plug: California Split (1974)

”It don't mean a fuckin' thing does it.“

Robert Altman’s exceptional 1974 gambling comedy California Split has been hard to find for years. Up until now it’s largely existed as an out-of-print DVD with some missing footage due to music licensing issues.

So I was thrilled to open my Twitter feed on Tuesday to see great folks like writer Kim Morgan and director Joe Dante getting the word out that the original, remastered cut of this criminally under-seen masterpiece is now available on Amazon Prime.

Times like these you take your wins, even the small ones, where you can get ‘em.

Along with MASH, the seminal 1970 war comedy that inspired the beloved series, California Split was my introduction to Robert Altman. I was 15, maybe 16 years old when I happened to catch it on a random local TV station in the middle of the day (which is why watching it makes me nostalgic for the days when you could discover a movie that way, and when you did you felt like it was your secret … your friend). It was a completely new and exhilarating experience at the time, and outside Altman’s other masterworks, I haven’t seen anything like it since.

California Split stars Elliot Gould and George Segal as Charlie Waters and Bill Denny, a pair of gambling addicts who enter each other’s orbit by chance and develop an immediate friendship over their shared vice. They spend most of the movie chasing the next big win, scrambling for the “action” that’ll keep the inescapable emptiness of life at bay for as long as possible. Gould is in top form as Charlie, a benevolent nomad and the manic, free-spirited devil on Bill’s shoulder. His and Segal’s frenetic chemistry makes this tragic platonic love story one for the books.

This movie is every bit as good as the string of revelatory classics that surround it in Altman’s filmography (Mash, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville), so it’s a shame that lack of exposure has kept it on the periphery of the public consciousness for so long. Altman’s entire bag of fast and loose cinematic tricks is on the table here. His signature, masterfully executed overlapping dialogue and colorful side-characters that bend the camera’s gaze to their will never looked more inspired. The film is rich with Altman’s unruly cuts, stoney camerawork, and earthy, shadowy yet luminous visual flair, and it leaves you wondering whether all human connections are just misery loves company and what the fuck are any of us ever doing except chasing another high until we all crash and burn from the diminishing returns?

It’s a rare, magical breed of gonzo Hollywood filmmaking that has rarely surfaced since the 1970s. I’m stoked we can watch it now.

California Split (Amazon)