Among the familiar monuments, those attempts to capture entire cities and eras within single movies, there’s a host of fascinating curios to be relished at MOMA’s six-week celebration of the films of Robert Altman, the crankiest great director America has produced. You can catch American Football, for example, one of three work-for-hire Altman shorts discovered by the talented filmmaker Gary Huggins in Kansas City junkpiles. Or Corn’s A-Poppin’,
a satirical 1956 musical about a harried popcorn bigwig. There’s Altman’s TV westerns of the ’60s and some woozy feature-length ’70s bafflements like Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Quintet, both cockeyed and frustrating and rewarding — both daring films that, if just a couple things that went wrong had gone right, might today be the toast of the festival.
Altman’s existential 1974 gambling buddy comedy California Split isn’t quite a curio, and it isn’t quite lost, but the only
legal way to see it these days — other than at MOMA’s screening this week — is in a compromised home-video cut: An issue over music licenses (read: money) resulted in three minutes of the film getting axed for its ’04 DVD debut. Toasted upon its release, the loose, low-key, engagingly slight
California Split has never been heralded as one of the key Altmans. But the few things it does — friendship and disappointment and the drab and desperate thrill of the gambler’s life — it does superbly.
At times it plays like an improv exercise, the incidents of its story nothing more than prompts for the leads to respond to. Since those leads are Elliott Gould and George Segal, both at the height of their powers, that’s not a problem at all — they’re playing charismatic rogues who groove on each other’s presence, and it feels like a top-shelf pleasure for us to groove along, too. Knocking back beers, wagering on bullshit, soft-shoeing through boozy parking-lot sing-alongs, these two generate an offhand sublimity as affecting as it is hilarious.
One of the film’s many peaks comes
after an explosion from Segal’s character,
a depressive editor in hock to some gangsters, as all comedy gamblers must be. Gould’s cheerier, more flippant rogue has vanished for a few days, leaving Segal’s man to face his troubles alone. Gould returns, sombreroed and chipper, only to be soundly upbraided. This is the third-act
crisis that, in most romances, would require a miracle — and some complicated plotting — to bring the leads back together. Here, Gould urges Segal to let his rage go for just one moment and to watch. Then he wins Segal back with 90 seconds of exquisitely dirty clowning. Segal at first resists, shaking Gould off, unwilling for reasons of pride to be lifted out of his solo self and back into their heady bonhomie. But Gould is irresistible, lifting Segal to the scene’s second explosion — of free and wild
(Reconciliation through daft performance is not unusual in Altman: Recall Tom Waits’s compliment to Lily Tomlin in Short Cuts, as their married couple drinks and sings and digs into her canapes: “You make food look like a little show down there.”)
That’s followed up by a desperate trip to Reno and what might be the most exciting evocation in cinema of the thrill of a lucky streak. As always, Altman crowds his frame with faces and his soundtrack with chatter, captured on a new eight-track system first developed for this film. The real gamblers hunched over a high-stakes poker table
are introduced in a running speculative monologue from Gould every bit as tart and hilarious as Barbara Stanwyck’s rundown of potential suitors in The Lady Eve. The
finale is a heartbreaker, improvised on location, a stab of truth about how getting what you want is often less satisfying than the wanting itself.
But the glory of California Split isn’t its downbeat ending. It’s the sense that Altman’s camera is just happening to observe life that would be lived even if he weren’t capturing it, just as his microphones seem to luck into incidental dramas. Before it pairs up Gould and Segal, the film studies busloads of poker players in a miserable ballroom something like the way an old nature film might: In their habitat, they scratch and carp. The leads catch the camera’s attention, it seems, simply because they’re the most dynamic — and predatory — in this pack.
“Behavior was at the center of his interest,” writes Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan of California Split in Altman, a lavishly illustrated new hardcover. In these pages in 1990 Gary Giddins noted that Altman’s Vincent & Theo “is less concerned with stockpiling facts than canvassing an accumulation of insights through the crafting of a time, place, and mood that allows the Van Goghs to leap out of history in all their ungainly glory.” Today, the then-contemporary early ’70s of California Split also seems almost crafted to reveal such character insights: Note how the women, here, are literal hookers and helpmeets, fetching Gould a beer, pouring the boys their cereal, volunteering to sleep with Segal’s depressive gambler for free. The portrayal isn’t spiteful, as in later
Altman, but time has imbued these scenes with a subjectivity at odds with the film’s otherwise life-observed approach — they play, revealingly, like what guys like these in ’74 maybe wished women were like.
A scene where Gould’s character, the more amoral of the two, pretends to be a vice cop to chase off his sex-worker pals’ transvestite john feels, at first, nastier than it winds up being. Touchingly, he pretends he’s not noticed that the woman he’s terrorizing is actually a man, sparing him (or her) the kind of sexualized humiliation that Altman, in other films, seems to relish. Still, everyone’s bemusement is an uncomfortable reminder that not all misfits and losers were welcome in Altmanland.
But the film overall is the director’s most inviting, and possibly his most purely pleasurable, despite its sucker-punch wrap-up. Gould’s rake lives for “the action”; as he reads the faces of those Reno high-rollers, cracking jokes but also exhibiting awe, he’s happy just to be among them. Watching, we are, too.