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ReFramed No. 4: Robert Altman's 'California Split'

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Wednesday, Jun 29, 2011
by Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

Altman's soundtracks are so intricate that it can almost be easy to take his visual style for granted

Cronk: Definitely. Altman certainly wasn’t the rigid formalist in the mold of Tati, but his soundtracks are so intricate that it can almost be easy to take for granted his visual style, which has characteristics all its own. His signature use of the zoom is brave in its amateurishness, but like his sound mixes, his camera just kind of rotates around open spaces before locating a character and eavesdropping in on the conversation. The seven dwarfs scene is great, and begins to show some of their unconscious addiction to gambling, but it’s a later scene where they meet a mugger in a parking lot and Gould basically gambles with their lives, refusing to give up all their recent winnings, that epitomizes these characters. It’s kind of thrilling, sad, and hilarious all at once, and to pull another reference point from the other end of the spectrum, it plays something like a Cassavetes scene. In fact, the work of Cassavates may be the only consistent comparison I can make with Altman. There were certainly no shortage of ‘70s films made with a similarly freewheeling approach to character, but the way these two could make the audience feel uncomfortable with the gravity of a situation while also making one nervously laugh in anticipation of a punch line that may never come, is truly unique.


Marsh: Oh, yeah, I can see the similarities—particularly in the way that both Altman and Cassavetes tend to so quickly and shockingly turn the comic into the tragic and vice versa. Altman, of course, has his share of comparatively straight dramas, but the films he made during this period often fall squarely between comedy and tragedy in a way that can be very disarming if you aren’t prepared for it. McCabe And Mrs. Miller, one of his best early films, shot back and forth between scenes of the borderline slapstick and moments of sobering seriousness. California Split definitely leans toward the comedic end of that spectrum, but you’re right that it often manages to be somehow sad and funny simultaneously, which can be uncomfortable in a way that many Cassavetes films are. And, to further the comparison, there aren’t many directors who can make quasi-tragic debauchery seem as thoroughly entertaining and…well, exhilarating, in a sense, as deftly as Altman and Cassavetes do. There are sequences in Love Streams, in particular, which recall the kind of Bukowski-like romanticized boozing that California Split trades in so well.


Cronk: I think you’re right on, and I think you’ve predicted a future installment of this column in regards to Love Streams, which you’re right, does have a certain interest in alcohol and addiction that correlates well with California Split. One other thing that I like about California Split, though—and it’s something that people don’t really speak of—are the two part-time, half-hearted prostitute friends of Gould, who take in the duo after an earlier mugging and generally act as friends, sisters, and mothers all at once. So interesting are their scenes, I would watch a film just about these two characters if I could. Altman didn’t devote a whole lot of time to women characters in his early films, and when he did they were frequently depicted, to paraphrase a critic whose name escapes me at the moment, in various states of undress. But the seeds were sewn with Mrs. Miller in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and here we see two quirky and lovable females with their own problems and peculiarities—good foils for our main characters I suppose. And of course Altman would go on to make one of the great female psychological character studies in 1977 with yet another of his masterpieces, 3 Women. I guess you could say California Split anticipates that to a degree.


Marsh: I agree, and I would add that the film also is also rather remarkably fair not only to its two principal female characters, but also to the upper-class crossdresser who attempts to court them. The scene is played mostly for laughs, but primarily at the expense of Gould and Segal, who are depicted as characteristically trouble-making but otherwise well-meaning. It’s these elements which prevent the film from turning into something of a boys-club picture, where the drinking and gambling and partial self-loathing might smack of old-fashioned machismo—it’s essentially the opposite of a film like The Deer Hunter in that sense. I think it’s difficult to find American films, particularly from the 1970s, which depict sex workers as anything other than the standard Madonna/whore trope from classic melodramas, but in California Split you get two well-developed characters who happen to be prostitutes, and who actually feel like living, breathing, three-dimensional people—they’re not simply functional minor players meant to move the narrative forward, but characters every bit as dynamic and interesting as the male leads. That’s quite rare.


Cronk: Indeed. I mean, we eventually leave behind these women, since the story is essentially about the Gould and Segal characters, but these little digressions, particularly the cross-dresser scene you referred to, are all part of the charm of this film. I hadn’t seen California Spilt in years before revisiting it this week, but it’s amazing how much of it I recalled, from the seven dwarfs to the cross dresser to the race track scenes which we haven’t had a chance to mention to the great high stakes Reno trip which closes out the film and eventually visualizes the differences between these two characters—after about 100 minutes of bonding over similarities. It’s an ending that seemingly only the ‘70s could give us: No ribbon tied around the narrative, loose ends still dangling from these characters’ back stories, but enough in the preceding 90 minutes to exactingly draw two characters you’ve never met but somehow have always known.


 


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