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DOING THE CALIFORNIA SPLIT


Needless to say, this resembles gambling in the number of risks and unforeseeable outcomes that are involved, and there are naturally some losses in this kind of game as well as a few winning streaks. As Altman pointed out, California Split has less plot and more concentration on character than most of his other movies; and when the story is supposed to build to a climax — after Bill rushes off to Reno to gamble his way out of debt, with Charlie in tow — it arguably dribbles off into random shtick, or at least a dramatic diminuendo as it shows the hollowness of Bill’s victory. (We also learn on the DVD that the final scene in the movie isn’t the one Walsh scripted.)

Some of the chance encounters in the movie are between the dialogue and various gritty songs that are sung offscreen by Phyllis Shotwell — encounters “staged” during postproduction by the film’s editor, Lou Lombardo. Shotwell eventually appears on-screen in the movie at the Reno casino, belting out her numbers to her own piano accompaniment, but the fact that we start to hear her music much earlier in the movie, long before Reno is even mentioned, suggests an eerie kind of predestination, as if she were gradually pulling the two heroes toward her establishment like a magnet.

Her lyrics usually have only the broadest relation to the action, but sometimes they draw closer in witty surprises — or at least they once did. Unhappily, two of the most magical conjunctions between her songs and the on-screen action vanished from the movie on its way to DVD, due to problems with music rights: “Goin’ to Kansas City” was originally heard over the trip to Reno, and after the heroes arrived there, Gould’s and Shotwell’s seemingly independent raps, hers heard offscreen while Charlie and Bill crossed the street toward the casino, suddenly converged on the word nobody, pronounced by the two voices simultaneously. But on the DVD, Shotwell’s performance in this sequence is replaced by simple instrumental music, and thanks to yet another glitch, the DVD’s commentary still alludes to the magical convergence of the two voices saying nobody as if this were still in the movie. (Win a few, lose a few.)

In what might be his best performance to date, Gould is a perpetual live wire. His verbal cadenzas embody his character’s freewheeling spirit throughout the picture, for Charlie is an aggressive loudmouth forced to justify his vulgarity with invention and virtuosity, whereas Segal plays, as it were, a sort of inner-fire Miles Davis to Gould’s Charlie Parker, smoldering with brooding intensity. A similar contrast is afforded by the respective “hard” and “soft” styles of Prentiss and Welles as Charlie’s affable housemates, demonstrating a comparable kind of creative teamwork.

In both cases, you might say that feeling ultimately counts for more than thought. (“I can never think and play at the same time,” the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano once maintained. “It’s emotionally impossible.”) And one might also argue that it’s the ensemble that matters — which in this movie extends even to the energy and vibes provided by the minor characters, whether they’re bit players or extras, especially in all the scenes set in bars and gambling joints. Like the listeners and dancers in Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing, they prove there’s an art to being a spectator or a participant that’s just as important in a way as the art of being a performer. And if watching an Altman movie like California Split makes you a bit of an artist and a bit of a gambler, feeling your way into what remains imponderable and unforeseeable, that’s part of what’s being celebrated.

For more on the Gambling Issue, click here





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