California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)

How many directors have comparative runs like Altman in the 70s? From McCabe & Mrs. Miller, to The Long Goodbye, to Thieves Like Us to California Split, the man produced so many fantastic films in such a limited time. And as I’ve given California Split the chance to soak into my consciousness, I think the film may be my favorite of his. The story told is a simple one: two men wander through their existence with little to their name. It is through gambling that they form a bond. Their relationship carries its share of homoerotic undertones, but in large part, their aim is simple – they seek to make as much money as possible. They have their highs and their lows, and their luck in the game is directly connected to their own ups and downs in their relationship. The film enters “masterpiece” status by its end, largely due to how its ending resonates. The mundanity of the world is impossible to escape, but it’s through a meaningful relationship that one is able to make sense of the world. In one of the darker endings I’ve seen, California Split serves to perpetuate the idea that a meaningful relationship means something different to the parties involved.

The film has subtle differences from other Altman films, largely in its production and sound design. Dialogue, which at times is still layered over other discussions, is much more clear and easier to understand. Los Angeles is framed as a gritty and unforgiving place, and feels like the sort of place that Thomas Pynchon writes about in Inherent Vice. And like Pynchon’s novel, there’s a lingering anxiety about the future in California Split. A future where everything rides on a bet.