DOING THE CALIFORNIA SPLIT
Highlights from Issue 35: Gambling
Sunday, June 22, 2008
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The following piece appears in Issue 35: Gambling. For more on this issue, click here
DOING THE CALIFORNIA SPLIT
BY JONATHAN ROSENBAUM
“Trusting to luck means listening to voices,” Jean-Luc Godard reportedly said at some point in the mid-Sixties. This has always struck me as one of his more obscure aphorisms, and one that even seems to border on the mystical. Yet the minute one starts to apply it to Robert Altman’s California Split, released in 1974 — a free-form comedy about the friendship that develops and then plays itself out between two compulsive gamblers, Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal), and the first movie ever to use an 8-track mixer — it starts to make some weird kind of sense.
What’s an 8-track mixer? According to the maestro of overlapping dialogue himself, speaking in David Thompson’s Altman on Altman (Faber and Faber, 2006), this is a system developed by Jim Webb known as Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks, and it grew directly out of Altman’s ongoing efforts to make on-screen dialogue sound more real. Sound mixers would frequently complain that some actors wouldn’t speak loudly enough and Altman would counter that this was a recording problem, not a performance problem involving the actors’ deliveries. Plant enough microphones around the set or on the location — in this case, eight — and one could always adjust the volume later, when the separate channels were being mixed together and one could decide which channels should predominate, and in which proportion. In other words, assuming that you had a certain amount of scripted dialogue and a certain amount of “background” improvs being delivered at the same time — the modus operandi of many Altman movies, especially this one — trusting to luck was a matter of recording all this dialogue on eight separate tracks. And listening to voices was what you did afterward — shoot first and ask questions later, working out a hierarchy of what should have the most clarity after the fact. If an improv was funnier or more relevant than a scripted line delivered at the same moment, allow the former to overtake the latter.
Even before the title sequence starts, over the familiar Columbia Pictures logo, California Split has already started to chatter. A steady rush of talk — telegraphed, overheard, sometimes barely audible — spills into the opening scenes like a scatter of loose change from a slot machine, meeting or eluding our grasp in imitation of a strictly chance operation. Admittedly, the overall odds of the game are somewhat fixed because the movie has a script (by Joseph Walsh, a gambler himself), two box-office favorites and hard Hollywood money behind it. But the improvisatory spirit is unmistakable, if only because an alert audience is obliged to ad-lib in order to keep up, compelled to shift its attention as often as the characters.
So using Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks was putting into practice a certain dialectic of chance and control, one of the cornerstones of Altman’s filmmaking style. And this would become even more systematic in the movie Altman made next, Nashville, where instead of having just two main characters, Altman opted, at least in theory, to feature two dozen. (Some of them proved to be much more prominent than others.) And when he made A Wedding in 1978, he arbitrarily decided to double that number to 48.
But in fact, the most apt cross-reference to California Split in the Altman canon isn’t either of those films but his lesser-known Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing (1977) — a feature-length adjunct to Kansas City that featured real jazz musicians in period costume casually performing after hours in a 1934 Kansas City club. This culminates in a friendly but frenetic cutting contest between two tenor sax players trading solos, not unlike some of the riffs developed in California Split between Gould and Segal. More generally, this simultaneously relaxed and lively swing-fest, a celebration of collective euphoria, shows how deeply akin Altman’s style is to the aesthetics 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.
A compulsive casino gambler, Altman once boasted, “At one time I could stand at a craps table for two days.” And he inherited “by chance” a film project scripted by another compulsive gambler, Joseph Walsh, who had been developing his script with Steven Spielberg, of all people, during his pre-Jaws phase. (Walsh was a child actor in the Fifties and Sixties, prominently featured as Joey Walsh in such films as Hans Christian Andersen and The Juggler and countless TV shows; in California Split he plays Sparkie, a bookie owed a fortune by Bill.)
Of course Walsh was taking a gamble himself by trusting his script to a master doodler like Altman who favored improvs. Nevertheless, figuring out what’s prearranged or not in this movie isn’t always a simple matter, and it’s often the spirit and climate of improvisation that counts more here than anything else. The opening sequence, where Charlie and Bill first encounter one another at a poker table in a gambling hall, certainly looks and sounds authentic, but it was shot on a set designed by Altman regular Leon Ericksen, who redressed a dance hall. Most of the extras were hired from the drug rehabilitation center Synanon, although a few real gamblers were included as well, and some of the background dialogue was loosely plotted if not precisely scripted by Walsh (whose own brother Edward plays a pivotal role as another poker player — a sore loser who accuses Charlie of cheating, and later beats him up). So the mix between real and semi-real, simulated and actual, is pretty intricate, and it’s only because of the DVD commentary by Altman, Walsh, Gould and Segal that we know that Charlie and Bill’s drunken efforts to reel off the names of all the seven dwarfs were invented by the two actors.
We also know that the house Charlie shares with two hookers (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles) is a real house and not a set, that most of the film was shot in continuity (allowing the seven dwarfs gag to get reprised at the house), and that Altman staged both the horse race and the prizefight that the heroes attend, but also used plenty of extras at those locations who qualified as authentic. Most importantly, the mix between fiction and documentary throughout is so fully entangled that each winds up educating the other, while the multiple sound levels lead to periodic eruptions, especially in bar scenes, where peripheral characters briefly upstage and overtake the two leads, background becoming foreground and vice versa. One example among many is actually set in a paint store, where Bill looks up his old friend Harvey and gets an impromptu and irrelevant monologue from him about his alleged ESP and why he thinks Bill has tracked him down. Like a minor character in a painting by Brueghel or a comedy by Preston Sturges, he momentarily takes over the movie, then drops out of sight.