California Split


I feel like a winner, but I know I look like a loser.

From California Split

California Split's screenplay was written by Joseph Walsh. Tired of unrealistic dialogues forced on actors, he wrote the screenplay based on his own gambling addiction in 1971. He worked with his friend Steven Spielberg on the script for nine months.

It is a disgruntled comedy about two friends who meet by chance and uses their good fortune in a series of gambling excursions. The main characters Bill Denny and Charlie Waters end up in Reno where Bill hocks some of his possessions so that they could pool their money to stake Bill in a poker game. Bill wins but doesn't quit, believing that he was on a winning streak. He plays hard, eventually winning $82,000. But when he stops, he tells Charlie that he is not playing anymore. Charlie does not understand why, but sees that Bill means it. They split their winnings and go their separate ways.

The film underwent several obstacles in the production stage. At the time the screenplay was done, MGM experienced issues at the executive level like a car finance company in debt, enforcing a new set of changes. They wanted the story to be heavier, more mafia-related, and Walsh would no longer be the producer. Walsh and Spielberg decided to leave MGM. Spielberg had to work on another project, leaving Walsh and the screenplay stranded.

The story was then given to Robert Altman to direct, who loved it. Columbia Pictures gave the go-signal to have the screenplay made into a movie on the writer's terms.The movie became the first film to use the eight-track sound system that allowed eight separate audio channels to be recorded, helping build Altman's trademark of overlapping dialogue.

California Split is charming and rambling at the same time. The main characters being irresponsible men, offering viewers a myriad of distraction at every turn. The seedy world of gambling, with its small-time losers and dreamers, the frenzied hope and paranoia, were all captured brilliantly. But the portrayal is satirical, but it is a satire suffused with an underlying sadness at the end, when Bill was left with a feeling of emptiness despite winning. This is when he realizes that it is not the winning that counts, but the adrenaline rush while playing.

Though technically, the film is about nothing at all, the comedic antics of the main characters make it an enjoyable movie. and despite the environment being that of the shady world of gambling, a friendship was able to be cultivated. California Split was completely without strong meaning, but it was still coherent as a narrative.

Charlie Waters as an incorrigible optimist and wanders through the movie firing off information, questions, and complaints which kept deeper thoughts at bay. He was dressed loudly in Hawaiian shirts, sported a bandage on his nose, and was wonderfully casual with uncharacteristic bouts of sobriety. Bill Denny, on the other hand, was more uptight. Though during Charlie's hot streak, he showed a great change, ranging from wariness, to manic glee, to a weary heaviness.

Altman's individualistic approach to peppering his movies with originals gave the movie more substantial color. The use of guests stars who portray themselves (Amarillo Slim Preston), added to the movie's charm. The subtle undertones of homosexuality also brought the movie to a higher level by being implied but rather clear, as in the scene where two hookers were tasked with spending time with a transvestite. Despite the restrictions on this in the seventies, Altman was able to pull it off by merging it with California Split's immersion in the gambling world.

Altman provided the movie with an almost documentary feel like a digital camera, letting viewers see a side of gambling that they wouldn't ordinarily know. The despair of the main characters were covered by the comedy, but it's still there, tangible enough to make the viewers feel sympathy towards them. He takes the viewers into a nightmare, where all the characters are people we know and see in actual life.

Near the end of the film, viewers are made anxious about Bill's situation. The film clearly shows that gambling is an addiction like any other, one that has great potential in the ruination of lives. The redeeming quality of California Split is that it is a comedy rather than a tragedy, lending light to an otherwise dark journey to an even darker world.

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