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California Split (1974)

Director(s): Robert Altman

Theatrical Release: 1974

Cast: George Segal, Elliott Gould, Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles, Ed Walsh, Jeff Goldblum

Genre(s): Drama, Comedy, Dean's List

Countries: USA

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Ant Rating
Running Time: 105m.

The most narratively loose of Robert Altman's 1970s films, California Split details the haphazard lives of two compulsive gamblers searching for that ever-elusive big score. Newly single and soon-to-be-unemployed Bill (George Segal) joins live-wire pal Charlie (Elliott Gould), as the pair moves from Fruit Loops with Charlie's hooker roommates Sue (Gwen Welles) and Barbara (Ann Prentiss) to bets on horses, backroom card games, boxing, and basketball. They make it to Reno, but Bill comes to realize that even the big score may not be the answer to the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. For Charlie, however, that's all there is. Infusing his episodic narrative with an equally laid-back attitude towards events and emotions, Altman produces a "celebration of gambling" that is in itself something of game, filled with random incidents, trivial and serious, amusing and not, that emphasize the essential rootlessness of the gambler's life. Altman's signature mosaic of sound, produced for the first time through a multi-track stereo soundtrack, layers dialogue, gambling announcements, and Phyllis Shotwell songs to evoke the chaotic gaming atmosphere as authentically as possible. Gambling may seem more exciting than the depressive Bill's drab office job, but its pleasures are strictly temporary. Everything becomes transient, whether luck or marriage or even friendship between like-minded pals. California Split did not have much of an impact on the movie-going audience, but it marked Altman's move away from taking apart old movie genres (the war movie in MASH (1970), the Western in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), the detective movie in The Long Goodbye (1973), the gangster movie in Thieves Like Us (1974)) toward breaking down conventional story-telling in general, pointing the way toward the even more complex narrative experiments of his 1975 masterpiece Nashville. Lucia Bozzola (