Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Poker Review: California Split

Director Robert Altman passed away just three weeks ago at the age of 81, leaving behind an impressive (if erratic) oeuvre of forty-plus feature films. His best films were mostly made during the “indie wave” of the seventies -- M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and the justly-heralded Nashville (1975) -- although later, ambitious works like The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), Gosford Park (2001) are also considerable achievements. My favorite Altman film -- perhaps predictably -- is his curious, hardly-faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973). (A lot of Chandler fans hate the film, but I think Altman did a terrific job pinning down the detective’s existential angst.)

Also from this period comes California Split (1974), a film that focuses particularly on the west coast gambling scene, circa mid-seventies. Having recently posted about Casino Royale, I thought I’d start offering occasional responses to certain poker-related movies here (and eventually collect ’em as a subcategory of “The Rumble”).

Several scenes in California Split should be engaging for poker players, but the opening, ten-minute sequence at the California Club will probably prove the most fascinating. Here we witness the first meeting of our two main characters -- Bill Denny (George Segal) and Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould).

The scene does a terrific job illustrating the process for signing up for tables, the method of play (e.g., there are no dealers; rather, the players take turns dealing), and the overall atmosphere. It is the middle of the day, and the club is filled with weathered-looking players. According to the DVD commentary, extras (in this scene and elsewhere in the film) were largely culled from Synanon, a drug rehab organization-slash-therapeutic community based in Santa Monica. This factor -- along with the uncanny reconstruction of a noisy poker club (the entire club was created on a set) -- helps create an almost documentary-like feel to the scene.

We join Denny, Waters, and six other colorful types around a small octagonal table for a game of low draw poker. They aren’t actually playing California high/low split, but strictly lowball (ace-to-five). The table talk -- mostly unscripted, according to the commentary -- is very authentic-sounding. A portly woman with thick glasses expresses dismay as the table folds to her good hand. “Is everybody out?” she whines. “You mean I’ve got a goddamned six and everybody’s out?” There’s a semi-humorous slowroll, deftly executed by Waters. Then the game gets broken up after one player, convinced he has been cheated during a hand that Waters wins while Denny deals, loses his cool and starts throwing punches. The floorman comes over, the players all gather their chips, and life goes on.

Soon we realize the film is more about gambling in general than poker in particular. The pair reunite at a local bar and several drinks later are making bets over who can recall the names of all seven dwarfs. Then they are at the track. Then a boxing match, wagering on the match as well as fights in the stands. Then a private poker game. Waters (later on) actually plays pick-up basketball with much younger players for money. And so forth.

Waters is clearly a lifer when it comes to gambling, fully committed to the lifestyle. On the other hand, Denny has a “straight” job as a writer for a magazine from which he repeatedly has to escape in order to satisfy his compulsion to gamble. Denny clearly has an undeniable desire to compete, though even early on we catch meaningful glimpses of him -- for instance, midday at yet another poker table, surrounded by women twenty years his senior -- wordlessly wondering why he keeps it up.

George Segal and Amarillo Slim in 'California Split'Waters disappears for awhile, and (perhaps not coincidentally) Denny experiences a brutal losing streak. Threats from his bookmaker increase his discomfort. Having hit rock bottom, he formulates a last, desperate plan to gather whatever funds he has left and head to the casinos in Reno. Waters surprisingly returns to join him, and the film culminates with the pair taking this seemingly quixotic journey. The final sequence begins ominously when Denny joins a high-stakes stud game only to discover Amarillo Slim (playing himself) sitting to his left.

Ultimately California Split provides an interesting meditation on the different ways gambling makes our lives meaningful. The style and structure of the film closely resembles that of other Altman films of the same era (particularly The Long Goodbye and Nashville). Like those films, California Split features an episodic narrative that places greater emphasis on character than plot.

The film also demonstrates several techniques one expects to find in an Altman film -- the constantly moving camera, the use of filters to give a “washed-out” look to colors, the noisy soundtrack with multiple voices speaking at once (facilitated by the innovative use of eight-channel audio). Both of these elements -- structure and style -- tend to turn off some viewers who dislike the challenge such non-conventional means of cinematic storytelling presents. These elements fit well, however, with this kind of story, well-emphasizing the existential “it’s-all-one-long-game” theme the film explores.

Several reasons, then, why I think California Split should prove interesting to poker players. Well worth the two-hour break from the tables.

Images: California Split (1974), Amazon.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gotta say Shamus that my favourite Robert Altman movie is "the player"...

Anyway, Im off to read your 'Casino Royale' post now as I finally got around to watching the movie and didnt want to run into any spoilers...

12/12/2006 1:16 PM  

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