Thanks both to Robert Altman’s unique directorial style and Joseph Walsh’s unorthodox script, the movie can be a challenge for students who aren’t necessarily used to watching creatively complex films. But the movie works especially well at the end of the course -- that is, after we’ve already explored in detail the many ways poker has been a part of American history and culture and thus come to appreciate many of the themes the movie addresses.
I won’t rehearse all of those themes again. Here are some earlier posts in which I do:
As Joseph Walsh talks about in his 2008 memoir, Gambler on the Loose, his screenplay came largely from his own experiences as a gambler. Here’s a post in which I discuss Walsh’s funny (and also unorthodox) book.
As I talk about in that post, in the book Walsh portrays himself as a person wholly under the spell of gambling, paradoxically praising it as a means to give one’s life more profound meaning (“Getting shut out of the action is unthinkable. A living death!”) and acknowledging it as a sickness of sorts (understood and accepted by “willing victims”). And the movie smartly delves into this love-hate relationship with gambling, presenting viewers with “a journey through the pain and gain of gambling” (as Walsh describes California Split in his introduction).
That said, when Walsh draws lines between “us” and “them” in his book, I have to admit I really belong over on the “them” side -- that is, with the non-gamblers. “Non-gamblers tend to look at gamblers like an amusing freak show,” writes Walsh. “We tend to look at them like they barely exist. We match their interest in us, with disinterest in them.”
He’s pegged me perfectly here. That is, as someone with what might be called an “academic” interest in gambling -- i.e., a curiosity about the people who gamble and the culture of gambling. When leading the discussion of California Split in class, it was hard for us not to talk about the character of Bill as an “addict” or someone with a “gambling problem.” Charlie, too, for that matter, although he appears to be much more comfortable with being a committed gambler.
I think the class and I kind of had to talk about the characters in this way because we’re basically all non-gamblers. That is to say, for those of us who aren’t always “in action,” there’s something kind of alien to us about those who always are. We have never really felt the need to gamble, which makes it seem all the stranger to us when we watch a movie or read stories about people who do have that need.
This morning I stumbled on an article about a woman in Australia who’d incredibly managed to lose $7.8 million playing slots online -- on the “online pokie machines,” as they call ’em down under. Now most of us will read a story like that and be puzzled how such a thing is even possible. Not only did she somehow manage successfully to steal money electronically more than a thousand times from her employer (she’s been found guilty of 1,410 instances of theft), but then she was able to lose all of those millions one spin at a time online, much of that time spent taken up with the business of chasing losses.
To go back to Walsh’s dichotomy of “non-gamblers” and “gamblers,” I think the latter group is perhaps able at least to understand such extreme behavior, perhaps even to identify with it to some extent (and in some cases). Meanwhile the former group finds it as baffling as other addictive behaviors with which they have little or no personal experience.
Still, some of us -- the non-gamblers -- are nonetheless fascinated. I suppose these stories about others’ willingness taking risks give us something by which to measure and consider our own risk-taking. For us, a “gambling problem” isn’t some sort of malady, but a puzzle to be solved.