ReFramed No. 4

Robert Altman's 'California Split'

by Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

29 June 2011


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.

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