California Split


American cinema doesn’t get any more behavioral than Robert Altman. This is storytelling of a very high order. Even though the film is tightly plotted, it feels like it has no plot at all. There are very few scenes that even feel like they’re scripted; it feels more improvised. Not only is the dialogue loose, a good deal of it is completely meaningless. Especially Elliott Gould’s character, who, like Shakespeare’s Gratiano, talks and talks all the time and never says anything.

The story, briefly: George Segal is a gambler on a losing streak, and he meets up with Elliott Gould, who doesn’t seem to attach much importance to winning or losing. He doesn’t see an “end game” to gambling, he just likes to gamble. But George, the second act announces, is in debt to a guy named Sparky, and has to come up with some money. George is out of money, but Elliott always seems to have enough to get by, and the two of them go to Reno and, against all odds, win over eighty thousand dollars.

Gambling, it seems to me, is a form of prayer. You put your money down, and you hope that God favors you. If you win, then your faith is rewarded. If you lose, then God is angry with you for some reason.

When you study the statistics, when you study the Racing Form, when you “bet with your head,” you’re saying that you’re not going to place your faith in anything unless you’re sure it’s a sure thing, which is another way of saying that you have no faith at all.

I think maybe that’s why cheating is so reviled, because the cheater has no faith. The cheater believes that one can be redeemed without faith.

So there’s George, and he’s on his cold streak, and he’s down on his luck, and we sympathise. Why? He’s a degenerate and a loser, why do we like him? Because we feel like we’re losers too, we feel like we’ve been shut out of some better life.

And George sells his car and his typewriter and his radio and tape recorder and takes all his money and all of Elliott’s money (which he’s gotten by hustling basketball and mugging a guy in a bathroom) and they head to Reno. And once the stakes are raised, Elliott sees everything as an omen. The snow is an omen, the carpeting is an omen, the decor is an omen. This is faith of a paranoid kind, if the carpeting is a sign that you’re blessed.

And we want George to win, because we want to win too. We place our faith in George, he’s going to win for us. He’s going to be saved, and we’re going to be saved along with him.

Think of this: all through the movie, we watch George and Elliott bet on all manner of things: cards, horses, boxers, roulette, dice. You bet on a horse, the horse doesn’t even know what money is. Cards don’t care what’s printed on them, dice don’t care how they fall. But in the audience, we’re betting on George, for the exact same irrational reason that Elliott bets on anything; he has a feeling. And if George wins, then our faith is rewarded. If he loses, then there is no God. We become complicit in the theme and message of the movie.

And guess what happens: George wins, BUT.

But after he wins, there’s a scene at a bar, just George and Elliott. And George is miserable, and Elliott is very very happy, and they have this exchange:

Elliott: You always take a win this hard?
George: There was no special feeling. I only said there was.
Elliott: I know. It doesn’t matter. We made a lot of money.

So George placed his faith, and his faith was rewarded, but in his moment of vindication, he’s realized that the dice are not God, they’re only objects, their numbers have no meaning. It took this incredible winning streak for him to finally realize that there is no vindication in winning a gamble.

Not to drag Mamet into this, but there’s a scene in his TV movie Lansky where Meyer Lansky (played by Richard Dreyfuss) goes to his gangster friends to get some money to build a hotel in Las Vegas. Gambling has been going on in Vegas for some time, but only marginally, in gas stations and bus stations and such. And Lansky holds up a sign he took off the wall of a gas station, one that was hanging over a one-armed bandit: “Higher pay means longer play.” “Gentlemen,” he says (I’m paraphrasing) “This sign is telling you that we will take all your money. What it promises is that it will take us longer to do it than others.” Mamet’s point is that there is something pleasurable and exciting about gambling itself, even in the act of losing, that people can’t get enough of, that the point of gambling isn’t winning or losing, but rather the thrill of betting itself.

After the bit about the “special feeling,” Elliott says that they have enough money to visit every track in the world, he says they have enough money to live at the track for fifty years. Because for him, there is no end to the game. Life is the game. You don’t quit the game; what else is there?

So George looks like he doesn’t like the sound of that idea, and there’s the following:

Elliott: So what do you want to do now?
George: (pause) I’m going to go home.
Elliott: Oh yeah? Where do you live?

And what he’s saying is, this is where you live, in the casino, at the dice table, at the card table, at the track. And we’re worried that he might be right.

Mr. Urbaniak will note that California Split features a three-second appearance by his Fay Grim co-star Jeff Goldblum.
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4 Responses to “California Split”
  1. eronanke says:

    Mr. Urbaniak will note that California Split features a three-second appearance by his Fay Grim co-star Jeff Goldblum.

    You mean Brundlefly.

  2. craigjclark says:


    I remember spotting Goldblum when Comedy Central showed a chopped-up version of this film several years back. (I timed the commercial breaks and calculated that about 20 minutes were missing.) It seemed an odd choice for the channel because the humor in the film isn’t as in-your-face as the usual fare they run, but I didn’t care as long as I got to see it in some form. (This was long before the DVD came out.)

    I have a book about Altman that was written in the late ’70s and it describes California Split as one of his most personal films because Altman himself is (or at least at that time was) a habitual gambler. In fact, he said in an interview that he gambled his money away to force himself to make the next film so he could make the money to gamble with down the road.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Oh yeah? Where do you live?

    I like your interpretation of that last, cryptic line by Charlie. It has always tortured me as to its meaning. I always thought that perhaps Charlie meant, “Wherever it is you live, I don’t live there anymore” thus signifying their parting of the ways. But I like your interpretation. In a way, he saying, “Where do you live that you can avoid this lifestyle.” Thanks.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Oh yeah? Where do you live?

      I’m also reminded of Karl Wallenda’s line about tightrope-walking — “Life is on the wire, everything else is just waiting.” Gould’s character sees gambling as an end in itself, while Segal has finally seen that it’s merely chance and doesn’t mean anything.