ReFramed No. 4: Robert Altman’s ‘California Split’

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.

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.