a time.

“CALIFORNIA SPLIT”, with a screen-hogging Elliott Gould and a morosely weird George Segal in the lead roles, is one of the most manic films I have ever seen. It could be from no one but Altman. Remember how jarring it was to have characters in the background of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” miked higher than those in the foreground? No one had ever done than before, intentionally at least, but that film has nothing on the total cacophony of conversations that all take place at once in this one. As my pal who’s seen this film four times now told me, you can’t watch “California Split” just once if you want to get all of the best quotable dialog. I missed a ton, because, for example, Altman has four conversations going at once at a roulette wheel, and everyone’s miked exactly the same – even Gould. Since his voice is the loudest – he’s a total obnoxious party animal/egotist/gambling addict in this film – and because you know he’s the star, you tend to focus on his words the most, but it’s a struggle at times.

It may be the passage of time and the 37-year gulf between 2011 and 1974, but I don’t think I’ve seen a film that looked so seventies since my last Blaxploitation marathon. Altman excellently casts of collection of grifters, bums, elderly gamblers and all-around ugly people in just about every non-essential role. This is not a frolic with the beautiful people in Las Vegas; this is a bottom-dwelling journey to places like Reno, Tijuana and Santa Anita racetrack. Nothing really happens, per se, other than Gould and Segal opportunistically following their luck wherever the chance to win money takes them. There’s drinking, there are girls (including the lovely Gwen Wells, who played Sueleen Gay in “Nashville” and whom I’m heartbroken to just now discover died in 1993 at the age of 42) and many big bets taken. Segal goes from depressingly morose to euphoric to drunkenly euphoric to morose again. Gould is just pure mania throughout the entire film, completely unable to self-reflect or slow down for even a second.

After watching “CALIFORNIA SPLIT” I wasn’t sure if I had a headache to complain about or if I’d just seen a near-masterpiece. It was a joy to look at, that’s for sure – the people, the 70s signage, the old Detroit boat-cars, the sexual revolution in simultaneous full flower & decay, and so on. I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to see it again to see what I really think. See, that’s how Altman gets ya.