Was looking back at another great poker/gambling film this week -- California Split (1974) -- and noticed another interesting thread I hadn’t necessarily thought about too much before. (Both of these films are ones I show in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class, which explains why I keep watching them over and over.)
I’ve written about California Split here numerous times before, including writing a somewhat formal review and an appreciation of a speech by Charlie near the end in which he sizes up a table full of players just by looking at them. Thus I won’t go back over the whole story or the film’s several themes here other than to say it’s an amazingly realistic, thought-provoking look at the psychology of gambling as well as a cool chronicle of poker-room culture circa mid-1970s.
As a Robert Altman-directed flick it carries an unorthodox style that might put some movie-watchers off, but to readers of this blog I recommend it without reservation as one of the best “poker movies” you’ll find. Anyhow, let me quickly share the new thread I noticed during this umpteenth viewing.
Early on Charlie (Elliott Gould) mentions very briefly to Bill (George Segal) over Froot Loops and Budweiser how he once had a job selling ad space in a labor union magazine that actually did not exist. “Just get on a telephone and call people and say ‘Hey, you wanna buy some space?’” He explains further how he got to keep 45% of what he sold.
“How come you don’t get to keep all of it if it’s non-existent?” asks Barbara (Ann Prentiss), also at the breakfast table with the pair. “I’m not picking nothing up,” answers Charlie. “I’m just talking on the telephone.”
She then asks Bill what his job is and he answers that he’s a writer -- for a magazine, actually. In other words, he legitimately sells stories for a living. We later see him kinda sorta working his job, although after having met Charlie he’s constantly finding excuses to get away and go gamble.
That little exchange about Charlie’s less-than-ethical former job is one of dozens in the film that add lots of depth to both the characters as well as increase the overall believability of the world Altman creates in California Split. It seems incidental, and in fact most watching the film for the first time or even after several viewings probably wouldn’t remember the anecdote afterwards.
Like I say, though, I’m seeing something more significant in the story this time around, thanks to a connection I saw between Charlie’s former job and a contentious conversation Bill has later with his bookie, Sparkie, portrayed by Joseph Walsh who wrote the film’s script. (As Walsh talks about in his 2008 memoir Gambler on the Loose, the story is somewhat based on his own rambling, gambling adventures with Gould.)
Earlier Sparkie had given Bill an extra 10 days to pay him what he owed, but instead Bill put him off, then ran up even more debt. Now they are having a meeting at a restaurant, and Sparkie explains to him that he presently owes $2,200. Bill still doesn’t have the money, but it appears he has an explanation.
“I tell you, this guy Lloyd Harris,” Bill begins, “who's the honcho where I work... we had a very good Christmas season and what he's created now is a slush fund out of which we are gonna be able to withdraw..."
From the start Sparkie is shaking his head, utterly impatient with Bill and not at all interested in hearing about his boss or how he plans to pay him at some later date.
“You're not telling me a story now, are you?” asks Sparkie. Bill acts a little offended, saying “I don't know what you mean by ‘story,’” but it is clear that’s exactly what he’s trying to do -- to tell his bookie a story to delay further his paying.
The story might be true or it might be a complete fiction, although from Sparkie’s perspective it really doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s a story, being offered here as a stand-in for the cash Bill owes.
The exchange reminded me of Charlie’s job selling ads to a non-existent magazine. Like Bill, Charlie had to invent stories to persuade others into parting with their money. You can readily see how this theme applies to poker, too, where we’re constantly doing something similar with one another in an effort to “negotiate” our way into getting others to buy our “stories” at the prices we set with our bets and raises.
This particular theme also makes me think a lot about American culture, generally speaking. (Of course, viewing the film in the context of an American Studies course makes me think along those lines, too.) I’m thinking about how so many of the jobs we have and look upon as legitimate means to earning a living essentially boil down to getting others to buy our stories.
Wouldn’t you agree? Or should I say, are you buyin’ any of this?