Calum Marsh: “This simultaneously relaxed and lively swing-fest, a celebration of collective euphoria, shows how deeply akin Altman’s style is to the aesthetic of improvised jazz, which at its best tends to thrive not so much through competition as through the kind of sudden inspiration that fellow players can spark in one another.” That’s Jonathan Rosenbaum writing about what I consider to be the best of Robert Altman’s many great films, the oft-overlooked California Split, and it’s difficult to think of a more accurate description of the very particular tone struck by this film. By the time of its release in 1974, Altman’s reputation for looseness and abstraction had long-since been established, but California Split amplifies those tendencies to an unprecedented degree. Because unlike his stylistically similar classic The Long Goodbye, which self-consciously digressed from Chandler’s well-established noir framework to ironic and highly comedic effect, the fleeting and disparate passages which comprise California Split are held together by only the faintest suggestion of an overarching narrative. Altman, lacking the constraints of Hollywood convention, is free to roam about and improvise as he goes—and we’re invited to sort of just meander through the resulting mess with him, soaking in the images and sounds, which exist in joyful abundance. But most of all California Split is just such a thoroughly enjoyable film, and is one of the most purely entertaining experiences I’ve ever had at the movies.
Jordan Cronk: This being in essence our second ReFramed topic, I guess it feels appropriate, then, that we would turn 180 degrees from Jean-Luc Godard to Robert Altman. Both have unwieldy catalogues with many indulgences and curiosities, but whereas Godard’s late period work is an admittedly acquired taste, the under-recognized work of Altman is just as accessible and digestible as his canonized classics. I guess just because there’s so much of it to sift through, it’s inevitable that a number of his strongest works have fallen by the wayside. I could see us devoting a number of these columns to other Altman films in the future, which I think would be more than appropriate since I’d put him on a very short list of the greatest American filmmakers ever. And like you say, California Split, made at the absolute peak of his powers, is one of his most impressive yet underseen works. And that “faint suggestion of an overarching narrative” that you speak of is especially impressive here since the finished film is so tight, as opposed to something like Nashville, which at three hours in length, is ironically one of his most well known yet most intimidating pictures.
Marsh: Very true. In fact, though I do love Nashville, I found it much less exuberant and free-wheeling the first time through than a lot of the writing on the film had led me to believe it would be—it’s generous and energetic, sure, but very intimidating in both density and, frankly, sheer length. The pleasures to be found in California Split, on the other hand, are immediately accessible and instantly rewarding. Which also makes it perhaps the ideal candidate for rediscovery and a great addition to the ReFramed list: I think, given the right amount of exposure, that California Split would fit right in with the upper ranks of cult classics. It’s certainly as repeatedly gratifying a fix as, say, The Big Lebowski, which shares its knack for clever dialogue and atmosphere of friendly revelry.
Cronk: I completely agree. For my money, Altman’s run of films in the ‘70s is comparable to just about any great decade you could name: ‘60s Godard, ‘90s Kiarostami and Hou, ‘50s Ozu and Kurosawa, you name it. And I think what makes these films and California Split in particular so great is the inviting atmosphere. These two compulsive gamblers, played by George Segal and Altman regular Elliott Gould and co-stars of California Split, are so likable despite their flaws, so charming despite their addictions, and so funny despite the mishaps and social upheaval they leave in their wake. I want to know these characters, which feels so rare in films today. And Altman had a knack for just these kinds of characters, even though—and I think this is interesting and important to note—he didn’t work from his own scripts. I’d have to research this a bit more, but I want to say that most of if not all of Altman’s greatest works were written by someone else, yet they all feel of a piece—it’s impossible not to know you’re watching an Altman film within the first five minutes. And I think that’s rare.
Marsh: I imagine a great deal of that has to do with the degree to which Altman relied on improvisation from his actors, which accounts for how far his finished films often wind up diverging from their source material—I mean, most of what makes The Long Goodbye unmistakably Altman-like was never present in the original novel or the adapted screenplay, because with Altman you’re always going to get unexpected treats in the form of quick lines of improvised dialogue and whole exchanges or scenarios that came to him or his actors entirely on the fly. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but California Split is the first-ever film to use an eight-track mixer, which essentially meant that Altman’s crew could stick microphones in eight totally different (and usually obscure) locations throughout the set, capturing not only the scripted dialogue of the leads but also ancillary background dialogue and improvisations caught by chance by whomever happened to be talking on set. Because each channel was captured separately, Altman had the ability to adjust the volume levels for each piece of dialogue separately, and the result is totally overwhelming melange of conversations and asides, only a small percentage of which is relevant but all of which is hilarious. It’s a pretty ingenious set-up, but it’s also risky—just think of what a mess this film could have been in less competent hands.
Cronk: I was not aware of that, but it’s certainly that very aural texture that gives these films their character and atmosphere. The opening scene in particular is a master-class in capturing and mixing sound. More so than even M*A*S*H, I think it’s here where you see Altman seamlessly folding in all the surrounding commotion into the finished mix in a fashion that doesn’t draw attention to itself. You get to know not just the two main characters, but also all the folks playing poker with Gould and even the piped in casino announcer, which seems to me like a blatant reference to M*A*S*H and that film’s cheeky loudspeaker commentary. It’s a tactic that he repeats throughout the film and throughout his career, and in the very next scene, when the Gould and Segal characters officially meet in a strip joint, you catch little bits of the strippers and bartenders life stories. Like a lot of Altman films, it almost feels like his camera is patiently roaming around common American locales, waiting to stumble across an interesting character or two.
Marsh: Yeah, absolutely—you almost get a sense that the camera would be present even if the action weren’t. The sound mix is excellent because even though Gould and Segal emerge clearly as the stars of the show, the film is perfectly content to allow bit players in the periphery to overtake them if what they’re saying at the time is more interesting or amusing. In the early bar scene you just mentioned, the conversation Gould and Segal are involved in is extremely involved and esoteric—they struggle to reel off the names of the seven dwarfs, mumble about racial reactions to Dumbo, and just sort of ramble on about whatever else pops into their heads, a great deal of which is unscripted—and so the film occasionally dips away to pick up little snatches of other conversations, stuff that has no real relevance or import. And this is usually done within a single fixed shot, too; our attention shifts with the sound mix, which is a more subtle effect. I think if there’s a precedent for that effect, by the way, it can be found in Tati—his masterpiece Playtime had a very involved soundtrack, too, and the volume was constantly shifting in order to call attention to specific characters or situations within an overcrowded frame.